Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Freeloaders of the World, Unite!

There cannot be many industries in the world where the dominant manufacturer can call its principle customers 'freeloaders' and get away with it - toy soldiers is one though. Because that is how Games Workshop's CEO, Mark Wells, referred to internet retailers of GW products in May, this year. Well, here is the response of at least some of those freeloaders.

Yes, Tabletop Nation, an inclusive initiative, bringing together manufacturers, retailers, and, crucially, customers, all under one friendly banner designed to - well, thats the question, isn't it? What is Tabletop Nation for? What is supposed to do? Frankly, the blurb on the web page is not all that clear, but let me explain what I think Wayland and BoW are proposing.

In a nutshell, what I think we are looking at here is a sort of merger - in a strictly non-legally binding sense - to form a corporation with a size to rival Games Workshop. And I do believe it is intended to rival Games Workshop. Its a big assumption, I know, but I believe a fair one. Also, we are only talking about the UK - for now.

As things stand, every game system or manufacturer has their own little piece of the pie, their own little sub-niche within the tabletop gaming marketplace. Wayland has their customers, totalwargamer theirs. Privateer Press has its list of customers, as does Mantic. Each little group of customers is fairly isolated from the others due to the way this hobby is run - there are very few (if any) publications covering more than one war gaming system and not a lot brand-name websites covering them either (yeah, there are some, but compare how many sites deal with more than one tabletop gaming system with the number that cover, say sports or fashion - its a small field). And of course, no manufacturer puts links to their competitors on their site. New customers are usually found through word of mouth recommendations - someone you know says game X is cool because they know you like game Y. Even then you need a critical mass, in this case enough people to play against each other for it to be interesting, of new customers to really get established in any one place.

So, every product is trying to sell itself in isolation and cannot piggyback on related products to drive acquisition of new customers. Plus, you need to get several new customers all at the same time in order for any of them to keep buying your products and thus grow your foothold in an area.

Enter BoW and Wayland.

Beasts of War has expanded from being essentially a youtube channel to a well-established and regarded tabletop news and articles website with (presumably) high traffic rates. They run text news articles but are fairly unique in their range of video series. As well as painting guides, they also put out unboxing videos of wargaming products, tips and tactics videos, and reviews. They also put together series of videos to coincide with the release of new ranges or armies for established brands including Games Workshops. They have forums for all the major gaming systems and have been trying to position themselves as a social hub for tabletop gamers for some time. All of this makes them a recognised brand with access to a large number of registered users.

Wayland, similarly, has a large database of wargames customers and a lot of experience retailing to them.

Here is what in essence I reckon they are saying to prospective partners in Tabletop Nation: get on board with our new brand and get access to all our customers and all your competitors' customers. In other words, advertise with us, feed us with access to your products (news, behind the scenes, freebies for competitions, whatever) and be viewed by our massive numbers of loyal fans, who may currently only be playing other games, so they can discover your game as well. Sure, some of your customers might end up buying their products - but some of their customers will end up buying yours too. And after all, in a capitalist marketplace, we all believe our product has strengths above our competitors so what do you have to lose by being seen alongside them?

This is in contrast to, say, Games Workshop's current promotional strategy, which seems to run something along the lines of keep saying our stuff is the best in the world and pretend no other games system exists and it will be alright.

There is a slightly different proposition for customers and retailers.

One of GW's greatest strengths right now is its geographical reach. With around 150 stores worldwide and counting, I don't know how many of which are in the UK, each of which runs at least one club night per week, plus all the Games Club Network clubs that are advertised in White Dwarf every month, there are a lot of places you can easily find a game of Warhammer or 40k each week. There are many more clubs and stores running gaming nights than these though - but none have such ready access to national press advertising as GW. This could change with Tabletop Nation. So your store that runs a gaming night that, as before, struggles to find new members because they struggle to find you, can now be listed on the central hub site for UK gamers. And wherever you live you could search for clubs or players near you, or find new clubs or friends in places you are visiting.

Which brings me on to what, for me, is perhaps the most exciting part of the Tabletop Nation blurb - the gaming hall 'east of London'. I currently live in the same town Wayland operates from and I know the new hall is also going to be very close to me. I love everything about Warhammer World - except its location and the fact you can only play GW games there. Tabletop Nation's headquarters could be the answer to both those problems.

None of this is guaranteed, of course. Its all just my guess at what's going on and what is being offered. Some of it is perhaps wishful thinking too, or just what I would do if I were trying to build the Tabletop Nation brand.

I doubt we'll hear much more of this until the New Year but, hopefully, agreements are being drawn up and ink signed even over the Christmas holiday. Tabletop Nation could be a great step forward for all wargamers and is certainly full of potential to revolutionise how the hobby works. I look forward to learning more about it son.

Further notes on Failcast

I gave it a few months before trying Citadel's new format for miniatures again. But, with rumours starting to spread of a new Eldar Codex some time next year, I figured it was time to get on with finishing my Eldar army. It had been stalled at four completed(ish) tanks and 10 (almost) painted Dire Avengers for over a year. But a quick read of the current edition 'dex later, and I figured I could make a pretty nice list with the purchase of just three boxes of infantry.

All I needed was; a box of Howling Banshees, a box of Rangers, and a box of Fire Dragons. I watched quite a few auctions of versions of each of these models on ebay - oh, how I now wish I had bought some of those lovely metal antiques, instead of going for brand new plasti-res ones. Because I would happily trade the time I would have spent stripping the paint from someone else's mini's for that which I ended up spending greenstuffing the ones I did buy and the disappointment I feel when I look at how their awful texture has affected the painting I have done.

To be fair, it may be that the more recently cast models are slightly better quality than first pressings. All but one of the Rangers I bought from Wayland Games were acceptable quality - that is, they had crooked rifle barrels that needed fixing (two of which have subsequently broken off), but there were no massive holes or missing parts. The fifth was just nasty though. The sprue was filled with flash, the model's cloak is not smooth, and his rifle looks less sculpted than jammed on.

I had to buy Fire Dragons from GW as Wayland were out of stock. Let me be clear here: these models are bloody terrible. The sculpts are more or less complete - although one Dragon's melta gun is missing half of its fuel cannister and three were all bent out of shape. But the texture of the models is, like the Ranger, awful. Instead of being a nice smooth finish the Dragons' armour is rough and pockmarked. So when I did a brown wash on the models, instead of a nice graduated finish, flowing into the recesses, the models look like they've been splattered with mud. They look more burnt than fire.

Howling Banshees I had to wait a week for (Wayland were out and GW had returned all theirs due to miscasts) so I reckon the box I got was a fresh casting. And generally they were ok. Faults though included several pieces of mold still embedded in the figures (little pink bits of foam that are relatively easy to take off) and the usual warping around ankle and wrist joints and blades that can be fixed with hot water. Surfaces were actually quite smooth on these girls, but they were still plagued with bubbles in conspicuous places. Two models had big holes at the end of their strands of hair and every single model's armlet of gems was plagued with bubbling.

At this point, I feel I am beyond trying to cover up GW's mistakes. I fixed a couple of the hair-bubbles and a few gems on the back of armour carapaces but left the rest. Its a shame because those gems can look lovely when coloured - a nice contrast to the pale armour. But frankly, if GW can't be bothered to produce goods that are complete as advertised, I can't be bothered to fill in the gaps. Similarily the Ran.gers and Fire Dragons bear the marks they were cast with. I have better things to do than try to fix them

Which makes me wonder - what do the 'Eavy Metal guys think of Finecracks? I doubt there are special casts for GW's elite painters to work on - perfect renditions of forthcoming models for them to present and showcase. Which means they too are having to fill holes and cracks, smooth textures and open multiple boxes (or their in-house equivalent) in order to get a model that can be painted to their very high standards. Has this slowed down productivity? Do they mind the extra workload or does the job of making models usable fall to junior members of the team? Perhaps they just get theirs cast in metal like the rest of us wish we could.

GW stores still seem to have a policy of opening as many boxes as are needed in order to give the customer a satisfactory set. Wayland Games told me that they to would happily exchange any defective models for me but I asked them what the standard was. After all, GW, as well as selling us poorly cast minis, now also sells the tools to fix the mistakes with. Are they saying holes, bubbles, and missing parts are to be expected and therefore no returns will be allowed? Wayland said the standard was whether 'scuplture' was needed to remedy a miscast. So a gap between parts, say a leg and a groin, might not count as a failed model as you can just fill it. But missing fingers or parts of components (such as my half-cast cannisters) would be grounds for a replacement. But even this appears to be debatable - retailers have tried to send products back to GW but been told they are acceptable to customers. When said goods have been sold to customers however - they were returned.

This is turn makes me wonder what kind of lasting impression GW hopes to make on its customers, particularly the younger ones, with all of these substandard miniatures.

As I see it , there are largely two demographic groups in this hobby - one school aged or slightly over, and middle-aged dads like me. Thats because we start playing while we're young, then we have to go out and get jobs, wives, pay bills for the first time, etc, so the hobby fades away quite a bit. Then, once we've gotten ourselves established with partners, children, houses, etc, we go back to our childhood loves and start to spend our money again on them.

Except today's kids may not have quite the same rosy memories of Warhammer and 40k as we do - as well as the games and friends they had, today's young players may in fact remember the poor quality of the products they got at Christmas and birthdays. If I look at the mini's I collected 20-30 years ago I am largely impressed by their quality even back then, despite the fact today's mini's are (supposedly) of much higher levels of detail. Will the young players of today be able to say the same thing when they look back at all the bubbles and cracks and holes that their collection came with? I may be able to fill and sand and drill my GW toys to a reasonable standard - but can the average 10 year old do the same?

I doubt it, which is ironic as GW, at least at my local store, seems more concerned with bringing in new school-aged customers than retaining its older ones. Perhaps thats because its easier to wrestle money from the wallets of parents who just want to buy the toys their children want than it is from those of us with a bit more experience and a keener eye.

I certainly don't intend to buy any more Failcasts until there is a clear and marked change in their quality. I shall keenly watch as others take the gamble and open up the boxes they have been able to afford to buy - maybe by the time that new Eldar book arrives, the quality we were promised will have too.