I’ve never understood Games Workshop’s affection for the Lord of the Rings game. Clearly someone at GW thinks that the license and its accompanying figure range generates enough money to be worth the continued investment but as someone who has spent years covering the gaming industry and as a gamer I have yet to see any concrete evidence that the Lord of the Rings tabletop game and the War of the Ring mass combat game are a success.
One of the efforts at made as part of my tenure at Tabletop Gaming News was a series of monthly polls that asked gamers what they were purchasing and playing. In the months that the polls ran both Middle-Earth games would consistently poll lower than Blood Bowl. A game that GW doesn’t even stock in their own stores. In fact, both LotR and WotR wouldn’t even generate a third of the number of responses that Blood Bowl did. And while Lord of the Rings might have pockets of popularity it certainly doesn’t have the wide range of popularity that Blood Bowl,or even Epic, does. Blood Bowl has fan sites (the ones that GW didn’t threaten with legal action) and magazines, podcasts and a series of international tournaments that bring in amounts that rival some Warhammer Fantasy events. The same is not true for either of the Middle-Earth games.
So the fact that GW is returning to the LoTR game and expanding it with new models and books really has me scratching my head.
One has to assume that these games and their miniature ranges make money. Games Workshop is nothing if not driven by profit and return on investment. The question is then, is this short-term profit that is coming at the expense of GW’s long-term growth? A small host of companies have grown up to support the demand for new miniatures and accessories for Blood Bowl. Impact! Miniatures, Greebo, FF Fields and others have filled a void that GW has created by its lack of support for one of its own games. Even Epic, a game without any of the popularity of Blood Bowl is generating ancillary businesses that provide Epic gamers with alternative figures and terrain. Clearly these games generate interest and have enough purchasing to support more than one company.
And while Blood Bowl and Epic put “bums in the seats” at local game stores and events the same can’t be said for LoTR and WoTR. The only explanation that makes any sense to me, for their continued support and expansion of the Middle-Earth games, is that they view these games and figures as a way to get mass market attention onto their other core games and bring people into GW stores. Mass market consumers come to the stores for LoTR and, eventually, Hobbit figures and games and then migrate to other GW games. At least this would appear to be the hope.
The problem with this view is that we know it doesn’t work. After the final Lord of The Rings film sales at GW stores crashed as the LOTR bubble burst. While GW sold a lot of games and figures they appear to have been almost totally unsuccessful at moving those customers to their core games. I can’t see that this latest Hobbit game license and expansion of the existing Middle-Earth games is going to be a success where their past effort clearly failed.
While short-term bubbles are certainly not a problem for a company, at least when the company knows they are coming, this reliance on Middle-Earth products to infuse the company with cash does nothing to build the long-term financial health of the company or its brands. Games Workshop needs more long-term consumers and fewer “bubble buyers” and its clear from the continued strength of games such as Epic and, especially, Blood Bowl that GW already has existing brands that could be leveraged to bring gamers into stores and potentially to sell 40K and WFB models to.
Or at the very least sell new Blood Bowl and Epic figures to.