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Meat for Meta: Ghosts of Games Workshop Past

Rick Priestley is back and he has a story to tell.


Meat for Meta is rated editorial nonsense. These articles are meant to complain about some group, somewhere, that is playing the game for all the wrong reasons or simply to just make fun of 40k nerd rage.

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A week ago an online article made the rounds giving Games Workshop cynics juicy ingredients to make some hate filled cookies. The article in question can be found at Unplugged Games it is titled: Blood, dice and darkness: how Warhammer defined gaming for a generation. It is an article series that chronicles the rise of Games Workshop through the eyes of its creators. The article discussed here is about part 2 of the series.

Part two is an interview with Rick Priestly and he doesn’t hold back talking about the company he help grow from 1980 to 2010. The article starts innocuous enough detailing Rick’s childhood influences and how wargaming developed in its infancy. He goes into detail about how Citadel bought GW and moved from London to Nottingham. Rick outlines all the influences that went into Warhammer 40k, making it even more amazing GW still claims all their ideas come from some nameless creative ether unattached from past authors or stories. It is great to see Rick reveal all the sources GW stole from, enjoying the most the inspiration he took from Paradise Lost for the Horus Heresy.

It is this point we get to the real juicy stuff, as we learn Tom Kirby went into severe debt buying GW, putting strain on how the company would do business going forward. Rick shows how incompetent supply management was at the time leading Specialist Games to cease and almost bankrupting the company. Then the golden goose appeared in the form of Lord of the Rings and Rick claims to be the one who lead the charge in getting the rights to produce the game and models from the movies.

It is at this point we start to into the blame game. Rick sees the sales department as the big devil when it comes to what happened to GW just before he left. Among his claims is the sales team was bloated by the LoTR success having no skills to recover after the boom turned to bust. It was also at this time we learn Rick really didn’t like the idea of highly tooled complex kits GW was producing for its games. LoTR was an attempt by him to make simpler models.

So what do I make of this history lesson as told through the eyes of Rick Priestly?

Well let me start by saying while I don’t know RIck personally, my first job was for someone who did have dealings with him directly. The description of Rick was that of arrogance, not a prick, but someone who thought his way was always right and if right would flaunt it. So it comes as no surprise he would point out GW foibles, at the same time making himself out to be some shining knight. I ask you though, can you remember anyone leaving GW with Priestly when he quit? Neither can I, and how did that Beyond the Gates of Antares Kickstarter do?

This isn’t to say Rick isn’t a titan in wargaming and responsible for the games we love, we just need reminding that he is human. As to the points this article makes, I think the most stinging and most likely true, is the out of control GW sales department. It is easy to imagine and explains a lot of the bizarre behavior by GW over the last 10 years.

It is also great to see Rick call GW out on this self-denial…

“The role I had in the studio was with staff working on game development and design, and they’d pretty much decided that game development and design wasn’t of any interest to them. The current attitude in Games Workshop is that they’re not a games company, it’s that they’re a model company selling collectibles. That’s something I find wholly self-deceiving and couldn’t possibly agree with.”

Where I have a bone to pick with Rick though comes earlier…

“The model design for Warhammer had started to get overblown,” he said.

“The models started to get big and came with too many parts. The number of pieces and the size of design are key factors in the cost of production, and there was a lack of discipline that meant the models were becoming less profitable.

“When I did Lord of the Rings I redefined the miniatures to be 28mm again. I took them down in size and had single-piece models. That was part of the reason it was successful.”

One of the man reasons LoTR never appealed to me was the simplicity of the models. The non-customization of them and strict attachment to a ridged look and feel. It seems like at the time Rick was just as concerned about the sales as the sales team was. I also wonder if the over all design was really his idea in the first place? Wasn’t the sales department running the show at this point? Didn’t GW just survive an implosion from the Specialist Games? I am sure management had a very specific budget in mind when doing LoTR and it just so “happened” to fall into what Rick wanted to do all along. GW also had to pay licensing fees, cutting into their margins right from the start.

Isn’t it the multi-part kits and larger scale that makes Games Workshop, well Games Workshop. No other wargaming company can pull it off, it is this leverage that keeps them on top, even with outrageous pricing. So many models in the LoTR line look cheap and archaic. You could make a case the whole GW is model company selling collectibles delusion, all started with LoTR! It probably happened the second GW realized no one was actually playing the game built for the models.

Nostalgia gamers though I am sure still love it, but for kids going into a GW shop choosing between dynamic 40k or stale LoTR models is it really a choice with the movies a distant memory?

Funny how Rick is trying to sell us on this history at the same time promoting Beyond the Gates of Antares. I am pretty sure Gates of Antares uses 28mm scale and they look pretty simple in design too. Is this by choice or hidden behind design/budget constraints?

Priestly hasn’t worked for GW since 2010, that is five long years, much as changed, and it is easy to see why he would want to show the contrast between past and present. He left at the right time, just before Kirby took complete control as CEO and drove the company downward, with cutting, legal, and terrible game design choices. As we come to the end of 2015 though it seems like the new regime has learned from many of the mistakes Rick outlined. We are getting the specialist games back and I am sure they won’t Squat it because of logistical mismanagement. Sure, we have Age of Sigmar, but Warhammer 40k is still strong and profits are starting to turn up. It is still too early to declare Rick right about the sales department meddling with the design team will be the company’s downfall, but at the very least we know Rick Priestly is on the record for it.