Sunday, May 11, 2008

Gamers: Paper or Plastic?

I find it interesting the difference between role-players and miniature gamers. It's especially pronounced when a new version of a game is announced. For example, the new Warhammer 40K 5th edition is due out July 12th. It's accepted as a done deal by 40K gamers. There doesn't seem to be a lot of yelling and gnashing of teeth or claims that groups of 40K players will never make the switch. It's happening; adjust your army list and move on.

Meanwhile, D&D players lament or celebrate the change to 4th edition on June 6th. "Hardcore" gamers seem obligated to pick a side. Some say they will never switch to the new edition, while others see the need to evangelize 4th edition. This happens every edition, and some are left by the wayside with their "legacy" materials. Customers still come in looking for 2nd edition splat books and I try not to look at them like they're out of their friggin' mind. Other gamers will happily move forward, onward to something new. The problem is that the demographic of these players continues to age, and it's not attracting kids like it once did. It's a kind of doomed model, in desperate need of refreshing, before it joins the ancient historical gamers who troll game conventions for Napoleonics in their twilight retirement years.

Is it all about money? The problem with Dungeons & Dragons is it's based on books, information specific to each edition of a game. Miniature games, exemplified by Games Workshop, are different. They constantly produce books, but their core business is models. 40K 5th edition obsoletes one book, and potentially nerfs a handful of models. They regularly release new codices for each army that obsoletes previous editions, but it happens so slowly, on an individual basis, that there's not a lot of concern. When it does happen, the obsoleted codex is replaced by one that's often better than anything else in the game, a reward for loyalty I suppose. Players online call it the FOTM; Flavor of the Month. D&D 4th edition, however, will obsolete hundreds of dollars in books, an entire collection for many people. It was this way for each previous edition, so a long term D&D player has a large library of game books, from various editions, that they'll never use again, whether they admit it or not.

The RPG edition treadmill is a palpable loss of hobby product for players, while at least in 40K you've got those pretty models on the shelf. In the end, most D&D players will move to 4th edition for the same reason that 40K players move to 5th: they'll have trouble finding someone to play with the old rules. Tournaments are more important to miniature gamers, but thousands of local RPG fans still attend local gaming conventions to play D&D. However, D&D players mostly play with their friends, and friends can agree to do what they want, at least while the group is coherent, which is another big problem with role-playing gamers; disintegrating gaming groups due to the play time involved. You can bang out a 40K game in an hour, with large gaps between games if you like, but an RPG session minimum is around 4 hours per week, and it needs to be consistent to maintain a story line. The stress of an RPG game schedule is difficult for aging adults, so that social compact regarding editions is only valid as long as that specific group continues to exist, which usually lasts no more than a year.

Are role-playing gamers inherently cheap? Are miniature gamers more open to opening their wallet? Probably some of both. In each role-paying group there's a dungeon master who has taken on the responsibility of creating exciting games. He becomes the money guy, as he's constantly looking for things to impress the group, usually from expensive, published source material. On rare occasions, a group of players will chip in for this expense, but it's very unusual. The players aren't necessarily cheap, but they may be. If a gamer comes into the store and accurately assesses the money for fun ratio, they'll see that being a player in Dungeons & Dragons is really very inexpensive. They may only buy one book, possibly two or three to beef up their character. That's about $100. If they were cheap already, this is certainly their game. If they have a metric buttload of free time, like students, the unemployed or the disabled, wow! The only better value is a computer game, like World of Warcraft, although it lacks the social element key to gaming (but removes the scheduling element). In contrast, a 40K player will need to spend at least $200 to get an army together. Games Workshop assumes that a first year player will spend $600; and $300 in each subsequent year until they get the bug for their second army.

And finally, there's the perspective of the store. I love D&D, it's true, but role-playing is a weak department. As mentioned, one of the five guys who plays this game, who is not getting any younger, buys the majority of product. The product, if made of paper, is available online for free if you're a pirate, or at 40% off if you shop at, where they make their money on product placement and marketing, not selling paper books. If it's made of plastic, it's sold near cost by Internet discounters. We haven't sold a case of D&D minis for a long time, we used to, but we make a killing on singles, where we open cases and sell individual figures. Why? Because all of the case customers buy online now and come in to buy singles to fill in their collection. So D&D is a commodity hobby, just big enough to have respectable customer "spill over" into the store. It's a crummy department to support, and we don't add a lot of value as a store.

Warhammer 40K is a hobby, based primarily on touchy-feely models that need things like glue and paint and things that you're likely to forget if you're buying online. Yes, you can barter, trade or buy online, but the distribution of the game is tightly controlled and it's hard not to at least get started by buying cool boxes of plastic sprues and tin. You also need a place to play, and while role-players and their friends have kitchen tables, miniature gamers need ever changing opponents to keep things interesting. They need a hobby center where people meet to do these things. As you can imagine, it's a much better fit for a store than the RPG model.


  1. A lot of good points overall. I want to emphasize one point that you hit on: miniatures gamers get a lot more upset over invalidated models than they do new rules in general. Witness the people still calling for the return of Squats to 40K despite GW getting so fed up with the issue that they officially stated that Squats were never returning, ever, and wrote their extinction into elements of the fluff.

    Change the rules all you want, but don't invalidate the minis.

    That said, there are significant elements that get fed up with the edition changes, but most of them have dealt with it by not playing GW games anymore. A significant chunk of the people playing FoW came from this crowd. Most of the longer term players who have stayed with GW games have come to accept new editions as a matter of course.

    Many of these people will still accept edition changes, but only as a natural development of the game, not as a scheduled business decision. These are the people with the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" mindset. When a book has 25 pages of errata, or has gained a similar amount of supplemental rules, even they are usually willing to accept a new edition to incorporate everything into a single volume.

    One monetary factor that you didn't touch on that is specific to the change to 4th edition: 3rd edition is by far the largest library for a single RPG ever. The success of the OGL accounts for a lot of this, but even just counting official WotC product, the line is bigger than 2nd or 1st edition ever was.

    Toss in the fact that there are people who have bought both pdf and hardcopy versions of many of the same books, and you have a huge investment made that at least rivals the total investment made by miniatures gamers.

    Also, the relatively minor investment required of players is countered by the fact that the gamemaster is usually the alpha gamer of the group, and therefore the one with the largest investment is also the one making the decision of whether or not to make the switch to a new edition.

    When I start to really think about it, the surprising thing isn't how many people don't want to switch to the new edition, it's how many are willing to do so despite what they have invested in 3rd!

    Perhaps the move to miniature-centric gaming that started in 3rd is a bit of a help here. At least all those collectible minis that people bought will still be useful under 4th edition.

  2. Damn, I should have posted that as a rant on my own blog instead of a reply to yours ;-)

  3. Excellent points, I can see why you would want it on your blog. Go ahead and post it; I won't tell. ;)

  4. You said:

    "It's a kind of doomed model, in desperate need of refreshing, before it joins the ancient historical gamers who troll game conventions for Napoleonics in their twilight retirement years."

    And I say:

    Ouch! As someone who is a hardcore wargame first and foremost that comment hurt. :( I'm also 34 and no where near retirement. I own a massive collection of military miniatures and board wargames and I "troll" your shop for anything wargaming related on a regular basis. I generally try to drop cash in your store whenever I stop in, even if it rarely is on wargame stuff I really want. I do it to support your store.

    It sucks being the obscure and strange foster child of the game community. Historical wargaming is not as dead as some might lead you to believe. With companies like GMT they are experiencing an explosion in quality and demand.

    Anyway I digress. But I'm not a troll, nor am I retired, fat, or smelly. And I collect and play wargames first and foremost.

  5. I feel your pain and I try to support historical games as best I can through our small board game collection and Flames of War, but they sell poorly. I want them to succeed, but where are the customers?

    We keep trying and right now we're dabbling with the idea of getting some historical minis from Warpath, since we can now special order historicals through a distributor, something that hasn't existed in years.

    The war game sector got this way for various reasons, but what we're left with are mostly direct order companies, making very specific, very expensive (low print run), low margin (for retail stores) products to a very small community of people that seem to not be getting any younger (it's not a growth market).

    Companies like GMT do a good job, but their customers are those who buy directly from them. They're preaching to the choir. We get their games only after the core demand is satisfied with their direct sales. It's a small niche in which game stores have a limited role to play, I would argue (some stores do better with them).

    Will role-playing games fall into this model? Computer gaming took its toll on war games. It's certainly doing a good job killing role-playing games. There was a war games boom followed by a bust in the '80's, potentially what could happen with the rise of D20 and a potential failure of 70% of the market (aka, if D&D 4 is received poorly). Just look at White Wolf.

    What has survived from war gaming that could be a lesson for role-playing games? Light war games do very well, such as Command & Colors and Memoir 44. Perhaps small press RPGs would be these equivalents in the RPG world? I don't think "classic" RPG's will go away anytime soon, but they could depart stores under the right conditions. As a role-players, I don't want to rely on the Internet and conventions to find my games.

  6. I say this not as a dig in any way, but maybe having wargames someplace other than in the most obscure corner of the shop might help? :) I totally understand that wargames are a smaller market with low margins and few dedicated customers, but like any product you sell you likely have to "grow" that section and groom it to make it a good seller. Look to indy RPGS as a similar example. I believe you had to groom that section before sales picked up and now they are steady sellers. Sadly there are no easy answers, I know. Maybe if I got you to special order more stuff it would help. Can you special order the next issue of S&T please?

  7. I've pre-ordered the next 4 issues of Strategy & Tactics.

    Special orders would be helpful. It's how the current section got populated. If I see a game is popular enough for someone to order it, I'll usually pick up another for the store, or possibly several.

    I understand the issue with the placement. They used to be more prominently displayed in this store but after 5 months of no sales, I moved them. There's also this perception that the store is too "war" oriented, more of an issue since we started carrying toys.

    I'll end up moving them later, but I'll also mention that although they seem like they're in a deep, dark corner (at night), they're actually displayed facing the front window, and you can see them from outside during the day. I've had people come in buy them because they've seen them from outside.

  8. Too war oriented?? Ack. That's the sort of thing that when I hear it makes me run from a store screaming. I understand you have to cater to a wide range of customers, but I hope you don't go down the "war is icky" and "wargames are bad" path. I already stopped spending time and money at one Bay Area game store because of that attitude, and I promised to spend all that money with BDG instead. Ordering S&Ts is great. The next issue that arrives you can consider sold (assuming I get it before someone else anyway).

  9. I'm running a business rather than taking a political stance. If I thought it was unethical to sell "war games," which I don't, then that would be something different.

    So I can get the third and fourth issues that I mentioned and subsequent issues after that, but the distributors order almost no extra stock of these. They're going to try to snag me one of each of the first two, if possible. Only one of my distributors carries them.