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:
- Encounter some particle/alien problem.
- Explore touchy-feely character issues while pushing buttons and talking technobabble (because FX are expensive).
- Push button on console in time to dramatic music.
- Reset everything to status-quo (so the shows would be interchangeable in syndication).
- The End.
In 1993, as ST:TNG entered it's final seasons, they spun off a new
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)
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'.