Saturday, June 2, 2012

Games Workshop Stumbles Into The Digital Arena

So...the big news that hit my inbox this morning was that "Games Workshop Has Gone Digital."

All well and fine if you know what Games Workshop is.  Which, if you're a proper nerd, you do.  If you don't, here's a quick rundown:

Games Workshop (GW if you're hip) is THE tabletop miniature wargame company.  Now before any fellow gamer geeks start throwing their measuring tapes at me, let me frame that statement.  While there are a gadzillion of other fantastic tabletop warfare manufacturers and systems out there, many of which I own or have played, there are no tabletop game manufacturers out there that can come close to the success of GW.  So roll a D6 and accept the simple fact that GW is, whether you love them or hate them, the one of the Kings of Dorkdom.  Games Workshop publishes two main game systems, Warhammer, often called 'Warhammer Fantasy Battles' (WHFB) and Warhammer 40,000 (WH40K, or often just 40K).  Not to take away from their third 'main' system, they also publish The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game.  Additionally, GW produces a ton of other stuff, game aids and supplements to support their games, a huge line of paints and modeling supplies (remember...this is miniature tabletop gaming - so miniatures are assembled, painted, etc.), their own expansive line of fiction based on the WHFB and 40K universes, their own magazine called White Dwarf, and a raft of 'Specialist Games,' which are kind of one-off games either from past games they've developed and still support, some role-playing games (RPG) - often based on their own multiverse.

There'll obviously be future discussions of all things GW...but for now, back to this post.

I alluded briefly above to the rather tumultuous love-hate relationship between GW and the gamer community, and this is important to take into consideration for this post.  For some time now, GW has oft been accused of things like price gouging and tactics designed to continually soak even their most dedicated players of their usually meager funds.  As one common saying in the back of many a game store goes, "There's a reason it's called Warhammer have to have a minimum annual salary of at least $40,000 to properly play it."  We're not going to delve too deeply into this heated debate (we very well may on later posts), but suffice it to say I have some enormous respect for GW's general business model, yet still shake my head at some of their marketing, product, and pricing decisions.

This post ultimately refers to the limited release today of GW products into digital formats.  Most anticipated of this is the first codex published in a digital edition. (A codex is simply the rules, descriptions, and statistics specific to a particular army that a player would choose to field - you need the main rulebook and an army codex in order to play most tabletop wargames).  Until now, all WHFB and WH40K codexes (and rulebooks, expansions, etc.) were only available in print formats, and many players (yours truly included) have yearned to have official digital editions available so we could toss all those heavy rulebooks and codexes on a laptop, tablet, phone, etc.  At last, GW has made that leap - and the star entry to the current digital offering is the Space Marine Codex.  GW now has products available in digital format through Apple's iBooks App for iPad and iPhone.  (BTW, I don't want to confuse this with GW's Black Library which already huge offering of novels in digital format, both through their own App for iPad and iPhone as well as standard ePub formats for Kindle, etc.  What we're talking about here is the game systems themselves, which is big news).  In addition to some other pretty cool things that GW has put out in digital format, the SM Codex is what we all wanted to see.  I've downloaded the free sample, and frankly, it's pretty cool!  GW took the time to not just scan the original book, but instead added some sweet digital fun to the digital edition codex, such as 360 degree views of figures and units, some video, and so on.  Once again, the digital edition is only as heavy as the electrons it takes up on my iPad.  Load the print editions of the deluxe rulebook and two or three codexes into my gamer bag which is already overloaded with templates, measuring tape, various pens, pencils, folders, army lists, uneaten sandwiches, and a ridiculous amount of dice, and my shoulder gets pretty sore pretty quickly.

However, Houston, we have a problem (of course we do, it's Games Workshop).  The digital edition of the Space Marine Codex is $42.00.  That's a lot of greenbacks.  Particularly when you consider that the print edition of the Space Marine Codex retails for $33.00.  That's right, the digital edition costs more, nearly 22% more to be precise, than the print edition.  And that fact, caused me to write the review earlier this morning below that I submitted to the iBooks site:

As an avid Black Library reader both through the iPad Black Library App as well as the Kindle, I've been looking forward to the day when Codexes and other gaming materials for the Warhammer Multiverse would come to a digital platform, especially the iPad.  That day has come, and I was pretty happy when I saw the e-mail in my inbox this morning and ran to grab my iPad...

Then I saw the price of the Space Marine Codex.  Beyond a doubt, $42 is a lot for an ePub of any material.  However, the more concerning point here (and this has been stated again and again already) is that the printed version of this codex currently sells on Games Workshop's website for $33.  Selling a digital version of an already existing printed publication for 21.5% more than the print edition is an oddly questionable marketing strategy.  In most publisher's example, digital editions of print matter sell for less than the actual print edition, not the other way around.  Often there are combined print/digital packages sold as well, such as a magazine or newspaper subscription that gives you both the printed editions and access to digital content for one price, which is often more than just the print edition subscription.  This makes marketing sense particularly if the digital content adds value to the print edition.  But this is not the case either with this digital edition of the Space Marine Codex.

To be sure the digital edition of the Codex is very well done, and the digital content lends itself very well to a platform such as the iPad.  Additionally, the dreams of having all the rulebooks, codexes, supplements, and errata loaded on to my iPad and slickly organized at a moment's touch is finally becoming reality.  Frankly it's one less heavy bag to sling over my shoulder with a couple of army cases and still try to open the door to the game store with.  But at $9.00 more than the print edition, I'm not sure the digital content is worth replacing my codex(es) with.  The weight savings I'll gain won't offset the amount of weight my wallet will be lightened by.

Being an old school gamer from much longer ago than I'd like to admit (let's just say I fondly remember an age where there was no 'A' in front of 'D&D' and everything to play came in a box), I've often been criticized by my Warhammer friends for having a lot of respect for Games Workshop's business model and pricing structures.  While even I get frustrated spending more money on plastic spacemen than I often do on my wife, I do understand (after 20+ years of corporate management) what it takes to successfully operate a profitable company that can keep standing year after year, particularly in a niche market such as Games Workshop - and this is about as niche as you can get.  If you'd have asked me in the early 80's if there would be million-dollar tabletop, RPG, and dice gaming companies with the international breadth and depth of Games Workshop and Wizards of the Coast where you'll pay them $29.00 for 10 grey plastic figures on a sprue less than 1 inch high that you will assemble and paint yourself...I'd have laughed and told you to stop drinking so much Mountain Dew.  But the roomful of those little plastic guys I have assembled and painted proves the  business acumen of GW.

I won't pretend to know what overhead may be involved with retailing digital content through Apple and iBooks (no one can argue that Apple doesn't make money on this like any other publisher), and one does have to keep in mind that GW publishes Codexes on their own, so there has to be an added expense to the publishing of the digital editions through iBooks.  However, there should be a savings on the other side as well, as there is arguably less cost in overall materials.  I'm looking at this entry into the digital edition of Codexes and other gaming materials as a testing the waters on Games Workshop's part, and hoping that they may see that they haven't offered quite enough with this Space Marine Codex to warrant most of us purchasing it at this price.  I'd think there would be those that may do so if it were the same or slightly less price than the print edition, or if there were some sort of print/digital package price.  But at the moment, I'm pretty sure this digital edition of the Space Marine Codex will be collecting a goodly amount of digital dust...

Frankly, my review was one of the nicest...there were many with some pretty foul language.  Not sure where GW is going with this idea...they had, and may still have the opportunity to make a huge splash with the new digital content, but may have already shot themselves in the foot with a twin-linked dakka gun with the confusingly high pricing.  Hopefully they can recover from this misstep, but as I often say about Games Workshop, they may not have to, and they may not care if they do or not.



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