Wednesday, 6 August 2014

What's made 40K pay?

My post on aesthetics in 40K, Von's follow-up and Patrick's comparisons produced some solid discussion and several insights. This builds on it.

The success of GW's various games hasn't given it a license to print money, but once the company captured a critical mass of attention* it's quite possible it did gain a set of very powerful tools for keeping the money flowing. Thanks to the responses to certain events over the past few years we've probably all got a better idea of what they might be.

* I'm thinking especially of the UK in the early days and the benefits of importing D&D, opening shops in so many towns and having White Dwarf in newsagents large and small, especially as WD moved towards coverage of GW exclusively, and of course creating one or maybe two major settings and several major systems amid a whole constellation of smaller. It's worth bearing in mind that a tabletop game producer can't sell one key piece of the puzzle - fellow players, who have to be numerous enough to make play worthwhile.

Once the interest was there, and assuming the interested parties had their own income or the income of parents or others to fund it, transfers of cash could well have been regulated by a set of general processes I'm going to call elaboration, recodification and devaluation in the case of three primary, and rotation in the case of a secondary.

  • Elaboration - the ability to add new elements to the setting and thereby new products to the range. Examples would be the additions of new factions, but also units within those factions or spanning one or more, which began via White Dwarf after the release of Rogue Trader. The idea can be extended to supplements too, as well as to limited editions, accessories and licensed products. With a setting as broad as 40K's there's vast scope for this, but consistency seems to be key. A lot of recent criticism seems to flow from a sense the elaboration is extrapolating too far out, going into inappropriate spaces and diluting the core feel. Pace also seems to be important, in that customers who can't keep up, or stretch to more exclusive products, may feel they are missing out and become more or less alienated from the hobby.
  • Recodification - the ability to adjust the relationships between elements and thereby the ideal combination of products for any given individual. A good example is the approach taken during and since second edition, which saw the simple 'black codex' in the boxed game provide one new codification for a faction, and the appearance of the first actual codices another, with a rolling release schedule ever since. It can also be seen in the edition changes themselves in which general rules changes affect multiple factions, as well as through the release of supplements. With a system built around the need for access to at least one army - i.e. a set of miniatures from specific ranges in permissible forms and quantities - a player may feel a lesser or greater need to update, to maintaining a consonance with the official and manage pressure from peers. This may be more tolerable if change brings improvement, but pace seems to be key. Recent criticism suggests the rate of recodification can be too fast for comfort. Consistency is important here as well, with the feeling rules should reflect the setting and earlier approaches.
  • Devaluation - the ability to change the value of an element within the game system - in terms of capability and price in points, and thus value for points - and thereby influence the need for a corresponding product. As the cost in points of a given collection falls, the capacity to play at a given points value falls with it, unless the difference is made up, with one means being further purchases. A less obvious example is the recent introduction of 'flyers' (i.e. aircraft?) and the relatively limited availability of equipment for interacting with them reliably, most notable early on. Interestingly, one widely available means is a feature of another new element, an official fortification, presumably encouraging sales of that element as well. Again, consistency and pace seem to be factors in the degree to which the process is accepted.

These could combine to produce rotation - indulgence of interest in one or more other factions, for lateral movement among armies: the expansion of a collection to include sets of miniatures from other ranges. This is naturally encouraged as new factions and units appear, relationships among them change and relative values vary. It may well be key to retaining customers longer term, allowing a parallel challenge as an army grows, or a means of starting over, but with the same community and, crucially, producer. That said, it may be that directly encouraging rotation discourages players from reaching useful army sizes, potentially limiting ability to play and other benefits of the collection.

If it gets to the point that rotation is being more directly encouraged, as it might be with the return of official alliances in sixth edition and the unbound concept in seventh (a form of recodification), and arguably also the general increase in the rate of releases (some elaboration) and the introduction of formations (also devaluation), it could be that cultivation of long-term interest is being harmed, possibly sacrificed for short-term gain.

All of this avoids any consideration of changing prices and what a rise in prices can do to reduce a player base, the use of a system in a given area and revenue for a producer.

A lot of this is also relevant to other tabletop games and products in general and seems to suggest that one of the golden rules here too, as a minimum, may be Wheaton's Law.

Thoughts and corrections welcome.


Von said...

I think there are two ways to maintain a presence in the GW-verse over an extended span of time - say four edition cycles or thereabouts.

The first is rotation, as you described; my good friend Ben owns Dark Eldar, Space Marines and Tau, and he'll generally be playing one of them or the other for a sustained period of time. Unless he's particularly unfortunate and all these armies are recodified very close together, he generally has something which can keep up with the Joneses, and after the initial expenditure in building his 2000 point armies he generally picks up a Codex and a couple of new shinies during every release cycle. He's a smart fellow.

The other approach is... let's call it commitment? You choose a faction and you stand by it for good or ill, weathering the storm, accumulating treasures, and you only uproot yourself after great inner torment and a repeated battering from the release cycle. My friend Lawrence (Herr Doktor Shiny, if you're familiar with my battle reports) does this. He stuck by his Skaven from fourth edition through to eighth, and only stood them down when his friends finally became sick of his griping about them and invited him to PLAY SOMETHING ELSE. Same with his Eldar, though they lasted three editions before he was persuaded into picking up Tau. Since then he's displayed similar loyalty to these factions, all grumbling aside. Seems to keep his expenditure down.

The way not to cope with them is to sell out, buy in, sell out, buy in etc. etc. like muggins 'ere has been doing, although the selling out is generally mitigated by circumstances ("I have seven armies but can't pay rent" or "I fancy something different but need to raise funds" being the thought process where it starts). Nonetheless, I see wisdom in either of these approaches; I'd like to do what Ben does but short of time travel (back to 2005 when I can stop myself from selling off Chaos and Orc and Goblin and Dark Eldar armies) I don't see it happening. Unless I were to get a a job at GW or something...

Porky said...

Four editions is bold, but then editions used to be 4-5 years apart and now they might be down to just two, meaning 20 years or so becomes a possible 8-10. That's manageable, without too much recodification and devaluation at least, and avoiding temptation, or maybe dissonance, even disillusionment, in the form of elaboration.

Incidentally, I didn't classify removal of units - I suppose that would be a potential aspect of recodification under this scheme. There is always the risk of elements vanishing, like mycetic spores more recently, and even whole primary or secondary factions, like Squats and genestealer cults. It may be the sisters of battle have hung on only because those miniatures are not only characterful like a lot of the Squats, but still sharp enough, and the concept modern 40K enough, to make removal seem even more wrong, but possibly it's also about avoiding ill will and not raising a parallel to the Squat question.

Digressing briefly, the Squats aren't going away - see the compatible takes at Spiky Rat Pack and here and here. at Ninjabread. If what we've been seeing from GW is in fact a form of desperation, it seems more like than ever the Squats are on the way back, presumably reimagined as Demiurg.

I think these days there's a good balance of playability and funkiness, and avoidance of inconsistency, release tides and intra- and intercommunity conflict, for now at least, in eschewing full 40K and - if not rising to Epic - then building for a mix of the smaller-scale approaches - from Confrontation and Inq28 at the more compact end, through Necromunda, Gorkamorka, Kill Team and Killzone at the dozen or so mark, to smaller combat patrol-style games and of course Rogue Trader. A couple of dozen miniatures each and you've got a fair bit of flexibility, with maybe a vehicle for terrain or an objective as well. More like the gaming at Tales from the Maelstrom, Spiky Rat Pack's INQ28 and Officio Convertorum's approach. The range of options in the kits and provided by third party producers mean it's never been easier, and maybe never more fun. Maybe - but that goes back to the 'unbearable lightness' discussion.