It’s Friday 16th October. My name is Robey Jenkins.
My name is Bernard.
And here is the news.
So, first, I need to give a shout out to Bedroom Battlefields, who is @bedroombattles on Twitter and blogs at bedroombattlefields.com. BB and I had a bit of a chat on Twitter this week that spurred to me to sort out the feed for this podcast, meaning that, by the time you hear this, I should be available on iTunes, Spotify, Google and Pandora. But f*** Amazon.
Bedroom Battlefields, despite the name, is not an account of marital disharmony or sexual dysfunction but, rather, an entertaining and regular blog site recording the author’s return to the hobby and loads of other content, including miniatures, interviews, reviews and other stuff. Blogging in the hobby has become something of a lost art in recent years, losing ground to content better suited to the short attention spans of modern social browsing, such as Instagram and Twitter and, while I love the hobby communities on both of those sites, it’s good to see quality blog content out there.
If you have a blog that you update regularly and which focuses on the tabletop miniatures hobby, feel free to send me a link and, if I can, I’ll be happy to stick a shout-out and signpost to your content into the News section in the future.
Now, that said, let’s get to some serious news.
Well… Sort of.
This week, we’re looking, again, at a single piece of news, which is the release of the Bing Bang Theory cast Halloween superhero costume set for the Batman Miniatures Game.
Knight Models announced this week that they were releasing a set of six miniatures inspired by the Big Bang Theory Season 4 Episode 11, in which the cast dress as members of the Justice League. Knight Models, of course, are the manufacturers of licenced miniatures games for Batman, the DC Multiverse and Harry Potter, and these miniatures come with rules to participate in the Batman Miniatures Game.
As usual, with Knight Models, the miniatures are excellent sculpts that really capture not just the facial appearance but also the physical mannerisms of the various characters. The studio display versions are painted to a spectacular level, showing just what can be done. And the miniatures come with rules that capture something of the natures of the show and the characters, including the fact that, as you might expect, none of them can actually be killed on the tabletop.
And yet… this release has caused a great deal of anger among some fans of the game. So to dissect why this has made folks angry, let’s move straight on to our discussion.
It’s hard to know the right place to start in this, because the roots of this particular issue go pretty deep. But let’s start with The Big Bang Theory itself.
TBBT, as it’s known, is a US comedy show that first aired in 2007 and ran for twelve seasons to end last year. I’m sure you’ve heard of it but, if you’ve never watched it, it revolves around the lives of a group of young science academics who, hilariously, understand the underlying mysteries of the universe, but don’t know how to talk to girls!
Ha. Ha. Ha.
Now, you may get the impression from that summary that I’m not a fan of the show and you’d be right. But that’s not the same thing as saying that it’s not funny or touching. It is both of those things. But it’s interesting that, in my household, there are four people. Two of us are definitely geeks. They like tabletop games, D&D, manga, fantasy and science. And two of us are definitely not. The two that are not are big fans of this show. The other two… not so much. I’m fairly sure you can guess which side of the divide I sit on.
It’s not that we don’t recognize the various stereotypes that are portrayed in the show. But, as with any on-screen portrayal of a recognizable stereotype, we don’t appreciate being defined by them. I could go into it in detail, but it’s been done before. Just Google “Why I hate the Big Bang Theory” for examples from people far more qualified than me.
So it’s fair to say that, although it would be equally stereotyped to suggest that all tabletop miniatures gamers and comic book fans would hate TBBT, I think I can be confident that there’s a strong sense of general negativity against it within these communities. So if you then take a product that smashes tabletop miniatures gaming and comic books together, like the Batman Miniatures Game, it’s a fair bet that a large chunk of the player population is not going to be a fan of TBBT.
So the first question I was moved to ask was “what in heaven’s name possessed the staff at Knight Models to think this was going to be a good idea to begin with?”
Well, there are a few likely answers and at least one quite unlikely but possible one.
Of the likely answers, the first is that at least someone at Knight Models is a big TBBT fan. Like I said, it’s not as if geekdom is unified in disliking the show’s premise and there are also big cultural differences between countries when it comes to the cultural impression of people who are involved in what in the US/UK transatlantic culture is seen as “geeky”. In Australia, for example, Warhammer has long been associated with surfers as a hobby they pursue in the off-season - the least traditionally geeky people you can imagine. And in continental Europe, tabletop miniatures wargaming is more closely connected with more conventionally respectable games, like chess. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the miniatures wargaming hobby is seen more like a melding of art and mathematics, especially in the Mediterranean regions from Spain all the way to Greece.
Consequently, it’s far more likely that the kinds of folk who work at Knight Models aren’t going to feel the sting of the cultural stereotyping portrayed in TBBT and, therefore, be less sensitive to its potential resonance with their English-speaking audience.
To be fair, the cultural place of miniatures wargames is gradually shifting to a more respectable position in Anglo-Saxon culture, too. I suspect this is in response to the growing importance of the digital games medium, as well as being part of the general shift to the mid-mainstream of geek culture that has seen superhero movies topping charts in terms of both viewer figures and budgets. This has come from the fact that, despite the clichés, the geeks of the 70s, 80s and 90s have grown up and prospered both socially and financially, perhaps because rational curiosity and imagination is a fantastic combination to achieve adult success. Who woulda thunk it?
It has been interesting and instructive to see who, out of my contacts in the local wargames scene, have seen this set as both funny and appealing, compared to those who… haven’t.
But I think if it were just an issue of the miniatures appealing to some people and not to others, this wouldn’t be much of a story worth exploring. It’s fair to say that every miniature will have its fans and detractors, and although we can expend energy ranting for our particular side of those arguments, at the end of the day Your Mileage May Vary.
I think this particular scenario, though, has been exacerbated by two additional factors.
The first is simple issue of customer service on the part of Knight Models and to give this its full picture, we kind of need to take a look at Knight Models’s history as a company.
Their name is a good giveaway that something might be amiss. They began not as a wargames company at all, but as a designer of display-quality metal and resin models for serious hobbyists. They made fantastical and historical models - not tabletop miniatures. Their products were designed to be bought by dedicated painting specialists for display and competition. They weren’t supposed to be handled. And, most importantly, they weren’t designed to be bought en masse.
They secured a licence, way back in, ooh, 2007 or so to make 70mm display models of this sort of characters from Star Wars and produced a number of such, including young Obi Wan Kenobi, Yoda and others. So far, so predictable. But Knight then took an interesting move and began to make 30mm miniatures alongside these.
These were of exceptionally high quality of design and casting and attracted a lot of attention from high-end painters but, because of their scale, they also drew in the tabletop hobbyists as Knight had, no doubt, intended. This, of course, predates Star Wars Legion and even Star Wars Imperial Assault that would provide licensed miniatures specifically designed for the tabletop gamer. And it was as the excellent but short-lived Star Wars Collectible Miniatures Game was starting to disappear from the shelves. The terms of licences issued by companies like LucasArts are almost insanely specific when it comes to what licence holders can and can’t do with them, and the licence Knight Models had was for display models, not for game models.
However, as long as there was no game for these miniatures, and their scale was incompatible with the Star Wars CMG, Knight more or less slid under the radar.
And then… they started making squads. They made squads of Trade Federation battle droids. Then they made squads of Imperial Storm Troopers. And then…
And then LucasArts caught up with them and these products vanished from Knight’s website, pretty much overnight.
There’s no question that these products were beautifully designed and manufactured. But they were obviously not being made in compliance with the terms of the licence and they were selling by the bucket load to people wanting to replace the wonky, pre-painted blobs of the Star Wars CMG with the finely-crafted work of real tabletop miniatures, as well as other hobbyists, happy to homebrew rules to fit their favourite Star Wars armies into whatever tabletop game they were currently playing.
And this wasn’t a one off. When Knight secured the licence to make the Harry Potter Miniatures Game, they initially launched it with a Kickstarter campaign - a campaign that was cancelled mid-way through because Warner Brothers pointed out that their licence specifically forbade them from crowdfunding any part of the project.
Whether Knight simply didn’t read the terms of their licence or chose to ignore it in the hope that Warner Brothers wouldn’t notice is hard to say.
None of this is directly relevant to Knight’s recent customer service backlash except for two things: one, Knight Models has very little commercial experience of selling their products in volume; and, two, they are a company unafraid of sailing close to the wind when it comes to their stakeholder relationships.
So when the Batman Miniatures Game began to gain international traction from day one, I suspect they had underestimated the levels of quality control they would need to exercise to keep up with the expectations of their customers.
Quality management is one of those topics I can get quite boring about. So, suffice to say that quality control and customer feedback are absolutely at the heart of good QM and aren’t tasks you can successfully half-arse. The greater your volume of sales, the greater your volume of manufacturing must be to meet demand. And the greater your volume of manufacturing becomes, the greater your degree of quality management has to be ensure you sustain quality across your manufacturing. And Knight clearly didn’t scale up their QM proportionally with their manufacturing volume, because the number of mispacks, missing parts and out of stock items began to rapidly grow.
The issue was initially constrained in the first couple of editions of the game, because although they had a good marketing campaign to start them off, the game itself was sufficiently poorly-designed that early adopters were mostly focused on the miniatures and were happy to house-rule the game. Perhaps you’ll be unsurprised to hear that, again, it was written by Spanish designers and not well translated into English. But then they got their act together to produce a more tightly-written third edition. Now, I’m sure I remember hearing that they employed an English-speaking designer with a Games Workshop pedigree to help on the design of the 3rd edition and my brain is saying Andy Chambers, but I can’t find anything official about that.
But, regardless of how and why, the 3rd edition marked a significant jump in interest from players who snatched up the starter box with enthusiasm. Although I personally thought the game was still over-designed and unnecessarily complicated, I also have to acknowledge that there were some really innovative and elegant concepts in the game and its fans were passionate about the quality of the gameplay. So, unsurprisingly, early adopters became excited about what would follow.
And Knight wasn’t ready for their success.
Almost within the first month retailers were complaining that they couldn’t get replacement stock of the starter box, but Knight was already pouring forth new designs which were monopolizing their limited manufacturing capacity, which put them under pressure to drive production and, inevitably, mistakes began to be made.
Having seen this in companies outside our industry, there really is only one solution, which is to pour money into increasing manufacturing capacity - either by out-sourcing or off-shoring the work, or by rapidly buying in new equipment and staff to increase the in-house capacity. In short, it’s one of those problems you can only fix by throwing money at it until it goes away.
My suspicion is that Knight didn’t have the money to throw.
Licences for properties as valuable as Batman, the DC multiverse and Harry Potter don’t come cheap and Knight, for all its history of high quality manufacture, was never a high-revenue enterprise. So their money came either from bank loans or private equity investment. Consequently, the only option was to half-arse the response.
That said, even a zero- to low-cost solution to quality management issues can be done well if the company has the smarts to set an intelligent strategy. For an example of this from a different Spanish company, I would point to Corvus Belli. Their customer service, complaints and replacement parts service has been widely praised. But their approach wasn’t innovative. It just copied well-established procedures that have been in place in other companies for literally decades. These procedures are so well-known that you don’t even need an expensive consultant to tell you how to do them. You can find them on blogs and in YouTube videos 100% for free.
Create a ticket system so you can trace every package to its source.
Create a responsive, multilingual customer service function.
Respond to every customer query within 24 hours.
Say “yes, no problem” to every single query that complies with the ticketing system and isn’t an obvious fraud.
Use the ticketing system to hold the manufacturing and packaging teams to account for their quality.
Reward great packaging quality.
But Knight didn’t do this.
The TBBT release was, in many ways, the apogee of an approach to the Batman and DC Multiverse properties that has been frustrating for fans since the very start and which is the natural consequence of a business without a clear strategic plan colliding with a highly complex intellectual property.
This takes us to the second reason that people are already annoyed at Knight Models.
You see, when you licence something like the DC Multiverse, you aren’t dealing with a single intellectual property holder. Sure, DC is the principal contact. But the ownership of characters in the DC multiverse is complicated. A lot of characters are owned by multiple entities, including individuals or the descendants of individuals, who all get a say in whether an element of that property is or is not included in any given licence.
And it takes time for the principal contact - DC - to get input from all the licence holders.
Plus, the DC multiverse is a living space, with new versions and iterations of old characters forever coming back into the on-going narrative or being re-envisioned by new writers and artists, or being licensed for some other use, such as a new TV series or console game.
If you want to know why Knight Models released the much-lamented Condiment King miniatures before the far more iconic Mister Freeze, this is probably why: permission from the licence holders was granted for one before the other. And because Knight doesn’t have a strategic plan for their game releases, and are desperately trying to retain the interest of players against a background of shoddy customer service, they are throwing new miniatures out of the door just as quickly as they can make them.
This also explains the weird mix of universes that means you can buy two different Frank Miller Batman minis, a Silver Age Batman mini and a Rebirth Batman mini - and, now, a TBBT Batman mini as well.
And this is, perhaps, the other reason that the TBBT miniatures have been created and released by Knight. I suspect that the appearance of the TBBT cast in their Justice League costumes is owned jointly by Warner Brothers, Chuck Lorre who created the show, and DC Comics - and possibly the actors may have a say in how they are depicted but, honestly, probably not. Between their Harry Potter licence from Warner Brothers, and their Batman licence from DC, the TBBT cast is just a fragment of the total property licence that landed in Knight’s lap and, when it did, someone had the not-completely-awful idea that they would make a fun Halloween release.
I did consider the possibility that Knight Models was, somehow, contractually obligated to create these minis against their better judgement but, as I’ve found little evidence that Knight has a better judgement and because it seems incredibly unlikely that any of the licence holders would demand TBBT Justice League miniatures, I’ve dismissed this as highly improbable.
With no clear strategic plan, Knight Models is desperate to create as many minis for the property as they can before DC ends their licence agreement. And with other companies, like IDW, producing more tightly-focused Batman games with their own miniatures that are eating away at Knight’s market-share, they are right to be panicking.
Literally, as I was writing this script Knight Models made an announcement that they were creating a new sub-division of their company: Knight Games.
Knight Games is going to be focused on creating licensed board games.
Yes, yet another company is hurling itself down the slope behind CoolMiniOrNot, Gale Force 9 and Steamforged Games in the misguided belief that the market for turning other people’s intellectual property into thematic board games is a recipe for commercial success.
I have tried to work out whether this trend is just our market’s latest bubble. I’m certain that it is, and I’m equally certain that it will burst. But I just don’t have enough data to work out when or how explosively. The good news is that we, the consumers of games, will mostly be fine. At worst, we may lose a few hundred dollars if we have backed several games with several companies when the bubble bursts and all of those companies fold more or less simultaneously and we never see either game or money. If you are spending more money than you can really afford to lose on licensed board games, well, that’s on you.
The bad news is that investment funding is pouring into these companies, right now. And those investors aren’t idiots. They’ll most likely get their money back plus interest before the bubble bursts. In fact, the point at which it bursts will, most likely, be the point immediately after they all divest and these companies realize that it was only venture capital that was propping them up and that they simply don’t sufficient sales volume beyond their highly-marketed crowdfunding campaigns to sustain their business beyond the end of the financial year.
This is bad news, though, because that investment funding isn’t being put into businesses with longer-term plans for sustained and sustainable growth which means that, first, gamers themselves are being deprived of better access to games that are better designed, more entertaining and more guaranteed of long-term support and development. And it also means that less money is going into sustaining growth of employment, skills development and healthy economic activity.
The fact is that you can make a lot of money in a short time by investing in a bubble if you get out before it bursts. Venture capitalists know this and they are taking advantage of business leaders who don’t.
I’ve talked before about Precinct Omega’s strategic plan. I’ve also talked about how I’m not a miniatures manufacturer, whilst at the same time making plans to develop my own range of miniatures.
So let’s talk about how that works.
My business plan is built on the concept of developing and then selling copies of new games that I have developed. And in order to protect myself from the near-literal minefield of intellectual property licences I have developed my own IP - currently, the Horizon Wars property - to provide a narrative setting and context to these games, even whilst making it clear that you can play my games in whatever setting you please.
Sales of Zero Dark have exceeded my modest expectations but are a very long way from providing me with the sustainable income my business plan demands. And that’s only to be expected. Even a game as wildly successful as Frostgrave didn’t give Joseph McCullough the freedom to do more than give up the day-job and focus on designing new games. And Zero Dark is orders of magnitude less successful than Frostgrave... at this point.
So, with that in mind, I explored my options for growing the income of my business. And for this I have several approaches.
First, and most obvious, is to create continuous support for existing games. For that reason, Zero Dark is getting a series of supplements and expansions, starting with Operation Nemesis. These send a clear message that Zero Dark is a living game and, for reasons I will one day discuss in more detail, that is important to players.
Second, is to create new games in the same setting. This is why I’m currently working on Horizon Wars: Infinite Dark. Again, even though my games are setting- and miniatures-agnostic, customers respond to a developing universe and an expanding setting, whether they play in it or not. Plus, new games are a signpost to older games. It is amazing and hugely gratifying to me how many people have bought Zero Dark and been signposted from there to seek out a copy of Horizon Wars. So it’s my hope that Infinite Dark will do very much the same thing. Plus, new games represent new revenue streams. People who are only interested in spaceship games will buy Infinite Dark, who would never have bought Zero Dark.
Third, is to tap into the sales revenue of products promoted by my miniatures-agnostic games. In other words, when I use my games as billboards to say “look at these cool minis made by people who aren’t Precinct Omega!” I hope to generate sales of those products for those companies. I can tap into that revenue by buying those products myself at a retailer’s discount and then selling them to customers directly. This is why I stock Strato Minis products for Horizon Wars on my website and why I’m now putting up new products from Iliada Game Studios. This tactic is more financially risky, of course, because I have to put the money into purchasing these products in some volume, maintain stock - which I’m not very good at, I admit - and keep up with managing my website and my accounting, which is time consuming and, it must be said, not in my professional comfort zone.
The fourth tactic is to explore the diversity potential within the games I write.
My miniatures project is an example of this. I don’t want to be a miniatures manufacturer, because that would mean writing games that attempt to preclude people from playing except with my miniatures - a subject I’m looking forward to unpacking in a future episode. But I do want to explore the potential of the setting I’m developing, because that offers me new tools with which to promote my games, new ways for enthusiasts to support Precinct Omega financially, and also demonstrates an active exploitation of my intellectual property that protects it from being exploited by others.
I was lucky, this year, to pick up some professional consulting work that has allowed me to put aside a decent sum to ensure that I can cover the costs of this project. After considering all of the options, I have decided to take it to Kickstarter for three main reasons.
First, although I have covered the costs with Precinct Omega’s reserves, I would still like to rebuild those reserves quickly. I’ve seen too many businesses fail because they sailed too close to the edge in the belief that things would continue without disruption, only for disruption to occur, and COIVD-19 just underlines this conviction.
Second, it is a great marketing tactic. People who love hard scifi minis are going to be attracted to this project who will have never heard of Zero Dark, despite my efforts. And some of them will buy the game as a result and hopefully become Precinct Omega converts. The whole point of the miniatures is to promote the game and this is a great way to reach a large audience in a focused, structured and purposeful way.
And finally, although I can cover the costs of four minis, Kickstarter offers the potential to create more than that - more options for the planned four and even potentially three to four additional minis to flesh out the range.
So, briefly, back to Knight Models.
I don’t like to see any small enterprise in our industry fail. It is my very sincere hope that the Knight Games project represents a strategic change in direction for Knight, from aimless flailing and frantic desperation to something far more considered, planned and intelligent. I cannot say too often how much I admire the quality of what Knight produces. For sure, they make many miniatures I have no interest in owning, but not a single one is less than beautifully designed. The miniatures of theirs that I’ve painted were a real pleasure to work with. They don’t showboat with superfluous detail that unnecessarily complicates the process of painting (*cough*GamesWorkshop*cough*) and although many of their designs aren’t really made with the rigours of tabletop gaming in mind, that’s a natural consequence of their background as a company that makes beautiful display models. I’d like to see them show more consideration for the fact that their customers are *players*, but I’d also hate to see them sacrifice their artistic flair for more lumpen, less ambitious concepts.
But… unless they fix their quality management procedures and, with that, their customer service, Knight Games will just be one more desperate attempt to stave off an inevitable failure and cement their place as little more than a dreadful warning to people like me of how not to run a miniatures games company.
That’s all from me and Bernard. We’ll speak to you again next week.