Like a D6: The Rise and Rise of Warhammer Videogames

SpaceMarinebox610It’s probably fair to say that all but the most jockish teenage boys here in the UK go through a Games Workshop phase. That isn’t to say girls can’t or don’t, of course, but even a cursory peep around the door of your local store would reveal real-life wargaming to be a primarily male pursuit.

There’s something very British about Warhammer and its better known sci-fi cousin, Warhammer 40,000, colloquially known as ’40k’. Both are very heavily informed by our island nation’s colourful history, particularly the middle ages. Warhammer’s Skaven, for example, are a race of plague-ridden giant rats analogous with the black death, and Warhammer 40,000’s Imperium of Man shares many aesthetic and thematic strands with Christianity’s darkest and most pious bygone days.

For years the big GW took cautious baby steps into the world of videogames, presumably for fear of cannibalising their own core business of peddling books, models and paints. Despite some early success stories such as serviceable PC turn-based squad battler, Chaos Gate, they always felt, to use an appropriately anglocentric turn of phrase, half-arsed.

All that changed with the release of Dawn of War in 2004. It was the realisation of a million teenage flights of fancy, breathing awe-inspiring life into previously inanimate models, as bolters chugged, Orks waaargh’d, and the Eldar tried their best not to look like spaces elves. Keeping tabletop Warhammer 40,000’s rules at arms length, the game struck gold by combining so beloved a universe with solid, proven real-time strategy mechanics. It would go on to receive 3 expansion packs, and a thriving modding community eager to add units and factions passed over by developers, Relic Entertainment, continued to service it for years thereafter. In 2010, a sequel that spliced in RPG elements and emphasised smaller scale, more tactical combat, was issued. Dawn of War 2 may have played very differently, but was lavished with just the same love and reverence for its subject matter. Finally, it had happened; somebody had combined Warhammer and videogames with enough gusto to make it work, and the results were glorious.

But THQ, the publisher responsible for the Dawn of War series, filed for bankruptcy at the end of 2012. When its assets were sold at auction, Sega bagged Relic, initially leading to more than a little confusion regarding the fate of the Warhammer 40,000 license. Even now, two years later, the Chaos Gods are playing their cards very close to their chests, but it would seem that while Relic, and by extension Sega, may still have the necessary license to make further Dawn of War games, they certainly don’t have exclusive rights to the franchise as a whole, as is evidenced by the sheer volume of Space Marine-bothering tropes we’ve seen from multiple different developers and publishers since. It’s worth noting that Sega’s Creative Assembly remain custodians of the main Warhammer fantasy franchise, however.

We could probably argue semantics about who owns what license and under what circumstances until the orcs come home, but the key point this; Games Workshop suddenly have their fingers in a hell of a lot of pies, and are greenlighting projects on a scale we’ve never really seen before, as the deepest fathoms of the Imperium’s archives are being plundered and offered up to the willing. Even long forgotten and short-lived systems such as starship skirmisher, Battlefleet Gothic, are getting a look in. Many of these feature a curious absence of Games Workshop and/or Warhammer branding; case in point the recent PC Space Hulk and Morheim efforts.

Is it surprising that Games Workshop has a renewed interest in videogames? Not really. The company’s press report for the year ending June 2nd 2013, around seven months after THQ folded, makes for interesting reading. It would seem that royalties, of which in chairman and acting CEO, Tom Kirby’s words on the same document  “nearly all… comes from licenses sold to computer games companies” fell by a staggering £2.5m year on year. He goes on to blame a trend towards mobile devices, but lets be honest, such a huge decline over a twelve month period is more in line with what you’d expect to see when, oh, I don’t know, say an important partner company goes bust than with the steady exodus away from full-sized PCs that’s been going on for years.

The truth is that Games Workshop now find themselves at a similar crossroads to that of the music industry when MP3 piracy hit the mainstream; their wares will soon be available online for free, illegally, but in such a way that would be impossible to police, so they must roll with the gradual digitisation of mainstream entertainment or die. In the company’s most recent press report, Kirby is dismissive about the threat of 3D printing; skeptical that fans will be prepared to make do with armies of inferiour quality homebrew models. Certainly, that’s fair cop with regards to organised play, but cash-strapped teenagers playing privately on the kitchen table will likely be nonplussed. For the moment, I think we can expect the Warhammer/Warhammer 40,000 videogames to keep coming while Games Workshop reassesses its place in the world, and endeavours to bring the money it makes from royalties back in line with pre-2013 levels. The aforementioned press report for 2014 shows an increase of £400,000, so things seem to be moving in the right direction.

As for the (grim darkness of the) far future, who knows? Perhaps they’ll end up pulling out of wargaming altogether to focus on licensing their intellectual property to others, while continuing to invest in the Black Library, their hugely popular literary arm. If not, then, erm, Blood Angel Amiibos, anyone?

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