The High Cost of Wargaming

Before I ever heard of Doom, a wargame made me a lifelong PC gamer. It was Adrian Earle’s Fields of Glory. Hardly anyone seems to remember it now, and in fairness it had some significant problems. But the little marching soldiers, crackling musketry, and drummers beating the attack made it about the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen.

I didn’t go to Babbage’s looking for a wargame, but my intentions were lost the moment I saw the box art and read the copy. My father had promised me a game that day, something to see if PC gaming was all it was cracked up to be, and that was what I wanted. We ignored the action games around us, and took home a wargame. A flashy one, true, but a wargame nonetheless. From that game flowed a lifetime of strategy and wargaming.

That couldn’t happen today. Wargames have been driven from store shelves to make room for acres of Sims expansions, real-time strategy clones, and a prodigious selection of shooters, many of which no clerk should sell in good conscience. The specialty software shops are gone, their place taken by the protracted adolscence represented by GameStop and the lowest common denominator approach championed by the trinity of  Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy.

Most outlets no longer bother to review most wargames. The service that PC Gamer, Computer Gaming World, and Computer Games Magazine provided in their heyday has been dropped by their online replacements. When these magazines slapped an Editor’s Choice award on a gnarly, stat and hex-heavy wargame they were saying, “If you are a gamer, of any sort, you need to play this.”

They were right to agitate against the narrowing of the mainstream gamer. Steel Panthers was a brilliant game, and people would see that if they just gave it a chance. Writers like Bill Trotter encouraged gamers to take that chance.

But let’s not overlook just how difficult wargame publishers have made it for gamers to justify taking those chances. Glancing through their catalogues, it looks to me like they have given up on doing anything to win new customers and have instead decided to milk their core players for every penny.

A few nights ago, after getting bulletins from GamersGate, Steam, Impulse, and Direct2Drive about a bunch of intriguing sales and almost pulling the trigger on a few of them, I felt guilty because I never remember my old friend the wargame when it comes time to grab a new title. So I cruised over to the Matrix Games site and started browsing the catalogue to see if the $20 I was debating spending on Demigod or an indie-game compilation could be spent on a wargame instead.

Helpfully, Matrix has a $20 or less section in its store. Less helpfully, this section includes add-on packs and strategy guides along with complete games. Only a dozen items can be purchased for less than $20 at the Matrix Store, and most of them only digitally. The way it sounds on the store site, Matrix only makes the digital copy available to the purchaser for 30 days. While I would hope customer service will provide extra downloads after that date, the given terms do not seem like much of a deal.

Outside of that section the convenience and security of physical ownership comes at a steep price, one that seems immune from the passage of time. 2007′s Guns of August is $45. 2006′s Conquest of the Aegean is $70!  2003′s Korsun Pocket is $40.

Matrix not an outlier by any means. You’ll get as fair a deal from them as you will anyone else, except maybe some of the specialty shops you can find online or in big cities. The entire wargame market is significantly pricier than the PC game market in general, and rarely grants discounts.

This creates a problem for me, because I feel like I am being punished for not fitting the traditional wargamer demographic. I’m 26, at the start of my career, and my disposable income is minimal. Matrix Games, HPS, and the rest of the gang have a business model that only seems to work if you’re a little older, a little farther along in your profession, and a little wealthier. That, or you simply value wargaming so far above other genres that a good wargame is worth two or three lesser titles.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case with me. There is no way I can justify to myself, and certainly not to my partner, that I should spend $40 – $60 on one game when my typical game purchases are less than $20. And I can’t honestly say to myself that I’ll get more enjoyment from a game like Guns of August than I will from buying, for the same price, Stalker, Company of Heroes Gold, Europoa Universalis 3 Complete, and Psychonauts. That’s a steep opportunity cost.

Now I’ve spoken with wargame designers in the past, and I know that making a profitable computer wargame is forbiddingly difficult (which is why so many of the greats stick to the tabletop formats). And Matrix must be doing something right to be thriving when so many of the old publishers have folded or come under the Matrix umbrella.

But I guess I just don’t see a future in it. I’m a gamer who has been conditioned to pay $5, $10, and $20 for his games and, on balance, I spend quite a bit of money each month on new acquisitions. But I expect a certain amount of utility for my money, and the ratio seems all wrong with wargames. So all of it gets siphoned into other genres, where publishers are more willing to discount their back catalogue titles.

Worse, I can’t convince my non-wargaming friends to give the genre a chance. Ten or fifteen years ago, I could sell friends on Steel Panthers, Close Combat, and The Operational Art of War. Now they are likely to nod while I talk about how great TOAW3 is, but they get to the website, look at the screenshots, look at the price… and they pass. Better to stick with the familiar rewards of JRPGs and RTSs than dive into something that looks like Spreadsheets and Hexagons XII.

The risk to publishers, I suppose, is that they will dismantle a business model that works (however tenuously) in favor of going after customers they are not certain exist. If they start cutting older titles down to $20, and the existing customers just start playing the waiting game while new ones fail to materialize, the publishers are sunk.

But frankly, I don’t think that would happen. How many devoted wargamers would wait three years for a price cut? How likely is it that someone is abruptly going to decide to buy, at full price, a wargame that he has ignored for six years? On the other hand, how many gamers might give themselves the chance to get hooked on wargaming, if publishers would only make games available to them? I could personally guarantee a half dozen titles that I would jump on tomorrow if they hit the $20 price point. I can also guarantee that I won’t buy any of them the way things stand right now.

    • vonmanstein
    • November 20th, 2009 2:37am

    Or better, they should cost $0.99 cause that’s what you are used to on your iPhone.

    • Sorry, Von Manstein, I don’t have an iPhone, and it’s kind of irrelevant to compare the iPhone apps to PC games. Besides, my point was not that wargames should just cost as little as humanly possible, but that they should eventually make sales to people who are willing to buy at lower price points. Given that they don’t have to kick anything back to retail, and they have the option of offering digital downloads of all their games, there’s no reason for the price to remain frozen at its release price.

      If you look at how digital distribution works on Steam or GamersGate, you can see that Valve and GG make certain to hit every single price level. The first couple months they hit everyone willing to pay $50, then they drop it to $35 and get all those people. A few months after that they cut down to $20. And so on. They also use weekend deals to stimulate sales which, it has been shown time and again, also promote more sales even after the discount window closes.

      All I’m suggesting is that wargame publishers adopt some of the same good ideas that have worked for Valve and the rest of the digital distributors.

    • Scott
    • November 20th, 2009 10:21pm

    You know I remember another blog (some AAR focused blog, can’t recall the site at the moment) that featured a similar entry. And in both their piece and your piece I have a problem with the title, as it is misleading. The actual title should be The High Cost of MATRIX Wargaming.

    HPS games are reasonably priced at $40-$50 (and actually I get mine from the folks at NWS which usually sell them for about $30). Same with Battlefront. Same with Shrapnel. In fact, the first episode of Battle Group Commander is only $15.

    Now, you do seem intent on a $20 price point though for all your gaming. Not going to happen, and why should it? $40-$50 isn’t an unreasonable amount of money. Skip going out to eat a couple times of week and bang, you got your wargaming money. Wargames shouldn’t be tossed into the same bin as budget titles.

    As far as price reductions, sell the product for what it’s worth. Be fair to the developers. Why should their game lose value over time? Sorry, I don’t see that intrusive piece of DRM (and POS), Steam, being a good thing.

    Additionally, most folks interested in wargaming tend to also come from the world of counter pushing, and really don’t think twice about the cost when you consider many board games break the $100 mark.

    • Scott, I’m not sure that I can point to Matrix and say they’re any pricier than HPS. Most HPS and Matrix titles are in the $40-50 price range, although with Matrix that often means you’re only getting a digital copy. Still, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Matrix is a major price offender. Oh, and absolutely people should always check out NWS for sweet deals. But honestly, my partner and I already cut out our nights out, and live on about $120 for food and drink per week. Exactly how close to the bone are we supposed to cut it so that I can buy Anglo-German War? And how the hell am I supposed to justify that?

      I think both you and JC are off base implying that wargames are intrinsically worth more than the PC titles in general. If you’re a die-hard wargame enthusiast, they might be, but I’m not. I am an old school PC gamer, and wargaming is part of that. But games like Stalker or Europa Universalis 3 are hardly disposable trash. They’re brilliant games in their own right, and I can get them and love them for a fifth or a tenth the cost of a wargame. I hate to be mercenary about it, but I can’t afford to place wargames on a pedestal.

      Let’s face it: there’s a lifetime of gaming in The Operational Art of War III or the John Tiller compilation, but how many titles can make that boast? I paid something like $60 or $70 for Distant Guns, and for my troubles I got an interface from hell and an enemy AI that managed its tactical battles about as well as the Total War AI.

      As to Scott’s point about price reductions, I certainly don’t want developers to get screwed out of what they are owed. But honestly. how many people are going to slap their foreheads tomorrow and yell, “I just realized! I need to buy Korsun Pocket! Where’s my credit card?” It’s been like six years. It’s not going to happen. The few people who still pick it up for that price might be giving the developer what you think the game is worth, but I promise you there are probably quite a few people who think that’s too much to ask. It makes more sense to come down to their price level. The game has already been made. The development money has already been spent. They’re sunk costs. Now it’s just a question of maximizing the title’s revenue. You don’t do that by freezing the price.

      And that’s why I brought up the Steam example. Whatever you feel about the DRM aspects of the service, Valve has done a hell of a job figuring out how to maximize the amount of money each title brings in. Given that people are people no matter what genres they play, I think those methods could be successfully applied to wargames. If there are compelling reasons why that is not the case, I would love to hear them.

      Thanks for commenting, and sorry if this reply is a bit rambling. It’s quite late, and it has been a very long day, but I hope my point is clear.

    • JC
    • November 20th, 2009 10:46pm

    Great entry, Flitcraft!

    I wonder however, how you ponder the enjoyment one single $50 quality wargame gives you for years over those other you buy for $20 and play for a few days.


    • vonmanstein
    • November 21st, 2009 5:26am

    Let me copy this link here, food for thought from the other side:

    • Thanks for the link, Von Manstein. Part 2 of that series responds a little more directly to some of what I brought up here. But as Mithras points out, we’re still arguing from slightly different positions. Vogel is reacting to the pressure indie and niche devs face from vendors and retailers to cut their launch prices. I’m just saying that you should, over time, be willing to sell product for lower returns.

      However, he’s got a point where he brings up the example of the gamer who can grab Baldur’s Gate 2 for a song while Vogel is still charging full-price. He, and by extension any niche dev, can’t compete with the kind of heavyweights that you find in the bargain bin these days. And that problem is only going to get worse, I’m afraid, and unfortunately you’ve got guys like me getting accustomed to paying far less for my games than I was five years ago.

      Still, I’m really curious to see what would happen if some wargame publisher, doesn’t matter who, just tried to move some of their back-catalogue titles at a 50% discount. My feeling is that so few of those old titles are selling that you’d quickly recoup the lost per-unit revenue through increased sales volume. Better still, you might have some new customers paying attention to your genre and your brand.

      My friends / nemeses at The Wargamer have started a thread on this topic and you can find some interesting views there as well. In particular, there seems to be a sentiment that a lot of wargames have become self-destructively complicated, when most gamers just want the same kind of gaming they were doing with cardboard counters and dice. That gels with an argument that Bruce Geryk has made a few times about sims and wargaming. In the mid-90s, computers could only do so much, so designs were necessarily stripped-down to the point where most people could play and enjoy them without too much trouble. By the Aughts, computers were powerful enough that a designer could do anything he wished, and many of them mistakenly thought that meant they should.

    • Mithras
    • November 21st, 2009 7:02am

    Interesting article, even if I personally prefer your reviews.

    Regarding the above link I personally think it’s not refering to the same argument. Rob argues for a reduction in price over time while Jeff is agaisnt selling new games at bargain bin prices. In fact the game which he referenced in his article (exile) has come down from $25 to $15 dollars. Admittedly it’s an rpg and it was published in 1994 but something of the philosphy Rob is arguing for in there.

    As a student I’m rather miserly. I do recognise that I am not the target demographic so I learn to keep playing 2 or 3 free or cheap games and one juicy title for yonks.

    • Jeremy
    • May 20th, 2012 7:05am

    I can’t believe there aren’t any really supportive reviews here, Fitz is making a very good point and arguing it cogently but politely. I can’t see why game companies shouldn’t be selling for diminishing prices for a game which inevitably will diminish in saleability over time. What he’a actually suggesting is not only good for gamers but also for the developers!
    ALL developers (good ones, anyway) put in a LOT of hours, sweat, blood and talent into their titles. Why should the elite wargamer companies be charging so much? Gary Grigsby’s War in the East is EIGHTY dollars just for a download! Really? Who the hell can afford that? There’s no way I’m forking out that kind of cash for another WWII counter-style, Germans-Vs-Russians game unless I can be certain that’s absolutely mind blowing and awesome. I cant even find a demo.
    I’m rambling now, but I just don’t understand why everyone is completely missing the solid logic of gradually reduced prices. It works for everyone else who tries it.

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