Monday, December 27, 2010

A brief and biased history of Specialist Games

I thought since I've been pushing the two naval combat games GW produced quite abit as of late in my gaming group that I'd take a minute to briefly look at each of them in particular, and GW 'Specialist Games' in general. See, I have always taken it for granted that every one knew all the history of Games Workshop as it has unfolded over the past decade, but at Andy's house the other day I was met with the rather sombre fact that some within our group (probably for the better!) have no real knowledge of GW history, games, market practices, or greatly expanded two universes, as all they have ever seen or known is Warhammer Fantasy Battles and Warhammer 40,000 (and maybe Lord of the Rings: Strategy Battle Game). They don't have that depth of memory that has only come form those who started in GW universes, have lived through the 'Classic,' 'Golden Age,' and 'Dark Age' of Games Workshop marketing florescence and collapse.


I started playing GW in 1990. Yes. 20 years anon. Back then there was no such label as 'Specialist Games;' what few games produced by GW were all just 'games,' though the majority of them (and the two biggies, WFB and Rogue Trader) were set within one of two universes: either the Warhammer Fantasy universe, or our dark future, touching upon the fantasy universe. The warp...well...that was the connection. The Eldar were still called Space Elves, as they were conceived as being just that: Elves in space, just as the Squats were called Space Dwarfs. Sure, the universe was wacky, as much as it was grimdark, and the two went hand in hand with narry an issue (much as they do in our 'real' world). The fluff was consistant, but expanded regularly and, it must be remembered, it was being expanded FOR THE FIRST TIME. It was being created. The Universes of Warhammer were being created.

It was a good time...but not the best.

The best time was the 'Golden Age' of Games Workshop. Sure, the models weren't quite as finely detailed and rawringly grimdark as they are now, and it has to be admitted that the paint jobs were NOT up to snuff, but the universes and games...ah, the games! I left the hobby before the introduction of Battlefleet Gothic, Warmaster and Mordheim, but I remember when Heroquest was released, when Man O'War first hit the high seas, when the scum of Necromunda began fighting for the underhive, and when mighty Titans first launched devastating weapons at the brutal Ork Gargants in Epic combat! How many games were there in the year 2000 set in a Warhammer universe?

Space Hulk, Battlefleet Gothic, Epic, Inquisitor, Gorkamorka, Necromunda, Blood Bowl, Mordheim, Mighty Empires, Man O'War, Advanced HeroQuest, Warhammer Fantasy Battles, Warhammer 40,000.

13. Off the top of my head. Not counting video games. Not counting role-play. Not counting starter/board games or expansions or variant lists or armies. 13.

How many are 'supported' now?

3.

Which brings me to the point of my topic. The 'Dark Age' of Games Workshop. When I came back into the hobby, one of the things that inspired me was my parents cleaning out a back cupboard. What did they find? Why, a little box filled with some old Imperial Guard, Genestealer Cult and Squat figures (with the Lion's Share in the Squat category). That's right: Exo-armour, hybrids, an ancient Demolisher still in the cheesy box with the 'red phase' paint job. I thought: great! I'll check out what's going on in GW territory, clean and paint up a few models, and have a fun ol' trip into adolescence!

This was at the dawn of 2008.

I went into the local hobby store which carried GW products and asked them where the Genestealer Cult and Squat section were.

No, I'm serious. I did.

Needless to say those armies had apparently ceased to exist some time ago. Just...gone. No mas. What happened? I did some reading and found out that since my 12 year departure from the hobby A LOT had changed. I read about all the games that had come and gone. I read about all the expansions, rule sets and campaigns that had come into being and then swiftly ceased to exist. Wait, no... that's not entirely true: they did not simply 'cease to exist,' but were, rather, done away with. Was this due to the fact that they were bad games, flawed systems that should never have come into being in the first place? Was there lowered demand for the models, or complaints about rules errors?

No, those all came later.

What caused this cataclysm was apparently a shift in the marketing 'strategy' of Games Workshop, and a pogrom of the 'old guard' as it were. You know, the creative types. Who has been the latest victim of this marketing philosophy of amalgamation and capital (as opposed to quality, enjoyable products) being the singular driving force for a company once renown for it's innovation and artistry? That's right, Master Rick Priestly, who was (apparently) shunted lower and lower on the rungs of executive creative control, until he had a small bastion of origination at his disposal, the newly-minted Warhammer Forge brand. There he was given creative license to inject some interest and imagination back into a sagging background. His proposal was to write a massive series of book a la Imperial Armours, but based around a huge incursion of Chaos, which would herald the end of the Warhammer world (as an alternate timeline, of course). Apparently the blokes at the reins of GW either forgot where he had sliped off to, or weren't really paying attention to his project, because (despite enormous interest and enthusiasm for the story and models from the gaming community), Master Priestly was sacked a few weeks before the writing of this. The year is late 2010, and only time will tell if this new daughter company will last the quarter out.

This new marketing strategy saw the reforming of all but the 'core' gaming systems into a SINGLE sub-division called 'Specialist Games,' where the tag line read as though it was a good thing, and was aimed at players themselves.

So, abandoning games is supposed to endure them to use?

Most of the above mentioned games (with the very conspicuous absence of Man O'War) were placed in a single location on the GW website (the tab just to the right of Books and to the left of Gift Guide) and given a single forum. Well, the days of GW supported forums is long gone now, too, as are all the other possible sources of info not found on their own site, in a digital pogrom known within the community as 'The Purging.' What has all of this done? What has it accomplished? Near universal player-enmity and a view that the whole company is trying to do nothing but push models and dumb down their 'core' games in order to attract children.

"But...they're a company! Companies make money! That's what they do!" you scream.

Are you talking to me, or trying to convince yourself? Games Workshop way back in Hammersmith certainly didn't feel that way, and as I read interview after interview from ex-employees who were once THE drive creative force behind GW's success, it doesn't appear as though that's what they felt, either. Sure, recent years have seen some moments of interest in GW, with the shinning jewel probably going to Forge World's Aeronautica Imperialis, but all in all GW has become uncreative and driven by greed, with the effects seen most notably in the half dozen games lumped under the same stigma, but once lauded as the best that Games Workshop has to offer. Why close the best away like an unwanted relation? BFG and MoW, universally considered to be the two best game systems designed within the halls at Nottingham, are no longer supported; Man O'War, in fact, has become nothing more then a distant memory to some old players who remember the days of fresh adventure and creative joy. Where has this adventure gone? Where has the joy? Why is GW stagnating when so many other companies are clearly innovating?

Oh, no, gentle reader: that was rhetorical.

But I will say this: take our example. Put a little effort into your gaming, and you'll get a lot of reward. Take a look at the 'Specialist Games.' Hell, track down some of the 'Out of Production' Games. Something you'll find real quick is that they aren't bad...in fact, they're great! It seems these days, really, that the only production that seems to be out is the origination of inspired ideas at GW. I feel sorry for Ges and Jervis; how much longer do you think they'll have, when all the 'undead games' have been by their hands?

3 comments:

  1. Hehehe, welcome to my world... only I know it for ALL games: Video, board, role play, dice, card, table-top, interactive, even rhythm! I have watched TCGs grow and fall, I have witnessed the rise and fall of entire companies, game consoles, operating systems, game mechanics; you name it, I have studied and witnessed it in detail.

    That being said, GW most likely touched the broadest of the spectrum, thus my utter fascination with them as a company. The more you know!

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  2. I've renamed the thread, as I went farrrr too off-topic from the original thrust. Also, I ain't done writing yet! ;)

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  3. Really interesting Mark! I didn't know a lot of this. I started the hobby in 2001, so I caught the tail end of the Golden age. It has been a heck of a ride.

    Forge world is the only creative bone left in GW's body.

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