Why I love the beast

Posted: November 23, 2011 in Features and opinion, Gaming, Random wifflings

Argh! I can’t help it. I should hate them, and jump up and down and scream. Have you seen the prices? But by jiminy, those models are just so fine…

I speak of Games Workshop, the Very Big Hobby Company, for whom I once worked as editor of Fictional Albino Shorty magazine, and for whose publishing arm I now write books (this is my disclaimer, so you can add your own bias to the following musing, like that sachet of soy sauce to a pot noodle. I reckon these posts have around the same nutritional content). I’ve been playing GW fantasy and science fiction wargames since I was very, very young. I’ve grown up on its worlds, which led me on to many other things. I’m a devotee, you might say.

Gaming was cheaper then. This was a time when a fantasy skeleton warrior made of toxic lead alloy cost you less than ten pence. Models in those days came in a plastic bag, not dissimilar to those that are often used to house drugs (this is a measured analogy), stapled to a piece of card. I’m sure there are many old bearded males even balder and grumpier than I who feel that “Those were the days”.

Back then, the range of models to be had was quite small, and if you ever did get to put an army together, it weighed so much you needed to buy a donkey or similar pack animal to carry it to a friend’s house. Said friend had to be a very good friend, because you’d be staying there for two weeks, the average duration of a wargame. Now, the games are fast and furious, the models genuine works of art (and light as feathers).

The reason I’m writing this is that this very evening I put together a battlescape for Warhammer 40,000 – for those of you not in the club of sad old dice rollers, never mind. It’s a piece of decoration for a battlefield. This piece, not even a toy soldier, you understand, is so awesome it made me do a little giggle putting it together.

It was also £15.40. That’s cheap in this world, bub.

10p doesn’t buy you much any more, the average model is well over a pound whatever it is made out of – and there aren’t a great many models in GW’s many ranges that deserve the label “average”. There have been an endless series of price hikes that have sent elements of the hobby community hopping mad, not least the last.

This last came in the wake of the company replacing their last metal models (long made of a tough, modelling unfriendly, yet non-toxic, alloy) with a cold-cast plastic resin dubbed by GW’s miniatures brand Citadel as “Finecast”. That this stuff is almost certainly cheaper to buy than metal is neither here nor there, the opportunity arose to put up the prices again, and so they did.

Why do they do this? It drives some of us mental. But let’s look at it objectively. The boom times of The Lord of The Rings movie releases, that brought a lot of money in to GW, are long gone (I saw some unwise choices made there toward the end, but that it was a bubble, and that it was difficult to capitalise because of its transient nature, is undeniable). Their attempt to turn their niche hobby into one that appealed to a mass market was a noble failure. They’ve got to make their money somewhere, and looking in from the outside it looks suspiciously to me like GW is repositioning itself as a business that deals in a niche, high-cost hobby that sells to a small group of customers. Like it used to be, in fact.

Apart from the high cost bit.

Yet £10-20 pounds for a SINGLE character model? Come on! The sad fact is that Warhammer and its sister games are no longer a pocket-money hobby. At today’s prices one could buy a basic regiment every couple of weeks on average pocket money, but to play the game you need a minimum of around five or six things of £20 or so, and that’s not including the paints, scenery, glue and rulebooks.

So why do I continue to shell money out on this ravenous coin beast? And I do, even though my attic is stuffed full of as yet unpainted soldiers. Simple really, the models they make are just so damn cool. The standard of sculpture some of their kits exhibit is breathtaking, and get better every year. Never mind that, say, their ace Blood Dragon Vampire Knights are £61.50 for five (£12.30 each. £12.30 EACH!). They are amazing pieces.

As an aside here, not all their models are that expensive. I am very sure that the price of a particular model has nothing to do with its base production cost, and everything to do with how spectacular it will look in an army, and how powerful it is in the game. Though there is also the less exploitative consideration of price per (manufacturing) unit. Something like the aforementioned regiment is a one or two purchase per undead gamer, unlike for example skeleton warriors for the same army (£15.50 for ten) which would be a multiple purchase. Therefore the cost of the sculpting time, moulding etc is proportionally lower per model for skeletons than vampire knights. I’m not sure we hobbyists always bear this in mind. (Is it 806% lower? Probably not, but still).

I won’t sugar coat it, I had a tough time working at GW, and I found some of the things they did distasteful, a couple downright personally damaging. But then, I suspect I’d find the same in most businesses. I am not cut out for a corporate environment perhaps, or rather, I’m not prepared to embrace my inner bastard in order to flourish in a corporate environment. I’ve seen dark-side Guy, and he’s an A-grade twat. Let’s leave him in his box. But this is not an evil company by a long chalk.

Is GW exploitative toward its customers? Maybe a little. Yeah, I know the ludicrous margin they demand each of their products provide, no, I’m not going to tell you. Are they out to get as much of my money as possible? Almost certainly. But the company doesn’t hold a gun to my head, it gets my cash by making exciting games, models that make me pee myself a bit, and setting them in immersive, complicated worlds. Who cares that these worlds exhibit widespread borrowing from every major SF and fantasy property ever, sometimes very poorly disguised? They were dreamt up by people playing games, and that’s what people do when playing games. The settings have grown well beyond their roots now, and become influential in themselves.

It doesn’t matter. Y’see, if I had £61.50 to spare, I’d probably get me some of those knights, or something similar. The fact is that I don’t have any money at all any more, but if I had, I would. Things are worth what people will pay for them. Hard truth of capitalism, live with it (at least until the end of Western civilisation, which seems scheduled for next Tuesday).

For you angry gamers out there, the crux of the matter is this: Can you really say that someone is abusing you who makes something you want, something you still pay for even while bitching about how much it costs? Not something you need, just would like. Something you can live easily without. To read some forums you’d think the company bosses were pulling a chocolate company stunt on African baby milk, you really would.

The whole thing reminds me of the hobby grumblings back in the 90s that laid the demise of RPGs at GWs feet. This was not really true, the decline of RPGing as a mass passtime is a complex thing. Look what survived though – the very same Amazing Models inc. Why? Mainly because they made really cool stuff, not because they stopped selling Runequest.

There are a lot of miniature producing firms out there now, and some make very good models at much lower prices. But GW’s are still far and away the best. This is why they survived the gaming implosion of the early 90s, and why I still pay up.

Today I went into a Games Workshop and bought some things. Was I horrified by the prices? Hell yeah. Was I excited? Oh indeedy. Am I exploited? Nope.

Damn you Games Workshop, I love your toys. That’s why you’ll always get your hands on my cash, although I reserve the right to weep and swear as I hand it over.

  1. Mim says:

    I think it’s okay to have high-priced models as long as they’re not essential to the game, and as long as new rules variants/game expansions (not merely new models of existing units) are not brought out too frequently. I have completist tendencies and get very put off things when a new variant comes out every six months; I simply don’t have the money to blow on getting what amounts to a new set of stuff every half-year just to keep up. I’d rather have none at all than an annoyingly incomplete set, if that makes sense! That’s what put me off 40K many, many years ago, and why I enjoyed playing collectable card games but dropped out of them. And kids can be real completists, so GW may well be putting potential new gamers off the games by making them feel they’ll never have all the ‘right’ kit because the prices are too high and new sets come out too often.

    • guyhaley says:

      That’s as may be, but it’s their business. My post is more from my own point of view. I’m sure not as many people get involved in the hobby as once did because of the prices, but that didn’t work for them. They’ve changed tack, and part of that is trying to get more money per product. My question to myself was does it really put me off? Paradoxically, I spend less money with them now because I really can’t afford to buy myself a little treat every now and then, but I haven’t been put off wanting their things.

      Completism? Play any wargame and try to get everything and go horribly broke!

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  3. Jay Morse says:

    I have to say that I agree with almost all of your thoughts, with one exception. I don’t really feel that GW has the best sculpts anymore. a few years ago I would have said they do, but some of the stuff coming out of the studio that is getting cast is just silly looking (I could cite examples, but I think we all know the major offenders). I myself have taken to using quite a few non-GW models in my armies based on nothing more than the fact that the sculpt is better. Up until a few years ago this was not really true, as I had pretty much full GW modeled armies. The quality IS dipping, and they need a reevaluation of standards in my opinion. Otherwise I would say spot on.

  4. lee says:

    Well said and you can always pick those lovely minis up from one of the gazillion independants who so enjoy undercutting gw prices! Long may they continue they have entertained me for 27 years and I still wet myself over their toy soldiers.

  5. […] wargaming post I put up the other day, Why I love the beast, my musings on Games Workshop’s high prices and actually why I don’t really care too […]

  6. guyhaley says:

    Like I say, I reckon it’s nowhere near the problem folks make out. I don’t care, I still love it.

    I really enjoyed the studio, and the people. It is a real hotbed of fantastic talent. I didn’t enjoy the politicking of management, and I was very isolated in some respects. Glad you’re happy though! What are you doing now?

  7. Matt Badham says:

    Very interesting post.


  8. sukura636 says:

    Methinks you hit the nail on the head there of a fan’s love/hate relationship with our lords and masters. If I could talk to GW’s head honcho in person, I would say “I really love your models, and I really want to buy them, but I just cannot afford it.” That said, the not-so-fine cast stuff is a load of *insert french here* in my opinion. Right now, I’m not actively collecting a GW army, but taaht won’t stop me buying soem shinies once in a blue moon. Anyways that was a very interesting to read post, which fanned no flames fo hatred, kudos.

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