Corvus Belli’s latest - fourth - edition of their hit scifi skirmish game, Infinity, is officially released this week.
It’s not the only thing going on in the wargames world, right now, but it, in my opinion, the most industry-significant so we’re going to call the news right there to talk about Corvus Belli, Infinity and the lifecycle of a miniatures game.
Do you like my new AI? She’s less friendly than the old one, but far more competent.
My thanks to Precinct Omega Patron, Andre Luis Strauss Bosse for pointing me in the direction of Replica Studios who have provided the voice. But I feel like she needs more than just a voice. She needs a name. You’d like a name, wouldn’t you, AI?
“Yes, Robey, I would love to have a name.”
So throw me a message wherever you hear this podcast, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Patreon, YouTube, even Pinterest I don’t care. Tell me what you think the new AI should be called and my favourite suggestion will win a prize!
“Ooh, what prize?”
I have no idea. Now shush. Discussion time.
I’m far less excited for Infinity fourth edition as a player than I was for third edition, simply because between lockdown and designing my own games, there isn’t much room left for playing other games on a serious level. Nevertheless, as a designer, I find Infinity fourth edition - N4, as it is known - the most interesting and exciting edition of Infinity since the Second Edition really brought it onto people’s radars.
This fourth edition of the game is trying to overcome what has consistently been the bane of proprietary skirmish games since Laserburn: mission creep.
I’m sure we’re all familiar with the idea of mission creep in neo-conservative military adventurism. A technologically superior force is sent to perform a mission in a hostile are with a clear mission, such as to destroy the ability of a particular organization to operate outside its territorial boundaries. But before long, the commanders realize that achieving that mission requires them to establish intelligence gathering networks in the local community, and that mission requires them to establish a hearts-and-minds operation and that mission means installing a stable local government and that mission means building infrastructure… and before you know it, you’re twenty years into an 18-month campaign, wondering where the Pizza Hut came from.
Well, it’s not that dissimilar in a proprietary miniatures wargame.
Oh, before I go on, I should explain that, when I say “proprietary” I specifically mean any miniatures wargame where the expectation is that you play with miniatures manufactured by the company that produces the game or by their approved partner. Other games, like Zero Dark and Horizon Wars, are best called “miniatures agnostic”, which is to say that it’s not that it doesn’t matter what miniatures you use - after all, it would seem strange to use a regiment of 6mm Napoleonic cavalry to represent a 28mm techno-ninja assassin - but it does, at least, mean that your freedom of choice is endorsed by the game.
There’s a great big, interesting question to be answered about how proprietary systems control the buying habits of their players despite having no legal or moral right to do so, but that can wait for another day.
Let’s look, instead, at the lifecycle of a miniatures wargame and how certain conditions tend to lead, inevitably, to mission creep. This is a condition that most acutely affects proprietary games, which is where we’ll focus, but it should be said that it isn’t unique to them and also affects miniatures-agnostic game, although differently and to a different extent.
First, let’s look at launch.
Whether you go soft launch, like Infinity did, or hard launch, like CLAK most recently has, all games have to start somewhere. The days when the release of any miniatures game at all was big news in the community are long past, and any new game’s release is going to struggle to make itself heard given the huge disparity in the signal to noise ratio. This is the time in which a game is most vulnerable. It’s out of the egg, but still very much reliant upon its parent feeding it with money and attention. There are two ways this can go. A gradual, consistent approach of husbandry will let the game grow its wings slowly over quite a long period of time. The parent can shape and mould the fledgling game based on early feedback, adjusting its development into something to which the growing community responds.
Alternatively, the parent can force feed the fledgling so it grows its wings quickly and then kick it out of the nest as soon as possible.
The metaphor breaks down here because, in the scenario of a game development studio, the parent is relying on the fletched game to get out there and bring rich pickings back to feed that parent. That is, we expect our child to go and make us some money. The quicker we can kick it out of the nest, the sooner we can reap the rewards. But if we kick it out too soon, it may not be in the shape we need it to be for us to make that money.
Generally speaking, the former kind of game does better in the long run. Laserburn turned into Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, which turned into Warhammer 40,000 and heaven knows that this little bird is bringing rich pickings back to mummy now. Infinity is similar, as is Malifaux.
Examples of the latter kind include VOID, AT-43, Dust Tactics, Relic Knights and Warmachine. You may notice a distinction. But although AT-43 died and VOID, Dust and Relic Knights are limping along in various forms, and Warmachine has lost its high perch, there are other, more successful examples.
A Song of Ice and Fire is an obvious parallel with CLAK, which has done very well - although its parent company had the pockets deep enough to accommodate that. Core Space is, perhaps, a better example of a successful big launch game. Still, it’s hard not to see games like Halo: Fleet Battles and other “big splash” games as cautionary tales. The logic of the argument is to pour money into the game quickly, so it can pay back quickly. But ours is a niche market in which to operate. We can be so overwhelmed by the busyness of it, online, that we don’t notice how fractional - and, therefore, how fickle - our market really is. Speed to market is a luxury best reserved to companies that can afford to fail.
Still, either way, big splash or stealthy entrance, our fledgling game has to leave the nest some time. And there’s the first edition.
First editions are always flawed.
It doesn’t matter how big a name was behind them, how well written they are, or how well designed. Just as no plan survives contact with the enemy, no game concept survives contact with the players. This is true in the triple-A digital gaming world, where millions are poured into testing and focus groups, as much as it is in the tabletop world where we’re lucky to get half a dozen informed opinions of an indy release before it hits the market. But it’s especially true of tabletop games because all of our products are, to some extent, open source. When a player brings expectations to a digital game and finds those expectations aren’t met, their choice is to accept what they’ve been given or walk away. But with a tabletop game, if your expectations aren’t met you can just play the game differently. Write some house rules, or create some resources, or invent a new setting or faction… This is, after all, where most tabletop designers begin.
Infinity was a great example of this. The second edition definitely caught more people’s attention - better translated, albeit still flawed, with more miniatures, it started to look like a game that could be played.
But it took the guys at Beasts of War - now kind of called OnTableTop - to see the potential to articulate the rules as animated videos to clarify the text to light a fire under that edition. And it took an imaginative independent programmer to write the Infinity Army tool to vastly improve the complicated tables of available units. Then it took Ian Wood, the Wargaming Trader to write a random mission generator system that provided a desperately-needed structure to the game.
Was that was Corvus Belli intended? I have no idea. Whether the game that 2nd edition became was the game they had in mind is impossible to say without asking the designer. But, with its second edition the game finally had meaningful contact with players and the players’ response began to tell Corvus Belli what people wanted and, therefore, what the company had to do to keep the game developing.
Many games never reach this point. To have a large enough foundation of players that means they are willing to develop their own tools and tricks to extract what they want from the game, and enough other players to see that and decide that, yes, that’s what they want, too… This is a critical stage in the life cycle of a new game.
If a game doesn’t reach this point, it becomes a project. There are lots of examples. Bushido leaps to mind, as does VOID and Relic Knights. There are enough players out there for these games that they develop ideas - but there aren’t enough other players providing useful feedback on those ideas for the game to truly develop. This is the wasteland in which many indy, miniatures-agnostic games tend to languish as their designers lose the enthusiasm or energy needed to continually grow their game’s community, one player at a time, although there are exceptions - A Song of Blades and Heroes and Gruntz 15mm are two I would point to that have passed this point into the region of positive community feedback.
Alternatively, a game may reach this point only to face pushback from the designers. This is when the designers see how players are using their game and respond by saying “no, you’re playing it wrong!” This is invariably fatal. It was, in many ways, what happened to Warhammer 40,000 between 2nd and 3rd editions although, to be fair to Games Workshop, that was at least partly an intentional shift away from the complex skirmish game to the simplified battle game it became in 3rd ed. It’s definitely what happened to D&D in the disastrous, community-shattering screw-up that was 4e.
But if a game does stay open minded to its players’ feedback, there is another trap waiting in the life cycle of a tabletop miniatures game: the noisy minority.
Without wishing to make this into too much of a political parable, an equivalent can be drawn with party extremists in the political world. The extreme fringes of a party alignment are loud and visible. This is because they are deeply invested in their beliefs that represent a core aspect of their identity. An assault on their beliefs is indistinguishable from an assault on their person and, as such, they fight hard, shout loud, and wave flags where they can be seen.
This is one reason why centrist parties tend not to do very well at elections, because, as moderates, they don’t tend to suffer from the same identity-based politics and so can seem dispassionate and detached from their political work.
But in games, as in politics, there are some major risks in pandering too closely to the desires of the noisy minority, and this was the experience of Infinity in its third edition.
By prioritising the voices they could hear in the forums and Facebook groups, as well as at the big physical events - the ITS tournaments and open days in Spain - Corvus Belli prioritised the desires of people who were already financially invested in the game. These were people who had already spent thousands of pounds on their products. But the problem with people who’ve spent thousands on your products, in this industry, is that they already own most of what they need. They may continue to spend a few hundred, here and there, on new releases, but they are far less likely to be buying the big-money boxed sets.
The people you need to be targeting are those who are attracted to the game, but who haven’t yet committed; or who have made a small investment, but haven’t yet gone “all in”. What you need, is a “low barrier of entry” - the ability for these more casually interested parties, who aren’t on the forums or visible on social media, to decide to become investors. But, while you’ve been listening to the noisy minority, you’ve raised the barrier of entry.
Now, just getting started requires not just a cash investment, but a time investment to learn an encyclopaedia or rules, and an emotional investment that’s prepared to lose time and time again to more experienced, more knowledgeable players. And that’s setting up a barrier of entry that very few casually-interested parties are likely to be prepared to make.
This was the mistake that killed Guild Ball. It was the mistake that nearly killed Warmachine. And it hasn’t done Malifaux any favours, either.
Games Workshop addressed the problem partly with its bold shift of emphasis in the third edition. By going for a simplified battle game, and re-booting it every few years, they keep re-lowering the barrier of entry then gradually ramping it up over the lifetime of an edition before dropping it again at the next one. But GW can get away with this, at least in part, because their competitive scene has only ever been a relatively small part of their community, which includes equally noisy groups passionate about narrative play, the hobby, house rules for their personal space marine chapter and - most of all - the setting for Warhammer 40,000. This is why they win friends not by changing the game but by investing in the setting.
Corvus Belli is so far down the track from there that, successful as they are, they can’t hope to win by copying GW’s tactics. But they can win by learning from the mistakes of their near-competitors. And that’s what makes the fourth edition of their game so interesting.
Everything about the latest edition is geared towards lowering the barrier of entry, without alienating their invested fans. They have streamlined the rules without making them less complex, presenting them in a more intuitive and logical way. This makes them more accessible to new players without patronizing the veterans or invalidating their experience. They have emphasized some of the more aesthetically-appealing parts of the game - such as by making the massive, mech-like TAGs more viable as army choices - but also de-emphasized some thing that put first-timers off - such as the instant wound caused by critical hits that was a dreadful assault on a player’s sense of agency.
But, most interestingly to me, they have also released Code One.
This is a stripped-back version of the game with all the flavour and depth of the rules, but less of the minutiae of army building. It is specifically aimed at new players, but still appeals to veterans, and offers a remarkably level playing field for the two to be able to meet on fair terms.
It reminds me of Formula E racing, where all the drivers race in the same car, with the same battery and tyres, making driver skill the principle deciding factor. Of course, players don’t necessarily play with the same armies. And this is still, at heart, a dice game. But the forces played against each other in Code One are assembled from a limited number of building blocks that make the advantages that can be gleaned from obsessive min-maxing in the army builder considerably fewer.
I’ve heard a lot of veterans talking enthusiastically about making Code One, rather than the full 4th ed rules, as their preferred format for tournaments.
Obviously, with the release of fourth edition falling this week, it is far too early to say whether this move by Corvus Belli has worked and whether they will have lowered the barrier to entry enough to draw in a new generation of enthusiasts without alienating their veterans.
But it is early enough for me to talk about how this and other lessons have influenced Precinct Omega.
Oh, hello new AI. I look forward to finding out what we’re going to call you.
Well, while we wait, let me explain what I’ve learned from studying these life cycles.
The first thing I’ve learned is that new editions aren’t a sign of weakness. I really did think that this was the case, when I first set out on my game design journey. In my mind, constantly recycling games with new editions was an amoral money-grabbing exercise, re-booting perfectly functional games for no other reason than to force their players to shell out for a new book.
Now, I’m not saying that this doesn’t play a role in the thinking of some companies. But I have come to realize that, actually, the healthy life cycle of a tabletop miniatures game requires that it occasionally go through the pain of death and rebirth that is the release of a new game. In fact, a smart game design company will, in fact, plan for new editions of their games.
But planning for a new edition doesn’t just mean planned obsolescence, such that, after a certain number of years, you’ll re-release the game in a new edition for the sake of it. Rather, it means having a plan to create an engaged community, soliciting their feedback, understanding how to interpret and respond to what you hear and building that towards improved player experience.
Because that’s what a new edition ought to be: an opportunity to improve your players’ experience of the game. This is what D&D 4e did so badly. And, it should be said, what 5e did so well.
For Precinct Omega, it was a realization I came to as I worked on Zero Dark. I have a plan in mind for a second edition. That doesn’t mean that I know exactly what will be in it, or when it will be released. For the record, I absolutely haven’t started writing it already! But I do have a plan to get there, that involves working to try to grow the community, win the investment of players and glean feedback on their experience.
Now, getting investment is a little harder for a miniatures-agnostic game, because emotional and intellectual investment is a lot easier to win when you’ve already got financial investment. We all fall for the sunk-cost fallacy, all the time: we’ve put so many hundreds of pounds or dollars or euros into a game that we really ought to play it as much as we can! When you have a game that asks an investment of only £15 to get started, it’s a lot harder to persuade people to play it often enough to form an opinion of how it could play better.
My strategic response has actually been learned from miniatures manufacturers like Bad Squiddo and independent game designers like Nordic Weasel, who have grown their communities organically through a near-constant engagement with their fans, building real relationships of communication based on shared values. This is time consuming for a one-person company, but it seems to me the only practical route for an independent designer to push a game to the point where it has enough of a feedback loop to realistically work towards a second or subsequent edition.
Planning this way also means that each new supplement, campaign or idea has to be written with obsolescence in mind. The further into an edition’s life cycle a new release falls, the less obsolescence it can afford to have. So let’s say I was planning that the second edition of Zero Dark would be in 2025. It’s fine for a supplement published in 2021, say, to become obsolete under the new edition. It’s less fine for one published in 2024 to do the same.
A new edition in a game’s life cycle also needs to show a direct connection between common themes in the vocal community’s feedback and the changes made in the new edition. It’s the well-established formula of “you said… we replied…” - this gives the community confidence that their voice is heard so that they continue to contribute to the feedback loop. This was what GW got so badly wrong between the 3rd and 6th editions of Warhammer 40,000 - there was a very real sense amongst the players that GW didn’t really care what they thought and any changes were focused around commercial imperatives, not around improving the player experience.
Precinct Omega is years away from enjoying a maturity of any of its games sufficient to be able to say that there is a market for a fourth or even a second edition. But I’m not letting that stop me. As I said last week, it’s not enough to simply bring a game to market and call it done. For a game to be a viable commercial pursuit and a meaningful product it needs to be released with a plan, and that includes planning the lifecycle of the game, setting milestones for the game’s movement from one stage to another and having subordinate tasks that help the company and the game move towards and past those milestones.
I should add that this message I’m preaching about how a good game needs to be a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, also isn’t “anti-fun”, which some could claim. Engaging with a community, hearing their feedback and suggestions, and helping a game to grow into something that prospers and which brings back the money enough to help your endeavour expand and multiply - that is fun. And it’s not just fun for the company doing the selling. It’s fun for a community to be able to engage directly with a designer. It’s fun for players to know that their dice-rolling could directly contribute to a game’s evolution. It’s fun for designers to be tapped into that kind of near-instant feedback and, even when the feedback is critical, it’s fun to make changes to a game that you know are going to improve the players’ experience.
So to all my FB followers and, especially to my patrons, thank you for helping me keep on having fun with my game. I hope the feeling is mutual.
“I enjoy playing Zero Dark with you, Robey.”
Well, thanks, Nameless AI. You’re certainly a better conversationalist than a deck of cards.
Thanks for listening, everyone. I -
Yes, we’ll speak to you again next week.