A Look Back at D&D Minis

It seems that with the exception of special products like the recently released beholder set, D&D minis are dead. A few years ago the line was doing well so this is quite a change of fortune. So what happened?

For a product like D&D minis, you have three basic types of consumers:
1) People who use them as RPG accessories.
2) People who use them to play miniatures games.
3) People who like to collect cool minis/D&D paraphernalia.

There is some overlap between the groups (I am a classic roleplayer/minis player hybrid) but the crossover is smaller than many people think. Ten years ago when I was working on the game that was ultimately called D&D Chainmail, my team was trying to build a game to appeal to minis players. Since these were going to be minis of D&D monsters and heroes, we also hoped to appeal to the roleplayers but they were the secondary target. (I wanted to maintain a separate line of RPG accessory minis but that idea of kiboshed and Chainmail was increasingly expected to do double duty.)

The plan was to do a skirmish game (something you can play with 8-12 minis per side) and then scale it up to a full mass battles game (in which you’d commonly see over 100 figures per side). Miniatures players are willing to make that sort of investment. Many will buy multiple armies. With a compelling setting and halfway decent rules, you can keep minis gamers buying lots of figs for a long, long time. See Games Workshop. Roleplayers, as we’ll see, have a different psychology.

D&D Chainmail had a troubled existence from the get go, but two events drove the nails into its coffin. First, the decision was made to make it a skirmish game only. Something that was meant to be a six month phase turned into the entire game. Not at all what we planned. Second, Mage Knight came out and proved collectible minis could sell. My team had been trying to set up a more traditional pewter, non-collectible minis business. We faced tough internal pressure to figure out some way to apply the Magic business model to minis, but we really didn’t think that was a good idea. When Mage Knight was selling like crazy, it was hard to argue against it though. This was the Pokemon era when expectations were ridiculous. We were asked by a VP once if Chainmail would make over $10 million in its first year. We said it was unlikely, and that the business would need time to grow to that level. No one wanted to hear that at WotC in 2001.

When Chainmail launched, it was already a compromised product. It got crap support from the company and a key decision from an idiot brand manager made the production costs much higher than the needed to be while creating packaging that did a poor job of showcasing the minis. A year later the game rules won an Origins Award…one week after WotC cancelled it. By this point all the members of that original team had quit or been laid off. Interestingly, two of them (Matt Wilson and Mike McVey) went off and formed Privateer Press, which went to to publish the Warmachine and Hordes miniatures games.

When D&D Minis came back, it was in a pre-painted, collectible format like Mage Knight. There was an attached game (ironically enough, a revised version of the Chainmail rules) but the main target was roleplayers. IIRC, the first starters didn’t even say miniatures game on them. The setting, factions, characters, and stories we tried to create with Chainmail were jettisoned. If you wanted to play the game, you had your choice of bland, alignment-based factions with no background, no cohesion, and no particular reason to fight.

For roleplayers though, the new approach worked initially. Most of the sculpts and paint jobs were mediocre but the roleplayers didn’t care as much about those things as the minis players. They liked popping something ready to use out of the package and if it looked halfway decent on the table, that was good enough. No glue, painting, or assembly required. A secondary market sprang up where common (but useful in a RPG) minis were available pretty cheaply (I bought ten giant frogs once because they were ten cents each). The rare figures were more expensive, of course, and many desirable monsters were only available as rares.

For several years new sets of D&D minis came out regularly and seemed to sell well. WotC was making money, the roleplayers were generally satisfied, and D&D itself became increasingly minis-centric, which should only have reinforced demand. And yet, it eventually became apparent that things weren’t going so well. WotC stopped supporting the minis game. Sets become less frequent. Some gamers complained the quality of the minis was dropping. So what was going on?

My suspicion (and remember I was long gone from WotC when this stuff went down) is the the nature of the roleplaying consumer eventually bit Wotc in the ass. A roleplayer wants enough minis to support his or her RPG sessions and the minis are in many ways incidental to the game experience. A minis gamer wants to build armies and the minis are a key element of the game experience. I believe many of the roleplayers who bought cases of minis for the first few sets began to slow down as their collections grew. At a certain point they had most of their bases covered. So instead of buying a case, they bought a few boosters or cherry picked a few figs from the secondary market.

At the same time, the cost of making the minis was going up. Pre-painted collectible figures are all done in Asia but you may have noticed the weakening American dollar and the recession we’ve been in the last few years. So as sales on each set eroded, the cost to make the minis was going up. Declining sales + increasing costs = the almost inevitable death of D&D minis as we knew them.

It seems that the era of the collectible mini is nearing an end after only a decade. Mage Knight, the pioneer in the field, was ironically one of the first to die. The ups, downs, and acquisitions of its publisher, Wizkids, is a whole other story. They are now part of Neca and seem to be doing OK with a revived Heroclix. Few other games are left standing. The more traditional minis companies survive and in many cases thrive. Games Workshop still dominates the field. Privateer has experimented with a pre-painted plastic game but their bread and butter seems to still be Warmachine and Hordes. Reaper looks solid as a rock and they still do great business selling pewter minis to D&D players.

WotC, I suspect, plans to migrate the minis aspect of D&D play to the virtual tabletop online with the rest of the game. There may even be a business model there, selling packs of virtual creatures and characters. For my part, I wish D&D had gotten a real mass battles miniatures game supported by a full line of pewter and multi-part plastic miniatures. Something that played great on its own but could also tie into your RPG campaign. Something that made the most of D&D’s rich worlds and added new lore and stories to that tradition. I’m a crazy dreamer like that.

Originally published on LiveJournal on January 13, 2011. 

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