The Perils of Plastic (part 1)

Plastic soldiers have been around since the 1970’s but in recent years their role and place in the miniatures market has changed significantly. This first part of a two part discussion looks at the impact and some future consequences of plastic miniatures in the fantasy gaming market.

My first ever toy soldiers were plastic. Airfix 32 and 00 scale boxes covered a variety of obscure theatres of war with an abstract attention to detail that I find amusing in today’s world of market analysis and customer focus groups. They never really had a serious place in gaming until the first huge rise in metal prices seen in the early 1990’s. Concerns lead larger figure produces like Games Workshop to introduce plastic into their figure ranges to try to keep sales moving and their customers buying. I worked for GW around this time and whilst I was not a lover of their plastic miniatures (certainly at the time), I understood their care and concern in how and what was released. As a consequence, this was one of the better decisions they took in my opinion. They genuinely believed they were offering a service in that they produced basic troop types that you needed a lot of if you were building an army. They were affordable compared to the metal alternatives that were at the top of the price point for miniatures across the market. Of course there were other reasons as well like the cost of tooling and the huge numbers you had to sell to get a return but I cannot fault them. The reason to my mind is that they created their own market. The plastic miniatures they sold in huge quantities were targeted at and purchased for their own game systems rather than being generic.

Plastic miniatures in the role playing industry are presented in a very different way. On paper it sounded great, ready painted D&D plastic miniatures representing all the creatures in the Monster Manual. What is actually on offer appears to be a cynical “leverage of the brand” as WOTC cash in on the same collectible habits they totally failed to grab when they went for the Magic the Gathering card market (late). The whole range does not offer anything to the D&D role-player despite some nicely sculptured pieces because of the random boxes and mass produced painting. I realise the plastic minis are a hook, a cross-over to the collector market and a kind of crude game in their own right, so a convincing PR man might try to argue they are an entry point for new gamers but it is a thin argument. Reading the feedback on Amazon has convinced me most reviewers do not intend to play the full game. Despite this, the plastics are inevitably impacting the metal manufactured miniature market, just ask a retailer.

The reason WOTC have adopted this approach is to my mind a bit of a cop out. Whilst production costs have plummeted in recent years because of the Chinese (bless them) but also because of technological improvements, tooling is still a big investment. You will be paying perhaps £30,000 for a plastic mould tool where mastering in metal will cost you a matter of £100. WOTC do not have to worry about which miniatures are popular because the poor ones get traded or more likely get sent to the landfill site. Ironically they can manipulate sales by limiting (should they choose) availability of certain miniatures encouraging the desperate collector to buy more boxes. Were the plastic miniatures seriously intended for the dedicated role-player, WOTC would need to create a coherent range with multiple poses for creatures that come in numbers (orcs, goblins etc).

Despite poor service of the scenario writing role player who likes his accessories, the sale of these products has had an impact on the metal miniature manufacturer. The convenience of them is persuasive and the price is low enough to not offend (the same hooks used in heroine pedalling – albeit to a different market) Of course I am biased as I am an advocate for metal miniatures, but the market is now held together by a few dedicated large organisations and a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs like us. The trend is obvious as you follow a range you like from manufacturer to manufacturer as one company folds and another buys up the property desperately trying to maintain its turnover by expanding its offering. Ultimately the argument falls down to service. Your metal manufacturer can deliver quickly. The low cost of production and the speed at which a master can be brought to market give metal a significant edge. Durability and weight mean metal miniatures feel good in the hand. Finally, it is easy to do conversions and hence offer the variety of poses needed for a credible hoard of beasties.

The reality is that the metal miniature maker can offer so much more that the mass market plastic. Were it manageable in a large scale I am sure WOTC would be actively involved so they could add the fine quality of production and distribution they offer for printed material and have the whole accessory market. The difficulty is all the other bits that go towards making a product successful such as marketing and distribution. The plastics leave in boxes by the pallet load to Amazon, Tesco or just about anybody whilst the metal miniature can only be delivered effectively by mail order. Perhaps this is one of the real driving forces behind 4.0 which apart from all its other confusing objectives, takes back control of the miniature and the dungeon dressing albeit in a virtual context.

The irony is not lost on me when you look at the two giants of fantasy gaming. On one hand you have GW; (in my opinion) tired games worlds and systems but superb understanding of the hobby and how to build it, and on the other, WOTC with a timeless and enduring system but no inspiration in how to deliver it.

If both were to listen to their customers and we as customers gave more thought to what we really wanted and showed it in our buying habits, the future of gaming on the table top would be much brighter.

Part 2 of my rant looks at plastics in the historical gaming market, a newer phenomenon.

3 comments

  1. Hi Rob,

    In the early 90s I attended a game convention in St. Louis, called CommandCon. I think. At this con a presentation was given about impending legislation regarding lead use in miniatures, and how small industries which used lead were being targeted as a statistical trick to created the appearance of reduced national lead use overall. The group doing the presenting then took up a collection to try to hire a lobbyist to defend the lead based mini industry. Do you know anything about this? Was this a nation wide defend-our-lead movement?

    And thanks for putting up a piece about the wargame table I made, I appreciate it.

  2. Hi Tim,

    This is very interesting although I must confess I was not aware of the details of the struggle in the United States and how it reached it’s conclusion. I worked at Games Workshop UK for two years around the time you mention in a management role. We were extremely concerned about the future of lead alloys at that time and decided like many manufacturers to move to pewter with only a trace element of lead. I will contact a few old friends who were more directly involved in production around that time to see if I can pin down the lobbyist story as I think we all owe the individual(s) a big thank you.
    I believe that miniature wargaming miniatures are specifically exempt from the regulations restricting the use of lead in both the UK and the USA. It is hard to get this kind of clause into legislation without lobbying so I believe there may be a lot to your theory.

  3. Hi Tim,

    I’ve not had much luck tracking down anything concerning the CommandCon presentation. I have spoken to a number of contacts in the industry without much success but I have now contacted what I believe were the convention organisers in the hope they might be able to shed some light. Andy Chambers was kind enough to point our the following:

    I made a few enquiries but couldn’t really get anything substantive, most people seem to agree that things kicked off with New York state introducing anti-lead legislation but I think that didn’t go through in the end. However it was taken as a sign of the times to reduce lead content in miniatures so most manufacturers adopted a new metal mix and certainly GW used it as an opportunity to make a price hike.

    If the convention guys reply, I’ll post it.

    rob´s last blog post..D&D – History and Growth [Corrected & Reposted]

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