I’m not talking about a completely utopian society where everyone had everything; that existed at one point in a form called Vassal 40k, and was promptly kiboshed by GW direct. Naturally, GW was afraid of that pricing model because they couldn’t sell anything, and with no need to buy models, they’d quickly be out of business.
What I’m talking about is a situation where the core rulebook, and maybe even the expansion codices for Warhammer 40,000, and even Warhammer Fantasy, are free, but players are still required to buy the models.
To a lesser extent, this business model has already proven viable by other gaming competitors. Examples of this can be seen in Hordes (by Privateer Press), wherein seemingly complete rulesets are posted online. To a lesser extent, rules for Warmachine and Flames of War are also posted online (though both appear to be in abridged format). Of course, I don’t play those games, so I’m not sure how accurate the rules are, or of they sell other companion books to supplement these rules.
One example I can provide as proof of concept comes from Games Workshop directly in the form of their endless free trial for Warhammer Online. Granted, they’re essentially only giving you a portion of the game for free, but would that really be all that different from letting us download the rulebook? Another example is that of their Specialist Games. These are the smaller games that GW has produced over the course of the last twenty years, most of which were a splash release with a small boxed set, including:
Of these, GW appears to still be making models for many of these ranges, and selling them all directly from their website, and the rules for every one of them are downloadable for free from their website.
So, that might lead a person to wonder if there’s a correlation between making the rules available for free and a lack blockbuster success. There are so many other factors that contribute to the lack of success of these games including:
- Smaller Elite Forces: For many specialist games, players field elite forces of between 2-10 models. Less models required means less profit for GW, and less longevity in the line itself. Why support a game that’s destined to give you small profits? That leads to:
- Lack of Support: Rules updates don’t come out as frequently for these games, nor do they have the extensive ranges of models.
- Lack of Longevity: With smaller profits, and fewer ways to get people to keep buying models, these games die out relatively quickly.
These factors are more likely what contributes to the diminished success of specialist games—though none of them apply to the core games of WHFB or WH40k.
So what would happen if the rules were free? Well, first of all, GW would lose a portion of direct revenue: those associated with selling rulebooks and codices. How much can they really be making on these books though?
Considering that a starter army (eg. Battleforce) sells for about $95, the codex costs about $25, and the core rulebook costs $57.75… it would seem that about 47% of initial sales. Of course, we all know that you get a free rulebook and two armies with the starter set for $75, so why would anyone in their right mind buy a basic rulebook? The proportionate value of the rulebook in the Assault on Black Reach boxed set has to be more like $10. With that in mind, the rules make up for more like 1/3 of the total sales for a new player. That still sounds like too much profit to just give away for free.
But consider how rare it is for a player to pick up a copy of the game and never buy anything more. Like Lays potato chips, nobody can stop at just one. Many of us addicts have several armies, at several thousand points each. Granted, for each army, we likely have purchased a separate codex, but we can at least spread out the cost of the rule book across each army. Likewise, we naturally have more than the handful of models that come with the starter set, thereby decreasing the profit made from codices as a portion of sales. Just how much this will reduce total sales, I can only estimate.
Forgive my crude assumptions here, but let’s take an example of someone who plays the “standard” game of 1500 points of Space Marines. Let’s start them out with the AoBR boxed set:
- Captain (150pts)
- Tactical Squad (175pts)
- Terminators (200pts)
- Dreadnought (125pts)
For a grand total of 650 points. Well, phooie, we’re going to have to add more. We could add an arbitrary mix of units, but let’s do this as cheaply as possible, and just add two more AoBR boxed sets. That will give us a total of 1950 points worth of models, though we’ll have to play around to make them fit within the FoC. I believe this should be the cheapest way to acquire 1500 points worth of models.
The end result, is $25 for the codex, $225 for the AoBR boxes, and the rulebook was “free.” So, the rules cost approximately 14% of total sales when you consider the absolutely cheapest way for someone to purchase a standard sized 1500 point army (which is starting to be considered small by today’s standards). Discounts and alternate methods (such as eBay) will likely result in lower total costs, but the ratio of rule costs to model costs will likely remain unchanged.
All in all, I suspect the total value of the rules has to be between 5-10% of the total sales that GW should do. That is, assuming that everyone purchases a copy of the codex for each army they play (and no more)—but does everyone do that? With the proliferation of Army Builder and the rampant availability of rulebooks and codices from internet sharing sites like Scribd, I suspect many players don’t even own a copy of their own codex.
With the web becoming more and more ubiquitous, the inevitable result seems to be the concept that information is wants to be free. If this is the case, GW’s model will have to change from selling rules to giving them away, and selling the models to play with.
We know this means a slight dip in GW’s immediate profits, but what does that mean for us gamers?
- A more knowledgeable player base. Since there’s no reason why every player shouldn’t have a copy of each codex, we should all be aware of what each army can do. No more dirty surprises for those of us that can’t afford to buy a copy of every army book that’s released.
- More expendable income. That loss of 5-10% sales to GW, will translate to more money in our pockets. GW could raise their model costs to accommodate for this (something they’d surely do), but realistically, the majority of players will just look at this as a chance to buy 5-10% more models than they could previously. No matter how many models a 40k addict has, it just never seems to be enough…
- Fewer barriers to entry. New players would no longer be required to purchase a rulebook and a codex to play the game, thereby lowering the cost to start playing. This would make the game available to more players.
I’m sure there are more benefits, but this is an off-the-cuff blog post, and that’s all I can come up with for now. All three seem pretty viable to me though…
Granted, GW can also decide to just give out the rulebook, and still sell the codices, that would still accomplish a couple of the bullet points above… and, quite frankly, they’re already giving the rules away in their starter boxes, so they’d also save printing costs for books (by allowing all rules to be downloaded from their website).
Well, I’ve gone on for much longer than I’d initially planned. So, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the matter. Do you think it’s viable that GW could play the role of our gaming crack dealers: give out the rules for free and see who comes back for more? Do you think it would really hurt their bottom line?