I read a very interesting article this morning by my good friend Tears of Envy. You can check out her awesome blog at the link just below. I'd encourage you to pop over and have a read of said article. Then I would like you to return for my thoughts on the matter (after bookmarking her blog for future reference of course).
Tears of Envy - Six years left
So, six years left huh? Well, she makes a compelling argument... and I wholeheartedly disagree. I'm even going to pretend that it isn't in any way to do with my making a living out of said industry...
I've heard it a lot these last few years; the whole 3d printers thing being one of the major thrusts and how they'll end up in the home as I'm sure they will. Of course the whole video games thing is the other prong of the assault and touchscreen technology is already at a point where you could effectively have a game of virtual Warhammer. There's truth in all of this. However, I see the timeline laid aout as a rather intellectual assumption and I keep coming back to a core issue...
As a species we are not ruled by our minds, we are ruled by our hearts.
My mind says that this timeline makes perfect sense and why would I want to bother with the whole toy soldiers thing when the virtual equivalent is more convenient and accessible? It also makes intellectual sense that there would be a rebellion against this (the retro movement) who would initially support the traditional end of things but be non-sustainable in favour of what seems to be a 'better' alternative.
But I think the nature of the virtual wargame loses sight of the fact that we are hardwired to place more interest in a physical object before us than a picture on a screen. There's a tactile nature to it and a reality to a toy soldier that is rather akin to the situation where, despite it being technically less impressive, we still prefer Yoda as a puppet to his digital counterpart. For this point I seriously can't see a touchscreen style wargame having a major, major effect on tabletop wargaming. They are very much two different things.
And then there's the 3d printing. Yeah, this is going to get bigger and I can see the potential in sculptors selling downloadable mini patterns for home printing. I also see the potential for piracy here. If this market area opens up there will be piracy but then I look to the current downloadables market. There are two main areas here: music and apps. Both have a serious amount of piracy. However, neither are actually being wiped out by them. Vendors are starting to learn that the trick is a new business model. They're scared to make the leap but not having to physically manufacture a product means that they never have to guess numbers to make. It's fully scaleable and requires less investment. It also has less potential to lose money and instead tends to be more a case of not making much profit as a downside. Given the choice I'd prefer low profits over a loss. So, clever marketers of downloadable items sell them cheap. Usually really cheap. I'd like to take the game Angry Birds as an example. It costs next to nothing and this has a curious effect. You find the app and decide you want it. Even people who will usually illegally download will often just click 'buy' as it's less money than buying a coffee and the cost outweighs the effort of finding a pirate copy. Some will pirate anyway but Angry Birds shows this is not necessarily a barrier to success.
So, downloadable minis might not be killed by piracy as much as may seem likely but let's assume it is. What happens then? Well, I kind of see that the good sculptors will dump the system in favour of traditional sculpting creating two separate marketplaces: a cheap downloadables market with a lot of poor quality sculpts that will slowly erode and an emerging new market of traditionally cast miniatures. I say cast rather than sculpted as there's a good chance that these will be often mastered via 3d software and digital printing but then sold as physical product. This would likely be a premium market but I think it will be supported by the global internet community as it is right now and have matured into a more stable area after a chaotic period of time where tradition and technology learn to sit alongside each other as allies instead of enemies.
And I come back to a fundamental. As a miniatures community we like toy soldiers and I think at it's heart we like the analogue nature of sculpture, conversion, painting and so on. It creates connection in a way that a video game or a downloadable colour printed miniature does not. I look at recent precedent: pre painted plastic minis. They all said it would kill games like Warhammer. They all said taking the painting out would have the customers deserting traditional minis in droves. And yet, day after day I see small children having painting lessons in Games Workshop stores, learning how to get their Ultramarines ready for the tabletop. It's primal, in the same way as giving a toddler an electronic toy and all he wants to do is play with the box it came in. It's imagination, creativity, problem solving and social interaction. Above all, it's real.
And as for the ultimate argument of technology killing traditional methods I look to painting. Not miniature painting but painting pictures. From an intellectual standpoint photoshop and a Cintiq style tablet is better than canvas, paint and brush. Infinite reworkability, the undo button, zoom in, no working times, digital transmission for delivery. The list goes on. But people still paint and it's not really much of a shrinking area. In illustration there's something of a shift but in art? Not really. There's something about the reality that outstrips it's superficially superior digital cousin. It's a barrier that I don't think technology will ever truly vault.
In six years times maybe a little more difficult in the minis industry but I feel confident that in twelve it'll be a buoyant and wonderful place.
I've had a wonderfully fun time over the last few hours thinking about this issue so thanks to Tears of Envy for giving me something to ponder over...