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Tuesday, 3 January 2017

2017 - What will it bring for us gamers? Part 1: Spartan Games

Whatever your opinion of 2016 in other ways, it was a pretty good year in gaming. The hobby as a whole is growing at around 30% where most industries can hope for about 10% of that. We saw the arrival of some major new franchises like Dropfleet Commander and GW seem to be organising themselves in a slightly better way in many areas, despite still carrying on with Age of Sigmar (!). The rise of the board game strengthened more than ever, and there were a lot of great Kickstarter projects that were announced/launched and sometimes fulfilled. Not a bad time at all to be a gamer.

After looking over the Man Battlestations Blog, I thought it might be fun to do a similar predictive series of posts here over the coming days. So, what do I think is on the horizon for 2017?

Spartan Games

Let's start off with my once favourite games company. Unfortunately, after seeing behind the curtain for several years, I don't see great things ahead for SG. Why? Well, let me give you something of a parallel story from history.

I'm old enough to have been a kid during the personal gaming computer invention and rise. Back when the Sinclair ZX Spectrum was created in the '80s, I was at school and rode that crest of early computing brought to the masses. The market exploded from nothing to millions almost overnight, as everyone wanted this new stuff. There were many possibilities for a kid to convince their parents to buy, but the old Spectrum was the market leader, instantly recognisable with its rubber keyboard and coloured flash. Following it were the Commodore 64 for those with a bit more cash, and the high-end BBC Model B, which you could even get a floppy drive for.

The good old "Speccy" with its weird rubber keys

My parents were not high earners - not in itself a bad thing - but when coupled with their shocking lack of knowledge and gullibility, they became prime targets for the high street salesguy in the electronics store wanting to shift non-moving stock. Enter the Oric-1. 

Despite having hard keys, it was still pretty horrible to type on

"WTF is an Oric-1?", I hear you say as you frantically google it in another tab....well, let me tell you, in principle it was a better machine that the Spectrum - it had a non-rubber keyboard, a better BASIC (Spectrum BASIC was non-standard), a great music chip and it was competitively priced. Unfortunately it had some QC issues, meaning the machine I got on Christmas day didn't work properly. It was returned and I got another, which also had issues. Eventually this all got resolved by me getting an Oric Atmos, an even better machine with a keyboard of actual proper keys.

Oooh - sexy...proper keys that were nice to type on!

Of course, the Oric's market lifespan was limited - the Oric-1's initial QC problems in a marketplace where Sinclair machines were churned out in their thousands and with increasing memory meant that developers largely left it alone, meaning the range of games you could get for the Oric machine was much smaller than the Spectrum, Commodore 64 or even the BBC. In short, it failed to keep up with market demands and expectations, and though it was a great machine, its users enthusiastic and passionate, it fell into the dustbin of history long before its rivals.

If that story felt familiar, then it should. I feel Spartan - once ahead of the curve in this space - have been equalled and now (arguably) overtaken by their competitors. I don't believe Kickstarter funded projects will save them. They will continue with a (slowly shrinking) core of supporters, until the point their various games go mail-order only and/or become unsupportable, and go the way of Uncharted Seas.

The reasons behind this are twofold - resource and leadership. Spartan are located in a beautiful, but relatively remote and rural part of the UK. This provides relatively cheap building rent costs, but restricts the appeal of the location for up-and-coming developers. As we've all seen, staffing at Spartan is limited, and restricts their ability to keep up with customer demands, both in terms of information and product. In terms of leadership, Spartan Neil has a distinctive dictatorial style which makes him difficult to work with, which enhances the resourcing issue further. It also leads to some bizarre decisions being made that are not good for his business, but as the owner, who would stand up to those decisions?
This is something I am very familiar with, and there is a concept known as "The Healthy Organisation" - the works of Patrick Lencioni are great in this regard. Basically it talks about not only making SMART-led, KPI-monitored decisions in an organisation, but also making sure you take care of people, have an environment where decisions can be challenged and communicated fully and transparently etc. Companies that do this tend to do very well, because people are engaged, driven to succeed and feel supported in their endeavours.  For me, SG doesn't look like a SMART nor a Healthy Organisation.

Now this is OK if you're not fighting against the tide or want only a small piece of the pie, but less so when your market is very competitive or is fast-moving. Ten years ago this was probably true, and as SG entered into a background of a GW-dominated industry as a disruptive influence, it did well and developed quickly as a minor league player. The problem is, other companies did too. Mantic, for instance, which led by an ex-GW director, was much more business minded than SG.

So, specific predictions? I guess SG will fail to hit their DW Kickstarter fulfilment dates - it finished at around 270% of their goal with 858 backers (around 30-40% of other roughly comparable niche KS projects in terms of backer numbers) - though interestingly they had just THREE retail backers, which shows that they've either used up the goodwill of retailers out there or that shops are just going to wait and see if this has an effect on demand before getting stock - I suspect a little of both. Out of the pledges, 20 of them were their highest level "design a model" pledge, providing almost 12% of the total funding....which is a lot of promised design time, given SG committed to a couple of days with the designer each - that's 40 days or 2 full work months. Either they were not 100% honest about this or that's a LOT of design time not being spent on FA, PF & Halo...or they will horribly over-run. Or both, possibly all three!

Will FA v2.5/v3 come out in 2017? That's a toughie....I know "Spartan Linde" is working on this (he was a member of the FFG), but given I know his input, style and local meta, plus the increased centralisation of design to SG, I kind of hope it doesn't, because either the changes will be minimal and somewhat arbitrarily pointless, or they're going to screw it up. It would be a dangerous time to screw up, because Hawk will have fulfilled all their KS pledges, smoothed over any burns and got other stuff out by then. Plus they'll have had 6-9 months of real world play and feedback to hone their game and grow their userbase. If you like FA more than DFC, but can only get a game of DFC, guess what's going to happen in time? So overall I'm going to say they will, and it will have little impact on saving the system, primarily because Neil fails to grasp what people really want/need from a games company beyond shiny resin models.

What I hope SG do is release PF v2, which is really needed, though once again I think they'll screw it up for exactly the same reasons as above. I really feel for dedicated Planetfall players because the models are great, just the rules and fluff don't do them or the universe justice, nor has Spartan shown players any respect with the shockingly poor lack of support they've had - essentially being abandoned for most of 2016, and "supported" in the most haphazard and poorly executed way I've ever seen from a supplier.

I also expect Dystopian Legions will go the way of Uncharted Seas, and disappear completely. I also expect they'll do some batshit-crazy stupid project like their 1/300th scale 1946 WWII game they showed at Salute 2016, though god only knows what shape that will actually take. After some small hiatus they'll then abandon it.

Halo is the other difficult one. HFB has been little supported of late, and though HGC had an introductory splash, I've been underwhelmed with their releases post launch and their fulfilment hasn't been great. I can't imagine 343 are wildly enthusiastic about revenue numbers, and I expect further pressure from them on SG, impacting other ranges releases, or that relationship to become rather soured. It could go wither way from where I'm sitting.

So what I expect from SG is a set of releases which are not wholly thought through nor tie in with prior canon or background, because they don't see that as especially important. I expect them to try to lean more heavily on non-compensated fan support and Kickstarters to sustain themselves, and the "fickle gamers" as some have called them (or those with common sense and self respect as I would refer to us) gradually adopt other things to do with our time. 

I don't expect SG to explode, implode or revive their business, but to gradually become less and less significant in the gaming world as other companies get it more consistently right, and have their fingers on the pulse of what gamers want. I'd love SG to prove me completely wrong, but they've never failed so far to fulfil my jaded expectations of them. As T.S.Elliot wrote;

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.