3D printers, 3D models, cheap materials - this is the dawn of a new era for miniature wargaming. I bet Battlefront can already feel disruptive innovations slowly biting away at their market space. While this is happening, I wonder what will be their reactions and which way will they choose to go in the future. And this is not only true to Battlefront. They will be the first to feel it with full force as nobody can own copyrights to historical designs like tanks, guns, infantry and so on, which means me, you, anybody can print whatever units Battlefront uses in their Intelligence Briefings for around 1/4 of the retail price of their products.
Several months ago they announced that they will be moving their factory to a new location as the output of their former manufacturing center was not enough to satisfy the demand of their customers. I am puzzled as to whether this was the correct move. Do they really understand what Disruptive Innovations mean for their business? :)
When I look up the definition of a disruptive innovation on the Wikipedia, it says:
"Disruptive innovations tend to be produced by outsiders. The business environment of market leaders does not allow them to pursue disruption when they first arise, because they are not profitable enough at first and because their development can take scarce resources away from sustaining innovations (which are needed to compete against current competition). A disruptive process can take longer to develop than by the conventional approach and the risk associated to it is higher than the other more incremental or evolutionary forms of innovations, but once it is deployed in the market, it achieves a much faster penetration and higher degree of impact on the established markets."
This is exactly the case that is happening now and the symptoms can be seen over the internet. When I visit Facebook daily, I see all kinds of posts by people (outsiders by Wiki's definition) who already purchased their 3D printer and started using non-commercial use files to manufacture their own 1:100 scale historical models for a few dollars/euros per piece. 3D printing is actually gaining its momentum as we speak. When I go back to the definition, I can notice that we are at the stage of its deployment to the market and thus the next step will be a big hit to the core business of Battlefront, which is production of toy soldiers.
For me, this means: soon demand for their minis will decrease. Like with going bankrupt, it will be slow at first, and suddenly, very quick. In the forseeable future they will cease being a manufacturer for their historical product line and become an IP management company unless they do something about it.
Now some questions: are BF actively seeking a sustainable business model that can enable them to take the incoming punch and still stay afloat? What are their possible options?
In my opinion, one of the key survival factors is to create unique IP that will enable them to own the copyrights to the designs they produce. This means - new games with new models. They have still not reached that point.
Also, a creation of a truly competitive gaming system with simple rules and official tournaments would help greatly. When I think about it - Magic the Gathering would be long dead if not for the competitions that they manage. Rankings, ladders, cash prizes is what would really get a robust gaming system going. Current system somehow feels incomplete without the official tournament scene - there is no endgame in FoW (apart from maybe ETC - but it is not an official Battlefront event). I myself started playing Flames of War because I liked the generalship aspect of it and honestly only know a few people who buy models just to own/paint them. On the other hand I know tons of gamers who own gigantic colletions of models. The current whine on the Battlefront forums related to how overpowered US is also relates to this - people want simple, balanced gameplay and fair tournament play. If they get this, they will buy the minis/rules :)
GW seems to have learned it the hard way :) Hope Battlefront does not.
On the positive note however, a clear sign that they are trying to find a new way around disruptive innovations is the release of their Tanks game. Tanks in essence is the perfect marketing move:
- like mentioned a few lines before, it brings in unique IP in the form of hero/equipment cards
- it creates new market space by attracting more customers (low entry cost, simple ruleset)
- opens the possibility for truly competitive gaming (seems to be easy to learn, hard to master)
- maintenance of this model essentially costs them nothing - they just need to repack models they already produce anyway + print the cards
- is a gateway to Flames of War (if I have a few StuGs, why not create a StuG battery and play FoW?)
Still with this game, they are stuck with historical models. But as far as I am concerned, the selling point of Tanks is a bit different than for regular wargames. They rely on high number of customers who will not bother to print their own minis just to reduce their cost by 5-6$ while they get no cards and are probably left with lower quality models. I really hope this game works for them.
As for Flames of War, I think their future is IP management of the game rules. We can already experience the switch towards this direction: FoW Digital. It requires minimal effort to maintain and if the game gets popular enough, it can be very beneficial per man hour spent to develop. And hopefully, with everybody and their moms able to produce their own models at home and TANKS feeding in new players, FoW will get more and more popular.
Overall, I am really keen to see how the situation develops.
P.S. And if for some weird reason they would decide to improve FoW to be even more fitting to tournament play I would be the first person to volunteer to help. They still have a lot of supporters (promoters if you use NPS). My advice to BF: use the help! :)