Friday 27 December 2013

On price and quantity

The new Hobbit film is out and with it Games Workshop's latest batch of Hobbit miniatures. Though this feels less like a release and more a kind of grim obligation, like an annual visit to an increasingly racist elderly relative. The comments have been largely predictable, ranging from shock bordering on disbelief at the prices GW think they can charge for this stuff, to the increasingly shoddy finish of even the display models.

I'm not planning on wasting any time defending £15 price tags for finecast miniatures, especially when they're of Legolas apparently falling off a log, but the plastic boxes gave me pause. I can't say I'm much of a fan of the Palace Guard, who may or may not have beards, depending on the angle from which you look, but the Mirkwood rangers are actually quite a nice collection. It helps that they have plenty of detail and there are ten different sculpts.

As easy as...

At £25 for ten models they're comparable to most of Games Workshop plastic infantry boxes, which most people, including myself, tend to think of as over priced. But this price is pretty close to that of the new Malifaux starter boxes which are also hard plastic and which give you fewer, if slightly larger models. For a similar price you can get a Warmachine or Hordes starter box or a unit box, which, again will give you fewer models. A Bushido starter box will set you back £5 more and give you only five models, though these also come with cards. Turning to sci-fi, Infinity will give you six models for about the same price.

I pinched this image from the GW website. I don't think the set comes with a present

Of course, other than Malifaux, these are not hard plastic models, but I think we have moved on from the days when plastic is automatically considered a cheaper alternative to metal, at least for sci-fi and fantasy models. There are things you can't do in plastic, but then there are things you can't do in metal or resin, its about choosing the right medium.

I have long maintained that the problem with Games Workshop's pricing isn't the cost of the individual models but the number you need to play the game. If this was a Warhammer boxed set you would need two to four to make a decent regiment or which you would probably need four or five to build an army, plus a couple of characters. For the Hobbit/LOTR this box plus a couple of characters (preferably some left over metal ones) is enough for a decent game. Maybe add a couple more blisters and another box, but that's about it. But we're still only looking at prices comparable to most other Fantasy or Sci-Fi skirmish games.

Games Workshop's other big release if Warhammer 40,000 Escalation a supplement that allows you to bring the super-super-heavy vehicles previously restricted to Apocalypse battles to a smaller scale.

On the face of it, this is simply smart marketing. There's little point releasing a range of miniatures that cost between £70 and £100 plus and then requiring players to already have several hundred pounds of models plus a games room the size of a barn before they can even think about using them, especially in the run up to Christmas. Plus there's the fact that where once every army need a £30 - £50 model, now you need to double that figure.

However, there may be something more significant about Escalation, in that it represents the relaxation of a trend that has been going on since at least the release of Warhammer 8th edition. Since 8th edition's serious accident waiting to happen of a rulebook was released, GW marketing has focused on bigger and bigger games. A kind of battle-level scale creep if you like. White Dwarf battle reports have shifted from being 2000-3000 points to 3000 minimum and larger for preference, while featured armies and promotional materials have shown larger and large collections of models. Every time a new giant monster or vehicle is released a battle report shows at least two of them in action and this is accompanied by a one click bundle on the Games Workshop website. Seriously, is there anyone who really needs three Lords of Skulls?

I'm not sure if these two threads are really related, but it's worth considering that Games Workshop prices may only be considered unreasonably high because of the quantity you need to buy and that, for the first time in a long time, Games Workshop may be suggesting it might be okay to play with a smaller number of models. Food for thought.

Monday 2 December 2013

Free Space

So games Workshop has started charging for the use of its gaming tables and painting space in some parts of the UK, which has sparked some debate. Not that they're charging out right. What they're actually doing is handing out tokens with purchases that entitle the bearer to a certain amount of table-time.

It's not really a new argument and has, in fact, been floating around for years, particularly in the US which has more independent game shops and, therefore, less central management dictating policy. One of the main arguments is, basically, that in the age of the Internet offering customers free table space is all well and good if they're actually customers. Everyone's heard stories of gamers who spend hours in game shops taking up space, before going home and buying everything online at a discount. On this basis the Games Workshop approach is actually quite smart, given that it rewards customers for being customers and, arguably, adds additional value to GW's products.

Still, I find myself looking at things from another angle.

For a start, suddenly charging for something, however covertly, for something that used to be free never goes down well. The longer something is available for nothing the more it feels like an entitlement and the more likely your former patrons are too storm off in a huff when it's withdrawn, whether or not this is reasonable. So you'd better be sure that what you're doing is going to do more good than harm.

But I think there's something more important here. Free gaming tables and painting spaces have, effectively, been Games Workshop's answer to a fundamental industry problem.

Thinking about miniature gaming, can there be another hobby with a greater disconnect between the way it is sold and the product you actually buy. What I mean is that miniature games (not just Games Workshops) are sold with pictures of huge armies of beautifully-painted models facing each other over elaborate battlefields festooned with lavishly constructed scenery. What you actually get when you open a box is several sprues of dull grey plastic or metal lumps. You then have to find the glue, paint, scenery, space and time to actually put all of this together. "Contents may vary from shown" doesn't really cut it.

Put another way, if when I was about to buy my first box of miniatures, my future self had emerged through the orb of time and told me, "It'll be two years before you're on top of the rules, five years before you paint a model you're happy with, ten years before you've painted a whole army, and twenty before you have a permanent gaming table and scenery that's in colour and not made from polystyrene packing and piles of books," I might have been slightly put off. Miniature gaming requires an absolutely huge amount of work before you can actually game as the promotional material suggests. Hell, it takes a fair bit of effort just to play badly assembled, unpainted models on the kitchen table.

Games Workshop's offer of free table and painting space was a small concession thrown at new hobbyists. "Don't worry about the scenery, or the space or the paint," it said, "come use ours. Worry about all that later. Just buy some models. Sit down here and I'll help you assemble them."

Of course, you could retort that the new regime still serves this purpose, a copy of Dark Vengeance, or Isle of Blood will let you plenty of table time. But it doesn't last forever and, given that most of Games Workshops target audience are at the younger end, there will come a time, or even times, when they may want to use some space and not actually have scraped together the minimum necessary to allow a token purchase. Is it really a good idea to send the message "sorry lads, fun's over, we got your money, no piss off and come back when you've got a disposable income."

There's a sense in which all of this fits in with a lot of Games Workshop's recent behaviour. Things like shutting down bloggers who leak bits of White Dwarf or running a Games Day with no actual games. The advantage of the GW strategy of doing everything themselves, is that the different parts of the company didn't have to justify themselves on their own terms. White Dwarf doesn't have to make money, it's a promotional tool. Games Day is for getting people excited about games, even if they don't necessarily buy them on the day. And free hobby space is about creating a welcoming atmosphere and letting people know there's somewhere they can do all of the activities that make up the hobby.

By charging for it, even obliquely, Games Workshop have made it that little bit harder to be a hobbyist and, given the business they're in, I'm not sure that's a good idea.