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?

36 comments:

  1. Honestly, I don't see the problem. There are countless opportunities to add in more stuff, just look at how they've made the mini-factions like MilTemp, Harlequins and the Admech forces. They can easily bring back old faces this way, like the rumoured Genestealer cults and Deathwatch, and maybe even Sisters and Squats eventually. And that's not counting all the other new factions they could add in, Bhargesi, Tarellians, Demiurg, Hrud, etc.
    And from there on, these merc and ally forces can easily be expanded into full sized armies if they sell well.

    The setting may be on the precipice of oblivion, but it's not like they've got no room to add new faces to the butchers' list.

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    1. That's very true, but most of those of rehashes of old stuff (Harlequins were around 20 years ago), and Admech have been around for donkeys - and they were mentioned. And all the others are old as you explicitly mentioned. That's called money for old rope where I'm from. I was waiting for the Hrud for years following the endless rumours, sadly never happened. If they release a 'new' faction, great. But the quality of writing is decreasing so much that I can't see them doing it justice. I hope I'm proved wrong

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  2. I've come to the conclusion that 40K is pants. It's old and suffers from the excesses you mention (I like your Grimdark idea). When I was in my 40s and I wanted something to do with my son, I was willing to give it a go. Now I'm older and crustier and I just can't take it seriously. I looked at what other companies are doing with their SF universes - Gates of Antares, Infinity - and the ideas seem fresher. I know nought about these games AS games, and I don't really care, I just think there's room for new ideas. I'm also impressed by how many small mini companies are doing interesting things in hard SF in 15mm, so those of us who cut their teeth on Stargrunt and GDW's Traveller have some hope for the future.
    To recap:
    1) I'm old and crusty
    2) 40K is pants.
    That is all.

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    1. 40K is indeed pants, I wholeheartedly applaud Mike's comment.

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    2. I think you've basically said what I wanted to say Mike, I suspect that my feelings about it all have more to do with getting old and grumpy, the kids love the fluff and miniatures I think are lifeless and characterless, so I'm sure GW will be fine. As I've said before I've had no interest in 40k for a long time, I had a vague interest in buying some Tallarns recently only to go back to the fluff, included the new expanded fluff to find it contradictory, over-simplistic and a bit rubbish, and that really was the final nail in the coffin for me.

      At least I know my target audience chaps ;)

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  3. The only issue about the 'shrinking' Imperium is that there are more Imperial factions and models than anything else. They say it's beset on all sides but there's a video on youtube [can't find it now] that sets out all the Imperium and it actually makes a mockery of the idea the Emperor's forces could lose with so many on their side.

    Personally I think the fluff doesn't match the game, the nids are toothless and rubbish in assault, chaos isn't really that bad and when space pixies, who'd rather write poetry, are killing all comers without breaking a sweat then you know there'sa disconnect between the lore masters and the game developers.

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    1. Exactly so, I didn't touch on this as I didn't want to waffle on too much. I mean you could argue that the Imperium is the protagonist of sorts so will get the greater volume of focus and with suspension of disbelief there's no need to assume that because there's a greater of volume of models on tables that there's a greater volume of humans in the setting - just that we're seeing their battles more. But it does feel like that.

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  4. I must admit I have liked the fluff on and off over the decades but nowadays I get my fluff from the novels and dream of better times.

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    1. Agree, I might come across like I completely hate it all but you don't stick with something for 20 years if there's no merit to any of it, it's the frustration of seeing what they used to do so well slip away with newer generations of writers and developers.

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  5. I think you contradict yourself at the beginning. GW business model is (was?) to sell to new cohorts of teenage boys. The fluff having a finite life is irrelevant to that since by definition the average player has a finite life. They don't need to keep adding in whole new races to sell stuff. In fact that just means they have to carry more ranges of models which increases their overheads.

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    1. You're right, I added that hastily at the end (the whole thing is a mess of writing), my point was that the fluff and the ultimate business approach (selling models) might be better served by having a few more options even if the primary target customer are the yoofs. I mean if players have finite lives (as customers and as humans) why bother updating anything ever. I wasn't suggesting a constant flow of new races, just more than 1 ever 10 years might be interesting.

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  6. It does have the feel of having the carpet taken from under your feet. It should be a roughly balanced struggle so you can fight on either side without the feeling that you're not needed (because your side's already winning) or you're not helping (because it's already loosing).

    I liked the Armageddon campaign, those big summer of war ones where you could send in the results and that was written into the fluff, but they were always quite insular.

    I'd love to know why they really did it.

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    1. I loved all of the summer campaigns that they did, although the issues were raised at the time that they generally ignored the feedback and did what they wanted anyway, and no matter how great the Imperial victory could potentially be, they were still ultimately buggered. Not that I mind that too much.

      The reason they did it was marketing, you're getting a large number of active players rather than passive players for a time. People tended to play more, go into stores more, and subsequently buy more. There are also campaign-specific supplements to sell.

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  7. I never thought the game was all that dark, ever. I always saw it as a comical satire full of exaggeration and melodrama. However, at some point it forgot that and started to take itself seriously, giving birth to its own ego with irony. Then a base of players began to take it all too serious as well. Now if the same original wit was to enter the game it would be out of place. The game has changed, the company has changed and the world has changed too. Yet one really important fact has stayed the same; they are my models, on my table, playing out my imaginary battles.

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    1. Exactly so, I never thought it was particularly dark - except in the general sense of its dark humour. Perhaps gritty might be a better world for it. Either way, it wasn't Star Trek. But they *tried* to make it dark and largely failed IMO. and as you say the rest follows from that.

      And yes, they will definitely be your models, you can always play the game how you like and that's my philosophy, but the post was more focused on the business and it's fluff out of the box.

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  8. Also just wanted to add, great post, interesting thoughts too both in the post and comments.

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    1. Very kind sir, I never wanted this to be a sermon of my way is the right way, but rather pose a genuine question and discussion

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  9. The fluff was always the strength for the Olde Worlde and 40K.

    I think that the not so subtle disappearance of Kislev, the Norse, Nippon, Squats, Slann and so on were, in retrospect, entirely understandable from a business POV. However, the existing models were already out there and (esp for the WFB players) those armies could be made from minis from other manufacturers. So revising the fluff in a 1984 stylee was perhaps a bit heavy handed.

    As for the current game mechanics not matching your fluff - change 'em. S'not hard.

    What is currently happening (Plague of Sigmar and the obscenely ugly new things in 40K) does not please me or float my boat. But someone is buying it....

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    1. I can simply say that I agree with you on all counts there

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  10. I think if other companies create Star Wars army based games the youth will more likely pick that up than GW. When that happens it will likely bury GW for good.

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    1. Quite possibly, especially on the back of the reawakened franchise, FFG have been doing very will with X-Wing and carefully releasing miniatures and expansions to monetise it all to the greatest effect.

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  11. Funny, I had typed whole long comment in response to this, but it bloody disappeared! Either way I like what you said and I agree with most of it. And I don't think that even if they brought squats back that it would bring me back into Games Workshop games.

    So sad, eh?

    Or, perhaps not so.

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    1. That's mysterious, I never saw it which is a shame because I always enjoy your comments. It was the blogging equivalent of a drunken ramble so thanks for sticking with it. It is a shame, but you're right, I don't think I'd mourn the loss of GW too greatly any more either.

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    1. Certainly one option, pretty much the AoS approach. Not sure how well that would go down though

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  13. To a greater or lesser extent I do agree with you here. I think the heresy was a good expansion to go to, whilst the factions were technically limited in rules, aspects like the militia forces/ the Rites of War were all steps to allow a real expansion of creativity on the part of the player; but as that's the FW design studio doing it I feel it should be treated differently.

    The 40k that GW has created is one of too many grand battles and not enough skirmishes, the tagline of 'one amongst billions such men' was designed to imply a pointlessness to individual existence - to cut short the triumph of a player after winning a skirmish. Now it feels a bit hollow tbh. And as you say, with shareholders to answer to there is no way back outside of box sets.

    Shame really, but whilst Age of Sigmar is their focus we can at least still enjoy whats left of 40k before its torn apart to appease the profit margins

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    1. To a greater or lesser extent, I agree with what I've written here too. Never quite hit the nail on the head. Definitely agree with what you're saying here too, it does seem they are taking a 3-tier approach to gaming now with AoS > 40k > HH, with AoS as the starting game and HH for the veterans. So that's something at least.

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  14. Umm Kiernan mate? It's been far to fething long since you've delighted us with a post...

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    1. Haha I'm a terrible person I know, Ed has been covering our gaming exploits much better than me but I have got a few draft posts written I should get round to finishing - they just haven't quite clicked yet. Cheers for dropping by, much appreciated, hope all is well with yourself?

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    2. I have a small dog on my lap, a cup of tea in hand, spag bol on the cooker and a fine bottle of wine to pair it with. Life is good my friend.

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    3. Sounds ideal, very glad to hear it. There should be some new posts and a bit of a reboot after I've moved house in April.

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    4. Now that, is splendid news mate. Hope the move goes smoothly and the new digs are comfortable and you have space to encourage more hobby!

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