Monday, 22 July 2019

Chapter 5: Why Things Are Probably Worse And Why That Wont Change (Part 1)

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.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Chapter 4: Loose Canon: What Black Library Thinks of Their Readers (Part 2)



Part 2. Canon Bear It: The Myth of Selective Canon
So last time, we talked about Aaron Dembski-Bowden's little Apologist piece in which he singularly failed to address contradictions in Black Library Fluff by espousing two contradictory maxims as his apologetics. In this part we're going to talk about Canon in general (mostly as it pertains to Black Library), and to disparage the idea that there are any different kind of ways to handle it beyond the common sense of “Don't contradict shit, you worthless Mercenary Hacks” (which as we learned last time is more about avoiding criticism than anything else). Selective Canon, in any form, is not only bad for the Industries it is used to protect, but also not great for the writers themselves. I mean, this is GW we are talking about, so it's not as if they have a massively discerning audience to turn away, but we are without doubt living in an age where more gamers couldn't give less of a shit about what the lore of GW's works actually is. That is principally because GW and BL have done so much damage to their brand that their lore literally and figuratively scrapes the bottom of the barrel.

So before we begin, let's recap. The last time GW and BL willingly admitted their own attitude to Canon was through Aaron Dembski-Bowden. He gave voice to an edict that GW's IP Manager uses as an overall attitude to their brand. He did this poorly, and I dissected it thoroughly last time. For the purposes of this recap, we will recall Edict Version 2: “all of it's true and one of it's true” to be “fair” to the guy who spent more time writing passive aggressive shade at his own audience than he did proof reading. This edict basically leaves the door open for all forms of author and company based deniability, which I have no doubt is its principle function. It's basically moving the goalposts of what makes a successful story onto the reader. The reader is allowed their interpretation, and it's as valid as everyone else's, as it is with people who have never read any GW fluff whatsoever. The intention is to promote the idea that the only right of discernment of what is true in that setting is either nobody ever, or GW's official representatives. They can thus use this same edict as an alibi to not research; to not answer questions; to not accept criticism, and to not accept any responsibility of any kind. They can also use this edict to reinvent the entire wheel of everything to do with their universe for no reason other than to sell it again. Naturally a lot of GW fanboys think this is great. This is why they get Mat Ward, G.S. Goto and Aaron Dembski-Passive-Aggressive-Bowden.

Black Library has always had a dodgy attitude to Canon. Most of the company's heads have gone on to say that there is no canon, or the canon is in one way or another selective. Their logic is that they have too many writers to regulate that kind of continuum, and that it fits the unreliable nature of truth in the setting. Whilst these issues are true, they fail to denounce Canon. Canon comes from the Greek for “Rule” and it usually denotes the standard, the current accepted and authentic works of something. I mean, call me picky, but if you're dodging the most basic yardstick of what legitimately matters in your setting, and are thus unwilling to attach anything to it, you're giving far too much away about your opinion of your own brand. Canon can naturally mean different things to different people, and for me that's because in the modern age, Canon seems most commonly used by fans in a different manner to that of people who produce material for them. For the people in authority, they seem worried that they are being tied to a permanent contract of standards, and for the fans, it's a pragmatic way of figuring out the truth. GW and BL's response is, there isn't any. The problem with that is, that's not their call.

Obviously, the battleground over who gets to call what “The Truth” is going to be fought over. The one thing I would point out is to look at what is at stake for the victor, because that's the real secret behind these kinds of denouncements in all material written for any IP. With Black Library and GW's “approach”, they claim a Grimdark Universe legitimately gives them an alibi from responsibility of truth, and thus any determination is of equal validity but none of it is legitimate in any permanent sense. In a sense, this is also pragmatic. Fans try to pragmatically build a complete picture, the big corporation pragmatically responds: we are always going to have an unstable picture for a multitude of reasons. The trouble with this response is that they are endeavouring to create a totality of freedom from any consistency or standards, and that can just never wash. The reason is actually quite straightforward: there will always be a limited number of legitimate, logical conclusions from any of BL or GW's work, because their own material makes it impossible for it to be otherwise, because they do stick to some (not many, but enough) points of unalterable consistency. For instance, the Emperor is never going to have a gay, effeminate cousin called Eddie who lives in a bedsit in St. Ives. You could never, by the Selective Canon Edict argue categorically for or against “Cousin Eddie” in a definitive sense, but the amount of information standing against it defeats the notion more or less permanently. In essence, the idea is so absurd, that if BL had wrote a novel legitimising the existence of this character, it would immediately be denounced wholesale by pretty much the entire fucking 40k audience. Because the very idea of it is objectively absurd within that context. The corollary is thus: there are only so many valid interpretations, because we know enough to know what does and does not fit. The reason for this is because any work cannot help but have Canon. Black Library's very idea that they can decide their material has no Canon or even selective concepts of it is as absurd as it is arrogant.

I mean, don't get me wrong, I get it. Writing is hard, especially when you aren't entirely in control of the direction of the material you're writing for. But here's the nub, writers have a choice. If you're not keen on the whole idea of sharing a setting with potential quicksand if you are not tuned into the material that came before you and that surrounds you from other writers, why put yourself in that position? Attitudes like Selective Canon allow writers like this the best of both worlds: all the privilege of the existing IP and basically none of the responsibility, the implied deal of that being “You produce material that is ours and we pay you, neither of us asks too many questions about that arrangement”. That is ultimately what it's for, and that's Black Library's admission of intent. They see a market, they have the monopoly on that market, and they intend to fill it. Their desire to fill that void to cash in on it is obviously far, far greater than any conception of the actual literary value of the stuff that's there. It's cheap sales fodder, because why wouldn't it be? The alternative is setting standards, it's a bar most writers would flunk, and it's a bar you can't reasonably set, because what self-respecting writer with the talent, time and consideration to do such a thing expertly would attach themselves to such an idea? Naturally, they have a few big names, mostly Dan Abnett and Bill King, who have done this Merc Writer thing for a long, long time and do it well. It's not as if individual writers cannot approach things with their own standards (not that they do consistency, but I find it more tragic that writers of theircalibre have some level of insecurity of thinking that they need other people's IPs to put out good work).

Of course, to the Black Library writers, they find themselves concerned that Fans think “Canon” is the legitimate all-encompassing truth beyond doubt. They seem to think that the few fans who are incredibly picky and observant represent a threat worthy of a status that reinforces an artificial construct of their setting that their own writing style usually pays less heed to. Most readers though, just don't care about that (perhaps BL counts on that, but readers are not apathetic). They do care, but they care more that the writers are convincingly considerate of the setting and thoughtful about writing for it. That's why if you look at fan communities that talk about Canon and IP fodder providers like Black Library, they discuss the individual merits of particular writers from positions of trust: i.e. to what extent they are willing to trust that the particular writer gets it and thus whether they are willing to bother reading it. They are irritated by obvious signs of bias and preference for particular factions or individuals, of clear indications that little research has gone into the making of it. The trouble with claiming that only those making the content know which of it is right or true is the very fact that this is not remotely, nor has ever been true, and that is demonstrated in simple facts, such as the varied reputation of individual writers (the popularity of Dan Abnett and Sandy Mitchell versus the outright hated writers such as Ward and Goto). The audience already knows what it wants. It already knows what 40k represents, and what drives GW's consumers. That is not to say that GW's fans are always right about everything, but when you set up your entire book selling business model about assuring that basically fans are technically always wrong, you have a problem there. In fact, you just told your fanbase you're functionally irrelevant.

Human Beings by nature look for patterns. Sometimes those patterns aren't there, but we desire to understand. One of the advantages of fiction is that it offers some semblance of constructed understanding. Naturally, it can be as artistic and interesting to defy the expectation of understanding with a setting that cannot be so, but it risks a dangerous and distressing possibility. Because it's pretty hard to get invested in something you can never count on at least to a significant portion understanding. So how does GW and BL get away with this, if that's the case? Well, the answer is two-pronged. Firstly, well, they don't. Many potential readers are just turned off by the obtuse nature of the fluff, particularly its abstracted nature. Many readers have long since abandoned GW's lore simply because they're sick of waiting around for contradictions and change that generally detract more than they add to the setting. This itself has driven my disinterest and removal of investment in the lore. I am tired of reading something principally handed to writers I do not respect, trust nor appreciate. Thus, I'm out. But in a way they do get away with it, because their opinion on what is or is not Canon does not remotely matter.

I do find it kind of cute that Black Library has a suite of writers who get behind the Selective Canon argument, given that one of the most well-known semantic think-pieces on literature is Roland Barthes' coinage of Death of the Author. It's so well-known that it eclipses the rest of his work, and has made its way into public consciousness. I find it rather depressing that writers would be fine deciding for everyone else what their takeaway from any media they produce is, even if said audience ask for it. Because their opinion could not matter less, and not just because connotative interpretation has the capacity not just to see conscious authorial intent but also unconscious authorial meditation; readers themselves are the same sorts of human beings as the ones who write this shit, and they form their own ideas because why wouldn't they. The only perplexing thing of this whole enterprise is why there is even any need to denounce Canon at all, when its concept is a metaphysical impossibility as anything rigid in any form, and any setting? Once again, I fall back to motives. A corporate company hates criticism, writers hate criticism. Writers hate getting harassed for a handful of sentences they wrote when they were sleep deprived trying to push this horrendous beast up some more words to meet that fucking publishing deadline that was entirely off the cuff to add a bit of flavour, and more keenly to satisfy the editor, or whatever overseer BL uses, if any. But when your endeavour to address the handful of people who pick up on minor issues like that ends up fundamentally undermining the very medium you write for, was that small bit of passive aggressive “We don't do Canon here, because fuck you guys” …well, was it worth it?

What is most tragic about Black Library is its irrelevance. It is the only source of additional, detailed narrative within the Games Workshop brand, or at least, it was, and now it spends more time as a prospect for the miniscule handful of people who bother with Black Library at all, which is actually a minority within that gaming circle as far as I can see. It has its fans of course, I'm sure plenty of the literature BL has is literature enough in at least the way Twilight is literature, but that also highlights that any old shit can have a big audience and quality is not immediately assured by the number of eyes that read it. Whilst it is difficult to discern precisely whether Black Libary does well or not, I can't particularly see them basically removing themselves from the standard of standard acceptability doing them many favours amongst anyone worried about parting with £8 for some entertaining fodder. Maybe they're onto a winner, not worrying about it, but they do seem to spend a lot of time chafing about criticism and being denounced for not getting things right for a bunch of writers who promote the idea that there is no right or wrong in their circle. But there is a right or wrong. Black Library exists because a fandom exists. They exist to give that fandom more of what they already like. That's your Canon right there Black Library. Go on, you go and put out a novel that violates some of the basic expectations of what 40k is, and you tell me all about how you're above that shit.

Oh wait, you did. It was C.S. Goto's short, unpopular career.

Well, that's unfortunate for you guys.

40k has Canon. That's just tough. You mercenary writers need to grow the fuck up and do your fucking job.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Chapter 3 Loose Canon: What GW and Black Library Thinks of Their Readers (Part 1)

"Quick Admiral Dembski-Bowden. The Rebels are using FORBIDDEN LOGIC!"
Note: This started off life as one article, but I had so much to say this is now a two-parter.

Part 1: Loose Canon
We need to get serious for a moment. Well, you don't, I do. This one may be a little esoteric, a bit specialist, a bit... picky. But I do feel it important, probably more important than any other part of this series (not that this takes much, but still). So, this chapter here is something from my more earnest interests, because it cuts to the core of where I am now, not where I have been. You could legitimately criticise me for being caught up in something I have chose to abandon. I am in effect pissing into a wheelhouse I used to be in. But this time, I'm sitting in my own, and GW, and Black Library in particular are pissing into mine. This actually cuts to the nub of something I'm actually still prepared to fight over: what is an author, and to whom do they owe their work, if anyone? This could be worryingly close to a serious conversation. Fortunately for me, GW and BL have made this topic a complete joke. So we're back to present form. This will be pretty long, so I will break it into sub-headings in case people want to read it in bits, or skip bits they're not interested in.

The Mercenary Writer” (Some General Background and Statement of Intent)
Writing is a funny old endeavour. It has many layers to it, many outlets. The core principle of Writing is always the same: to appease an audience of largely strangers using concepts and devices as old as that of society itself, in order to teach, impress and/or entertain. Whilst the origins, and ultimate agreed forms of writing (especially stories) are simple and limited in type, in the modern age they aren't quite so straightforward. Ignoring the various forms writing can take since we moved beyond merely the printing press, there are also differing levels of agenda, and also different levels of story. We live in an increasingly savvy and interconnected world; a world built upon stories we love written by writers we adore, to the extent that some of us (including people who don't share such adorations) write stories that are directly connected to those stories. Stories can transcend being mere stories. They become IP, and IP is, apparently, negotiable.

I, like most card carrying geeks, feel deep love for, interest in and obsession with a multitude of IPs (Intellectual Properties, worlds or universes owned by a company or estate). Thus I'm familiar with those worlds, and always hungry for more. But the reality of such properties is that much of the material I could read is likely to come from another hand to that of its creator, for both good and ill. This particular rant-post (and it is little else) such as it is, is not to bemoan the work of what I am choosing to call “The Mercenary Writer” and their ilk. But I think it is worth dwelling on where these people are in this industry, what particular excuses they make for themselves, and what perspective they need to accept. Because as a writer of my own IP, I am about to be deeply bitter and scathing. I'm saying that upfront just so we're clear. We all have agendas, and mine is that many of these Mercenary Writers are lacking in perspective. Cool? Cool.

As I said, I'm a writer. I've been working on two principle IPs of my own in one form or another for over a decade. I'm a perfectionist, so sue me. I'm also an avid reader, and consumer of most geeky kinds of media. I find that we as an amorphous, massively divided community are on the receiving end of a lot of shenanigans from particular (usually corporate) interests; who are happy to exploit a noticeably devoted audience to make easy money with often pathetically low standards. I can already anticipate the Business Apologetics I am likely to receive for this opening. But save that for a moment. Let's just assume for a second that such business interests are legitimate enough to pass without comment. Whether or not companies are right to pursue what is from at least a dozen or so legitimate perspectives frequently dodgy, is it really right for such representatives to exploit those situations but also moan about the consequences of those actions?

My argument here is, categorically, no.

To my mind, the Mercenary writer is in a position of privilege. They benefit from a number of distinct advantages over other writers and too many of them espouse regret of having to deal with the consequences that come from gaining those advantages. Most Writers after all are not instantly granted access to a pre-existing audience, receptive to the core tone, genre and styling of that writer's work (even if it detracts somewhat from the usual fare for that IP). Nor are they free from the need to do so much world-building: even authors that base their work in our world either now or in history can often end up producing more constructs necessary of their inventiveness than some of the Mercenary Writers writing for IP. As a writer I cannot emphasise how difficult it is to build a world of your own, so having a pre-built one is a tempting thought. So too is already having an audience, skipping months to years of angst and fear about ones own output. Why still persist then, with your own stuff? Simply, freedom. The freedom to tell my own tales, to have the world I want, no compromises, no limits. Because, surely, there must be some limits right? It seems some Mercenary Writers actually disagree. They're victims, the poor things. Victims of petty, hateful sweaty, angry geeks who sit in their mothers basement spotting mistakes. Spotting inconsistencies. Noticing complete fabrications that make no sense in the pre-existing world. Oh woe is them! Shall we help? Well, not exactly...

You see, I don't actually think Mercenary Writers should be bitching like children about the consequences of the privilege they manipulate and directly benefit from to pursue the same craft as everyone else. Nobody is stopping them from writing. No one is stopping them from using someone else's IP. But here's the thing. Criticism is part of the business. So it is rather tiresome when big corporations use mouthpieces to put forward apologetics just to avoid some criticism. As a writer myself, I can't actually imagine a practice within the world of writing itself, beyond moral depravity, that is more odious, sinister or indeed damaging than denying your own responsibilities.

So, let's have an example. For that, I have Grade A Gold. “Loose Canon”.

We're All Right and None of You Are
I didn't really want to single out any individual writers or companies when I initially wrote this for my Non-GW Blog. Not that I have the clout to send a shit-storm in any person's direction, but I like to avoid making things personal. However, Games Workshop (and principally its literary satellite, Black Library) have represented what I feel is one of the most ridiculous attitudes to canon and continuity that I have ever encountered, and a particular writer decided to be a mouthpiece for that attitude: Black Library's Aaron Dembski-Bowden wrote a blog-post a while ago detailing it, called “GrimDark II: Loose Canon”. This article, such as it is, has since disappeared off the net, but it can easily be recovered and read. I've provided a URL to the article below, pop it into an Archive Website (such as Wayback Engine) and you'll be able to read it in full. I invite you to do so, as Dembski-Bowden tried to deal with a number of the issues I'm going to raise to the bits I quoted, so I would rather you read those so that I'm not straw-manning. I just found most of his excuses pretty feeble, and the few I have time for I will deal with either here or in Part 2. Anyway, here's the offending bit that bothers me, and this is common both of GW's overall attitude to their material, and similar to many other big companies that hire a multitude of writers to make cheap sales fodder for them:

It’s all real, and none of it’s real.”                                                                                                  One of the great mistakes made by almost every fan of Warhammer 40,000 is to take the canonical rules of another license, and crowbar them into 40K. Usually, it’s an unconscious assumption based on a mix between common sense and Star Wars, which is a combination you don’t expect to see everyday. It also works about as well as you’d think.
...
I got it wrong myself, right up until I was in a meeting with the company’s Intellectual Property Manager – a situation I find myself in several times a year, as part of the Horus Heresy novel series team. When I was specifically asking about canon, he replied with something I’ve tried to take to heart: “It’s all real, and one of it’s real.”

First, I'd like to take this moment to congratulate Mr Dembski-Bowden for trying to tackle the issue of contradictions found in the IP he contributes to by providing two contradictory versions of the maxim he has chosen as his apologetics, and doing so within 4 paragraphs (two of which I've omitted for reasons of focus). With that exception I will try not to throw much shade his way. But if you read the article you can probably guess why I might be right not to pull many punches. Now, to regain the impersonal approach as best as I can, I am going to concentrate on the two maxims (as who knows which is right) and take issue with those, because they are utterly ridiculous in virtually every possible way. The obvious way being that essentially, this hand-waves the need to write well with consistency in the setting and to research it well, which for Mercenary Writing is basically the point. I will note that Dembski-Bowden tries to argue that this maxim does not excuse that (reading a lot of Black Library makes me question the idea that Black Library shares Dembski-Bowden's convictions, especially with the likes of C.S. Goto still a name on Black Library bookshelves), but if you need to take an aside to say “this maxim doesn't cover these two obvious corollaries, but trust me, doesn't undermine them” then your maxim is weak.

So why use such a maxim? Well, because geeks are devoted. If you sit in a position of authority, any maxim from that position of authority will get enough Internet Warriors parroting it as an absolute edict, whether it was intended as one or not. The originator of the maxim can always say that wasn't the intention (which is as easy to say as the maxim, and as easy as the things you say the maxim doesn't undermine and as likely to be completely untrue), but if you're in a position of power over geekdom, especially when professing to be “one of us” to that geekdom (as Dembski-Bowden does in his article) you should be savvy enough to know the responsibility involving edicts. Edicts are dangerous in fan communities. Because they often start as suggestions, and they end up often being empowered as holy writ and used regardless of their logical or academic worth.

I've seen GW Edicts used to effectively undermine linguistics or even more simply the act of human interpretative reading in favour of overtly literal interpretation because of the clumsy use of three words (Rules As Written). Stripped often of context and meaning, they are easy to misuse. That is not entirely the fault of the author, but that doesn't mean that they shouldn't know better. It also means if you're going to use a Maxim, make sure that if you check anything in your article that you write (especially one which takes shots at parts of the fandom, regardless of whether you see those shots as playful or with actual venom behind them), it's probably the wording of that maxim you wish to espouse and any times you repeat it, lest you write multiple distinctly different things.

So, let's deconstruct those maxims and poke fun at them.

“All of it's true and none of it's true”
This is the most pernicious. It entirely undermines the idea of truth by rendering it moot. That isn't entirely an issue in universes with unreliable narrators, but take note that this (and the other maxim) ultimately undermines the role of the reader. You are not trusted to discern, to argue or to be confident in any truth you are presented with. You are merely told to distrust and embrace all, which is a self-defeating fallacy that tries to have it both ways. Let me put it another way: any lore interpretation, any take-away you have counts, except when it counts. You are invited to believe as you like, but your perspective is as worthless as your time, and any effort you spend trying to discuss or debate any aspect of it can be easily and entirely undermined by any one individual pointing to this maxim. It's essentially boasting that as a material to help you understand that universe (and note it is a fictional universe designed for a hobby of which part of that hobby is adding to it) it is entirely worthless. This is the equivalent of getting your car crushed at a scrapyard just so nobody scratches the paintwork.

“All of it's true and one of it's true”
This is probably the “correct” edict, given that of the two it is less stupid. It is still, however, as an edict, useless to the reader and renders them incapable of discernment and as a passive agent in the act of being talked to with all of the conviction of a snake oil salesman selling a homeopathic pill. Like the homeopathic pill, it is largely empty of meaning or usefulness, so watered down and pointless that it renders nothing useful or empowering to the user, whilst endeavouring to reassure the user of its worth. Whilst containing, at best, trace amounts of it. Some Black Library books are also probably banged by a leather drum too. It has a better affect than reading them. Now, this at least admits the truth is out there. How generous. But it offers no solution to figuring it out, and one could argue it exists purely to tell you that you have no right to decide which it is. I happen to feel that this is the intention, and regardless, it dangles the promise of a commitment to consistency it has every intention of not honouring.

Both are problematic for similar reasons. Principle among which is how intensely self-serving they are. They both exist to give the writer an alibi from their own responsibilities, and no matter how earnestly Dembski-Bowden claims he takes those responsibilities seriously, he has to explain those in his own words, and I just frankly don't believe that a writer who sees fit to provide an alibi from an obvious issue is that interested in those responsibilities beyond face value. It doesn't help that Dembski-Bowden goes to great lengths to point to obvious interpretive differences as the reason behind the need for the maxim. Why is this an issue? Well, there are a few reasons. Firstly, that demonstrates that no one is actually that interested in going “Right, we should probably agree on a logic behind how all these things work” but even beyond that (as for some reasons that's not always possible anyway) but these obvious examples are used as easy shoe-ins, straightforward “No arguments there” reasoning. But is a maxim really needed to explain authorial interpretative differences?

No. Here's why.

That is already an easy enough argument to make. The problem is not that authors have different views about how some things work leading to contradictions in rare or even moderately common cases nor is that somehow unreasonable. It's perfectly understandable. But using such reasoning for something much wider in scope forms the linchpin of something insidious. By using these issues as justification, it saves Dembski-Bowden from going “Yeah, all those writers who don't bother to research and don't care? We aren't firing or denouncing them. We just have this maxim so that you can use it to pretend they don't count any more...” whilst essentially being there precisely because of issues like bad or lazy writing so much more than the minor issues he lists. And whilst these small details may seem petty, it also doesn't change the fact that the contradictions are there and still happened. One has to ask the obvious corollary: does the existence of minor contradictions in storytelling justify a wholesale denouncement of the concept of canon?

Once again, the answer is no, and once again, the denouncement is entirely self-serving. The people who make the contradictions give themselves an alibi, merely at the cost of the value of the whole endeavour and everything it stands for. It provides grounds for undermining debate of the entire process and ultimately its only point of consistency is that it consistently alleviates the one source of responsibility, authority and blame, of blame and responsibility, retaining only the authority bit, naturally. Its self-serving nature betrays it from any iota of being well-meaning. They know you're going to find problems in the fluff. Here is an edict detailing how they'd rather make a dismissive excuse than accept those contradictions as an issue to one day deal with, or simply to accept. They'd rather pull the whole thing down around them than admit they are wrong sometimes.

They are basically throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Just to make sure they can't be accused of not giving a baby a proper bath. Whether you take my perspective or Dembski-Bowden's is for you to decide. If you take mine, I urge you not to buy Black Library. Their attitude undermines the value of their own fiction.

A Few Quick Rebuttals
This is basically it for Part 1, but I want to deal with a few of the potential issues brought on from my focus on this edict:

Am I Straw-Manning?
Maybe. I wont deny that I gloss over Dembski-Bowden's attempts to discuss nuance around the topic. But the fact is that he argues that fluff is so open to interpretation that it needs a maxim that he himself seems to have taken a not entirely obvious interpretation from to regulate whether people are right to be ignored about differing authorial interpretation (which also conveniently acts as an alibi for awful and canon-dismissive writers like C.S. Goto). Ultimately, the position appears to have less to do with genuine issues and how they are addressed and more the fact that GW's writers don't like criticism and rather than taking the bridge between producer and consumer for granted and exploring the nuance intelligently, they decided to just pull the bridge down to avoid the need for it. I'd describe the apologetics that GW use for in-universe facts as a shitshow, and I find that shitshow only further exacerbated both by Dembski-Bowden's efforts to explain it away and by the gullible fanboys who bought it.

Why Now? This Article Is Offline!
Writers can hold very long grudges. Particularly when it comes to things about writing that other writers do or say that rankles you, especially when those bastards are more successful than you. But I have more pressing reasons than authorial jealousy. I happened to notice within the recent Ork Codex discussion of their fluff in a style that clearly suggests that this edict is still the way GW views presentation of its own lore. So actually, this is very relevant, and their reluctance to enter the public arena to have it challenged since is as telling as most of their other actions.

But... But... Unreliable Narrator... Etc
Naturally this edict also suits the setting that 40k inhabits. On the face of it, this kind of attitude makes sense, until you look at it closely. Because it is pretty damn obvious that they aren't remotely consistent with it. For one, just look at the style they adopt. If they really embraced the idea of this kind of artificial mystery, there would be more scenes we weren't privy to. To use but one example, we are told, clearly, what happened to Ghaz when he retreated from Armageddon. How he is saved by intervention from Mork (and perhaps Gork). Why the detail? This also belies a major problem with this edict. If all of it could be lies, why worry about presentation? And indeed, that's part of the problem. Do they really believe it's all propaganda or do they just hide behind that excuse? It seems to be a much more commonly adopted position when talking about the origins of Orks, or the nature of Xenos, but when it comes to Space Marines, we have full details, biographies, dates and dialogue. If GW always played by their own rules, and used it thoughtfully, this would be relevant. It's pretty obvious however that it's just pulled out when people ask questions.

This is it for Part 1. In Part 2 we're going to talk more about Canon, and how Black Library's edicts on the matter are not only irrelevant, but erroneous. We'll conclude why Loose Canon is so damaging and why they need to readjust their attitude. Not that they will, of course, but they should.

******************

P.S. Here's a link to the Dembski-Bowden article used in this rant:
http://www.bscreview.com/2011/03/grimdark-ii-loose-canon/ (you will need to use an archive service like Wayback Engine to look at it though)

P.P.S. Aaron, if you ever read this, I used your surname 15 times. Typed them out individually, went through the document 3 times to make sure I'd spelled it right each time. You didn't even bother to check the two times you used one edict. So maybe next time leave the sass about your own fucking audience out of your corporate shill pieces, and maybe they wont think you're a douche. Peace.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Chapter 2: Concluding the Review

Honestly, at this point, the Sonic Film looks like a better prospect.

As time goes on, I actually think this could be the worst edition this game has ever had. Not because it's a cynical, hateful mess like 7th Edition was, but actually because 8th Edition had so much potential to actually be a really good game, and instead became a conservative, underwhelming child's game with all of the depth of a mildly damp spoon. Sadly, most of the outsourcing of opinion of what this game needs to be is coming not only from GW's writers (whose attitudes are unlikely to have shifted in private, no matter how much they pretend to give a shit at this point) but from the active GW Fan community, and that is largely made up of gamers who have principally played from 5th Edition onwards, and have basically experienced 40k as a Power Gamer's game where list potency was the order of the day, and the game was a necessary ordeal to test the voracity of their list. So asking this lot to help GW improve their games is a bit like asking a bunch of chimpanzees to design a skyscraper. And honestly, I'd have more money on the chimps succeeding. 8th Edition is purest tedium. In a medium that has included “writing” from the likes of Mat Ward, to have decided to call it a day with this... fucking thing... is incredibly telling. I didn't think it could get any worse, and then I read the Ork Codex. I probably wont be touching that one in this series. If you think these two opening chapters are bitter, the bitterness I have for that Codex isn't fit for any human to read.

But I think what is astonishing about 8th Edition is its contrast to 7th, as if they spent more effort trying not to be that than they did thinking if the game as a whole actually worked in comparison to what it replaced. Because I think that's what bothers me the most. By GW focusing solely on top level list vs list match-ups, trying to get competitive play to be balanced, on the top end (it's not even balanced there, nor anywhere else) the game succeeds at a relatively fairer power difference than in 7th Edition (big whoop there, if they'd failed at that they really hate you guys). But to get that "success", we had to lose a lot of features: the potential to hurt your own models and the dilemma that represents; directionality, having to make actual decisions with your model placement and facing that mattered; mechanics that rely on judgement or gamecraft (such as templates) just because tournament players are a bunch of whiny little bitches; WYSIWYG functionality, so understanding the difference between a turret and a sponson, and the restrictions of what it could physically do; unit placement, which was not a sure fire I can place them where I like and count on them being there, adding a bit of jeopardy and drama to the game; the most unprecedented unit cull 40k has ever had, as tonnes of units go out with the Indexes they are in and will most likely not be coming back; having a crucial roll to clinch the game, knowing success or failure is like a coin toss you can't take again being undermined by easy access to re-rolls via list munchkinning; and to top this short list off: the game having a very defined miniature/points bracket within which it can conceivably function, which is an absolute first. Never has an Edition of 40k failed to be adaptable to the handful of miniatures, skirmish scale and the above 3000 points large battle scale without providing a deeply unsatisfactory experience that has to be solved by A NEW GAME ENTIRELY rather than a page or two of extra rules and some exclusive units. That's not even an exhaustive list, just the main examples I could think of.

If 7th Edition's principal sin was expecting too much agency and discernment from its players, 8th's principal sin is in removing all of it from them. You aren't trusted to discern what is or is not cover, how a weapon has affected your unit, what rules should apply and when, and what direction your models are even fucking facing is too much to expect from you. Open Play is a shrug. Narrative Play is a shrug full of half-baked scenarios that leaves its potential on the cutting room floor alongside the decaying corpse of 8th's Proof-Reader. You are a vector for your own soulless corporate experience. You are there to put models down, maybe move them, roll some dice, take them off, and post contentedly about it on the heavily moderated facebook pages. The only complexity they give you is in list-building which is evidently where they think your concentration should be, and they make absolutely sure that it's a complete ball-ache for you. Any problem you have, you are expected to fix by emailing in to tell them. Your only agency in this entire game is as free interns for a company that couldn't give one less of a fuck about you and demonstrates that with half-baked core rules that assume your stupidity. They cash in the claim of “balance”, by putting out the overpowered bullshit in Codices anyway, getting the worst of the power gamers to flock to the book (spending big as they go) before “fixing” the issue later with errata, after the point at which their making money from said book no longer matters because pre-order culture and fanboyism drives their sales model anyway. You do have to praise the brass balls of a company that still decided to put out blatant overpowered bullshit in their books and then “responds to feedback” down the line to reassure people they want the game to be good, whilst demonstrating no personal determination on the part of their writers to even attempt competent fixes and savvy up front. You, the unpaid masses are the only balancing factor, and as most of you have been around powergaming to the extent that you think that shit is just the normal thing you do, you should now know full well why Knight Soup hasn't been nerfed yet.

8th Edition is an exemplar of how wrong this hobby has gone, how determined gamers are to follow a perverse series of denouncements of any kind of nuance, innovation or design in favour of a simple metric that merely does one thing, i.e. pandering to the standard competitive dick-comparing contest that represents all competitive gaming. Warhammer Community's principle efforts are at rebutting any criticism with the standard smoke and mirrors corporate bullshit that always rallies thousands of Apologist Shills and cashing in coincidentally requested ideas that they were doing anyway as “We're listening, honest, Guv”. It would be tempting to denounce such things entirely, but in reality my principal objection is that even during 7th Edition, 40k could actually satisfy more than one inclination. As it stands, 8th Edition represents perfection for a very limited selection of outlooks, and shows very telling signs of clamping down on other parts of it (such as the Narrative and Conversion communities who are still very poorly catered for, if not even legislated against).

8th Edition is a physical embodiment of the consequences of letting talentless mediocrity like that of Ward's writing represent the genuine article of GW's Brand. This is that consequence: an audience that has become addicted to the pursuit of an unequal meta, of a emphasis upon list culture and an instinctive hatred of casual play. With the “Casuals” exiled to the two modes GW do hardly anything to develop (Open and Narrative), they send a message that such modes are inferior (as they exile unsupported models to those modes to hammer that thought home), they divide the kingdom into the casuals and the true gamers, with the gamers receiving the attention. Said gamers thought Ward was fine. Thus 8th Edition is everything they deserve. And what GW's Fans deserve is ultimately thus: basically nothing, and that is an apt summation of the game itself.

8th Edition is mediocrity for the lowest common denominator. Whilst there's no shame in that, it's not worthy of a Boutique price tag. It achieves the bare basics, and offers nothing else of noteworthy inclusion. That is not to say people are stupid if they like this, but I think it's fair to say they're not particularly discerning. Nothing needs to be perfect, or even close to it, but GW gets a lot of free passes from their fans and charges a huge amount of money for nothing any other part of the industry can't reliably do better: apart from conversions and customisability, the principle things that GW's Core Rules are taking pains to cut from their product. To me at least, 8th Ed is a dud. An indication of a true descent into a bygone age. I'll be looking elsewhere for the gaming experience I grew up with. It's clear GW is either unable or unwilling to deliver it (or both).

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Chapter 1: 8th Edition Warhammer 40,00: The Edition With Big Promises and No Substance

Harsh? Sure, but I'd say its the real secret behind 8th's success.
Ah yes, New 40k™. It's been an interesting experience, I'll give it that. Although, I never thought I'd be concluding at long last “Right, this is where I get off” regarding the rollercoaster ride that is 40k when it is actually a herald of (trivially minor) improvement. Sadly the words “obvious improvement” are not quite the same as “competently written ruleset”, and 8th Edition definitely demonstrates this discrepancy. In fact that's probably the only thing it does in a manner that is above average. But loads of people say this game is great right, so why don't I agree? Well my core argument here is pretty simple: GW can easily big up 8th Edition as an improvement over 7th Edition because, fundamentally, that wasn't a challenge. It doesn't really take much effort to improve on a game written by halfwits with a hostile attitude to their own audience. So when the actual fear GW has of said audience rises from the realisation that this attitude so obviously affected sales to such a noticeable extent that it has single-handedly driven a reactionary counter-narrative all centred around appeasing that beast, is it any wonder that this fear overshadows any potential the game could have had by pandering to an idea of safeness and an off-handing of responsibility to succeed onto the audience itself; because fundamentally, that appears to be easier for them than actually doing their fucking job. And they still likely think that's all your fault for expecting the game to be something other than their low effort meal-ticket. 8th Edition's biggest sin is not the lack of trying: it's the astounding lack of improvement

Now sure, “improvement” is to some extent a subjective term, but when the very idea of rules being “simplified” becomes an accepted agenda all to itself, there is already a very selective metric of goalpost shifting in play. The idea of simplicity itself gets a free pass, because of course it's an improvement, it always is (I hope your sarcasm detector is switched on, because if you didn't hear a ding there, you need one. Or the clown hiding under your bed just came). But this is precisely the driving force behind the 8th Edition narrative. It's simpler. This itself seems to be a point of celebration, as is often the case on the internet. Sadly, this rather ignores the more pressing issues, such as the fact that this “simpler” ruleset is, deep down, essentially the same beast as its predecessor (i.e. a jerky FAQ-reliant cyclejerk). The rules themselves fall flat. They remove pretty much all depth, and throw 40k into the quick beer and pretzel style game type, sharing the stage with games such as Fast and Dirty, FUBAR, and 1-Page. This simplicity is poorly constructed (as evidenced by the huge amount of FAQ and Errata) and not actually that simple when you add in the complicating factors of the faction rules, with their clunky interactions and inconsistent wording.

8th Edition is an attempt at an Abstract ruleset, but only half-committed to, with FAQs frequently undermining it, showing that they just hadn't even thought it through. I mean sure, we all make mistakes, but you can't afford to make them at this level, especially when your public interaction wing is being so arrogant about how good your new game is, and the prices on your rulebooks; rules supplements; campaign books; supplement faction books and related rules accessories collectively cost nearly 5 times more than even the competing “Geek Trap” (i.e. Fantasy, Steampunk and Sci-Fi Synergy Wargames) in rules alone. This is not even counting the huge investment of money and time the rest of the package requires. 8th Edition is trying to grab all of your attention, to be your sole hobby, and needs hours of investment learning synergies and stratagems. Yet the ruleset itself brings no depth with it, nothing to stimulate any mind expected to devote itself to it. 8th Edition is the edition that put the Boutique fancifulness GW has had of itself for over a decade into absolute overdrive, and systematically demonstrates that you can indeed polish a turd if your audience doesn't need to think.

Since 8th Edition launched, the biggest promise, and, indeed, the keyword has been balance. GW, and specifically Warhammer Community have been throwing that word around with wanton abandon. GW has led the charge with countless articles about balance with self-congratulatory tones of “best yet” and such. But, as I alluded to in the introduction, is it any effort to make something appear balanced to an audience that didn't mind 7th Edition? Although ironically, if they'd been as silent to the masses as they were in their bad old days, perhaps less critics would have noticed the astounding failure of this bold claim. Of course, there's still time for this fabled “balance” to occur, but so far, the results are far from conclusive. Just into the new edition, I took part in an apocalypse game. It was the most one-sided game I have ever been involved in: the xenos side were annihilated by the Imperials, who mostly didn't move at all, and shot us off the board, after going second. In a mere turn, we'd lost all our super heavies and they'd lost none. They took the flyers off out of “generosity” and let us put our super-heavies back on. A turn later they'd took all our super-heavies out again. 16 points to nothing. It highlighted to me obvious inequalities in the basic factions, especially on the top end, just showing the destructive powers that imperials have, with easy hit rolls (and easy access to re-rolls). Whereas Xenos, mostly Ork, albeit, with some Pansee to help, were shrugged off the board without any effort at all. My own kill tally was a Landspeeder and a Culexus Assassin. With about 4k worth of points. Easily the worst game I have ever played. (Dim From The Future: As an aside, I'm still right. We've had basically a year of Knight/Guard/Custode soup being dominant and NOTHING has changed there, missing SEVERAL opportunities to address it. The balance claim, is bullshit. End of. Also, Apocalypse needing to now be a gimmicky movement tray spin-off also enhances my point. We are looking at a set of core rules so utterly fragile and inflexible that something that has merely needed a small patch for years has had to become a separate game entirely. Still so sure 8th Ed is better?)

In regular games of 40k, my experience has been dominated by two words: Alpha Strike. There are loads of almost brainlessly easy lists. 40K isn't a game that's balanced to suit a variety of playstyles: it's balanced around people who know how to abuse power lists. This is literally the problem 40k has had for the past decade or so, and 8th Edition hasn't only done nothing to address this problem, they're reinforced it as the principle defining aspect of the game! The only thing they've done to change matters is remove most of the obvious inequality-driven faction-selling bullshit, and that's not really an achievement (given that this stuff should never have existed in the first place if their staff even had half an idea of how a wargame works). This ability for list shenanigans is summed up best via “Command Points”, where players can min-max to the point where they can easily grant themselves a re-roll for virtually every crucial roll in the game, or take spam lists and hardly notice a downside. The scenario rules still favour the better destructive force, meaning that once you've realised which army list is the strongest, it's probably pointless continuing to play, because thanks to this stripped down, moronic system, there is nowhere for you to hide, outmanoeuvre or otherwise outplay a superior force. You're there, largely, to roll dice and remove models. Movement merely gives you the illusion that you're trying to achieve something, and against a lot of Imperial lists, they'll not be doing much moving, given that they'll eliminate you far more easily by just sitting there and leaf-blowering you off the board. When you get down to it, this all there is to the game: it's an algorithm of your list's damage output and literally nothing else. You're being lulled by a promise of “balance” that mostly centres around points tweaking and FAQ nerfs that will be driven primarily from GW's contact with the UK and US tournament scenes, as if things couldn't be more disgusting already.

This game feels very “by committee” and that's not surprising. GW is still the same dumbass corporate company that forced itself into the position of needing to pretend to give a fuck about you just so you'll go back to buying a few things every now and then. Of course, you don't realise that this is all your fault. You guys have standards, so GW now needs you to tell them how to do everything, and this is why they've served up two wargames with no actual features, so you can tell them how to make them not suck, seeing as they don't seem to have anyone with half a clue how to fix them without you. Much like Forging the Narrative, GW continues with the onus on player responsibility. Now not only do you have to make the best of a situation and suck it up if you want to actually enjoy a game, you now also have to help them run a beta that they're selling as a completed product and essentially do most of the design work. Unpaid. Once again, GW hides behind the easy positives. Opening up to feedback is one thing, but when the people giving the feedback are doing pretty much all of the work to make this game function, be balanced, and even to stop exploits printed into Codices that they charge £30-50 for, it's evident that the improvement is threadbare and not substantive. 8th Edition is effectively a blank canvas for us to fill in: a blank canvas that costs £40 plus supplements.

So what's so wrong with it? Why is simpler bad? Simpler isn't always bad. It's simply a matter of execution. 8th Edition's core has much less to it, meaning it has to do more with less, or needs to turn its back on a lot of features but offer a better experience: 8th Edition fails at both of these outcomes. Let's do a rundown of a few of the problems. Movement values are varied again for the first time since 2nd Edition, but the game as a whole makes movement largely pointless (heavy weapon types outright discourage movement, many armies wont need to move at all and your opponent will likely alpha strike with most things that they would move anyway) so the nuance of variable movement types merely creates inequalities for no real point. Shooting is overly dominant, to the point of brainless saturation: leaf-blower builds are astoundingly easy, overwatch is automatic in every sense (particularly when it doesn't make any), and the oversimplification (i.e. neutering) of cover has rendered shooting as the easy solution to most problems apart from alpha strike, and sometimes even also that. The removal of initiative was entirely unnecessary and has mostly just created a game that makes large scale games of any size a headache when it comes to the assault phase, removing a useful stat that offered multiple in-game features in favour of a gimmick with a definite tolerance ceiling (and a tendency for creating rules clunk, inequalities and daft rules fixes later down the line). Morale may speed the game up, but it essentially just rewards outright offence and list power (like everything else in this game) and removes a lot of nuance from the game. Scenarios, whilst better than they have been in about 3 editions, still basically favour list power and killing ability. Any 40k game is still basically playing slayer mode with a few options to move that you simply don't opt to do and eliminate your opponent from the board via targeted alpha strike or static leaf-blower fire. And that's not even an exhaustive list of core failings.

Besides, it's not just what features the game has, but also what it lacks (which is pretty much everything). The removal of Unit Types is already demonstratively a problem: removing much nuance, consistency and adaptability from the core, meaning that you have a deluge of slightly varied similar rules that add nothing to the game aside from more to read in army books, usually during games. Whilst not a necessity, it's more of a sideways movement for the game. As stated above, the lack of cover as an interesting or nuanced feature has helped render movement and positioning as largely pointless. Movement and positioning are supposed to be a key feature of any good wargame, but in 40k's case they are merely an issue of weapon or charge range, and barely anything else. The game also lacks a lot of consistency, such as failing to remain consistently an abstract style game: having no ceiling for wounding but perplexingly having one for hitting and so on (this is before multiple FAQ entries break the abstract style with exceptions no one could logically conclude from what the rules provide). The removal of templates takes away a tactile element of the game that helped break up all the dice rolling and they replaced them with... more dice rolling. But the main thing they removed from the game was the application of skill. Most of that is gone. Positioning doesn't matter (except for basic things any wargame, or tabletop strategy game such a Draughts or Go provides, making such a feature not even worth mentioning), very basic tactics are basically all you need to succeed if your list is basically better than the opponents' which will often be the case if you're vaguely a powergamer. There's essentially nothing you can do wrong, unless you're really going out of your way to lose (or you're unlucky with dice rolls), and the average 40k tactics seen in-game plays out like some of Mat Ward's battle fluff: your army attacks directly and superior might equates victory. As wargaming goes, it can't get any more basic or less satisfying than this.

40k's design is ultimately conservative. It's a product of borrowing from Age of Sigmar's also stripped down style (note that a simpler ruleset is first and foremost quicker to write, which is likely the only reason they opted for that style), but in spite of this conservatism, mostly fuelled by “mathshammer” and hollow promises, the game is heavily flawed. This is why I am so frequently critical of simplified rulesets. The fact is, that if you let less rules dominate the majority of your game, you absolutely have to make sure that those functions work flawlessly and that the minimalist words used do as much work as possible. It is absolutely fundamentally crucial that your approach remains consistent, and that game functions support each other. Writing a simplified ruleset well requires more skill than writing a comprehensive larger ruleset, and it is an entirely different skill-set. GW have demonstrated with both games that use this new style, that GW are incapable of even anticipating the most obvious of flaws and the problems that will stem from merely core rules alone. All the while GW enter (much like with Finecast) into a completely new aspect of the industry (quickplay simplified rulesets) and demonstrate out of the door that they fundamentally lack even the most basic capacity to do it well, all whilst charging boutique prices, as if they've fucking mastered it. Neither AoS, nor 40k 8th Edition as Core Rules alone are remotely as refined as other rulesets, such as Fast and Dirty and FUBAR, rulesets that are either significantly cheaper or just free entirely. If you actually want to play a game of 40k as GW intends you to, that means paying a minimum of £105 to play one game (Rulebook, Open War Cards, 1 Codex, Chapter Approved [Future Dim: Ignoring that you've had to buy yet another one even shittier than the first and Campaign Supplements so sparse of content related to campaigns that it needed to ransom new units, relics and formations just to get people to buy it) on top of the very expensive prices they are charging for their models, with a new aesthetic that out of the door isn't too far divorced from the shit you'll find in Toys R Us (Future Dim: whatever that is). Do remember that you're paying boutique prices for this game that is basically a beta (and plays like an alpha].

The sad thing is that Warhammer 40,000 is, at least in terms of balance, better than it has been in a long time but given the absolutely pathetic ante-upping dross it followed (an edition of the game that GW could have struggled to make worse than it was), that's really not difficult at all. Once you get over the fact that 8th Edition (most likely briefly) called time on the worst of the sales stimulus nonsense that the last 3 Editions had blatantly served up (with the editions merely reducing the amount of effort they could be bothered to summon up to hide that fact), it doesn't take much effort to see that there is basically nothing else to this game other than an effort to create at least the pretence of a slightly more stable meta whilst removing as much work from their writing duties as possible. But that wasn't achieved without a cost, and that cost was draining virtually all of the game's character and style to achieve it. Moreover, it fails to solve any of the issues that has plagued the game for over a decade, aside of trying to insist to fans that the days of sales-based inequality are over (which is very unlikely). There are only two major features to this game: it's simpler to play and it's not as bad as 7th. And frankly, anyone, even an outright amateur with no experience in this industry could have managed that, and a great many people would have easily done it better and not charged £40 for the core plus supplements. Frankly, this game is mediocre at best, and serves to highlight that even now, GW are clueless in their own industry but act like they're the best. If this is the best they have to offer, I'm utterly bewildered that they think this pretty underwhelming bare bones game is worth the decade or more of open indifference and/or hostility its own fanbase experienced during the Kirby Era. If this is supposed to be the Revolution, I for one do not feel emancipated. I feel indifference.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Something Wicked This Way Comes


Dim's Exodus Series
(Wherein Dim attaches his name like faecal matter to a noun and the word “Series” part the 100th)


40k was saved, but not for me. Now fuck off, Sam.
Opening Note: If by some kind of magic you find your way to this series without following the link I posted from my forum, welcome. I don't mind anyone reading this, but if some references refer to an audience I obviously don't have on this thing, or material (look at the sparse amount of entries) or references to names, events etc that make no sense, it's because this is aimed at my forum friends. This material is only here because technical issues prevent it being posted there. You are still welcome to read it, it will mostly simply be ranting about GW. If you're into that sort of thing.

An Introduction
This is a strange situation. I've mostly made my peace with GW at this stage, and having spent years criticising GW's stupid attitude to its own customers, a "romancing drive" seemed an apt time to end my tenure. On the face of it, it seems as if GW's turnaround has merely just been too little, too late for me. And largely I feel that is mostly true. However... It's not as if GW aren't actually up to the same sorts of shenanigans, nor are their games actual improvements in the ways that a lot of gamers had hoped. Nobody has bothered with the pushback yet, and I don't think the reason is a lack of things to push back against. After all at least with 7th Edition you had a game you could actually talk about... I mean, at least 7th pissed people off. Critics of 8th, like myself, are mostly bored above anything else.

I'm not convinced that New GWTM is an actual thing, and I don't believe their games are better. I find it fucking hilarious that the apologists have picked up GW's banner with no sense of irony, shame or humiliation and resumed where they left off, in spite of GW vindicating pretty much every rational criticism sent at both at GW and the Apologists themselves. For a while I wondered why, but now I know. GW notices them. GW pretends to care about them, and after all if you've been consistently sucking corporate cock for 15 years it is about time the recipient at least condescended to provide some eye contact. Maybe even a brief ejaculation: "We're ListeningTM" they whisper like that woman from those Marks & Spenser adds. You can just feel their mouths swell with satisfaction can't you. And naturally, they swallowed it.

And there's a first for Dim. A decent analogy.

It's not easy biting your tongue, really. I actually tried taking some Apologist advice. Decided to quit. It wasn't easy, but I did it. I haven't played 40k or read a book about it in about 8 months. And it has been surprisingly liberating. But not effective. Whilst I am a fair bit happier I'm still pretty bitter, and irritated. I mean, I have no real interest in fighting for gamers as consumers. That ship has sailed. I'm not sure I believe in karma, but GW making their two principle games into stripped down army list simulators, with the vast majority of its variation and nuance stripped out of it and sold hilariously at boutique is precisely what this community of power gaming dicetards deserves. Any more effort than that is basically a waste. I do feel for everyone else, who at least expected some variable amount of “more” than 8th is, but ultimately 8th is for everyone who feels they kinda liked 7th anyway. Like I said, they deserve this.

So this isn't advocacy. This is more personal, really. I want to clear the air, say what I feel I need to say, because there's no actual reason for me to retain or bury these thoughts any more. I'm going to air them here and then be done with it, and move on. I do it here principally because it's a sizeable part of my 40k experience, and it seems apt to close it here. Besides, I know there's at least half a dozen to a dozen of you that will be entertained by this regardless of whether you guys agree with any of it or not. A few definitely won't, but a few of those people have discredited themselves to my mind, so at this point I don't care. I tried pulling punches last year. This time, I won't bother. To everyone else who likes 8th but doesn't feel the need to treat every detractor like they're some sort of defective moron who needs only to see things that they already know are there, well, you guys can make up your own mind about my words or just not bother with the series at all. I'm not judging you either way.

So for the first, last and only time I'm issuing a content warning (given the analogy above it's probably a bit late but hey at least I'm doing the eye contact thing within a decade). I am going to be brutally honest and I'm going to say quite a few pretty harsh (but, as always, reasoned) criticisms of GW, some individuals within it and quite a sizeable portion of GW's fanbase. If that sort of thing bothers you, by reading beyond the intro you have at least been warned as to its content. As recompense for this series, I am going to try and finish Wurrgitz and I have something special planned for Christmas. A more proper send off to the "writey" parts of the forum. I will be returning to the Mek's at some point, given my new project (a friend is willing to play any edition with me so I'm looking at 3rd and 4th atm) but in terms of 8th, or likely anything in the future, 40k is dead to me. In every way that matters.

Just to cover a few more things, yes I filled in this year's community survey. I was constructive but quite scathing. Whilst I haven't played in a long while, I am still in a community that mostly plays 40k, so let's not try the ignorance card. I've watched enough games to know I'm not really missing anything of value. Much of this series will contain jokes, although considering my deranged sense of humour I make no assurances you'll find it funny. And yes, this really is it, this is my final series of “Dim tries to persuade everyone he's right in a verbose, rhetorical fashion through a series of articles with clickbait titles”. This is largely a release for me, and entertainment for you. That is its only principle function. I would be lying if I said I wasn't judging people... it would be unfair to dodge that accusation. But I wholeheartedly do not judge anyone for liking this game, for enjoying this game and for hoping it will only improve. I just cannot share your viewpoint in any three instances (and people patronisingly telling me to look at the positives are just fucking irritating at this stage), principally because most of GW's feedback is coming from the morons who defended 7th Ed. But that's now your problem, not mine. Just putting that out there.

This isn't a message to GW by the way. Whether they would listen or not these days might get covered in a rant, but either way at this point I don't really care. Is this a message to you? Well, maybe, but I'm not obliging anyone to care or even read it. I'm going to do my best to make these rants fun and interesting, but I'm not as invested in the issues raised as I was when I wrote some of them. Some of them are being written now, but principally the motivation is to get this off my chest. I'm tired of hanging onto it. Ultimately, if even one person reads it and goes “Those sure are some opinions”, that'll do.

Finally some of you may be wondering, why here? Why now? Thought you were leaving and stuff? Well that might still happen. If I do stay, it wont be as a gamer supporting the current edition at the very least. Why post this on the forum? Well partly, I just find the obvious death of discourse in most of the sections of the forum to be incredibly depressing, almost as if all those blowhards who said it was better than ever were talking shit or something. I don't know. I just wanted to get people talking, hang out with some of my old friends on here, have a laugh, and talk about the good old days.

Oh and yes, each rant “article” will have a picture. Because at least one of you seems to need them.

So, to make this intro a Shakespeare sandwich: once more unto the breach dear friends. Once more.