What if Warhammer was Free?

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?

 Endless trial photo from Warhammer Online.  Lays logo owned by Frito Lay.  Tyrone Biggums photo from Chappelles Show.

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17 comments on “What if Warhammer was Free?

  1. I'm not sure about other areas, but in my experience here in the northwest U.S.A., it's fairly common for players to simply not own a copy of the rulebook in any way, shape, or form. During tournaments at our local (admittedly small) shop, there is usually only one copy of the rulebook for every two to three players, and virtually all of them are the AoBR versions, including mine.Simply put, nigh-on $60 is ridiculous for a rulebook that has very little else in it, and especially one with the poor editing standards of GW. I realize many books in the gaming industry suffer from this, but to be frank, GW's rules writing is simply not up to snuff. With so many other companies giving their rules away for free, it is a major downside to picking 40K or Fantasy that the rulebook is so expensive.I would have to agree- GW could benefit significantly from releasing free rulebooks. There is no reason they couldn't continue to sell a printed rulebook as well- having an easily-referenced, sturdy, well-illustrated book full of fluff and army pics for inspiration is something plenty of gamers would spring for. In this age of digital media and piracy, clamping hands over eyes and ears is simply not going to benefit them any.

  2. This is a notion that also occurred to me and to many others, I suspect. I would be absolutely shocked to find that GW hadn't explored the idea themselves. It seems to me that if they are, as some people say, a “model company that also makes games” then the smart thing to do is release your rules for free and open the doors to new model-purchasers.

  3. I'm quite confident that if GW did release the rulebook and accompanying codexes' that their profits would actually increase — whether from a price hike on minis, or from players buying more – or even both (which in my opinion what would actually happen).I can't speak for anyone else, but once I get my hands on a dex my mind dreams up all kinds of cool army lists and conversions that I want to do — I then have to fight myself to not go crazy and buy everything in sight for the army.But this could just be me as GW minis are my retail therapy.

  4. I in no way condone not owning a rulebook (especially since I typically windup purchasing multiple starter sets for the minis alone), or your codex, butI agree with you otherwise. I'm glad to see that I'm not alone inquestioning the business model. 🙂

  5. Not everyone has access to a printer to print out the rules. The printed rulebook is a convenient option for a lot of people, and it happens to be high-quality and durable.It also cannot be tampered with non-obviously.The rulebooks also give credibility to the game – it looks professional, and you feel you're getting something for your money.So yes, we need printed rules.The question now is, do we need an alternative free set of rules to download?No.Because there are pirated copies so freely available. Because you can borrow the books easily. Because you can pretty much remember most of the rules in your head anyway.When people give stuff away for free over the internet, it's because their current marketing model isn't working. Businesses don't give things away for free unless they are desperate. 40K is a niche market, it's not mass-market like Facebook or Twitter, it can't be supported by adverts, or by 1% of users who choose to pay for a better service. 40K needs all players to be buying stuff. The BRB and Codices are beautiful, inspiring works of art that people are proud to own. To give them away would cheapen them and the game itself.And anyway, they've done it with BFG and Epic, and I don't see those systems becoming massively successful because of it, do you?

  6. Oops just remembered you commented on BFG and Epic already. So scratch my last comment. Even though I disagree with your assumption that it is a flaw in the gaming systems that contribute to lack of success. You could find spurious arguments about ANY game system (including 40K) to explain a lack of success.However, the Warhammer Online free trial is a sign that they are struggling to get subscribers, and isn't a fair proof of concept. It also probably isn't GW who is making the pricing decisions on that, it's the computer game publishers who do that.Right now, GW isn't struggling. They've been tightening their belts, yes, but so has everyone else. They have no real competition in the marketplace (Privateer Press doesn't have shops or a share price). So they don't really need to change the way they do this.If you want free rules, man up and be a pirate. Otherwise, man up and pay up.(I don't condone piracy, btw, but is it any different from seeking something for free that currently costs money?)

  7. PS I like this blog, and read it regularly. But this post was just so ill-considered that I had to comment. :)Please keep writing other hobby stuff!

  8. HelloNever posted here before but this is something a friend and I was talking about the other day but about RPG books. I dont see why GW couldnt do both, by having the rules freely available from their webiste in a PDF form and then the ability to buy the rules in a nice well lay out book. I, for a time, was using a Nid codex that was printed from a PDF when I first got into the game 5 years ago. Just after a few games, I had had enough and I went a got the actual book. There was too much playing around with lose pieces of paper. There are lots of companies out there who do release their rules for free (which was what the RPG company had done with their rules) and I actually think it is very inspiring. My friend downloaded the rules, read through them, loved the game, the ideas and then went and paid for a actual copy of the book. I think this is a good thing to do, let people try the product before they become really commited, let people see how good the game is and then they will be willing to pay out for a lovely, decent copy of the rules. I personally always like to have a copy of the actual rule book as so have both hard back books for fanasty and 40K. Also, for MBA, where I live, specialist games are very popular, and when a new person comes to our club and wants to join in, we refer them to the website and the free rules, play a couple of games and if they decide to start to play, 9 times out of 10, they turn up with a army and the purchased rule book. Our society is based around material items, just because you can have a free, downloadable copy doesnt mean a professionally printed, hard back book wont sell, because it will.

  9. @MBA: You wrote: “Businesses don't give things away for free unless they are desperate.”And: “Warhammer Online free trial is a sign that they are struggling to get subscribers”Actually not true. Businesses give stuff away for free because it's a convenient, easy (and proven) way to grow your buyers/subscribers list much faster than not letting people get a free taste of what you have to offer.The idea is that you tease your prospect with a sample that is so good they want to upgrade to the paid version of your product/service.Will some people take advantage and grab up all the free stuff they can without ever upgrading or giving the company a dime? Absolutely, happens to me (and my clients) all the time – that's just how some people are.But I keep giving away free stuff because I make so much more money converting the freebie takers into paid customers than if I didn't give out free stuff.

  10. LOL. Yeah, I've been really good keeping my craving in check – only bought the new Nid dex, a Trygon and 2 Venomthropes for my existing army.Go get those imperial sector boxes – they're awesome.I'm just putting the very last finishing touches to 5 12″x12″ city fight pieces. I'll send you a pic to drool over and motivate ya!

  11. First of all, I want to thank you for taking a moment to reply, and for thekind words about the blog. Don't worry about offending me.. I've prettythick skin.I do like that you took the time to post a well-thought out counter-argumentto the post, and some things you say make good sense. Certainly if GW hasconsidered this, they've sided with the “Why give it away when people willstill buy it?” philosophy, and there's good reasoning behind it. I'm justquestioning if it's ultimately the right decision. It seems to me that thepiracy revolution that's hit the music industry so hard is about to crashdown on printed media via sites like scribd. Granted, people are stillmaking money on music, but there was a paradigm shift away from albums to$.99 itunes downloads. Is something like this in store for Warhammer aswell?I don't claim to have the answers; I'm just trying to stir up a littleconversation on the matter.So, thanks for the reply. I hope you're there to contribute to my nextill-considered post as well! 🙂

  12. That's also a good point. Despite having PDF copies of virtually every bookproduced by GW, I have a massive shelf of the original codices as well.You're right in that there's something so pretty about having all of theoriginals there, and something pleasingly tactile about having the real bookover a printed copy. Of course, the fact that it's the right thing to do isreally the driving force around me buying hard copies of each, since it's ameans to justify why I have PDF copies of each….Glad you finally got around to posting. Thanks for dropping by!

  13. Your point is solid, but in this specific reference, I think MBA wins.Warhammer Online is obviously floundering, and the “endless free trial” isobviously an attempt to right a sinking ship. Of course, they did offerrecruit-a-friend discounts when they were still going strong (as doesBlizzard in World of Warcraft). So yeah, it's a viable business tactic togive it away for free and see who comes back for more… 🙂

  14. Don't tell anyone, but I got two of those boxes recently myself. I had a friend come over yesterday and we assembled most of them. Yeah, they're pretty, but I'm almost ashamed to admit how much I spent on little plastic buildings.Hi, I'm Rob, and I'm an addict….

  15. Well yeah, eventually they have to ask you to pay for something. Otherwise it's just a freebie. Although some business models start with a completely free model and then later on after they've built up a solid subscribers list go to a paid model.Or they use their large subscriber base as a selling point to advertisers.However, from what you and MBA are saying, it does sound like Warhammer Online is a failure that they're desperately trying to save.

  16. I have thought for a long time that GW should offer their products electronically. I’d gladly pay $5 for an electronic copy of a codex that can be easily updated by GW (as Steve Jackson Games does with their PDFs) whenever a new FAQ needs to come out.

    I think that they would benefit greatly by at least giving the rules away for free. Not everything found in the hardcover book, but they could strip out the artwork, history, how-to’s, re-format it to easy-to-read text, and offer the rules-only for free on their site. Offer a nice PDF version (with the art and such added back in) for $10 – $15, and put a lavish physical copy out on the shelves for $75.

    While we’re on the tangent of electronic media, why doesn’t GW offer any of their rules as PDF files? There are a LOT of people who want electronic copies of the rules and are willing to throw $5 – $8 at GW for them instead of having to download them from other sources.

    They could make a pretty penny even offering PDF bundles of older editions of games. Want to buy all of the old Rogue Trader books as a PDF? $30. All of the old 2nd edition stuff (including Chapter Approved items from White Dwarf and the card sheets)? $30. You still have to buy the miniatures to play, and by forcing people to look on the secondary markets for out-of-print stuff (like I’m doing right now for 2nd edition stuff), they’re losing money that I WOUULD BE HAPPY TO GIVE THEM.

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