Boon: Before digging too far in I want to acknowledge that these opinions are my own and not necessarily reflected universally by the larger Goonhammer team. Furthermore, the lens I view this game and its health is through the perspective of both a competitive tournament player and my experience within an upstream marketing organization (not in the same industry). Accordingly, some of my commentary will reflect my perspectives from both vantage points but I claim to have no specific insights into the business strategy of Games Workshop.
There has been a lot of discussion and tired, repetitive reporting on the recent state of the competitive community. This is largely on the back of some notable releases, mainly Drukhari and Ad Mech, where tournament data has and continues to bear out many commenters’ fears of their impact on the game and its overall balance. All of this of course begs the obvious questions – why have these two releases suddenly jumped so far in power level, and should we expect Games Workshop to change course to stop it happening again? Both are valid questions to ask of the game designer, but from a community standpoint the more pertinent question is, assuming these power level spikes are not uncommon, how should the competitive community react? Below I’ll touch on the former questions, but the primary thrust of this article will be focused on the latter.
Will Games Workshop Create the Competitive Balance Needed for the Competitive Community?
I think there’s a real disconnect, one which I certainly feel acutely, between what Games Workshop is incentivized to do as a business and what many gamers believe that they should do to manage the balance of their game for the players who play it, both competitively and casually.
First and foremost, I think it is important to recognize that GW is a business – and while the best interest of their customers is nominally aligned to their best interests as a business, that isn’t strictly true in all cases, and particularly not within niche customer segments (such as the competitive community). To properly contextualize Games Workshop and their sometimes-perplexing release and balance decisions, it’s important to understand the company as a business in the broader market.
There are a few ways you could think of the market for which Games Workshop competes, but for our purposes the key fact is that they sit in a distinctive niche within the broader $10B+ tabletop gaming market, and within their niche they are utterly dominant and extremely difficult to challenge. They face substitute competition for customer engagement with the wider gaming market, and in the last few years some new entrants have been making a pitch for audience share, but overall they sit in an established position where they have a number of very significant competitive advantages around model design, manufacturing, etc in addition to their trump card – their IP landscape.
In business strategy, the sought-after position is one where you hold a valuable, inimitable card in your hand – something no other company can readily copy which then becomes your greatest competitive advantage. GW bills themselves as a manufacturer first and foremost, but in my estimation that is not really what they are in a strategic sense. Games Workshop is much more like a Disney than they are a Kohler, and their greatest individual asset is their vast IP landscape in which customers want to participate. The models and designs are a channel, an outlet in the same way that Disney may sell Buzz Lightyear dolls. The games themselves are the platform in the same way that the movie Toy Story is the platform. Their incredible expertise in model manufacture helps leverage this, but that is not inimitable – a potential competitor could throw money to improve their operations – and it is not inherently defensible. Without the IP, even if you build it, the customers will not come, and it’s very striking that most recent direct challenges to GW have had big, pre-existing IP behind them (e.g. Star Wars Legion).
Strong IP is so valuable because gaming properties are heavily subject to network effects, similar to a social network or a dating app. The more people playing Warhammer 40,000, the easier it is to find a group to play with or a tournament to attend, so customers get more value from their investment in it. In terms of the business, this means any competitor needs to reach a critical mass of players before they start offering an equivalent value proposition to their customer. Some in the competitive community may believe that game balance excellence would further raise competitive barriers and solidify GW’s position – and while that’s accurate it’s much more a question of marginal return. Simply put, Games Workshop needs their game to be good enough to satisfy Games Workshop’s customer base at large and beyond that are going to be able to generate bigger returns on their investments by allocating it elsewhere.
Sadly, this is where the competitive community takes a backseat. They are not the primary customer segment, the largest customer segment, or even the most valuable customer segment by a wide margin. Most GW’s customers are fine participating in the game as it stands today or participating in the IP universe through other channels. The highly beloved IP creates a uniquely (compared to any competitors) large pool of narrative players, whose needs are often better served by a game that’s interesting and exciting than one that’s tightly balanced.
Sustained issues of poor balance and design could have degrading effects over time, both for competitive AND casual games, but this also requires sustained poor performance in terms of product management and failure to address issues. We have seen this at times in the past such as with 7th Edition, but realistically GW are a long way above that threshold these days, even with the latest releases. In short, GW is doing enough to keep everything in order for their business. An answer to the question of “What is Games Workshop’s responsibility in day-to-day game balance?” is in many ways, “Ensure a good experience for the broader customer segments” and the reality of that answer is a much, much lower threshold of game design investment that focuses more on how armies play and whether they are ‘fun’ vs how well balanced they are in the broader context.
Summing this up, Games Workshop are incentivised to view competitive balance as a great goal, a desirable result, but one that doesn’t need to be a priority over investments in expanding their market potential and bringing new players into the fold. As a result, and until the underlying factors change, the competitive community will always be subject to the potential of severe swings in balance that can last months at a time. This leaves the competitive community in many ways adrift as their needs are much more tied to the day-to-day releases than any other, much larger, customer segments. A single release such as Drukhari or Ad Mech can throw their entire reason to participate in the bin for months at a time without just acquiescing to the new releases and thus ‘chasing the meta’. So how might the community adapt?
What can the Competitive Community Do?
First and foremost, I think the competitive community needs to be honest with itself. It is a flashy segment that generates a disproportionate amount of online chatter, but it’s not the most important segment to Games Workshop from a business sense. I think by acknowledging this, the community can start to understand and grapple with the problems it faces in day-to-day balance and whether GW will prioritize addressing those balance issues.
I see this as a significant source of tension in competitive circles – in part exacerbated by what I think are tactical missteps on GW’s part. Early in 8th edition Games Workshop had set the expectation that new releases would be followed two weeks later with an initial FAQ. This was established and for the most part, adhered to – it was well received within the community and most importantly, built confidence with tournament organizers that new releases would not hit their events unaddressed. The COVID era has changed this – at the start of 9th the timeline was quietly switched to four weeks. This creates a longer window where obvious issues remain unaddressed and has been especially troublesome with the release of Drukhari, Sisters, and Ad Mech where a number of presumed mistakes, outright errors, or unclear interactions appeared in books with extremely powerful, meta-defining capabilities. Unless Games Workshop switches back to the old schedule (which for the reasons outlined above seems unlikely) we are going to continue operating in a world where books become legal in events prior to getting FAQs.
Given that vacuum, I think the community needs to step up and be proactive and decisive following releases. While currently pretty buoyant, the tournament scene’s energy and enthusiasm will suffer if each new release brings a fresh hell along with it and we’re consistently waiting a month or more for anything to be done about it. Fully resolving balance issues caused by new releases is probably out of our hands, as historically it’s taken multiple rounds of official FAQs to bring the worst offenders (such as Ynnari and Iron Hands) into line. Where Tournament Organizers can step up as a collective is to proactively curb the worst of GWs RAW abuses. I believe what is needed is a community two-week FAQ to align with most tournament deadlines and then a more selective, less used, mechanism for errata/FAQ where the community can look for more fundamental changes when releases prove to be truly unbalanced.
It’s not without precedent – when GW has failed the competitive community in previous editions it was left to the ITC to institute an ongoing FAQ (and who have recently released a well-received code of conduct), and currently both the Texas circuit and the World Team Championship maintain these for events under their auspices. In addition, for a decent number of recent issues it’s been clear within days of a book launching that they’re caused by either printing errors or are oversights that are near-certain to be dealt with in the FAQ, things like:
- Invincible, scoring Pteraxii
- Razorflails/Competitive Edge Succubus
- Near invincible Celestine
- Clear point misprints (Reavers, Nundams)
If most of the community can look at these things and identify that they are a problem, why play two to four weeks of events where they’re legal? Right now, TOs sometimes step in and fix the worst excesses, but it’s unevenly applied and there’s a degree of reputational risk for an individual TO who chooses to rock the boat. They’re also often pressured not to by their players. The structure of ITC scoring creates heavy incentives for players who spot an exploit they can use to try and bank a big event win before it gets patched. Worse, even if they don’t particularly like doing so, there’s a Prisoner’s Dilemma at play – if they don’t (or if their TO won’t allow them to), someone on the other side of the country they’re vying for the #1 slot with might use it to pull ahead.
A collectively backed interim FAQ would solve these problems and allow the competitive scene to shut down a sub-set of issues before they start negatively impacting on play. As well as providing a stop gap, this would provide the following additional advantages:
- Support for TOs to enforce sensible rulings, without worrying about grumpy players dragging them online.
- Greater responsiveness – issues can be resolved iteratively as they arise, rather than needing to be accumulated into a single snapshot.
- Event-to-event stability for players, who can be confident that the same ruling will be in play at each tournament they attend.
Addressing the most obvious high priority issues in this way won’t magically curb the incredible win rates from unbalanced new releases – the problems are much more fundamental than that. However, they would substantially mitigate some of the ‘feel bads’ that you run into at these events. Moreover, it forms a mechanism that allows for further consensus and review on how to create the competitive experience that the community needs and desires.
Challenges to Implementation
There are a number of significant challenges to what I’ve proposed, indeed it’s likely that such a community driven ownership of the competitive meta is simply untenable due to:
- Lack of a central authority
- Lack of community consensus
- The potential for overreach
Perhaps the biggest limitation to community policing of rule releases is the lack of an organizing body from which a community FAQ would derive authority. When ITC implemented its FAQ in years past, it represented the sole body in the US that TOs looked to for guidance. However, Frontline Gaming has since stepped back from that more proactive role as 7th drew to a close and 8th gave way to 9th. In addition, we’ve seen a rise of more regional leagues such as the Lord Marshal Conference, Texas Circuit, and others which in many ways serves to fragment the potential of a more unified body. In order for a community FAQ to gain traction, there would need to be an organizing body of TOs or easily accessible organization that can and is willing to review releases, receive community feedback, deliberate, and act jointly and openly to provide rulings. It is worth noting that the European WTC has done this but more recently has been limited in its impact – suffering from both an increasing prevalence of ITC-style events as well as a series of rulings that has caused some in the European community to take a pause with their FAQ.
The previously mentioned regional league fragmentation also leads to the second challenge, a lack of community consensus. In addition to an organizing body capable of delivering these changes, they will also need to balance the concerns of various TOs within different regions who may choose instead to simply ignore such an effort in favor of their local circuit’s interpretations. An organizing body needs to be open and honest in its rulings, how and why it came to them, and it needs to have taken the feedback from all parties and been capable of addressing the concerns. It’s impossible to please all people all the time, but by being open with the process and outcomes, it’s possible to build trust that the effort is being undertaken in good faith which in the long run will lead to the necessary buy-in.
In many ways, an above outlined process should help to mitigate the third challenge to such a system – rules overreach. However, the potential always exists that given rule-making power, an organization may well do what GW has done in the past and simply go too far. Where do you draw the line once you begin making changes? Adjudicating and clarifying conflicting rules or mistakes is one thing, but once you start changing points or datasheet abilities, or even banning specific books or supplements, it becomes a potential slippery slope. Here too I think a well-established and detailed process, open in implementation and tight on deadlines, could be beneficial, but it will be subject to the amount of effort that those who organize are willing and can donate. One potential option would be the establishment of ‘rules-of’thumb’ for post release corrections where increasing levels of data allow for more rigorous actions to be taken. For example, rarely post-release has the first weekend of a faction’s results been an outlier, and in fact the overpowered releases have tended to grow in oppressiveness once other players begin to build on their own versions of early lists. Allowing some fundamental changes only after the first weekend of results to an army can serve as an intermediary step that allows GW work out their own updates while also protecting the player base in the coming events (assuming a two-week timeline).
There’s a lot of work required to develop such a system, and a lot of detail that needs to be fleshed out on the execution, but Tournament Organizers should not feel like they need to await GW’s action to fix the atmosphere of their events and ensure the best possible experience of their players – casual, competitive, or otherwise.
In many ways, the sense I have is that Games Workshop is trying to have its cake and eat it too. They have made some investments and overtures squarely aimed at the competitive community and a lot of work has been put into trying to build trust in their efforts to manage the game balance. GW should be cheered for that. But these efforts are in conflict with their larger incentives and priorities to expand the business, limiting the speed and resources with which they can address the needs of an ultimately tiny community of consumers. As a result, the community is periodically exposed to extended periods of Drukhari or Ad Mech style abuse, which is slowly addressed over the course of months and iterations, ruining the experience of many tournament players in the meantime. The community needs to both acknowledge this reality and be prepared to take collective action to ensure that the experience at all our individual events is the best they can be. To do so, it’ll need to establish a central body of organizers and a system capable of review that is open, flexible, and decisive that acts in good faith on behalf of tournament attendees. If every release is still smashing the metagame to pieces in a year’s time there might prove to be an appetite for doing something more.
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