Monday, March 10, 2014

The Drama of Games Workshop

So Games Workshop has been going through a lot of changes in the last couple of years, and even more in the last few months. This has sparked a lot of debate recently about what their plan is and what they are doing wrong and what they should change etc. One thing that I heard mentioned was that essentially the barrier of entry is now too high, especially for children. It's important to keep bringing new blood into your customer base in order to keep it healthy in the long run, but in a time when videogames are everywhere it's hard to get kids interested, and with the prices being what they are now... at least that's the argument I hear. Another point I just heard mentioned was that it takes a lot of space, while videogames take no more space than a box under the telly or a phone in your pocket.

I don't know how true this all is - remember miniatures wargaming was always a bit of a niche so for most kids to not be interested is nothing new - but it does make some sense, and it got me thinking about the hardships I encountered (and still do) getting into the hobby, and what some possible solutions might be.

So here's some ideas for GW. I don't for a moment think I'm some kind of genius who's figured out how to fix all their problems, these are just some suggestions for things that might make it easier for some people to get into the game.

First of all, let's take a look at where most people start playing: the starter box. Now, this is a great box of goodies, and it's good value compared to the rest of GW's product line AND to most board games and similar starter products I've seen, in that for only slightly more you get a whole heap more models. But it's still not cheap.

Lets take a look at the Privateer Press battle boxes for a moment. A single player battle box only has a few models, and only one faction so it's not all you need to start playing with a friend. But it's a lot cheaper, and they have them for a range of factions, so if you have friends who already play (which to be honest is probably how you're going to get pulled into the game) then it makes it a lot easier to get started with a faction you like the look of. They also have a set of "quickstart" rules that are probably (I don't really remember reading them) a lot easier to start with than the full rules. And hey, if you're buying stuff for two players, then each player is probably going to want his own copy of the rules and other bits in the long run, and there's a sense of ownership to picking your own faction and having your own box of figs, so at the end of the day just sticking with single player boxes probably works quite well.

But the models you get are still un-assembled and unpainted. That's great for some people, but other's just want to get into the game. Many board games come with very nice 1-piece models in different coloured plastics that you can start playing with right away, but I've even seen boxes of pre-painted figures in hobby shops (I think they were generic role-playing game style figures). Obviously we know it's not too expensive to manufacture fully assembled and painted figures as we've been buying them our entire lives.

Now such figures wont be as complex or detailed or have as much variety in poses, and the paint jobs would be very basic, but they work as an introduction. "Here's some simple stuff you can start with, and if you enjoy it you can eventually move up to the big-boy toys that you get to assemble and paint yourself" sort of thing.

Another thing I've seen in board games is, well, better packing. Essentially with a board game you want to take everything out of the box, have a game, then put it all back in and put the box away. For traditional board games this is quite simple as there's not much more in there than booklets, cards, dice, and a board - nothing too bulky or damageable - so it's easy to just drop them all in an empty cardboard box. But some modern board games come with more complex contents, and occasionally these have quite well thought out internal packaging that holds everything safely and securely. And lets face it, a sheet of foam with some basic cutouts isn't very expensive. I think Mantic sells boxes of figures that are robust and come with foam so they make pretty good cases for those same figures once they're painted, for example.

So that's the first suggestion: smaller, cheaper one-player starter boxes that cover a wider range of factions, have everything you need to play including pre-painted figures and some cardboard-cutout scenery, and are intelligently packaged such that you can continue to store and transport your stuff without needing to buy any additional carrying cases. In other words REALLY EVERYTHING you need to play (very) small scale games.

Ideally there should even be room to store more models: seeing those empty slots in the foam will probably serve as an incentive to buy more models after all (at this point the painting starter kit will be looking quite attractive...), and it more gradually transitions players into expanding their army. And while we're on the subject: when a prospective new buyer walks into a GW and starts buying stuff, it seems to me that the staff typically are quick to load them up with all the added bits: the codices and the carrying cases and the paint kits etc. What they should be doing is selling them as little as possible - the bare minimum they need, and not mentioning all the rest. That way they the don't get home, tally their purchases and realise the hobby is much more expensive than they expected. That might end up discouraging them before they are really invested. Get them started, and they'll be back for more soon enough.

OK, that might sound like I'm trying to help GW rip-off customers, but what I really want is a situation where customers never regret spending the money (the way I sometimes do), and enjoy a healthy long-term relationship with GW. Then they will continue to spend reasonable quantities over a lifetime rather than a lot in a hurry then decide it's all to expensive (the way I kinda feel right now) and quit the hobby.

The other big issue is the complexity of the rules. It takes a long times to figure things out, even when playing with more experienced players to guide you. A bunch of friends who haven't played tabletop wargames before trying to learn how to play 40K from the rulebook without some more experienced players around? It's going to take some effort, and I don't think they'll be enjoying themselves very much for a while - at least not as much as they could be, and if they don't really "get into it" after a game or two they probably won't stick with it. This is pretty much what happened with my friends when I tried to get them playing; at the time I was just starting to figure out the rules myself and as a result the games were slightly confused and they didn't enjoy themselves much and didn't play again.

I've been thinking about ways to solve this, and here is what I've come up with: a tiered rules system. The idea is that that are several "tiers" of rules; in theory you only need two, but I think it's useful to split into around four tiers. Alternately you could have two tiers and any number of optional "bolt-on" rule sets, with two initial ones in the main rule book and others as added releases. All named rules belong either to a tier or to a bolt-on. Let me explain.

The first tier is the introduction rules: the basics of movement and combat. These should fit on just a few pages; one or two would be ideal. The idea is that these let you start playing in a hurry. These rules may not be balanced across armies, but the starter boxes can be designed to be reasonably balanced with just these rules.

A second tier includes more advanced rules. This could be ALL the remaining rules for infantry if deemed appropriate, though if possible it should be more granular. The important thing is that these add on to the first tier, rather than replace them; by which I mean you don't need to un-learn a rule when learning a more advanced one, you just add some more rules into your game by moving up to the next tier when you're comfortable with the current one. This way you build up rules knowledge gradually, but always know enough to play.

Rules for terrain, vehicles and flyers could be additional tiers or bolt-ons, but I think tiers works as typically once you learn all those rules you will be playing with them all, so you would basically walk up to someone and say "Want to play a tier-1 game?" meaning you're a beginner, or "Want to play a tier-2 game?" meaning you're an intermediate player, or "Want to play a tier-4 game?" meaning you understand the rules and are no longer a beginner.

Now additional rule sets, like Cities of Death, Escalation and Stronghold, would be classed as "bolt-ons" and would essentially be additional optional rule sets that you can use one or more of as desired. Which is pretty much what they already are, but it would be more formalized and structured. Hell, I would probably suggest making flyer rules a bolt-on, since those change the game so much and not everyone likes playing with them. This would all serve to make it easier to play the game at the level of complexity that you are comfortable with.

Now this may be a tall order for GW as clear intelligent structured rules writing hasn't been their strong suit as of late, but that's probably something they should work on anyway.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Brainsmasher: A Love Story review

I was at a local pound shop the other day and, out of sheer morbid curiosity, I stopped to check out the crappy DVDs these kinds of places stock. So yeah, the title was so silly that I was actually intrigued enough to read the back: "Sam Crain, a professional model, is asked by her sister to smuggle a package from Europe to Portland, Oregon where she discovers that her sister is battling Chinese Shaolin Monks.". Um, what? I was almost surprised when the back was even sillier than the front, so I decided to give it a go.

After watching it, I can conclusively and without any doubt say that it's a movie. I don't really have much else to say really. It's neither good nor particularly bad; at least it's not worse than I expected or better than I had hoped considering it's clearly a made-for-TV or perhaps direct-to-DVD flick. It was mildly entertaining at points, and never particularly annoying.

That last part is kind of a big thing actually. These days I get annoyed with movies and TV shows very quickly; I've grown very impatient, and I actually find it very hard to sit and watch things sometimes. Well, a lot of the time in fact; when I tried watching season 2 of the Walking Dead, for example, I turned it off less than ten minutes in because that's how long it took to start feeling stupid and contrived.

But Brain Smasher didn't annoy me. Much. Perhaps it's because it didn't take itself seriously, or perhaps it's because it never had enough ambition to make me care enough to get annoyed when it acted stupid, I don't really know.

On the positive side, the monks were fun, and the main characters were more likeable and in fact more capable than I expected. On the negative side, the movie was somewhat uneventful, there's a surprising lack of romance or chemistry for a movie with "a love story" in the title, and you will get sick of hearing the phrase "ten thousand dollar watch" long, long before they stop saying it. Seriously, the damn thing practically has a speaking role.

So what's the final score? Well, I guess it has to be a 5/10 seeing as it's a completely average movie. You probably won't regret watching it on TV or when you're really bored. Probably.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The worst thing that can happen to a comic book character is to star in their own comic

"What the hell does that mean?" you say. "How the hell does that make any sense?"
To which I reply: "Stop swearing and let me explain. Potty mouth."

Lets start by talking about team books, like say the X-Men. Now I picked the X-Men over some other groups because, in both the comics and the movies, they were a team first then individual characters went solo later, which is the kind of situation that I'm referring to in the title. Many characters start this way; either in a "team book" or as a supporting cast member in another character's comic. Of course in the world of comics it's not always so clear-cut; Wolverine, for example, generally has his own series as well as being in at least one X-Men title at any given time - after the Civil War he was a main cast member of Secret Avengers as well.

But let's get back to the X-Men. Now, in a team dynamic, most of the character development, story and drama (at least of the sort that doesn't involve alien invasions) comes from the interaction between the different characters. Personality clashes, alpha-male struggles, relationship issues, etc.

Now put a character in his own comic. Yes, there's other people around, but they're just supporting cast, they don't really matter - at least they're often portrayed that way. At the very least they are generally viewed in terms of their relationships with the main character, the focus ultimately isn't on them.

So where does the emotional content and personal drama come from now? Well, from what I've seen, what generally happens is that it now comes from the titular character's inner conflict. Their doubts and fears, their struggles with ever-increasing burdens they must bear.

In other words, when a character gets their own comic they are all too often transformed from a strong and entertaining superhero into a whiny and annoying emo loser.

Sorry! That was probably very offensive. I don't wish to say that having personal problems means you deserve scorn, far from it, I have more than enough bad days myself, days when I cannot think of a single thing that feels worth getting out bed for, days when I just want the world to go away and leave me alone.

But the thing is I don't want to read comics about that. Or at least, I don't want to read any more comics about that. Or at least, I don't want to read any more fantasy comics about people who wear skin-tight clown suits and can juggle SUVs while cooking eggs with their minds whine about hard everything is, while their whole world entirely revolves around ruining their lives. I want to see them fight evil and do super stuff.

And another thing: it seems that while most team comics seem to heavily feature the team responding to external problems, like bank robberies and demonic invasions, in solo books the threats are all too often from super-villains targeting the main character, from problems that come to their doorstep and punch them in the face, forcing them to deal with them, rather than independent crisis that they chose to try to solve. Overall they stop making the world a better place and end up just putting out fires that were fallout from people trying to hurt them specifically, meaning their existence is a net negative for the rest of the world.

I'm not saying it's wrong to portray these characters as human, or to try to make them more relate-able or sympathetic, or to admit that when the whole world really is resting on your shoulders it can be a little difficult sometimes. I'm just saying that not every character has to be like that. In every comic they every star in. For all eternity. I mean, change the tune a little, you know? It's just not fun. Any why shouldn't comics be fun? I mean, if I'm reading a comic about the adventures of a guy who travels through space saving entire planets of strange aliens from bizarre cosmic forces, I'm probably not reading it because I want to hear the guy harping on and on about how much he regrets not being a good husband.

OK, X-Men probably isn't the best example since they've always been kinda whiny emos (sorry!). When I used to read the x-men twenty years ago every single issue talked about how the world hated and feared them. OK, it was in the introduction blurb, but it was still kind of a running theme. Now, on the rare occasion when I see an issue in the news agent and pick it up to take a quick a look, the first thing that I always see is the same old whining about how everybody hates them. I haven't been able to read X-Men in years because DAMMIT STOP WHINING ALREADY!

Ah-hem. Back to the point. Um, well, I guess what I'm saying is, what I enjoy is seeing the good guys grit their teeth with determination, not bow their heads with self-pity. Shallow? Probably. Immature? I don't know. But I do know when a comic book character gets their own series, they're probably going to go from being a strong and willful hero, to a weak and whiny mess who's more victim than saviour.