Thursday 9 February 2012

Expand or Die

Since the announcement, via video clip, that Privateer Press would be producing 'collosal' War Jacks for War Machine, opinion has been divided over whether this is an exciting new development or a evidence of the Games Workshop-isation of the Company. Sceptical voices have been making whispers of Apocalypse.

I don't feel particularly strongly either way, I have dabbled in War Machine and Hordes, but am not a heavy collector of either. However, the announcement is interesting to me because it says something about the nature and development of Fantasy wargames over time.

For some years now Games Workshop have been locked in an endless cycle of renewal, with new editions every five years or so and the refreshing of their armies in order to keep up momentum. They release the occasional genuinely new miniature, but the bulk of them are now new versions of existing miniatures. Their current goal seems to be to re-release as much as possible in plastic.

Since Third edition, each version of Warhammer has managed to reach a state of near completeness by the time its next edition is due. Which is to say that pretty much all the miniatures and army books have been available and there has been no strict requirement for GW to produce anything more. No edition has been perfect, but then no game is. The new editions are driven now by marketing concerns, the need to have something apparently new to sell each month.

This has generally been perceived as the behaviour of a cynical, greedy company artificially creating demand while steadily inflating its prices in order to exploit its customer base. Certainly Games Workshop has behaved badly enough over the years to justify much of the hostility towards them. However, I think there is more than a touch of desperation about their current position.

Wargames are like Empires: only strong while expanding. There is a constant need for new material, rules and miniatures to retain the interest of the customer base. That isn't to say there is no interest in older models, but a company that has nothing new to offer can all too easily drift off the radar.

When a game is first starting out there is an active need for new models and rules from both companies and players, but as the game ages additional material starts to become a barrier to entry. Privateer Press's approach has been to periodically produce new rulebooks with new rules for all its factions, but that meant by the end of first edition War Machine that a player needed to buy five rule books to get all the rules for the initial four factions.

New models can be similarly problematic. The more that are produced the more the initial enthusiasts can collect, but new players are faced with increasingly more choices and experienced opponents who have much larger armies. Meanwhile, it becomes more difficult for games shops to dedicate the space to display the full range. Plus there is the difficulty of coming up with a constant stream of new ideas.

In the face of this, wargame companies have essentially three options:
  1. Soldier on regardless, producing more and rules and models and risk putting off potential new players.
  2. Sweep everything clean, starting over or focusing on a new game, and alienate existing player.
  3. Something of a fudge, release a new edition tweaking some of the rules problems that have been discovered and produce new, hopefully better, versions of existing models.

After Thirty years of Warhammer and twenty five of Warhammer 40,000 Games Workshop are trapped inexorably in stage 3, with new editions every few years that add less and less each time.

At the time I started out with Games Workshop, they were just starting to reach this point. Warhammer 40,000 was still developing in new and unexpected directions, but Warhammer was stagnant. A few new Chaos models appeared, but, essentially, the game and miniature range was complete. For the first two years after I started, essentially nothing new appeared for Warhammer and, at least among my friends, no-one paid it any attention to it at all. Then fourth edition appeared and interest picked up. Suddenly all my friends were collecting Warhammer armies, and every new army book prompted some-one to start a new army. Given the results it's hardly surprising GW have repeated the tactic.

I find the situation with Privateer Press intriguing because they have clearly tried option 3 recently with the new editions of War Machine and Hordes. but thanks to prompt and rapid army book releases have found themselves quite quickly back where they started. Now they seem to be trying tactic 1, keep producing new and exciting models and hope that new players are intrigued and not overwhelmed.

I am not making any judgement about either company, but it is fascinating to me that ultimately all successful wargames must end up in the same place.