|When all you have is the ability to tweak visuals, it does tend to show.|
Part 1: The Corporate Mentality and Change Don't Mix
So this is likely where I start to divide people. Because the jugular is exposed and I'm going to go for it. It's been quite popular to declare victory with “New GW™”(nope, still not letting the ™ thing go) and act like all is solved. I'm not convinced. You see, what was really bad before about GW was the open hostility, incompetence and indifference that they displayed regarding their own ineptitude and that of the fanbase. Now, GW schmoozes that fanbase, which on the face of it looks like a reversal of attitude. But is it? Certainly, it's working well, for now at least. But I feel an argument should be made that in actuality, things aren't really better, they're actually worse. It's a difficult pill to swallow, and I tread mostly in the realms of speculation, so take that for what you will. If I'm right I'll probably be vindicated by time (seems to be my usual lot when it comes to GW anyway), and if I'm wrong nothing happens, I'll go to jail, peacefully, quietly, I'll enjoy it. Oh wait that's Ghostbusters. But surely Dim, things are looking up? Why do you think it's so bad? I'm glad you asked, poorly written segue!
Because it's hard to miss a few principle changes that have all occurred post-rebrand which are not particularly thrilling directions for many hobbyists. Above all, we're seeing an obvious shift into a new, corporate copyright-focussed aesthetic that evidently intends to replace at least most of the range if not all, and the lore has been re-jigged to allow them to deliver that change. This new design direction involves a great many cuts to the experience, reducing the complexity and nuance of the universe itself. The same will likely be the case for all of 40k's factions, who will be Flanderized into legality-conscious designs that come out of the box with less options. We're seeing a severe option cull that is most likely going to be followed by the largest sustained loss of usable units in the company's history, that will most likely, at best, be relegated to Open and Narrative play, the two modes that the vast majority of what is left of GW's fanbase are wholly indifferent to. Alongside the loss of options and lore depth the same thing happening with the games themselves, with vast arrays of features cut and removed with periodical tweaks that are largely underwhelming and detract from the amount of material gamers have to work with. Coupled with that is assurances of feedback being listened to, but with a pathetically low hit rate that seems to fail to address core issues, and at most all we've got out of it is a commitment to plastic Sisters of Battle, something GW shouldn't have needed feedback to figure out. Coupled with that is the fix it later culture of FAQs that are needed to address blatantly obvious issues that should have been spotted before printing, which is reinforced by GW's Pre-Order culture which simply assumes people will buy their stuff regardless of quality, with said quality just not being there at all.
I mean, let's face it, in many ways this is an “improvement” over the situation that got us there, so let's dwell on that for a moment, let's make sure things really are worse. GW's latter decade or so's history is a long and depressing document of corporate self-interest dominating all areas of its products to the company's overall detriment. We are still living with the consequences and damaged reputation of GW and its associated players (such as Mat Ward for instance, who destroyed his credibility indefinitely, along with arguably any hope of this company improving long term – but more on that later) further exacerbated by pathetic edicts that moved goalposts, shifting the burden of responsibility and the metrics for success. Amid this culture of corporate sales-driven abuses, we had a toxic apologist culture, eager to defend GW's interests to the detriment of any critic. This rose as a consequence of decades of backlashes from consumer-based dissatisfaction at pay-to-win mechanics, poor writing, unequal faction difference and faction favouritism. People would criticise these kinds of attitudes, and corporate apologists would make excuses, resort to ad hominem, and take refuge in the lack of any kind of GW-led narrative as a cloak from criticism themselves. The net result of all this being a toxic power-gaming culture that was driven by the idea that so long as some people could win using inequalities, the rest were simply butthurt that they couldn't do it themselves. The fanbase collapsed in on itself, fell to infighting, and GW could hobble along on a failing, anti-consumer business model for most likely a decade longer than they should have been able to.
So when people tell me that things are better now, the first thing I think about is what got us to this point, and how much of the bullshit that came with it was addressed, because here's the nub, most of it wasn't. The apologists didn't go away, they merely did what GW did, and re-branded. They took the GW attitude shift as proof they cared all along (doubtful) and that anyway, all previous criticisms are obviously going to be wrong now, they're listening! But to whom? To the people they burned? No. They're listening to the people who defended them all this time, and to some of the people who came back, many of whom could handle a game-destroying power-gaming environment but evidently drew the line at debate and “moaning”, well, at least other people's moaning. The pay-to-win hasn't exactly gone away either. Just buy knights and guard, still works well, still not addressed. It may finally stop being top tier, but most armies have one power list and only a handful stretch beyond that, and are very, very hard to counter. My local scene was astoundingly 40k-driven, and I've really seen a major decline in both interest and play. Local tournaments are dominated by Knight Soup (brainlessly so) and many local players are not exactly unhappy with 40k as... well... bored. But that scene has never really taken a major knock, simply because most of those people were meta-chasing power-gaming gits anyway, so they've not really been confronted by anything they didn't opt for. They've merely been presented with a game that offers nothing else, and even for many of those guys, that's evidently not much.
Things were never really going to change. That's not what this has all been about really. Because 8th Edition wasn't a revolution: it was a consequence. Nothing major has changed at GW HQ. They still have the same attitudes, the same “design philosophies” (whatever bullshit that is) and the same plan: charge a lot of money for bog standard with boutique polish. This is ultimately the secret of the corporate mindset, and all GW have really done is catch up to the other corporate companies doing the same. After all, when GW openly advertises for new writers, but makes it plain that they're hiring on the basis of attitude, don't give a shit about qualifications but boast about crunch periods, that's not really an indication of any major change in direction in terms of whether GW are actually going to make great games. The bigger question is, are GW's fans? Well of course not, they're fuckwits, and we'll get to them next time. But there's an insidious motive behind the way GW acquire staff that is universal to all corporate companies. They are all ultimately interested more in attitude than ability, because ability is not something they're willing to pay for. People with qualifications, valuable qualities, and that certain X Factor: that makes for workers that expect to be well paid, that will be hard to replace, that are effectively unique. That's not what corporations like. They like people who can provide a standard service and expect base level pay. Corporations will always celebrate the bog standard, because it comes with the lowest salaries. Take a burger company. With minimal training, anybody can make a burger. But that burger can be dressed up as a valuable service, even gourmet. Boutique burger places are a thing, but labelling can be misleading. No constructor of a burger should be called a chef. They may be labelled as any kind of important craftsman, but a employee with basic training and low salary is replaceable. The company knows it, they know it. That's the point of it. GW is the same. By opening up to “feedback” they have staff who are actually just basic corporate staffers, and thus their job is straightforward, and if they can't handle it, someone else will do it. Does that look like a healthy, sustainable future business plan to you? Maybe it does. To me it's an indication of intent. They intend to mimic the computer gaming industry. New GW™ is a live service.
You may not be familiar with the Live Service model, but you're probably living under a rock if you haven't heard about the controversies surrounding Star Wars: Battlefront 2, Fallout 76, Anthem and the Loot Box Scandal. These are just the big profile gaffs. The overall result of this kind of model has been games that launch not feature complete, promise down the line fixes after responding to feedback, and promise ongoing development cycles using monetisation of every basic feature, even ones that used to be free, as fuel for this model. This model of business has been criticised heavily for effectively monetising the Beta and Early Access concepts, getting consumers to pay full price up front to help companies finish twitchy, unfinished games with the overall promise of a good, complete game down the line before they sell the next one. Sound familiar? It should. It's 8th Edition to a tee. 8th Edition has been focused around the area of exploiting the potential for feedback, whilst launching pretty poorly. You have the yearly updates that you pay into (Chapter Approved for 40k, General's Handbook for AoS) which monetises the idea of adjustment. Yet in spite of all this infrastructure, has much really come of it? Well, it's not a great deal more than previous editions. Sure, power difference has reduced, but 8th Edition doesn't provide much of a solution. If anything, its exacerbated inequalities due to the game being purely down to situational modifiable and re-rollable dice rolls that retain heavy faction difference. This is why large battles don't work when you have say Orks against Imperials. Orks are just going to get easily shot off the table. 8th Edition is effectively unfinished, basically a live beta, where rules are being tweaked as the game goes on. They rely on free feedback, but you're still paying a premium entrance fee up front at the boutique price level. Now, some may feel this kind of service is worth paying for, given that the pretence of being listened to feels so valuable after years of writer indifference in their direction, but I'd say that's the trap right there. They want you to feel like you're getting this special “service” and thus they can charge you for putting out incomplete, half-baked, not great games, with the promise of “we'll fix it later”. The keyword here (and you can see computer gaming CEOs use this term as well) is engagement. They want you interested, buying into, basically long term investing into their product. But actually, what you have is, is a service that promises more and delivers less. 8th Edition is such a stripped down and unintuitive mess compared to 7th Edition's core rules. You've been so busy being sold on the idea of having a say, that you can easily overlook that GW have reduced their own workload, and that's not even the worst of it.
The Live Service model acts as a shield from higher standards. It effectively allows them to lower the metric of success to match the level of their output. Their staff are, as I said earlier, unqualified, replaceable and poorly paid. Not only is this situation beneficial to GW financially in the short term, they can attempt to offset long term drawbacks with audience engagement. So basically, you the fans are expected to make up for the fact that since people like Chambers and Priestley left, and you had the likes of Ward, GW have been unable or unwilling to hire in particularly talented writers. Their plan is, most likely, if 8th Edition fucks up, they can blame you. They'll just use this “feedback” experiment as justification for the rhetoric that the fanbase is unpleasable and you have yourselves to blame. As we'll see next time, the argument has some merit, but nonetheless, the motive is dodgy. At any rate, 8th Edition is stripped down to the barest minimum, so they're charging you to freely give them information on how to tweak it in minor ways that will only truly matter to a very small part of GW's audience. The advantage of a stripped down game with a promise of “tweaks” allows them to increase turnover. So we're looking at a massive amount of supplements that are largely just shallow, quickly cobbled together cash-grabs. Nobody actually cares that much about Open or Narrative, so the odd bone thrown there wont be greeted with negativity nor excitement, but overall positive press just because it's extra content, and “well meaning”, if almost entirely pointless. But none of this informal, less deep game design has led to any discounts, nor any lowering of the price they attach to their brand. They charge boutique, as if they lead the way in design, but how can they lead the way in design if they don't hire the best writers? At least McDonald's burgers are affordable to the lowest common denominator. That's GW's biggest oversight in their business. They want to appeal to everyone but build an empire on high-spending whales. Like all Live Service models, GW rely to a greater extent on visuals and aesthetics than they do on anything else. They invest millions into the best presentation of their miniatures and books. I guess they figure cutting the corner with the rest of the staff will go unnoticed. Sadly, largely it does, but that itself is the consequence that leads to games like 8th that claim to deliver more than they could ever possibly deliver.
Let us not also pretend that GW are not still the same sort of beast they have always been. They may claim to be a new company, but they're still playing the game by the old rules. They're still putting their own interests ahead of their customers, after all, in what way does removing options, units and factions from their games benefit their consumers? They don't, they benefit GW. We still have GW aggressively defending their product from anything, and they've actually got far worse with this than they ever have. Tournaments these days must be 100% Games Workshop, and Forge World units cannot be represented by GW kitbash if a official model exists (which is hilarious given that Forge World encourage kitbash for units they have yet to represent and then put models out for them with no advanced warning. I can just imagine the outrage that will be coming from HH Daemon players in a year or so). They currently make some allowances for “modelling materials” but I do wonder how long that will last. They have also recently forced a competitor to change their company name or face legal action. Warbanner are now called Para Bellum thanks to GW being arseholes. Although I suppose some of their fans are probably the kinds of dumbasses who couldn't spot three consonants being totally different, so maybe they had a point there. In terms of writing quality, in terms of anything pro consumer, we've not seen any positive change beyond a “listening agenda”, and let's face it, that's a promise, and not necessarily a reality. We are yet to see any major fruits of change that are not as easy to deliver as the abstract promise they make. I for one do not plan to pay money into the promise of improvement knowing what I know both of the level of GW's writers (the lowest of the low, I'd say, in this entire industry easily the poorest) and that of its fanbase (who I am going to insult more next time).
Overall, I still feel strongly that this is the beginning of the end, really. That is not to say that things will be done for Games Workshop, but honestly, as a force within this industry, GW remains a far larger influence than they have any right to have. They dominate on the basis of an IP they cannot sustain or improve upon, an aesthetic that they know themselves is not remotely unique and they are trying to fetishize the very idea of the hobby experience itself through “engagement” and generic promises whilst they stare upon the future that could very well leave them behind; with their capacity to join in on that future becoming an ever bleaker prospect. That's assuming Brexit doesn't snuff them out first. They remain a company past its sell by date, past its prime, and woefully out of touch, even as they appeal to feedback, to the broken community that they fucked for easy money over the past decade. This is the only course open to them, and so far they have managed to bluff people into thinking that this is a evolution brought on from choice, rather than what is more likely, a threadbare piece of spin trying desperately to hold on to the monopoly they do not deserve to have. With Kickstarters, 3D Printers and Brexit on the horizon, where many see good intentions, I merely see fear and incompetence. GW will have to continue to up their game if they want to stave off the future they're setting themselves, a luxury product doomed to shed most of its appeal, not because they make a limited effort to improve, but because they allowed over a decade to transpire before they even bothered the attempt. So far, the attempt is still merely a promise.
A promise is not good enough any more.