Sunday, 23 February 2014

8 ways for Games Workshop to Survive Their Downturn and Beyond.

A week or so ago it was announced that Games Workshop's profits had dropped by 3.4 Million compared to the previous year. For me, this was a long time coming. Week after week I'd be harping on at my friends and colleagues that Games Workshop was on the brink of disaster, that if did didn't change it's practices then it wouldn't be long before their entire company went bust. The arrival of this news only served to prove my arguments, and whilst I have to say I was smugly pleased to see I was right, the death of Games Workshop is not news that I would relish.

For a long time I'd been planning to write a “Rise and Fall of Games Workshop”, but looking back at this point comes across as a little counter productive. With that in mind, I've decided to put together a list of eight ideas that, I think, Games Workshop would be smart to adopt if it wants to survive, and thrive, in the years to come.

1. IP above all else.

One of the reasons I still have a fondness for Warhammer 40000 is my love of the setting. It's morally ambiguous tone, It's Gothic visuals, it's juxtaposition of fantasy and sci-fi. It's what got me interested in the first place, it's what kept me around years later. It's what Game's Workshop's foundations are built on.
Lets face facts, the rules and game play of Warhammer were never really that good. They were serviceable, and they did the job, but people put up with them because it meant they get to play with cool models on the table. There are better tabletop games out there, but the reason they still lead the industry is because of the fictional background behind the products.

Right now if you want to experience the background setting you have the source books, a couple of good video games that only really scratch the surface, and it's back catalog of novels, most of which now days only exist to serve as adverts for whichever army is coming out next. Oh and a really terrible CGI movie. Once upon a time it used to publish a monthly comic and anthology that explored areas of the setting that we didn't get to see on the tabletop. That kind of thinking needs to be brought back.

Games Workshop needs to treat the IP as it's primary product and it's tabletop games as an extension of that IP, not the other way around. We need a return to ongoing comic book series, more interesting, diverse books, maybe some animated shorts. You need an example of this at work? Transformers. While the toys are the core product, Hasbro doesn't treat them as though they have to be the center of the franchise. They're not selling you the toys, they're selling you the Transformers universe. They give the freedom to their writers and creative teams, unbounded by the idea that it all has to come back to selling toys, and they make millions of of it. Games Workshop would do well to approach a practice like this.

2. Welcome newcomers, reward long term fans.

Games Workshop's biggest problems is cost. Nowadays getting a working army will cost you well over £100. They've been focusing on short term gain, squeezing their existing fanbase for everything they have by increasing costs and insisting on new updates. For a newcomer, there is no gateway, no way to try things out before you dedicate your time and money to the hobby. If you're going to go in, you have to go all in, or not at all.

It wasn't always like this. Not too long ago Games Workshop had a whole range of games that required only a box of models and some scenery. Necromunda, Mordheim, Space Hulk, Hero Quest, Inquisitor. These all worked perfectly as quick, cheap options for somebody who wanted to get into the hobby but didn't have the time or funds for the bigger games. Then Games Workshop dropped all the support and hunkered down on their bigger, more expensive products.

If they want to draw the fans back in, they need to bring these small games back. Maybe even have a bit of cross over with the bigger ones. After you've gotten used to Necromunda you could maybe use your hive gang as a starting point for an Imperial army. The opportunities these smaller games bring will reach that area of the market that the larger games can't: Younger players with only a little disposable income, and older players who don't have the time or finances for the bigger ones. You only have to look at the success of Warmachine to see that the audience is there. Why not tap into it?

3. Diversify your audience.

It's the topic on everyone's lips at the moment, the fact that the geek spectrum is no longer the straight white male dominated one that it once was. From comic books to video games, people are calling out creators for better representation, and Games Workshop is no exception. Like it or not, it's almost certainly a relevant criticism that Games Workshop's products are tailored for the straight white male. Be it the armies on the boards, or the characters in the books, it's very rare that we see them deviate from gruff, stubbled, white men, and while we do see the occasional female characters, they'll commonly be designed with the male gaze in mind.

Fact of the matter is, both on the tabletop and in it's spin offs, we should be seeing more black characters, Asian characters, women of different builds and physiques, and heck no doubt you can spend a line or two noting that one or two characters just happen to be gay. I don't care if you think Games Workshop shouldn't have to do this, or the setting doesn't need it, but put simply it won't do them any harm to branch out. The game or the setting aren't going to change just because the next Commissar released is a suitably dressed woman or there's going to be a pair of special assassins that happen to be lovers as well as partners.
Heck, it's the crazy diverse elements that made Warhammer so unique in the first place, so why not embrace it?

4. Get yourselves out there.

One of the most shocking things about Games Workshop's business practices is how little effort they put in to getting their name out there. They have their own magazine, their own yearly convention, and their own stores, so why try harder?

Games Workshop should be out there with the best of them at San Diego and New York Comic Con. Tables front and center saying, “Hey guy's come and have a look at all this cool stuff we make!”. They should be out there at PAX, courting the interest of developers who might think “Man this stuff is popular, why don't they have another video game in development?” As I mentioned earlier, there are whole audiences that Games Workshop just isn't reaching with it's current business practices, and relying on their existing fans isn't going to work if they keep flailing as they are. 

Wizards of the Coast have made as many stupid decisions as Games Workshop over the years, but they've kept on trucking by exploring different avenues, courting new audiences, evolving the existing one. Both companies accommodate the same niche, but Wizards differ because they're not so rigidly dependent on the fans they already have. Sure they may make a bad decision that will turn some fans away, but you can bet they've got another idea coming round to try and win some new ones over.

5. Shut up about Space Marines already.

The Adeptus Astartes are Games Workshop's poster boys. They're a brilliant piece of visual design, the armour, the helmet, the bolter and the chainsword. Taken as they are Space Marines are a wonderful example of Warhammer's strengths. The problem is, this is the only strength that Games Workshop seem to be willing to advertise. A few years back, after Yahtzee's Space Marine review, he wrote an article explaining why he thinks that the Warhammer 40000 setting is rubbish, childish and stupid.

If you're a fan of the game, you know that Yahtzee's complaints are unfounded because he has only experienced the bare, superficial parts of the setting, but who can blame him? All that many non fans get to experience of Games Workshop's products are surface level stuff. The over the top violence, the extreme to the point of parody grim darkness, the hulking square jawed heroes, the comically exaggerated villains. Few people get to find out that the setting is capable of subtle satire, as seen in Sandy Mitchell's Comissar Cain series, or very relateable human drama, as seen in Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts.

Yet Games Workshop seem content to just ram Space Marines down our throat at every available opportunity, every game and comic MUST have their beloved Space Marines in it. As I mentioned earlier, this all come down to treating their spin offs like adverts. Their Ultramarines film had absolutely nothing in it to set it apart from any other “soldiers in space,” story. If you took away all the Warhammer iconography and replaced them with generic sci-fi visuals, there would be nothing vaguely Warhammer about it.
There is more to Warhammer 40000 than Space Marines. There is more to Games Workshop's products than childish violence, but until they start making this clear then people like Yahtzee are going to carry on dismissing it outright.

6. Forget your hangups. Get into Hollywood.

The World of Warcraft film is almost upon us. I understand how popular the game is, but it breaks my heart that Warhammer 40000 didn't get there first. I'm not going to harp on about Warcraft being far too much of a generic fantasy setting, because that would be hypocritical since Warhammer 40000 itself takes most of it's setting from Dune wholesale. That being said, I don't feel like we really need a Warcraft film, I don't see it bringing anything to the table that hasn't already been done. Warhammer 40000 on the other hand, has elements that I have yet to see rendered on the big screen. Chainswords, Titans, the aforementioned melding of fantasy and sci-fi, a lack of morally good (but not unsympathetic) characters, the visual disconnect of the armies styles, all things I don't think I've seen another movie do, or at least not often.

But what does this have to do with saving Games Workshop? Well, a film, or at the very least a TV series would remind everyone that they are still relevant, that they still have a following, and naturally it would reach out to new audiences. The current problem is that Games Workshop are hesitant to do anything that is not handled in house, which is a gripe they're going to need to let go of if they want to get further.

It could be terrible, if they focus too much on the Space Marines and the violence then it'll get panned into the stone age. It could be incredible, I've always said that the Warhammer 40000 setting has the potential to do something on par with Blade Runner. Fail or no, it would give Games Workshop the chance to prove they can go toe to toe with something like Warcraft.

7. Embrace your competitor's products.

At present Games Workshop's main competition comes in the form of Wizards of the Coast, with Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, and other miniature manufacturers like Privateer Press. As blasphemous as it sounds, I think Games Workshop should stop being an exclusive store. I think they should peddle their rivals products as much as their own. 

It may sound odd, but when you think about it, it's a no brainer. These manufactures need distributors, and Games Workshop is going to get a cut from these sales. In the UK, it's difficult enough to find Warmachine miniatures, if Games Workshop suddenly starts selling them they're going to start making money from an existing fanbase that they didn't previously have access to. You let them play the games in store, D&D, M:TG, Hordes, and you've got a whole different audience now being exposed to your products. You might catch the eye of a D&D player who didn't previously give any thought to your products, for example.

And finally

8. Remember that the aim of a business is to make money, but the point of a business is to provide a service.

You're not The Wolf of Wall Street and you never will be. Many many people have defended Games Workshop and other companies with similar practices through the argument that “Businesses exist to make money,”. I hate to break it to you, but this is not true. A man does not become a fruit seller because he thinks he thinks he'll make millions from peoples apple desires, he does it because he sees a service that is not currently being provided or thinks he can do better.

We work because we need money, and do the job we do either because we have to, or we want to. Big corporations are always in a position where they can choose what they want to do, and if they want to put their own earnings in front of the service they are providing their customers then that is wrong. It's this kind of thinking that leads to the much loathed DRM of the video game industry and the much mocked blockbuster action movies that most are now turning away from. It's this kind of business practice that gets EA voted worst company in America, and it's this kind of business practice that meant that Arnold Schwarzenegger's career comeback never materialized.
If Games Workshop wants to succeed, they need to stop thinking how they can squeeze every last penny out of their customers and instead focus on providing a product that people will want to buy. All the points above filter down into this final one, they need to respect their customers, value all demographics as a potential audience, and prove to people that they can trust their product.

We all want Games Workshop to succeed. It has made many mistakes, lost it's way perhaps, but now is the time to learn from those mistakes. Now is the time to get back on the ladder and start climbing, because one day, one far off day, Games Workshop might develop a community I want to be a part of again.

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