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Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Philosophy of Games Workshop

Hi all,

well, first off- warning, this is a fairly long post with no pictures.

OK, there's been a fair amount of anti-Games Workshop sentiment bouncing around of late. Specific articles have been Tabletop Wargame News , Yes the Truth Hurts , and the comments to HERO's BOLS post. There have been others. They make interesting reading- and the overall message seems to be "We hate Games Workshop because we can."

Now the relationship between GW and gamers has been a tumultuous one, really since they developed a retail chain. In the past (mid to late 1990's) GW never admitted to these- and that led to the revision of 40K into 3rd Ed, the revision of Fantasy into 6th Ed, the abandonment of Specialist Games as primary product and the eventual mass-exodus of gamers from the hobby. This was a fairly bad time in the hobby, born of Games Workshop's own success; a time which many GW employees in the UK refer to as "the Dark Ages."

Publicly, GW blamed its decline on the success of Console and PC gaming, and the profusion of Pokemon. The rationality for this? Parents. You see, the real problem was that their business model had encouraged the selling of Core Game product (the starter box sets) to children. The retail business model was actually entitled TGD- Total Global Domination. Success would be achieved when every child had a copy of 40K or Fantasy under their bed, just like Scalextrix. Of course, this meant that 8-12 year olds were being sold core boxes, and that in fact yes, they did have a Core Game. Sitting under their bed. Not being used. Why? Because there was no support for gamers- stores were encouraged to simply sell product, not to accrue hobbyists.

The net result of this approach was 2-fold. Firstly, parents realised that Toy Soldiers was a waste of money, and so encouraged their children into cheaper hobbies. Like Pokemon. Also a cash-dump, you say? Absolutely. But parents- would you rather waste £10 to treat your child, and actually get immediate gratification from 4 packs of cards that require no further effort? Or would you like to spend 5 times that on a box of models which need to built, then painted, then the rules learned and played with. Board games are an effort to play as a family- putting even more pressure onto the purchaser to spend their time and effort on an entertainment purchase, without offering any support for that, was and remains a big ask.

The second effect was in the staff- being as they were encouraged to purely sell, many turned into the obvious - they became Salesmen. Not hobbyists, not gamers- just salesmen, who had a good day if they hit their numbers. It was at this time that "regulars" became a dirty word amongst GW staff- they saw existing hobbyists in their stores as a barrier to sales. Stores at the time in my area banned painting in the stores (entirely, in one case- no painting table at all), and gaming for regulars. Not moving gaming to a specific time- just no gaming that wasn't an intro-game. Imagine that- you've bought the Core Box, but can't figure out how to use the contents- the rules are a bit complicated, and the Humbrol Enamel paints your Uncle recommended just don't seem right. That's when the local store, who sold you the product, tell you that it will all be better, if you buy this book and that magazine then go to this group full of Emo-Goth teens. Yeah, that Core box was under the bed- until your mum got sick of the mess and threw it out.

People levelling animosity towards GW at this point in time were entirely justified. Most GW staff will freely admit this. The company had entirely the wrong attitude towards their gamers, and their sales figures coming into the new Millenium reflected that. Then they changed.

Their was a complete overhaul of GW staff- around 60% were let go within a 6 month period. This "purge" removed a lot of the old fat from GW, and allowed them to re-evaluate their priorities. Now, many changes happened, but here's the two big ones:

  1. Stores were evaluated according to how many new gamers they recruited, not how many Core Games they sold.
  2. GW implemented a general Philosophy as to how their staff should behave and be seen to behave.
The implications? Well, in the last 5 years, Games Workshop stores have primarily been hobby recruiters. Are they there to make money? Of course- they are a business after all. It's the way they do it that has changed- the link between hobbyist and financial success has been identified. This means that for new gamers, stores act as an introduction to the hobby- if someone enjoys the hobby, then they are encouraged to make the key purchases. No, this doesn't always work- some managers will be hungry for targets, so will push harder on the sales. Some will be wary of asking parents for significant amounts of money, so will actually discourage people from spending money. But that shift in attitude from "gamers are cash-cows" to "gamers need to be for life" is significant, if only because it means that GW is trying.

That leads neatly on to the General Philosophy. I'm not going to go into details, just pick out a few salient points. Firstly, fairness. The idea that all gamers should be treated fairly, and realising that fairly is not necessarily the same. That was the driving force behind standardising the retail chain- 10 men in a box should cost the same for the relevant unit, no matter what army you collect. So the box prices were standardised. This made the marketing and budgetary departments very happy, of course, and it remains to be seen whether this was a sensible course of action- but again, they are trying to make it easier for hobbyists to start in, and remain  part of, the hobby. 

OK, number 2 on my list- Honesty. Yes, GW believes that it should be honest with consumers. Don't feel like they are? Why not? Because of what you've read online? Really? Let's look at a few things that have changed over the last 5 years. Price rises are advertised well in advance. For those that have been in the hobby for a while- remember when price rises happened at random, for no reason, with a few weeks notice? Now, there's usually a 6-week lead time for a price-hike, and the reasons are always given. Even if the reason is simply that it's the annual price-hike. In fairness to the internet community, they still get this one wrong- the current guessing game over what's happening with metal product is evidence of that. However, they are more honest now than they ever have been in the past.

A big one for the finale- Openness. The company as a whole wishes to be open and accountable to its Shareholders, and its customers. Are they succeeding? I think, kind of. Bearing in mind that I don't believe Openness means that they should leak future releases, or let us know when the next edition is coming a year in advance, I think that GW does a better job now of letting us know what they are doing than any point in the past. What prevents them from being more open? Well, that's the point of this post...

We do. The online community. Games Workshop is trying to be a more honest broker, and correct the mistakes of the past. This effort has cost them. It is only in the last 2 years that the corner started to be turned. And yet the same old accusations are levelled at their door. I know how some of them feel about this- they become defensive, the community becomes the enemy, because no matter what they do it constantly attacks. This leads to bunker mentality- and straight back to the old attitudes which as gamers we learned to hate. Worse, I can now see it being reflected in Lenton- games development used to be a far more open process than it is currently. Check out your copy of 3rd Ed 40K and 6th Ed WFB- there's a long list of playtesters in there, who have never been employed by GW. Now? Games Development has to create rules for games in a vaccuum. They don't feel that they can engage with the community, partly because of the vitriol they see every time they log on. Yes, we all know that the online community represents a small percentage of total hobbyists. But guess what- we're a damn sight more vocal.

When all you hear is that your product is worthless, when the only feedback you receive is negative, and yet sales are increasing, then the natural reaction is to ignore everything that is being said. Your Shareholders are happy, so your bosses are happy, and everyone gets to keep their job. Why the hell would you want to engage with the community? Why would you want to open yourself up to all that rage and anger? Oh, you wouldn't- so instead you're going to bunker down even more, withdraw until there's only a vision slit between you and them.

And that's the point of this post. GW has started changing, and that will only continue if proper engagement begins. If we want GW to start engaging more with the community, then it's useless whining about how little they listen. Instead, I think we should start engaging them- asking them questions in a different way. Re-phrase questions so that they aren't accusing, but actually encourage debate. if an exchange and flow of ideas begins, then in what way do we not all benefit? 

Oh, a final point- Privateer Press. Their reputation certainly appears to be that they are much better at engaging with the community, and producing products which reflect that. OK, I can't argue with perception. Here's a piece of information for you though- those lovely plastic multi-part kits produced by PP? The machinery was funded by a loan from GW. Why? Because competition is good for the hobby.

Comments, as always, are welcome.

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