Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Interview for HOP- Dave G

I wrote a series of articles about designing better games for House of Paincakes over the past 2 months or so. While I was working on the process and developing material for the series, I conducted a good number of interviews with various people across the internet, as well as some real life folks.

Next up is Dave G from Wargaming Tradecraft.

I really enjoyed talking to Dave. From art to mechanics to winning over customers, he had a lot to say -  smart and well considered ideas that are well worth sharing.

Lo:  Beginning with the obvious questions:

Would you mind telling me a little about your project? What inspired you to take the project on?

Dave: The project itself is to take Privateer Press’ Trollblood faction for the Hordes game system, and turn them into the Horde faction from the Warcraft series of video games. I’m going well beyond just painting them green like orcs; I’m finding whatever I can to modify their regular poses, adding “real” elements like carved stone weapons, and modifying figures to give them “flare” from the Warcraft universe. (Turning troops into Tauren, army leaders into important named characters, mounts into wolves, giving them hair, etc.)

As for the inspiration: Having moved to a strange city and not knowing anyone, I poked around for like-minded individuals. The one gaming shop in the area mentioned that Sundays they have Warmachine / Horde games. I’d only ever played Warhammer 40k before and was curious, so one Sunday I swung by to see what it’s about. After a couple weekends of hanging out with the guys, a really friendly and welcoming bunch, I began getting that “gaming bug”. I got to know a little about some of the armies, and I knew I wanted to play something very different from my squishy shooty Eldar, but I was having trouble – I knew nothing of the various armies or their backstories. Reading a little didn’t help – I had too many years of the 40k universe swimming in my head, so nothing made me feel passionate about choosing one unfamiliar army over another. I was looking over a battlefield, full of Trollbloods, when inspiration struck. These guys resembled [Warcraft] Orcs. Like, really closely. Strong ferocious warriors, hooded ones, great ones on the backs of furry mounts… they had intensity and emotion… and I just flashed to The Horde. (Even before meeting my wife on World of Warcraft, my friends and I spent many hours gaming in Warcraft 2 and 3.) What sealed the deal was I knew the backstory quite thoroughly, just as well as 40k. I could look at these figures and now feel like they had a purpose. When I look at Madrak, an army leader, I don’t know anything about the plight of his people as they’re driven from their lands… but I do know about Warchief Thrall and ALL the battles he’s fought through – I’ve commanded and fought beside him before, digitally.

I realize that’s totally geeky and unconventional reasoning, but I’d been looking for a reason to create an art-focused army for a while and I needed something I could feel passionate about to get me interested. Even if I didn’t get into the game, I’d still have something to show for it.

Lo: So for you, your project is almost entirely about the visual aesthetic and emotional flavor of a certain reference point, is that correct?

Dave: Absolutely. I always knew I wanted to create an “art army” at some point, and I had planned it to be Dark Angels… but even after picking up a bunch of used marines and Dark Angel sprues, I never got around to it. Sure, I think Dark Angels look cool… but nothing was really pulling me in that direction.

Lo: Has your local group been supportive? Have you had any problems with the sometimes negative viewpoint towards a "counts as" army?

Dave: The local scene’s been quite supportive and they’ve been vocal about how they like the mods I’ve given my figures, the way I’m posing and the painting. I’ve even gotten a posing suggestion that I’ll be using. I do get the occasional suggestion to use a model that I’ve already decided won’t really fit the look of what I’m after… I have ways to make them fit, but I want to concentrate on the “fluffier” models first. (And my list does seem to be pretty effective while still being fluffy) One guy did make a point of mentioning that at “official” Privateer Press tournaments, weapons aren’t supposed to be modified. (Madrak’s axe vs Thrall’s hammer) Of all the WYSIWYG arguments, this personally seems oddest to me considering we’re talking about a system where you can’t change wargear… but I’m not a competitive gamer, so I’m not concerned about it and nobody’s raised any concerns like this regarding our games.

Lo: As much as that is true, PP also strongly encourages modification and/or artistic  work through their modeling contests every year. I've seen some incredible creations that were rewarded for changes in tone or appearance.

Dave: I haven’t seen any of these… I’ll have to keep an eye out.

Lo: Check out the Privateer Press Forums- look for pictures of their Grand Master winners.

Dave: Wow, OK, that’s some pretty impressive stuff… essentially the Golden Demon of Privateer Press.

As for the “counts as” aspect, I’m trying to keep this a heavily converted army, rather than a counts as army. Most of my models will remain roughly what they’ve supposed to look like… just painted and posed differently. Even as I start turning models into Tauren, Ogres and a Pandaren, I’m going to keep gear / clothes as unmodified as possible so the army still “makes sense” as Trollbloods, while looking like The Horde. That’ll mean modifying faces/heads, adding facial hair and tusks, adding tufts of hair to visible skin on hands and chests, changing feet to hooves, etc. But I want to be able to play the army without confusing opponents – I’m hoping to succeed at this by leaving the bulk of the model’s body alone other than posing.

Lo: You mentioned your army is fairly effective despite being fluffy.How do you like the Hordes/Warmachine gameplay? What do you like most? Least?

Dave: It has been… we’ll have to see how it fairs in larger games, but I’ve already beaten / almost beat seasoned players in smaller ones by pulling out moves they didn’t expect.

I’m _really_ digging the gameplay, especially knockdown and not having to roll tons of dice all the time. It’s a clean system that’s both very easy to learn the basics, but takes longer to learn all the nuances. Smaller armies keep the pace and length of the game moving quicker and one of the biggest things I’m enjoying is controlling a unit at a time. (move, shoot or melee, then next unit) It keeps the pace moving nicer instead of getting stuck on long boring phases and it doesn’t stop involving both players.

I also love the aggression. This isn’t a game about standing back all willy nilly… it’s about taking the battle to your opponent. Even when someone’s retreating, it’s more like they’re advancing to the rear.

Lo: How do you like the combo-heaviness of the game? Do you find the tactics and strategy are different on the smaller scale vs a large Eldar army? Is the synergy and support structure the same, or different to you?

Dave: 40k’s got nothing on WarmaHordes for synergy. A lot of people compare it to Magic: the Gathering, and I think they’re right. As I mentioned, the game is really easy to learn, just like Magic… tapping, mana, draw, upkeep… all easy concepts; But nobody can claim building a good deck is easy. There are tons of little details to worry about in both your deck and your opponents. I’m still at the stage for worrying about how just my own army works, never mind my opponents. Coming from Magic, I like learning rules and figuring out combos, (Which is how as a newb, I’m surprising some of the vets) but I could see it being overwhelming for others. (That said, my wife, who has considerably less experience with wargames than I, is doing just fine.)

Tactic-wise, it’s similar to 40k – make use of what you have, be aware of your limitations and the terrain, use melee, shooting and beast/jack (vehicles) units effectively.  There are some differences, like unit cohesion and targeting attacks. Having to stay within [Leadership]  inches of your unit leader vs 2” of another model creates more of a skirmish feel, as does being able to split even shooting attacks between multiple enemy units. The limited range of guns adds a very different feel, eliminating the alpha strike, and allowing armies to dance around the board more. (Both offensively and defensively) My only disappointment in this regards is I loved terrain (What Eldar player wouldn’t?) so short range weapons takes a lot of emphasis off using terrain as cover… though I am finding uses for in in regards to protecting flanks and maneuvers.

The synergy is a little like Eldar – in smaller Hordes games, having less troop options does somewhat limit the combos you can create, but every army seems limited this way, rather than just the Eldar player. (At least in my limited experience with the game) The support structure is similar, but also different – WarmaHordes has a lot of buffing, spell and ability mechanics to augment each other, (Again, this could be from my limited experience and more about how my Trolls work) while 40k/Eldar was more about static units, their place on the battlefield and how they’ll face the enemy. 40k has always had a rock/paper/scissors feel to me – even as Eldar I just tried a lot of lists, choosing what seemed to kill my opponents best, then successfully stuck with that. (until the next edition came out, then I’d lose a bunch until I figured out the new anti-units to choose.) Those lists ended up being “My unit A will kill his unit Z, B on Y, C on X, etc.” WarmaHordes has a stronger “synergy” feel as I have to worry about how each unit works _together_ to form a single strong army. If I choose to swap out a unit, I have to consider the ramifications of how my other units will be affected, not just whether or not there’s a certain type of enemy that will be tougher to kill now. That’s true synergy.

I’m not crazy about their release schedule though… It’s neat that you don’t have to buy a rulebook since rule cards come with minis, there are decks of these cards available and that PP can and will release new models not in the rulebook later, adding elements to an army they find to be lacking. But it gets confusing – When a new model is released, you have no way of knowing its rules until you buy it and the decks aren’t always up to date with the current releases. PP could maybe put more information on their website or packaging to let you know more about a model before you buy.

Lo: Most new models are featured in No Quarter (Privateer Press' magazine) with a pretty extensive write up of abilities and suggested ideas for usage,  We get a copy so our customers can read about the new shinies before they buy.

Dave: It’s a good way to promote new models, just like White Dwarf. But I think that’s still information that should be freely and readily available, rather than included in a subscription magazine… especially if I’ve already bought an army book AND the army card deck, both of which are incomplete. Now I also have to sift through back issues of a magazine to get a rough idea of how an undocumented model could work. For a game system with such an emphasis on synergy, players need to know rules. It’d be like being told “Trust me, this Magic card is awesome. It’ll help kill small creatures and it’s blue.” That still tells you very little about what type of deck it would fit in.

Lo: On your blog and in comments elsewhere, you've talked about model quality and how important it is to you. What has your experience with Privateer Press been like for quality in comparison to GW? Have you noticed a difference between their plastic and their metal and quality in those lines?

Dave: I haven’t had an opportunity to try Privateer Press’ plastic models, but so far I’ve been impressed by their pewter ones. I always felt that GW lost a certain amount of detail with plastic, though to be fair I haven’t bought any recent lines of minis aside from Guardians. PP doesn’t have “trash” mobs you need to take just to fill a chart requirement – every miniature is important, so I find the overall quality of their minis nicer. Does Games Workshop have just as nice quality miniatures? Absolutely. But my “basic troops” have just as much detail and look just as nice as my army commanders and solos. You can’t say the same thing about basic Guardians or Space Marines compared to their Heroes, Force Commanders and Farseers. An extra touch from Privateer Press is a topic I’ve seen a few blogs talk about – dynamic poses. They really go out of their way to make “awesome” looking miniatures that look like they’re in the middle of a battle, not just static ones in generic boring poses.

From a technical angle, the pewter models from both companies have roughly the same consistency. That is to say they’re about as thick / dense and basically the same to work with. PP minis tend to have less mold lines and flack than GW’s and I haven’t had to cut anything out of a sprue yet, though I’ve found the tabs attached to PP feet a little deep, usually having to shave off a few millimeters so the base will be level. I also haven’t found any mold defects yet, which seeing online examples of the failure of Finecast makes me quite glad to be moving away from GW products. One negative thing I do have to say about PP minis, that’s not much of an issue for someone like me, but could be a problem for less experienced gamers, is the way their beasts fit together. Troops have been fine so far, but arms, elbows and especially torsos seem to leave decently sized gaps to fill. Then there’s the classic problem of monstrous sized beasts made out of pewter instead of plastic – pinning is a must for stability.

The fact that both manufacturers are making models more modular these days is great for artists. It allows a lot more freedom in posing and modding. But even this has differences between brands. Privateer Press will actually sell you bits direct,while Games Workshop requires you to buy full kits or turn to eBay. Anyone remember space marines and guardians where all you did was glue guns to the front of their single pose bodies? Things have come a long way as GW realized people want more.

Lo: For many, an art army is about an emotional connection or resonance. How does a company make products that have a broad enough appeal to resonate with a large number of customers? Does setting or genre make a difference in this challenge?

Dave: As a kid, I was captivated by the style and mystery the Eldar had. Not only were they sleek and beautiful, but they were ALIEN. This is a sci-fi setting after all, who wants to play modern military or fantastical orcs? I didn’t want to play something familiar – though obviously there are many who do. As I understand it, Privateer Press actually changes their storyline depending on how factions perform in official tournaments? That’s a fantastic way to get people involved – make them a stakeholder. Even if they’re on a losing side in the fluff, their army isn’t any weaker and they become part of the struggle.

Fluff is a big part of connecting people with an army. The average fluff for a model in a rule book is some really interesting stuff – I bought plenty of models as a kid because they sounded cool. Why not apply this on a more public scale?  Your website’s army pages could contain short stories, perhaps even fan-written, (a contest?) which will give people an image of what they’re creating – that image is something artists and enthusiasts will hold on to as they build their armies. I used to often visit Games Workshop’s website for the extras, but all the hobby related articles were removed when they shifted their online presence into a store. However, Games Workshop does have A LOT of fluff that builds a pretty concise vision of the Grimdark future. They spend a lot of time and effort to fill rule books with all sorts of extra “stuff” to create histories for everything, making you interested in their products beyond just rules. This helps give you a connection with your army.

Diversity is also important – not just in the fluff, but the actual design of the armies. Give people a unique choice, not just variation on a common army. Who knows what draws us to different styles, but we are – some like horror movies, others prefer westerns, sci-fi, war, etc… Even while GW holds their Space Marine torch, they and PP have excelled in giving people a broad selection of visually different armies to choose from. This gives a little something for anyone to be interested in. Some of the smaller gaming studios don’t take this route, and factions look too similar. Maybe this is why historical and mech wargames have never caught my eye.

I should note too, that there’s another kind of diversity often missed. When my wife was getting into 40k, she almost swore off wargaming when she stumbled across some REALLY sexist forum threads regarding modding marines to include women. The opinions may not have been Games Workshop’s, but GW really hasn’t done anything to promote sexual or ethnic equality in their game systems. (Other than Sister Marines getting their own minor faction or giving the middle easterners their own feudal desert planet.) In the end she decided “Screw it, I’m Khorne, I can mutate what I want!” but women shouldn’t have to choose “evil mutants” if they want some legitimate female representation on the battlefield. She’s (and I’ve) been quite happy to see Privateer Press making more effort to be inclusive.

As talk moves to involving customers and their emotional connection with games, there are a lot of examples of what not to do. It seems like when bean counters get involved, customer appreciation is impacted – and I don’t think it has to be this way.

A game company also needs to stand behind their fans. Pleasing and upsetting them outside of the game both have HUGE impacts on a gamer’s attitude and spirits. Being new to WarmaHordes, I don’t have a ton of experience with how they treat their fans, but so far it’s seemed pretty good. Even helping stores with old stock when a new version comes out, I hear. To Games Workshop’s credit, I think the positive atmosphere in every one of their stores I’ve been in is a big way to get people involved and interested in their game, and going to Games Day was one of the greatest gaming experiences I’ve had. They really seem to go all out during these public events. (Though even their Canadian employees were disgruntled about the loss of Games Day Canada.) I wouldn’t be in this hobby if it weren’t for a salesman who took notice of a wide-eyed kid and had the patience to briefly show him how to play while making it seem exciting.

But in all seriousness, Games Workshop’s love for Space Marines does get old. I don’t care if that’s what the majority of people play – what do you expect when all your marketing and design dollars go behind a single army? (Chicken vs Egg) Eldar, Orcs and Chaos all used to have definition between their various factions, which is something that’s disappeared over the years, while Space Marines get more and larger rule books. I started gaming as a kid and had an emotional connection to my Eldar, but after all these years I’ve become somewhat bitter. That disinterest is the start of a loss of passion in putting extra effort into an army. This might not matter for some, but while I focus on designing an army, I still like it to be fieldable when I feel like playing a game. I used to think “Y’know, someday I want to revisit Eldar and REALLY do them justice.” and “Maybe I’ll pick up that Forgeworld _____ to add an extra touch.” but these days I’m  soured to the thought. I can’t be the only one who’s felt the same kind of betrayal.

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