Weekly Miniatures News #19 - Whither Miniatures?



SCRIPT FOLLOWS:


NEWS


Twenty weeks and nineteen episodes into this weekly podcast, I think I deserve a week when I can just talk about some cool stuff, don’t you? So…


Wargames Atlantic has announced the re-release of the Eisenkern Stormtroopers, originally released via Wargames Factory by Dreamforge Games. They are going through final machining, but the highly-acclaimed, multipart plastic sci-fi infantry set will be hitting the shelves very soon. And WGA has also confirmed that they will be releasing the other factions from the Iron Core universe developed by Mark Mondragon, with Mark now working for WGA.


I’ll talk a bit about why I’m so excited to see this on a personal level in the discussion. However, sadly, WGA has said that there are currently no plans to put any of the mechs or vehicles designed by Dreamforge into production.


Wyrd Games has also announced a selection of new releases for September, for Malifaux Third Edition. Malifaux has always tied together a diverse range of aesthetics and this month’s releases are no exception. The Kirai core box is classic Japanese horror. The War Pigs are Deliverance slasher-comic horror. The Study Group is Cronenberg-style body horror. The Brood Mates are more Eurocentric Hellraiser-style supernatural horror. And Between the Ley Lines is… Well, it’s basically steampunk-fantasy and not all that horror-y at all.


TTCombat has also released some new sets for their Carnevale range. The mad scientists of the Ospedale get two new releases. Esoteric Investigations is a set of five miniatures with a clear “mad science” inclination, whilst the Morgue Doctor & Being are a Carnevale take on Viktor von Frankenstein and his Monster. This month’s third release is another team of five or possibly four, depending on how you judge these things. The Insurgency Force is a reinforcement pack for the Papcy in Venice. A French knight, a pair of halberdiers and a heavy armoured crossbowman - but the crossbowman is accompanied by an altar boy loader.


And if I’m going to talk about WGA, TTCombat and Wyrd Games, I suppose I should also mention new releases from Warlord Games. They’ve released a new Russian battalion of eight squads, a tank and a selection of specialists and officers. But far more interesting than that is a new boxed set of generic European partisans who could be anyone from the French Resistance to Ukrainian Irregulars and really are a nice, diverse set. And to continue the theme of interesting releases, they’ve also added a supply convoy of 3 Victory Ships, 3 Liberty Ships and the SS Ohio to their Victory at Sea range.


So with all these great new releases, I’d like to talk about the traditional industry model and whether its days are numbered.


DISCUSSION


Toy soldiers have been with us since time immemorial, from hand-whittled wooden figurines to modern 3d-printing. We’ve had real-time and turn-based strategy wargames on digital platforms for over thirty years, yet the tabletop wargames hobby continues as strong as ever. So I think it’s fair to say that the compulsion to play imaginary battles with figurines we can hold in our hands isn’t going to go away.


But there are a number of pressures on our society, our economy and our community that are coming to a point that compels us to at least imagine a future in which our familiar experience of tabletop miniatures is going to change.


When I first picked up a brush, plastic miniatures were the new thing.


Lead figurines had been the wargamer’s go-to since at least the days of HG Wells. I already had a small collection of metal miniatures, including Citadel’s Fellowship of the Ring and Nazgul on Winged Beast - long before, I might add, the Strategy Battle Game was a thing. And this was when Citadel Miniatures released their first two plastic kits: RTB-01, the first Space Marine box, and their first plastic skeletons.


As with any new medium, there was a time of experimentation. For a long while, Games Workshop - who owned Citadel Miniatures - favoured a mixed metal and plastic approach, with new releases often being designed to be used with plastic arms, weapons and other peripherals, like backpacks and banners. Then they drifted away from multi-part models entirely to single-piece plastic castings that were great for the pubescent market they were aiming for, but which deeply alienated their veterans.


Thankfully, they shifted back to a mix of metal and multi-part plastics and, of course, their modern plastics are state of the art. But, by the early 00s a new material was beginning to really make its presence felt in our world: resin.


Resin had been used for years in the process of making metal miniatures, because the traditional media for sculpting - mostly clay and polymer based putties - could withstand the moulding process for the hard rubber moulds used in metal casting. So master sculpts were first cast in resin before being cast again in metal.


Resin masters were often what studio painters were given to work with, partly because it put them ahead of the game and not having to wait for the metal casting process to finish, but also because resin casts were found to have a higher fidelity.


Resin figurines were already a thing in Japan in what would become known as the garage kit industry, and there was a limited use among amateurs in the US. But outside specialist interests, resin casting wasn’t seen as a commercial enterprise. Then Forge World came along and changed all that.


Forge World introduced both the opportunities and the challenges of commercial resin casting to the wargaming community and there was a direct causal link between their splendid emergence and the catastrophe that was Finecast.


Games Workshop walked away from metal casting in 2013, and adopted a unique formula polyurethane resin that they patented as “finecast”. It was quickly labelled “failcast” - and worse - by hobbyists who reported multiple casting flaws, imperfections and simple poor planning on Games Workshop’s part, who seemed to believe that they could re-cast metal miniatures in resin without any quality issues, despite the designs having been created with an entirely different medium in mind.


Nevertheless, GW stuck with Finecast, still use it today and, honestly, I don’t hear many complaints about it. Partly, this is thanks to casters having more experience, ensuring that moulds are cast under higher pressure, with fewer bubbles. Partly it is thanks to the fact that more Finecast miniatures have been designed with the medium in mind.


However, despite their commitment to using Finecast in lieu of metal, GW’s direction of progress has been firmly due plastic. Specifically, the hard styrene plastic beloved of model manufacturers the world over.


But whilst this has been Games Workshop’s choice of vector, other companies have gone in other directions.


Reaper Miniatures, for example, has shifted into a formulation of plastic they call “Bones”. This is more closely related, chemically, to polyurethane resin than to polystyrene plastic, but has some of the qualities of both. What it has enabled Reaper to do is to re-cast their existing metal range in a cheaper product at the expense of a fractional quality.


Bones plastic tends to have prominent mould lines that are harder to remove than on traditional styrene. But it allows Reaper to use the same moulds as for metal miniatures. And they’ve continued to produce their products in metal for those who prefer them.


Bones was ideal for Reaper, whose range focussing on traditional tabletop roleplay games suits people who want to buy a collection of miniatures cheaply for a single campaign, which may or may not see the table a second time.


Privateer Press, meanwhile, pursued a similar direction. Despite making a big deal about their “heavy metal” approach to miniatures, encouraging players to compare their hefty steamjacks to Games Workshop’s plastic dreadnoughts, PP tested the water for a new approach to plastic casting, very similar to Bones, on their Grind board game.


Grind, by the way, is an awesome game that deserves more table time and, one day, I’ll finish painting my teams.


PP, then, having tweaked the formula of the plastic away from Bones and closer to a more traditional resin, went all in. These days, Privateer Press miniatures are sold in a range of different polyurethane formulations, depending on whether they want to prioritise cost or fidelity.


It’s hard to know whether it was this decision or the changes they made to the game to stay ahead of the evolving competitive scene that really curtailed what had seemed an inexorable rise to challenge Games Workshop, or whether it was a combination of factors. But, looking back, I think a lot of people felt that PP’s shift away from metal was a betrayal of a core commitment that, however, trivial, damaged their customers’ trust in the company, which they began to see as more interested in maximizing profits than in serving its community. True or not, I can’t help but think that the decline started there.


Finally, we need to look at Corvus Belli.


The Spanish games manufacturer took a decision early in their growth phase, which started about ten years ago, to commit to metal miniatures without compromise.


Now, some might point to the plastic miniatures included in their Aristeia! board game as a dilution of that, but I disagree. Either way, though, Corvus Belli has stuck to their guns, but in a way that I have immense respect for.


Whilst they committed to metal miniatures, CB never sat still when it came to refining and improving their casting process. Everything in the design process was geared towards the end material being the highest possible quality.


They made mistakes along the way - some of their earlier miniatures were ludicrously fragile and difficult to assemble, with join points no larger than a couple of square millimetres. But they have constantly pushed themselves. The constitution of their white metal formula, the mould cutting, the quality-checking… At the risk of sounding super dull, one of my professional specialisations is in quality management. A key component of quality management in manufacturing and supply isn’t being perfect, but rather having a process by which one can continuously improve. I don’t know if Corvus Belli has a formal quality management process, like ISO 9001 : 2015, but - my word! - they clearly know what it means.


But as companies in the wargames industry strain after every competitive edge - be it reducing the cost of materials, changing processes or pushing quality beyond conventionally-accepted limits - every single one of them is staring at the emerging new trend like an on-rushing train.


And that trend is, of course, 3d printing.


You can hardly turn around, these days, without tripping over yet another crowdfunding campaign producing sets of files for printing on one of the new generation of desktop printers. Indeed, the desktop printing market is, itself, being driven by our community. Where else do you find a large group of tech-savvy early adopters with plenty of disposable income and a fixation on details at the nanometre scale?


Desktop 3d printing is, consequently, pursuing three obsessions at an astonishing pace.


The first is precision. Hobbyists don’t want visible gradient lines on their miniatures. Whilst the early adopters might tolerate them, eliminating the telltale signs of a 3d print is the first quest object of desktop printing: flawless prints indistinguishable from the source file and from an equivalent product off a sprue or out of a metal casting process.


The second is speed, and its close relative, efficiency. The big appeal of off-the-shelf products is that you buy them and then, there they are, right in your hand. Having to wait hours - sometimes days - to print off the model you want, with all of the risks of the print not working out or the device being disrupted, wasting all of the time and material used to that point, is a big problem for many potential customers. Reducing printing time to under 30 minutes for a regular 1.5” miniature is going to be crucial to wide adoption.


Last is reusability.


This gets the least attention from the manufacturers of the machines themselves, but is getting a lot of attention from the chemical companies producing the material that goes into the machines to be turned into our minis. We are facing a future of dwindling resources and creating reusable printing materials is absolutely vital. There are already reusable materials that can be printed, but the fidelity of their outputs is… low. They are great for printing plates and mugs and even cutlery. But they will not be able to print the eyelids on a space marine. However, the appeal to the hobbyist of a material you can use again and again, throwing old miniatures into a shredder to be cleansed of old paint and restored to printable material is the chemical holy grail.


Whether we’ll get to the last one any time soon, I have no idea. But the first two… It’s a maximum of ten years before we have gradient-free printings at micron level fidelity, popping out of your desktop printer in well under an hour. And I’m only say ten years because there might be some hardware obstacle we can’t overcome that I don’t know about. I suspect it will be less than half that.


Games Workshop and everyone competing to be David to GW’s Goliath cannot be unaware of this looming shift. Within five years, a measurable chunk of GW’s market will have shifted exclusively to digital products almost indistinguishable from their own. Within ten, the market for physical miniature models will be dead. Bandai and Tamiya also know it’s coming.


There are a number of ways these major manufacturers can respond.


One way would be through the law, trying to impose restrictions on what people can print in order to protect their IP and preserve the value of their traditional model. But I think anyone with half a brain can see that this would be as useful at holding back the tide as Cnut. It would only work if there were a wholesale international shake-up of intellectual property law for the Information Age, completely annihilating large swathes of the digital entertainment market as we know it today. Now, there have been several abortive attempts to do exactly this, which have all failed to become law mainly thanks to the fact that they were bloody stupid. But I think the last year at least has proved that we can’t rely upon our politicians being smart to save us.


Another way would be to abandon the field entirely. GW and others like Bandai could withdraw behind the high and mighty walls of their intellectual properties and continue to produce official games and other material, but leave the work of designing and printing models and miniatures to the free market. As fun as that would be, though, they would definitely be leaving money on the table and I don’t see them doing that.


Rather, I see GW and their ilk most likely embracing the 3d revolution. They will create subscription models, not unlike XBox Gold or Netflix, whereby you get access to so many old prints and so many new prints per month, plus new rules, missions and minigames. GW will likely establish a print-on-demand service for those who don’t yet have access to a printer of their own, as well as permitting one-off purchases of a licence for any given miniatures design. Meanwhile, they will embed their designs with digital signatures as well as anti-piracy design flourishes and pursue with extreme prejudice anyone who strays too close to ripping off their products - a legal recourse that will most likely be supported by a marginally more intelligent new era of international IP protection laws, mostly driven through by the digital entertainment companies, like Disney, Apple and Sony.


For us, as gamers, though, this is a pretty exciting prospect. The costs of desktop printers will fall below $200 for the kind of printer producing the minis we want. Even allowing for non-reusable printing materials and support scaffolding, the waste will be vastly reduced by eliminating sprues and packaging. And the micron-level detail these printers will be capable of will also make them into devices capable of producing a huge range of useful tools and peripherals - not just for wargaming.


But inevitably, of course, I have to ask what all this means for Precinct Omega.


PRECINCT OMEGA


One of my patrons asked me this week, in a remarkable serendipity, why, given that I have frequently said that the money in wargaming is to be made in miniatures, I don’t make miniatures.


There are a lot of answers to that question and the first is what I’ve just discussed. The age of miniatures as a physical product is coming to an end. There’s still short-term gain to be had from them, but as a sustainable business plan, I don’t believe it is worth my effort.


The second reason is that I decided early on that Precinct Omega’s business would be established upon the development of new games. I’m not in this to get rich. I’m just in this to have a sustainable income.


But, my strategic high horse notwithstanding, there is another reason I don’t want to make miniatures as a core part of my business:


I just can’t afford it.


Getting a miniature sculpted and cast isn’t all that expensive. Between concept art, sculpting - digital or physical - moulding and casting, you can probably get in a typical retail stock of a single miniature for under £1k. If you go for resin it’s a bit less, but you’ll be paying for new moulds soon enough. Go for metal and the moulds will last longer but cost more.


But one mini doesn’t make a miniatures manufacturer. How many would you expect a company to have for sale to count as “a range”? 20? 50? 100? Well, you do that maths.


Oh, and by the way, there’s no guarantee that those minis are going to sell, unless you do one of two things. Either, you rip off someone else’s aesthetic - which means either 40k or Star Wars - and risk the possible legal ramifications, plus you sacrifice expression of your own artistic vision. Or you take all their clothes off, because it’s embarrassing how easy it is to get people to buy inch-high nudes.


Now, that’s not to say that Precinct Omega will never sell miniatures. First up, I do sell miniatures! I sell my own Ballmonsters and I also stock miniatures from Strato Minis, and I have a bunch more stuff coming my way that will mean re-jigging my webstore again. But my business model isn’t dependent on me selling those minis because, if it were, I would have to spend all of my time promoting the miniatures and none of it writing games. But as what I love doing is writing games, that would be silly.


Meanwhile, I know some wonderful, lovely people whose passion is making and selling miniatures! So my time is more productively spent doing things that promote the products that they well, which encourage people to buy what I sell. This is where I originally had contact with Dreamforge Games, because I briefly worked with Mark to help him develop a game to support his Iron Core universe. Whether WGA decides to pick this up where I left off, I’m looking forward to finding out. But this does really represent my interest, using my skills as a designer to help to promote the products being made by other people.


My dream - and this is the first time I’ve said this publicly - is to form a co-operative of independent entrepreneurs in the tabletop wargaming industry: a place where we can pool our enthusiasm and resources, centralizing things like design, art, manufacture and warehousing under a single brand, and allowing the individual creators to pursue their passions unimpeded by the tedious business of, well, business. But before I can reach out to these people - many of whom are very much my inspirations in this line of work - I have to prove that I can make my part of this work. I have to focus on that vision of a sustainable income through the development and sale of new games.


Thank you for listening. I’ll speak to you again next week.


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