Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A New Golden Age of Gaming

This is currently a great time to be a player of games. Not video games, mind you - tabletop games.

Indeed, while the videogames industry languishes and contracts, being increasingly dominated by a few monolithic  publishers and publications, there is an unprecedented diversification in the wargames and boardgames market.

We are, as gamers (and I shall just use that term from now on to describe all of us who play our games with dice, cards, miniatures, and friends), exiting a period of time for the industry that may in some respects be seen as a kind of dark age.

Nearly three decades ago wargaming was cool. I was a boy in the Eighties and it was an exciting time for those who, like me, loved sci-fi and fantasy. Special creature effects were being invented, as was the modern movie and the VHS player. Satellites were joining the world up (yes, this was before the internet) and the most influential roleplaying game of all time, Dungeons and Dragons, made it to the UK.

I still remember, nearly thirty years later, being invited to my first ever D&D session. The game was described to me. I couldn't believe or comprehend it. 'You can do anything you want?', I asked. 'How?'. It was an awesome experience.

From the success of D&D sprang Games Workshop. From being an importer and distributor of American games, this Nottingham company was able to become a creator. Warhammer Fantasy and then Warhammer 40,000 were born. For a while, maybe half the kids I knew collected and painted their miniatures or played pen and paper RPG's. It was never 'cool' cool, like being great at football was cool, but it was accepted and widely understood.

Things changed over the next few years.

Few other companies in the industry were able to thrive and survive through the nineties and noughties. A few tried and even made good products. Rackham Miniatures, were, I am told, great figures. But none could match GW's success. Well, I say success - really we're  talking about survival here.

Thats because I don't believe GW is the only large miniatures company to make it across two centuries solely because they made products that were so good noone could possibly compete. Its more a case of there being so little money in the industry's pool as a whole it only could sustain that one big fish.

Think of how much competition there has been for the hobby money of GW's traditional customers since the Eighties ended. The internet was invented. So was internet gaming and, really, the modern game. VHS, then DVD, then Blu-ray. And console gaming. When I was a lad, toy soldiers was all we could spend our cash on. Since then the alternatives have grown exponentially.

In the face of all these broadened horizons, gaming became a niche product.

This may all be about to change though.

Look at how much competition there is to GW today and where it has come from.

For a start, there is Privateer Press. In 2011, Warmachine overtook Warhammer Fantasy as the biggest selling wargame! They sold so well in fact, they could not match demand with product, a problem that likely cost them the chance to outsell even 40k. This, with no retail outlets of their own.

This year Mantic is getting serious. Despite having product for sale on the net and shop floors for some time now, their recent Kickstarter found more than 1500 backers willing to stump up $355,000 to support them. This massive cash injection meant Mantic's Five Year Plan for development got compressed down to about 6 months, a 'Dare to Dream' meeting had to be held to come up with new ideas for stretch goals, and nearly twenty new lines and an expansion have been added to their portfolio.

Boardgames have enjoyed similar success. Sedition Wars: Battle for Alabaster is now the highest funded boardgame on Kickstarter, raising just south of $1M for Studio McVey and CMON in a month. Can you imagine what that sort of backing means for a small studio like the McVeys'?

SW:BFA overtook another CMON boardgame, Zombicide - $781K, and a Steve Jackson remake, OGRE - $923.7K, on its way to the top spot, showing there is massive support for indoor games that use dice and models and require friends to play.

It doesn't stop at Kickstarter though. This year saw DUST Warfare released, building on the success of Fantasy Flight's DUST Tactics boardgame. Great models, great setting, and a simple ruleset will make for great sales. Super Dungeon Explore and Descent also scratch that itch, for lovers of Fantasy, dungeons, rolling dice and looting monsters.

Much of the success of these games is owed to the internet. Like many other lines, internet selling and fast shipping have opened up massive new markets to localised sellers. GW survived at least in part thanks to its network of retail outlets. A strong high street presence has kept them enough in the public's eye to maintain sales and a turnover of new customers. In fact, their recent profits have been driven more by 'efficiency', i.e. firing staff and opening one-man stores, than increasing sales though. While this strategy may become an increasingly burdensome millstone around GW's neck, its rivals are not so encumbered and are reaching areas and markets without having to worry about renting floorspace or sales staff.

Its perhaps also telling to consider where a lot of the talent for the market's expansion is coming from. Its GW again. Alessio Calvatore is a name that crops up again (Mantic) and again (DUST) in discussion of new games. The Perry twins, Mike McVey, Rik Priestley, and Bob Naismith are all names familiar to longtime GW fans - all now work for, with, or as the competition.

None of this is meant to imply there is no talent or no successes outside GW's stable or the games mentioned in this article. What I am implying is the market is ripe for expansion. While in times past there could be only one, today there is room for many many smaller businesses to live, thrive, and survive. The exodus from GW of well established names and talents shows that these guys see this too. They no longer feel they have to put up with whatever strictures working for GW placed upon them. They don't have to make games for someone else any more - they can make them for themselves. And instead of shareholders (one in particular) raking in dividends from their hard work, they can take all the profits too.

At least where I live, this optimism is being matched by retailers. Wayland Games are now installed in their massive new warehouses in Hockley, Essex, and recently published concept art of their gaming space. I have been there and I have  to say, the visualisations they released don't do the place justice. It is huge.  A new store/game space also opened up in town this past weekend too. ROTDOG has lots of floorspace and lots of games to sell. Their range does not include GW or PP though, suggesting the owner is confident he can make money just from selling other games (DUST, SDE, etc.) and renting tables.

This means that my small town, Southend, now has three retailers and four gaming spaces currently available.

What does the future hold?

I believe it is entirely possible tabletop gaming will overtake PC and console gaming as the cool pasttime for a generation of children and young adults growing up today.

And why not?

There was a time, barely more than ten years ago, when internet and console gaming was uncool. Seriously! When I played my first online shooter (Star Trek Voyager - Elite Force!), dial-up was the standard and playing games over the net was really not a widespread activity. Multiplayer games, at least for the PC were barely even invented!  It was really only when Halo was released that local console multiplayer became popular, I couldn't tell you what game made internet gaming take off.  But we have a generation now that grew up with the net and gaming over it and considers it to be normal, natural, and cool to do.

Things change though and what is considered the norm by one generation very quickly becomes a fad to the next.

People like to play together. I suggest that what has stopped them doing so in recent times is a lack of choice, more than an ingrained aversion to tabletop games, and a cool looking new alternative - internet gaming. Price has been an issue too. But tabletop games are getting cheaper (at least if you price them by volume. And ignore GW) and consoles and PC games are getting pricier. Seriously - £50 for another COD game? That is the same/extremely close to the last one I bought? And that I will only play for four or five months before exchanging it for a clone? And that on top of my £150-200 console.... Compare that to a boardgame where every game can be different, new models or expansions can be added, and where your friends can come over to play too. It costs less, lasts longer, and is not the same game as you bought last year.

So, a new Golden Age of Gaming could well be nigh. What has been a dark time for gamers, with little choice, few places to play, and some small amount of social stigma, could well be ending. We are entering a new period, with great choice, great variety, and new places to play and opponents and teammates too. Its a good time to be a gamer - I hope you are enjoying it too :)

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