Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Is tabletop gaming doomed?

Apparently, video killed the radio star. But are video games killing tabletop?

Before I start the waffle, I implore you to visit the Palladian Guard blog to see all of the Mordheim and English Civil War goodies Ed has been posting about in the past couple of weeks.

Is wargaming a thing of the past? From Vintage Wargaming

Warning: Long(ish) Post. Last month's release of Games Workshop's financials and the rather notable dip (to say the least), the closing of stores in Germany and offices in North America (amongst other measures) lead some to proclaim that this was the death knell for GW, and a few even suggested that it was the beginning of the end for tabletop gaming itself.

There were even suggestions that GW themselves believe tabletop is dead, and are winding the business down - whilst bleeding it and its customers for every last penny they can. I'm not sure that this is true, but for the sake of argument let's assume it is and challenge that view.


Those that consider gaming to be under threat often cite computer games as competing for the next generation of tabletop gamers' time and money, like the noisy, brightly coloured attention seekers they are (the games not the commenters). I think this is mostly nonsense. Whilst games might be flashier now, and there's the appeal of online gaming that wasn't around when I were a wee young un', neither Jet Set Willy, Paperboy, or Streets of Rage stopped me from throwing myself into this hobby lark.
 
Games of my youth and games of today, are they really a greater threat?
Following the financials, GW Towers piqued my curiosity with this "situation vacant":

"Do you want to help Games Workshop revolutionise its customer experience? We are looking for someone to spend the next two years turning over every – and we mean every – stone to find opportunities for how we can improve the customer experience... We aren’t talking about incremental improvements; we want to completely re-imagine what it is like for people coming into our stores, engaging with and buying our wonderful miniatures."

The full post is covered here on BoLS. Some might see this as Games Workshop finally acknowledging the increasing disconnect between them and their customer base. Now I have no intentions of applying for this despite HQ being 15 miles away, but it did get me thinking:

What got me into gaming? Or more importantly why have I stuck with it for around 20 years when I could have easily cast it aside like yesterday's jam. And are these reasons still relevant?

I think it's safe to say that tabletop gaming is not doomed. It can never die out completely. There's always going to be a certain type of person that the hobby appeals to regardless of the existence of computer games, and I'm not about to trot out boring stereotypes here. I will try and answer these questions and why tabletop gaming is not doomed to die out using a few categories.

Creativity 
The tabletop gamer, whether wargamer or role-player, is generally quite a creative sort. There are some pretty obvious creative elements: the model building, painting, background writing, character creation, sculpting, scenery building etc.

My 28mm scale TARDIS was just much more enjoyable than if I'd spent the same amount of time on Dishonored. Which I had been doing around the time.
This is not to say that computer games aren't creative, far far from it in many cases, and that's not to say that those that play computer games aren't creative. But it's a broader demographic, whilst not as passive as watching TV it's very easy to slump into a sofa with a controller and kill an hour or so on a game. As engaging as computer games can be, there always seems to be a point where I find that I'm on autopilot.
 
Where it all began for me...
Beyond the obvious, I think there's something about tabletop gaming that encourages creativity rather than just allows for it. I remember the first games of 2nd edition 40k that I played as a young oik, it wasn't long before we were coming up with our own house rules (usually things like exploding barrels) or coming up with scenarios and ongoing stories focused around our characters. Few computer games allow this, the shaping of a shared setting, bending the game mechanics to fit your vision of the world. For GW's target market, as I actually fit into back then, this should be a key USP.

In RPG terms World of Warcraft or Skyrim and their pixelated brethren there are some fantastic, intelligent and well-created RPGs and game worlds out there. They look amazing.

How Middle Earth looked in my head before Peter Jackson...
However tabletop RPGs have several key features that I think mean they will be around alongside computer games for a long time. Computer games are finite. The game world can only ever be so big, there can only be so many quests and side quests until you have to pay for a new game or new add on. Without resorting to saccharine cliches, tabletop RPGs are potentially limitless. They can be set whenever, and wherever the players and GM decide. They can be as simple or as complex as you like. Whilst computer RPGs can be immensely creative they (arguably) don't encourage creativity in the same way.

Even if your interest is purely in "historicals," which really is where my interests lie, there is the research and creativity in interpreting that on the table that cannot really be recreated in video game form. Sure, I'm a huge fan of the Total War series - but this has it's flaws and attempts to appeal to a wider audience than tabletop games ever could. Or should. 

Skill, Achievement and Improvement 

My painting in early 2012
Even the most casual tabletop gamer will arguably be more actively engaged with their choice of hobby than the average PC/console gamer. Let me clarify this. With the exception of simulation games (which aren't exactly mainstream), even the most casual tabletop gamer will have had to invest more time and money before they can even play a game. They will have to buy the miniatures, build them and possibly paint them - researching uniforms or schemes, or creating their own if they do. On top of that they will need to at least have a basic grasp of the rules, which requires a reasonable investment of time.

Conversely, most computer games are the "easy option" - not all, but most. Tabletop gaming is never really the easy option and never has been. But we still do it. Ultimately it requires a huge investment, but as "you reap what you sow" often holds true, the rewards are generally much greater.

My painting in early 2013
You can of course get better at computer games. Very good. I've spent many hours playing on Bioshock and I'm rather bloody good at it. But what then? I can only play the game so many times, I can't really get noticeably better anymore, and what do I have to show for it at the end?

Personally, I can see the improvement that I've made in painting, converting, building and gaming even in the time since I started this blog. I now like to think with painting I'm at a point that can be called Not Bad, and I'm pretty confident (without wanting to sound too arrogant) that I will get better still.

But even for those who don't consider painting, or conversions of whatever a key part of their hobby, there's always something else within it that you can get better at and see clear results at the end.
 
Unfinished painting in early 2014
Community and Social Aspect 

There is also the stereotype of the socially awkward tabletop gamer. This is largely nonsense. Games like World of Warcraft might be "massively multiplayer" they can never provide the same experience as a tabletop game. For supposedly socially awkward people, wargamers and role-players alike spend an inordinate amount of time sat around a table, often with good company, good food and drink and a great laugh. That has always been my experience at least. And as great as playing multiplayer computer games in the same room as your mates can be, your attention is always focused on the screen - it's not the round table of tabletop gaming but one where all are gazing ahead. Wargaming and other tabletop games are social by their nature, we have gaming clubs and the like which don't quite exist in the same way for computer games. Weekends like our not-so-recent Necromunda Campaign would not have been the same if we'd just got together to play Call of Duty. Even if you see your wargaming/RPG compatriots regularly, it always feels like more of an event to get a tabletop game together.

Conclusion / Summary / End of Waffle

This is definitely not an attack on on computer games. There's many that I could wax lyrical about until the suns goes down and the cows come home. But that's the point, it doesn't have to be one or the other.

Computer games will for the most part always be trying to reach a broader audience than tabletop. That's understandable. Similarly, because of the investment required - not just financially but in terms of time and effort - tabletop is always going to appeal to a more niche group of people.

But the type of person it appeals to isn't going to stop existing because of computer games. Those that want to recreate battles or terrain in detail (like myself), those who want to know "what if", those that have great ideas for plots, scenarios and worlds that computer games alone can't accommodate, those that want their games to have a more social dimension, those that want to improve their ability at not just playing the game, but building and converting miniatures, designing and building scenery, becoming great painters. Those that appreciate that the higher investment that you put in mean that the rewards are greater. After I've finished a computer game, I'm usually pretty happy for 5 minutes but what do I have to show for it? Bugger all. But if I paint a model, complete a conversion that took some puzzle solving, work out how to build scale stairs - I have a tangible reward, I can always go back to it and feel pretty bloody chuffed. It feels like a genuine achievement. And I know that each time I paint or build or whatever, I get just that little bit better. Even if there are those that don't think their painting is up to scratch - it will always get better. Trust me.

And that's why computer games are great, but they're not killing tabletop. They're both games but they are completely different beasts. Computer games might compete for our attention a little more, but they're never going to be the end of tabletop. Long may it reign.

I had more to say but it was getting a bit too long, a bit too dry and even more pretentious than usual. But really what I'm interested in is:

What do you think?

20 comments:

  1. As both a tabletop and computer gamer for around equal time, I've seen the appeals and problems with each and couldn't agree with you more here. There's a much wider universe available for tabletop players that, whilst certainly costing, does not cost as much as computer gaming with regards to time spent using the product. As you said, computer games have plenty of entertainment but in short bursts, tabletop games have much more staying power and in many ways to try and relate the two is to ignore the blatant separations in playstyle and aims of the products.

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    1. I think you summed it up perfectly there, they really are two separate things and comparisons aren't really helpful (even though I spent a long post doing just that)

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  2. I think that 'autopilot' phrase you used is the key. In whatever computer games we play, we're totally inert and only using our eyes and brains. It's quite tiring, in a way. We also insist on playing our favorite games to the point where we know exactly what's going to happen - we're clicking the screen to make something exciting play out, that we can watch.

    I confess that, time-wise, I probably spend almost as much time on the computer as painting (1-2hrs per off-day), and certainly more than playing actual games. Their accessibility is part of their appeal, but that's compensated for by it being a rather shallow experience, long term.

    I don't think this is the end of tabletop wargaming. If you look at it with a sense of perspective, it's been going for 200 years now - why suddenly today is it dying off? Why us? Sure, there's new technology - but there's always new technology. Wargaming has survived a lot of change and it will wax and wane with deeper social changes, but I don't think it will ever die out totally. The professional military wargamers will, of course, always use it.

    Bottom line - you get out of hobbies what you put in to them. Computer games = low effort, low reward. Wargaming = high effort, high reward. It's like picking a savings account. They both pay the same interest, but do you want the quick, safe, low return or the higher, longer return? Each one is suited for different people and different circumstances.

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    1. Excellent points sir, I think the last paragraph in particular sums up what I was trying to say much better than I managed in the rambling post. And as you say, it's been around long enough in soon form, to expect that it would suddenly die out now seems a little unrealistic.

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  3. I can't play cmputer reasonsfor three reasons:
    1) I can't afford it
    2) My few non-working hours are precious enough: I need to see my beautiful family, and
    3) I become terribly addicted to computer games. Playing Command and Conquer - Red Alert is the only thing I've EVER discovered (other than gastro-enteritis) that stops me from eating.

    And sleeping.

    That said, what a smashing post.

    And no, I think we've a looooong time yet before the Fat Lady begns her vocal warm-up...

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    1. Haha, thank you very much. Definitely true, particularly point 2 - free time seems increasingly sparse.... I really don't think this is the end or even the beginning of the end.

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  4. Great article, it was that experience of playing yet another soulless computer games that got me back into the hobby of modelling/gaming (I began to think of computer games as being literally a waste of time).

    And there aren't that many (if any) hobbies were you can make then play with your toys, and if you want, then sell your stuff for a profit.

    Regards,
    Matt

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    1. Thanks very much Matt. "...that experience of playing yet another soulless computer games that got me back into the hobby..." that describes it perfectly for me too. Although I struggle to part with my toys to be honest, profit or not :P But still a very good point!

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  5. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I am sorry that it only gets a short response.
    1) TT gaming is not in any trouble. It's a good question, but rather like "Is God dead?" or "Is the print book dead?" The subject in question finds ways to survive. That being said, TT gaming is a niche market and will likely remain so.
    2) I have a PS3 and it mostly gathers dust. When I frequently entertained young officers, it made sense to have one, they all brought controllers, and had fun shooting each other in various CD games that I am rubbish at. I haven't really found any games that really pique my interest. I am sure that there are a few that are entertaining, but I try to use my spare time carefully. and get more pleasure from seeing the results of my painting. Computer gaming has no lasting results.
    3) Whether GW is dead or not is an interesting question, and somewhat more in doubt than God or the print book. GW is a rarity in that it is one of the few, maybe only, companies in our hobby that are publicly traded. Most other vendors in our hobby, with a few exceptions such as Warlord, are like the sellers you see at your local farmer's market. It is a craft or cottage industry. GW may have overreached, and is paying a price. It's fate will not determine the fate of the hobby.

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    1. Thank you very much, thanks for the thoughtful reply. As you say, it's not in any trouble but it is a niche market - similarly I think the demise of GW might cause a blip, but it's fate will have no long term impact overall. I think there are Venn Diagrams of the views of the bobby overall, there are many who game in via GW and have only relatively recently seen alternatives so perhaps place too much emphasis on the role of GW because of their experience and ideas of "what wargaming is". Then there are those like myself that did start with GW but quickly got into historicals way back before "Flames of War" was considered what a historical game was by the first group, so when companies like Mantic appeared I never had that "Wow, a not-GW game experience". Then there are those that have always played historicals, and perhaps this group sometimes underestimates the role of GW. I'm not sure, these are broad strokes based on casual observations. As you say, it's a niche game with a cottage industry, I'm quite happy for it stay like this,

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  6. Tremendous post, Kieran!! Right up there with your very best. I agree with everything you've written.

    I see PC gaming and tabletop wargaming as complementary - they go hand in hand and both have their place, at the right time. I certainly prefer tabletop wargaming - and for all the reasons you have mentioned: higher rewards, encouragement of creativity, having something tangible at the end of it. That being said, I don't deny that tabletop wargaming is much more of a commitment.

    For most wargamers (including me) tabletop wargaming takes a long time to create, build, paint and then actually get around to playing the game. This has a beneficial result - we feel a strong element of payback and reward when we reach our goal. But we can also get distracted, loose enthusiasm or see another wargaming project which draws our attention. PC and console gaming is different - if I want "Grand Theft Bioshock Asylum IV", I just get it and off I go. That's a wonderful, instant gratification feeling - but the problem is that it just doesn't last.

    Although there's nothing like a tangible finished product in your hand or on your table to get enthused about! And that's something you can enjoy today, tomorrow, or 30 years from now.

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    1. Very kind of you indeed sir! Absolutely agree, as I say this was never meant to be one vs the other, but only framed that way in response to comments I'd seen elsewhere. They both have their place, and I would agree they are complementary and that if I have limited free time (which I do) I would generally lean towards spending it doing wargame related nonsense.

      Like Scipio I think you've got to the point I was trying to make without going around the houses and presented it much better than I did.

      And a perfect closing comment - the stuff we build, paint etc is going to last as long as we want it to.

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  7. I believe a big part of keeping wargaming relevant is to keep bringing in young players. Whether you like GW or not, I don't think it's a stretch to say that a large number of new wargamers were introduced to the hobby via GW's products or streetshops. I know that's how I got in.

    But with GW becoming less customer/consumer friendly, it's going to be on the community's part to bring the next generation in. It becomes a problem when gaming groups become insular. I just joined a local wargaming club, and while they're a great group of guys, I was the youngest player there by 15-20 years! Granted, they're a historical group that bars scifi/fantasy gaming, but that's still a bit worrying.

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    1. Thanks very much for the comment. I'd agree there, I'm wary of overestimating GW's role but it's very easy for many to underestimate it too. I don't think wargaming lives or dies on GW, as I said in my respsonse to Mike above (don't want to repeat myself too much), but it would certainly make an impact. That said, I really don't think GW is going anywhere for a long time.

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  8. End product.

    That's what makes the difference.

    Like you've listed, PC/console games leave you with nothing aside from a memory and a 5-40+ hour ledger of playing time.... but with nothing to show for it aside from eye strain and a crick in your neck/back/thumb(s).

    Same amount of gaming/hobby time though has results, tangible results that can be shared with other gamers and random onlookers alike. This can't be replicated in video gaming.

    GW might die, but there'll always be the next new thing. King is dead, long live the King.

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    1. Exactly so sir, and again you've got to the point much better than I did.

      Even if GW did disappear, which I don't think is likely any time soon, but like you say something would fill the vacuum, something else would draw the new players in.

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  9. Yeaah. All of that.

    I've gotun x box. We watch DVDs through it.

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    1. Haha, I think I use my xbox to watch Netflix more than play games too to be honest

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  10. Greatly enjoyed your post! It is dead on. I fell in love with PC wargaming with the Commodore 64. I stayed with PC wargaming all the way until Red Orchestra. I played in a clan and slipped further down the rabbit hole. When I was putting my family life on hold to attend clan practices, it dawned on me that I had to quit. In game I was very good but for all the hours, what did I have to show for it once I quit out? Nothing.

    I started painting and playing Warhammer with my son at the time I quit PC gaming. I've since moved out of WH and into historical minis and gaming. My only regret is that I took so long to quit PC gaming and move into tabletop gaming. The Fantasy Flight Game center I visit almost every week is chock full of gamers. It's a lovely sight and time well spent!

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    1. Thank you very much, very kind of you. THanks very much for the thoughtful response, and a great example of the real enjoyment you get out of tabletop games compared to PC gaming etc. I love PC gaming but it can become a bit of a time sink and feels like, tabletop has never felt like that personally, no matter how much time was spent on it.

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