Saturday, April 30, 2011

Games Workshop - an outsider's view of the Evil Empire

Originally scheduled for June, this has been kicked into touch via a posting over on Morgue's blog.

Like, I think, a good number of 28mm model enthusiasts (insert height/ribald joke here)I have a love-hate relationship with the output of Games Workshop. Overpriced, saturation-marketed and fiendishly pitched at kids while relying on the disposable income of men twice their age, GW has for over twenty years been a business juggernaut. I was once told by a GW shop employee that it was a popular component in the share portfolios of Scottish bankers, simply because its business model 'could not fail.' From the outset as a resource for roleplaying gamers, to a venture producing its own RPGs, then to a tabletop franchise with its own rules system, lead miniatures line and eventually spin-off fiction and electronic gaming arms, GW combined a disparate range of previously and barely crossover hobbies – roleplaying, model making, tabletop warfare, and reinvented the gaming genre almost overnight. Gone was the old line, and, sadly, the excellent White Dwarf magazine, but in their wake a new product and gaming system that was in itself a revolution within gaming culture as well as niche marketing. And of course, when GW were awarded the rights to the New Line Lord of the Rings movie gaming franchise, those portfolios must have been very fat indeed.

It was, though, proper and right that GW would have the franchise, they being a sound business and a sure bet. Incredibly, the company stretched out a three movie world (the rights excluded references to Tolkien's other literary works, although workarounds mysteriously got in there from time to time) to a product line that was still being added to in 2010, a decade after the first movie. And the tie-in strategy game was clever and sympathetic to the source material, concentrating on the skirmish scenario rather than the big battles of say Helm's Deep or the Pellenor Fields (though those did feature later in the game franchise). The models were, by and large, splendid sculpts in metal and quite reliable in plastic (the former reserved for the heroes and villains, while the latter filled in the ‘troops’ of orcs, men, else, what have you).

Outside the LotR range though is where GW continue to make the money, and it’s this ever-expanding, constantly-revised world which represents the ‘real Games Workshop’. I find it a startling contrast to the studied and mannered world of the Rings models with their serious earth–tone movie palettes and scales just shy of the ‘heroic’ (a distortion of human scale which accentuates faces and detail, ideal for picking out as a hobby or on a playmat, while the Rings figures’ proportions were more natural). GW’s figures and scenery – Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer 40,ooo revel in the grotesque and outrageous. The armour is flamboyant, swords are huge and seemingly unwieldy, and guns too, the imagery is part fantasy, part Fascist state and part Spanish Inquisition (and that’s the good guys!) The colour palette is garish, encouraging the hobby’s painters to push the envelope with light and shade, contrast complimentary hues, eschew the muddy and grimy world of real warfare (though there’s a place for that too, in the hobby) for outrageous, dare I say, camp styling. Its figures Pose, rigid macho posturing that is as much about the wish fulfilment of its target audience as it is about the craft behind some astonishing models. And seemingly throughout, the GW Heavy Metal motifs of blades, spikes, Gothic trimming and totenkopf – there’s no space too small to fit in a random skull. Make no mistake, this is a juvenile aesthetic, but an irresistible one, and the pretenders to GW’s throne (Rakham, for example) have readily adopted many of the same styles, acknowledging their popularity. Independent model makers like Hasslefree and Heretic models make GW-like version of heroes and monsters continuing the aesthetic… and the result to me is one of homogeneity. Games Workshop have become so ubiquitous to the point of dominating the fantasy miniatures aesthetic that I find I’m happy to visit Games Workshop’s product line, to marvel at the design, imagination and flair, to tut over the exorbitant price tags, but I’m glad not to be part of it. And I find it becomes rather repetitive very quickly.

Fortunately I’m not alone. There’s a sizeable community of model collectors and painters who have broader tastes, and gladly support the more unique output of the likes of Hasslefree and their compatriots. On the Lead Adventure Forum, a place I regularly visit, there’s great interest in the model miniatures of the 1980s with their less precise and sometimes wonky mouldings, their less uniform approach and broader influences. There’s sometimes a challenge to bring out the best in those figures with paint that GW’s heroic scale can lack, being so prescriptive with its exaggerated scale. And there’s the look of those figures, a relic of past days in gaming when not everything looked like it was drawn by the same team of artists or based on the same house style. I have a small handful of Eighties figures still with me, waiting for a new paint job and a reinvention, and while my skill levels have been raised greatly by exposure to GW’s hobby literature, they won’t be getting the Games Workshop treatment.

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