I've posted before on the increasing "commercialization" of wargame rules; where rules are designed primarily to drive miniature sales, with accessibility second, and gameplay depth and historical realism a very distant last. While some of the article was MMO-specific (i.e. classes, leveling, and endgame) much of it applies directly to wargames design.
The article says .....online MMOs were once an exciting, interesting genre, but now they lack immersion, originality, and they cost too much. The games play the exact same way. Players are being trained to want experiences they don't really want, and designers are discouraged from experimenting. Among other gamers they are viewed as unsophisticated and exploitive, with a pay-to-win approach that encourages corruption..... This written for online PC MMOs, but I instantly thought Warhammer-Bolt Action-Flames of War when I read this...
A point it makes is that MMOs (and wargames) don't appeal to everyone. However most companies (especially those with an attached miniatures line) want to make their money through volume - appealing to as wide an audience as possible. However you can have a profitable game with an smaller group of enthusiasts rather than casually-interested crowd who buy into a game, then leave for the next "shiny" thing.
Infinity vs 40K example: In Australia, (where prices are proportionately higher than say UK) a 40K army (Space Marine Strike Force Ultra) will cost upwards of $470. A Infinity starter box will cost $50. I estimate I've bought $1500 of Infinity products, swayed by the tense gameplay and tactical depth of a relatively complex ruleset. On the other hand, I have been so alienated by GW's increasingly shallow rules and exploitive business policies I haven't bought one of their products in the last decade. A "rulebooks only" company with a narrow focus approach but a strong following is Two Fat Lardies, who focus on historical authenticity.
CausesThe causes of these negatives are not always the same - for an MMO it is marketing costs, polish and having to justify a budget. For wargaming, I'd say it is:
Selling a miniatures line.
This is where the money lies. The more miniatures each player must purchase the better. If you can force him to repeatedly buy new armies due to constantly updating the "balance"of armies to make some more/less desirable, so much the better. Not only does the rules drive miniatures sales, but an attractive miniatures line also promotes the rules - people want a way to play with the shiny toys!
We demand cake!
Once we get used to polished, glossy rulebooks, it's hard to go back. A $40 hardcover is now the norm, compared to the small $10 B&W stapled booklets of yore.
I'm not so sure about finance, but I am a bit concerned sometimes with the use (and over-use) of Kickstarter. Namely, how small/start-up companies pitch a vision, then seem to randomly (and increasingly frantically) throw out stretch goals to match the pledges - and sometimes make their project bigger than their capacity to manage.
Too many clones
The MMOs tend to play exactly the same as each other, regardless of genre. Superhero, fantasy, sci fi - it's all the same with a different skin. Wargames are increasingly doing the same - Warhammer (which is the "World of Warcraft") has spawned commercial big hitters like Bolt Action, Flames of War; as well as other GW games like LOTR, Necromunda and Mordheim and many more from the now-defunct Warhammer Historical line - which in turn influenced games like Black Powder.
Mass battle rulesets tend to follow 2-3 distinct styles. Naval and space wargames are completely interchangable. Aerial games tend to all follow similar written move systems derived from 80s games like Blue Max.
There are only so many ways you can do "move, missile, melee, morale" and there will be some natural similarities or perceived "best/simplest" ways to do things. I.e. evolutionists point to the fact all birds have wings as "proof" of common bird ancestor. I'd suggest all birds might have wings as it's one of the most effective designs for flying. So some overlap is to be expected - there's no point of originality for its own sake.
This may be a fear of failure - there is less risk with a proven ruleset -which explains why designers like Andy Chambers, Rick Priestley and other ex-GW designers have only ever made 40K remakes in their independent careers. Even indie companies like Two Hour Wargames and Ganesha are essentially remaking the same game over and over with a new cover and some "special rules" specific to the genre.
Player Type Imbalance
In MMOs, players are divided into "achievers" and "social" players. Wargames follow a similar division. The "competitive" crowd want to play established games like Warhammer or Flames of War; the "social" crowd tend towards more scenario or narrative based games. I'd say we wargamers also have a third group - the "historicals" who enjoy the historical aspect of gaming.
Having similar rules mechanics is a boon for a competitive gamer - a good 40K player can transfer his skills to Bolt Action and quickly start winning. Social gamers tend to be more adventurous with rules, but tend towards simpler mechanics so they can focus on the story. Historical gamers tend to want an accurate representation of the period games, and as such they tend to be more tolerant of complex rulesets.
However, the "quick buck" for a miniatures company is the competitive gamers, as they can be easily "lead" to buy one army after another, simply by virtue of adding advantageous rules. Social gamers tend to be more flexible (i.e. repurposing old models) and tend to be less wedded to a particular games system, rather the social aspect of tabletop games. Historical gamers tend to be focussed on a pet project or era; a focus on often-lopsided scenarios or refights of battles means they are also less swayed by the particular miniatures/rules designers and tend to pick and choose.
In a MMO, the fact so many games are clones "trains" a player to expect a certain experience or set of mechanics. Likewise players are trained by their experiences. If a player's introduction to wargaming is through Warhammer 40,000 (and there are a LOT of us who were) they are likely to have certain preconceived ideas about what a "wargame" or "The Hobby"(tm) should include.
If a game differs in a few aspects, players will give it a chance - if it differs too much, players may decline to play it as it differs too much from what they've been trained to expect.
Players can be "trained" in other ways - a company can sell half a rulebook, and remove the other half to sell later as a "supplement" (this is 'good' - it is 'supporting the game'). It is established practice to sell a rulebook without key rules for the armies/factions it was designed for, necessitating an additional purchase. I think you'd agree the Japanese were an important protagonist in WW2. Do they appear in the core rules of Bolt Action, the #1 WW2 platoon game? Yeah, that's what I thought.
Short-term vs Long Term
Most players won't bother to see beyond the short term. If there is short term pain (i.e. learning new mechanics/tactics) and long term gain (a engaging, deep WW2 experience) they will tend to eschew it for short-term gain (use familiar rules) and long term pain (a unrealistic WW2 game that plays like space fantasy). They will then likely decry their short-term choice for having the same annoying features as the old game - the ones that caused them to want to try a new game/genre in the first place.
Expanding audience - casual vs hardcore
In an attempt to widen the audience to "casual" or "younger" players the game often treats players casually. The company sees the players as a time-limited resource that needs to be "milked"(for miniatures/codexes/supplements) for a limited time period; rather than a long-term investment.
Wargaming (makers of the PC game World of Tanks) tried to release a strategy game which flopped. It wasn't a bad game, it was just competing with Company of Heroes, a very popular title in the same genre. Wargaming identified the reason for CoH's success as its strong connection with players, who promoted it, discussed it and defended it. CoH was so effectively promoted by its fans that Wargaming's rival game sank without a trace. Accordingly, Wargaming then made their consumer relations their #1 staffed department - and had huge success with World of Tanks.
Depth is Difficult
A lot of players (and even worse, designers!) complicated depth and realism with complexity. A game can be simple, but have a lot of depth (take Chess, for example). You don't have to sacrifice playability for a deeply tactical game. A realistic, meaningful game need not be complex. Neither is a complex game is not automatically "deep" or strategic. A good game allows players to make lots of decisions, whilst taking little time or effort in resolving those actions. However, simplifying things is always harder than adding things in. For example - Infinity has excellent core gameplay with its "reactions" system but is in danger of being swamped with too much extra content - special rules, weapons etc.
I think a change in how wargames are produced is on the horizon - in fact a sea change is underway.
PDF-based publishing with online sites like the "Wargames Vault" allow rules designers to bypass complex and expensive conventional publishing. This allows creative people to get their rules out there with a minimum of complexity, cost and risk.
I'm not so keen on one recent side-effect, the rise of the wargame "DLC" - playtest rules you pay for. This dubious practice, pioneered by the videogame industry, sees rules devs sell "beta/alpha"(i.e. incomplete, unedited, unbalanced product) rules for a premium, so you can help them "develop" the game.
Not quite as revolutionary as evolutionary. I remember tons of articles gleefully predicting the rise of 3D printing rendering traditional methods obsolete, and "bringing down" GW and similarly unliked industry behemoths. That was years ago. It hasn't happened, as the cost/quality just isn't there. It's impossible to ignore its potential, though. As this technology matures, it will only become more widespread, and give gamers themselves to create and share the miniatures they want - both to support an existing rulebook or inspire the creation of a new one.
This has certainly stimulated the wargames industry. New games and miniatures are flooding out, old games are being revived and repolished (some of which should have stayed dead) and even peripheral industries like terrain companies have started up. I'm not sure it is sustainable long term though - I'm kinda waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Sensible Revenue Model - not the "Arms Race"
Releasing an ever increasing array of supplements and army books can be seen as "supporting"a game system but can also be bad for it. These books tend to have new and improved armies, which supersede old ones - good for selling minis as it creates an 'arms race' - where you need to constantly swap armies or buy the "new"units to remain competitive. However this can be toxic in the long term - witness the increasing exodus of disgruntled GW players to other systems - so much so that entire companies (Warlord, Mantic) are pitching products at this large, ready made consumer base. But are they simply going to repeat GW's mistakes?
A product should not need artificial demand created for it -it should stand on its own merits - if it's good enough, and sensibly priced, people will buy it.
Long the bane of the social gamer, these tend to bring a 40K mindset with them. Many (especially historical) companies make a deliberate philosophical decision not to include them. However the fact remains, a well-made points system allows a wider target audience without compromising gameplay. (If your aim is to sell minis, then of course DO NOT allow players to proxy/stat up their own random models - better yet, only include the rules in the minis' own official blister pack)
Game Design as a Art (or Science)
There seems no real incentive or recognition for creative rules design. Success often seems defined by how many rulebooks get sold - or perhaps awarded by a site which heavily promotes a game (Beasts of War award their sponsor Bolt Action an award of best miniatures game?). Usually the games company itself is promoted over the designer i.e. a "Mongoose" game (unless the designer is ex-GW - all that means though is a guaranteed 40K remake). Origins Awards almost seem given out by random lottery at times. Whilst there are a few very thoughtful rules designers out there, many games seem to ignore critical opportunities to enhance the game (such as defaulting to an IGOUGO activation sequence, adding in unbalanced scenarios randomly, or not considering the impact of terrain) or repeat mistakes made by previous games, simply by slavishly following "tradition." Compared to extensive studies of literature, theatre, photography etc - game design has nothing to measure itself against. Whilst you can often find interesting ideas on random blogs and threads through the net, I'd love to see a centralised "think tank" site frequented by professional, "indie" and even wannabe rules designers. That way you might get less games repeating previous games mistakes and more "new ideas" that aren't just recycled old ideas.
Anyway, congratulations to those who waded through the wall of text!