What follows is a Miniature Ordnance Review editorial based on recent observed trends in the miniature gaming industry. Opinions expressed are purely my own based exclusively on publicly available data and personal experience.
At its core, traditional miniatures wargaming is a bit of an “old-fashioned” hobby requiring substantial user input and work in terms of miniature clean-up, painting, and preparation before the game can be played beyond a very casual level (read bare metal or primed miniatures on the table). There is no denying its ongoing popularity, though, as the number of miniatures games on the market today is fairly staggering covering everything from pre-historic combat to combat in the far future with healthy doses of magic, aliens, mysticism, demons, dragons, tanks, ships, space cruisers, and you name it along the way. In some ways, it is an amazing time to be a miniatures wargamer as there has never been so much choice in the industry, but in other ways continued technical and demographic shifts threaten the hobby.
Recent years have seen an increase in the number of high-quality pre-painted miniature games. Back in 2005, Wizards of the Coast released an “Axis and Allies” series of 15mm pre-painted World War II miniatures – a line which has been expanded now to include air and naval variants. Fantasy Flight Games’ X-wing miniature game is extremely popular, and they’ve expanded the range into a smaller scale version (bigger capital ships on the tabletop) called Armada. Several other good ranges of pre-painted miniature games are out there as well, including HeroClix from Wizkids. Wizkids also has several other lines including their own space combat game based on the Star Trek universe (pre-reboot). Games using pre-painted miniatures have a lower barrier to entry for the new player, as the miniatures are ready to use “out of the box,” though some systems use the Magic-style “booster pack” where you’re never sure what miniature you’re getting until you’ve paid your money. This has created a large secondary market for specific miniatures on ebay and other direct sale sites.
Despite the large market for pre-painted miniatures, traditional gaming miniatures still seem to be very popular. Games Workshop is still avidly pushing its Warhammer and Warhammer 40K lines, and still holds the license to produce Lord of the Rings wargaming products. Battlefront’s Flames of War is still going strong, and has been expanded into several eras beyond World War II, including World War I, Viet Nam, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and now into speculative “Cold War Gone Hot.” Warlord Games has their own 28mm lines covering a wide range of historical and other conflicts including World War II. Wyrd games Malifaux is already in its second edition and has begun to transition to plastic miniatures from all-metal in its first generation.
Looking further afield, several gaming companies have gone online to crowdfunding sites to release or expand new miniatures games. One of the most successful in this space has been Reaper miniatures, whose first three “Bones” campaigns raised $3.5 million, $3.2 million, and $2.7 million respectively. Other studios, like Cool Mini or Not, have run several campaigns for both miniature games and board games with distinctive playing pieces to great success. Several smaller companies have also found success in crowdfunding including Heer 46’s series of 28mm German miniatures from the Third Battle of Kharkov in 1943 (which I’d love to see in 15mm!!!). Stonehaven miniatures has an unbroken string of good Kickstarters as well, and the list goes on.
Unfortunately, there are several cautionary tales as well as just because a company has a successful Kickstarter Campaign, that doesn’t always lead to a successful product. Palladium Books’ Robotech RPG Tactics miniature game had a very successful campaign raising almost $1.5 million, but delivery dates slipped and while one “wave” of miniatures has shipped, most of the backers are still waiting for “wave two.” Based on the most recent updates, the company has encountered production issues which are not yet resolved, meaning it will be well into 2016 at the earliest before the second wave reaches backers – and the project funded in 2013. Alien Dungeon’s All Quiet on the Martian Front seemed like another safe bet back in 2013, and indeed the company shipped at least two “waves” of miniatures before abruptly cancelling their follow-up Crush of Iron campaign and going radio silent in November / December of 2015. At this point some of the backers are semi-organized on Facebook trying to parse through what’s going on with the final miniatures. Then there’s the sad case of the joint Dust Studios / Battlefront Miniatures Dust – Operation Babylon kickstarter which ultimately became the poster child for everything that is wrong with the internet and business practices today. Much has been written on the topic, but in this case what should have been a confidential contractual dispute between two companies became very, very public with the backers being caught in the middle and asked by one side to support them.
Miniature games also face competition from other quarters. Video games have completely outstripped miniatures games and traditional role-playing games for a very large piece of the entertainment industry’s revenue. Bethesda’s Fallout 4 brought in $750 million in its first day – those are Hollywood blockbuster numbers. Video games also represent a form of near instant gratification because you pop in the game, do “the thing” and get the “achievement unlocked.” Historical wargames are also hampered by the fact that, unlike Games Workshop's copyrighted games, you can’t trademark a Sherman tank. Companies like Battlefront therefore face mutual competition from every 15mm miniature producer out there from Peter Pig, to Plastic Soldier Company, with even Russian plastic kit maker Zvezda getting in on the action. However, the elephant in the room for the entire miniature industry is the rise of 3D printing. Online printing services like Shapeways have large libraries of miniatures on a “print to order” basis. However, most 3D printed miniatures are not only expensive, they’re fragile – so more often than not they’re most useful as masters for more traditional manufacturing techniques. The resolution of most commonly available 3D printers is also not up to producing highly detailed miniatures in most of the smaller scales commonly used in gaming.
Taken as a whole, several common threads emerge from the trends above. While there are an almost unprecedented number of miniatures games to choose from today, it appears that the sheer number of systems has the manufacturers fighting to maintain their slice of what may be a shrinking miniatures gaming pie. In a stagnant or shrinking market, availability of liquid capital is key, which is one reason many companies have turned to crowdfunding to finance new lines. Many companies have also had inventory reduction sales to clear out one line to either free-up space or money for the next. However rapid generation of capital has its own risks. Reaper has not been able to match the take of their first Kickstarter campaign with either of their subsequent ones, implying that they’re already past the point of diminishing returns. Furthermore, most successful Kickstarter campaigns seem to have an impractical number of stretch goals and add-ons which result in additional expense for the production team, expense which may not have been modeled correctly in the initial financial analysis. Even established miniatures companies like Battlefront can’t release everything for a new system at once – all of their releases for any new product (World War II, Team Yankee, etc.) have been staggered, and they’ve suffered availability issues and delays with some recent product lines as well. In Battlefront’s case, they’re moving to a new production facility (which will hopefully improve delivery times), but they’ve also diversified into other product lines as well including fantasy miniatures and board games. Games Workshop, the largest miniature game company, isn’t exactly riding high achieving a net income of £8 million on roughly £123 million in revenue (compare again to the first day sales of Fallout 4).
Customer expectations are also evolving. The age of the internet has increased the speed of communication and commerce, and consumers demand a much higher level of transparency than has typically been provided in the past. Today, buyers generally expect to receive any and all orders within days, not weeks, and companies that aren’t able to communicate and deliver on that timescale frequently find themselves at a disadvantage – and facing a lot of unhappy customers to boot. Staggered released schedules where all new product for an expansion isn’t immediately available are written off as “botched” or “bungled.” Any delay to a product, even a slight one, is generally met with anything from anger to derision.
It is clear that after a renaissance in miniatures gaming over the past decade, there are some troubling trends in the industry. Unless these trends are reversed, there will likely be some consolidation over the next few years. One key concern is what impact this would have on the miniatures wargaming hobby itself. While it’s true that the internet has also ushered in the era of self-publishing, most self-published and cottage industry products appeal to a niche market and frequently don’t meet the quality standards of most commercial products. Going forward, successful companies must find ways to diversify while keeping their current product lines fresh to maintain or grow their revenues and maintain the business. This will allow them to hopefully keep the best and brightest game designers employed doing what they’ve done so well to this point as the loss of some of the larger commercial games would truly be a blow to the hobby.