Ares Games has lost their licence to produce the Battlestar Galactica: Starship Battles spaceship combat game. No explanation for the refusal to renew the licence has been offered by either Ares Games or Universal Studios, who are the licensing agent for this intellectual property, but there will inevitably be a stock sell-off over the next few months and the minis for this game are… really quite expensive, with a single viper costing around £15. So get ‘em while they’re cheap and get ‘em before they’re twice the price on eBay.
In happier news, Slave2Gaming has announced the imminent release of a 15mm miniatures range set in the universe of Maschinen Krieger. Ma.K has long been a property that wargamers have longed to see realized on the tabletop. Whether 15mm proves to be the right scale is still to be determined. Slave2Gaming has said they currently have no plans to write a game and recommend that players use an existing miniatures neutral game like Gruntz, Dirtside or, I don’t know, Horizon Wars? The company has no prior record in game design, but they say that, if the miniatures prove popular, they will consider developing a game to support them and future releases. Watch this space.
Parabellum Wargames, of whom I’ve been critical in the past, must be doing something right because I keep talking about them! They have released a free PDF of their latest attempt to punch through and turn their substantial marketing and manufacturing investment into profit: First Blood, a skirmish game version of the Conquest battle game, designed to ease players into the miniatures range and make the larger-scale game more appealing. I’ve read the rules and they’re… fine. The company has also added “warband” boxed sets to their range for each faction that seem to be tailored for First Blood.
There’s other stuff happening - new minis from Wyrd Games and Victrix, a feeble set of new board games from CMON, and about a thousand new Kickstarters for 3D-printable minis, but none of it is relevant to what we’re talking about in the discussion this week, which is...
The Game Design Meta-Game
Now, this is a tricky topic, and it nearly ended up being last week’s topic in the game design discussion, but I decided that it’s not really game design, so much as game design design, and my thinking about it this week doesn’t just arise from the news, but also from the fact that I was focused, earlier in January, on writing my business strategy for the next 12 months. I’ll come back to that later.
The game design meta-game is the process commercial game designers must go through to “play” the game of having their game get noticed, shift units and, ideally, make a profit.
Like the best eurogames, there are a number of ways to measure victory. Some designers will measure victory from having new manufacturer clients commission them to write new games. Some will measure victory from achieving a certain degree of ubiquity, judging success by how many people play their game. The most useful and meaningful measure of success, in my opinion, is how much money your game can make but, even there, there are two measures of success: one is the short-term money-grab that seeks to cover the costs of development very quickly, add a slice of profit on top of that and then move on to the next design; the other is a longer-term philosophy of community-building, feedback and development.
No prizes for guessing which one I personally favour. But, at the end of the day, this is one game where I don’t get to dictate how the outcome is measured.
The commercial designer enters this field with care. So, for the budding game designer, or the veteran indy game publisher, what are the game conditions we have to watch out for?
Fundamentally, I think there are four: prejudice, property, aesthetics and good old market forces.
When I talk about prejudice, here, I’m not talking about racism or sexism. If that plays a part, then it falls into the market forces area. No, what I mean is prejudice about the games themselves.
As someone who spends a lot of time on wargames, board games and roleplay games forums and discussion groups, it’s hard not to see this sort of prejudice all over the place and, to be honest, it doesn’t take much introspection to see it in yourself. There are lots of things people might be prejudiced about when it comes to games, but a few that I brainstormed are genre, scale, material, dice and aesthetics. Aesthetics gets its own bullet point in a few minutes, so we’ll put that to one side and look at the others.
Some people just don’t play sci fi games. Some people positively look down upon fantasy games. When I was a junior officer in the Army, my interest in Games Workshop games was seen as a charming eccentricity by most of my fellow officers. But it was practically spat upon by “serious” wargamers who re-enacted the battles of Napoleon over a long weekend and an 8’x24’ table. They literally would not have been seen dead within 6 feet of a hypogriff.
Another common prejudice is scale.
I sometimes see 6mm called “God’s own scale”. I’ve seen 15mm and 25mm described in exactly the same terms. Now, first of all, I have to point out that, guys, God plays wargames on a 1:1 scale. That’s the point of being God!
However, there is a surprising level of prejudice against, especially, 28mm scale wargames - a prejudice that seems to weirdly extend to 32mm and 35mm games - and sometimes even within scales! There are people prejudiced against different kinds of 28mm! I wish I were joking. People who like the big head/big hands “heroic” style of 28mm don’t like the “true” 28mm style of manufacturers like Spectre or Corvus Belli. And vice versa.
And, strangest of all, this isn’t about the miniatures alone but the games, too. People will refuse to play games that aren’t in their preferred scale, despite the fact that scale, by definition, is adaptable.
I talked in detail about dice last week, but I have heard people say rude things about pretty much every dice there is to see. And I think this is the one of which I am most guilty of myself. I can think back to occasions when I’ve actively decided not to play a game because it used dice I just don’t like. That is, d10s.
By the way, I don’t dislike d10s on principle. I think used as the two halves of a d100, they’re great! And for counting things that run from 0-9, I really appreciate a dice with a 0 on it. But as a dice that generates a random number… ugh. My prejudice is totally irrational, of course. That’s why it’s called prejudice.
Anyway, the point of all of this prejudice is that, however good a game is, however well it’s designed, however beautifully illustrated or consistently supported by its developers, there are always going to be some people who are firmly within your target audience who just won’t ever buy it, because that’s just how they are.
The next field of the meta-game that I think designers have to take into account is property - that is, intellectual property. Because when you design a game you either embed it into your own, unique and personal intellectual property that is all your own, or you seek to licence a pre-existing property and embed it into that. The advantage with using a pre-existing property is that you tap into a pre-existing market, you gain access to all the world-building, art and assets that already exist for the IP, and you gain an immediate boost of attention from working in collaboration with the licensor who will be almost as keen to make your game an ongoing source of income for them as you are.
The disadvantages are huge, though. First, you have to pay - sometimes a staggering sum - to access the IP. Second, all IPs come with big, thick strings attached in profusion. And third, the licensor can withdraw your licence at the end of the licence period and there’s not a thing you can do about it.
We saw this most recently with Ares Games and the loss of the BSG Starship Battles game. I don’t know for sure why the licence was revoked but… well, I may have mentioned that I pay a lot of attention to the tabletop wargames market, the community and the international chatter and… I even didn’t know this game existed until I heard that they’d lost the licence.
The game only launched in 2018. It has high-quality pre-painted minis and critically-acclaimed rules. So why have I not heard of it? I suspect the answer is in market forces, which are coming up shortly.
But whilst Ares is doubtless sad to lose their licence they at least made a great miniatures range and a respected set of rules for it. Compare and contrast with the notorious car-crash that was Robotech Tactics, illustrating the other danger of taking on someone else’s IP. Fans will judge you far more harshly if you fail to match your quality to their dream, and that will have knock-on effects that working within your own IP couldn’t possibly do.
Good old Games Workshop is a great example of that. Their IP is now so ubiquitous that, like things like Star Wars, fans feel an enormous sense of ownership and investment. And GW handles their IP with great care as a consequence. But even when they do something that leaves fans howling in outrage, like destroying the Old World and plunging everyone into an entirely new realm with entirely new, trademarkable faction names, at the end of the day it’s their IP. We can howl all we like, but it’s canon now.
Related to the issue of intellectual property, though, is the issue of aesthetics.
Aesthetics are features of a concept that are distinctive but cannot be subject to copyright. The steampunk aesthetics of Dystopian Wars or All Quiet on the Martian Front, or the dieselpunk of Maschinen Krieger are great examples. People have certain expectations of how an aesthetic is going to be evoked in design terms - both visually and in the experience of playing the game.
You may not have a licensor breathing down your neck, but if you embrace a beloved aesthetic as part of your game and you fail to fully express that experience in the design… Well, All Quiet is a fantastic example of what happens. People backed the Kickstarter in massive numbers. The products hit retail shelves and then… people played the actual game and went; “huh, this game is really dull”. Cue plunging revenue and a quick sale of the IP and surplus stock to a third party at a fraction of the original cost.
So, just as an IP licensee needs to treat a licensed IP with respect and embed their rules into the world they are evoking, so a designer who embeds their world in a particular aesthetic needs to do the same. You know, it’s easy to think of examples of games that did this badly. The original Dystopian Wars is one. The mechanics paid almost no attention to the setting, which Spartan Games sought to evoke exclusively through the design of the miniatures and failed. In fact, not wishing to kick Spartan’s dead horse, but they made the same mistake on the IP front with both of their licensed Halo games.
And so to market forces.
Nothing kills a game harder or faster than a failure to anticipate just how turbulent the market ocean can become beyond the safe and cosy reef of playtesting and development. Yes, I made a Moana reference and I’m sticking with it.
Market forces start with a game’s budget - for advertising, art, manufacturing… It’s not about numbers, but about under-commitment or over-commitment. If you under-commit in advertising, your stock will sit on the shelves untouched. If you under-commit on manufacturing, you may not be able to keep up with demand, like CoolMiniOrNot and a Song of Ice and Fire. If you under-commit on art assets, people won’t take your products seriously and you will be stuck being seen as a children’s game at best (the original WizKids Star Wars miniatures game being the perfect example of a brilliant game let down by its art assets). But if you over-commit on any of these things you risk running out of money before your product is making enough sales to off-set that loss.
But these are the market forces that are under your control. The others are completely beyond you. The famous law of supply and demand comes into play, now, at a time when the market for miniatures games is growing, but so is the supply of different games. If we put Games Workshop to one side, wargamers are faced with a frankly bewildering choice of games to play. Attracting their attention isn’t enough any more. Even though we are all, fundamentally, collectors who don’t mind owning a hundred different games and only playing two, there are still hundreds of games entering the market every year.
As a designer, having a plan to play this meta-game is absolutely critical. This is why, I think, I find Para Bellum Wargames and Conquest so fascinating. I have zero interest in the game or the miniatures. I’ve read the rules and they’re derivative at best and dull at worst. If you’re missing Warhammer Fantasy Battles, I’d point you towards Kings of War that is a genuinely innovative twist on the same idea. Warhammer The Old World is on its way and Kings of War is a much cheaper way to scratch that itch in the mean time.
But I can’t deny that Para Bellum has come to market with a plan. They have done the market meta-game. They’ve developed their own IP. They’ve got budgets for art and manufacturing and for advertising. The art is, genuinely, spectacular. They are committed to their product. So the fact that I have absolutely no emotional investment in their game makes them the most interesting case-study in our industry… definitely since Privateer Press. Most other companies - GW included - kind of stumbled into success. I’m not saying they didn’t have a plan. But they poked around at other stuff for a while. Corvus Belli was 15mm historical. GW was general games retail. TSR was a board games publisher. Wyrd Games just made new and interesting minis. Warlord Games and Mantic Games were both dedicated to a business model from the start, but they built things up slowly over several years.
Privateer Press hit the market hard and fast when they first arrived, but that was way back in 2001. The Internet was a thing, but it was a million miles away from the all-pervasive single-focus media outlet that it is today. All PP had to do was get its product onto the shelves of independent retailers in enough volume that people just accepted that it was a thing. And, even then, it took several years of patient plugging away and careful management of cash reserves before they saw growth that made people think they might be the next GW.
Parabellum is the first company to try to go from zero to Second Division in the Digital Age with, really, nothing but talent, passion and an ungodly amount of money.
It’s gripping viewing for any dedicated industry-watcher.
Having laid out what I think are the rules of the game design meta-game, then, let’s talk a little bit about what this means for the designer or, at least, what it means for Precinct Omega.
Well first up, the budding indy game designer needs to accept the rules. You can’t change them. Even GW would struggle. Consumer blindness, in which a customer simply can’t see our product, is a normal feature of any market system in which there is a surplus of choice.
Choice is good, but a surplus of choice is overwhelming. To be nakedly political for a moment, this has been amply demonstrated in the UK’s Conservative Party’s dedication to increasing customer choice in publicly-funded, non-governmental systems - by which I mean schools, universities and hospitals. Allowing citizens more choice over where they get educated or cured simply gives the government the opportunity to blame bad outcomes on bad choices - it’s victim blaming and gaslighting on a national scale. It also serves to set up these systems for eventual privatisation, thinning the herd by putting an axe in the Invisible Hand.
But it teaches us something important that points us back to the actual relevant topic: people ascribe quality to familiarity and ubiquity. People think that the thing they see the most often and in the greatest quantity is - if not the best - then at least of adequately high quality that, if they choose it from amongst all the other options, then they at least aren’t making a terrible mistake.
All of this serves to explain why I value this podcast, despite its modest reach. It provides me with a lens through which to study the rules and to observe them in action. The successful designer cannot simply hope to write games and rely upon the wisdom of the market to achieve success. The market isn’t stupid, but it is constrained by the rules. If I fail to study and respond to the rules within my market, then my games won’t be successful however good they may be.
But it also tells us that uniqueness is a dangerous quality. Crowds don’t respond well to non-conformists. And the market doesn’t like products that are too confusing or innovative. One of the reasons why the iPhone, one of the most era-defining products of our age, was so successful was that we had already become accustomed to the iPod. And the iPod was successful because we were already accustomed to the Walkman. Etc.
In our industry, a game that is too different to other games will often fail to find traction for exactly that reason. People don’t know where to hang their mental hooks or how to find their way through unfamiliar rules or aesthetics. In related industries like board games and roleplay games, I’m not sure this holds true, to be honest. I think quirkiness is valued more in these areas.
Homogeneity is equally dangerous. Blend in too much among the general range of products, and your designs will disappear from view. And to the aforementioned RPGs and board games, homogeneity is absolutely lethal. Conquest can get away with being derivative on the back of great art and miniatures. But yet another D&D clone is not going last long in the RPG world.
Balancing distinctiveness against homogeneity is a difficult balancing act and one that I largely ignored in my early days of design but have increasingly come to appreciate. It’s fine to do one thing differently. Even two things. But there are limits on the expectation of a player that a tabletop miniatures wargame can afford to defy.
One should always consider counterexamples, though.
One of the reasons I talk so often about Infinity the Game is that it overcame the obstacle presented by distinctiveness primarily through effective marketing in partnership with Beasts of War. And this illustrates how marketing can brute force other aspects of the metagame. Another skirmish game that seems to have overcome the obstacles of uniqueness is Malifaux, with its quirky aesthetic and card-based mechanics. But has it really? It soared its way to popularity on the decline of both Warhammer and Warmachine, but it seems to be losing ground as Games Workshop, in particular, welcomes back old fans thanks to their improved community engagement. Familiarity may breed contempt but it also breeds comfort. Guildball players should, logically, have turned to Malifaux as the game closest to it in terms of tight, competitive design and dark humour. Instead, they seem to be mostly shifting to Bushido or to GW games like Warcry and Underworlds.
So are Infinity and Malifaux really counterexamples that show that uniqueness can be turned to success? Well, yes and no. I think both games struggled to gain traction in their early years because of their distinctiveness. Malifaux benefited from entering the market at a time when players were looking for an alternative with few real prospects, and Infinity benefited from a commercial marketing partnership with Beasts of War. In both cases, traditional market forces trumped the obstacles of distinctiveness, but these were factors over which the players had little real control.
So, all that said, let’s make some predictions for 2021.
With no game to under-pin the intellectual property, Ma.K 15mm will remain a fringe interest for wargamers already interested in indy games and miniatures-agnostic systems. It won’t take off until Slave2Gaming decides - probably towards the end of the year - to announce a forthcoming game system, probably commissioning an independent designer to write it. The future of the range will then rise or fall based upon the degree to which that game captures the dieselpunk aesthetic of the setting. At this stage, though, the most likely outcome is that it will either be another All’s Quiet and the whole property will move to another owner by the end of 2022, or it will be another Halo: Ground Command and fail to achieve its potential.
Conquest, meanwhile, has succeeded in getting people’s attention. It now needs to start selling itself on the gameplay experience of First Blood and Last Argument - hah! I just saw what they did there! - if they want to be more than just pretty aesthetics. So we ought to see more reviewers and how-to-play shows doing demos and playthroughs. We should see some sponsored tournaments popping up in the UK, EU and US - maybe Australia, as it seems to have enjoyed early traction there. And we should start to see more professional painters submit minis and dioramas from their range to the big painting shows and on YouTube and Patreons and suchlike.
Oh, and seeing as this is the Precinct Omega section of the show, I should predict that Precinct Omega’s new game, Infinite Dark, will be a big success, and our Kickstarter will comfortably exceed its funding goal and fulfill ahead of schedule! Why? Because I have studied the metagame, I know how to play, and I’ve made a plan.
I’ll speak to you again next week.