Weekly News #15 - Final Whistle for Guild Ball

Not everyone has the time, opportunity or inclination to listen to a podcast so, from now on, I'll be posting the script for my weekly podcasts in the blog to read at your leisure.



Steamforged Games has announced that Guild Ball will be no more. Yes, this week we heard that Steamforged Games are giving up on releasing Season Five of their hit tabletop fantasy sports game. They are giving up on releasing the final teams. And all of their remaining stock is going up on sale.


This is the kind of industry news that stands out from the crowd and deserves a serious examination of the many issues leading up to it


However, if you are into Guild Ball, or always meant to get into Guild Ball, and want to grab any of that remaining sale produce, then pause this podcast, pop across the Steamforged Games website and get clicking, because that stuff is selling fast!


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Still here? Excellent. Let’s go to the discussion!


DISCUSSION


So let’s start with the tale of SFG as far as I know it. This, by the way, is journalism, so there may be mistakes and misapprehensions and I am 100% open to correction and if anyone from SFG wants to join me on a future podcast to correct any of this, you are absolutely welcome to have a right of reply. Let’s get going.


Back in 2012 - feels like a long time ago, already, right? - SFG was formed as a partnership between three friends, Rich, Matt and Greg, who between them, as well as being huge tabletop gaming fans, had the skills they thought were needed to design a truly awesome game that scratched an itch none of them was getting from their regular tabletop encounters.


They wanted a fantasy sports game that tapped more into real, historical, medieval sports.


They wanted a fantasy sports game that was a proper, tabletop skirmish game rather than a board game.


They wanted tight, clear rules to allow for a fun, competitive environment without arguments and unintentional game-breaking synergies.


They wanted a miniatures range that was truly diverse and a proper reflection of an inclusive society.


So they put their heads together. They put their hands in their pockets. And they went about developing a game that delivered what they wanted. They didn’t use focus groups or market research, except for what they saw, everyday, in their own play experiences. They designed the game they thought that they wanted, and chose to have faith that the international wargaming community would agree that, yes, they wanted that game, too.


After two years of patient development - all the while working their regular jobs, too - they had a product and they decided to take it to this new, exciting marketing platform where board games and tabletop miniatures were making a huge impact: Kickstarter. And with an ambitious goal of £30,000, they managed to smash it out of the park, raising nearly £100k - before, obviously, Kickstarter took it’s 10% so, more like under £90k.


But still, that’s more than 300% funded!


Plus, these guys were smart. Their funding goal was what they needed to provide the game to their backers, plus surplus stock to distributors to get it onto the shelves of retailers. And the surplus funding was enough to get a proper company off the ground and leave them plenty in the pot to launch a proper, post-Kickstarter marketing campaign on both sides of the Atlantic that made Guild Ball the absolute buzz in tabletop wargames. They were on the front of magazines. They were trending on Twitter. They were literally mobbed at Gencon with crowds desperate to get their hands on the new starter sets.


Steamforged Games was born. Their flagship product was an enormous hit and the cash was flowing in.


Now, to some extent I ought to be asking “what went wrong?” After all, this flagship product, with thousands of enthusiasts all over the world, has been cancelled. Something, surely, must have gone wrong?


Well, SFG certainly did make some decisions along the way that have contributed to the cancellation, but the first question I want to ask is “Was this the plan all along?”


I’ve talked, before, about how rules are, for many companies, a marketing vehicle for shifting miniatures. The money is in the minis, so the game itself can act as a loss leader or, at least, be revenue neutral. And this certainly seems to have been the case with Guild Ball.


The initial release of minis was all white metal, cast in the UK. But SFG announced a move to pre-assembled plastic in 2018, with all their existing metal minis being moved to coloured resin in a “legacy” range. This was clearly an attempt to reduce the cost of manufacturing, leveraging partnership agreements they had established in China, which we’ll look at in more detail shortly.


It also said something about what they thought of their player community, which - again - we’ll look at in a moment.


But the key takeaway is that they wanted Guild Ball to make more money. And the key takeaway from that is that Guild Ball wasn’t, in 2018, making enough money.


Now, I started off by saying that, between them, Rich, Matt and Greg had the knowledge to make this all work. But as well as the knowledge of games, art and miniatures manufacture, someone in their ranks clearly had knowledge of something else: the art of making money. And it’s no bad thing to have someone in your company from the start who understands the core role that money plays in the speed of growth a company can enjoy.


But when I’m not working as a game designer and publisher, I also work as a human strategy consultant. My insight to start-ups and small businesses is what informs a lot of what I have to say in this podcast. And there are two clear philosophies in business today that are in conflict: shareholder capitalism and stakeholder capitalism. In shareholder capitalism, the only measurable good outcome is the making of money. Ideally, that money will be made legally, but if you make enough money then a little bit of illegal is OK. The only measure of a company’s success is whether it delivers a return to its shareholders - the people who physically own the company.


In stakeholder capitalism, the shareholders’ interests are only one among a range of competing groups who have an interest in a company: the employees, suppliers, customers, neighbours and the government are all stakeholders in a company’s success. Balancing those competing interests is more difficult and, sometimes, one group has to be favoured at the expense of another. As a body, shareholders tend to dislike stakeholder capitalism because it is often their expectation of a return on their investment that is sacrificed to the interests of customers or employees.


Many companies begin as stakeholder capitalists. The company doesn’t just want to make money. It has a mission. It has a community. It has interests it wants to serve even at the expense of its own profit… right up until the point that it is making a profit and suddenly it becomes a shareholder capitalist.


In other words, it’s easy to be a socialist when you’re poor. Being a socialist when you’re rich takes character.


Steamforged Games clearly began as shareholder capitalists: they wanted to create a game that served the desires and needs of the wargaming community as they saw it. But somewhere along the line, it ceased to be enough that the company was making money. Instead, it had to be geared towards maximizing the profitability of its intellectual property, partnerships and distribution network. And almost all of the decisions taken from that point make sense when you see it from that perspective.


You see, in 2017 a new company was formed, called LPH Holdings Limited. And LPH Holdings Limited is 50% owned by Foresight VCT PLC. Foresight is, frankly, a somewhat opaque tech investor. The “VC” in its name stands for Venture Capital. In other words, they take rich people’s money and they invest in on their behalf in risky tech start-ups and then provide those start-ups with “advice” (I hope you can see the air quotes) on how they are to spend that money in order to maximize the returns for their investors.


To give you a sense of who Foresight is, their senior leadership team has more people in it called Chris than they have women. And they have two people called Chris. It is the proverbial City sausage fest. And all the sausages are white.


In 2019, Foresight invested £5m in Steamforged.


You may wonder how it is that decisions made well before 2019 can possibly be influenced by that investment. Well, the answer is that, whilst £5m is a small change investment for Foresight, the discussions that led to the investment will have taken pretty much the whole two years from LPH Holdings being set up to the money finally dropping into their account. The bait will have been dangled - or, possibly, sought out by whoever at SFG got the profit-making bug first - and Foresight will have laid out what SFG would need to do, how it would need to structure itself and what products it would need to be developing for Foresight to be willing to drop the dough.


From Foresight’s perspective, this only makes sense. They have investments in literally thousands of tech start-ups and innovative small businesses. They have ample evidence for what these businesses need to look like and do for their clients to get the returns on their investments that they’re looking for. And, in their minds, “a business that provides their clients the returns they’re looking for” is synonymous with “a successful business”.


That is shareholder capitalism at work.


Their investors don’t care whether the new team releases are balanced against the rules, or whether metal miniatures appeal to a certain long-term hobbyist, or allow for a high level of quality control, or mean that money is being pushed back into the local community. They only care that the difference between manufacturing cost and sale cost is just as high as it can possibly be.


Foresight, of course, won’t only have brought their money to the table. As part of the prep work, they will also have introduced SFG to other tech businesses in which they invest and where there was a potential crossover. The move of manufacturing to China has Foresight’s fingerprints all over it, despite the move being announced almost a full 12 months before the money arrived.


I should say, though, that I don’t think Foresight gets all the blame for the shift.


SFG followed up the success of Guild Ball with their second Kickstarter campaign - Dark Souls, the Board Game - in 2016, capitalizing on their Guild Ball success to persuade Bandai Namco to sell them the licence. This was followed up by similar approaches to Capcom, for Resident Evil, and Sony, for Horizon Zero Dawn, the last of which launched in 2018. It is worth noting that the latest update for the first of these was in June this year and they still haven’t fulfilled all of the stretch goals for Dark Souls.


Now, they haven’t just been launching slick, highly-produced, computer games themed miniatures board games. Alongside these, they have also launched a new fantasy miniatures game, Godtear, which is almost like the anti-Guild Ball in that they’ve taken a genre normally associated with skirmish wargaming and turned it into a board game.


They also partnered with Critical Roll to make sets of minis for characters from the story.


Unsurprisingly, all of the miniatures in all of these projects are the same PVC plastic, pre-assembled style that they shifted Guild Ball to in 2018. PVC minis for board games make perfect sense. They make a modicum of sense for roleplay game minis. They make far less sense, culturally, for a skirmish wargame but, when you’re trying to maximize your profit, it makes perfect sense to centralize manufacture in a single facility that is an order of magnitude cheaper per mini than individual metal casting in the UK.


Let’s wind back a long way to when I asked “was this the plan all along?”


SFG made a big impact with Guild Ball. A skirmish miniatures game without a board and with metal minis is a very cheap way of launching a new game, but a very bad way of making long-term income. I speak from bitter, bitter experience.


Board games, on the other hand - especially ones based on established, internationally-popular licensed intellectual properties - are a very, very good way of making money but are lethally expensive to get off the ground.


So, is it possible that SFG’s plan all along was to use Guild Ball as a launch pad, secure a foothold in the lucrative licensed boardgames market and then ditch their flagship game like a space shuttle ditching its booster rockets?


Maybe. There is some supporting evidence, but we’ll look at this later. First, let’s look at one alternative possibility - that Guild Ball was simply doomed to fail as a product from the start.


When a skirmish game is designed to shift miniatures, then to continue to make money it must continue to release miniatures. But new miniatures demand new rules and new rules have to safely integrate to avoid conflicts, confusion and unintended synergies that break the game. The more miniatures are released, the harder this integration becomes. Not only does it become harder for the designers to make sure that the game remains consistent and balanced, but it also becomes harder for players to assimilate all of the rules, and it becomes especially hard for new players to overcome the growing barrier to entry.


There are a number of ways that games can overcome this.


Games Workshop does it by simply re-booting their games with a new edition every few years. New editions rationalize old rules, ditch unpopular minis and distract players from problems with shiny new miniatures for their collections.


Mantic Games does it with a scaling “feeder” system. New minis begin in either Dreadball or Star Saga which require comparatively few minis, making it easier to integrate new ideas. These can then flow through into the skirmish game, Deathzone, and, from there, into the battle game Warpath. Players get plenty of time to try out new ideas and concepts in the more contained environments of the skirmish games before they are released into the more mass-market battle game.


Infinity did it by ignoring the problem for three editions and then doing a GW and re-booting the game in N4, due out in a couple of months and which we’re bound to look at when it lands.


Warmachine… well, Warmachine didn’t do it at all. Their miniature range continues to grow. The barrier to entry continues to get higher and their popularity continues to wane. Malifaux has very much the same story. Both companies have launched secondary games - Warcaster for Privateer Press and Beyond the Breach for Wyrd Games - to try to re-set the situation to provide new players a more level playing field for entry. But whether that pays off in the long term is very much yet to be seen.


What makes Guild Ball fascinating is that the company’s response has been to basically shrug and give up. They dismissed their lead designer earlier in 2020, blamed the failure to deliver Season Five on COVID-19 (despite them not having a lead designer working on it) and then pointed the finger at the competitive scene for demanding a game that SFG then found they struggled to sell to new players.


One thing I do believe is the statement from SFG that they had planned to make Season Five the last one. That makes sense. It would have been a chance to release the last of the promised minor guilds, to rectify some of the rules issues, to rebalance the game with a little more randomness and to tie up the on-going plot. It would have left players with a fairly complete product to keep on playing beyond the end of commercial support.


But someone, somewhere (Foresight, I’m looking at you) said “yes, but will that make us any money?” The question of whether the company owed something to its stakeholders was swept away and the interests of the shareholders were held up as the only guiding light so that, when the answer to that question was “no”, the only possible response was “well, just ditch it now”. Big sale. Clear stock. Reduce SKUs. Get on with focussing on delivering the sweet, sweet Kickstarter revenue from endless tie-in board games like the good little CMON clone that we pay you to be.


The thing that most surprised me was that there was no attempt to sell on the property. We saw this happen with Spartan Games and with Hawk Wargames and Vesper-On Games. But in all of those cases, the owning company itself was going out of business. Selling on the IP made sense because they had debts to cover and the IP was a valuable asset.


But SFG is a going concern. It can retain all of the IP rights to its miniatures and setting. In two, three or four years time, when the bitterness has died down and people just remember what a great concept Guild Ball was, they will re-boot it.


It might be great. It might not. But all that will matter to SFG and its investors is whether it makes any money.


So, one more time, let’s ask: was this the plan all along?


On balance, I don’t think it was. I think Rich and Matt and Greg came up with a terrific game because they were genuinely trying to create the game that they wanted to play. Sure, they wanted to take it to market and maybe make some money. But the driving motivation was passion, not profit.


But I do think that someone quickly saw that Guild Ball could be springboard to something more than being yet another boutique miniatures game company. And once that realization was made, profit became the driving factor at SFG and Guild Ball’s days were, by the end of 2016, already numbered.


There are lessons to be learned here, so let’s talk about what those might be for Precinct Omega.


PRECINCT OMEGA


A colleague once complained to me about the unfairness of the distribution of wealth. OK, that isn’t exactly how she phrased it. I think her words were more “I wish I was a millionaire”.


But being a millionaire is easy, I told her. The only thing between you and being a millionaire is what you’re prepared to give up. If you’re prepared to sacrifice your family, your ethics, your health, your reputation, the safety of those around you, the lives of people you’ve never met, the environment, the free press, justice and democracy… being rich is easy.


Fortunately, most of us aren’t prepared to do that. We prefer to treat our loved ones with kindness. We prefer to be seen as decent and honourable by those around us. We have sensible limits on what we are prepared to give up. As a consequence, becoming rich largely becomes a matter of chance: stumbling through life, making only those sacrifices we’re prepared to countenance and hoping that we’ll luck our way into success.


Name almost any billionaire and you can trace their ludicrous wealth back to simple good fortune. And that good fortune was almost always the good fortune of being born into a family that was already wealthy, then compounded by the good fortune of creating a product people wanted at just the time that they were able to get it. Don’t kid yourselves that this was a consequence of genius. PayPal, Amazon, Facebook, Google… Sure, the people behind them had skills. But those skills were no greater than a million other programmers. You can easily find a dozen or more other examples of the same kind of product made by someone else that didn’t become successful down to nothing more than chance.


I’ve spent a long time advising companies and charities on how to structure their businesses to maximize efficiency, which often means either income or profits. But I’ve also seen first-hand the consequences of these decision: consequences that don’t always lead to the best outcomes for the stakeholders in these companies. Charities maximize income but at the expense of vulnerable people who can’t say “no” to a good sob story but who can least afford to help others. Businesses maximize profits by lumping greater pressure upon overworked employees who are expected to be grateful to still have a job.


When I really sat down to get Precinct Omega going as a proper business, full-time, I made a point of articulating what I wanted to achieve. And you would be amazed how many businesses don’t do that, to their ultimate cost.


It’s called a “vision statement” and, again, you’d be amazed how many companies have one that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to. A vision statement is supposed to be a company’s “why”. Why am I doing this? What is all of this work supposed to achieve?


The vision statement of Precinct Omega is “to create a sustainable income through the development of new games”.


That’s it.


There’s nothing fancy there about changing the world or making it a brighter place to live. But there are some important features.


“Sustainable income” doesn’t mean “massive profits”. Sustainable means that the income can be relied upon, year in and year out. Right now, sustainable income is just for me, because I’m the only employee. But if I were ever in the position of having more than one employee, sustainable income would apply to them, too. The goal of Precinct Omega is to provide a reliable, sustainable income for anyone working for it: partners, suppliers, writers, employees… whoever.


But the “through the development of new games” is also important and speaks back to points I’ve made in the past that Precinct Omega is a games company, not a miniatures company. Our purpose is to develop new games and to turn them into sustainable income. I’ve occasionally been distracted by other opportunities, including my consulting work, but although Precinct Omega might do other stuff, that all has to be framed in the context of developing new games.


It is my intent that this vision statement for Precinct Omega will never change as long as the company is under my control and, hopefully, beyond. I think it’s vital to even the smallest company to clearly articulate what it is you’re doing and why as a reliable lighthouse when the storm of temptation comes blowing in.


So would this vision statement stop me from accepting money from a venture capital group?


… I’m honestly not sure. I mean, everyone has a price, right? And £5m is a lot of income. But… is it sustainable? When I look at Steamforged, right now, I don’t see “sustainable”. I see “short term”. Those IP licenses are time-bound. And Kickstarter success is no guarantee of future sales. Foresight’s investment is really little more than a cash-grab.


And I guess there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with a cash-grab, as long as you’ve got permission to grab the cash.


But if someone like Foresight came knocking on my door, their plan would need to have sustainability for me to consider accepting even a single penny. And yes, venture capitalists who are, against all logic, listening to this podcast, that is definitely an invitation.


Guild Ball, to my mind, is SFG’s sustainability plan. If its owners want to create a sustainable business beyond the endless cycle of fresh Kickstarters and new IP deals - and I sincerely hope that they do - then a plan to resurrect the game with a model that represents a modest but consistent, sustainable income would be a good thing to be making, now.


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


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