Warhammer has been a big name in the basement-dwelling turbo-nerd scene for almost thirty years; a scene of which I am proud to be a member. Its creator Games Workshop has made numerous timid attempts to enter into the video game market, with severely mixed results. But very soon the millions of ravenous fans, lore buffs and cautious onlookers will be flooded by a huge effort from the company to return to its glory days, and this could be a bad thing.
But first, to the uninitiated, it will help if you understand what Warhammer is. Warhammer is pretty much the fanatic diary scribblings of a child in the ’80s who dreamed of being a wizard or a towering, near-immoral space deity, and then promptly used this power to murder everything in sight. Originally a series of mindbogglingly popular tabletop games, Warhammer has become one of the most recognizable brands in its class thanks to ventures in novels, film, video games and even a hearty amount of shameless rip-offs (yes StarCraft, we all know. Stop trying to hide your first edition rule book).
To keep it simple, we’ll focus on what is almost certainly the two most popular creations of the company. That would be be Warhammer: Fantasy, a very dark and brooding Tolkien homage with significantly more disembowellings, and Warhammer: 40K (see previous and place all events in a space-faring future). Both have continually unfolding storylines, often spanning numerous years before any significant events occur. While 40K is still triumphantly thriving, sadly, the Fantasy setting has not been keeping up. This became such an issue that Games Workshop has quite literally taken it into the back yard and shot it, albeit alongside a laser light show and a music festival. The Fantasy universe recently went through an event called The End Times where everyone dies and everything bad that could happen, does. It was pretty gloriously stupid fun, but also a clever way for Games Workshop to draw attention back to the setting for one last hurrah. Popular characters were killed, entire races wiped out in quick succession and finally, the big reveal. It was essentially a big marketing move to show off Warhammer’s new setting; The Age of Sigmar. And it got really weird, really fast. But before your brain begins to boil, I’ll stop the information dump there, because now my friends, its time to talk about business.
As many of you may know, games developer THQ fell into some serious issues back in 2013 and had to close down. With the closure, years of plans for Warhammer games hung in the balance. Games Workshop almost exclusively used THQ to produce its big budget titles. When those gaming assets went up for grabs, there was a frenzy to get hold of some potentially very profitable licences. According to this Asset Purchase Agreement, Sega now owns the vast majority of Warhammer IPs from the THQ auction. There were also talks of BioWare taking over the Space Marine license, with a third person shooter that put the player in the enormous stomping boots of 40K’s beloved alien killers. But while these paint an optimistic future for Warhammer’s gaming presence, what is more interesting is how Games Workshop has relaxed its previously tight control of the franchise.
Games Workshop makes most of its steady income from its tabletop roots, via a swathe of retail shops it owns around the globe. However, recent financial changes have motivated the company into action. In 2014, sales dropped by 12 percent with a profit loss of almost 30 percent. That is very bad news for any business, and the effects are already being seen. Its models are considered to be highly over priced despite their quality, and the tabletop market is rapidly diminishing. Warhammer Fantasy and Games Workshop-owned retail stores are being killed off in favor of more cost effective ventures, but 40K stands as the centrepiece of its core business plans. It’s their main money maker, so the Orwellian control exercised over the property is still quite strong. However, this year it became apparent that GW is ready to take some risks. While Fantasy is for all intents and purposes very, very dead for the tabletop scene, it now is enjoying a rebirth in the form of a number of high quality projects.
First and foremost is the staggeringly overdue Total War: Warhammer; a large scale strategy PC title made by the beloved development team at Creative Assembly and published by SEGA. A full gameplay demo has been shown, which highlights how carefully CA is crafting the product. You can also look forward to an XCOM-style Mordheim game, the Left 4 Dead inspired Vermintide and a few more smaller products. It seems very likely that now the Fantasy setting is defunct for the tabletop, GW will use the opportunity to shift it over to other mediums rather than simply discard its original setting. This is a smart move, and one I look forward to seeing come to fruition. 40K also has a number of titles coming out, but these are surprisingly on a smaller scale despite its popularity. The developers of the mind-melting E.Y.E: Divine Cybermancy are working on the Space Hulk FPS DeathWing, we have the surprisingly solid chess-remixing Regicide currently in early access, and even a Battlefleet Gothic strategy game in Armada.
But there’s a problem. GW may be making some smart moves, but they could equally be making some extremely poor ones. It’s starting to seem like they are panicking somewhat, in a time of financial turmoil, by throwing out previously closely guarded licenses without caution. After losing THQ as their key developer, the steady relationship GW had with the industry is in flux, and they know it’s now or never to make its mark on the industry. The issue is that they may not be picking their developers smartly. A few, such as Creative Assembly, are perfect choices that fit neatly with their own goals and quality standards. However, they seem to be targeting a number of cheaper developers for some worryingly high profile work.
Warhammer: Eternal Crusade is an upcoming MMO in the 40K universe, which demonstrated some real promise during its announcement. The goal of thousands of player battles, Free to Play Orks and a persistent, unending war showed some great understanding of the license, but things are starting to look somewhat bleaker. Recent reveals of dramatic player count reductions, development issues and a very underwhelming gameplay trailer have disheartened many impatient fans. The game is in an early alpha stage and there are always technology restrictions that lead to cutbacks, but the issue remains that Behaviour Interactive are not well known for big-budget games. Their track record reveals that they have a history of third party handheld games; more Scooby Doo and That’s So Raven than blood-swathed cyber Templars. They most notably worked on a few large scale projects, but never as a lead developer. Eternal Crusade is a very ambitious title that would be a struggle for any outfit. While the studio is by no means a junior in the industry, they have little proven experience that will be of assistance to the project. It is worth stressing that the finished product is still a while off and it could very well turn out fantastically, but community hopes are currently draining.
Over the last few years, Games Workshop has been quietly releasing a huge number of titles developed by less experienced and therefore cheaper developers. Apple devices have received a flood of iOS games, alongside a few less ambitious projects to fill the gaps. This makes sense from a business perspective; crafting a well-rounded set of games for fans to try for little investment, possibly allowing experimentation to see which formula is the most effective to creative market dominance. But fans don’t want cheaply made iOS, lane-based strategy or side-scrolling games. We want more well crafted AAA titles like Total War: Warhammer, with story driven narratives and big-action setpieces. But these are risky. Despite Space Marine’s strong sales and positive reception, it’s likely that GW is exercising extreme caution. Big games require big investments, and without a trustworthy and proven developer like THQ supporting its transition, it is unlikely that we will see that Brothers in Arms-inspired Imperial Guard game for a few years yet.
The word of the year for GW is stability, and piling millions of dollars into a product that may not provide solid returns is not what they are looking for. But they need to start taking more risks to ensure that they become a significant presence in the industry. Fans are dying for something with more substance, which Total War and DeathWing may provide, but with the constant stream of low quality titles being thrown at us currently, the fear is that the excitement may become diluted. As a fan for nearly 12 years, I hope that they see the demand and success that they need to push some more frequent big budget titles. Until then, we will all have to wait patiently for the first wave of titles, and hope.