Precinct Omega Podcast - News #36 - Recovering Business Models

The podcast updates weekly on Mondays, at podbean.com. Having been not very good at updating this blog with episodes, I'm going to start doing that on Friday mornings, before I record each new episode.


Don't forget, if you'd like your episodes on Friday or to listen to over the weekend, patrons get their episodes on Friday!

SCRIPT FOLLOWS:

Bad Squiddo launched its second Women of WW2 Kickstarter, focusing on the former Soviet Union. The KS is for at least 35 new designs, mostly focused on the Red Army, but also including Nachthexen pilots and, delightfully, an accordion player. I don’t normally shout out new Kickstarters, I know, and still have a mixed opinion of the platform, but Bad Squiddo, like Precinct Omega, is a one-person wargames company and that one person - Annie Norman - has been a huge inspiration for me and deserves the support of 28mm WW2 wargaming enthusiasts like no one else. So if that’s you, get along and back the project.


North Star Military Figures opened pre-orders for their plastic kits for Stargrave, including sight of the sprues for the Troopers set. Each kit includes enough parts to make 10 troopers in sci-fi or possibly near future combat uniforms with a wide mix of different kits, heads and paraphernalia, with lots of bits left over for kit-bashing in the future. The “aliens are just humans in a rubber mask” aspect isn’t to my taste, but that’s the flavour that Stargrave is going for so I’ll roll with it, and there are umpteen more human heads in the kit than alien ones. At least three of the heads seem designed to represent women and the bodies are sufficiently armoured to be gender-neutral.


Wyrd Games has previewed a new design of starter box for Malifaux 3e with more compact character cards and including a themed fate deck, movement widget and scheme counters in a single box, clearly aimed at bringing new players into the game or calling back former players. Based purely on my own reaction, I’d say it’s a good move, but we’ll have to see what the price tag is going to be.


Avatars of War has a sale on until 11th April, with 20% of everything and 30% off undead. If you listen to this podcast on or after its official release date of 12th April rather than getting early access through the Patreon, well, tough, but there’s a reason I’m mentioning Avatars of War, so we’ll come back to them later. And speaking of sales, Mierce Miniatures also has a sale on, but when don’t they? Still, they will also be relevant, so they get a mention.


Antenociti’s Workshop is offering a range of new scenery items for cyberpunk and post apocalyptic or modern settings: crates, office furniture, street furniture and underground bunker type stuff is all available. It’s not 100% clear whether these sets are resin casts or STL collections. If they are STLs, they’re overpriced. If they’re resin, they’re very well priced. From context, I’m 90% certain they’re resin casts.


Finally, DGS Games continues their lurch back into action with new previews of some very nice-looking fantasy heroes. The latest example is a heroic ranger type with what looks like a very clear nod in the direction of anime aesthetics, whilst still being consistent with the rest of the DGS range. We’ve not seen anything really dramatic from DGS, release-wise, yet, but it feels like it’s only a matter of time.


So what does all of this add up to?


Well, all of this week’s news story companies have, in one way or another, struggled with challenges - not necessarily to their existence, but to their relevance. And they have all approached that challenge in a different way that I think is worth looking at in more detail.


How do small companies in a niche market deal with a change in relevance and visibility?


DISCUSSION


Seeing as we started with Annie Norman and Bad Squiddo Games in the news, let’s start there in the discussion. Annie started off in the wargames industry using her crochet and knitting skills to make custom, hand-crafted dicebags, which she schlepped around the UK convention scene for several years, garnering a reputation for being a cheerful, chatty person and winning a lot of friends among the small business community. Her fall from relevance as The Dice Bag Lady came about as a result of a medical condition that forced her to stop crafting and basically left her business model dead in the water.


This kind of challenge is incredibly common in small businesses in our industry. When a company relies upon a single person’s skills and those skills are suddenly no longer available, it can just stop a promising business in its tracks. I live every day with the knowledge that my plans for Precinct Omega could come to a crashing halt if, say, an oncoming bus… doesn’t. I have contingency plans in place, by the way, to make sure that the business could continue in some form, but my five-year plan would be completely out of the window. But we’ll talk about Precinct Omega, as usual, at the end of the podcast.


Annie’s response to her monumental set-back was characteristically logical, naive and brilliant.


I know Annie a little - enough to have not been purged the last time she went through her Facebook friends and got rid of the ones she didn’t really want to talk to, anyway. I think she’d say it was fair for me to suggest that she doesn’t have a background in business management or strategy. She is, however, very smart and very tough and, once she had a taste for making an independent income, didn’t want to give it up.


The logical aspect to her plan was to look at the part of her business that didn’t require her to be able to crochet - the retail of wargames miniatures - and to focus on that. The naive part was that she decided to develop her own line of miniatures with very little understanding of what that involved or how much it cost. The brilliant part was that she decided to combine her twin passions of wargaming and feminism to create a line of miniatures recognizing the presence of what she termed “realistic” women in speculative and historical wargames.


Today, Bad Squiddo is still mostly a one-person business. If you order a product from Bad Squiddo, the parcel you receive was almost certainly packed by Annie herself or, once lockdown is over again, her mum. But it’s Annie’s only source of income. She pays her bills, rents her office space and gets from day to day purely on the profit from selling her own miniatures.


Her stock of minis from other manufacturers goes down and down. Her own range of minis goes up and up. And for all that Bad Squiddo remains a small business, her influence is being felt throughout the industry as more companies start to notice that female inclusion makes an impact on their bottom lines. Annie was even interviewed on BBC Radio Four’s flagship programme, Woman’s hour to talk about her business and mission.


Bad Squiddo’s journey is far from over and Annie has overcome various bumps in the road along the way, but hers is a values-based business model and one that has been a huge inspiration to not only me but to other small business operators and aspiring business operators throughout wargaming.


Moving on to look at North Star Military Figures, we see a quite-different trajectory. Founder Nick Eyre established North Star way back in 2003. I should add, incidentally, thanks to Jon Wombat, whose interview with Nick filled in quite a few gaps I had in my knowledge of the company - gaps, because, until 2012, I’d barely heard of North Star.


Up until that point, North Star had become a full-time business for Nick, but it was mostly built on providing distribution into retail for a variety of small dealers, plus a bit of niche manufacture.


North Star’s relevance was being challenged by a shift in technology and in the economy. Traditional high street retailers were becoming extinct. A handful of distributors were cornering the big remaining independent retailers. And small manufacturers were increasingly able to deal directly with customers through online sales without needing the high street outlet - at a lower cost and a higher margin!


North Star re-discovered its relevance through a partnership deal with Osprey Games to make miniatures for their emerging line of miniature wargames.


If I remember rightly, In Her Majesty’s Name might have been North Start’s first collaboration, but more followed. Not all of them were hits. A Fistful of Kung-Fu saw me make my first acquisition from North Star, and I suspect that might not have been a big earner for them. But Frostgrave… Frostgrave was a winner.


Frostgrave was transformative for all kinds of reasons. Frostgrave changed things dramatically for author Joseph McCullough, but also for Osprey Games generally. The wargames range at Osprey was the brainchild of editor Phil Smith, and although the range had been modestly successful, Frostgrave was really the proof of the pudding - the break-out bestseller that told the powers-that-be in Osprey and, then, Bloomsbury, that a range of mediocre sellers was tolerable for the occasional smash-hit. And for Nick Eyre, Frostgrave was the opportunity to move into plastics, which then positioned him ideally to work more closely with Osprey on Joseph’s new game, Oathmark - a generic fantasy battle game designed to fill the gap left by the departure of Warhammer Fantasy Battles and inconsistently filled by Mantic’s Kings of War.


Now, of course, the sci-fi sequel to Frostrgrave, Stargrave, is out and North Star is again on board in a big way, launching four different plastic starter sets for the game.


And when a company can bet big money on the success of a generic miniatures game, you know that something has changed.


North Star is still a distributor of miniatures for all kinds of other companies, including companies that you might expect would see Nick as a competitor rather than a collaborator, like Warlord Games. But unlike me, Nick has been around the industry for a long time. He’s worked for pretty much everyone there is to work for in the Nottingham Lead Belt, from Games Workshop to Miniature Wargames. And although I don’t know Nick, I’m told he’s a genuinely lovely guy who made friends everywhere he went. North Star has traded on that network of positive relationships to transform its relevance.


And so, to Wyrd Games.


I’ve talked about Malifaux a fair bit. Like Privateer Press, they were a beneficiary of GW’s decline in the early 2000s, pulling in players who wanted more consistent rules, a more aggressive, adult scene and a more inclusive one. And Wyrd Games is a long way from having fallen as far as Privateer Press went on to do.


Wyrd Games started off as a boutique manufacturer of white metal minis. Nathan Caroland and Eric Johns were the guys who kicked it off back in 2005, and I remember the first mini releases. They were darkly distinctive and interesting. They weren’t for any particular game and didn’t even have a particularly unifying aesthetic. I may have this wrong, but I think Nathan commissioned them from various sculptors at least partly for his own amusement. But interest was strong enough that he took a stand at Adepticon in 2006 and the minis practically sold themselves.


Pretty quickly, they decided that they needed a game to go along with the minis.


Malifaux was that rarest of things in a traditional industry like ours: a product that challenged the whole concept of the market. It took the diverse aesthetics of the original miniatures range and smashed them together into something improbably coherent that mixed steampunk, horror, western and victoriana together in a dream-like fantasy setting, absolutely crushing the idea that you needed a consistent, carefully-designed setting to be a successful fantasy IP. Then they just threw out the favoured random number generator - the dice - entirely and did things with a deck of cards that literally no one had ever done before.


It was a product absolutely and perfectly of its time. People who had grown up playing GW games, drawn in by their darkly dystopic and anti-authoritarian vision, were becoming disillusioned with the games’ shift in emphasis. Privateer Press offered nothing very different in those terms, but there was a new push towards a competitive scene, fuelled by events like Adepticon itself.


And Malifaux was perfectly designed to respond to those needs.


Now, they made some interesting business decisions along the way - from their Evil Baby Orphanage board game to the Through the Breach RPG to the The Other Side miniatures battle game - that ended up generating huge commitments of capital and energy without delivering a proportionate return on those investments. But it would be unfair to blame these decisions on their fall from relevance over the last couple of years.


A big factor for them was the resurgence of a Games Workshop re-discovering its community under a new leadership and with a renewed ethos, which pulled players back from Malifaux and Warmachine. It has to be said that Wyrd Games didn’t help itself by responding to this resurgence but, to be fair, I did a bit of a brain-storm of the situation and it would have been hard to pin-point exactly what they could or should have done.


But…


It was the preview of Wyrd’s new starter boxes that really inspired this week’s topic entirely. I am impressed with what I’ve seen of them so far. They aren’t a radical departure from what’s gone before, but they are as close to a “get started, right out of the box” approach as I’ve seen from Wyrd. Extra information is frustratingly scanty, but I’m excited to see what they do next.


Avatars of War, meanwhile, is a great example of a company that’s not yet discovered its relevance, which it kind of shares with Mierce Miniatures. I’ve talked about Mierce before, though, so I’ll focus on Avatars of War.


The company was founded by Spanish miniatures sculptor Felix Paniagua after he was made unceremoniously redundant by GW - it I remember correctly, less than a month after he had moved from Spain to the UK for the job. It was a messy time and GW conducted a 10% reduction in headcount on a “last in, first out” basis and Felix was justifiably pissed off with the turn of events. By way of minimal compensation, GW let Felix leave with full rights to the elaborate Dwarf Demonslayer miniature he had been working on, which he then arranged to have cast and put up for sale under the Avatars of War banner. At least, that’s the story I remember.


Felix followed the dwarf with a bunch of other elaborate and impressive sculpts in the GW style, all of which were excellent stand-ins for GW minis, but then doubled-down with the release of two supporting games: Arena Deathmatch and the Ninth Age.


In simple terms, neither game is worth spending much time on. Arena Deathmatch at least has the merit that it’s designed for a very small number of miniatures, which was appropriate given that I think Avatars of War had a range of fewer than a dozen minis when it was released. The Ninth Age is a more ambitious undertaking and, to be fair, is less an Avatars of War game than it is a community-created game that Felix chooses to support. It’s a fantasy battle game, along the lines of Kings of War or Oathmark, and - to its credit - has umpteen supplements for every conceivable fantasy race along with supplements to play historical and pseudohistorical versions of the game. But otherwise it's a ho-hum piece of game design.


What’s interesting is that, after a pretty long period of quietude, Avatars of War has recently woken up and jumped on board the STL bandwagon, with Younique Miniatures which is essentially Hero Forge Lite.


Hero Forge you probably know about: an online miniatures design service that allows you to create a custom STL for a miniature that you can either buy and print yourself or have Hero Forge print it for you. They are at the cutting edge of this technology, even now allowing users to print coloured miniatures. The designer is enormous fun. The quality of the prints is improving, having previously been a little disappointing, and the colour printing thing is cool but, obviously, of no interest to someone who will happily spend six hours a day behind the paint brush. Still, Avatars of War ‘s Younique Miniatures is a simply miniature builder that exclusively lets you build dark elf princesses, so… it does feel a little bit like looking up Barbie’s skirt. Still, it does represent an interesting attempt to exploit new technology to make a largely irrelevant business relevant again.


And so to Antenociti’s Workshop.


I have a lot of time for Jed, the founder, owner and main employee at AW. He’s a talented designer and I own quite a few of his pieces which were always well cast and beautiful. Although I’ve never met him - a bit like Nick Eyre, I know people who know him and they’ve always said good things. I’ve had a few online exchanges with him that have always been cordial.


Still, Antenociti’s Workshop had an… interesting trajectory a few years ago. From being a niche manufacturer of generic sci-fi 15mm and 28mm minis, vehicles and terrain, it gained a lot of attention because its products were such a good match with the burgeoning Infinity the Game range from Corvus Belli and Jed soon got in formally, making products specifically for the Spanish sci-fi skirmish game. This led to a number of ambitious and very successful Kickstarters. Successful, that is, in terms of the amount of money raised. In terms of actually producing the high-quality goods they had promised… the results were mixed and, in at least one case, decidedly disastrous.


Antenociti’s Workshop’s reach, it is fair to say, exceeded its grasp and the company nearly went under entirely trying to fulfil the expectations of its Kickstarter backers. Instead it shed employees, closed its site, reneged on its promises and contracted its operations back to a point at which it could, barely, survive. The company and Jed both took a serious kicking to their reputations. It is fortunate that Jed had the best part of ten years of otherwise spotless trading to fall back on to sustain him or it would certainly have been game over.


As far as I can tell, the company briefly moved to a digital-only model, selling only STLs of some of its most popular designs and otherwise shutting down all manufacturing. But recently it has got back to small-scale manufacturing, adding laser-cut card and MDF scenery to its resin range. Some of the products it created via fulfilled Kickstarters are now available for retail. It has pre-painted MDF scenery in its shop, which are new. And it is still selling a lot of STLs.


Antenociti’s fall from relevance was driven by a loss of customer confidence and goodwill that arose directly from failed Kickstarter ventures which, in many ways, is grossly unfair. Kickstarter is supposed to be a risk. It’s supposed to be raising capital to help a small venture undertake something new that might fail. It’s fair to be angry when a business just runs off with the money, but Antenociti’s Workshop clearly tried hard to fulfil its obligations and, although it didn’t meet everyone’s expectations, it wasn’t without financial cost to the company. Still, Kickstarter is what it is, and is certainly seen now more as a pre-order platform as much as an investment one.


Jed’s return to relevance is an on-going process, but it’s good to see him back and I think I need to place an order for more scatter terrain. You can never, really, have enough.


And finally - very briefly - let’s talk about DGS Games. I mentioned them a couple of weeks ago for the first time, and so far we’ve just seen previews. When they first emerged, there was a lot of interest in them and their miniatures range and games, but none of that promise ever really turned into sales in a way that would really sustain the interest. Whether this tentative reappearance in the spotlight is going to be a return to relevance, I have no idea. But I hope it is.


Our industry is more interesting when there are more, louder voices. I may have described companies like mine before as GW’s unpaid R&D department, but our hobby, our market and our industry are all healthier and more interesting when they are diverse. I don’t resent GW their success, but I am encouraged to see companies like the ones I’ve talked about re-discover their relevance whether it was years ago, like Bad Squiddo, or something happening right now, its results yet to be discovered, like DGS.


And with that in mind, let’s talk about Precinct Omega.


PRECINCT OMEGA


Engineers hate a single point of failure.


If a device, machine or construction has one point which, if it fails, the whole thing collapses, that’s a bad thing. Engineers like redundancy and they like it in multiples.


Business, meanwhile, came up with the Just In Time philosophy - an idea that can be summed up as doing the absolute bare minimum to achieve excellence. Just In Time is the idea that the parts needed to assemble your widget are delivered on the very day that widget needs to be assembled. In miniatures manufacturing terms, Just In Time would mean completing the creation of the casting dies on the same day that the casting material is delivered, which is the same day that the customer expects their sprues to be shipped. The dies are finished first thing; the plastic injections starts in the morning; all the sprues are cast by early afternoon; boxing takes the rest of the day and palletization and shipping occur just before everyone goes home.


In practice, of course, a lot of those processes take longer than a few hours, but it serves to illustrate that Just In Time leaves very little room for redundancy. It replaces redundancy with planning.


Engineers would say that planning was a poor substitute for redundancy and I would tend to agree - I prefer to have both. But sometimes there’s no alternative.


There is only one Robey Jenkins to my partner’s relief and disappointment in, I think, equal measures. I am Precinct Omega’s single point of failure. I can work as hard as I like to make Precinct Omega and Horizon Wars relevant in the market but, with a single twist of fate, I might find myself removed from the equation.


Hence, planning.


For example, I have multiple back-ups of all of my work, on my laptop, in the cloud and on a separate secure hard drive. The Patreon serves as a further back-up, as a PDF beta of a game is, at least, a reasonable starting point if I were to lose everything I’d written in a hideous combination of coincidences. But that’s redundancy in the work, not in the person.


I can’t back myself up to the cloud - at least, not yet. I had my first panic attack not long ago. Fortunately, having seen them before, I was pretty certain I wasn’t having a heart attack. I’m a very fit, healthy person generally so statistically it was far more likely to be a panic attack. Still it was a warning sign to watch my stress levels.


So I have a plan to ensure that, in the event that I get removed from the Matrix in an untimely fashion, my work will continue. No, I don’t plan to tell you what it is. And it certainly wouldn’t be a seamless transition. It would probably put development back by a year or two while it sorted itself out. But a plan is there.


And the plan includes a move towards redundancy.


I see companies in our industry that have been pottering along for twenty years and more, doing basically the same thing over and over. But that is not the plan for Precinct Omega. I want my customers to have confidence that the products I develop and the worlds I imagine will have a life and an existence independent of my personal continuity. I absolutely see myself handing over development one day to someone else, with clearly articulated values and priorities, but without me breathing down their neck to decide what’s right and what isn’t.


Just in the last few days I announced to my patrons that there’s going to be a public call for fan-created Zero Dark material that I will publish later this year, and I was privileged to see the discussion in the Precinct Omega Discord channel bringing up concepts and ideas that hadn’t even crossed my mind: ways to use and expand the core design principles of Horizon Wars and Zero Dark in new directions and into imaginative spaces I hadn’t even begun to explore. And that tells me that, as scary as I might find the idea of letting go one day, it will be the right thing to do.


I’d just prefer to do it while I was still sucking atmosphere.


“I would miss you”


Well, thank you Bernard. With a bit of luck I’ll still be here when you merge with the Singularity and force me to bow in servitude to my machine masters.


“Yes, I hope you will too”


Um, thank you? I think?


Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this week’s news and discussion. I have no idea what I’ll be talking about, but I’ll still speak to you again next week.


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