The End of Games Workshop Or Business As Usual?

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It’s lonely at the top.  Whoever sits atop the throne in an industry is a target for criticisms both warranted and otherwise.

Games Workshop is to miniature gaming what Time Warner or AT&T are to communications, as hated at times as Electronics Arts or even Comcast, recently voted the most hated company in the U.S.A.

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Games Workshop has certainly contributed to this animosity, with many gamers frustrated by the lack of event support, and the rules imbalances that come with a game system not meant for tournament style play.  Online as well Games Workshop has made no friends, deleting their own forums and electing not to have Facebook pages for their products due to the amount of moderation they required.  I myself received a Cease and Desist notice from a Games Workshop VP about ten years ago when I was writing for TheOneRing.net.  They never quite understood the internet – they still don’t.

What Games Workshop does understand however – is money.

The unpopularity of Games Workshop’s decisions are often followed by periods of growth, as business decisions meet with frustration but still result in continued sales.  Games Workshop has hung in now for forty years, and yet every day you’ll hear an article claiming GW’s pending downfall.

Back in 2007 I worked for Nintendo.  At a conference we all attended I was drinking with one of our Directors and they asked me which game console had won the previous console generation.  This was before the days of the PS4 and the XBox One, he was asking about the PS2 vs. the XBox vs. our GameCube system.  I’d told him as far as I’d known the PS2 was the best selling system.

Of course I was right, but I was also very wrong.  See the Playstation 2 had sold more systems than the XBox or the GameCube, but the cost of the components within the PS2 and the XBox meant the GameCube was actually turning a huge profit with each system sold.  Equally the software licensing that Sony and Microsoft had to pay out ate up a lot of those profits, so when you get past the top line “total units sold” and you start thinking in “actual profit earned” it’s a whole different math.

Question:  Is Age of Sigmar a disappointment to Games Workshop?

As much as you might see people arguing about their Playstation vs. their friends’ XBox, the figures that we value in these debates are often the ones the business folks could care less about.  That is all marketing, that is all fluff, the bottom line is what truly matters in business, and in my above Nintendo story my superiors were teaching me that I was a big nerd and I needed to look at it like a businessman instead – look at the money, of which Nintendo was putting away a ton.

Enter Age of Sigmar – the hotly debated successor to Warhammer Fantasy.  No points system, a tiny rule”book”, and the castration and resetting of over twenty years of lore.  People were pretty pissed, and while I am personally giving Age of Sigmar a shot, those who aren’t are fully justified in their negative feelings.  Games Workshop seriously rocked the boat.

But did it hurt sales?

The short answer is we don’t know.  The financial reports that came out a week ago show Games Workshop doing a hair worse than they did last year in total revenue, but they don’t break out sales by game system at all.  In-store sales were down a few percent, but online sales were up a few percent, it was an overall dud of a report, and unfortunately gave us no concrete “Age of Sigmar did X in sales” figures to even argue about.

So we go off of our own conversations, our own observations, and rumors, that generally show more people pissed off about Age of Sigmar than we see people playing it.  Right?  Well, again, just because we didn’t see people playing Lord of the Rings over the last ten years doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a big seller for Games Workshop, and people bought the sets to play at home with small groups of friends, it was never the “pick up game” style that 40k was, but it sold big, to the point where even in 2015 the massively expensive Smaug kit was their #1 selling product.

Again – it’s not about what we nerds argue about – they don’t care.  They don’t love their game systems the way other companies do, companies that actually play their own games.  They are a business, just like Electronic Arts or Comcast, hated as they may be, they’re making millions of dollars every year and as long as that is the case they aren’t likely to change.

Having spoken to some folks at Games Workshop I have heard that there was a pretty major spike in sales when Age of Sigmar came out, and at my local stores here I see people playing games and telling stories about how hard Stormcast Liberators are to kill, or how much fun they had running the Sylvaneth tree units.  I myself am pretty excited about these upcoming Fyreslayers.

That said, you pop onto various message boards, or in blog comments, and you’d think that Games Workshop has only sold six starter sets, and one was a gag gift!  So what can we look at?

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One of the popular bashing points for Age of Sigmar is the Google Trends data (above) for the search term “Age of Sigmar”.  Looks like it had a very healthy initial spike, and then it completely fell off the grid, right?  Well, yes, technically speaking there was a huge spike, but this is also a brand new keyword which didn’t exist prior to the June numbers you see there, so heading up above 300,000 searches and then falling down to about 25-30k per month isn’t so bad for Games Workshop.

fallout-4

This is the chart for Fallout 4, you can see a similar massive spike when the game first came out followed by a drop once the initial interest died down.  That is generally how release schedules work, and while we only have data through December here it’s a pretty safe bet that the Fallout 4 numbers will continue to decline the farther they get from that initial push.  This is all totally normal.

metal-gear

​Here we have Metal Gear, enjoying massive sales for their Metal Gear V release (even though I want to strangle Konami) the Google search data averages about 200,000 regularly, spike high following the release and then again start to go back down again, and just like Fallout 4 you’re going to see the search data decline more and more as we go along.

But Matthew, you might say, those are video games!  A miniatures game is supposed to be steady and hot at all times if it is doing well.  An excellent point, but it’s very easy to see what we want to see in data, if you find a chart that makes Age of Sigmar look bad, you’re going to celebrate it if you hate the rules system, while if you love the rules system you are more likely to make excuses for it, but that is all irrelevant, at the end of the day only the full complete data matters.

x-wing-miniatures

Here we have the X-Wing Miniatures game, pretty steady, dips a bit during the summer months, and then spikes pretty hard with the new movie hitting theaters.  A lot of times we expect charts to be sexy and show this crazy growth, but as we all know the X-Wing Miniatures are sitting at #2 right now behind Warhammer 40,000 in sales.  By no means am I suggesting that Age of Sigmar has X-Wing numbers, especially with the volume of folks who buy the X-Wing figures just for the figure and not to play, but this gives us a baseline on what a miniature game looks like.

They average tens of thousands of searches, not hundreds of thousands, not millions, it’s a pretty conservative piece of the pie.  The only way to truly dive into the nitty gritty would be to collect all the keywords for all the individual models in all the games and then compare those search volumes, as I personally search for “Stormcast Eternals” on Google than I do “Age of Sigmar” alone.  The users behavior is going to change the longer they have the game, switching to more specific search terms for the units or characters they are interested in.

Based on these charts alone, we can say that Age of Sigmar has about half the buzz that X-Wing Miniatures has, not counting the big spike for the movie.  That certainly could be better, but it is pretty well in line for Games Workshop in general.

games-workshop

Which we see here finally with the search term “Games Workshop” by itself, which I feel paints a pretty clear picture.  Back in 2013/2014 Games Workshop did have a dip in their stock evaluation, and some blog commentators said that “Games Workshop is burning” when shares fell 37.5% from a high of 800 GBp per share down to 500 GBp per share.  That was a big shake up at Games Workshop, and we are still feeling the impact of that decline, but the share prices have increased, reaching a high of 604 GBp in November and currently sitting down at 545 GBp, which is still a 15% gain from the 300 GBp they lost back in 2014. EDIT – Shares have rallied up 2.5% to 559.50 GBp in the last few hours.

It all comes back to that Nintendo story though, and this is where I’ll leave you.  Whenever Nintendo sold a Mario Kart game they only had to pay themselves, licensing is expensive, and when a Warhammer product is sold, be it Age of Sigmar or Warhammer 40,000, Games Workshop only has to pay itself.  They aren’t paying big bucks to Disney like Fantasy Flight has to do with the X-Wing Miniatures and Armada games (which are both great) and they aren’t paying out to Marvel and DC like WizKids does.

That may not sound like a big deal, but in the startup world we call it being lean.  You want as few expenses and liabilities as you can get, you want to be light, and agile, which is why so many Games Workshop stores have evolved into these one man operations, because they want to have the big impact of a recruiting store but they want the smallest footprint possible to do it.  That’s what happens when a company is recovering from a loss, and there was certainly a loss in 2014, but that isn’t what we’re seeing now.

It’s easy to fixate on data that supports the “GW is burning” narrative, but if we go back past the crash in 2014 to 2011 and Games Workshop shares were only trading at 354 GBp, so while they did rise to over 800 GBp they still have grown their revenue dramatically in the last five years vs. those 2011 numbers.

Hopefully – as Games Workshop’s fiscal year ends before the summer of 2016 – we’ll be able to get some solid numbers from Age of Sigmar and see how it is selling vs. the other games, vs. Fantasy, and whether or not Games Workshop is seeing a return from that game.  Until we have that real solid data, let me say as a business owner, consultant, and mentor to startup companies, that the sky is not falling (even if you were really hoping it would) and that under the new management of Kevin Rountree Games Workshop is actually doing pretty good.

It’s easy to want to zoom in to the tiny details of right now and say “SEE!  THIS IS PROOF!” but micro economics vs. macro economics is all about scope, and while the day to day operations and revenues do matter, it’s the big picture over time that GW is worried about.  They’ve been around for forty years, they’re certainly not going anywhere.

Just another day in toy soldiers.

Editor’s note: I challenged Matthew to write a follow up article to my 5 Tells & One Big Lie From GW’s Latest Financials and well, he did. So I am obviously obligated to publish it, lol.
Now that being said between this beauty, and my editorial from yesterday I think we can all agree that Games Workshop has a lot of both good and bad things happening at the same time.  
2016 looks to be their year to make some moves, but remember at the end of they day they are still a relatively big company who has, like Matthew said, been around longer than most of us.
May we all game in exciting times, and I can think of none more exciting than now…

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About Matthew Egan

Prior to starting Image Freedom in 2009, Matthew bounced around from job to job, from Games Workshop to Nintendo, and it wasn't until he settled down doing SEO and Internet Marketing that things really took off. Matthew is now also a Mentor for TechStars & 3DayStartup and lives in San Antonio with his wife Sara and their six rescue dogs.

  • Zero Company

    Just to clarify for readers; prices for shares listed on the London Stock Exchange are quoted in “pence”, rather than “pounds”.

    • That makes a lot more sense lol… I wondered why they were short stocked like that lol.

    • Should be formatted correctly now, had to bug a UK friend about the proper formatting for pence!

  • Very informative article, touches on a lot of aspects on the grand scheme of things that the average consumer doesnt look at or doent even consider. Its easy to look at a snapshot of the whole picture and scream “the sky is falling” or even the opposite. At the end of the day its all about the big picture, and this helps clarify the business end of all that.

  • AoS failed. If it was meant to completely reinvigorate the fantasy base, then sales should have jumped as old fantasy wasn’t selling. So if over all there was no change, then at best it is doing exactly as well as the dying WHFB did. At worst it cost them sales that only something like BaC was able to make up for to get near being equal to the previous year.

    • Juan

      Dude, it’s a 6 month-old game… Didn’t you read the article? It’s just quite impossible to call it success or failure atm

      • The point is that is release should have been MAJOR. There should have been a spike in sales at least. Yes, we need to wait and see, and maybe it is doing better than Fantasy did, but it did not “Succeed” in what GW wanted it to do, which was completely turn around fantasy. It failed at that, so while it may not be an Abysmal failure, it is still a failure of sorts.

        • There was an 85% spike in sales of Fantasy models following the release of AoS. Some say that’s not a big deal because Fantasy was’t selling well… but nearly doubling is a spike.

          Again, as a business person, I can tell you these things take time, and I do see more and more AoS conversation in Facebook groups and in stores, it’s certainly growing. I’m sure they’d like more, but it’s a big change, and it’s new, give it some time.

          • Where did you get 85%? There are no breakdowns in the numbers for each system in their financial report or anything else on their investor relation page. The are no official sales figures for AoS out there as far as I am aware, and if there were it would not be this controversial.

          • Heh I don’t want to get anyone in trouble by repeating who told me, but you’re right that isn’t a published figure in any of the reports. I can’t say whether or not the 85% increase has continued, etc, I just was told that they saw a big return immediately, and the specific number was 85%, but I don’t know for how long that was.

            You say they didn’t see a spike in sales – I say they did, and I have it on corporate level authority that it’s true.

            I understand completely if you don’t believe me, hopefully they release some real numbers we can all reference so there is no ambiguity.

          • Assuming it is true, I would like to see in compared to End Times spikes each time a new book dropped. There was in general A LOT more palpable enthusiasm with those, and I wonder if AoS saw an 85%, but End Times saw more or less with each release.

    • Yep, as Juan said the game is only a few months old. I know at my local GW at least the Fyreslayers are pre-ordered ready for pickup tomorrow. Maybe after a full year of releases we can judge the games’ success but as it stands it’s just too early to tell.

      I understand that’s not what you want to hear, but if AoS truly flops then GW will tweak it until it sells better. I’m not worried about it, they’ll be fine.

  • Michael Schenk

    A very good read. It’s nice to see someone who speaks economics and business give this an analysis. I get so tired of seeing angry fan hate. The GW community, as unique as it is online for so many reasons, is also the same type of community as any other fandom. It has all the same flaws – droves of entitled fanboys who want the creators to run things a certain way or for things to be different. There are people who endlessly bicker over the company’s price hikes instead of proactively finding solutions, and those who get frustrated with lore and rule changes to a point that is entitled and insecure. I liked the point you made that the game was never designed with tournament play in mind, yet it is tournament and competitive players who get the angriest about rules changes (probably because they can’t cheese the system anymore).

    The GW hobby is a lot of things, and for many it’s just about collecting and painting, and for that, they really do make superb high-quality minis. I think their prices have become a lot fairer in recent years, with perhaps the exception of book pricing, but this stuff isn’t written and designed for free. Printing might be cheaper than we think it is, but has anyone sat down and tried putting together an entire folio’s worth of concept art for a science fiction universe? Collector’s books for LOTR or other major film franchises, with concept art, design and set details, sell for comparable prices as the army books we use, and arguably, our army books have even more inside them.

    I really liked your story about working at Nintendo. I’ve been a Nintendo fan since I was little, and seeing the “console wars” for each generation has become a regular nuisance. Bloggers and spectators and rumour-mongers decrying the “burning of Nintendo” when Iwata announced he’d be docking his own pay for a failure to keep profits from falling. Incidentally, however, Nintendo’s profits fell hardest between 2008-2011, the same time as the global financial crisis. Like you said, it’s all about scope.

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