Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Game Editions as Marketing Strategies

It's been a while since I've had a good cathartic rant, and I'm about due.  Since we are experiencing a brief respite from the long heat-wave that has gripped Manitoba since the end of June, I can seize the day and finally turn the computer on for more than a few minutes without it melting into a pile of toxic goo.

I had a chance, last week, to play with the new Warhammer 40K 6th edition rules.  And it got me thinking about the nature of game editions and how very differently this term has come to be used by large companies like Wizards of the Coast and Games Workshop.

Games owned by small companies tend only to publish a new edition when enough errata has been accumulated to warrant one, and those new editions only contain revisions that fixed mistakes with the game.  Thus, newer editions are fully compatible with older editions of the game.  But corporations have wormed their way into the gaming hobby, and corporations are not content to run a sustainable business; they have shareholders to satisfy, who demand annual growth.  Thus, corporations depend upon mass-consumption to fuel their lust for increasing profit.  Frequent releases of new editions is one of the ways that they achieve this in hobby publishing.  Hasbro/WotC has thrown out any pretense of making new editions of D&D.  Every few years they create an entirely new game and call it Dungeons & Dragons.  Of course each time they do so they further fracture their customer base.  Each of their "editions" has its own group of enthusiastic supporters  who are happy playing the game they like and have no incentive, whatsoever, to buy the newest iteration of D&D, which is completely unrelated to all other versions that came before it. WotC seems more concerned with attracting new players than retaining existing ones.  In fact, I think that was their strategy with 4E: to blow off existing customers and attract all those MMOG kids.  This strategy appears to have blown up in their faces and so, just a few years later, WotC is working on a new edition to win back all the customers they lost.  Most of us learned as children not to forsake old friends for new ones, and recent studies have proven what should be common sense: it is more cost effective to retain existing customers than to attract new ones, but the message hasn't gotten through to many large businesses, however, which is why we still receive abysmal customer service from many large companies: for every pissed-off customer that walks out the door forever, they reckon three new ones walk in.

Games Workshop, on the other hand, have a much more clever approach; they are the evil geniuses of the gaming world.  In each edition of Warhammer they change the rules just enough to eliminate compatibility but not so much as to alienate existing players by creating an unfamiliar game.  And they produce new editions, like clockwork, every four years with Fantasy and 40K staggered at two-year intervals like the Olympics.  Which means that if, like me, you play both Warhammer Fantasy and 40K you are obliged to shell out $90 every two years to buy a copy of a game you already own.  But that's not all: the crafty buggers change the rules of each edition so that different tactical choices become clearly superior, thus forcing you to change the complement of your army in order to stay competitive (meaning you have to buy a whole bunch of new models, too).  For example, in the 4th edition of 40K, the shooting was very decisive and everyone played 'shooty' armies.  Then in 5th edition, they changed the focus to close combat, forcing everyone to modify their armies to capitalize on this new emphasis.  Now, in 6th edition, the pendulum has swung back to ranged combat, forcing yet another modification.  From a purely objective standpoint, I have to admire this cunning marketing strategy, much as I can admire the brilliance of certain con-artists, even if I find them despicable.

The new 40K 6th edition rules, like the recent Fantasy 8th edition rules are neither good nor bad and they don't really fix anything that was wrong with the game, they are just different for the sake of being different.  Because the powers-that-be dictated that there shall be a new edition, the developers were forced to invent some new rules to justify it, which is really putting the cart before the horse and defies the very nature of what new editions are supposed to be about.  When the Warhammer Fantasy 8th edition rules were released two years ago, veteran GW designer, Jervis Johnson, admitted as much in a White Dwarf article, writing that the designers were happy with the existing rules and there was nothing that they wanted to change, so it was a challenge coming up with rules for a new edition.  If there was nothing they wanted to change why put out a new edition?  To make the company butt-loads of cash, and for no other reason.

Being both a role-player and table-top miniatures gamer, I find myself wanting to apply my role-playing philosophy to miniatures games as well.  I jumped off the D&D merry-go-round years ago and embraced the old-school do-it-yourself mentality.  So why not jump off GW's merry-go-round, too, and just pick an edition that you like and stick with that?  The problem with that is that you need to find a group of like-minded players who are willing to jump off at the same time with you.  And since a lot of people play pick-up games at the local store and play in competitions, they are forced to update to the latest rule-set.  It was easy with D&D; I'm the DM so I can be a table tyrant and force everyone to play what I want to run.  But even though I have a consistent group of people that I play Warhammer with, I seem to be the only one getting motion-sick and asking to get off the ride.  Most everyone is lining up at the register with wheelbarrows full of cash to buy a rule book that will need to be replaced again in just four years.


It seems that a lot of people have a deep-seated psychological need to conform and play an officially approved game.  It's kind of like wanting to be one of the cool kids and being part of the 'in' crowd.  Even back in the old days of D&D, which was all about doing your own thing and house-ruling your game into uniqueness, you recall that products that were labelled as 'Officially Approved for D&D' tended to sell a lot better than the unofficial products.  And even though I have paid very little attention to the development of the new edition of D&D, whatever they're calling it, I couldn't help but notice that whole bunches of folks in the old-school community started salivating like Pavlov's dog at dinner time as soon as WotC rang the bell and announced a new edition.  Even after having been let down time and time again by WotC's proven lack of understanding of D&D and the role-playing hobby, folks who should know better have expressed the optimistic hope that 'maybe this time they'll get it right,' despite the fact that past performance is the best predictor of future behaviour.  Common sense tells us that D&D 5E/Next/whatever is going to suck just as hard as the edition before it, but many of us still feel that innate need to be wrapped in the warm fuzzy blanket of officialdom.

I haven't been following what's been going on at WotC, because they have absolutely nothing to offer me: I'm happy with my old-school retroclones and the legion of old-school hobby publishers, so I don't need to spend a dime to enrich the Hasbro corporation.  Unfortunately, the same is not true of Games Workshop.  But I have neither the means nor the inclination to buy the same game over and over again, particularly at the ever increasing prices they want to charge.  On the other hand, I'm too heavily invested in the game to walk away from it - nor do I want to.  I still love Warhammer even though I'm not happy with the corporation that owns it.  Where does that leave me if I want to keep playing the game but don't want to keep upgrading to new rules just for the hell of it?  I'd rather just settle on an edition of choice then cherry-pick whatever other rules the group likes and come up with our own house-ruled game set, but that ain't going to happen; everyone still wants to be in the 'in crowd.'  So I'll probably end up as that annoying old fart in the group who will need to be reminded how to play every turn.  So be it.  At least I'll still be painting miniatures and rolling dice, even if I don't know what I'm doing.

But I sure do miss the days when new editions were just compilations of accumulated errata that actually improved the game, and not self-serving marketing strategies designed only to enrich a corporation.


Trey said...

Unfortunately, there just doesn't seem to be enough money in gaming to keep companies in the flush without practices like this. While not as bad, the other "big" gaming companies (Steve Jackson, White Wolf, Hero) have adopted a similar practice to WOTC--though GURPS or Hero System has never changed as drastically as D&D.

Anonymous said...

This is a good breakdown of what's going on, and I agree with most of what you said.

In a music class in college, I decided to save a bit of cash and buy a previous edition of our textbook. But I was surprised to find that the rhythm exercises -- lines of notes that we were to do with everyone else in class -- were different in my Edition.

There was no objective reason to substitute the old lines of notes -- there was nothing that made the new ones inherently "better" than those in my older Edition. But it now meant I was out of sync with the rest of my class and had to photocopy one my classmates' books. I have no apologies for doing so -- I had no intention of rewarding a naked money grab. The whole experience was an exercise of frustration.

Sean Robson said...

@Trey: The difference is that smaller, independent companies - even the larger ones, like SJG - only need to make ends meet; as long as they are paying the bills and making payroll all is good. Corporations, on the other hand, answer only to shareholders whose demand for increasing returns require growth that fosters unsustainable mass-consumption. There are plenty of game companies that are able to get by quite well without putting out a new edition every fifteen minutes. Troll Lord Games is quite proud of the fact that they don't need new editions because they 'got it right the first time.' Likewise, I noticed just the other day that Palladium Fantasy, which was released in 1983, is still only in its second edition, which was created as a 'Director's Cut' of the game that Kevin Siembieda had originally wanted to make.

@rotgrub: Another excellent example. Text books are a niche market with low volume sales. While in some disciplines, like sciences, new knowledge proliferates so quickly that textbooks do quickly become outdated, other fields don't experience such rapid innovation, and new editions are merely a ploy to suppress re-circulation of used books.

Anonymous said...

re: textbooks
I knew about the textbook thing. In university one of my profs complained that they'd break the formatting intentionally so new printings would have different page numbers, so he can't just say "everyone turn to page 66" if some people are using used books.

re: rpgs
They're undermining themselves. They should notice how often an edition switch kills games. Quite often actually. I blame a large chunk of the fall of RPGs on this.

re:warhammer grognardary
I've never played warhammer but I've been thinking of learning some 1e or chainmail. I think you're more likely to find oldschool warhammer gamers in the OSR crowd than in the warhammer crowd. Maybe you could mix a little mass combat into your D&D game and use warhammer to handle it? Sounds fun to me!

Brendan said...

I've been thinking a lot about this recently, a even did a quick review of 6th edition. There is a bit of an "Oldhammer" movement starting up, but the problem with wargaming is that you probably want a larger pool of opponents that the 4-6 players that you would need for an RPG group. Getting that larger pool of opponents to agree upon a set of rules that was not the current GW set would be pretty hard.

I'm just getting back into Warhammer after not touching it for years. Everyone says that the new editions aren't that different, but to me there certainly is a lot of change from when I was playing in the late 80s. I'm thinking about sitting down and writing some "universal" rules that would use some of the newer concepts from the current game, but go back to the simplicity of the older versions.

Sean Robson said...

Hi Brendan: the game has changed a lot over the years and a good deal of power-creep. The popular rule of thumb is that he with the newest army book wins.

You've hit upon the problem, exactly. It's not enough to want to play old versions of the game; you need to find enough other people to join you and that is the trick.

I'd love to be able to play old versions of the game, and I'm especially interested in getting my hands on the original Rogue Trader rules.

Dan said...

as someone just getting his feet wet with Warhammer, I definitely get a sense that its "designed to sell stuff." As I read the books and become slightly more familiar with the system, the word "elegant" doesn't really come to mind.

Don't worry though Sean. You won't be the only old fart who doesn't know whats going on... :)

Sean Robson said...

I don't want to give you the wrong impression, Dan. I do love Warhammer. Not for the rules, which are, indeed, inelegant and cumbersome, but for the dark and gritty settings. I fondly remember Games Workshop back in the '80's when it was still owned by its founders, Ian Livingston and Steve Jackson, and White Dwarf was still a gaming magazine and not a monthly catalogue. No good ever comes when a business is run by executives and lawyers.

Dan said...

oh yeah, I don't dislike what I'm reading. Theres an appeal to a big, messy game full of tons of options. Its just going to take me a while to absorb everything... :)

Endar said...

Good post. I agree 100% with you.

Kalidane said...

I spent the long weekend reading your blog from the first and finally had to comment.

I think you're dead right about the GW systems and any other similar money-grabbing nonsense. Pick an edition and roll with it. With 40k I'm happy to play either 2nd or 3rd edition but just can't be bothered with anything later than that. A group of 6-8 is heaps, what with many folk having multiple armies.

Also, as one would expect, the exist online communities for the retro editions and amazingly the books can be had cheaply (and they have far more content than their modern counterparts).

Games really should be managed by geeks not suits. It always seems to go wrong once neck ties are involved.

Sean Robson said...

Hi Kalidane, thanks for commenting. Yes, guys in suits should never be let near the gaming business.

I do follow many of the 'Oldhammer' blogs, and I've gotten hold of Warhammer 3rd edition and Rogue Trader, but I haven't been able to find anyone willing to play them. Everybody I know is just too darned keen to buy the newest 'upgrade.'