From the computer to the tabletop, this is all about games. Updated each week-end.
Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer fantasy battles: two games that were formerly the top of their pile found themselves floundering and failing in markets that had moved past them.
In each case the parent companies (Wizards of the Coast and Games Workshop) responded by devising a recovery strategy and changing the games to win back their former glory. Each company has taken a different track, so it’s interesting to examine each in turn.
Dungeons & Dragons (Wizards of the Coast)
The game that other role-playing games can thank for their existence was in trouble. The 4th edition of the game was not well-received by the market. A lack of communication by Wizards prior to the release of 4th meant a game hit the shelves that was not meeting players’ expectations. The revolt created a brand new RPG, Pathfinder. This game quickly outsold D&D and stayed at the top of the RPG market throughout 4th edition’s tenure.
Communicate and test
Wizards of the Coast acted to correct their errors. They spent years running a series of public playtests, and allowed players to register online to received beta versions of the new rules as they were developed, for testing and feedback.
The first 5th edition release was a simplified version of the game at a low price point. There was a gap between this release and the first hardcover book release. This time gap allowed many new players, and players from the test period, to experiment with the new version of the game.
Players on the whole liked it, many the low price of the starter set (simply called Dungeons & Dragons) enticed many non-RPGers to try the product.
The strategy worked. Recent sales figures show Dungeons & Dragons has reclaimed its spot as the number 1 selling RPG. Will this last? Right now it is too soon to tell. We are roughly one year into 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. However the strategy of public consultation, streamlined product releases, and an entry level product has paid off for now.
Warhammer Fantasy Battles (Games Workshop)
The venerable fantasy miniatures game has been ailing for some years now. At a tie where miniatures and board games have experienced steady growth, Warhammer had contrived to shrivel back to a shadow of its former self. The product simply wasn’t selling. Other, newer games were capturing players attention. The repeated issue of players was not so much the rules but more a mismatch between premium priced models and a massed battles game. Either the prices needed to change or the game needed to allow for fewer models per side.
Games Workshop opted for the latter option. In an interesting move, the company spent the better part of a year releasing a series of ‘End Times’ products for Warhammer. These were hardback books and large models released every couple of months. The models were new and interesting as Warhammer models tend to be. The books told the story of the final destruction of the Warhammer ‘Old World.’ That’s right; they blew up the setting.
A new Age
A couple of months after the final End Times book, a new boxed set appeared. Warhammer: Age of Sigmar was the new form the game would take. In conjunction with the boxed release, the game’s rules were posted online as a free download. These four page rules baked the essence of a tabletop game into a concise package.
One thing was clear: you could play Age of Sigmar with as many or as few models as you liked. Gone were the army list restrictions of past editions, that divided model ranges into silos that could not be fielded together. Your 30 models against your friend’s 10 models? That’s a game.
Legacy models were accounted for with a series of free downloads to convert them over to the new rules. This has been somewhat controversial. In a move that is half wink, half middle finger, Games Workshop gave these models rules that required players to have an impressive moustache, chant, dance, or adopt a particular expression during the game in order to access the model’s special rules. New releases for the Age of Sigmar do not come with such rules.
The models are still sold in small numbers at premium prices, but the game can easily be played with 5 models per side, and with the rules online for free, the cost has been handed over to the players. It’s more a spend as much as you like structure now rather than the high buy in that larger armies required.
With Age of Sigmar it is too soon to tell. This time next year we’ll have a better picture of whether this strategy worked.