Thursday, 2 July 2015

"Change is good, no?" #GW2 #WHFB #AoS

Most of my fears about Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns could be ascribed to simply fear of change. I wouldn't blame anyone for levelling that finger at me. Change is obviously a tricky thing to manage hence Change Management is an entire professional discipline and career itself.

Lewis Burnell recently askled:
My, reply was simply "bad PR". I don't mean in the sense of that whole pre-purchase non-event, where people who'd already spent hundreds of dollars on a game were placated by ten bucks worth of bytes, but the whole information management of this release. As I mentioned last time out, where is the news about the "meat" of the expansion?  I suspect it's all being held back for a big "wow" just before release. That'll prolly work but it seems like a gamble. They have to be banking on people like me who have done nothing but nay say just screaming "All is forgiven!" and buying the expansion in droves when we finally see... well, I dunno what they're actually holding back.

Elsewhere in the world of immersive, time consuming hobbies, the realm of Games Workshop, and arguably wargaming itself, is experiencing a seismic event.

A bit about Games Workshop

In case you don't know, Games Workshop is a wargaming minatures manufacturer based in the UK. It started in 1975 (even older than me) but it was a while before it became the business as it is now known. As a company, Games Workshop is notoriously tight lipped. It has no community team or even a corporate/customer service presence on social media. There is a YouTube channel, which is quite good, but all comments are disabled. The individual retail stores have their own Facebook pages but that's about it.
See? They had geeks in the seventies and, damn, those geeks were chic.
If you venture into the unofficial GW communities you will find a lot of vitriol aimed at the company, generally themed along the lines of profiteering, bait-and-switch, etc. I hope you are starting to see the similarities between the Games Workshop "hobby" and MMORPGs with regard to business modelling and "player" relations. Games Workshop continues to make a healthy profit so it must have legions of fans but I suspect it relies very heavily on the same "whales" that keep the lights on in F2P and B2P games. Like MMOs, Games Workshop is for people with a lot of disposable income or generous parents.

In 1983 Games Workshop released Warhammer, a game of fantasy battles (straight off the box). Warhammer is GW's longest running core game but, by most accounts, this ancient behemoth had been in decline*, especially when compared to it's sci-fi cousin-brother Warhammer 40k. One of the biggest (suspected) problems with Warhammer is that it is not drawing enough new players. This is, again, something we're familiar with as MMORPG players: the business makes the bulk of its money from follow-on purchases, not upfront costs i.e. the box price. You need players to literally and figuratively invest in the game.

In the last few months Games Workshop's solution to the Warhammer problem has been creeping into the light by way of leaks, more leaks, rumour, cock-ups and out right lies. However, at last the truth is in sight: the Age of Sigmar is upon us!

What's this Age of Sigmar, then?

So is Christmas
We're still not absolutely sure but it's either a completely new system to replace the old Warhammer system, or it's a boxed introductory game that will pave the way for a completely new Warhammer system***. Either way the old Warhammer system is done for. It's not the 9th edition of Warhammer.

GW have been building up to this for a while. They had this whole Warhammer campaign thing called "The End Times", which was accompanied by several hundred dollars worth of Black Library fiction alone. There were also some amazing minatures. I don't play Warhammer, in fact I don't play any GW tabletop games, and I haven't read the End Times novels or source books, but I understand that the old Warhammer world was literally destroyed, then some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff happened and boom: retcon of the whole system.
Nagash - because I wanted another image
Now, I am surely not the only person that can see the symmetry of this new Games Workshop release and what we've seen from ArenaNet with Heart of Thorns or even Square Enix and FFXIV:ARR. What happened in Warhammer could have been inspired by what they did to FFXIV for all I know. It certainly proves that this sort of total reboot can work. Two more good examples, with the "trousers of time" in action, are the new Star Trek movies and the retcon enabled by X-Men: Days of Future Past. You should know from my Thunderbird fandom I'm not opposed to reboots that work. Obviously Heart of Thorns isn't actually a reboot but most systems have now been changed beyond recognition from launch. There's been some pretty huge changes when you think back.

Needless to say this reboot/relaunch/retcon has got the Warhammer community in a right two and eight. Some people are pretty optimistic. They see the need for the game to draw new players and accept that some change is inevitable. Others are in a wtf-bbq, table-flipping rage. Others still are just a bit sad.

Where has PR gone wrong? Has it gone wrong?

I can't help but think that an MMO-esque community team could have paved the way for Age of Sigmar release a bit better. I don't understand why Games Workshop have (officially) kept EVERYTHING under wraps until pre-order day (4th July) when everything will apparently be revealed in White Dwarf. On the surface it looks like Games Workshop's notorious secrecy may have backfired (again?)

Personally, I'm excited to see Age of Sigmar. For me, Warhammer has always had a high barrier to entry but then I generally prefer a board game. I can appreciate the sentiments that, in short, this is the Warhammer 40k version of Fantasy Battle, especially when you see the "Sigmarines" (clever that), but do existing 40k players really want to play two major systems? Is this really aimed at them?
A Sigmarine
The real question is have they completely alienated the tournament-playing Warhammer core? In terms of keeping veterans on side they have done a smart thing. The rules for the new system will be completely free, as will everything you need to play the new system with your existing Warhammer armies. They have also promised that all existing minis will be supported, though I suspect a statute of limitation applies. Huge, innit? Existing players don't need to buy anything, at least that's how it looks at the minute.

With regard to Heart of Thorns, well, I've been predicting the ongoing "PR" fail but I don't think I believed it would just run and run. Just when will they announce that killer tidbit that makes HoT a must have? How much longer do they really think they can string people along for? It boggles my mind. A vocal part of the player base said GW2 desperately needed an expansion and, lo, one was provided but, damn, those vocal players were bored THEN! I have no idea how they must feel now. I actually think the pre-purchase nonsense actually helped ArenaNet. I think they've probably earned some goodwill back after that and it was a small concession for them.

I still believe that community hype is a valuable tool for promoting a product but community hype isn't the same as traditional publicity. If your community hates a proposed feature and starts tearing it to pieces you CAN'T sit back and say "hey, at least they're talking about it!" That's bad "publicity" and it looks worse when you don't address it. In a post-gamergate** world players don't really trust the mainstream gaming press any more. They know it's all spin and expertly worded non-statements.

So, having said that, maybe Games Workshop is actually doing it right. They don't do press. Their own press, White Dwarf, is very little more than a product catalogue. They have a nice steady stream of releases and associated information but they don't drip feed teasers for big releases. There is no "it's ready, when it's ready" because it's all be planned out in minute detail. You have to do that when you have a range of physical products and a supply chain.

Maybe this is the way forward? As video gamers we've all become accustomed to the hype train and the seemingly endless trickle of pre-release non-information. I guess when you don't know when something is going to be finished this is a good model but do they really not know when HoT will be done? I'm sure the investors would want to know so I find it hard to believe the date is THAT fluid. Also, you'll never see GW buttering up the "community" with meaningless platitudes about what a great bunch they are. They simply have customers that they intend to sell a product to. There is little pretence that we're some how part of the team and shaping the direction of the product.

So maybe GW does have it right. Refuse to be drawn into debate, stick to your guns and be honest about what you're doing: making money.

* Personally, I suspect this is due to them getting the Tolkien license and peeing on their own chips. I mean, why have two core systems set in a fantasy world? Especially when one heavily riffs on the other and doesn't have a multi-billion dollar movie franchise backing it up? I expect players will tell me that the two systems are so different they are not even comparable. Well, that's as may be but... new players.
** If you believe it was actually about that, which I don't
*** We know it's the former. A lot happened between 1st and 2nd July!

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