Tuesday, June 21, 2011

In Defense Of Being Similar

by SandWyrm

With both Mantic and Privateer Press announcing direct 40K competitors recently, there's been a fair bit of grousing about how these companies should try and be new and/or different. Particularly regarding Mantic's released images of their "Marauders", which are superficially very similar to GW's "Orks".

I think that attitude is misguided. There are many, many, games out there that are completely unlike 40K. Can you name any? But there are none that offer a 28mm Sci-Fi gaming experience that rivals GW's. Since we all presumably enjoy the game, miniatures, and fluff of 40K, why is it so bad to create something similar? A 40K clone could be the best thing to happen to both our gaming community as a whole and 40K itself.

To illustrate, let's remove ourselves from the Sci-Fi gaming world and look at Sci-Fi television. For a long, long, looooooooong time, there was only one Sci-Fi television franchise to speak of: Star Trek.

If you wanted to enjoy a Sci-Fi story on the television during the late 80's and early 90's, 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' was it. There was nothing else to watch that had anywhere near the same budget and writing quality. So we put up with the horri-bad episodes ('New Ground' anyone?), and enjoyed the really good imaginative ones like 'Yesterday's Enterprise', 'The Best of Both Worlds', and 'The Inner Light'.

But mostly the show was kind of mediocre. The writers and producers knew that they didn't have to try very hard to keep us, so they got lazy and wrote most of the shows to a formula. It went something like this:
  1. Encounter some particle/alien problem. 
  2. Explore touchy-feely character issues while pushing buttons and talking technobabble (because FX are expensive).
  3. Push button on console in time to dramatic music.
  4. Reset everything to status-quo (so the shows would be interchangeable in syndication).
  5. The End.
We complained about it, made fun of it, and got mad about it, but... we kept watching. There simply wasn't anything else. Sound familiar?

In 1993, as ST:TNG entered it's final seasons, they spun off a new edition series called 'Deep Space Nine'. It was supposed to be new and different because of the setting, but soon the writers got lazy again and the show fell into the same storytelling ruts that had stagnated TNG's ratings.

But there was another Sci-Fi show that came out in 1993.

Babylon 5 looked for all the world like a cheap, badly acted, poorly written rip-off of Deep Space Nine. Which to some extent is was. I mean, it had a space station, commander, feisty 2nd in command, head of security, mystic aliens, blah blah blah. The sets were aweful and the acting... we won't go there. But as the series progressed, viewers saw something they'd never seen before in an SF series. Serious storytelling.

The entire series was planned on a 5-year arc. Characters changed over the course of it. Some stepped up to challenges and became heroes while others took the path of least resistance and collaborated with evil. Some fell into addictions and took a while to recover. Others had their minds ravaged by Psykers and were never quite the same again; losing friends and positions as a result. Whoa!

Babylon 5 also made extensive use of cutting edge CGI effects. Which, while cheesier-looking than the physical models Star Trek used, allowed for a much bigger scope to the space ship scenes. So while Trek space scenes were limited to 2-3 static, slow moving ships, B5 could have massive battles that showcased real (gasp!) tactics. If a character on the bridge saw something, you saw it too. It wasn't just described verbally with worried expressions on everyone's faces.

There was also a whole Chaos vs. Law philosophical battle underpinning the whole series that reminded me of GW's best fluff work. Not to mention the little exhilerating moments sprinkled throughout that you wouldn't get if you hadn't been watching for a few years. My favorite was Vir's speech to Mordan:

That was in season 2. If you were still watching in the final year, you got to see that very moment realized. With Vir giving Mordan's head a little wave. Great stuff!

Finally, the show was equally groundbreaking in it's use of the Internet to directly communicate and get feedback from it's fans. While Trek's producers acted like the internet didn't exist. Sound familiar?

So What Happened To Deep Space Nine?

Nothing much, at first. The producers of Trek just ignored the upstart. But as time passed, B5 started climbing in the ratings and gaining critical approval. Soon it was winning Emmys and Hugo awards for it's effects and storytelling. At it's peak B5 had about 75% of DS9's viewers, even though it's budget was less than half that of it's rival.  The two shows together had about as many viewers as TNG had enjoyed by itself.

So what did Trek do? It ADAPTED.

If you were watching Deep Space Nine during this time, you noticed that the series got much darker and more serious. With a new long-term story arc about war between the Federation and the Dominion. With all the major Trek races choosing sides. There were even some character moments that few Star Trek fans could ever have seen coming.

The space battles also got much better, as DS9 finally adopted CGI for it's space scenes.

While die-hard B5 fans and Trek-haters weren't swayed by the changes, it was a massive improvement in story quality. Which most Trek fans appreciated, even if they'd never heard of B5. To many, it was Trek's finest hour. More importantly, DS9 stopped bleeding viewers and remained relevant. Keeping it's spot as the top rated Sci-Fi series of it's time.

So What Does That Have To Do With 40K?

40K is the Star Trek of the miniature wargaming business. It's big, established, and very very lazy. It's so lazy, in fact, that not one but two companies are now set to go after GW's flagship Sci-Fi game with new products of their very own. They smell blood in the water.

Is Mantic's 'Warpath' or Privateer's 'Level 7' going to be the Babylon 5 of 28mm Sci-Fi gaming? Who knows? So far we've only seen unfinished bits and pieces of Mantic's offering, while Privateer has pulled a Microsoft and only given us a name. So we'll just have to see what happens.

But what I hope we'll see is 40K losing at least 25% of direct market share to one or both of these new games. Which would be a very bad thing for GW corporate, but a very good thing for 40K. Because to survive they would have to do what DS9 did... evolve. Maybe they'll start thinking for once in terms of what's best for the hobby instead of what's best for GW. Or be forced to at least reduce their prices some. We would all benefit from that.

The other thing to remember is that even if you end up hating either of the new games, they'll lay the groundwork (like B5 did) for what comes after. Voyager and Enterprise really weren't all that different from the Trek that came before them, but they failed because audiences started expecting better stories and more realistic characters from their Sci-Fi shows. B5 had it's flaws, which make it almost unwatchable today; but shows like Farscape and Stargate were able to deliver both superior storytelling and the production quality to match. While Battlestar Galactica pulled in audiences that would never have watched Sci-Fi before.

"But SandWyrm! It's Alessio We're Talking About Here!"

Yes it is.

But let me remind you that David Fincher made Alien 3 before he made Fight Club and Se7en. Or of Ron Moore, who used to be Trek's worst writer and went on to helm the new Battlestar Galactica; which was great for a few seasons. Or J Michael Straczynski, the creator of B5 himself. Who used to work on He-Man cartoons.

Give Alessio a chance. He might surprise us. If not, we can look forward to Privateer's offering.

"Yeah Well, They're Still 40K Ripoffs!"

Here's a famous Star Trek ripoff for you: Firefly

What? Don't think so? Here's some similarities:
  • It has the same number of main characters (8).
  • It's set on a spaceship that travels between worlds.
  • It has a Captain (Picard = Malcolm Reynolds)
  • It has a Doctor (Crusher = Simon Tam)
  • It has a Chief Engineer (Geordi = Kaylee)
  • It has a Warrior (Worf = Zoe)
  • It has a hothead (Riker = Jayne)
  • It has an innocent character (Data = Shepherd Book)
  • It has a counselor (Troi = Inara)
  • It even has a 14 year old prodigy (Wesley = River Tam)
The ships are also very similar if you think about it.

Lead section, body, nacelles. It's such a rip-off.

And the villians?

They're just Borg with scraggly hair and different kinds of junk sewn into their costumes.

Of course, if you've ever watched Firefly or Serenity, you know how different it actually is. Different stories, different philosophies, different conflicts. That's what makes it unique. Even though it borrows many things from Trek, it makes these things it's own.

And in the end, 40K itself is just an amalgamation of every cool thing that GW's writers and designers ever loved. From Tolkien to Herbert to Catholicism. Torn apart, re-imagined, and presented to us as something new.

There's a reason GW spells 'Orc' with a 'K'.


    1. Excellent article, and I think you are exactly right here. We might not see eye to eye on the fantasy issue, but I definitely think competition is needed. You get lazy if you don't (Ottoman Empire, anyone?), and then it just sucks. If GW has 1/2 a brain, they'll adapt and get better. If not, they'll get bought out and then our games will get better.

    2. Less "Mantic" more 40k please. : )

    3. Let's hope that competition truly breeds excellence. Unfortunately that really hasn't worked with a lot of historical rule sets out there. ;)

    4. Firefly FTW.

      Also I'm bursting with excitement about Level 7. I love PP's solid rules-writing, the models - a sci-fi game by PP!! OMGOMGOMG!!! I'm all giddy about it.

      I'm not usually like that. I swear.

      I SO hope it's gonna be good. It has to be. Because I want it to, I want it to be good and nice looking enough to play it myself AND have an influence on 40k that is badly needed. Kinda like what Microsoft did with the rise of Google, and Apple being more of an actual competitor rather than a small selective croud of believers.

    5. Very well written and interesting post. Best I've seen about wargaming and 40k in general in quite some time. You've managed to totally convince me that, successful or not in the long run, Mantic and PP are going to make 40k better. +1 internets for you good sir, very well done.

    6. I remember watching B5 when I was younger. I even remember watching the head on a pike statement.

    7. @Nemesis

      Spag has a couple of articles in the pipeline.

    8. I'm really looking forward to a company with a track record of listening to their customers AND being responsive in updating rules to keep their game in balance publishing a sci-fi game. Hopefully they will have an interesting universe that it's set in.

    9. You mentioned Firefly, thus this post must be good =D!

    10. I feel almost exactly the opposite of Nemesis. Keep these articles up. I love options and the reviews of Mantic's stuff. More Batreps I say!

    11. I'm with you. I like Mantic. I have some PP models, but I'm not crazy about their stuff, oddly.

    12. Really well written article, thanks. I enjoyed reading it (and watching that DS9 clip :) )

    13. Your publicity for Mantic not-wistanding, I really don't see many people wanting to actually PLAY a 40k-knockoff done by people who got fired from GW.

      As a source of cheap minis, specially with the prices of a Fantasy army? Is all in, baby.

      Now, what you have described, of GW's learning from a rival, has already happened with Warmachine. And I wouldn't talk about Level 7, we don't know anything about the game. It could be their version of Space Hulk or something.

    14. I do think Warmachine has had an effect on GW, certainly. You can see that in their slow improvements in generating timely FAQs.

      I'm sure that the lower level guys in the company are aware of the threats and are trying to improve things on their own. Witness the Forge World guys' frustrations at Adepticon. But it's going to take a more direct threat against 40K's sales before Tom Kirby or the board wake up and institute real change in GW's overall strategy.

    15. Does your metaphor include space for the effect by which science fiction TV ended up with more story arcs than stories, ultimately becoming rather samey in a grand and meaningful kind of way, and the prevalance of arcs meaning that missing an episode or two means you might as well not bother watching the rest as you won't have the faintest idea what's going on?

    16. It's not like there haven't been attempts to directly compete with 40K in the 28mm sci-fi marketplace(Vor, Warzone, Starship Troopers, AT-43), or that there aren't currently existing competitors(MERCS, Infinity, Dust:Tactics). Many of those where good games with quality miniatures. If any one could challenge GW, it's Privateer, but I would bet that Level 7 is going to be a skirmish game, at least at first.

      40K continues to dominate the market in sci-fi gaming because it has such a large and diverse range of miniatures. You can't underestimate the cool tank factor that 40K has going for it. Every army has lots of cool large vehicle kits. You just can't spontaneously generate a product line that rivals what 40K already has released. Eventually some of the games I mentioned get close, but by the time they get there they have failed to build up enough momentum. People are going to pass the new game over for 40K when they see that it only has a few infantry models for only two factions. Level 7 is going to be popular with people who are already Privateer fans, but I don't think it will steal any 40K players away unless it has the cool tank factor as well.

      I think that of all the miniature gaming companies around, Battlefront is in the best position to challenge 40K. Just think if they took the FoW rule set and adapted it to a 15MM sci-fi range? That would get my attention.

    17. While I'd love for something like this to occur, there's a good chance that GW suddenly posting a huge drop in sales would result in the company being sold off and strip-mined for its IP. There's almost no way for that to end well for 40K fans.

      "Or J Michael Straczynski, the creator of B5 himself. Who used to work on He-Man cartoons."

      To be completely fair, He-Man actually managed to be minority entertaining at times, which is more than anyone can say about the joyless hellpit known as Babylon 5. :P

    18. Okay, my personal 2cent:

      In my opinion PP has the better chance to pull people all away from 40k. They do put a lot of effort in the background of their 2 main game systems, so I guess they will keep repeating that with their SciFi game. They also have a good rep for running a tight rule system. The only thing I can't see them excel at is turning that system into a affordable large-battles system. PP offer plastic models comparable to the ones you get from GW (say tanks, multipart plastic units) or scalemodel-companies like Revell or Tamiya. So anybody who loves playing 40k because you can put a lot of models on a large table won't be target No1 for PP. Anybody who don't mind playing smaller games is a possible customer, esp. if they love rich backgrounds and tight&clean rules.

      Mantic on the other hand has a really good chance to hurt GW in terms of sold plastic kits. Assuming that they manage to keep up the visual quality of the latest artwork pictures and with their typical aggressive pricing, I can imagine a couple of 40k players start buying a lot of Mantic stuff for their 40k armies. But I don't think a lot of hobbyist players will start running the Mantic rules.

    19. I'm also thinking that PP will go small at first. I expect that they'll compete with a better (or at least more developed) ruleset and miniature prices perhaps 10% lower than GW. But you'll be able to have fun in the equivalent of a 500-1000 point 40K game at a comparatively low entry price.

      Mantic will do the big games with a more slowly and carefully developed ruleset and miniature prices that are 50% lower than GW. Expect them to survive on miniature sales alone for 1-2 years until their system matures.

      It will be interesting, that's for sure.


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