Monday, May 07, 2012

Editorial: Open Letter to Games Workshop

I've been thinking about writing this article for some time now.  I've been spending a lot of time talking to my good friend (the one who made the 40k diorama) about why I've been disillusioned with Warhammer 40k and Fantasy and Games Workshop in general.  It's been difficult to put into words over these last couple of years but the other day I think I finally figured out exactly why I'm having so much more fun with Warmachine/Hordes and why, even with the impending release of 6th Edition 40k I'm generally not excited - and in fact pessimistic about its release.  I think that Games Workshop (GW) has been making decisions that impact me, as a customer, in very negative ways recently, and they have a policy of keeping things exactly the same as they are.  I think that's dangerous and if GW wants to win back more customers like me, I think they have to take some big steps forward and change.  Please note that I am not trying to preach to anyone here, that is not my point.  I am not trying to "convert" anyone, but merely trying to share what I believe to be steps for GW to take to make their game more enjoyable overall.  As much as they claim that they are a 'miniatures company' first, without their games, they would doubtfully sell as many miniatures as they do now.

I warn you that this is a really long article and a giant wall of text.  I will first share my story, as I think it informs my pessimism about the upcoming release of 6th edition, but the end of the article is where you can find my open letter to Games Workshop, so if you wish to skip all of the background, feel free to jump right there.  First, I would like to share my story.

I began playing miniatures following the release of the Warhammer 40k video game: Dawn of War.  This game really resonated with me and I loved the squadron-level combat seen in the game and it contrasted uniquely with that of Starcraft, which generally saw individual models on the field operating individually.  I was intrigued by it and while I had seen Warhammer 40k before, as my friends had picked up the models in the past, this computer game got me far more interested in the game.  Once I was on break from college I returned home and chatted with my friend who I knew was into the game.  We went to a small, local game store and he introduced me to the products on the wall, all the different races that one could play, and the story of the universe in general.  I was particularly struck by the race of bug-like monsters who used living organisms in their ranged weapons, and I was officially hooked on the Tyranids.

40k wasn't perfect, but there were some fun armies out there that I really liked and I became intrigued by the free-to-download army lists like the Kroot Mercenaries, the Eldar Harlequins, and the Feral Orks.  Even shortly after I started playing there was a global campaign called The Fall of Medusa V (for which I still have a poster) and there were fancy new Imperial Guard models released called the Vostroyans.  Every faction vied for dominance and you could report the results of your games - even the ones that me and my friends achieved by playing on the dining room table.

I'll fast forward a bit to a couple years ago, well into the release of 5th edition.  The Space Marines and Imperial Guard had been updated and were the new kids on the block.  Everyone rolled their eyes a bit for a while but then the infamous Leaf Blower list made its way around the internet.  It was insanely powerful, able to destroy most armies within the first two turns alone and it completely changed the metagame for 40k forever.  Shortly thereafter, Adepticon reported that more than 50% of the 40k armies in attendance were Imperial Guard armies.  Space Wolves were slowing growing in popularity by that point, but the Leaf Blower was still king.  When the Tyranids hit the scene in 5th edition, everyone was pumped because the same guy who wrote the Imperial Guard codex was also writing the Tyranid book!  There was hope for the bugs to become great again!  Alas, that dream was not to be.

It's not that the Tyranid book was bad or anything, it was just really disappointing.  There were many things in there that just didn't seem right.  I fell in love with the swarm of bugs, the never-ending tide of bodies that would clog up my enemies lines only to come back again while my monstrous creatures smashed apart their tanks.  Suddenly, my big monsters weren't so scary, my little bugs not so numerous, and while there were some new exciting additions, I found myself making lists and putting them on the table and saying "... that's it?"  But, the army was playable and my buddy who played Chaos still hated me as I was still able to beat him with my Genestealers, and my Hive Tyrants seemed far more capable opponents in close combat, at least.  Then, just as a Tyranid Hive Fleet brings darkness to a planet as it descends, there was a document released that brought darkness to my world: the Tyranid FAQ.

There were some questions that needed answered, sure.  What was also found in that document were rulings on issues that had never come up before, and did not need answering.  In fact, this document tore apart entire playstyles of Tyranids which made them more appealing - especially the styles that I liked to employ.  It's not that they were broken, they were just different.  As a player who did not feel like shelling out hundreds of $$$ to buy new models, I was very disappointed.  I had already had difficulty fielding all of the models that I had spent so much money on, and the new codex didn't help.  In fact, one of the biggest insults was that one of my favorite conversions that I ever made was to create an updated and scarier-looking Red Terror.  Among all of the special characters that were created for the Tyranid codex, the Red Terror was the only old special character they didn't return.  What was worse: they mention him in the book but decided not to make rules for him.  My bitterness has not dissipated since.

Since the release of the Tyranid codex there have been even more reasons for me to stay away from GW games in general.  The release of 8th edition Warhammer Fantasy Battles had turned my favorite army (Wood Elves) into a joke and they decided that instead of creating unique and tactical strategies that they would just lazily balance issues with randomness.  Toss in some Finecast issues and price hikes and you'll understand why anyone would be disappointed right now.

So where am I going with this?  With the impending release of 6th edition I am very pessimistic about the release.  GW has a history of improperly balancing certain abilities/factions and then swinging their ruleset the complete opposite direction to try to compensate for it - all at a slow pace of at best 3 army updates per year (although there has been nothing released yet in 2012).  On top of it all they are continuing to raise prices for their customers - even when they switch to newer materials - just so they can make a higher profit.  In fact, a lot of their decisions (even business decisions) seem to at best stick with the 'status quo' and at worst, backward.  This is what they have to say on their own web site regarding employment at Games Workshop:

"Games Workshop is a business with a strong internal culture which means we have a very definite set of ideas, beliefs and ways of doing things. All our employees are dedicated to constantly making things better for our customers, whether this is by providing wonderful product or delivering great service. We are hard working, committed, passionate, cheerful and above all put the business first, whilst continually looking at how we can improve ourselves.
We believe that how you behave does matter, therefore we believe that attitudes, such as those highlighted above, are even more important than skills and for many roles we will happily teach the skills you need if you bring a great attitude to your work.
If the way you behave and the attitudes you display fit with Games Workshop's ideals, it is highly likely you will be successful, well rewarded and happy. However, it is only fair to say that people who don't fit with our culture, or who play at fitting, will be unhappy and consequently unsuccessful."
In other words, if you come in with new ideas to improve anything in Games Workshop, good luck.  Even when their games are notoriously losing their fanbase, overcharging their customers, and their games are becoming less fun to play, they still want you to know: "We won't change at all!"  In fact, if you want to try something new, you shouldn't work for us anymore.  It's really no wonder Alessio Cavatore and Andy Chambers left Games Workshop.

Here's my response and open letter to Games Workshop:
Games Workshop,
If you really are a 'miniatures company' first and foremost, why do you even charge for your rules?  Why even have the codex system established the way it is, where you update [at most] 3 codexes a year?  I propose that you make your ruleset free to the public, available online, and that you embrace the changes in technology to further your miniatures sales.  If you are a 'miniatures company' first, like you claim, then your models should stand on their own without rules support.  Right?

You have established a popularity for the 'fluff' or stories and backgrounds for each of the races in the 40k universe through the Black Library releases.  Perhaps this should be the model moving forward with the story of the universe.  Since the fluff or story of each codex changes very little, you could afford to publish the stories from the codexes (and changes moving forward) through Black Library publications and let your game designers do what they should do best: design the game.

Through utilizing the internet and the Games Workshop web site, you could create a library of all of the rules documents needed for your game, much like the current archive of Errata and FAQ documents.  By using a live library for information, changes could be made quickly by your designers and subtle balance changes could occur instantaneously, allowing your players to focus on buying up your models and hobby supplies and only having to check online for the latest updates, like video game companies 'patch' their own games.

This live document would serve as a great tool for both the public at large and your game designers.  The designers could make instant changes and quick updates, as well as even potentially posting playtest information, new rules/lists (like the Chapter Approved, in years past), all done quickly without the need to work with publishers or printers, saving a lot of overhead and resources.  The public would be able to check the rules and drive web site traffic where they could not only see the updated rules for their favorite model, but within a couple of clicks they could purchase that newly-updated model through the online store.

Embracing technology and new ways of thinking are what will allow Games Workshop to stay competitive with a generation which is constantly plugged-in to 'The Cloud' anyway and with broadband internet being available to all in the UK, you should be able to understand that better than some in the US.  As a company you cannot afford to stick to old ways of thinking nor can you expect that your business model will continue to work in the future.  Such pride is typically a prerequisite for a popular idiom that I doubt your company wishes to demonstrate.

-The Steam-Powered Gamer
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