For my day job, I work in online retail. Every retailer, big or small, competes on 3 basic approaches: 1) have the best selection, 2) provide the best service, or 3) offer a lower prices than anyone else. There are many examples of retailers executing these strategies with outstanding efficiency. For example, Amazon and Walmart have clearly chosen the path of offering the lowest prices and deepest selections, while companies like Sweatwater Music and Backcountry.com (my place of business) compete by providing customers intimate connections with service representatives that know product better then anyone else.
There isn’t a whole lot of mystery surrounding these retail strategies, they have been adapted and innovated for decades, but at the heart, they remain the same. If this is the case for retail, what about tabletop gaming and in particular what about 3d printable tabletop game? How do tabletop games compete and how will 3d printed games draw an audience? Let me assure you, games will not be competitive if they use the same strategies as retailers, and they especially won’t be competitive because of price economics. Sure, all tabletop gamers complain about price, but price still hasn’t stopped many gamers from dropping $30 or more on a handful of 28mm pewter miniatures. Most outsiders look at that as a form of insanity, but game companies have been selling overpriced miniatures for decades. What is really driving this industry, and what are possible strategies for growth?
Let me share some fundamental strategies that all successful games have employed, and demonstrate how 3d printable game will need to employ these same methods to gain traction in the tabletop game market.
Intriguing Game Mechanics
First and foremost, the strategy that is at the root of every successful game is intriguing game mechanics. I don’t say perfect game mechanics or revolutionary game mechanics, but I emphasize the word intriguing game mechanics. Most mechanics aren’t revolutionary; in fact, many games share similar mechanics, but intriguing mechanics surprise the player, they draw them into an experience that hides the fact that they are playing a game. If you dissect any game that is heavily played, you will find that it is tightly wound around solid and intriguing game mechanics.
Without question “intriguing” mechanics is open to a vast amount interpretation. This is what makes it a viable competitive strategy for game designers and game companies. A person who loved rolling dice may not be into wordy narrative games, and vice versa. Discovering what makes something intriguing is a process every game needs to go through in order for it to resonate with its audience. If a game has any hope of making its mark, this process will be thoroughly explored.
Here is where a game can really start to take shape. When I say great components, I am referring to the actual components (miniatures, books, art, etc.) and also the theme and story that ties the game together. like I mentioned above, we see similar game mechanics used over and over, but quality components can separate the boys from the men.
Now, it is entirely possible to have a game with mediocre mechanics garnering a huge fan base because of beautiful artwork and high quality miniatures. I have no problem with this. It is a strategy that work. I’m a sucker for great art, and I’m happy when people do it well, but this may be an important place to interject the fact that it is very difficult to make a great game by relying on only one competitive strategy. If a game is just selling awesome miniatures, then they have left the realm of game design, and would probably be better suited to compete in the retail market.
Last, but certainly not lease, a game is only as successful as the community that plays it. I recall my early days of game design with my small group of friends. Our epic battles never went outside a circle of maybe three or four players. I don’t regret this, but had our goal been to market it more broadly, a larger community would inevitably have been required.
Garnering a community is not an easy task, but like the other strategies mentioned above, it carries a lot of weight. I am always fascinated by the Games Workshop community. It is probably one of the most vast and loyal groups built around tabletop games, but even this host is broken into sub-factions and designators. Whether you like their games or not, the community they have built around their games is impressive. Even if there game mechanics and components were to slip, that community still has staying power. Not get me wrong, a community won’t last if it is neglected, but it can draw strength through hard times.
Because I have a great affinity for the idea of 3d printable games, I feel there are some false notions I need to debunk. There are many people that talk about how 3d printing will revolutionize the tabletop game industry by bringing down prices and making miniatures more freely available. There is also an inverse group of people that say 3d printers and materials will never be more economical or have the same quality that traditional methods do. This kind of logic is in complete error, and will only bring about unnecessary copyright issues, poor gaming experiences, and a slower acceptance of 3d printable games. If 3d printing will capture any of the tabletop game market it will be because of new, well-crafted games and passionate communities. Only by staying true to the principles and strategies that have made games great in the past will the future of tabletop gaming continue to innovate.