Wednesday, January 28, 2015

When did Games Workshop Go to Pot?

As a profitable enterprise, today's Games Workshop is a rusty turd. But I often contemplate the dim past and wonder when it was that Games Workshop first lost its way: not as a money making venture, but as a maker of games and miniatures that I want to use and enjoy. This, of course, is a philosophical question: when things went wrong depends on what you think Games Workshop first did that was right. All gamers will answer that question differently, but for me the answer is clear.


"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.]

21 comments:

  1. Personally I thought they lost is around 1992 - the sculpting changed to massively oversized minis with weapons to match and GW entered the red phase which I thought looked stupid. Add to that a dumbing down of the rules so they could sell more stuff to 12 year olds. Great if you are a 12 year old but not so great if you are not (I was 18).

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  2. I think you've hit the nail on the head. Whilst we can all differ on preferred sculpting styles, rules tweaks etc. and GW had every right to promote only their own business it is the sad state of affairs in our western capitalist climate that brands are seen as competing, so only wanting to promote their own products. What I want to see is more company collaboration and less competition. Surely there are enough games and gamers to go round? Hold me to that promise as Oakbound develops, I want to be working WITH other small games and miniatures companies and not AGAINST them. :)

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  3. I've said it before and I'll say it again: latter-day GW are a perfect example of why shareholder capitalism is too often a negative force in modern society, particularly if the company in question is reliant on harnessing creativity to generate sales. Of course it goes without saying that companies have to make money to be viable, but so to do they have to consider their customers' requirements and have a coherent long-term business plan; unfortunately limited companies are often run ruthlessly to generate short-term windfalls with little regard for overall impact. As Washington Post writer Steven Pearlstein writes, 'In the recent history of bad ideas, few have had a more pernicious effect than the one that corporations should be managed to maximize “shareholder value.” ... It is an ideology, moreover, that has no basis in history, in law, or in logic. What began in the 1970s and 1980s as a useful corrective to self-satisfied managerial mediocrity has become a corrupting self-interested dogma peddled by finance professors, Wall Street money managers, and overcompensated corporate executives.'

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    1. Spot on about the "maximizing shareholder value". You're considered a complete weirdo these days if you say that the goal of a company could as well be "maximize employee happiness" or "maximize customer satisfaction" or "produce the ebst product possible". Maximizing shareholder value is only one of many possible goals, and not even a good and ethical one.

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  4. WFB 4th edition really was the turning point for me. When I saw that box, I still remember thinking "It's all over now".

    Anyways, about cooperation amongst businesses and brands: that makes sense as long as you are in a growing market. When the market grows, everyone benefits, so it makes much more sense to cooperate to make the market bigger. Once the market is satisfied, competition between companies will start, since then suddenly you want a bigger slice, and the pie isn't getting any bigger.

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    1. Yep, it was 4th for me too. Over simplification of the rules (3rd wasn't perfect, but it didn't need to be raped to improve it), stupid little cards for casting magic coz it's so damn hard to read from the book? Everything about the game just screamed "made for kiddies".

      I never left the warm embrace of RT, ROC, WFRP, 3rd ed WFB :)

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  5. For me the turning point is dec 1991/Kirby Take Over on GW/WFB 4th edition.

    The January 1988 change is just something normal, GW was a company importing other products (AD&D, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, MERP, etc.) and this market was diminishing, either because they did loose the licenses to sell/import these products, or just because the market was declining.

    When Bryan Ansell bought the company he had to refocus on what was bringing money to the company and as such to promote what he was producing, almost all of the licences has been lost before, so they were no more importing or selling other brands, they have their brands (Warhammer, BloodBowl, Talisman, etc.) and the Citadel Miniatures.

    Promoting products he was not selling seems a bad idea, the money customers will spend has limits so it's better to incitate them to buy their own products than to give their money to the competitors, on a market already small...

    Apart from other games not anymore supported in White Dwarf they continued to produce good stuff for the Warhammer games and some other of their won games (BloodBowl) but the spirit of what was produced was still the same with the same target. There were no visible impact on the creativity or on the ranges produced at the time (The Realm of Chaos miniatures were almost all produced during that time).

    The change of target did happen when Kirby took over the company and decided that every kid in the UK should have a box of Warhammer under the christmas tree... That implied new simpler version of games, new miniatures, new style of painting, etc... to appeal to a larger spectrum.

    That's where I would put the end of the Golden Age of Games Workshop/Citadel...

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    1. Couldn't agree more. I think the strategy came from the results of white dwarf readers poll conducted around that time which showed GW had a young fan base. Fair enough aiming products at that market but don't upset the rest of your market...

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  6. I came into 3rd edition late in the game. It seems obvious to me the beginning of the end was the original warhammer armies book. This is what I consider the first army book, which lead to the lost and the damned, which lead to army specific books in 4th edition.
    We would all be much happier gamers and gw would have retained many of their old customers had they released the 3rd edition rulebook and stuck with white dwarf covering non gw lis emceed material and creating miniatures for it.
    You want to look at WH 8th edition and the end times with disgust? Turn that perfect measured gaze of yours in the mirror while holding a copy of warhammer armies.

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    1. Warhammer Armies did exist since the first edition of the game, it was the "Book of Battalions" in "Forces of Fantasy" for first edition and "Ravening Hordes" for the second edition...
      Some kind of people need to have a book explaining them how to build their force (if it's not written then you can't do it, or you must exactly do as written in the book), some people have more imagination and are more free in their way use the rules...
      Having army books (one like Warhammer Armies for 3rd, or one for each faction like it's the way since 4th) is not a problem per se if the players only use them as new content to spice their game and not as the only way to play...

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  7. I think Phil Dutre's observation about cooperation making more sense as the market is growing is an excellent observation -- and then, as Phil says, competition sets in when the market is satisfied. This really helps explain why GW stopped promoting non-Warhammer Games.

    I don't want to say that I think anyway at GW made a bad business decision in 1988. Nor do I really blame anyone (not Bryan Ansell and certainly not Sean Masterson) for any policy changes that GW undertook: these same people who "closed off" Games Workshop to outside influences also created many of my favourite miniatures and games (many before and some after 1988). But what intrigues me is how the creative process and this creative process changed. That there was important change is undeniable. What changed? Why?These are up for debate... But for my part (as I said in the post) I think there was a highpoint leading up to 1988 and a slow decline afterwards.

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  8. Interesting post.

    For me, I would say the decline started in 1998 (possibly earlier in WHFB) with 3rd edition 40K. The switch was from smaller level warband type armies to the sort of streamlined stupidity that reached its awful logical conclusion with Apocalypse battles. This coincided with a move from selling beautiful metal figures to selling legions of plastic armies that have, perversely given their supposed rationale of allowing for greater customisation and individuality, led to everyone's armies looking like cookie cutter versions of one another.

    Also, I personally love the "Red Era" and to me that is GW's golden age!

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  9. Decline, Destruction, Deconstruction all leads to new Glory! Sure 1988 (or 1991) can certainly be seen as an end point to the Golden Age of the GW we all love, but in less than ten years out of the ashes arose the Wonder and the Joy that was the Silver Age! Yes, I'm thinking of Necromunda, GorkaMorka, Battlefleet Gothic, Mordheim and most gloriously of all - Warmaster! Truth be told, and I am recklessly emboldened by the scotch I'm sipping as I type this, WD's 240 - 268 are among my favourites, and the tremendous 6th Edition Warhammer is honestly my first choice for Warhammer fun and enjoyment. With this in mind and hope eternal, I feel we may even see a new Age of Wonder and Greatness for GW. Perhaps a Copper Age! My guess is 2018. And 10th Edition! And perhaps the Oldhammer community may be the impetus and inspiration for this next era of Celebration! Yeah, yeah - out of all decline comes creation! I can't wait...

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  10. I was going to offer another couple of issues that seemed to mark the fall, but having just checked they're also in WD97 - the last published WFB scenario (Valley of Death) and the first "official" WFB tournament.

    I personally don't think that dropping non-GW games from WD is the issue, amongst GW games at this point are Stormbringer, for example, and as others point out there are still good GW games to come. To me the problems came with excessive focus on WFB / 40K and within them dominance of the tournament / line them up, knock them down style of play.

    As you say, GW's lifeblood was its creativity, once it instead moved to iterating and tinkering without releasing anything truly new, and even for its secondary games measuring them against its behemoths rather than recognising their value in their own right, then it had a problem creatively.

    I mention Valley of Death as the "last scenario" - it at least has non-standard victory conditions in that the orcs are trying to evade rather than win a straight fight, but it's noticably lacking in flavour and bigger in scale than what had gone before. I personally don't blame Ravening Hordes / Warhammer Armies, but the far more interesting scenarios with conflicting victory conditions within a single side, and campaign play, no longer to seems to be supported at that point. So the far more inspiring, creative, immersive experience on the player side is withering as well.

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  11. In all honesty I think we're looking at a 5-year strategic business plan that started around 1986 and culminated in 1991 with the Tom Kirby buy-out. that was largely about stopping the reliance on imported products, and building their own IP. There are lots of little "steps" you can see towards that goal on the way, dropping of the review column, book publishing to show the value of the IP, streamlining the retail experience.

    What private w. calls the "silver age" is the product of fine-tuning and building upon the already established IP. Which as Matthew says is a move away from the genuine creative / innovative phase, it's refinement of a niche. Any changes after that, including tinkering with Warhammer rules are, in comparison, quite insignificant.

    So yep, Jan 1988 is about right :-)

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  12. It's always been my contention that White Dwarf was never anything but a house magazine. When it started it covered D&D (and later, Traveller, RuneQuest, and Call of Cthulhu, etc) because these were the games that GW imported from the States or printed under licence; games in which GW had no business interest, such as FGU titles (Chivalry and Sorcery, Bushido, Aftermath, etc) and early GURPS were conspicuous by their absence, as were the products of smaller publishers - even those advertised in WD like Victorian Adventures.

    But yes, there was a definite change that took place while I worked there from 1986-90. The merger with Citadel and the move to Nottingham brought Warhammer front and centre, and as more Warhammer Fantasy and 40K related products were published, GW's importing and licensed-reprint business was scaled back. I remember combing the WD submission pile and pulling out all the D&D submissions for rejection, and it did feel a bit like the end of an era. There were howls of protest, especially from the London-based fanzines - some of which were run by ex-GW staffers who had refused to move north - and accusations that GW was turning into a house magazine, but what really happened was that GW was putting out enough of its own product that it was able to step away from imports.

    TSR UK's short-lived Imagine magazine, on the other hand, deliberately cast a wide net and covered non-TSR games, which frustrated Gary Gygax no need from what I've heard. And there was also, briefly, a magazine (whose name I can no longer remember) published by Games of Liverpool, which was the UK importer for FGU, covering their game lines.

    But now I'm starting to ramble. I agree there was a change around 87-88, but I maintain that WD was always a house magazine. It was GW's publishing interests that changed, and WD continued to support them.

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    1. Thanks, Graeme, for the first hand perspective -- it's extremely enlightening. (Your recollection about rejecting D&D submissions is particularly fascinating to me).
      Your point about WD always being an in house magazine is convincing. But whether in house or out house, WD's focus narrowed. Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

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  14. Yep it all rings so familiar GW seemed to move from popular cult to greedy adult. The same can easily happen to companies like Cool Mini or Not who really needs to watch out to avoid the same fate. The turning point for me was whem wfrp seemed to be smashed useless by FFG...

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  15. To be honest, I had no problems with the dumbing down of the rules, partly because of the fact that I was only a kid, but it made for a faster game. But I stopped being interested when they started producing WFB and 40K in the boxes. If they're going to pander to the kids, then why make it cost more than an average kid can afford? Now I'm an adult, earning a decent wage and it's even more out of my reach than ever before!

    Now they've destroyed the whole WFB, destroying with it the whole canon and background, even though that was one of the strongest parts of the games, we were able to, through the novels etc, watch the world develop and now we have to start from scratch with something that sounds even more childish than before!

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