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.