Monday, August 28, 2017

The Recent Games Company Cull (Part 1)

Ashley over at the Paint it Pink Blog posted an article about the closure of Spartan Games last week and I figured I'd add my own thoughts (likely a two part series) on the subject as well given that I had (unsuccessfully) supported the Spartan Games' Halo Fleet Battles line in the past on this blog.   Before getting into the specifics on my experience with Spartan, I'd like to also add that it's been a particularly bad week for mid to small sized games companies with the closure of Tor Gaming last week as well as the prior closure of On the Lamb games as well that wasn't publicized as much.  I had never ordered from either company as their niche products didn't really scratch any of my own hobby itches but I have interacted with one of the owners of OTL on dakka in the past as was sad to hear about the closure.  In any case, the following will probably be a semi-stream of consciousness wall of text so consider yourselves warned.   The following blog posts/thoughts/guesses are my opinions going largely off of my own (occasionally flawed and admittedly biased) memory and experiences as well as publicly available information as I have zero insider knowledge of the behind the scenes happenings at Spartan.  I'd normally quote more sources to back up some of my comments but all hands (including the official news blog and forums) went down suddenly with the Spartan ship last week with no backup on waybackmachine.  In this first part, I'll start off with my own personal experiences and then later in the second post go over what I suspect lead to that downfall.

First off, I'll say that regardless of my thoughts that I'm never happy to see fellow gamers leaving the dream so to speak lose their job (some probably permanently in the industry).  There were indeed some talented and dedicated folks at Spartan games and I wish them well in their future endeavors.  That said... I fully believe that a large part of the failure of Spartan Games falls squarely on the shoulders on its leadership.  When I first considered getting into Halo Fleet Battles shortly after its announcement, these are some of the responses in the dakka thread that greeted me from their current and former customers:

"Spartan Games is branching into yet another game?"

"They will only drop it six months down the line. Give the license to a company who will support it."
"Maybe they'll have a special clause in the contract stating they should at least show some effort and give it a full year?"

"I'm not surprised... but I do think it means they'll spread themselves even thinner right when Planetfall needs (and deserves) full-time nurturing to get it established."

"This announcement does leave me with mixed feelings, as I want to like what Spartan has done recently in improving themselves, but I'm doubtful they could support a 5th game/3rd universe already. Time will tell."
"I am looking forward to Halo 2.0 (which will really be the 4th iteration of the same book and the 25th iteration of the same ruleset) in 18 months' time."

 "I believe the sentiment is more about Spartan's somewhat lack of attention span when it comes to their rules. Their first few years were a never ending cycle of revisions and half measures and starting up new games only to neglect them or other games. The new 2.0 rules mark a change where they've finally sorted out the problems and more or less established their 'core' products. "

Dakka has a rep for being a bunch of grumpy grognards (largely amongst unscrupulous small companies and their white knights) but I've found that alot of truth is found in posts on independent forums since other locations like facebook and company specific forums truly give companies a pass (and clamp down on anything else) too often despite objectively consumer unfriendly moves.  Obviously given the above comments (and this was NOT the first time I had heard about Spartan's reputation regarding long term support for their games), I can't claim to have gone into Halo with anything but my eyes open.  I simply hoped that with such a likely expensive IP that they would treat it right.  I was a bit surprised that they decided to take a video game that was almost exclusively about skirmish level combat focused on special characters and lead with a ship battle game but my own interest in the genre made me hope that it would be a success.  Unfortunately, I was wrong on both accounts.

After buying into the game with the core set and later some ship add ons, I found out that no one else bought anything from the line at my store including the friend of mine who initially was supposed to be buying his own core set and splitting the contents with me (with one of us getting the humans and the other the aliens).  That small initial shipment the owner ordered sat there on the shelf untouched until the store closed down the next year.  When the local Spartan game demo reps showed up the month after the release of the game, I came to the store hoping to get in a demo as my own minis were as of yet mostly unassembled.  The two company reps (two brothers) basically responded quite unprofessionally and angrily that they had zero interest in the game.  They were firmly fans of the existing OTHER Spartan games spaceship game (Firestorm Armada) and had no plans to demo, support, or even try the game when I offered to bring in my own minis.  They backtracked a bit later that evening with some more diplomatic "clarifications" of their earlier statements but their true feelings were quite obvious and were another warning sign for me.

Still mostly undaunted, I finished painting and assembling my minis now for both fleets as I fully expected that I'd have to bring both painted to realistically get anyone to try the game.  I found the actual minis to be of high quality and very intuitive to assemble.  I did have some issues with the packing leading to some damaged ship pieces and Spartan was VERY generous in replacing the damaged parts.  I had expected them to send me just the damaged individual pieces but instead they sent the entire sprues.  During the time it took me to build and paint my minis, I was active on the Spartan forums and kept hoping for more new ships to come out and both bolster my fleets as well as more importantly add some variant playstyles.  Unfortunately, the half dozen upcoming ships previewed both at the pre-release Salute convention as well as at the big GenCon premiere (hinted as future plastic releases) mostly didn't materialize in that first key 6 months.  Instead. the same three ships for each faction fromthe starter set were repackaged a myriad of times in different quanities and combinations with occasionally some minimally variant rules.

Finally around Christmas post release, the first of the ships previewed earlier finally came out in resin (instead of rumored plastic) and unfortunately had serious QA issues.  The large ships were obviously 3D printed and Spartan hadn't even bothered to clean up any the 3D printing lines on the ships so they showed very obvious stepping from the prototyping process.  When complaints were raised about those $85 (55 GBP) large centerpiece ships, the intial response on the forums and social media was to delete the complaints instead of addressing them.  Obviously that did not go over well with folks who paid so much for those products and the complaints increased.  Forum white knights started berating their fellow customers with the usual buck passing responses only further fanning the flames but eventually Spartan did the right thing and said they would address the situation.  Ultimately, they were very generous in their resolution again just shipping full new replacement ships to customers who complained but the damage was already done.  Folks like myself who witnessed the quality issues had already decided to wait and see what future ships would look like in person (or at least on the web post release) before ever ordering any of their resin products.

Over the next couple months, more ships were previewed but actual new releases were still a trickle (and strangely NOT the ships previewed almost 6 months earlier).  Issues with the rules were largely ignored until they started dominating the conversation about the game at which point they'd get a quick one line fix for that single issue.  Youtube channels that had covered the game previously either fell silent or announced they were dropping coverage of the game.  At that point, I sold most of my remaining unbuilt ships leaving myself with only the damaged parts sprues that I had gotten replacements for as well as those I had painted and I put my follow up fighter/bomber stands project on hold (I had hoped to replace the tokens with tiny miniatures instead).  This was in part a response to the worsening general tone of the conversation surrounding the game as well as my own personal inability to convince even a single person to just try the game when bringing two painted fleets to the FLGS.  More resin ships were finally making some progress in the pipeline to arrive early next year when Spartan made the annoucement that mostly killed my remaining enthusiasm for the game and proved the dakka grognards correct... after 6 months and only two flawed and expensive new followup product releases, Spartan was pleased to announce the release of the NEXT Halo game... the 15mm Halo Ground Combat.  At that point, I largely said my goodbyes on the official forums (and I certainly wasn't the first) but kept my painted ships just in case I had a future use for them in a generic ship combat game.  Over the next couple of months, I saw some news about them finally releasing the ships previewed the year before as well as announcing a Second Edition of the game rules less than a year after the release of the game (another bulleye for the dakka crowd).

With the next blog post, I'll go over some of the issues that I think contributed to the failure of both the above Halo Fleet Battles game as well as that of the company that made it.

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