Monday 14 June 2010

What future for wargaming?

When it comes down to it, this hobby is ultimately about playing with toy soldiers. However much we try to dress it up, a direct line can be drawn from the group of kids playing with action figures, making gun noises and arguing that your man didn't shoot theirs because theirs jumped out of the way at the last second, to gaming clubs and tournaments. The only change is that the arguments that my soldier couldn't be hit because he's a ninja and can dodge all guns has been replaced by long, weary message board arguments about game balance.

The more knowing and, usually, experienced wargamers realise this. Some even go so far as to describe their hobby as 'playing with toy soldiers.' While many teenage gamers loudly insist that they collect miniatures, the truth is that for many, if not most, of us wargaming was an excuse not to stop playing with toys when we reached our teenage years.

The reason I raise this well known, if not always admitted, truth is the toy industry is changing and, it is probable, that this will have profound implications for the wargaming hobby. Wargamers who are also parents may be aware that children are losing interest in toys at a younger and younger age. This is not, despite what the tabloid press might believe, because children are becoming delinquent alcoholics and drug users before they reach double figures, but more because of video games. Take a look at this report, it makes for interesting reading.

This is an interesting and potential worrying trend. If much of the hobby is made up of toy soldier collectors who never quite grew up, or rather didn't see growing up as a reason to get rid of their toys, a generation with limited interest in toys presents a poor pool to draw recruits. But the implications might be greater even than that.

The 1980s and 1990s produced a generation of children who wanted tactile contact with their heroes. The advent of Star Wars, which spawned a more extensive range of toys than had ever been seen before, and the relaxation of the US law that prevented toy companies funding cartoons (effectively allowing 25 minute toy adverts) enabled children to acquire toy versions of just about every major character going. Children wanted to be able to touch, hold, interact and collect their heroes. I can't speak for every child of the 1980s, but, for me, having a decent range of toys was an essential prerequisite for me taking an interest in a range of characters. The principle reason I never became very attached to Marvel comics was because, in the UK at least, their were no action figures until the 1990s. I wanted direct, physical contact with my heroes.

But we are now producing a generation of children who have grown up with video and computer games. Or at least have grown up with half decent ones in which the on the screen characters can be recognised as being something. I grew up with the Spectrum 48K and, as good as some games were, the appeal of moving single coloured blobs around the screen was never likely to be a substitute for my Optimus Prime toy. In contrast, children now are used to characters all but indistinguishable from the ones they see on TV being directly under their control. Their ways of playing have changed and they have a less tactile relationship with the characters.

Though 'less tactile' is possibly not the right phrase to use. They expect tactile contact through, controller, mouse key board and, increasingly, touch screen. This article suggests that this new generation will expect their entertainment to be interactive and that traditional television and film may well be in trouble.

For a long time computer and video games were dismissed by the wargaming community. Games Workshop famously referred to them as a 'pass time rather than a hobby.' Which was reasonable. Video games were fun, but failed to replicate the sense of control or achievement experienced by wargamers assembling and painting an entire army. Developments in video gaming technology, however, may mean this is no longer the case.

Take World of Warcraft, famously addictive time sponging MMORPG. The scope of player behaviour in this virtual environment is vast. As well as creating and advancing their characters, players can form guilds with other players, creating badges and charters, acquire through combat, quests, purchase or trade hundreds of different items of equipment and customise their characters appearance endlessly. The game now features items of equipment that have no effect on the way the character plays, only on their appearance. When 'the Wrath of the Liche King' expansion was released, the ability to customise haircuts was trumpeted almost as loudly as the new continent. The bottom line is that players can spend as much time customising their characters as the wargame armies.

Games that more directly compete with traditional wargaming are also moving in this direction. Warhammer 40,000 spin off Dawn of War II allows players to design colour schemes for their online armies. It's no match for painting a whole army yourself, but how long, in a world where computer sculpting is already becoming standard, before whole wargame armies can be created and painted from scratch before being launched into a virtual environment without any physical model ever existing?

Such a development would probably be no substitute for traditional wargaming to most of the current generation of wargamers. But what about a generation that has no expectation of being able to physically hold their toys? Or is used to an entirely different method of interaction with them?

So what does this mean for traditional wargaming? I think it's in no danger of dying out yet. But we could see its audience skewing older and more specialised. Just as the comic industry has moved to favouring older and more die-hard fans as its audience has shrunk. Meanwhile, the mainstream may have to find new ways to appeal to new audiences, just as comic companies have pushed films, television and video games. Games Workshop have already demonstrated the value of licensing with Dawn of War and Warhammer Online. Online versions of Field of Glory and AT-43 already exist. The future of wargaming will be shaped by a generation of wargamers who, instead of keeping hold of their toy soldiers, choose to keep hold of their control pads.

Sunday 6 June 2010

Musings on sales tactics

A couple of weeks back I was due to meet up with someone and being faintly paranoid and borderline autistic (very rare among wargamers I’m sure) I found myself with an extra hour of time to kill. With no fixed plans and not enough spare cash I wandered into Games Workshop. This is a relatively rare occurrence for me. Not because I hate and despise Games Workshop and all it stands for, as a cursory examination of past blog posts should indicate, but more because after twenty years of this stuff I have accumulated more Games Workshop models than I am likely to paint a life time (mostly because I keep buying more models). On the rare occasions that I do feel the need to buy more GW models, I tend to do it at shows or over the Internet where I get a discount.

But one of these rare occurrences was likely to be coming up soon; the release of the new plastic River Trolls had caught my attention. I know they’re not to everyone’s taste, but they certainly fit mine and manage to be a bit cheaper than their metal equivalents. Having only seen them in pictures I was hoping they might have a few assembled and out of the box (they did and they turned out to be a touch smaller than I had expected, but that’s not the point of the story so I have covered it in this aside for the benefit of the other borderline autistic wargamers desperate to know of which I have already stated there are few).

Of course a customer walking into Games Workshop produces a reaction similar to a half finished ice cream thrown into a bin full of wasps on a hot day. Three paces into the shop, standing in front of the ‘New’ shelf I became aware of a flash of red in my peripheral vision and a slight buzzing sound.

“Here for the new Trolls?” Came the question.

Opinions are divided on the GW customer service and the attentiveness/pushiness of their staff. Some people loath it with a fiery passion usually reserved only for badly placed ad breaks or Piers Morgan. Others seem to quite like it, possibly because of the momentary experience of the warmth of human contact in a world of lonliness devoid of interaction with anyone outside of the Internet. I’m divided on the subject depending on my mood. Today I was feeling tolerant, but a touch playful, so I decided to be honest.

“Not really. To be honest, if I want them I’ll get them off the Internet and get a discount.”

“Fair enough”. I wasn’t ‘fair enough’ and we both knew it. But this guy was canny enough to realise I wasn’t going to be persuaded. I continued to browse aimlessly for a minute, considering whether the Warhammer 40,000 plastic craters would be usable in Malifaux. Then the buzzing started again.

“Here for the new Trolls?” A second red shirt had appeared. This one had a beard and was, therefore, higher ranking and more persistant than his predecessor. I repeated my earlier exchange, but this one was not to be fobbed off so easily.

“So what are you painting at the moment?”

One advantage of no longer being a pustule faced, urchin with a voice like air being let slowly out of a balloon, is that I am spared the usual ‘do you play our games then?’ questioning. The combination of age and height is enough to convince most GW drones that I am an experienced gamer. That said, I do occasionally forget to shave so they may also think I’m a homeless person and the inevitable stench or urine is merely being masked by the vile reek of teenage body odour that hangs over every Games Workshop like fallout at a nuclear bomb site.

Having approached me and ascertained that I did not stink of piss, the staff member had engaged plan B, ‘engage customer in banter about gaming and that.’

As I mentioned earlier, I was in a playful mood. So I decided to be brutally honest.

“Malifaux mostly. Then a whole bunch of English Civil War plastics for Warhammer English Civil War.”

So I’m too much of a wimp to be entirely brutal and provided him with an escape card by mentioning warhammer. The ECW stuff is true, I have them and plan to paint them, but probably won’t get to them for a while. But I didn’t want to torture the poor guy. As it was his mental fuse was momentarily blown by the mention of a game that his company did not produce. Fortunately, this one was a veteran and after a moment he started on his new plan of attack.

“Have you seen our painting guides?” He indicated them two shelves away from where I was standing. “They’ve got lots of good tips, even if you have a lot of experience.”

I acknowledged them, but informed him that I had accumulated quite a lot of painting guides over the years. He nodded, before suggesting that, if I was local, I should bring my models down for a painting workshop. By this point my brutality was ebbing, and I mumbled my usual excuse about being equal distance from three of four Games Workshops. He persisted, insisting that there was always something to learn.

This struck me as rather an odd plan of attack. He wasn’t strictly trying to sell me anything, but seemed to want me to commit to further time in the store. I would have expected him to try and get rid of the miserable old git who was trying to wreck his carefully constructed work with talk of other games. Maybe he was planning a conversion. Like a catholic priest offering pre-packaged homophobia to wavering Anglicans. Just get him to come back; we’ll have him in the end.

I was dismissive of his plans. Once again I was honest, telling him that my painting was good enough for gaming purposes, but I would never be Golden Daemon standard. Surprisingly, he tried to talk me round, insisting that we can always learn and improve. I was caught off guard. Had he mistaken my honest appraisal of my skills for some kind of wargaming emotional crisis? Was he worried that I might head home and, despairing of my lack of ability, fire a spray can of varnish into my mouth or swallow a tube of superglue? Or was he simply keeping up the sales pitch and trying to convince me that a painting tutorial was worth my while? Probably the second if I’m honest.

The conversation continued, but we had reached an impasse. He was unwilling to give up and I would not be persuaded. But then my playfulness re-emerged. Pulling out my Iphone, I offered to show him pictures of my models on my photo-bucket app (any excuse to get out the Iphone). At this he backed off, insisting he had to see my models themselves and he ‘didn’t like pictures’ before turning his attention to a pre-pubescent drooling over the latest lethally sharp piece of plastic on the painting table.

Victory, of a sort, I had successfully out-geeked him with my combination of tedious wargaming stories and unreliable technology. I exited the shop, my time having been successfully been wasted.

But the encounter did make me realise what I dislike about the Games Workshop sales approach, and why so many others hate it as well. On leaving the shop, the over-friendly red shirt called out a cheery farewell, which I reciprocated, before muttering ‘prick’ under my breath.

Why had I done that? It had been almost a reflex. The poor sod hadn’t been doing anything other than his job. So why had I felt such reflexive disdain? But then I realised that the problem was that he had been doing his job. His apparent interest in my painting projects and, apparent, concern about my painting skills had been an act to try and get me to come back to the shop and be sold stuff. Any stuff. As long as I paid money for it he would have happily handed me a carpet tile and insisted that it was what I needed to improve my gaming/painting/modelling/whatever.
The GW staff pretend to be fellow hobbyists interested in a chat. They feign interest, concern of anything else. They’ll happily be your best friend, but it’s all an act to make a sale. None of his concern or interest was real. It’s this fakery that bothers me, far more than the buzzing, the shouting and the over-enthusiasm.

Of course this form of sales is common in most other businesses. Try walking into Dixons or PC World or a clothes shop (assuming it isn’t one that that charges so much that rude disdain is part of the brand appeal) or even a bank, without being accosted by a ‘can I help you.’ Again, some people like the friendliness. Others cringe. It doesn’t help that in Britain we’re collective wary of unprompted social interaction with strangers and like to preserve a transparent dome of privacy that extends at least half a metre around our bodies. Ever watch a group of British people on a train? It’s like watching people in the Matrix. Not the virtual world why everyone is a ninja and Keanu Reeves can fly, the endless rows of pods full of goo. We all stubbornly refuse to acknowledge anyone else around us, engaging in a mass delusion that we’re the only ones there. This lack of comfort with strangers explains why the touch-feely sales approach can be so off putting.

And it isn’t what we normally get in games shops. Most of the games shops I’ve been are staffed by the same collection of socially ill-equipped geeks that shop there. Most of them are more interested in talking wargame news than they are in selling stuff. It might not be good for business, but it’s more comfortable for me as a customer. On one occasion, I made an ill-advised comment that a particular game struck me as a rip-off of Warhammer 40,000, only to be confronted by an angry rebuttal from a member of staff standing nearby. A bad sales tactic certainly, I was too uncomfortable to buy anything after that, but there was reassuring that he cared about something more than flogging me models, a reminder that he was a real person.
While I know that Games Workshop staff are real people with lives, loves, passions, problems, hopes, dreams and fears outside of their work, I can’t quite shake the residual fear that they may all come out of an injection mould in a factory somewhere.