Thursday, January 5, 2012

"Selling Out"

Before starting this, I normally try to avoid disclaimers, but, simply, I have way more to say about this than what you want to hear. I've edited this down to what I believe are the core points: this isn't comprehensive- it's two case studies.

The concept of selling out does not usually come up (at least, from my experience) in conversations about miniatures companies. After all, they're there to sell you things, so there's no way to "sell out," is there, right?


Wrong.



In a capitalist society*, you'll end up needing to buy something with capital and, in order to do that, you need to have said capital. And, this means you've needed to sell something**. This is usually your work and, by extension, your time, thought, and effort. And, somewhere along the way, there's the question of, how does my work relate to my values?

Now, unless participating in a capitalist system is anathema to your belief system (in which case you're pretty much out of luck if you live in such a system), at some point, this question will come up. Is selling out working at a fast food restaurant, when you don't like their practices, something you're not okay with? How about illustration, when you only believe in "fine art"? And, is it something where, at some point, you need to be able to answer, where you draw the line.

However, this isn't where you draw the line, but where miniatures companies draw the line. Specifically, what was their vision, where has it gone, and what has been lost?


*I promised myself I wouldn't bring up politics in this, but I couldn't keep quiet. However, I'll try not to say anything too inflammatory.
** There are rare exceptions to virtually any rule (including this one), however, discussing them is often not worth anyone's time, unless the argument revolves around absolutes.


Tackling the industry's resident behemoth
Games Workshop is an interesting case study, specifically Warhammer 40,000. Unfortunately, I have little knowledge of their pre-3rd edition: while I've read earlier material, that was the first edition I was familiar with.

Where they began
Like many miniatures games, this started as a much smaller scale of game, with roots in RPGs. To varying degrees, its themes were dark, apocalyptic, absurd (usually in the form of exaggeration), and occasionally humorous. There were characters, and experience (which still vaguely held on through third edition), but the emphasis was always on the world as a sandbox.

Codex Creep
Games Workshop is rather infamous for its "Codex Creep," that is, every time the newest army update comes out, it's intended to be the most powerful, and, by extension, most desirable. I don't have any record of anyone ever stating that they were trying to make a perfectly balanced game, so, while it's a transparent and not particularly kind marketing choice, I don't think it compromises their world and goals.

Equipment and special characters.
A lot of the old guard complain about this, that the shift towards special characters is detrimental to the game, to their vision of the game. However, I would argue that it doesn't actually mark a significant shift. Since early on in the first iteration of the game, there were rules for named characters, and there were "unnamed characters" that could represent "Sergeant John Smith" or just a sergeant, and there were generic models. And, there were those who used named characters to represent generic pieces, or those who used their own creations that "count as" a named piece. As far as I'm aware, this has always been the case, and always been encouraged by the company. The difference is, after a period where it was less common to see these named characters, they're now desirable again. Which is fine because, while GW makes more money off of pieces it can sell, people also have wanted to play those pieces, even when they were less desirable.

Equipment has always been part of the game, again hailing from the RPG roots of the game.

Going Public
Now we're getting in to the meat of the issue! There's not a lot of reason to go public, except to get a bigger slice of the (economic) pie. While one can argue that stockholders may be beneficial, really, what it means, is you're giving up control of your company for more income.*

Following off of the above, I won't touch their marketing practices with a ten-foot pole. Suffice to say that there are reasons their players label them as the "evil giant."

***A number of earlier developers leaving the company based on complaints that the rules department were subordinate to the sales department may just be a rumor, but the fact that I'm not surprised suggests something (what could that be?).

Specialist Games
Spinoff games that were almost always smaller scale, and developed cult followings. Not every one was a success, but many are considered classics and, as important, they grew the setting and ways of experiencing it. The problem is, someone could buy 15 models and have as much fun playing a small skirmish game as another person who bought 150. There may be other factors, but I would put money (appropriate, given the topic) on this as the reason all efforts towards their Specialist line have been diverted to their "Big 3." These have been replaced by the occasional "limited edition" one-shot, though that's hardly the same, and have, as far as I know, not been supported nor followed as much as their previous games. Again, an issue of selling off character for profitability.

Removing armies
This is, personally, my biggest problem with the company. The (not entirely) recent shift towards discontinuing previously tournament-legal material speaks volumes about how they feel about their customers. However, I'm completely willing to make do, and use it as a proxy army: while there is still the occasional fan outrage from the loss of squats, reasonably, they can still be played as a number of armies. Certain ones (which your humble narrator may or may not have played. *ahem.*), though, have no reasonable proxy, which is the real problem, in my opinion.

The problems with these are, more recently, the dropped lists have all drawn from other model lines with, to varying degrees, kitbashes and conversions, so, the problem is not a failing product line, but an unwillingness to publish rules (which were typically minor modifications of existing rule sets), which is a rejection of that portion of the consumer base, rather than a more serious tax on miniature production.

Summary
While there are many real and perceived slights, the biggest flaw in Games Workshop's model is not, I would argue, the shift in how their game and setting has changed (I'd say that it isn't antithetical to their original vision). It is in their business practices and disregarding their (often previously die-hard) fanbase.

In short, I would argue that Games Workshop's failing in upholding its relationship with its fanbase, rather than compromising its creative model.

Moving on…
(…as I did when  I got tired of GW's shenanigans,) I began playing Warmachine during the first months the company was selling their line and quickly became an avid player, meaning I've seen, or been aware of, almost every public move they've made, so, I have a lot to say, but will try to keep it brief.

Where they began
Like many others, I was drawn to Privateer Press's Warmachine line because it was something ambitious and, frankly, just different from Games Workshop. This "otherness" along with steampunk, their tagline, "Play like you've got a Pair," and unapologetic ambition to make something different were early identifying characteristics of their early years.

Second Edition
This shift marked a sort of strange grounding of the company. While few would argue that the rules were anything other than an improvement, they demonstrated a shift in mentality, most marked on the heels of the escalation of rules content in their previous two publications before the shift.

Specifically, the shift seen is a stronger game, at the expense of character and, in my opinion, real ambition. Unlike GW's gradual shift, I believe that the MkII release marks a clear division in mentality, and this will be my focus for the company.

Miniatures
Privateer Press has had a rather wildly varying degree of quality in their miniature line (as they don't have on-staff sculptors), so it's generally hard to gauge the model line.

However, one of the biggest shifts seen in models, are the character warjacks. While a small sample of a broad trend, this is one of the only areas with a definable shift. The first of these, released in their third book, were notable pieces, not necessarily the best models, but clearly ambitious: they had more detail, pieces, and material than any made by the company.

The second and third sets of them were, mostly, less ambitious in scale and novelty, but more finely crafted.

The fourth wave of these were upgrades to the plastic kits, designed to save shelf space and presumably to cut down on costs to the company, often with a unique paint job as the biggest obvious difference from a standard kit. These were, from a hobby perspective, not received well.

Writing
While not as serious of a concern to many players, being a fairly avid reader, involved in long-form narrative (as an illustrator), and having always been interested in a world as much as a game, I've noticed some negative trends in the company's writing practices of late.

First, and least, but telling, is the company's editing. Simply put, it's been terrible. They've been putting out a tremendous volume of material, but it's just poorly done. There have been copy-paste errors where sentences are cut off, so they add a.**** There have been times with tense mistakes, and ones which make it look like they can't count to 3. Everyone has typos, but fixing errors with incomplete thoughts makes me think they weren't spending time on thinking things through.

Next, the overarching narrative. This is more the stated purpose than anything else. There has been a shift towards "we won't kill characters, because it would hurt sales," and "it's just fluff meant to sell minis." The first of these is problematic because, whether or not it's true, you're limiting yourself for no reason by stating that. Also, the stated reason simply isn't accurate.***** The comment dismissing the writing is at least as much of a problem. Simply put, as soon as you say something is "just X," you're allowing yourself to do worse. I do design work, and, even when I don't like a project, that doesn't mean I don't try to make it the best it can be. Even when parameters make it something less than perfect, I try to make it the best I can, within those parameters.

Finally, the changes in tone have been subtle but most telling. An example without needing much context, other than referring to a warjack (robot) called a Lancer:

"I suppose she's respectable enough. A little slow… but a far stretch better than what we had to work with before. Very well. I'll take half-a-dozen[…]"

in comparison with the updated (same narrator)

"The Lancer is the most perfect tool of war at our disposal. Give me half a dozen[…]"

If you can't tell which one is building character and which one is pushing sales, I think you're reading the wrong blog.

Simply put, "it's just fluff" isn't an excuse.

**** See what I did there?
***** Time has shown that, if pieces have cool enough models or good enough rules, people will play them, and if the reverse is true, it doesn't generally matter how good the story is, they won't hit the table regularly.
Rules
Rules are mechanical in function, so a lack of variety doesn't necessarily mean a lack of creativity, and a lack of creativity doesn't mean a lack of good rules. (It's like being creative with spelling: it can be good, but often isn't.) PP makes some fine rules and, while some pieces seem very "mix and match," they've done some creative stuff, and my only (relatively small) criticism here is that they attempt to fix problems by changing the context, more than fixing the problems.

Summary
Privateer Press is nearly the exact opposite of Games Workshop's model. Its successes are with its connection with its players, and its failings are with creativity. However, it seems as if good relationships are slowly winning them ground over a good world.

Conclusion
While I was originally going to go in to more companies than these two, I believe the article is long enough, as-is. What I've presented are two companies that have been remarkably financially successful while jettisoning what they have deemed nonessential: player loyalty and creativity, respectively.

So, as your English teacher may have told you in high school, it's a good idea to end with a question, so here is mine. If the above companies have been financially successful through sacrificing "nonessential" elements of their products, does this mean that they have achieved the essence of their products and succeeded with them, or were those elements actually essential, and they've sold their values on the road to success?

PS. I promise the next post will have fewer words and more models. I haven't had a lot of quality time with the camera recently.