Sunday, 9 February 2014

Games Workshop - Bigger Does Not Mean Better

Yes it's that time again. The time to look at Games Workshop and have a blog post talking about something the company is doing wrong. As per usual, this has something to do with how the company has been handling things of late, especially in terms of scale.

Now, for once this isn't about their games' lore. While there is something to be said for the ongoing escalation of retcons and edits to make stuff "mo for serious yo" (I.E. Calgar's wounds going from tyranids to a unique special hive tyrant, the attack on Iyanden going from a flotilla to a full blown exterminatus, Draigo merrily slapping Mortarion about compared to the fight against Angron etc) this is actually about the more financial side of things. Well, financial and in terms of how the overall mentality behind the games and releases.

Go look at the list of games they have released over the years, then look at the ones getting the most support. Not so much the main games, but the add-ons and others which they have created surrounding them. Also consider the exact types of games which exist within the bigger titles as well. You start to see a certain trend.

At the moment we have Apocalypse and its various War Zone books, Storm of Magic, Triumph and Treachery, and Escalation. All of these promote the same thing over and over again: Bigger means better. Bigger guns, bigger units, bigger armies, bigger groups of players and ultimately that buying newer more powerful units is the way to go. They're not so much about tactics in some cases as who has the more Titans/dragons/monstrous creatures. Each of them received heavy promotion each time it comes out, on the front page of the website and in stores, while others were left to much less glorious releases or becoming a thing of the past. 

The latest edition of Kill Team was a purely ebook release which has only seen very limited support. Carnage is one of the few missions released (or rather re-released) to directly encourage smaller armies. The likes of Combat Patrol have been long abandoned by Games Workshop. Almost every major supplement or edition is used to encourage bigger units, more purchases and bigger armies. There is little there left for smaller forces or people starting out, and even then Games Workshop is trying to make the likes of Super Heavies a viable option in smaller games. 

Even Lord of the Rings felt this in recent years after being turned into Warmaster-lite with the War of the Rings books taking precedent over the skirmish style games of the original. While it did not completely abandon the idea of small armies, even then a fair number of the scenarios released in The Hobbit books placed emphasis on huge battles or massive monsters/expensive and powerful heroes. You can argue that this was unavoidable in that game, but just look at things overall. In almost every release there is a massive contradiction.

Here's what seems to be Games Workshop's angle:
Emphasis is placed upon getting the attention of new players. This is often to the detriment of veterans. Nearly every major release is angled towards big armies with big units. Anyone starting out is going to only have a small force, but there is so little support for them that they need to fork out more cash to get to the bigger stuff. Now, yes, this is an understandable angle to go with for a company but there is little to no support for the smaller forces. Nothing like the support given to the games which prominently feature Brass Scorpions and Titans, whereas before there was a somewhat more even focus. There's little to nothing to encourage 500 point games or even small squad based engagements with few tanks or heavy infantry. The company is ultimately shooting itself in the foot in its efforts to make a profit. They seem to want people to start by buying a massive army right at the very start, or at the very least one Baneblade.

Why is this so bad? Well, consider this:

Firstly, anyone starting out is likely going to be put out by the idea that the the company is seemingly pandering towards only the biggest spenders. Churning out masses of huge vehicles and rulebooks devoted to using them, making it less a game of skill and more who has wheeled out the latest broken model. All of them are written for the much bigger armies as well, meaning some might decide they cannot be bothered to waste time to reach that point.

Secondly, just to get a basic starter set of the rulebook one squad and a decent painting set has costs now approaching £100. That's before you even get to the codex, additional rulebooks or even reaching the bare minimum requirements for an army, one HQ choice and two Troops choices. This is a significant amount of cash for any endevour and it's just for the bare basics of an army. To even just take up a single super heavy vehicle for an Apocalypse game, plus all the books involved, would double the prices.  

These problems drive away both markets at once. The one they have always aimed for and been able to approach best, children, will have their parents look at this and likely decide a firm "No." Usually because they don't want to risk so much cash on a potentially fleeting interest. If an adult is looking to get into this, they will be even more concerned about the extremely high prices and will know of cheaper games they can approach to have their fix. Ones which do not require a small fortune to fund or have a decent sized force. BattleTech allows players to have as much fun with two or three mechs as much as a dozen aside, and Infinity has been gaining a great deal of popularity as a well written game of a few models per player. The latter is also one which doesn't charge customers a minimum of £75 for essential rulebooks alone.

All this is also all assuming that people want to go for a tabletop game for their strategy warfare fix. Games Workshop is the most accessible one of all these, and it's not only more expensive but has a much smaller playerbase than many video games. Some of which, League of Legends for example, require only a small fraction of the starting costs for people to play effectively. It's as if Games Workshop honestly thinks they are the only option and is blind to the competition they are facing.

Do you know what the real shame of all this is though? This could have so easily been avoided with a few simple actions. Games Workshop did have these games, but they let nearly all of them go to waste from lack of support or seemingly determined efforts to kill them off. We've already brought up the ones for the main games, but what about Specialist Games? 
Necromunda and Mordheim used to fill that same niche Infinity now does for so many players. It got them devoted to the setting, required only a limited number of models and allowed for a much more tangible sense of progression in making your force bigger. In some respects they even served as a good introduction to certain basic mechanics, having similar rules and stats lines to units in the two big games. A large number of players who were previously a part of a local store got involved with Fantasy following a successful Mordheim campaign.

It's not as if players were not spending money on them either, plenty would buy additional models and minor bits as campaigns progressed. Expanding their gangs and developing experienced members, sending small trickles of cash-flow towards the company rather than dumping wads on single big units at once. Apparently that just wasn't enough for the company.

Games Workshop ultimately needs to learn just how damaging this can be and to redirect their focus to cover a broader spectrum of lists. Small ones after a quick skirmish engagement as much as the massive Apocalypse forces. A knee-jerk reaction and going completely the other way would be a mistake but they need to get out of the mentality of go big or go home. Perhaps if they did they might start to see a rise in attention for their games once more. We also might start to get more rulebooks which require skill and planning over raw, game-breaking power.


  1. I agree with what you say here, and even though I didn't play any of the side games aside from 3 Mordheim games (and even then with a few houserules), I bought plenty of models, because I love conversions, and making converions, the ones I bought I either made into unique characters, or added their parts to other characters to make them stand out, currently I'm thinking about buying the 40k iron hands upgrade pack, not because I plan on playing iron hands, but because I like the idea of a character who gets taken off of the table in a campaign showing up later with bionics to account for the wounds they took. GW doesn't get that even if they're spin-offs aren't as successful as they want, they can tie the models into their other games, and make more money by people who use the models in multiple games and as such increase how many people play the game as well as any spin-offs, if you look in older rulebooks like the old Witch Hunters rulebook, there's plenty of cool conversions it shows and suggests to try and get you interested in making your own personal army using pieces from the spin-offs, whereas the new army books feel mostly like catalogues: "Here is our army, if you want to play it, you need to buy these models, model them like this, and paint them like this."
    I like the smaller points games just as much as larger points games, because it lets you try out a major armies strengths and weaknesses so you can get a feel for it and you don't rush out to buy something that you later find you aren't going to use in your army, either because it isn't as effective in your army, or it it's done better by something else, not to mention building a 2 000 point list can be overwhelming for new players (it was for me when I started several years ago). For these lower points games I just want to look at the army packs GW sells, since I like a battleforce that has everything you need to play the army straight out of the box, so I'll compare an older army to a new one that they are just putting out, let's look at the Space Wolves Battleforce, if you buy it you can make two Troops choices out of it, a Heavy support choice, an HQ generic character, and an Elites choice, that's all you need to start playing the army at whatever lower points count you want (about 1 000 and under) and the store I bought it from sells it for under $100, with the rulebook it might come close to $130 that's entirely reasonable, then look at the Tyranid Battleforce, oh wait there isn't one now, now there's just the Tyranid swarm that comes with three really awful units, two decent units, one okay unit, and a Carnifex. No HQ, because this box is all about giving you lots of models so you can play the higher point games, so if you wanted to play the army then, the rulebook and HQ would cost you $329, and this is before you buy your primer, and paints (possible dice, brushes and templates too if you're new).
    And GW wonders why they're losing customers.

  2. Previous comment was too long, so I cut this part out but wanted to add it in another comment because I find they're doing an interesting parralel with their fantasy setting:
    On the other hand, they seem to be having the the exact opposite idea with Warhammer: Fantasy with the new dwarfs, assuming GW didn't change their points cost drastically (they might, though in Fantasy they love lowering the points about as much as 40k loves increasing them) putting units you will need to buy in boxes of 10, where you will need 15-20 of them for them to be effective, and at UNGODLY prices, $60 for 10 models? The older models that do the EXACT SAME THING (they just gave them an updated look) were $42 for 16 models, they raised the price by almost 50% and removed more than a third of what you get, that's absurd, and these are part of the Dwarfs new Core Units (Fantasies equivalent of the Troops Choice), and can also be assembled as Elites, so you'll have to buy 4 boxes of these guys minimum (already $240, it doesn't matter too much if you assemble them as elites or core, but you will need around 4) for a very low point game (500-1000 points).
    It's a shame too, because I like how they look, and I love playing the Dwarfs (the 7th edition rulebook I mean) but I just can't afford to play them any more.