Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Farewell Specialist Games

If you've been following the buzz on the Net lately, you'll already know that GW is shutting down their subsiduary company, Specialist Games.  Rather than re-hash the news, I'd rather talk about my feelings on the matter.

Back in the day... when I was still just a lowly red-shirt in service to the mighty institution known as Games Workshop, we had two big releases each year, one in the spring, and one in the fall.  The fall release was usually the BIG release of the year... typically a new edition of one of the "core" systems (Warhammer 40K, Warhammer Fantasy, etc.).  The spring release was often a new, untested system.  Sometimes it was a boxed board game, like Space Hulk, but sometimes it was an offshoot of 40K or Fantasy in a more collectable format, like Mordheim or Inquisitor.

Games like Necromunda, Inquisitor, Mordheim, GorkaMorka, Bloodbowl, Epic, etc., were great games in their own right.  As retail sales people, these games were an almost automatic sale to hardcore 40K and Fantasy players, but most importantly, they were an easy sell to casual and non-gamers due to the low cost of entry (starter box set, which could be shared between two gamers, or someone could easily join an existing gaming group by only buying the models needed for his own gang / warband / etc.).  For us, they were the "gateway drug" by which we could slowly bring fresh blood into the hobby.  We would run a quick demo game, we would show them what they needed to get started, and they could get playing.  Later, they would want to play another gang / warband / team / etc.  They would get more and more invested in the story and background of the Games Workshop universes.  At a certain point, they would find themselves making the (oh so tiny) step into a full blown 40K or Fantasy army.

On the other hand, 40K and Fantasy on their own were much harder to sell to non-gamers.  Try showing a army box set to the mom of a 13 year old kid.  Then show them the starter paint set, a can of primer, a fig carrying case, some terrain, glue, clippers, needle files, exacto knife, and the starter box set.  The cost of getting into the hobby was intimidating, especially when it looked like that was just the START of what your kid would be asking you for.

Contrast that to the cost of a Bloodbowl team.  Sure, you still need to get some hobby supplies, but people always seemed to think that that was the end of it.  I buy a box of models, some hobby supplies, borrow the rulebook when I go over to my buddy's place, and I'm done.  Of course, it never ends there, but people starting out in the hobby don't know that.

When you have a Mordheim gang, you have a small chunk of an Empire army right there.  It's the building block... the foundation... the cornerstone to your future army.  It only takes one slip, and you have crossed over from being a Mordheim player to a Fantasy collector.  Same thing with GorkaMorka... how many ork armies started off as GorkaMorka gangs?

For existing 40K and Fantasy gamers, these systems were a nice change of pace from playing the same core systems over and over again.  Most people considered them to be welcome diversions from their regular games.  Just when people started dropping out of the gaming group out of lack of interest, a new game system would come out, one that was set in the same familiar universe (only from a fresh new perspective), and it wouldn't take much prodding to get "that guy who hasn't shown up for game night in awhile" to come out and maybe pick up that gang / faction that no one else has started yet.  And of course, once you've got a few models "that would look great in that Imperial Guard army that I've thought about starting", before you knew it, you were building a brand new army for 40K or Fantasy, and getting enthusiastic about playing the core systems again.

Anyway, in 2002-ish, Games Workshop decided to break the spring / fall release cycle, and concentrate on their core systems.  I believe Lord of the Rings had a big part of play in that decision.  Now that GW had 3 core systems, they had a lot on their plate, and the "little" games had to go.  All other game systems would now be handled and supported by the Specialist Games division (headed up by Jervis Johnson at first, as I recall).  They were distractions, and were perhaps considered a drain on the games development resources that were better suited to supporting the big three games.

At first, it looked like the smaller games finally had a dedicated development team of their own to support those games alone.  Specialist Games was full of promise.  A few new miniatures were released (mostly as online sales only), and fans of those games could keep on playing them, with the hope that those games would be updated on occasion, and they could get their "new shiny" fix whenever a new model was released.

Unfortunately, nothing much seemed to come of it.  White Dwarf magazine focused solely on 40K, Fantasy, and Lord of the Rings.  Not much appeared in GW's major monthly publication regarding the Specialist Games.  People lost interest.  People stopped buying models for those games.  On occasion, the diehard gamers would dust off their old collections, and play a league within their own circle of friends.  However, GW saw very few sales, and I guess it was inevitable that they would someday pull the plug on the Specialist Games venture.

Yes, we (as gamers) were partly to blame.  I confess... I haven't bought any new Bloodbowl, Epic, Battlefleet Gothic, Warmaster, Inquisitor, Necromunda, or Mordheim models in a long long time.  I haven't even played any of those games in quite some time.  I even have boxes of unpainted models for every single one of those systems... all collecting dust.  If I was ever to get back into one of those games, my first stop wouldn't be my local games store to buy more models, it would be my parent's garage to dig those dusty models out of storage.

However, without a NEW Necromunda, or a NEW Mordheim, or NEW Bloodbowl, etc., I just can't get fired up about collecting more models.  Consumers are conditioned to leap at the newest, shiniest things that have been just released (or re-released).  Old gamers like me need to see a game company actively supporting their old games.  It reassures us, and excites us.

As for the non-gamers... the potential lifers in the making... they need an easier baby-step into the Fantasy and 40K universes.  It's much easier to sell Warmachine, Infinity, Dark Age, Hordes, etc. to someone who is just stepping into the hobby.  To the timid newcomer, there is something reassuring about being able to play with the big boys right away.  They can get stuck in right away, and no one is going to scoff at them for only bringing one small fig case to the local game store's game night.  I mean, c'mon... what longtime 40K player is going to want to play against a brand new player who only has half the contents of the Dark Vengence box set?  Really?  It's like showing up to an open-class exotic car race with a Mazda Miata.  At least the new Warmachine player can show up with a dozen models and still find people to play with.

Also, Games Workshop just doesn't seem as interesting and dynamic without letting their games developers go crazy once in awhile.  Instead of churning out new codexes and army books all the time, wasn't it great to see them come up with entirely new games set in the same worlds?  The ability to explore new gaming concepts often paid off for the big games too... many of the rules for Necromunda and Mordheim made their way into later editions of 40K and Fantasy... once they had been tested out and explored more fully in these smaller game systems.

In short, I don't think these games were distractions or drains.  These games SUPPORTED the main games, and enriched them.  Building upon these smaller games, and building new ones, would be a great way to revitalize the GW IP's, and bring new gamers into the fold, while at the same time bringing old gamers BACK into the fold.

Anyway, I was hoping to do a run-down of all the Specialist Games, and present my thoughts and happy memories of each.  However, this blog post has gone on long enough, and now sleep deprivation is swiftly catching up with me.  I'm certain my writing has already lost all focus, and likely anything I write from here on would just be garbage.  I certainly didn't want this blog post to be full of negativity and GW-hate.  Sable and Spray was meant to be primarily a painting blog, not a gaming one, and not an editorial on the gaming industry.  However, I'm human, and some of my fondest memories of collecting, building, converting, painting, and yes, gaming, revolved around the games that Games Workshop is now discarding like so much junk.  That's the reason for tonight's rant.  Apologies for any offense it may have caused, and opposing opinions and comments are ALWAYS welcomed here on S&S.

G'night all.

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