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the more it feels like an entitlement and the more likely your former patrons are too storm off in a huff when it's withdrawn, whether or not this is reasonable.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.

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