Wargames companies and 3D printing

Something I’ve wanted to write a blog post on for a while is the transition from the old to the new. Let me expand on this a little bit. What’s happened is easy to explain: Before I was born1, there were independent shops that sold things. Maybe they sold vinyl records, or maybe they sold VHS tapes, or maybe they sold books, or maybe they sold copies of Dungeons & Dragons, but they sold things. Eventually, those shops died out as bigger companies arose and stamped them out. Companies like Waterstone’s moved into town centres and used their distribution networks to stamp out smaller, independent bookshops. Branches of HMV and Virgin Megastores basically replaced the independent record stores and video stores. And Games Workshop penetrated the market by selling traditional gaming materials more cheaply than indie stores could and switching to their own proprietary systems when the indie stores had faded away.

Then, the cycle began again. Only this time it wasn’t a new chain of high-street stores, it was companies like Amazon and Apple, and this time the war was more complicated. Amazon was able to maintain low prices by running at a loss for years in order to undercut the chains that had used very similar tactics to undercut the indie stores. Meanwhile, Apple’s iTunes Music Store (now just the iTunes Store) went from its launch in 2003 to the leading music retailer in the United States in 2008 and the leading worldwide retailer in 2010. Steam has revolutionised PC gaming, becoming the dominant force in that retail sector and leading to a dearth of PC games at most high street stores. Online, digital downloads combined with cheap mail order services lead to the loss of many high street stalwarts. At this point we have lost Virgin Megastores and Woolworths, HMV has begun to haemorrhage money, Borders is gone in both the US and the UK, Game has gone into administration (resulting in the closure of my local Gamestation) and Blockbusters is facing an uncertain future.

A photograph of some glyphs on the Necron Pylon from Forge World, picked out in gold paint.

This moves me onto the subject of 3D printing. You’ll note that I haven’t said anything about Games Workshop, despite mentioning them in my first paragraph. This is because Games Workshop are, for the most part, still afloat and still making games. But if you have been paying attention, there’s a clear pattern: Online, digital products are beginning to force the high street chains out of business, or at the very least are leading to huge reductions in their profits. And suddenly, 3D printing is right around the corner. Games Workshop has already involved itself in the 3D printing scene; unfortunately, they did this by sending a takedown notice to Thingiverse because someone called Thomas Valenty had uploaded two of his own designs that were intended to be used with Warhammer 40,000.

The first thing to note is that the Wired article that reported this takedown has a short series of thoughts on the legality of the situation, which will be even more relevant as 3D photocopiers, capable of copying items on demand, become more widely available. It turns out that patent law is probably more on the side of the consumer than it is on the side of the corporation in the case of manufactured items. Most patents only last twenty years, in marked contrast to the situation that we’re currently seeing in the music, movie and publishing industries where copyright lasts for a much longer period of time.

But, even if the law ends up being changed to screw the customers, Games Workshop are still even more screwed, because someone is going to work out how to do this legally. It’s like Napster and the major record labels; the major record labels finally managed to get Napster made illegal and then shut down, but in its place rose iTunes and Amazon, both of which were very successful due to the genius of taking a product and making it easier to buy than to pirate. Ditto for pirating PC games; it’s easier to buy them from Steam than it is to go through the rigamarole of torrenting them.2

Games Workshop are already beginning to look more shaky due to the rise of companies like Spartan Games, who sell a range of games that are very cheap to get started with; you can get a pretty decent army and the rules for under £50 in most cases, as compared with a rulebook that costs almost that much in Games Workshop’s situation. And, eventually, just as happened with the iTunes Store and Steam, there will be a company that makes its money by selling 3D printer models of the armies that they stock alongside cheap-to-purchase PDFs and iOS/Android/Windows 8 apps that contain the rules. It’ll completely undercut anything that Games Workshop is doing by being cheaper and easier than buying a hardback rulebook for £35 alongside an army that will probably cost about £100 on top of that.

An image of some painted Space Marines sitting on my desk, in front of a TARDIS-shaped USB hub.

I’m interested to see whether Games Workshop will follow the trend, or whether it will realise what no other high street chain has realised and actually alter its behaviour to fit this new way of doing things. I’m fascinated by the fact that every single industry has made exactly the same mistakes as every other, and that none of the high street chains seem to have reacted in time to prevent this happening even when it became obvious it would.3

  1. Perhaps this is somewhat cynical, but you know what I mean. 
  2. The reason that I’m reluctant to say that videogame piracy has been effectively beaten is due to the stupidity of games companies, who are currently crippling their products in such a way that the pirated versions are turning out to be better than the legal ones, due to both accidental and deliberate server failures. 
  3. Honourable mention to Waterstone’s, who are trying to make their high street operations relevant to consumers who are getting more used to buying digital books. 


  • James Shields

    10th July 2012 at 22:26

    I think you’re spot on, John.

    3D printing is a game changer in terms of manufacturing, because it will allow companies to produce and sell products without having to invest in actually producing anything. The technology will have to evolve to monetise it, but I think this will happen because there is too much riding on it for it not to. I’m sure there will be pirate models on Torrent, but like the Kindle, if the process becomes as easy as selecting a product from a website and pressing “buy”, and the product starts printing, then people will use it because it’s easy.

    Whether GW adapt to this or not, it suddenly allows small operations to flourish in an environment where they have no manufacturing costs and can products that are every bit as good as GW’s plastic kits that they currently have to invest millions in mould tooling to produce.

    It’s a very exciting development.

  • John Coxon

    10th July 2012 at 22:27

    I know, it’s soon going to be an exciting time to be a wargamer!

  • James Shields

    10th July 2012 at 23:19

    Just to add, I’ve had ideas on this for a couple of years.

    Currently you want a space marine in a cool pose, you can buy a metal or resin figure with a static pose you like, or you can buy a plastic kit and glue the parts together to make exactly the pose you want (within certain parameters).

    Imagine if we could take that plastic kit posing to the next level. You download a 3D program (or better still, just browse to a web page the program resides in), you get a page with a plain space marine on. You can then select custom weapons and armour, head variants and maybe a few other parameters. Maybe you could add the corpse of a fallen foe to the base. You then get to move the limbs into exactly the pose you want, using simple mouse clicks. The price will update depending on the choices you select, and you can click “buy” and print the completed model.

    That would be cool for your character figures, but you’d probably also have options to pick your troop weapon choices and print out a squad in a variety of standard poses to save you having to customise every figure individually (unless you want to).

    All the elements of this are very possible with today’s technology, but the “glue” to string them together needs to be created. I see this happening in the not too distant future.

  • Fred

    21st July 2012 at 08:37

    I saw this article on 3D printing and thought I’d post it here, although it’s only tangentially related:


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    11th March 2013 at 18:55

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