Games Workshop and the Future of the Tabletop Gaming Industry

What if the video gaming mega titles like Call of Duty or Halo allowed you to craft your own environment from scratch or design, in intricate detail, the shape and appearance of your character, his weapons and armor and all of your allies? What if every game shifted to meet the needs of every player and could perform equally as well as any gamer's imagination?

Well then it would be a tabletop game wouldn't it? Because tabletop gaming is all about demolishing the barriers between the game designer and the game player. If you were to design Battlefield or any other AAA title, well you couldn't do it alone. You would need a few friends, very talented friends each with a carefully selected skillset (drawing, writing, programing etc) and plenty of time on their hands - perhaps a couple of years to start. Then you would need machines (computers), at least one for each friend, and they would have to be good machines that people know how to use so naturally you need more friends to handle that. Then you'll need some volunteers to take on extra administrative duties such as milestone planning, testing and archiving. Oh nobody's volunteering because they're already slaving 60 hours a week? Guess it's off to find more friends but now momma's basement is beginning to get a little crowded so let's have a change of venue shall we?

That's better! Everything is running along smoothly - but what's this? One of your friends is in a coma because he hasn't eaten in a week! You didn't forget to pay him did you? If you're thinking paying everyone would be expensive you'd be right but luckily you know a friend who's willing to spot you as long as your original group of friends can prove the game is going to be a top seller years before they've finished it. And even then they won't trust you to not spend their money on marshmallow fortresses and miniature unicycles so they'll send their friend over. He's called a "producer" even though he produces nothing.

A lot of time, effort and resources goes into the gaming industry often never to return but here we are trying to tame it nevertheless. And what does it take? If you're into tabletop gaming you'll probably say "not much" and you'd be more or less right but the full answer is: not much, relatively. Relative to the video gaming industry tabletop gaming is a lemonade stand but Games Workshop employs thousands of people (though mostly because they handle their own distribution) and reels in millions of pounds sterling in profit each year. Theirs is an enviable position, that of the 200 ton blue whale sitting in a very small coy pond.

But whales are endangered and part of the reason that is so is because they are so big. Large often means "inefficient" and I can think of few companies that face inefficiency on such a huge scale. Tabletop gaming may be far easier on the checkbook than digital game development but when you're a worldwide leader in an industry you can afford to sit on your laurels for only so long. Now enter other companies that didn't share the same behemoth growth spoon-fed by a monopolistic market. Companies such as Privateer Press and Battlefront miniatures that are clawing their way up the steep slope of free market competition. These guys aren't going anywhere. They've got solid growth development models based on customer feedback and airtight rules systems. They know that the path to a hobbyist's wallet is a forked one. One way is to make awesome models (this is where GW excels) and the other is to make rules design a priority because, as it turns out, hobbyist buy models because they look cool but they collect models based on rules and background. The former might allow you to cover costs and even put something aside for a rainy day but if you have the models and you make good rules you'll never have to worry about rainy days because you'll have enough money to pay God to make wherever you are as dry as the Sahara.

So now you ask "What's keeping other companies from doing exactly as you say?" Well the issue that Privateer Press faces is a matter of design direction. They've dedicated themselves to an aesthetic identity that doesn't sit with older gamers who typically want a more 'believable' miniature in terms of proportion and balance. The veteran hobbyist is more likely to respond to a more understated utility and violence than the clunky wrecking ball look of PP's miniatures. This is issue is based not only  on Privateer Press' art direction but is also likely linked to the technology they have available since many of their models share similarities with GW's older collections. Newer releases such as the recent Legion of Everblight and Cryx additions boast a more somber, refined appearance that, if continued with other factions, will likely draw more mature gamers away from GW's decidedly simplified and mainstream rulesets.

The older gamers are so important because they are the ones that typically have the disposable income as well as the leisure time to entertain tabletop hobbies. They're generally more industrious and focused allowing them to complete collections at higher rate before beginning a new one. Their incomes are tied to a steady salary rather than a holiday or birthday and so their investments in the hobby are more frequent and dependable.   

Adult gamers (focus, I'm still talking about toy soldiers) are naturally drawn to historical wars and conflicts meaning half of Battlefront Miniature's work is done for them. Older hobbyist, men especially, enjoy the 'what if' alternative history both in discussion and on the tabletop. There is also the pride of knowledge that comes with collecting WWII miniatures - recognizing vehicles and squad markings that we read about as children and teenagers. Sharing that historical interest with other like-minded  hobbyists is an addictive pursuit and one that can last a great while thanks to the diversity in the range of armylists and minis as well the breadth and diversity of the conflict itself. Battlefront has made the most of this wide spectrum of units splitting their model range into overlapping armylists so that players can seek out that elusive uniqueness in their army composition - a luxury that is sorely missing from GW's rulesets due to poor internal balancing.

However Battlefront does face one major problem and that is the scale of their miniatures. The tiny 15 mm scale draws a lot of attention away from the infantry models which are key to the game. It reduces the ability of history buffs to work on historical accuracy with their models as most attempts to paint complicated schemes such as German woodland camo will leave your Fallshirmjäger looking like clown school rejects or worse.

The scale also forces you to simplify rules so that models can be grouped together in large units, ignoring, for the most part, stats and equipment on an individual level. The models themselves cannot be altered to any great degree which also limits individuality. In the end all that the Flames of War player can do to his models to make them unique to others of the same force is decorate the bases and even that is limited to just desert, grass, ruins and snow.  

One has to consider how much is saved by reducing scale before judging Battlefront too harshly. The price of such armylist diversity means that many different kits have to produced and shipped. Weight and complexity of manufacture add cost to the supplier which is of course passed to the consumer potentially pushing Battlefront out of the competitive price ranges.    

Privateer Press and Battlefront aren't the only ones out there. Dozens of miniatures companies are stepping up and being acknowledged (check out Mantic, Avatar of War or Infinity for example). The pressure is on for Games Workshop to pick up the pace. We've already seen evidence of GW's commitment to more balanced codecies in 5th edition as well as a solid attempt to improve internal balance so that multiple army builds are possible with each new release. This is a sluggish but determined response to complaints from competitive players wishing to see their hobby exist in a tournament format as well as casual play.

In addition, GW is giving more support to its games than ever before with rules and expansions appearing in White Dwarf (yes, I know Spearhead sucked but it's a big step for them) and a massive slew of FAQ's accompanying Fantasy 8th edition. Still the massive Warhammer flaghips are treading water - more improvement is needed to keep this titanic enterprise from sinking (see what I did there?).

To begin, all Warhammer armies need to be updated so that each player can enjoy the game the way it was meant to be played rather than how it was played years ago when their codex/army book was released. This massive gap between releases is intolerable and especially with companies such as Privateer Press highlighting the issue with their own timely, well tuned update schedule. GW needs to handle their releases in smaller, more manageable portions either through smaller codicies or regular releases in White Dwarf and online. This will not only make quality assurance and balancing a breeze (since you'll only be adding a small piece to an army rather than a complete overhaul) but stabilize revenues with customers making their purchases slowly over time rather than in bulk upon release. No more living in fear of a single bad release destroying your fiscal year.

Next Games Workshop needs to diversify. Part of this is internal balancing - it needs to improve. In Halo, at the beginning of each match many players rush forward to grab "power weapons" such as the Sniper Rifle or Spartan Laser. Kill/Death ratios and even wins are often linked to a player/team's ability to control these weapons, generate kills with them and suppress the enemy team with superior firepower. This is the way that Warhammer has worked for some time now. Players are able to accrue wins based solely on the "power weapons" each codex features ignoring the rest of the unit entries as inimical to achieving victory.

By contrast Modern Warfare 2 allows you to choose and customize your weapons before the match begins and (here's the important part) all of the choices are good. You'll note I didn't say "every choice is a good as any other" but the difference is miniscule enough that you can go games on end without ever meeting an adversary with the same kit, with the same "army composition" as yourself. If you can create a diverse environment where every player can choose his or her own path to success, you, as company, will be successful. Players need to express themselves through their choices and until you give them approval (I.e. rules) to do so they won't buy your minis.

As we speak there are players looking to create armies that appear in the fluff but exist nowhere in the hyper-streamlined rules - these guys want to give you money but they can't! Meanwhile oddball appearances such as Thunderwolf Cavalry add nothing to the game but poor quality narrative and internal balancing issues. These resources are best used serving existing fans, players who have read about armies they want to see on the table for years but have no way to represent them. Tie these rules to existing kits and watch those fly off the shelves - let's see how many Storm Trooper kits are sold when you release a character that makes the unit a Troops choice. The best part is that such a release costs virtually nothing.

Finally, focus needs to shift from "race" defined (I play Space Marines) to unit and theme defined (I play Deathwing). Once releases are based on single homogeneous forces you can begin to stagger them accordingly making the most of each model kit. Shrink codcies and army books to make them easier for development teams to handle and then add to them over time with each addition opening a new direction for players to take both thematically and in-game. These releases should be similar to the theme cards produced by Privateer Press wherein a player is rewarded in points for the thematic limitations he or she imposes on themselves.
So Activision and Bungie are working together now. It seems strange that Bungie would choose to work with such a high-profile partner seeing as they never really step beyond the Halo franchise anymore. It makes one wonder what a similar alliance could accomplish in the tabletop industry. What if Battlefront released a new 28 mm skirmish game with 40k rules? What if PP's designers had GW's manufacturing power to support them? How easily the miniature industry could be turned on its ear. Exciting things are taking place all over the gaming world and all of them all likely to put the consumer on a new pedestal. The nature of these evolutions and revolutions may be nebulous but as never before, it's a good time to be a gamer.