Sunday, February 2, 2014

The love/hate relationship with Games Workshop

So I found a very interesting thread on the BoLS Lounge covering the disdainful relationship the customers/hobbyists have with the company. It is a pretty good read a lot of view points and concepts that I think perfectly capture the animosity we feel towards the peddlers of our selected poison- plastic models. If you read no more of this post, that is fine. Just follow that link. From here on out I just want to explain what I perceive, as a veteran of 14 years now, to be some of the issues, changes and ways forward, essentially diagnosing the "love hate" relationship. Not so much a rant, but it may become emotional and heated at times, and a little stream on consciousness, but I'll try and keep that to a minimum. Here we go...

If I give you all this, can you please make it TRULY worth it?
1- PRICE POINT- This is the big elephant in the room and most common complaint. Especially every summer when GW does their annual price review. In that thread there is a few posts about scale military modeling that make a good point, but at the same time that is some what apples to oranges and it is more appropriate to compare our game to other wargames. GW is a little on the expensive side, yes, but as with any other product out there you are buying a label along with the product. Like buying an Apple product vs a PC. You are paying more for certain aesthetics, features and in some cases, an image of yourself. For us the GW label represents not only high quality miniatures, but also a very large community for gaming, availability of product, a rich extensively deep background and a lot of accessory products (books, video games). I have even done an article in the past on the price increases not being as bad as we make them out to be. Now there are changes that have happened in the few years since that article that have significantly changed the perspective of that article
-Smaller squad sizes. This seems like GW trying to disguise their prices increases by lowering the cost of a box, but we all see through it as the price of the model/army goes up.
-Finecast. Every finecast has been higher in cost than its metal blister. And some of the new plastic blisters (while nicer than finecast) are even more so. Sure they are more hobby friendly (debatable with finecast) but in terms of game employment you are paying more for the same function.
-Competition. GW's competition has gone up exponentially in the last several years. It is ridiculous. The only big thing they have going for them now is that they are established, where as new games have to catch on in local groups. I have seen the kickstarters and yeah they look great/fun, but I am not willing to invest into them without the community in which I am participating doing the same. GW/PP are safe bets because someone will be playing that game and you will be able to participate in a community. Just because some of these things are popular on the internet does not mean that translates into local success.
Do I think GW's prices have gotten a little out of hand. Yes. Fortunately it hasn't spread to every model/range and I really think they were doing it to try and get their short term numbers up and it hasn't worked. I think they are still experimenting. Problem is that this takes time, especially since this is a luxury item and the rate at which it is consumed is not very high. The invisible hand of the market takes much longer to react in this case. However, as I said before you have to compare to other companies.
Recently I have been looking a lot at historical wargaming and starting a Samurai Army. I lived in Japan for 2 years and I have a deep passion for this. I am even watching The Last Samurai as I type this.
Now look at the Perry Miniatures for them: Samurai Minis.  Most of those kits are lower quality and only in groups of 5-7 models, which puts them on the same price point. But lower quality still AND finding the players to play WAC (War and Conquest) with will be harder. Sure there are some plastic minis out there too, but the range is less diverse and not all historical ranges have even as much plastic as this. My point being that this is more expensive when it comes to the whole perspective of utility, model count and comprehensive range. HOW EVER, there are plenty of new GW models that are ruining this comparison. SM Centurions and the new plastic Librarian shall be used as my case in point. Nearly $80 for 3 infantry models. Revisiting my samurai above you will see that 3 mounted Samurai are only 8.50 GBP, or roughly $15. That is a HUGE difference. Even if the Samurai were the same quality, they would be worth up to $30 tops IMO, and that is the price of the SINGLE new Librarian! On top of this outrageous increase are the rule books. Not only are these getting ridiculously priced, but they are coming at us rapid fire and it is hard. I want to buy models, not more rules. I bought the WAC rulebook for $30. That is all I need to play. The entire game. Models after that. I can't even buy a DIGITAL PRODUCT from GW for less than that (and I have to have a several hundred dollar tablet to even make that useful! Though if that is why you got a tablet you have other issues).
So is price as bad as people make it out. I don't think so. HOWEVER I do believe it to be an issue. Sure we may be buying the Lexus of models, but we may be paying Bentley prices. Then when it comes to rules we are getting the handling of a Reliant Robin.

I need to know them all first...
2- RULES- So are GW games the best out there? I'll say they used to be and they have made some of the greatest wargames rules around. Blood Bowl and Necromunda spring to mind for me. BFG and Aeronautica Imperialis are great games that excellently capture the difficult concepts of Naval and Aerial combat in table top wargaming, with the just the right balance of realism with practically for what is ultimately a game. I would play Microsoft flight simulator for ultra realism. BUT These are specialist games (which is a whole other rant for me) and are not the core of the GW hobby. What we are concerned with for the purposes of this article and GW's future are the rules for 40k and Fantasy (not LotR. I will get into that later). In the past the issue has been the monolithic slowness of GW updating rules or answer critical questions. In fact most of the time, FAQs wouldn't provide ANY KEY ANSWERS and would just leave it up to TOs to set a standard that we all fell in line with. Now this has changed, as if GW thought "Well everyone complains about how long it takes to put out new rules, so lets give them some rule diarrhea." Over reaction is what it seems like. And in a way it seems that this is also to boost the bottom line as quickly as possible. The issue is none of these rules seem to be play tested, especially digital products (since they can be slapped together and packaged in a day). Sure I don't want to wait 10 years between codicies, but having game wide changes every 60 days is really REALLY fast.
Along with rules, I want to discuss the concept of a "Beer and Pretzel" game. First of all, this game is played by people as young as 13-14. Suggesting it as a Beer type game seems a little inappropriate, but that is beside the point. Lets say it is. You know what else is? Poker. Groups of guys get together from all over and laugh and smoke and joke while playing poker, betting 10 bucks here, 20 bucks there. It is all for a good time. But at the same time their is a super competitive side to Poker where thousands, and even millions of dollars are won and lost. There is even a "Wold Series" of Poker. What I am trying to point out here is that just because a game can be and should be able to be enjoyed in a relaxed environment does not mean you can't also design it to be super competitive and strict. Good solid rules should be able to adapt to both styles of play and not just one or the other. So this war that you seem to wage on the tournament circuit just doesn't seem right. Why would you handicap your own market. These are the guys that will buy anything to give them an edge and will most likely get several armies. Encourage their addiction. We have expansions like apocalypse for the crazy narrative fun. The core rule should be left tight enough, with proper playtesting and balance, to allow competitive play.
40k is by far the most widely popular wargame, but if it was brand new today I don't think it would be. Make rules to make it so it would be and not only will you see less complaining, but sales will increase. This leads into marketing decisions that get made about army releases. Often an army goes unupdated because its models apparently don't sell. But if new rules were forth coming, balanced and fun to play for that army, I guarantee models would sell.

Hmm, there is a subtle difference...
3- CUSTOMER RELATIONSHIP-This really covers alot of things, and is entirely different from customer service. I will say that without a doubt GW and its related companies have some of the best customer service there is. All my issues have been promptly fixed and I have been rewarded for being a loyal customer. I even got a Free BANEBLADE out of a severely messed up order, and it was the Post Office's fault! They forgot once to send me my free White Dwarf gift which should have been $15-20. I had said I would like BFG when I initially signed up for WD (they were giving you choices at the time). When I called about my free gift they apologized and sent me 2 battleships, worth $70 at the time. This though is a separate concept however. I am sure people have equal experiences with Home Depot and Game Stop.
What I am talking about is the long term relationship that GW should be cultivating since it is selling a HOBBY not a PRODUCT. This is a key concept that they may have forgotten.
First of all when I call to talk to customer service, I often find my self on the phone with the White Dwarf staff. Now I am not saying that this is a bad thing, but it makes we wonder about employee management within the studio. We already know about their one man store method and that is a highly debatable subject. While on one had it makes sense because they can't have a community grow around one companies games as we the players just don't do that, especially in this day and age. The FLGS does that so much better. However, at the same time, now I go in and there is just one guy who is often busier pushing product, teaching starter games, or stocking shelves rather than interacting with the community within their store. There are exceptions but it is nearly impossible to build an entire community around a single store.
But even more so than the business model is the alienation of the hobbyist, or rather the reclassification of the hobbyist as a customer. A customer implies I only buy product from you. I am not just a customer. I am a hobbyist. I am total emmersion. I buy the books, play the video games, paint the models and play the table top game. The better you facilitate this, the more loyalty you garner and ultimately the more I buy and encourage other people to do the same. Decisions like shutting down 3rd party add ons, bits suppliers, your own forums, removing hobby and painting sections from your website, making WD a catalogue and killing black gobbo, and shutting down Specialist Games WITH NO ANNOUNCEMENT all tell me you don't care about the people who buy your product, so long as we buy it. But as I said this is a hobby, you are selling me something FOR LIFE. I am sticking by you. Is it so much to ask you do the same?
Along with this line of thought, GW should support outside tournaments and cons more. Let them set up and bring the players to you and then openly share with them. Panels, prize support, tables/terrain, etc. etc. And sell product there! More cost efficient than Gamesday as well!  Participate in the community! Cultivate it! We want to be apart of YOUR HOBBY! HELP US DO THAT! And for goodness sakes, start a PR department. Nothing big, but having a better understanding of your fan base is critical when you are selling to a niche nerd market. All you do is advertise, and not ever very effectively. You really already have to be in the market of nerd stuff/wargaming to be exposed to GW advertising, and by then you are already hooked on something, likely a GW product already. Reach out to new gamers and build relationships with those you have.

I could go on into myriads of other things, but I think these are the big 3. Sure there is my constant campaign against GW LotR line and I think how abandoning that could help improve alot of things. Read the linked article for a better description of that. I also have strong feelings about specialist games and codex designs, but those are sub categories of the above and some of them based upon a personal bias.

But maybe GW is turning around. Forge World is doing AMAZING STUFF. While more expensive than GW, they are even higher in quality and for alot of things, it is reasonable to get the FW for an extra $10 and have something that much cooler. I also saw in a FW newsletter recently that they are attending some 3rd party events and cons, plus they have their own open days and HH weekenders. People LOVE FW but HATE GW these days. Maybe corporate should look as to why one is being so successful, especially in terms of customer relationship, and start modeling after that.