Monday, 16 June 2014

Restricted Visions

It occurred to me that I never did follow up on my Warhammer Visions experiment.

WHSmiths managed to shift one copy in that month and, since then, have been getting in six or seven copies a month, almost all of which are still there at the end.

This is not a very scientific survey, for all I know Warhammer Visions is wildly popular. That said, most of the newsagents near me that stock it always seem to have plenty of copies. Which suggests that it isn't selling well, but also that they keep stocking it in large numbers.

I don't have any axe to grind regarding Warhammer Visions. I haven't been a regular White Dwarf reader in years and the White Dwarf weekly/Warhammer Visions split took place over a year after I last bought a copy. There behaviour isn't irritating so much as baffling.

Warhammer Visions appears to be a very confused publication. It's supposed to be about pictures, but its pages are half the size of the old White Dwarf. It is the only publication they sell through mainstream newsagents, but it is an expensive premium product that is likely to be baffling to anyone not already familiar with Games Workshop and its products. And its sealed in plastic, so that you can't browse and have to spend £8 to find out what it contains. Not to mention that if you want nice pictures of painted miniatures, Google Images will supply enough to last a life time.

On the other hand, we have the weekly White Dwarf. It's more expensive the the old White Dwarf on a monthly basis, but each issue is comparatively cheap. It's published frequently and has plenty of news and up to date information. But if you want it you have to go to Games Workshop or a games shop. So it's only available to existing gamers and hobbyists.

What is the thinking here? The odd thing about Games Workshop is that, because it tries to control all aspects of its business itself, from development through to retail, it's not necessary for every part of the business to make money. White Dwarf or Warhammer Visions don't have to be independently profitable as long as they serve the purpose of marketing Games Workshop's core business. For that matter, even rule books don't have to make money if they help to shift more models. But Games Workshop acts like everything they do has to make money. Or that everything do is inherently worth paying for.

So we end up with the odd spectacle of Games Workshop trying to increase its output of printed publications at a time when more and more content is going online and expecting its existing customers to pay extra to cover the cost.

Now I have no idea of this is working or not. But either way it's astonishing that this is where Games Workshop has ended up.

Monday, 9 June 2014

An Epic Scale Development

Oddly, since Games Workshop finally killing off Epic Armageddon, activity surrounding the games has, if anything increased. Troublemaker games are on their third Indiegogo campaign for miniatures that comfortably fill the niche abandoned by GW and Onslaught Miniatures are hard at work producing 6mm versions of every 40K army GW never bothered to touch.

Stranger than this is the fact that rule development is still continuing apace, over at the Epic Armageddon section of Tactical Command with new versions of army lists still being released.

Part of the reason for this is the legacy of Epic Armageddon's development, in which alpha versions of army lists would be released to the community for play testing, with changes incorporated into the official versions released in the rule books. When Games Workshop largely gave up on the game after only two books, there were still dozens of 40K armies without an army list and so development continued, initially on the Specialist Games website before moving when the site was killed off.

But with no more rulebooks being released, there can never be an official version of any army list. So the development continues without end in sight. More than that, with Games Workshop having abandoned the game there is no longer any final authority on what constitutes an official rule. So, instead of these representing new versions of the same list progressing towards a final version, what we actually have is an endless stream of army list variants. After all, if you prefer, say, version 2.0 of the Knight World army list over version 2.1, who is to say that 2.1 is more valid?

For Games Workshop's core games, Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000, the cycle of rules releases exists to justify new miniature releases and drive interest in the games. There is no requirement for each new version to be an improvement over the previous one, because that isn't the purpose of the new rules, or at least it hasn't been for a while. In contrast, the Epic army lists are being released because each new army list is supposed to represent an improvement over what went before.

The problem with this is it assumes that rules can continue to improve until they reach a definitive ideal form; the perfect army list, if you like. But this isn't achievable. While there are some rules that almost everyone can agree are just bad (imagine an army list with models immune to all attacks, that could move the length of the board had multiple auto-hit, auto-kill weapons and who cost 1 point each), as they get better it gets more subjective. Spend any time reading through rules discussions about any game on any forum and you will find that one players favourite rule is the one that ruins the whole army for everyone else.

When a company publishes an official army list, it halts the development process, at least for a while. It isn't saying that this army list is perfect, but it does say that this is as good as any and this is the version that will be used. Games Workshop abandoning Epic Armageddon has removed that part of the process and so development can continue, endlessly, with no end point and no final form.

So by finally abandoning Epic Armageddon, Games Workshop have actually extended the development process indefinitely.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Exponential Growth

The UK Games Expo was one of those events I always seemed to miss because I thought it was later in the year than in actually was. By the time I got round to looking at tickets it turned out to be the following weekend, or worse, the weekend just gone. But last year I finally got my act together and booked tickets for Saturday and Sunday.

The Expo is a very different event from Salute. While Salute is, essentially, a shopping experience focused on wargaming, the Expo is a multi-day event which is as much about roleplaying, board games and card games as wargames, if not more so. It also a broader event, taking in tournaments, roleplaying events, seminars, family rooms and even some weird new electronic games.

 You can tell this isn't a wargames convention because the Forge World stand isn't buried under the bodies of the dead and dying.

It also takes place in a hotel, which lends it a very different atmosphere to Salute, which is to say it has one. That isn't entirely fair to Salute, which does have atmosphere, but one that is entirely imported, the location itself being essentially a huge sterile box. The Expo has spent the last two years in the NEC Metropole hotel in Birmingham, which gives it more the feel of a convention or conference.

 Raising funds for world conquest through begging in a hotel lobby. How the mighty have fallen.

I had a great time last year, playing and buying a bunch of different games. Having a room in the hotel meant you could retire from the bustle for a rest, or drop off your purchases so you didn't have to drag them around and there was plenty of space set aside to simply sit down and game. The organisers even offered a game library, which was a nice touch.

Given how much I enjoyed last year, I made sure to get myself organised this year, booking time off work so I could take in the whole event from Friday to Sunday and booking in for a tournament and a roleplaying session as well as making a point of attending some of the seminars, as I had ignored them last year.

 Some strange new game that runs on electricity. I doubt it will have much appeal.

This years Expo was even better attended than last you could see it was a big success. Though not everyone seems to think so - take a look at this blog post and then come back.

To be fair, Saturday was by far the busiest day and things did ease off considerably by Sunday. The bring and buy sale was accessible and the trade halls much easier to navigate. That said, I wouldn't have wanted to try negotiating the Games Lore stand mid-morning on a Saturday with a child in tow.

 Annoyingly, I forgot to take any photos until Sunday, so these make the event look positively sedate.

The organisers had taken into account the increased numbers and booked more space in the hotel. This meant there was a third trader hall, many of the tournaments were moved into a separate area and the amount of space for roleplaying events increased. But some parts of the convention couldn't be or simply weren't expanded. The seminars were still held in the same room as last year. This space had little ventilation and the air-conditioning struggled to cope with the mass of bodies. The trader hall increased in size, but so did the number of traders so there wasn't any more room to move. And, weirdly, the breakfast buffet, which had been a relaxed affair last year, was left with queues to get in and then again to get food. Again, to their credit, the hotel had recognised the problem by Sunday morning and opened up a second area.

All of this illustrates the paradox of these kind of events. The more successful and popular an event, the more attendees it attracts, but the more this increases crowding and reduces the enjoyment for those same attendees. Eventually, the event has to move to a bigger venue, which costs more and so demands even more attendees. And so the cycle continues.

The organisers of the Expo seem quite relaxed about this at the moment. In an interview in the show guide they talked casually about attracting as many as 10,000 attendees. However, the organisers of other shows have adopted a very different attitude.

The Salute guide included a half page advert from Newbury and Reading Wargames society announcing that their annual show, Colours, would not be taking place in  2014. Apart from the weirdness of advertising the non-existence of a show, the advert neatly illustrates the paradox of success. The advert is quite blunt, the event had simply gotten too big for the society to run comfortably and they would rather take a year off to plan than face a potential disaster.

 Colours 2014

Nor is this a problem unique to wargaming. Hyper-Japan is a Japanese cultural festival taking in elements of fashion, food, manga, anime and any other bit of Japanese culture it can find, including Yakult. It has always taken place from Friday to Sunday, but this year the Saturday event will be further divided into two seperate events divided by a one hour gap between 14:15 and 15:15. This was, apparently, to avoid the huge queueing problems created because the show had more attendees than insurance would allow into the venue at any one time. I've booked a ticket for Friday and it will be interesting to see how many others make the same decision.

Similarly, I have skipped the MCM London Comic Con (Formally the London Expo) for the past two years, because what was once a reasonably relaxed event had grown to the extent that you could expect to queue for over an hour for entry, even with pre-booked tickets, and could expect the same level of gridlock experience at the UK Games Expo Games Lore stand on Saturday, at the whole event.

Is there a solution to this? I think there is, of a sort, though it's a fairly brutal one. Either a show reaches the point Colours has, where its organisers decide its all gone too far and decide to kill it or rest if for a while or it grows so big that the experience stops being fun and the show dies on its own. I'm not sure that has happened to any show I know of yet, but it remains a possibility.

 Well-attended or over-crowded?

But doesn't that mean the show is dead? Well, yes, after a fashion. But if the demand is there someone, somewhere will step in and set up a new show, starting from scratch and the business of watching it slowly grow begins again. And so we retain a kind of equilibrium in which shows come and go, but the experience of them remains constant. Where is the Expo in this cycle of growth and decay? Who knows, ask me again next year.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

A gesture or other action used to display respect

So Salute, probably the UK's biggest wargaming convention not run by Games Workshop, has been and gone a few weeks now, which gives me enough time to reflect on it (or alternatively I've been too lazy and disorganised to write this until now). It's a strange beast of a convention, larger than almost any other and yet oddly specialised and lacking elements of the others.

Let us take a look at the venue since 2006, the Excel centre in the heart of London's regeneration zone, spitting distance from Canary Wharf, where high finance feasted on the corpse of the old working class. It is essentially a huge empty space in which things happen. It has no character of its own, but imports it through the events it hosts. So while other conventions occupy schools, hotels and leisure centres and somehow take on some of the character of the locations into themselves, Salute takes place in a characterless void. Which is not to say it has no character of its own, simply that what it has it has to bring with it, giving us the purest vision of the character of a wargames event, uninfluenced by anything around it.

 The queue is now big enough that it gets its own convention space, creating a kind of pre-convention, convention. Albeit a rather dull one.

Excel is also staggeringly vast. On the day of Salute it was simultaneously playing host to registration for the London Marathon, an event for property investors,* and some kind of baking convention. Given the overwhelming male bias towards wargaming and the lesser, but still existent, female bias in baking, I like to imagine the possibility of a husband and wife combination attending the same location on the same day for different conventions, meeting up at the end of the day and possibly for lunch. That the largest wargaming show can occupy only a small part of its venue says something about the nature of wargaming as a minority pursuit.

The Excel centre also provides convention attendees with a range of refreshments through booths arranged between conventions which, this year, included a pop-up restaurant. An apt inclusion given that Salute is, in essence, a pop-up wargaming superstore that trades for only one day each year. This is why it amused me to see a Salute guide posted on the Miniature Page that suggested arriving late to avoid the queues and to go to the gaming table while everyone else is buying. As if gaming is the primary purpose of Salute.

Lord of the Rings played with large scale figures. Achievable for most gamers in a smaller scale

Which isn't to say that the gaming isn't important. It is. But it's role is similar to that of the open tables in Games Workshop stores, to make the hobby manifest. Wargaming is a hobby that offers much more than it initially supplies, relying on its enthusiasts to add much of the value to the component parts supplied. The games show us what the hobby can be. The simpler games show us what we can do, the more complex, something to aspire to. Without them, we are simply buying lumps of metal and plastic (and the odd nicely decorated rulebook). There are no tournaments at Salute, so all games are a form of demonstration, even if its a demonstration you can interact with.

 Most gamers probable couldn't or wouldn't do this

So what is the appeal of Salute if it is, essentially, a huge shop with highly restrictive opening hours and a charge to step through the door? In the Internet age there is nothing at Salute that can't be had with a few minutes web-searching and a few days or weeks wait by the letter box. What's lost in postage, is regained in not paying for tickets or train fairs. And yet, even as I cut down on the amount I spend at other shows, I still strain my budget to take us much as I can to Salute and come home with a bag bulging at the seems with new metal and plastic bits. Why is this?

 Jugula, Gripping Beast and Tomahawks new Gladiator game. Demo-games are already part advertising

Wargaming is fundamentally tactile. Its minority enthusiasts a hold out who still insist that their gaming experience must be actual and not simply digital. Given the hobby's origins, how could a virtual shopping experience satisfy? Of course we use online stores, the opportunity is too good, but at heart we will always want a physical experience of shopping, one that excites with the physical possibilities of our hobby before we have paid any money. And that is what Salute offers, for one day of the year

*There's a glorious juxtaposition here between an event for people who expend a considerable physical effort for the benefit of others and a sense of personal satisfaction and one for people who intend to make money off the back of a necessity without contributing any real value to it.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

White Dwarf 193

It has been far too long since I wrote one of these (actually it's been even longer than that, given that I started this post and then abandoned it in order to start again). To be honest, the principle reason I have been avoiding them is that I have to go and scan a bunch of pages for pictures which drags out the publishing time of the posts.

But with White Dwarf monthly now officially dead as a concept, it feels like the right time to pursue this with an increased sense of vigour. While my collection doesn't extend to the end of the monthly magazine, I have dipped in and out frequently enough that I can pull together a representative sample of most eras of the magazine, even if I have to abandon the strictly once a year rule. And with the magazine at an end, so to do these entries.

The cover comes from Codex Angels of Death, which covered the Dark Angels and Blood Angels, neither of whom are featured prominently in this issue

To business and White Dwarf 193. We have reached a turning point in that this issue represents the first, and nearly the last, time that the magazine has consciously been re-designed.  White Dwarf has absolutely changed over time, 181 looked nothing like 121, but this is the first time someone has consciously said "That thing we used to do? We're not doing it anymore, we're doing something else." This happened with White Dwarf 191, the second issue to be edited by Jake Thornton.

On the surface the really big changes amount to an increased page count and the introduction of two pages of card pull outs. The latter felt hugely valuable at the time, given how much of Games Workshops games were delivered in the form of cards of one sort or another, from board sections, to magic item cards, to vehicle datafaxes, to army cards, to counters, to wargear cards and on and on. So including a card section was adding a lot of value to the magazine. Of which more later.

Beyond the immediate, not much else appears to have changed. Visually, the magazine is much the same as White Dwarf 181 but turned up to 11. This is exemplified by the replacement of the venerable old White Dwarf logo with a bigger, more angry and cartoony version by Wayne England. Inside, the "red period" is still in full swing with everything painted in bright bold colours. Articles have huge, colour headings, expansive box outs and side bars (one article, on Warhammer 40,000 missions is more side-boxes than article) and huge coloured borders either side of the page into which content occasionally intrudes.

 How much of this is article and how much is sidebar?

So not so much a reinvention or redesign as the same thing further emphasised? Not quite, because if you take an even closer look, there is something else going on below the surface here. But to understand what that is, we have to go back to the start of our journey.

I have written about this before, but back when White Dwarf 121 was published, Games Workshop was chronically inept at the business of producing and distributing rules. They weren't necessarily bad at writing them but there was very little sense of what they were for or how to deliver them to customers. This is why Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 were published as books and everything else as boxed games; why Warhammer had a single slim volume of army lists and Warhammer 40,000 was divided into an odd mix of articles of White Dwarf compendiums; why the Space Marines shared a book with the Imperial Guard and Squats while Chaos and Orks got two thick hard back volumes each. It was a glorious mess and one from which White Dwarf benefited hugely.

White Dwarf 121 contained preview material from Realms of Chaos months before its release, alongside articles for Space Hulk and Advanced Hero Quest that had no planned home in any supplement at all. Add to that a painting guide and showcase that essentially looks at whatever the 'Eavy Metal team felt like working on without any reference to the rest of the magazine content. What's left is an Ork preview, that looks like news, but acts as an introduction to over a years worth of Ork material that would eventually, after much re-editing, find its way into the huge Ork rule books. Its probable that the books only got that big because the designers kept churning out more content.

So what we had was a design studio that seemingly did whatever it felt like, without any sense of how it would be published, and a White Dwarf magazine that simply helped itself to whatever it liked, because there wasn't anywhere better to put it. We end up with magazine articles that look like rule book extracts and rule books full of magazine articles because no-one is clear on what anything is for. Meanwhile, only a small part of White Dwarf actually consists of the sort of content you might find in a conventional magazine.

By White Dwarf 193 this has changed. Games Workshop finally has a definitive model for publishing rules, albeit one with a few rough edges. Release a large boxed game, then a supplement that covers all the bits you couldn't fit in the main game plus some cards. Some lucky games get more than one. For most games, this is enough. For Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000, each army gets its own book which includes all the rules needed to play that army plus an army list. This model makes it far easier to get what you need to actually play the game, albeit at a cost, so that you can focus on actually building an army.

The downside of this for White Dwarf is much of its content dries up. Even then, it takes some time before this is accepted. Consequently the rules articles continue, although now they're re-printing content from recently or soon to be released supplements. The process is gradual, so White Dwarf 157 can still fill up half its pages with a preview army list for the Space Wolves, even while re-printing the Grand Theogonist rules for Warhammer. And the studio occasionally throw them a bone, such as the Chaos Dwarf rules, as no-one is planning to give them a proper book at this point.

Along the way, they also figure out tactics articles and battle reports are a good way of generating content that doesn't belong in a rule book most of the time. But the effects are still patchy.

What we start to see from White Dwarf 191 onwards, is a conscious attempt to restructure White Dwarf as an entity in its own right, and not just a dumping ground for leftover studio material. As a consequence, we start to see material that feels more consciously "magaziney" for want of a better term. The first big thing is the introduction of interviews, some with key members of the GW studio, such as Andy Chambers in this issue, others with "celebrity" gamers or people who have produced nicely painted models or armies. None of these are particularly in depth, but they do provide the kind of behind-the-scenes information that a magazine for GW fans, as opposed to a rules dump, should provide.

 Now we do interviews

Other subtler changes take place. There is a visible shift towards trying to provide genuinely useful content. The 'Eavy Metal article in this issue takes the form of a response to questions, there is a new modelling workshop article on game boards and we get semi-regular rules FAQ article. The article on the newly-released Imperial Guard Hellhound becomes part rules re-print and part tactics article, giving the magazine some added value. This issue battle report is a follow on from an article in the previous issue, which presented a linked campaign of Warhammer scenarios setting Orcs against Dark Elves, with instructions on how to build Orc huts. The battle report puts the final scenario to the test. The end result is a neat thematic link that demonstrates that article ideas can be put to practical use.

 The battle report shows off Orc huts made from Pringles tubes

The other way way in which White Dwarf tries to carve out an identity for itself is by creating a distinction between the White Dwarf team and the studio team. The WD team are introduced in photographs on the opening page for the first time. These photos are repeated by each article to reinforce a sense of authorship. Members of the team interview studio staff, which has the effect of placing the WD team slightly outside the GW structure and bringing them closer to the reader. Prominent GW staff, Andy Chambers, Jervis Johnson and Nigel Stillman are given semi-regular columns with names that highlight their "guest" status.

 The editorial and meet the team page. Some look happier to be here than others.

The overall effect of this is to give White Dwarf a clear identity of its own, one that is at least in part distinct from Games Workshop and the studio. It is also making a clear attempt to justify itself on its own terms, which means providing useful content to its readers, albeit with varying degrees of success. Say what you like about the aesthetic choices of the era, and they are certainly out of keeping with Games Workshop of today, but there is a sense that the team behind this issue were really trying to produce a good gaming magazine.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

A Defined Role

I've been thinking about Roleplaying games a lot lately. Possibly the recent fortieth anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons and the associated articles have put in my head. Ther';s a pleasing circularity to the relationship between wargaming and role-playing. Role-playing was originally a development of historical wargaming, that went on to inspire fantasy and science fiction wargaming, which in turn have influenced historical wargaming. There's probably a blog post in that. But this isn't it.

One thing that is striking, and easily forgotten, about role-playing games, is that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they were a huge craze. In many ways this was very unlikely. Consider what a roleplaying game actually requires. You need a group of at least two, but preferably three or four, ideally willing to regularly give up a good two or three hours of time together. On top of that, the game places a hugely disproportionate burden on one player, namely the games-master, dungeon-master, referee or whatever else you want to call him or her.

As well as controlling all non-player characters, describing the setting and keeping track of everything that's going on. This player either has to read through adventure books, in detail, possibly adapting them to suit the group, write fresh adventures from scratch on a weekly basis or have the improvisational skills to make it all up as they go along. Often, this player is the only one that fully understands the rules. This a hugely demanding role, requiring a combination of actor, accountant, writer, editor, rules master and referee. Frankly, given the requirements of the job (and it pretty much is a job), its amazing that any role-playing groups were able to get off the ground. Let alone that it became a craze.

There is another oddity about role-playing games. The genre sells itself on the idea of complete freedom. The players can be anything or go anywhere. And yet, so many of them are built around the same basic template. The players roles are a band of highly specialised and dedicated killers committing acts of small-scale genocide against a variety of semi-humanoid opponents in exchange for money that is mostly spent on equipment and training to make them even more effective killers, set in the backdrop of a world whose disaster management is so poor that in times of crisis they have no choice but to recruit a band of freelance troubleshooters. This is the essential template of most role-playing games. The settings vary, fantasy of one sort or another is standard, but the same basic template has been exported to science fiction, the wild west, pulp adventure serials and even various periods in history, albeit with a few liberties taken.

Of course this doesn't represent all role-playing. There have been a number of games that have emphasised other aspects of human experience and have reduced the emphasis on violence. But the interesting thing about these games is that they are taken as being reactions against the norm. And, weirdly, there has recently been a sort of reaction against the reaction in the form of the “old school renaissance” in which a number of games have appeared that actively try to be more like “traditional” role-playing games.

Part of the reason for this emphasis on combat is the fact the RPGs grew out of wargaming. Obviously a game genre that developed from wargaming is going to have an emphasis on combat. But beyond this, it also develops out of a tradition of confrontational gaming in which two, ostensibly, evenly-matched players, attempt to defeat each other on the field of battle. RPGs transfer that conflict to a similar, but slightly different context, in which the group takes on the games-master. It's significant that many early RPGs treat the player/game-master relationship as strictly confrontational.

But, when you think about it, why should that be the case? The concept of RPG's, a collection of players taken through a scenario by a games-master, could have developed from board games, experimental theatre, book groups or any number of places. Why did it develop out of wargaming in the first place?

I think part of the reason is the demands placed on the games-master. Given the amount of work required to be a good games-master, any reduction in the workload is going to be helpful. The advantage of the simple confrontational setup, is that it significantly reduces the amount of work that has to be put into the scenario. Writing, adapting or improvising a complex plot that can go in any direction is a lot more complicated than filling a dungeon, cavern or evil Wizard's tower with monsters is a much simpler task. And the players know what to expect and don't react against the template. At least not in groups that actually work.

If seen from that point of view, Role-playing games could only have grown out of wargaming. It's the only setup that makes it practical.

And yet, by placing such an emphasis on clearing monsters out of dungeons (or variations on that idea), RPGs place an inherent limit on their central concept that leaves them fatally exposed to their competition. I'm talking about computer and video games. The kind of “do anything, go anywhere” that RPG's could theoretically offer isn't anything that video games could duplicate, even today and certainly not in the early 1980s. On the other hand, populating a dungeon full of monsters is simple.

So the very limitation that allowed RPGs to develop in the first place is the very thing that ensured they would be overtaken by something that could do the same thing just as well, but with less effort. Of course pen and paper RPGs have continued to influence the development of computer RPGs to the point where MMORPGS even replicate the need for groups of people to set aside time to play together. But, by taking over the role of games-master, they replace the most difficult part of the experience.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Experiment update

There are now only seven copies of Warhammer Visions, which means one has been sold or stolen which, to be fair, is one more than I expected.