Where Did All These Mini Companies Come From????

Or : How I Think GW Opened the Door Wide and Somehow Lost Their (Near) Monopoly

I’ve been a gamer for a pretty long time now… ever since mullets were cool, and we used to scribble drawings on our acid-washed jean jackets, and I have seen a few gaming trends come and go.  As an old timer, I recently had a moment to pause and reflect on the current state of affairs in the miniature gaming industry.

Now, I’m no “Industry Guy”.  Granted, I did work for GW for a few years, but only as a lowly red-shirt (ie retail peon… much like the disposable security guys on Star Trek).  However, just like any sports fan follows their favourite team and can comment at length about where THEY think the management of that team is making mistakes (if only the owners of the Vancouver Grizzlies had asked for my opinion, and drafted Steve Nash eons ago, maybe they would have stayed in Vancouver!), I have my ideas about why GW no longer has an iron grip on the mini gaming market.

Keep in mind that the following are just the ramblings of a sour old gamer, full of false nostalgia and carefully cultured bitterness.  Read on if you dare…

Kinda like Sesame Street, only the weather’s always a bit foggy…

Back when I was a relative young ‘un, miniatures were used for representing characters and monsters in role playing games.  Oh, I suppose there were a few historical miniature games back then, but I didn’t take much notice of non sci-fi and fantasy lines.  I collected my lead Ral Partha and Grenadier minis, slapped glossy enamel Testors paints on them, and then moved them around a vinyl hex sheet that was marked up with dry erase markers.

Even skellies like them mullets!  Many an adventurer got beat down by these guys…

Then one of my delinquent buddies shoplifted a copy of Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader, and a copy of Warhammer Fantasy 3rd edition.  After making our own copies on the old Xerox in his dad’s insurance office, we then read the rules and were intrigued enough to actually pay for our first Citadel miniatures, and field hodge-podge armies of Citadel, Ral Partha, and Grenadier minis.

*Disclaimer: As a law-abiding citizen today, I cannot condone any of the stupid sh*t my younger self did as an early teen.  It was criminal, and certainly wrong.  That being said, my circle of wayward youths now all work for either a major municipal police department or federal corrections, so somewhere along the way we somehow straightened out in the end.  If you are a parent of an effed up teen, this should give you a glimmer of hope.

Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40K Rogue Trader held our interest only for a short while, but it did open our eyes to miniature gaming as a whole.  The main reason I bring up this period of my gaming history is to point out that at the time, miniature games rules sets were written to give mini collectors something to do with their existing miniature collections.  People didn’t buy models exclusively from one range or another, and many companies didn’t even have models to represent all the different troop types covered in their own rules.  We simply proxied with whatever models we could scrounge up at the time, and even made our own models from whatever we had on hand.

Battletech came along shortly afterwards.  Using printed out maps and a mix of lead miniatures and cardboard chits, we fought a number of battles in this manner.  Actually, while I’m mentioning Battletech, I should also give a brief mention to Steve Jackson’s Car Wars as well (and maybe Starfleet Battles).  While not what we consider a miniature game today, it was in a similar vein, only with cardboard “miniatures”, played on a grid map.  At least with Battletech, we fielded the occasional lead miniature though, and they were all officially licensed Battletech minis (produced by Ral Partha though, I believe).

Anyway, fast forward to the ’90s.  I rediscovered GW miniature games, and was playing Fantasy and 40K in university.  By this time, we rarely fielded any non-Citadel miniatures in our armies.  There were the occasional plastic Battlemasters miniatures mixed in to the Chaos Fantasy, Greenskins, and Empire armies, and on rare occasions you would see a rubber dinosaur being fielded as a hydra or dragon, but for the most part we WYSIWYG-ed (What You See Is What You Get) with the official miniatures.

GW and Milton Bradley teamed up to produce BattleMasters.  I never saw an Empire, Ork, or Chaos army that DIDN’T have some of these models in them during those days.

Why?  Partly because we were brainwashed by all the pretty pics of gorgeous fully painted armies in the pages of White Dwarf.  But also partly because Citadel miniatures were for the most part superior to the weak offerings by other miniature companies, and not really any more expensive either.

Chronopia came and went.  So did Warzone.  Even VOR, and that was backed by FASA (the same guys behind Battletech and Shadowrun).  I saw a few local game stores really try and push those because they had better profit margins.  However, the mostly blocky one-piece sculpts really didn’t do anything for most people’s sensibilities.  There were also a number of other minigaming lines that did their best to carve out a niche for themselves, but nothing lasted.  GW was everything.  It was the massive monster that stomped everything else into the ground with an unforgiving boot.

Typical Chronopia sculpts.  Especially the huge, er, shoulder armour.
I heard that if you were a fan of Warzone, you’d hate this movie that was set in the same universe.  As I was definitely not a fan of the game, I rather enjoyed the movie.
A sample Growler army for VOR by FASA.  This game had Paul Bonner and Matt Wilson doing up the art for it.  I’m guessing that Matt kept his Growler sketches, and just reused them for his Hordes Trollkin.

I worked for a GW retail store for a number of years during this time.  If you weren’t a historical gamer, you played GW games.  You might play other games from time to time, but the bulk of your gaming and collecting was either Warhammer, 40K, Epic 40K, Blood Bowl, or some other GW game.  It was like how Magic the Gathering was in the mid ’90s.  Everything else was just a fringe game that was likely to be gone in a year or two… a mere flash in the pan.

Then things changed almost overnight.  The door opened up wide for other mini companies, and I have some theories about how this happened.

GW was a massive multi-national corporation by the early 2000’s.  There was a GW HQ in just about every gaming country, with their own chain of retail stores, online sales operations, hosts of sales reps to lend support to independent game stores, and some of them even had their own version of White Dwarf magazine.  On top of that, there were Games Days held in most of those countries (the US had 3, I believe).

But this was not to last.  I had left GW by this point, and was painting miniatures full time for a living.  Hardly any painting contracts came in that weren’t GW miniatures.  But then it sounds like GW’s online store started bitching and moaning about how they couldn’t compete with all the discount online game shops.  GW online sales had to keep their prices in lockstep with the retail stores, and the retail stores weren’t allowed to give deep discounts (even though retail employees at the time enjoyed a nice 60% discount themselves, which I hear was better than the independent stores could bring in stuff for).

There was some merit to the whining.  A number of online sales companies did very well for themselves by selling minis at 10% to 30% off the regular retail (and GW Online) prices, and they didn’t need to support a brick and mortar retail location either.  And speaking of which, it also made independent retail stores very unhappy as well, which is perfectly understandable as they had many more operating costs than some warehouse in the skids of some big city, or an unheated building in northern British Columbia.

The simple solution?  Forbid ANY company from selling GW product at a discount, and cut them off if they continued to do so.

It sounded good at the time.  You evened the playing field, and little mom and pop operations, as well as the GW retail and online sales stores themselves could now be just as competitive on pricing.

The only problem was that those online companies were fairly big players by this point.  They had a fair bit of money, a good amount of reach, and they were pissed off.  They were never going to be able to compete based on service compared to a direct retail store… they couldn’t run you a demo game or host a tournament through your computer or phone… they had to have that huge discount in order to entice sales away from their competition and survive.

It’s not like they were going to just shrug their shoulders, congratulate themselves on a good run, and then close up shop.  They were going to look for new product to promote and sell.  And THAT’S when the smaller mini companies suddenly had the support they needed.

This was long before anyone had heard of Kickstarter.  Nowadays, new games seem to pop up all the time.  Back then, you needed a ton of support, and you weren’t going to get it pre-sale.  All the little games that GW would normally have crushed were being pushed and marketed like crazy by desperate online sales companies and other distributors.  Confrontation, which was doing okay for itself in France, all of a sudden started being promoted by New Wave Games in North America (New Wave Games was run by David Doust, before he became the man behind the scenes at Coolminiornot).  The first batches of minis showed up with only French rules to go with them (the tiny little Confrontation rule book was packaged with each model), but the models themselves were gorgeous, and people were willing to download horribly fan-translated rules off the Net in order to play with them.

A number of other miniature companies started getting pushed by these distributors and online sales companies as well.  And we started getting contracted out to paint minis from all sorts of companies.  In fact, some of the companies that we still too small to employ full time painters of their own starting sending us pre-production models to paint up for marketing purposes.  My buddy Chad ended up doing an entire Koralon army for I-Kore’s game “VOID” that we never got paid for (the company and game tanked once the investors found out that an accountant was embezzling funds from them, but they later relaunched as Urban Mammoth, and the game was re-named “Urban War”). 

We had also received some first run minis from some company called “Privateer Press” that were packaged in plain brown cardboard boxes, with just a photocopied sheet for play rules.  Apparently they were some of the first sculpts done by Mike McVey for a game they were launching which was called “Warmachine”.  Alison McVey ended up doing all the paintjobs for the rulebooks and promo material, but we briefly discussed the possibility of painting up all the models that would be taken to conventions and demos for demo play (never panned out though).

I should also mention that all these hungry little upstart companies started making some REALLY nice models by this time.  No longer did GW always seem to have the upper hand there.

Couple this with GW’s insistence in abandoning all their smaller skirmish scale games (all the ones where you could play with only a dozen or so models per side) in favour of pushing the Lord of the Rings game like crazy, and you can see how the door was opened just a little bit more for the little companies to jam their foot into the marketplace.

While LotR was a great game, with some amazing models, it wasn’t quite the gateway drug into miniature hobbying that games like Necromunda, Gorkamorka, and Mordheim were.  When I used to work as a GW salesperson, we would use those games to hook non-gamers into the hobby, and once they were already playing and painting small gangs of models, it only took the smallest of nudges to turn that gang into a full fledged Warhammer Fantasy or 40K army.

A beautiful example of just how fun a game of Necromunda could be.

Yes, I guess you COULD just play 40K or Fantasy with just the models in the basic box set, but no one ever did.  It never did feel like a complete game, and newbies didn’t take to it like they did with the skirmish games.  On the other hand, games like Warmachine actually felt like full scale games with only a few models, and so players started gravitating to those.

Independent stores also started pushing the smaller game systems too.  Why not?  They didn’t have to bring in as much stock, commit as much capital, or use up as much space.

The impression I got from the few GW insiders that I still kept in touch with was that they simply didn’t care anymore.  Whereas the company used to defend their territory (all of sci-fi and fantasy mini gaming) with a passion and tried to fill every possible gaming niche, now it seemed like they thought it didn’t matter that schools of barracudas were gathering when they viewed themselves as the big shark.

And now over a decade later, the situation and marketplace is completely transformed.  GW is still the biggest company out there, but it’s not like it was back then.  Back then, just about every mini gamer owned at least one GW army, and dabbled with other games on the side.  Nowadays there are plenty of gamers who have happily NEVER played a GW game, or used to play but have now abandoned GW entirely.

Is there room for all these gaming companies to co-exist?  Sure there is.  While there seems to be a very intense rivalry and occasional bad blood between GW and PP gamers where I live, many GW gamers will say that they are happy that the uber-competitive goobs have left Warhammer and 40K for WarmaHordes, and many WarmaHordes players will say that they are happy to play in an environment where they’re not looked down upon for playing with bare metal models.  😉

Sorry WarmaHordes players.  Feel free to make fun of GW gamers in the comments (so long as it’s lighthearted).  My buddies and I trade barbs like that all the time.  It’s like the Ford / Chevy rivalry.  It never ends.

Infinity has a diehard following.  Malifaux too.  Dark Age struggles a bit here, but there are too many Brom fans to see the game die completely.  Kickstarter continues to launch many a brand new game too (from what I can tell, they sell based off the strength of their sculpts and concept art, rather than the strength of their rules).

But for those of us that remember when Games Workshop WAS the mini gaming industry (our internal memos even had the tagline, “In the far future, there IS only Games Workshop”), things seem a bit strange and confusing.  Having more choices is always good, but it was a much simpler and more innocent time, and it was much easier to find someone to play a pickup game with, when everyone played the same game.

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