[Musings of a Game Store Owner] Cloak & Dagger

Earlier this week, James at Warp Signal wrote a very interesting and compelling article about Games Workshop’s business practices. This particular post, “Corporate Opacity”, was so good and so in line with the kinds of conversations I have had with Dethtron that I wanted to address it.

As a GW consumer, James has serious and thought provoking concerns about why things happen the way they do, and has written a passionate and honest post. His ideas are expressed eloquently and coherently, rather than the typical fanboi or troll “I R better than u” quotes you see abundant on forums and so forth.

James’ question, specifically addressing the belief that GW employees are sanctioned with termination for divulging information outside of “proper” channels:

[Why are GW employees threatened with dismissal for “leaking the truth?” ]

His post is what he believes are possible reasons why GW (or any company) might do this sort of things, and counterpoints to those ideas. Rather than revisit his article in entirety, I suggest that you read his thoughts directly. It’s good stuff!

James addresses the following suggestions for why GW might constrict the flow of information.

· The company wants to build anticipation (Element of surprise)

· The company understands that the hobby they sell is expensive, time consuming and involves a long term commitment. They therefore wish to take away the power of their customers to effectively plan purchases. (Market control)

· Other companies might steal your idea before you can make it. (Corporate espionage, intellectual property theft)

· And finally, what if you want to go back on what you previously said? What if, say, you started work on something, announced it, and then changed tack? (Consistent message)

James goes on to refute these ideas pretty well, at least from a single consumer’s point of view. The crux of his argument comes across here, in his summary statements:

Building a community that includes your customers as well as your employees and designers is what’s important for continued success in the modern world, not some adversarial 1960s advertising model that tries to trick the stupid lemmings.
Stop hiding, Game Workshop, and treat your customers with respect. You’re only hurting yourselves, and I don’t want you to be hurt – I love the hobby you sell and I don’t want it to die out. Keeping secrets is a bad idea. If you have a consultant who’s telling you otherwise, don’t listen to him. I’m one of your customers, and I’m smarter than he is.

I am not a corporate head honcho. I’m not a GW apologist, either. I’m not going to say I understand or know the thinking of any of the GW directors, and I certainly can’t speak for them. I am, however, a small business owner that is directly and actively building and growing a community of gamers on a daily basis. I seek out ways to connect with those involved in the hobby so that I can interact with them, offer them a place of community, and grow my bottom line along the way.

My particular business model is infinitely smaller than GW’s, with a couple hundred customers in a specific geographical area, rather than many thousands worldwide. I can’t truly compare economics of scale, but there are certain lessons and knowledge that can directly correlate to GW’s business. My opinion and experience is that GW has every right to secrecy and keeping things close to the vest.

In my opinion, James is missing several huge points in his commentary. He’s seeing things from “far away”, rather than “close up”, which is how GW directors, managers and ownership are going to look at things. One of the biggest factors James did not address is simply: policy.

I’d lay quite a lot of money on a bet that GW wrote a confidentiality policy, and its employees sign an agreement to abide by it upon hire. If such an agreement is standing, it must be important- and if it’s important, it should be enforced. There’s absolutely no reason NOT to terminate an employee for breaking an agreement that specifically indicates that the consequence for doing so is dismissal.

The question then becomes: why have such a policy?

James hits upon some, but not all, of the reasons a business might believe such a policy would be a benefit. I believe he missed the mark on one of the major reasons for compelling secrecy in his dismissal of intellectual property theft. Nearly every reason for a non-disclosure agreement deals directly with concerns of theft and losing profit.

He seems to view this issue as nothing more than a nuisance for a company like GW, rather than a serious concern. James’ assertion that laws against IP theft and the existence of lawyers is a deterrent for thieves is a very innocent one. His directive that having lawyers gives a company “power” is greatly mistaken. His commentary greatly misses a key element in battling theft of any kind- cost.

Ideas take money to develop. The manpower to design a unit (including the model, which is a taxing and expensive process on its own) is likely tremendous. Sketches, playtesting, casting, material, manufacturing and all the various steps in between take a lot of money. GW is shelling out a lot of money on something that MIGHT sell; that MIGHT be popular; that MIGHT bring a profit. They are essentially professionally gambling every time they introduce a new rule, figure or codex.

At each and every step of the development process is someone out there from either another company or a “fan coalition” that wants dibs on the idea before it gets finalized. So they steal the idea, the draft, the green model, the development copy or something else. Counterfeit and/or copied versions of the item in question come on the market at greatly reduced cost (if not outright free). This drastically cuts into the sales and margins of GW’s products- and makes creating new material tougher to chance and finance. Paying investigators to find offenders and lawyers to pursue and litigate IP theft is yet another cost that comes out of GW’s pocket, reducing profit.

Laws and lawyers will not stop theft. It’s an unfortunate fact that theft can and does happen. A responsible company’s response to theft should be to do everything possible to eliminate the damage theft can do, and to impress upon thieves that there are serious consequences for stealing. GW has every right, and honestly, a DUTY, to protect its investments by reducing or eliminating factors that cut from their profits at every possible opportunity.

James addresses another point that is a tougher one to definitively answer from a company perspective, because it’s so subjective- respect. James wants to feel respected by GW. His perspective is that forums, a letters page, community involvement, and general consumer feedback are ways that make him feel respected and valued by Games Workshop.

James is one voice. He’s pretty well spoken and has a thoughtful point of view. He considers things before flying off the handle and makes good general statements and assumptions overall. If you spend any time reading forums like DakkaDakka, Bolter and Chainsword or Bell of Lost Souls, you know that James is kind of an exception.

Forums, chatrooms, consumer feedback, a letters page- they all offer customers a chance to be “heard”. They also allow consumers an opportunity to second guess, offer unsubstantiated rumor, degrade, debase, disrespect and otherwise bash on the company that is paying for the web hosting, programming, moderation of the forum and the product development, playtesting, manufacturing, and distribution of the games they “love to hate”.

A large number of the writers on forums are simply expounding whatever vitriol they feel at the moment, and have no logical basis for their opinions. They just feel “smarter than” GW, and want to be heard so they get what they want. You’ve all seen FNIF- Dethtron writes it because of these kinds of people. There are a much larger number of these guys than guys like James.

James then says about consultants or market development representatives, “I’m one of your customers, and I’m smarter than he is.”

Or, maybe not-maybe all the customers feel they should have some stake in how the company operates; and GW has to decide how to respond.

How should a company with many thousands of customers worldwide respond to intellectual property theft, rumors, bullies, disrespect, being degraded, and “smarter than you” responses from their customer base?

At some point, GW has to decide whether to give their customers a “voice”. At some point, all the “voices” like James’ (and everyone else) become “noise” because every “voice” wants something different. Whether it’s AdMech, Necrons, Sisters, 6th edition, overwatch, more tactical, less tactical, more strategy, less strategy, new models, dropping Lord of the Rings, more Lord of the Rings, more Skaven, less Skaven- or some other demand; every one wants something. At some point, GW has to make a conscious decision to either tune it out, or reply to every concern so that everyone feels respected.

GW has elected not to listen to the noise, but rather stay focused on the up close view of their company and how it operates. They’ve elected not to respond to every demand made of them- and with good reason. So many demands are made (quite literally) by petulant children with no sense of anything other than instant gratification. GW has elected not to give an ear to the enormous noise or the warp signal. They’ve been fairly consistent in this approach for their business, acting in the same fashion for over 15 years. It appears to be working for them, or they wouldn’t continue to do it.

I haven’t completely hit on everything James addresses- but I’ve hit the main things I deal with on a regular basis and understand from my own perspective as a business owner. My scale is certainly smaller, and I do things differently- but I understand many of the issues in the dilemma.

I can’t give away product and keep my doors open. I can’t even reliably cut a discount because the margin I make is pretty small and taking away from it is taking away my ability to pay the light bill. Most of my customers understand that, and trade cost for community. That’s where things get tricky for me. Every time I give another customer a voice, that customer gains expectations and wants more weight and input than I may be able to reliably give. With every new voice I add, every decision I make becomes open for second guessing and re-examination. I have to balance the voices with the bottom line, and do so in a respectful manner. It helps that I personally know my customers and can talk to them about decisions and why considerations or changes were made; but a company like GW doesn’t have that luxury.

James asks,Why hide? It’s not hiding, it’s defense- in my opinion. it’s keeping things carefully protected to keep their profits acceptable, so they can keep making games.

GW is ultimately making decisions that are helping keep their doors open, so we can keep gaming.

Game on,

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