Thursday 30 January 2014

Just no

In my last post I wrote about the disconnect between what Games Workshop and its customers.

I think this proves my point.

I can just about accept that there might be a market for a big book of Games Workshop photos, though it is a bit redundant in a world where the Internet exists, but every month? For £7.50?

Friday 24 January 2014

A crisis of their own making?

I have written quite a bit about Games Workshop, but I would actually prefer not to. Partly because it's a bit obvious and partly because I don't actually buy a lot of their models or play a lot of their games any more. Not because of any particular hostility, but simply because I have bought so many over the years that I am past the point where I want any more.

But there are some events that a bit too big to not comment on. Events like this. After some pretty terrible financial results which have seen Games Workshop's turnover and, more importantly, profit fall, 25% of the value of GW shares was wiped out.

The reaction to this news has been interesting, consisting partly of schadenfreude, partly smugness from those who expected this to happen sooner or later and a more moderated reaction from people who think this may be bad for wargaming in general or feel sorry for people who actually work for Games Workshop. There has been very little in the way of vigorous defence of Games Workshop, even though they are still making money at the moment and the supportive comments have been muted.

This feels like part of a trend. There has always been plenty of hostility to Games Workshop on the Internet, but in the early days it was matched by some equally aggressive support. But over time this support has transitioned from passionate, to realistic, to faintly desperate to what feels more like resignation.

Games Workshop has always been hostile to the Internet gamer community. As well you might if your attempts to run a message board turned into a deluge of criticism and complaint. But the official line, from both GW and its more aggressive supporters (now few and far between) is that the Internet complainers represent a vocal minority and can't be taken as representative. If you took the Doctor Who "fan community" as representative you would think Doctor Who was the worst and least popular program on British television and the only debate was over which era was the worst of all.

Nevertheless it is funny how the anti-Games Workshop are so passionate and vocal, while the die-hard fans are so quiet and introverted. And, as the positive voices have grown quieter, the hostile voices become slowly more representative. It seems that the gamer community's perception of Games Workshop is that it is:

1. Expensive;
2. Making products of declining quality;
3. Contemptuous of its customers.

Masterminis has published an interesting series of blogs on Games Workshop, its declining fortunes and Games Day events which include their thoughts on the recent downturn. They're all worth a read, if only because they're written by someone who has some understanding of how to run a business and isn't just spewing his ill-informed opinions across the blogosphere, but two comments in part seven really caught my attention. Both of them relate to UK Games Day 2013, the games day where Games Workshop didn't see fit to have any games. The first is from a nameless GW spokesperson and reads:

"Our Games Days are designed to allow our fans to do what the love most: Buying Games Workshop products."
"Our Games Days are designed to allow our fans to do what the love most: Buying Games Workshop products." - See more at:
"Our Games Days are designed to allow our fans to do what the love most: Buying Games Workshop products." - See more at:

I think this phrase may be an official corporate response, because it was also used by Alan Merrett, in court, at the GW versus Chapter House lawsuit (the latter was accused of ripping of GW's IP).

The second comment is from Masterminis and reads:

"...I enjoyed the show, because I could meet up with many new and long-time friends at our traditional Pre-GD-Dinner and during the show."

I think in those two phrases we have the perfect encapsulation of Games Workshop's problem. I think that Games Workshop has a fundamentally different perception of itself than its customers.

As far as Games Workshop is concerned they make the best games and models in the world. They can afford to charge premium prices because they make a premium product and their customers know and appreciate this.

However, I think what really shifts Games Workshop's products, and the reason why they are still profitable even in decline, is because of the community of Games Workshop players. And I don't mean that in a "we couldn't do this without the fans", gushing, Oscar acceptance speech kind of way, I mean it purely pragmatically. Games Workshop produce products for games, the majority of their customers are gamers and they play a game that generally requires two or more players and that benefits from having a large player base. The easier it is to find players and the more of them there are the better.

As the largest war games company and the producer of the most-played games, Games Workshop has an automatic advantage. It is easier to find opponents if you play Warhammer 40,000 than for any other games, perhaps not as easy as it used to be, but still easier than the competition. Spend any amount of time on the Miniature Page and you will find discussions about find new players for a game or trying to persuade friends to try a new game. This rarely happens with Games Workshop. The player-base is established.

However, this advantage is an historical legacy, not a result of current policy. Games Workshop is essentially living off the legacy of decisions made in the 1980s and 1990s. Warhammer 40,000 is effectively the wargame equivalent of Windows; people use it because they feel they have to, not because they think it's the best. It also means that buying Games Workshops models is not necessarily and endorsement of them.

Most game companies recognise the importance of their community, which is why message boards are so common. You risk negative feedback from disgruntled players, but this a price worth playing to encourage a player-base to grow. And without a decent core of players a game is worthless, no matter how sublime the rules or beautiful the models.

Games Workshop's community largely grew before the advent of the Internet, so for GW it has always been a hostile force, giving voice to their critics. They shut down their own message board because it was so hostile, don't allow comments on their blogs and treat communication as a one way channel, which makes them seem distant and out of touch. They have chosen to treat online criticism as unrepresentative and have refused to learn any lessons. This isn't to say that everyone who complains about Games Workshop has a point, but when the same complaint is made over and over again, ignoring it is perverse.

For a long time Games Workshop has been coasting on their past success, assuming that the community would always be there because of the quality of their products. This down-turn may indicate the point at which their negative behaviour overtakes their positive past. If that is the case they are in a very dangerous position, because if the community contracts too far their advantage is lost. Games Workshops fall could be more rapid than its rise.

Friday 17 January 2014

But is it art?

Keith Stuart has a crack at the ongoing question of whether video games count as art or not in this piece for the Guardian. It's a good read, so feel free to take a break and have a look, I'll still be here when you get back.

Anyway, the debate got me thinking about whether, regardless of the status of video games, can a traditional board or wargame be considered art?

Certainly elements of them can be. A miniature is, fundamentally, a small painted sculpture and the construction of many game components can be considered artistic. In some cases, say a particularly finely-crafted chess set, all the physical elements of a game may be considered a piece of art in their own right.

But what I am wondering is whether the totality of the game, from components through to rules can be considered a collective work of art?

Keith, quite sensibly, avoids trying to define art in his article, that way madness and the bodies of more than a few philosophers lie. But, I'm going to have to touch on it at least if I am to engage with this particular question. Certainly there seem to be some common elements to almost everything we think of as art. They are creative endeavours, that express some idea of the artist. They may reproduce things seen in the world, but not exactly, in some way this representation is filtered through the perception of the artist, even if unconsciously. Even a child's crayon drawing reflects the way they view the world.

Based on this definition, then games are certainly art. But somehow, this definition isn't entirely satisfying. To my mind, truly great art has to be saying or doing something beyond representation. What that is may be quite vague, and sometimes the difference between art and not may simply be a question of setting (think of Tracey Emin's bed for example) and I certainly don't want to get into the business of trying to draw the line between art and non-art. But are there any examples of wargames or boardgames that do this. I think there are.

Monopoly, oddly, began life as a piece of satire, attempting to attack the concept of monopolies, a fact largely forgotten today. But, more recently, Terrorbull games have produced a number of games, available both physically and as print outs from their website, that use the concept of a game to make a satirical point. Sometimes these points are quite crudely made, but art isn't necessarily subtle.

Political and social satire seems largely absent from wargaming, but their is no reason why this should be the case. A well constructed wargame may teach us a great deal about the strategic and tactical decisions made by real-life generals (by the same token, a badly constructed wargame may give us completely the wrong idea). But it would be interesting to see if a wargame could be used to raise moral or ethical questions about warfare. I don't think such a game has been made, but that doesn't mean it one couldn't be made.

Of course some games are abstract, intellectual exercises that don't bear any relationship to anything outside of the game. I'm thinking of abstract dice games like Yahtzee or something like Carcasonne, Settlers of Catan or Alhambra which use their setting as simply a visual theme and don't pretend to realistically depict the activity they theoretically simulate. Can these be considered art, perhaps they can if the intellectual process makes us consider the world or ourselves in a different way.

Part of the reason the question of whether video-games count as art has been raised is because they borrow from so many disciplines that are considered art, film-making, painting, sculpture, literature, acting, while adding an interactive element. But while they may be less technologically sophisticated, traditional board and tabletop games still combine many of those elements. So if video-games can be art, then why not any other kind of game?

Wednesday 1 January 2014

New Directions?

Although, fundamentally, an arbitrary mark of time, the new year is as good a day as any to reflect on every thing that has passed in the last 12 months. This being a wargaming blog, I suppose I should reflect on the last 12 months in wargaming, but, I'm afraid I'm going to drift away from that somewhat. There are plenty of better blogs to reflect on wargaming in general.

It's quite clear that my blogging has slipped over the last year and particularly in the last 6 months or so. At the start of the year I imposed a new rule on myself that I was allowed only one project at a time and that I had to finish one before I started another. With one or two small exceptions (one Father's day and one birthday present), I stuck to it. The end result was that I managed to finish my Chaos Dwarf army and get most of my Bushido Temple of Ro-Kan models finished. I also managed to finish a small Java project which stopped me painting for something like four months.

While I stuck to my self-imposed project rules, otherwise the year started out pretty much like 2012. Which is to say, I spent excessive amounts of money at a couple of wargame shows and pledged an excessive amount of money to Mantic's Deadzone Kickstarter.

The problem and advantage of sticking to one project a time was that all of this extra stuff accumulated and I wasn't able to do anything with it. Previously, I picked up and dropped projects all the time, painting a few models here, a unit there and I was able to fool myself into thinking I was making progress. By only allowing myself to start a new project when an existing one was finished, I proved to myself that I was accumulating models faster than I could assemble, paint or use them. Of course, I had known this for a while, deep down, but this proved it absolutely. What was more, I couldn't do anything with my new models until I finished what I was doing with the old, which meant, by the time I got to any of them, they had lost the appeal of the new.

This meant that I spent the latter half of the year dramatically cutting down on the models I bought. The last two shows of the year were more focused and a lot less expensive. Of course the arrival of the Deadzone stuff I pledged for six months earlier hasn't helped, but I am now painting faster than I am accumulating for the first time in, probably, ever.

Now, the question of what I want to do with the blog.

I first started this blog because I hadn't done one and because I felt like it was something at which I should have a go. Initially, I posted pictures of models because it pushed me to get on and paint them and because, I had been painting better than I had before and, frankly, felt a proud enough to want to show off.

Initially the blog was just for me, because it gave some focus to my hobby projects. All blogs are slightly narcissistic endeavours, we talk to ourselves and hope someone is interested in listening. After a while I decided I wanted a few more people to listen so I started posting more, advertising a bit more on the Miniature Page and Tabletop Gaming news. I took my inspiration from blogs like Quirkworthy, Grognardia and Fighting Fantasist, throwing out my opinions about wargaming, with a few retrospectives on old games and magazines, with a few pictures thrown in here and there.

The problem is that I have been running out of ideas. For a while I thought it was because I was working on my Java project instead of a gaming project. There may be some truth in that because while I am painting again, most of my gaming is limited to boardgames these days.

Unfortunately, I haven't reached a proper conclusion yet. The drawback of the arbitrary start of year review of events is that ideas, revelations and new directions don't fit the same time line. I'm not planning to give up the blog, I'm just not sure exactly what to do with it. I will still be painting and should be putting up a few pictures soon, I also have the odd opinion I would like to share and there's my White Dwarf reviews, which have been sadly neglected.

So, I'm afraid I don't have a bold new direction for the blog right now. I'm still figuring that out. But in the meantime, I will try to post a bit more and hopefully, what I post will be of interest to some people.