Saturday, 14 November 2015
Games Workshop Announces Specialist Games' Return - Hope or Damnation?
It's no secret that the relationship between Games Workshop and its fandom is strained at the best of times. Between balance issues with armies, the inexplicable ability to demolish the lore of whole armies, and half the fandom wanting a tournament game over casual fun, there's rarely a time everyone is happy. In the wake of Age of Sigmar, we've seen a few gradual concessions of late to help keep older games alive, starting with the re-release of Warhammer Fantasy rules on Black Library. This, however, is the first time we've seen something fully resurrected by the company since Space Hulk's fleeting revival.
Announced a couple of days ago, Games Workshop's news letter reported positive feedback from its recent Betrayal at Calth release. Sales have apparently been wrong with the game, confirming its continued production well into the future. However, old fans were much more excited to see the following paragraph:
"Our all-new Specialist Design Studio will even be tasked with bringing back and revamping some of our old favourites. Blood Bowl, Epic, Necromunda and Battlefleet Gothic are just some of the great games the team are already eyeing up."
It's a brief mention to be sure, but one which carries a lot of very positive possibilities for the future, and a lot of bad ones.
While the fan groups actively supporting these games might have been far smaller than the three big games, they were nevertheless extremely dedicated. Many were especially ticked off when Games Workshop first abandoned all support for them and then actively shut them down, to the point of wielding the DMCA like a cudgel against fan material and community websites. As such there is an understandable degree of enthusiasm to be found among many who missed these games in their heyday, but some understandable animosity from the old guard. How well they can win over these groups is ultimately going to be a deciding factor in their success. As they each held a smaller niche audience and community, it's those same hardcore fans who keep it going. If the company loses them then sales are not going to exactly spike overnight.
Another problem notably stems from the lack of Warhammer Fantasy games in that list. While it mentions every tabletop title set in the grim darkness of the far future, it's hard not to notice how Warmaster and Mordheim have been carefully omitted. This could simply be thanks to the company focusing upon the most prominent games first after all, but it's also hard not to consider how little support the company has offered anything set prior to Age of Sigmar. Almost all following video game adaptations of late have been set during or following the End Times, and some fear that the games might be revamped to reflect the new setting rather than embracing the old one. It may not be wholly true, Mordheim has been one of the bigger video game successes of late, but at the same time it's hard not to consider what the future might bring.
Another, bigger concern has been the mention of "revamping" each game and what that might bring with it. We saw the attempted revival of Man 'O War several years ago in the form of Dreadfleet, which was a single shot board game. Despite some fun mechanics, it was limited on several fronts, but primarily how a lack of overall balance would often lead the game to play out more or less the same way each time. It was certainly a solid way to test the waters, but some fear a repeat of that same incident torpedoing their own chances. After all, it would be a poor show to allow the future of games like Necromunda be decided by a single one-shot release, especially given how that would bypass so many of their strengths. It if failed to capture the audience, failed depict how it could encourage ongoing campaigns or simply failed to be mechanically watertight, that's a beloved franchise potentially gone for another decade or two.
Even without considering just how they might be brought back, there are naturally some concerns as to how certain games might be adapted. Some fear that, in order to help encourage mass participation, games like Epic or Battlefleet Gothic might start to see their own codex creep. These are games which encouraged campaigns and even tournaments even more heavily than the traditional big two, and an evolving metagame is a good way to encourage continued participation. However, Games Workshop hasn't had exactly the best track record in managing this, as most of their big plans have come down to bringing in bigger and bigger units from other games time after time. If Gothic were to go the way of 40,000, some fear that we'd see armies with at least two Planet Killers per fleet or some nonsense like that. Also, taking into account the size many 40,000 armies are expected to have and the over-saturation of super heavy units, it's hard to see what appeal Epic will have to new players.
Still, for all the potential issues, there are still plenty of good ones to consider. Foremost among these is that, in all honesty, many of these games couldn't simply be brought back without any changes. Sure, many had a good skeleton for their rules or a good basis, but in one way or another proved to be extremely wonky at best. Blood Bowl was infamous for its extremely unbalanced teams and - while that might have become part of the game's charm - many others were no better. Battlefleet Gothic saw ork brute ram ships dominating some games, and necrons were a unstoppable force no one could hope to even slow down. Epic had its own issues given how insanely fast certain specialist armies could be, particularly the Biel-Tan Swordwind, in running rings around their foes. Hell, arguably the one which needed it the most, Inquisitor, suffered from some truly infamous problems. Even without getting into the space marine issues, some problems found in the game could make Dark Heresy look tame on its worst days.
Another point to consider might be how current trends might actually allow for support these games were long denies. At the time the company was still trying to make a token effort to support these releases, they were not fully embracing the use of e-mails or social media. While the company might still find this to be something of a stumbling point, there's no denying it's better today than what we've had over the past few years. Facebook accounts have opened up, Twitter accounts have been re-activated and there is a push for community support rather than just shutting everyone out. Well, something of a push, we've still got a long way to go, but the point is they're improving. As such, whereas the magazine supporting these games - Fanatic - was shut down after a dozen issues or so, but survived as a fan work for years afterwards, the company might be open minded enough to replicate that success. It would be an easy thing to have even just a short digital magazine released every once in a while to keep people drawn in, after all.
Another point in favour of keeping the game going is, to be perfectly honest, the models themselves. Go onto eBay and you'll find everything from titans to strike cruisers going second hand at staggering costs, usually enough to buy most of a Firestorm Armada patrol fleet. Even if they're not playing, people love the idea of having a pocketable giant humanoid siege engine or even a small fleet purely for show, and as such it's enough to get certain people interested. Even if the company didn't fully commit to the game, like last time they'd want it around for a little while at least to keep making cash off of the builds exclusive to each game.
The final, and perhaps the biggest, point in favour of Games Workshop doing a good job with these stems from their direction. At the moment they're a company of extremes. We've gone over this in the past, and everything with them either needs to be insanely large when it comes to armies or easy to run. They want either smaller skirmish games or vast legions, and at the moment cracks are starting to show in both those approaches. Warhammer 40,000 is still drawing in people, but the sheer scale of some games is driving them away. Age of Sigmar is hitting the "beer and pretzels" approach the company wants, but the narrow focus upon the Sigmarines and high prices is preventing many jumping on. That and, well, a lot of other things. The point is that several Specialist Games could work to ease people into these, serving as a gateway drug to the hobby in the same way Mordheim once did to Warhammer Fantasy. If they can keep the prices relatively affordable, they'll have a number of iconic factions to work with, and a way to counter the draw other games are having over Games Workshop products.
At the end of the day, it seems best to remain hopeful but guarded. There's plenty of reasons Games Workshop would want this to succeed, of even to completely avoid the mistakes of the past. However, the real question which come from how well they have learned from prior errors and how far ahead they can plan. At the very least this is a chance for some of these older experiences to finally get some fresh blood, but it could easily go wrong. As with so many things, only time will tell what the future has in store for the Specialist Games franchises.