Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Wargaming's Future (3/19/2013)

I haven’t spent a huge amount of time on my blog over the past several months.  Mostly my time has been dedicated to completing some commissions.  But I’ve been slipping into designing some cool bits now and then when the inspiration strikes.  On the one hand I’m proud of the commission work I’m doing but I feel I’m doing a bit of disservice to my readers and all those who order my items.  I know I’ve got a small stack of requests in my in box and a couple of errors on printed items that I need to get to.  I promise you that I’ll get around to them ASAP now that my free time is becoming mine again.

I semi-officially finished my largest commission last Tuesday.  I only await the final approval on the models to know that I’m definitively done.  I’d love to share with you the fruits of those projects but due to confidentiality agreements I can’t. Suffice it to say it was a huge challenge and I’m quite proud to have done it.  Now that I can get back to my own projects I’ve jumped on my star marines again.
When I started making my female space marines I jokingly referred to them as “Star Marines”.  This was as much a tongue in cheek reference to GW’s product as it was an example of my insecurity over the idea of barrowing on the Games Workshop mythos.  I am a huge fan of Warhammer 40k and the models of Games Workshop but the older their world gets the less I feel at home in it.

I could chalk this up to my age but I don’t really believe that’s the case. I still watch power rangers and read comic books so age isn’t the issue. The issue is Games Workshop is reinventing itself.  It’s been doing it for years and on the one hand being the Madonna of its industry is what makes it great.    On the other hand reinvention always leaves someone out in the cold. And that someone in this case is me.

I’m willing to bet that it’s a lot of other people too.  I’m not afraid of change but change, reinvention, can’t be for its own sake.  To often we take for granted that change will be good or bad and generally fail to acknowledge that the scary part of change isn’t its good or bad points but the lack of control we have over it. Games Workshop has changed Warhammer 40k a lot over the years and while we can say over and over that it’s changes aren’t all bad we must admit that some of them are.

Which brings me to 6th edition 40k.  I started playing 40k back in 2nd edition and back then the land scape or “meta” if you want to believe in that, was a lot like it is now.  There were a lot of people spoiling to play cool new things that could be done with the game books.  But back then Games Workshop accomplished the same thing with a lot less money and a lot less man power.  People were inspired less by Games Workshop’s fluff background and more by their own imaginations.  And people took absurd ideas and ran with them for hours upon hours of conversion and gameplay fun.

Today with the freshness of 6th edition, the newly revised whitedwarf, and the quicker pace of releasing Games Workshop has captured that anything can happen vibe of Rogue Trader.  But in doing so what have they spent.  In terms of money? In terms of manpower? In terms of long term viability of the products they produce?  I’m not really qualified to speak on the time, effort, and money Games Workshop has spent to revitalize 40k.  What I can say is I’m not sure its sustainable.

Games Workshop has started trying new things and that’s good in the long run.  But they haven’t been terribly good at what they have tried.  6th edition 40k is still a terribly hard to explain game for very little reason.  Contrary the to popular belief the rules for playing toy soldiers are very easy to articulate.  Any 8 year old can explain them, I shoot you, you die.  We all love rolling dice, we all love watching enemy and even allied soldiers get removed as casualties.  Games Workshop keep’s making that complicated.  Arguably this is done to making teams balanced but everyone can attest that, while the most balanced it’s been in years, 40k is not balanced so all that extra writing and layers of rules technicalities is a waste.  Beyond that every rule in the big book pretty much has an exception in one or more army books anyway making it less a rules guide than a bunch of things you have to remember to ignore but only when X is on the field anyway.

I have a 7 year old nephew.  A 7 year old nephew that is part of my table top roleplaying group.  We play a lot of different games but his favorite is Star War D6.  A game played with fists full of D6s and lots of brash fun gunslingers shooting at each other.  I tried teaching him Warhammer 40k. a game that is arguably very similar to the WEG Star Wars experience.  He lost interest after 15 minutes.

Perhaps 7 years old is the wrong age to learn mass combat games.  Maybe I’m not a good gaming instructor.  Or maybe there are just too many rules and to many exceptions for a child to track. I don’t really know.  The trouble is that most of the gamers I know are table top gamers because they started young.  I started at around 7 or 8 myself with RPGs and moved to wargames at 10 or 11.  My Nephew actually totally grasps the concept of characters, line of sight, hit points, armor saves, and all of that.  He just doesn’t care about look out sirs, overwatch, snap fire, anything that is a USR, or why some models get feels no pain and others don’t.

At the end of the day Games Workshop’s new more engaging business model just doesn’t make for a healthy game.  As a current gamer it’s nice that things are more balanced. It’s great that we are getting new kits faster.  It’s nice that unasked questions are being faq’d sooner.  It’s even nice that I can spend my money on a poorly designed digital product instead of an over designed print product.  But when it comes down to it balance, speed of releases, faqs, and even digital or print products aren’t the barriers to entry on the game.

At a time when the entire world has seen economic distress the biggest issue is now and always will be price and service.  Games Workshop’s constantly up sloping prices coupled with relatively poor customer service and the constant feeling that whatever I buy will be devalued in the game by 6 to 10 weeks out make it hard for a current gamer to justify the price tag.  At the same time while other games have maintained a reasonably price tag for their core products and an extremely low price tag for their starter sets, Games Workshop continues the trend of uniform prices across the board. This means new gamers can’t buy into the game to get hooked without a friend that’s already in the hobby and spent the money.

As a gamer I’m an advocate for gaming. I love gaming and believe everyone who plays is in some way better for playing.  But I can buy a DnD starter set for 20 bucks, all the core books for 60, and a bunch of plastic DnD miniatures for a buck a piece. For Warhammer 40k I spend 65 bucks for the core book, another 60 for my army book and then 100 plus for a bare bones starter army that isn’t even always complete to play and is rarely what you actually want.  I’m not sure I can advocate that as easily as I can other aspects of the hobby.

Maybe that’s the point though, Games Workshop is trying to change the dynamic of the hobby.  It seems clear they don’t want it accessible to just anyone.  Constant price rises, pushes to remove services from 3rd party retailers, and even the semi-mainstream effort put into forge world are attempts at elitism within the hobby.  Games Workshop’s goal is to push people towards their in house distribution.  As an example, they just contractually killed bits service through 3rd party retailers which means they will likely start unveiling a bunch of shitty fine cast bit kits that are direct order only.  Every kit will be priced at 19.99 or similar and have just enough kinda useful and kinda useless bits on the kit to make you feel like it might be a good price but the quality and service will still be lacking and spending 20 bucks for the one power fist will still leave someone feeling a bit let down.

See Games Workshop is ok with someone leaving the hobby so long as you aren’t ordering from them directly.  Their greatest profit margin is in house where their supply chain takes care of everything rather than paying an outsider.  Their highest degree of control is in house where they do all the training and control all the advertising. No risk of their employees telling you about a competing product or their magazine advertising WarmaHordes.  In the end their goal is pretty transparent.  If they can’t get you into one of their stores and keep you, they don’t want you as a customer.

If you want to understand their elitism look no farther than their “digital products”.  Their “digital products” are nothing more than the iBooks News Stand products.  I get game informer the exact same way, only for 14 bucks a year. Same basic content. Useful index, searchable functionality, fancy revolving 3d images (game characters are cool that way), occasional videos, forced landscape viewing (even though portrait is traditional print lay out and easier to bloody read), and of course outrageously large 300mb downloads.  Only difference is that Games Workshop feels their product is worth more because they made it.  Same goes with their print game books.  We can talk about all the fancy color print pages and stuff we want but I have personally felt for years that the army book prices are trending towards the point they aren’t in my price range. I can pick up a hard cover 200 page DnD supplement for 39.95 but I have to pay 60 for a warhammer one? And then by the models? And the core book? Oh and you’ve made stupid objective markers and psychic power cards too, great. 

I’ve come to realize that I’m not Games Workshop’s market for 40k anymore.  Neither is my Nephew.  It’s not about age.  I don’t feel entitled to anything because I’ve played for so long.  No its more about the very real truth that they don’t care if I patronize them or not.  They aren’t worried about losing me as a customer because they haven’t had me invested in their business model for a couple of years now.

Why is this all important? Well I’ve just realized something very clearly. For a long time side companies like Chapterhouse have been combating Games Workshop’s elitist mentality by keeping bits and specialized models cheap.  But they don’t have to. Games Workshop isn’t killing itself by getting rid of bits or raising prices or driving off customers. It’s giving life to its competition.  I’m not going to start a kickstarter.  But I will predict that someone soon will. Within a few months of Chapterhouse and Games Workshop settling Chapterhouse will start its own game.  Mantic has already started its Warpath game and will kickstart that.  Beyond the Gates of Antares was pulled from kickstarter and arguably was going to be a shitty game, but it will be back.  Within a year Anvil industries will at least talk about making a game as will Wargames Factory within 18 months.  The point is, I can’t look at Games Workshop’s business tactics as “bad for the hobby” anymore. They are good for it, just not good for Games Workshop’s place in it.

That's my deep thought for the day.  Later this week i'll be talking about Star Marines and what that means for my future projects, and hopefully a little about the design of my Heavy Armor troopers.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting thoughts there- thanks for sharing that.

    BTW I got all my "Average Kids" bits and they are FANTASTIC. You rock dude