It's interesting that when someone criticises a product, be it a car, a DVD player, a games console or a washing machine there will almost always be someone else ready to loudly defend it. This is not really surprising, our purchases say a great deal about our taste and judgement and when an item we have purchased, and enjoyed, is criticised it feels like a criticism of ourselves.
In the gaming community this phenomenon is even more acute. People put an enormous amount of themselves into their hobby, selecting and painting miniatures, devising scenarios and playing games. It's for that reason that I and so many others publicise our hobby on a blog. We want to share our interests with others.
Games companies rely on this passion. Extracting value from a roleplaying game or a miniature requires a lot of time an effort. There is little immediate gratification and the collection of plastic, metal and cardboard that spills out of a box, at first glance, never lives up to the promise of the examples on the box. Until the miniatures are painted, the rules read, the players assembled there is little value in the product. Value requires effort and effort requires enthusiasm and passion.
It is for this reason that so many games companies encourage a community or like minded hobbyists to develop. The game requires other players, but more than that it requires enthusiasm and encouragement. In recent years the principle tactic has been to set up message boards and forums, but it has been going on for years by encouraging gamers to support their Local Games shop, attending conventions and, in the case of Games Workshop, through it's own chain of stores.
The draw back of encouraging this kind of enthusiasm is what can happen when it's turned against the company.
Part of the problem for Games companies is that image projected of them are small, very personal operations created by a single hobbyist or a small group with a dream of making their job their hobby. No-one with sense gets into the gaming industry hoping to make a fortune, most hope to make enough money that they don't have to do another job to supplement their income. The rise of the Internet has only increased this perception as more and more garage companies appear selling direct to the consumer. The direct engagement of so many companies with the customers through conventions and forums increases this view.
This works well as a marketing technique. Customers like to feel they are dealing with real people and not faceless corporations. Gamers are more likely to spend more money if they can see it going to a real person and a fellow hobbyist and can accept higher costs more readily when they trust that they are the result of increased costs and not greed.
The problem is that what may seem like a sensible business decision or transaction to a company can be perceived as betrayal by the fans. One of the early examples was when Citadel miniatures bought out Games Workshop and shifted it from a distributor and seller of a wide variety of games to specifically producing and promoting miniature games. The Roleplaying craze was on the wane and the decision might have made good business sense, but this was small consolation for the players of the abandoned games.
There have been numerous examples since. Rackham's abandonment of metal models in favour of pre-painted plastic, Wizards of the Coast shifting its focus to collectible card games and every new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Every controversial decision angers a new group of fans and one 'betrayal' can leave someone bitter and suspicious of all games companies.
Two recent examples bear this out. I previously mentioned Wyrd Games program to replace the cards for Malifaux with the new revised versions. This program sparked some discussion on their message board. Most contributors saw it as a generous gesture by a company trying not to rip-off its fans. But there were a few who questioned every aspect of the program, in particular the decision to run it only between January and March 2011. One person in particular seemed excessively concerned that someone might accidentally acquire an earlier card after the deadline and demanded all manner of expensive plans including stickers on boxes and lists mailed to games shops in order to rectify what he saw as a terrible injustice. When it was pointed out that the cost of his solution would be prohibitive he accused the company of not caring about gamers.
A second incident occurred just recently when Wargames Factory announced a change of ownership. I'm not going to go into the ins and outs of the situation at this point (though there is certainly a blog post in it), but there has been much bitterness and acrimony from the old owners and from customers, with many announcing a boycott of Wargames Factory's products unless the old owners are restored.
I'm in no position to say if the old owners were treated unfairly or not, but the willingness of customers to stand by the old owners says something about the loyalty of gamers to a company or an individual and their willingness to make purchasing decisions based on that loyalty.
Passion, enthusiasm and customer loyalty is the backbone of the gaming hobby. But as long as companies rely on players seeing them as more than just a business supplying a product, the more danger that former fans will become mortal enemies.
Games companies need to consider carefully the danger of alienating fans. But more than that, gamers need to distance their enthusiasm for a game or a range of miniatures from the company producing it or risk being hurt by their hobby.