Monday, 17 November 2014

Raf: Games Workshop CEO

If I were the Games Workshop CEO…
Building on the interesting blog over on KiwiHammer, twinned with ongoing discussions on forums, twitter and ‘news sites’ such as BoLS, and serendipitously combined with me having the rare luxury of half an hour or so to kill, I thought I would throw some words at a page in relation to what I would do if appointed CEO of Games Workshop, and maybe touching on a couple of points raised by others.
It is important to note, right from the off, that a CEO has one job. To make money for their shareholders. That’s it. Their job is not to be friendly, lovely or helpful to whatever segment of the gaming populace you identify yourself with. Of course, if doing so will lead to more money for shareholders, then great stuff.
I spend a considerable amount of my day to day life speaking with successful CEOs of in the real world and they always say the same obvious thing about starting off: it is important to look at where you are, before working out where we want to be.
Counter to what a lot of what has been said, GW is not in a terrible place. Yes, their profits have gone down in the past couple of years. But in the context of a massive international economic slowdown and the collapse due to bankruptcy of one of their main alternative revenue streams the fact they are still making a profit is a Good Thing.

Let’s have a brief rundown of some of the key points that come up a lot when the company is discussed:
Biased Narrator.
Right from the off we have to address something. The vast majority of people whose opinions we read on this subject are the interweb-using tournament/competitive gamer.
The (seemingly accurate) accepted wisdom is that tournament gamers are a *tiny* fraction of GW’s customer base. And, counter to what a lot of these players will tell you, they, as a populace, probably do not account for an overly significant percentage of sales.
This same section of customers (computer-savy competitive players) are also, logically the most likely to be ‘disloyal’ to the brand – most likely to consider alternative models etc etc. For every gamer who tells me they would spends hundreds of dollars on the game if they tightened up their rules sets there is another going elsewhere with their money, using at times hilariously bad counts-as, and buying flat-out fakes from China.
The Wallet Factor.
Cost is the constant rallying cry for the disenfranchised. And I get it. Everyone always wants the stuff they like to be cheaper. The issue is the harkening back to some (mythical) long-gone glory days were GW stuff was cheap and when new entrants could afford to get involved without mummy & daddy chipping in. I have been in and out of the hobby for 20 years now, and can tell you that there was *no way* I could afford it in 1994. The numbers were different (inflation is a real thing after all), but the real term costs are not *that* much different, and the stuff now is of significantly better quality.
No hobby, taken to its maximum potential, is cheap. As I have pointed this out on several threads recently there is a limited amount of stuff £4/500 will buy you if you were looking at the likes of a games console and some games (and that’s assuming you already have a suitably TV to enjoy it on). Factor in the time taken to complete most games. For a lot less than £400 I could buy and army, all the stuff needed to assemble and paint it (if I wanted to) and have an army that, with a few occasional additions will last for… ever? A decade at least (especially if you shopped at our sponsor's web site). Of course, if you choose some horde army or want to constantly keep on the bleeding edge of the meta, the costs could get serious. But that is your choice, and is also comparable with “getting serious” in other hobbies.
The principle of supply and demand sets costs after all – a company by definition will charge as much as they think they can get for anything they sell. There is anecdotal evidence of GW trying new things with the pricing on some kits (such as DE Cold One Knights, to see if a low cost would drastically increase sales. It didn’t). All companies do this. Flames of War will sell you a tank that could fit in a Christmas cracker for over $20 after all (to pluck a random example out of the air).
Yes, there are some issues with pricing in the southern colonies, but that is a separate issue.
Listen up.
Another stick used to beat GW’s still-leaving corpse (or so I am told), is the lack of communication and community support on offer.
I am not entirely sure what this means. If this refers to the likes of FAQs, then sure, though I am old and ugly enough to remember when they were far rarer than they are now. If it refers to pro-active community engagement, having forums/facebook pages was a marketing disaster, so no wonder they stopped. The beautiful thing about the internet is that it gives a voice to the individual disgruntled person. And these people are, understandably, the most likely to kick off. This gives a bad impression for new customers.
It also is something that bothers me. If I spend my aforementioned £4/500 on Apple products, I expect them to be of top quality and last for 3-5 years. I do not expect to be mollycoddled, or for Apple to want me to be their best friend. GW customers, it appears, want *more*. This is good, as it means the product they have bought has made an emotional connection, but we are talking about a company that is out there to make money after all. It confuses me.
I do think they could do better in this area, but it is not a disaster that they don’t.
So, after that brief rundown of the world-as-is, it seems that, broadly speaking, things are going relatively well, so what would I do were I in the hot seat?
It is important to note that, in the vast majority of instances, a CEO is not the hands on person. You set strategy, direction and make sure you have the best people you can get to undertake your vision. With that in mind, my ‘vision’ (other than generally, and legitimately, doing everything in "Boss Mode") would be along the lines of:
The Game.
GW is a model company. Always has been, and it uses its brilliant IP to sell these. That is fine. It is a great sandbox for you to do anything you want.
Unfortunately some people struggle with this (yes, I am looking at the 40k players out there). An inability to self-regulate = upset people = bad publicity = bad.
I mentioned earlier that tournament gamers are not a big part of GW’s customer base, but they are still *a* part. My solution is a simple one. Two releases, expansions really, to be updated at specified, regular, intervals. What do I mean? 40k/WFB Tournament Edition (one could arguably come up with a better name, I’m not the creative guy in this scenario). From here you have a base to sponsor a tournament circuit/interact with the independent scene that is running the format, in the same way that X Wing has taken off.
The content? Probably some sort of comp system (such as the 40k Highlander system), some new missions, tightening of rules, etc. Whatever. I’m the CEO, not the creative guy. It would not be all that much work to produce (especially if kept mostly electronic/direct order). People could use it or not (as is already the case), but it would at least provide a product for people to buy. Limited risk, potential reward opportunity, good PR in any event.
Intellectual Property.
GW have managed to monetise the 40k universe IP very well. Getting the creative minds to continue to reshape the Fantasy setting (as they are doing in End Times) into something unique enough that it creates an interesting stand-alone IP would open up further revenue streams from tie-ins, and allows for better protection of your IP. Grimdark (and skulls) are GW’s thing. Own it.
On the back of this pursuing further collaborations with computer games etc makes a lot of sense.
Secondary Game Systems.
I get why the classics were dropped due to cost of continual support, the cost of giving them the support they require was prohibitive. However, the “all in the box” limited edition concept is perfect for a rerelease of Necromunda/ Mordheim/ Gorkamorka/ BloodBowl/ Warhammer Quest/ Battlefleet Gothic/ Epic/ Titan Legions/ Warmaster/ the-ship-one-that-for-some-reason-the-name-escapes-me Man O'War and  even Inquisitor. Not some risky new concept like Dreadfleet. Limited release of the classic games out there, with some additional content. You can then subcontract out support to either ForgeWorld, who can do limited batches as required, or to a third party. Limited risk.
Army Releases.
I would actually back the system that is being done in 40k (and now WFB to an extent). Release army books rapidly to a point where most armies are relatively on a par. When you have a new model you want to release for any given release, do so. Include the rules in the box. No more waiting around for up to a decade or more because the company is waiting for the time to release the new Bretonnian whatever. Just release it. Rules in the box (and, of course, for a nominal fee online). This makes logical sense as the fewer army books you have to print the better, and allows the creative minds to focus on more interesting, excitement-inducing things than an endless churn of army books/editions (which are also capital intensive to produce).
A controversial one this, as I have heard very little good about the one man stores from the community. That being said, the numbers make a lot of sense of them overall (or did, the last time I looked into them). Conceptually therefore, they are fine. What I would encourage, however, are large showpiece stores in particularly high potential areas. Where these are, I have no idea, they would have to be well chosen. If these could be run at only a slight loss then it would be worth it. You want some stores to be the equivalent of DisneyLand for GW – mind blowing stuff that inspires people to want to become even more immersed in the universe. The problem generally is that to run a successful store you need to find someone passionate about the hobby who is also good at running a business (not impossible of course, but a challenge).
Media Interaction.
A concerted push to build relations with a few key social media hubs makes all the sense in the world. Sure, you make sure they are nice about you. Sure, you control the agenda when sending out key people to be interviewed. Sure, you make sure what when appearing on a show you try prevent other gaming companies being mentioned, etc. That’s normal business practice, and would go a long way to changing the perception that the company does not listen. Black Library authors, as freelancers, do this all the time anyway. Mission critical? No. Cheap-to-free to do though.
Sell Up.
Keep trying to sell the business. It is an open secret GW have been looking at doing this for years. Of course, it would have to be for the right valuation, and there are very few companies that would look to buy it (other than Hasbro). Hopefully after next year the Hobbit game can be safely retired from eating up the company efforts, and the focus can be on capital-friendly efforts to increase sales (ie: things that drive sales without needing to create new models, etc). This is a hard one to enact, but makes a lot of sense for the business (I hear Hasbro has done well with Wizards of the Coast after all). Sorting out the IP mess and the legal challenges from internet sharks like Chapterhouse and many others is key to getting a decent valuation on the company, and to making it look like an attractive proposition. 
But first of all:
Remove all mentioned of Chaos Dwarfs and Dark Angels from all GW publications.
The reasons are obvious.
This is a Day 1 priority.

With that sorted, I'll catch you all next time!