Thursday, 3 September 2015

Games Workshop - Slow Death by its own Fluff?

Warning: This is a Long(ish) Read.

Games Workshop - doomed to be destroyed by its own creation?
The Boring Introduction Bit

Whilst walking to Asda in the rain I tried thinking of several titles for this post: Too much Grimdarkness, not enough actual Darkness? or perhaps Story, Setting and Sales: Incompatible?

Simply, I wanted to ask is GW's fluff inherently incompatible with business longevity? 

Before we start we will assume the following generally accepted approaches of the GW business model: 1. it focuses on recruiting new younger players over retaining repeat buying older gamers and 2. it is primarily a miniature company, interested in selling miniatures not writing games. Also I'm mostly talking about 40k, the most successful game in terms of sales, although Fantasy does get an honourable mention. Full disclosure, it was this superb (better) article on on BoLS that revived my line of thinking on this. 

My long-time readers will know "I'm all about the fluff". The fluff (or background, lore, etc.) is largely what drew me to the game in the first place, back in 1996. 

Delicious fluff
Even as a young whipper-snapper I was aware that it was not particularly ground-breaking, but it adopted popular elements of genre fiction, from books, comics and film and made them its own. It was greater than the sum of its parts. And it could laugh at itself. That meant any naffness could be overlooked (there was and is plenty). It managed a balance of the light and dark, and arguably you can't effectively have one without the other. It also had a great semi-mythic backstory. It felt ancient, and it felt epic. 

Grimdark Creep?

The epitome of  the worst excesses of Grimdark in one terrible miniature
Starting with 3rd Edition it seems, 40k tried to get more serious. I wasn't against this at the time, I quite liked it and still think it was generally a good balance. Having played it from release day (at GW Lincoln), I have fond memories. There's talk of scale creep, but there was also Grimdark creep. With each successive edition the skulls and spikes were piled on with reckless abandon in a strange sense of one-upmanship over previous releases. I think they were trying to go for Darkness, but instead ended up with Grimdarkness. 

Now the first point, in my humble opinion Grimdark (as per the 40k usage) is largely rubbish. It's a creative shortcut and a dead end. Grimdark and Dark are not the same thing. I love dark, the macabre, the mysterious, the eldritch and the downright unsettling. I like the shades of grey and moral ambiguity. The best brief summation of my idea of darkness done well is the opening paragraph of Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. 
- The Call of Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft.

Now that is f*cking dark. One opening paragraph manages to be mysterious, it hints at more than it shows (Rule #1 of horror, encourage the reader's/viewer's imagination) it's unnerving, chilling and it makes humanity and all of our hopes, dreams and petty concerns seem pathetically insignificant. I love it. 

Note: Listen to the superb H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast audiobook of The Call of Cthulhu here, read by Andrew Leman (the Director of the equally superb HPHLS film version)

Lovecraft's influence is clearly visible in 40k, the Warp in particular. There's so much scope for Warp-based coolness. It's understandable that this is a miniatures game and so things will always be visible, tangible and not hinted at, but it's what you do around it all that matters, what brings it to life. The miniatures are just inanimate lumps of lead and plastic at the end of the day.

That said we don't have that. And spikes on top of skulls on top of piles of dead babies is not an intriguing setting. It's a bad t-shirt from a Goth clothing shop. 

Stock Exchange, Dead Ends and Mixed Analogies

Something else happened around the same time as Grimdark Creep set in, GW became a publicly traded company listed on the London Stock Exchange. This meant shareholders to answer to, KPIs to meet, sales targets to achieve. Business waffle, blah blah. But at the same time, and because of this, it is where the fluff starts to become a hindrance and not a selling point.

My reason for thinking that is thus: the GW approach to Grimdark arguably leaves you at a dead end (I'm finally getting to the actual point, It's only taken 5 or 6 paragraphs). When you've gone as unrelentingly (Grim)dark as you can go without ending the setting there's few options left.

With Lovecraft what works about it is that there is a sense of inevitability about it. Everything is ultimately pointless, everything is doomed. 40k has this too of course. However, with Lovecraft the protagonists don't know they're doomed, but when they realise that they are they go insane and are locked away in asylums away from the general public. The doom is not necessarily imminent, it's unknown, it could happen at any time - dead Cthulhu lies dreaming etc. In 40k the doom is happening right in your face, look at the doom, look at it now! Arrgh we're all doomed. The Imperium is Hitler in his Bunker in Berlin, watching everything fall to shit knowing any opposition is futile. 40k's Cthulhu, Chaos, is not an insidious threat awaiting its inevitable victory as its followers gain minor victories on the fringes, but going on a Godzilla-style rampage around Tokyo/Berlin/the Galaxy. And they say mixing your analogies is bad for you.

The point is (FINALLY), with the former approach - there is space. There is room for maneouvre, room for a great variety and breadth of storytelling - room to fit in new factions and subsequently new miniatures. Even with the eventual, inevitable doomy atmosphere. However...

40k Skipped to The End. (The Actual Point)

For a company that was looking to make a tidy profit, starting at The End is fine. For a company with share holders that's continually looking to expand and increase sales, that's probably a Bad Idea. The setting is a dying one, where the main faction don't understand and cannot develop new technology, It's not promising is it. 6th Edition seemed to be the culmination of this, and generally where my interest started severely wavering. The Emperor is now definitely dying, the Imperium is fighting a futile fight for survival as it's territory shrinks in the face of its enemies. It's buggered. As the Imperium shirnks, the setting shrinks, it doesn't feel like there are unexplored areas of the galaxy left, all the vacuums have been filled.

In my 20 years of playing 40k I can only think of 2 new factions in the main game released during that time: Necrons and Tau/Kroot. And more recently the Ad Mech. But they're only sort of new. 

Sometimes it's a good idea to skip to The End. But not always. 
There's Just No Room
Since GW has no real space to go forward to create new factions and new miniatures, they can at least go backwards. For a bit. Enter 30k. As it's a prequel though it's limited, we know where it ends. There's still only so much you can do with it. There's few exciting surprises available. I like a lot of the miniatures, but I think covering the Horus Heresy was a bad idea (Black Library wise), it turned cool semi-mythical Primarchs into two dimensional naff characters that wouldn't be out of place in a TV soap. I digress, that's irrelevant and I know I'm probably in a minority.

The 'lack of space' issue has already become apparent recently. Warhammer's Old World became full up. As a limited world, there seemed to be little room to add new factions to sell. GW tried pushing more models per unit, they tried pushing bigger, more expensive models. But it seems not to have worked as well as they liked. So, they took the Etch-A-Sketch of the Old World, shook it and started again. With Age of Sigmar. Which as a long-term solution at the expense of alienating existing fans (not really a key customer in the apparent GW business model though) could work. For me it's just a bit, meh. 

With little to no room for continuation or for growth, the setting, game and sales will eventually stagnate. 

How Else Could it be Done?

We could look no further than the first iteration of 40k, Rogue Trader. Named after the intrepid and dubious explorers of the unknown corners of the galaxy, it had that space to play around in - literally. It felt like anything was possible.

I appreciate some ranges don't sell, aren't popular and it's costly to support them if they're not making profit. Well then you can phase them out and give them a good send off, make an event of it. But give yourself the option of doing that at least.

GW approach seems to be make the games bigger to sell more of the same models, or make the minatures bigger and more expensive. Or both, Some people can afford to do this and have tables crammed with miniatures, many can't (and I think they're generally dull games, for hundreds of pounds/dollars less we could just stand and roll loads of dice at each other for the same end result).
A different approach, there's even a clue in the name.
The alternative is varietyA greater variety of factions and miniatures released over time means that you not only appeal to new recruits to The Hobby, you may also pique the interest of veteran gamers who want something new. The setting can be reinvigorated over time, have fresh life breathed into it without the Reset Button/Etch-a-Sketch approach, and you can progress the setting and make players feel that they are part of something. Just my take on it, anyway. 

Infinity is another example of Another Approach. Fluffwise it's an expanding setting, not a dying one. New factions and miniatures can be added easily, new stories can be told. If GW had started 40k at The Beginning, like Infinity, they could expand amd create new stuff ad infinitum (pardon the pun). But I hear you cry, then it wouldn't be 40k. Perhaps, but then you have the third approach that I banged on apart with Lovecraft - have the similar atmosphere of Inevitable Doom, but don't lay it on with a sodding trowel. Lightly does it, less is more, etc.  Allow some breathing room.

Yes you can play 40k with a more Lovecraftian notion if you like, amongst like-minded fellow gamers you can be as creative as you like with a game. You can always make a spin on a setting to varying degrees, and make it your own - but at what point does that stop becoming the setting out of the box that the company sells and owe more to your own ideas? And that's my point, this is not what GW is selling as part of their business model.

Finally, the Conclusion

Maybe I have no idea what the wider public wants, maybe I'm painfully pretentious and a fiction snob (this Grimdarkness is trite and uninspired. Sherry, Niles?) What I want is not necessarily what would sell. But despite that I think my wider point still stands. Starting at The End for a company that wants (or has to) to expand, to keep selling models to a relatively limited audience is a bad idea, 

Ultimately, and for clarification, I don't think the skipping to The End notion of fluff nor the setting is bad. I just think you are severely limiting yourself as a company whose core aim is to sell more models beyond a small profit. 

What do you think? Is GW's 40k fluff inherently incompatible with their business model long-term?

Saturday, 22 August 2015

New Projects and Quick Update

I'm back from hibernation (and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival) to once again to throw some words at the Internet, and let you all know that I've not abandoned ship, I'm very much still here and have posts queued up to share with you lovely people.

Cards on the table, there'll be little to no GW content anymore, with the exception of some Specialist Games stuff every now and then. Sadly even any residual interest I had in the setting has gone. It's been good to me since '96, but it really is the end of an era now.

My old projects have been mothballed, but this means I can approach new stuff without being haunted by the Ghost of Unfinished Projects Past, Very sad, but necessary to bring a bit of joy back to my hobbying. 

Most of the wargaming I've been doing lately has been with Ed and given that they're campaigns I don't want to chuck out any posts here and there to potentially ruin any final narrative Ed might want to do on it at the end - or give away my strategic scheming to Ed...

In order to give me a kick up the derriere to get posting a little more, and finish the several posts I've already mostly written, here's what you can expect in the coming months:

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The GM's Corner: RPG Player Character Creation

You can't go wrong with a good Pen and Paper RPG, when done right they provide great stories, excellent atmosphere, and what out transatlantic cousins call sheer bloody beer and pretzel fun. Or they say something like that anyway. And of course there can be great characters, in my humble opinion just as fiction lives and dies by conflict, good RPGs depend on good characters - and good character interaction. That is basically what it is that you're sat around the table doing. That's what the game is.

Obligatory D20 photo
Now some characters are going to be too mismatched to the point that it's really difficult to get any interaction out of them, or you have one character with a trait that makes him/her/it unwilling to do much communicating at first - that's fine in a games with perhaps around 5 players, but with 2 or 3 that can really grind the game to a halt. Or I've sat there wondering why the hell these characters are co-operating at all beyond the necessity.

When I've been in that situation as a GM I end up using my pre-written material more quickly as the players aren't filling the time with their own conversation or ideas. That could be down to bad GMing (and probably is), but it can also be down to newer or more reserved players not quite being ready to jump in. But that's fine and kind of the point.

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