"When did it all go wrong?"
Games Workshop's decline began in January 1988. This was the month that White Dwarf #97 came out, opening with a short and obscurely written editorial by Sean Masterson explaining that the magazine would no longer publish articles about games produced by companies other than Games Workshop. In other words, White Dwarf (and indeed all of Games Workshop) was going inward and focusing exclusively on the promotion and development of their home grown games, namely Warhammer and Warhammer 40K. Here's the entire editorial:
There are a few interesting facts about Masterson's editorial. First, it didn't represent an abrupt change in policy but was rather a public acknowledgment of a gradual evolution that began earlier and intensified later. Articles about AD&D had already vanished from White Dwarf, the last being in Issue #93 (Sept. 1987). On the other hand, content for some other games (Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu) didn't disappear for a few more issues after #97.
Some readers of White Dwarf immediately called bullshit on the new policy, leading to some exchanges with Masterson in the Letters page:
In Masterson's defence, he's quite correct that Games Workshop had every right to use its in-house magazine to promote its own games. After all, you will search the pages of Dragon Magazine in vain for any articles about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay... so why should White Dwarf promote AD&D?
Why indeed. This brings me back to my initial point - isolating when things go wrong depends on what you think was going right. And in my view, the special quality that made the Games Workshop of 1985-1988 different from TSR, or Chaosium, or Steve Jackson Games was precisely that it did promote AD&D, as well as Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, Dr. Who, Runequest, Judge Dredd, Middle Earth Roleplaying and Paranoia.
a firm believer in ecumenicalism
Games Workshop was a mosaic. This incredible diversity was represented not merely by articles in White Dwarf, but by partnership agreements between Games Workshop and American gaming companies, -- and of course this diversity also played out in Citadel, which produced miniatures for all the above mentioned games in the mid-1980's.
This diversity was wonderful for the consumer. But it was good for Games Workshop too. The crowded stable of games promoted a vast range of miniatures -- a range that was varied (ninjas! broo! timelords!) but also unified in style and scale. But more importantly, Games Workshop's ecumenical approach kept fresh ideas and influences flowing into their studio, leading to their own creations of astounding potency: Rogue Trader and the 40K universe (1987); the Old World as portrayed in Warhammer 3rd edition and Fantasy Roleplay (1986); not to mention Blood Bowl (1986).
And although these games were unique and amazing, they were not particularly original -- rather Games Workshop's great trick was bringing together the best of separate, pre-existing elements. Thus the demonology of Cthulhu, the chaos of Moorcock, the magic of Runequest, the grandeur of Tolkien, the aesthetic of Judge Dredd and the humour of Paranoia all found their way into the worlds of Warhammer.
"Waddya mean ize past me prime?"
Everything that Games Workshop has produced since 1987 received its vitality from that early bang of creative energy. And the light from that departing sun lingered a long time in the sky before it began to fade. Thus, the Silver Age of Games Workshop (1988-1993) saw several top-notch games: the last half of the Enemy Within Campaign (1989), Space Hulk (1989) and Man O'War (1993), not too mention some great years at White Dwarf (until around 1990). But as great as these products were, they still didn't break any new creative ground. And after 1993... well we just got tinkering. Updated editions. Expanded armies. But nothing that broke the old molds. Nothing as radical and exciting as Warhammer or 40K. Games Workshop could only cannibalize itself.
The end of Games Workshop's golden age in early 1988 also teaches us something about the way all golden ages end. Games Workshop's undoing came in the very hour of its triumph, and indeed is inseparable from that triumph. Games Workshop turned inward precisely because it was enjoying marvelous success. They narrowed their miniature ranges precisely because so many people wanted to play nothing but Warhammer. They stopped innovating precisely because what they already had made promised endurance and popularity. The Age of Creativity was over. The Age of Profit had begun.
If you have any thoughts about how the creative process at Games Workshop changed, for better or worse, I'd love to hear about it in the comments. Cheers!
[Goblins illustrating this article are some of my paint jobs for Krapfang's Backwoods Bandits.]