Friday 10 January 2014

Game Design #12: Commercialism - Game Supplements, Rules & Miniature Sales

Miniatures Sales Determining Game Design
I've posted elsewhere on how "Warhammer" has changed its design philosophy. Originally it was designed to provide a way to game characterful RPG-style adventures on alien worlds you could make up yourself.  Now, its aim is to be streamlined enough to push large quantities of miniatures around a table, with a very low "entry point."  Official miniatures and terrain, mind you. Don't go getting any creative ideas.

I know a few people who liked the "streamlining" of 40K that took place to fulfil this new design philosophy - but that's because they were wanting to use it with more miniatures anyway.  The people who wanted  to play games with bucketloads of their miniatures and vehicles were, arguably, looking for a different style of game than the old RPG-lite style early editions to begin with.  Those people who want to play with lots of toys are exactly the target audience you want, if selling said toys is your business.

Using generic rule mechanics is good, because you can sell miniatures from different eras and genres more easily.   The "learning curve" is quite mild, and the comforting familiarity means it is easy to convince gamers to start gaming (and more importantly, collecting minis) in a new period or genre.
Does your fantasy game use the exact same tactics as your sci fi game? Excellent.  

Sometimes games have extra factions "jammed" into them simply to sell more miniatures.  Other times, (poorly selling) factions quietly disappear.  "Necrons" were not original 40K lore.  Squats (space dwarves) were, and I haven't seen them featuring in any codexes lately.  Miniature sales can also drive the "lore" or "fluff" of the game. (A feeling which will be familiar to Star Wars fans)

 This article was in part prompted by finding these 40K codexes in my rules shelf. They date from circa ~1996. Utterly pristine, and utterly useless. Unless I can find that one guy who still likes 3rd edition best. Built in obsolescence - it makes great business sense. 
 (Only $110 to replace them with "current" ones - bargain)

Collecting armies = Miniature sales = Profit
Other times, factions or units are unbalanced deliberately. I notice this with new releases.  How often do you see a new release that is "underpowered?"  No, instead they are given powerful traits that make them doubly desirable - shiny, new and easier to win with. Once everyone has rushed out to buy them, and enough have been sold, then they can be "nerfed" - or better yet, an even newer, shiny, more overpowered faction introduced, so the process can begin again.

Specific miniatures or units can be "unbalanced" -  ugly or "meh" models might have their stats boosted to make them must-haves for any competitive army.   Releasing new models that look nothing like the old ones creates "built in" obsolesence.  Most people dislike "mismatched" armies - if the new space elves look completely different to your old army, and yet you really want to field a (deliberately overpowered) unit only available in the "new elves" design, the compulsion is there to replace all your elf miniatures with the "new" pattern so they match up.

Making "army building" important to winning makes great business sense.  This emphasizes the "model collecting" side of the hobby.  If you can win simply by owning the right models, then you can make buying models very appealing.  Gamers don't need much of a nudge to buy more minis, but if you can tie miniature ownership to winning - well, collectible card games make a lot of money out of the compulsion to field a "killer card deck" (aka army). 

This whole thing is most rampant in sci fi and fanfasy, where the miniature manufacturers are  unconstrained by history.  On the flip side, if you game more limited conflicts like the American Civil War, there is little chance of it being invaded and "commericalised" as there is less lattitude for factions - as selling "blue" and "grey" army books separate to the rules is a tad too blatant, though you could make campaign and scenario books I guess.

As you can see, I think miniature sales are driving (most) game design, and have been doing so for quite some time.

The Circle of Supplements Life
This is the cycle of going round in cycles, updating rules. What Warhammer Fantasy are we up to? 8th edition? 9th?  I find it ironic when games companies update their rules more energetically and often than most encyclopedias and medical textbooks.  Then they  produce accompanying "army books" which themselves need to be updated to keep current with the rules.  They update things simply to create for themselves a steady stream of products.  It makes sense - with inbuilt obsolescence you create your own self-sustaining market.

By changing to a "new" rulebook you tend to force all your customers to switch as well. Yes, you can cling defiantly to your 2nd edition Warhammer 40K rules, but you're restricted to your mates playing at your house.   Imagine if, as a car manufacturer, every time you produced a new car model, it forced everyone who already owned your brand of car to buy that model, or be unable to use their old car on public roads.  It would be bad business not to change the model regularly, whether the car needed improvements or not. 

However, why not make new shiny things, instead of always regurgitating the old? Heck Games Workshop even reduces its lines - it focuses on the three "earners" - Warhammer Fantasy, 40K, and LOTR - although I can see LOTR getting the chop after the Hobbit movies run their course. Games like Blood Bowl, Mordhiem, Epic, Space Hulk, Battlefleet Gothic etc have been quietly pensioned off.  That's what a lot of fast food companies used to do - minimise the variety of products, and maximise their production.

I find it interesting that Mantic, which obviously got its start by offering cheap GW-style minis in a very un-original manner, and offered similar, pretty bland games in Warpath (40K) and Kings of War (WFB) is now is branching out - Dwarf King's Hold, Deadzone, Dreadball, Pandora Project - which are expanding to fill "niches" abandoned by GW, with games that are increasingly creative and "different."

I really wish GW would just tear up their mechanics and start afresh.  This will never happen, as using old mechanics is "familiar" to their audience and gradual change is the key to retaining them.  However, there is only so far this "evolution" can take you.  You can tweak and tune the engine of a tractor, but sometimes you've just got to bite the bullet and buy a purpose-built race car, if winning races is your dream.

Mantic have surprised me - they stared out as very bland and deriative, but seem to be getting more original as they go.  It helps that they have perhaps the only ex-GW author (Jake Thornton) who actually writes new rules (instead of rehashing various GW mechanics). Deadzone seems aimed at the skirmish-campaign "Necromunda" market which GW abandoned and I admit I am tempted

The Success Trap

Most "good" "fun" interesting rules usually start out with a small, enthusiastic group - usually friends, family, guys from the local gaming club. They want to make games they enjoy. Even Games Workshop would have been like this once.  Then, as it becomes more successful, the "business" side creeps in - you need accountants, advertising managers, business managers - often people who don't play the game or aren't interested in wargaming, period.  It becomes more about the "bottom line" and less about a "good game" - although the "good game" is what what brought the success in the first place.  I think the balance of power shifted to the "business" types in Games Workshop a long, long time ago - and I can see other companies heading down the same route. You can't argue with their results though - every year I think their business model is unsustainable, and yet every year they churn out huge amounts of cash.

The eternally unfinished game - "Well supported" = "Incomplete?"
When is a game actually complete? According to Games Workshop, the answer is "never!" as long as people are willing to pay. There's always some supplements or codexes to "update" to the latest edition of the rules.  They call it "supporting the game" but I call it "good business sense."  After all, why take the risk creating something new when you can simply remake the old and proven? There's a reason 90% of Holywood movies are sequels or remakes.

Its a bit like education reform. There is always some "new" way to teach kids, and always a new curriculum or "magic bullet" which is better than the last.  The curriculum designers and educational experts will never say "that's good enough" or "this system works OK" - because they'd be out of a job!

But perhaps it is the gamers' fault. 

A question I often hear asked when a new rules set is released is:

"Does the game have support?" (which sounds like they want to be reassured supplements will be available)  Should it need support? What is missing from the game that needs "supporting?"

My question would be

"Is the game complete?"
-Does the game come with scenarios or missions (or a campaign) to give good replayability?
-Does the game have enough factions to give variety?
-Are these factions "complete" and have matching miniature lines?

 The Ambush Alley (rules) GZG (miniatures) partnership works well. Because both companies are successful, and independent of each other, they can mutually benefit without "compromising" their focus (i.e. making good minis, or making good rules)

So, in the grim darkness of the 21st millenium, there is only commercialism

The evil crystal ball of Saruman the pessimist reveals:
*More generic rulesets play the same, regardless of era/genre, and use identical mechanics
*Games that are overly simple and not terribly challenging to keep a low "entry level"
*Games that emphasize collecting miniatures aka "army building" over tactics
*An increase in "supported" (aka incomplete) games that require a steady stream of supplements
*Rulebooks changing edition on a regular cycle
*A repeating cycle of unbalanced factions or units in competitive games

Unsurprisingly, the most commercially successful rules seem to share many of these traits i.e.
Warhammer Fantasy/40K, Warmachine, Flames of War, Bolt Action

So, to put a positive "spin" on this - what are some companies or games who DO NOT take this route?  I'd nominate Bombshell Games and Two Fat Lardies as rules publishers that seem to go against the "flow."  Games without a specific miniature line to "sell" tend to score well. For example, Ambush Alley Games now has a lot of "licensed" miniatures, but the miniatures came AFTER the rules, and thus did not drive the game design. 

Miniatures manufacturers tend to want to "hitch" themselves to a ruleset. Having a set of rules associated with your model line obviously helps sell miniatures. The danger is when the balance shifts and the rules simply becomes a vehicle for selling miniatures.  When your design philosophy is simply making your game "accessible" "easy to learn" and "generic" and to emphasize "miniature collecting" - rather than aiming for "tactical" "challenging" or "historical" - then that is what you'll get.

Miniature sales benefit from rulebooks - but rulebooks don't benefit from miniature sales


  1. Excellent analysis, though overly optimistic in suggesting that GW-style practices cannot lead to eternal commercial success, I'm afraid. Once in a dominating position and with a large, solid following of 'hooked' / 'bonded' fanboys (why are there so few wargaming girls is another, but interesting, question) rip-off / rivals à la Mantic, Scibor... or (very good in the GW style) French Raging Heroes is more free advertising.
    In the same vein, publishers of card-driven miniatures games *associated with official miniature ranges* follow the example of Collective Cards Games à la Magic the Gathering, regularly publishing 'booster packs' that make your previous purchases -cards and associated miniatures- obsolete, outmoded sure losers. Malifaux appears as a textbook case. Card-driven miniatures games without associated 'official' minis don't show this tendency -though Maurice is too recent to justify 'booster packs' (what one thinks of rules restricting the control of the '1000 feet general' on his 'telepathic heroes' through 'friction' simulated by cards working exactly like magical spells -instead of an elaborated reaction test a sin old WRG- is another matter entirely).

    Then publishers of rules not associated with official minis can also be tempted to issue new 'improved' editions to booster stagnating sales -how good and popular your rules are, the hobby crowd is not infinite and sales drop when mostly replacing torn copies. New editions are generally justified: having followed WRG Ancients from 4th to 6th ed I acknowledge the successive editions were improvements, while 7th ed was an adaptation to the domination of the hobby by competitions. But is it always the case?

    1. "Excellent analysis, though overly optimistic in suggesting that GW-style practices cannot lead to eternal commercial success, I'm afraid. "

      I actually said pessimistically that all wargames are likely to follow suit, and copy their practices. I "wish" for the demise of their economic model, and I regard it as unsustainable, but acknowledge the boatloads of cash they make each year, which is why I play and blog about wargames, and the businessmen who run Games Workshop probably own yachts.

      I haven't followed the Malifaux process, I gave up around the 3rd supplement when it became evident the game was all about "combos" and being able to memorize 1001 unique special rules.

      Sometimes new editions DO improve the rules. But a lot of the time it is just change for the sake of selling new rulebooks and supplements.

  2. In bigger, more civilized cities, it is possible to find players for more independent and dynamic games such as Tomorrow's War. The problem is that I live in Israel, where wargaming is a highly underdeveloped hobby, and everyone plays either WHF, WH40K, WarMachine/Hordes or LotR. This is why I've bought GW stuff... If there were more 15mm gamers around here, I wouldn't have had to deal with vertical-monopolist GW, their IGO-UGO rules or their overpriced (if pretty) minis.

    1. Totally sympathize.

      I live in a small country town in Australia and am faced with the same choice (OK, Malifaux and Infinity get aired occasionally).

      You could buy two armies (15mm are cheap!) and play on a smaller scale with friends - it sometimes catches on....

      For my money, skirmish LoTR (not WoTR the mass battle version) is the pick of the "popular" GW games, but as usual it depends on the opponents. They did a cool "Battle Companies" campaign system a while back that was like Mordhiem.

  3. I must say Mantic are really starting to develop there own settings and are moving away from the GW but cheap imagine they started off following. I have both Dreadball and Deadzone which are both amazing products - My Deadzone Kickstarter in particular is fantastic - models + Terrain being Ace.

    Sadly though I love Dreadball (but even after 3 seasons it still needs more development options) I am really not a fan of the Dead Zone rules system despite it having some truly fantastic concepts I feel it was the victim of its own success and Mantics general rules design philosophy of Quick and Simple to play. As I said it has some really great stuff, the Activation Hybrid is cool, the Orders mechanic fluid, the Overwatch rules are such a simple change but a truly epic one and it even runs off a dice pool system which provides a less extreme random luck distribution.

    Then you have secret missions, plus scenarios on route, the concept that in campaigns you have a Force of models recruited and you pick a smaller strike team from that to carry out said secret mission are all Excellent truly!

    Sadly it feels very rushed (kickstarter Deadlines) and some core rules where not thought about with the view of the 'bigger' long term picture in mind, a prime case in point is the suppression rules which work fine but originally where designed so that they did not cause any damage, myself and many other members of the community where very baffled by this and as a result Jake made a change in that they could if you were really lucky cause damage to a model using Suppression fire. Yet this is broken, not only is it completely unable to harm around half the units in the game ( We are talking about massive rapid firing heavy weapons systems) and it is completely ineffective against Constructs and vehicles meaning a new fix is required. Now that one example is not the be all and end all but the breaker for me was the campaign system - Its totally unusable in the terms of competitive gaming (sod It I am NOT a tournament player and for me the story is far more important than the result). The scaling is wrong to start with, but worse is that as your force progresses you are able to field less models as you still build your forces out of a points limit, this results in the fact that for the factions that use a higher model count of lower quality troops its actually going to have negative modifiers on your forces ability by gaining skills, its a campaign system that you would only want to use if your faction had the most elite of the troops.

    That is just mentioning the first two points that popped into my head on the rules, then there is the fact that models cannot change or upgrade there weapons, equipment beyond what is on there battle cards is limited to about 10 items, this is all about simple rules on cards for easy of play and sales as you said above for me it is not what I felt I was going to see from the kickstarter. For me I play a Skirmish system to go into details, arming my models differently, for them to gain skills and my force to grow or die in a meaning narrative way, while the Deadzone system to mean would work fine for a mass platoon - company level system it falls miles short of a Sci- Fi Skirmish in terms of depth for me.

    1. I like the Ambush Alley suppression rules - you only get half firepower dice (which can kill/wound like normal) but any hit instantly "pins" or has a major morale effect.

      Deadzone rules sound like they need an "update" "FAQ" "erratta" - which for me is "acceptable" supplement. I like how DP9 in their "Heavy Gear" supplement (which was supposed to be an army book) had a section with "updates" which significantly improved gameplay based on player feedback.

      That is "good" support - like a series of "patches" in a videogame. It's just releasing half the game, then half later (which occurs in videogames - its called "DLC" or downloadable content)

  4. Sorry post was too long! Had to split it.

    Then there was the final nail in the coffin for the Deadzone release for me, the UTTER lack of fluff in the Dead Zone book... Seriously we are given a few tad bits though the book, then the reference section for the four main facitions.. This post has roughly the same word count as all four faction descriptions/background/.fluff combined!! Not only do I feel this is not how a Skirmish system should be presented but the Dead Zone back ground and the Warpath Universe is actually really cool.. Just look at the Rebel faction, Terations, Shark Men, the Winged Krall, The Soraks walking on there arms I could go on and on ... We have NOTHING literally NOTHING about these guys, who they are where they come from - What a waste.

    And why has what could have been a Truly wonderful product been neglected so harshly, Quick turn around, quick release and to sell more miniatures asap. Now I wish to state I actually really like mantic as a company and I also feel DeadZone is a great fun game, its just not got any of the roleplay and development options that I feel make skirmish systems so much fun (this is also true of Dreadball, the league system and team development and far and away the weakest areas of the game) I also feel that Jake is the victim of taking too much notice of those very loud minority that complained that they got beaten by more powerful gangs in games like Mordheim or Necromunda and that something should be done but the result is a utterly IMO unplayable campaign system, the thing that really bugs me about the above is that if people used the Scenarios properly (underdogs getting to choose) you could completely own a more powerful gang my limiting them to a fraction of there models or have them have no control over when or where they turn up so you could take them apart...Sorry I waffled a bit there because its got my heckles up.

    So the result of Mantics push for simple layout, fast play fast release means I have gorgeous scenery and Models (which more coming) so I decided I was going to build my own system for them to use in my local enviroment. First I will say this is a F*ck Ton of work, especially as I will be writing at least a paragraph of fluff of all the unit types, then looking at equipment lists (thats what I am dreading) and then a proper development system with tons of very different options to work with. I have been doing this since November and have only gotten as far as knowing how the core rules will interact and what features I am using. (For example the Missions & scenarios, as well as the activation system I will be using pretty much as they are - though I have changed the Command Statistic to make it fit with the other rules).

    Any way apologies for the rant, and blatant self promotion at the end there but I very much agree with your statement that rules systems are being designed to sell models which is very much the wrong way around IMO.

    1. I think the gaming world has been looking for a Mordhiem/Necromunda replacement for years (it still gets play locally, despite being considered "dead" by GW and clunky/dated by the players). The company that can fill this niche is going to do well.

      I thought Infinity might step up (despite its increasingly "bloated" nature it has some great mechanics and an enthusiastic community) but it COMPLETELY missed the mark in its "campaign" book - with only (1) model in your warband being allowed to "rank up" and missions laid out in a proscriptive sequence. Extremely "limiting" to the degree of not really being a campaign system at all - more a RPG-play-through adventure with no chance of advancement.

      I agree - I think everyone is scared of "unbalancing" their campaign factions like Mordhiem/Necro, and as a result have made their campaign systems overly simple and bland.

      The irony is, Mordhiem for example was acceptably "balanced" at the start, until they added in the 2nd wave of factions (to sell more minis!) which messed it up. Again, miniature sales > game design = poorer game.

  5. Why is anyone puzzled or shocked that GW wants to make profits? It's not exactly a secret. They are a publicly traded company. Anyone who doesn't get GW should read their website for investors - it's most instructive.

  6. I don't think anyone is "puzzled" that GW is out to make profits first and foremost - that's pretty clear it's been their #1 objective for a few years now.

    What may not be as obvious is how the push for miniature sales is impacting game design, and how their successful business model is being copied (usually to a less aggressive degree) which is IMO creating a "trend" in games systems.