Category for all posts about Massive Awesome in general.

Miniature Myth Busting

As you may know we are currently writing an article series for Beasts of War detailing the steps we’re taking as we approach the launch of the Shattered Earth Kickstarter on February 10th. A comment on our latest entry got me thinking about the ‘black box’ that is miniature production, and the reply I started writing quickly got out of hand, hence this (enormous) blog post.

Firstly, a disclaimer: this in no way constitutes professional advice – it’s just what I’ve learned over the last year or so of trying to do this for a living. Also, the numbers quoted are merely examples and represent the range of prices you might be expected to pay rather than quotes from specific manufacturers. Lastly, Massive Awesome are a UK-based company so all prices are in pounds sterling.

(Note: this is a very long post – you have been warned!)

Art and Design

The best way for me to debunk some of the myths around miniature production is to run through the entire production process with a couple of imaginary miniatures; let’s call them Bob and Kate. Bob is a standard 28mm human soldier whereas Kate is an intricately-detailed 54mm collectors’ piece.

Let’s start with Bob. Bob’s concept art was pretty straightforward to design and cost about £100. The sculpting was done digitally and again was a straightforward job – let’s call it £250. Bob was sent to the printers to have the master produced which cost another £100. Bob is now ready for casting; total investment so far: £450.

Kate on the other hand took some time to get right. Her concept art needed several iterations and ran to £350. The sculpting also took some time to get all the details right, and she’s a complicated miniature, so that ended up costing £1,000. Due to her size and the amount of different pieces required, the 3D print was also a lot more complex and cost £350. Total investment for Kate so far: £1,700.

The Casting Process

There are three main materials that miniatures are cast in: metal (normally tin), resin and plastic (specifically high impact polystyrene, often referred to as HIPS). Some miniature ranges and a lot of boardgames produce their miniatures in a different type of plastic called polyvinyl chloride, more commonly known as PVC. I have zero experience casting in this material so I won’t be covering that in this article. If anybody has experience of casting PVC miniatures please share your thoughts in the comments!

Right, let’s talk about metal. Metal is normally spin cast, which means you make a circular mould out of rubber or silicone and spin it at high speed to distribute the metal. You can use a 9″ mould for Bob and you can fit five of him in each mould. Each mould will set you back about £50, and let’s call it £3 for the metal (you pay by weight) and another £3 per spin. Assuming you get 50 casts out of each mould, your cost per miniature for Bob is £1.40 (=(3+3+(50/50))/5). Kate on the other hand needs an 11″ mould (£80) and you’ll only fit three of her in each one. She costs £5 in metal and £5 to spin, so her cost per miniature is £3.87 (=(5+5+(80/50))/3).

Cost Per Miniature (Metal)

Resin production is very similar to metal production, although the miniatures are normally vacuum cast rather than spin cast. Some companies (particularly in the US) still make spin cast resin; it’s often a little cheaper than vacuum cast, but the miniatures are more likely to get air bubbles. Vacuum cast resin miniatures are probably the highest-detail you will achieve, but that detail has an effect on your mould yield. Mould costs per miniature are also more difficult to ascertain as it depends on how each miniature is cut.

For our example we will assume Bob’s mould cost is £35 and Kate’s is £50, and you get 20 pulls from each one. Bob costs £2 in resin, therefore the cost per miniature for Bob is £3.75 (=2+(35/20)). Kate costs £8 in resin, so her cost per miniature is £10.50 (=8+(50/20)).

Cost Per Miniature (Resin)

Lastly we’ll look at plastic injection moulding. This form of production uses metal ‘tools’ to produce sprues, usually 6″ by 8″. Each sprue can hold multiple miniatures and, whilst the tools themselves can be very expensive, the cost of plastic is cheap. You also don’t need to worry about yield with injection moulding as each tool will last for tens of millions of casts. Working out a cost per miniature with injection moulding is quite difficult due to the large upfront cost, and the fact that you don’t need to replace the tool. The easiest way to reconcile this is to add the cost of the tool to your initial design outlay instead of factoring it into each miniature’s individual cost.

We can create a sprue for Bob and, because he is quite a simple miniature, we can fit ten of him on each sprue. The cost of the tool is £8,000 and each shot of plastic is £1; the cost per miniature for Bob is therefore £0.10 (=1/10) because we aren’t including the cost of the tool. Kate is much more complicated and takes up an entire sprue on her own. She’s also got some pieces with quite a bit of depth to them, so the tool itself is more expensive at £12,000. We’re still paying £1 per shot, which is how much it will cost us to produce one Kate in plastic.

Cost Per Miniature

(If you’re going to use plastic injection moulding, you’ll need to cut the miniatures differently than for metal and resin. This will obviously incur an additional cost which is not covered in this example.)

Making Money

Now you have a production-ready miniature to sell you need to set your RRP/MSRP. Production costs should normally run somewhere between 15% and 20%, so you can easily calculate your RRP/MSRP by multiplying the cost per miniature by 5 or 6 (note: this is where you need to decide who you’re aiming at; high-end boutique miniatures will obviously have higher production costs, whereas simpler 28mm humans will run closer to 15%). This will often produce a higher RRP/MSRP than you would like, so you’ll need to normalise that cost using other similar miniatures as reference, without undervaluing them.

For metal, at around 15% production costs, we’ll price Bob at £7.99 and Kate at £24.99. For resin our production costs are higher at 20%, so Bob is priced at £12.99 and Kate at £39.99. For plastic it gets a bit more complicated as you’re unlikely to be selling ten Bobs in one retail box, but for our example let’s assume that the sprue can be cut into individual miniatures. Our (ongoing) manufacturing costs are low, so we’ll price Bob and Kate at the same as metal: £7.99 and £24.99 respectively.


(You might think that the resin price for Kate is especially high; wait until you see what happens to that price when we get to distribution.)

Now, this is where things get more complicated. Depending on where in the world your business is based, you will need to account for all appropriate sales taxes. As we are based in the UK we need to take off 20% to cover VAT. You will of course need to charge this to any applicable customers, but you have to pay it back so it works out as a zero sum. If you’re selling your miniatures direct (e.g. from your own web store) you can easily work out your income per miniature by taking the production costs off the net price.

Net Income (Direct Sales)

Selling direct looks good for your bottom line, but your product is only being advertised in one shop window, so your sales potential is limited. If you want to increase your reach you’ll need to start selling into retailers, who will obviously want to make their own cut on the sales. Let’s assume that every retailer buys from you at the same discount (note: normally you’d negotiate deals with each retailer separately and offer tiered discounts depending on how much stock they buy) which we’ll say is 70% of RRP/MSRP.

Net Income (Retail Sales)

Okay, so you’re in 30 or so retailers in the UK and sales are looking good, but you want to break into Europe and the US. You can of course start talking to retailers in those countries directly, but it’s far better (and less stressful) to have a distributor do it for you. Now, obviously, adding another link in the chain is going to impact your bottom line as the distributor will want to take their cut before the miniatures go to retailers, so we’ll say they all buy from you at 50% of RRP/MSRP.

Net Income (Distribution Sales)

Now you know why the RRP/MSRP for a resin Kate is so high! Selling into distributors looks super-painful on paper, but they can exponentially increase your sales potential. You have to ask yourself if you want 80% of a small number, or 50% of a massive number. Of course, you need to have a commercially-viable product to begin with, but that should be your goal from day one even if you only plan to sell small numbers from your own web store.

The Final Reckoning

Let’s remind ourselves of our initial design costs – this is how much we need to clear to make any profit. As noted previously, we’ve included the tool cost in the outlay for our plastic miniatures.

Initial Outlay (Design Costs)

In order to break even we have to sell enough miniatures to clear our investment. We obviously make the most money selling directly, but our customer base is limited. If we sell into distributors we don’t make anywhere near as much money, but we could increase our customer base exponentially. Ultimately you need to decide where your game sits in the market, and plan your production accordingly.

Break Even (No. Miniatures Sold)

Phew! I think we all need a sit down and a nice cup of tea after that.

Now, none of the above covers things like warehouse space, staff salaries for picking and packing, stock insurance, etc. but it should give you an idea of where the money goes, and what the different production processes are like. If this has triggered any further questions in your mind, please post them in the comments below. And, if you have your own experiences to share, we’d especially love to hear that.

Constructive Criticism

As I have not worked in manufacturing or an industry where I produce tangible physical products, most of what I have ‘delivered’ in my day-job for the last 15 years has been a service or a presentation or written report. In managing staff who have (usually) provided their own services, I have often been in a binary situation where something is right or wrong; an application is either behaving as expected or it isn’t. So when a user can’t log in to a system or a financial transaction has gone through but nothing arrives in a client’s account, it is very clear what our end result should be.

Getting used to how it works in the games industry while interacting with our artists and sculptors has taken some time. I’ve been looking for the best way to offer constructive feedback to people who provide a physical finished product. There are rarely objective rights and wrongs when it comes to art or design and so all of our discussions have been discussing small, incremental changes to reach a goal that is not at all explicit, being as it lives in the heads of Simon and myself.

We have been incredibly lucky that the talent of all our collaborators is so obvious and the quality of their work so fantastic. Their skills seem almost alien to me, the ability to create drawings and models with such great detail and character, simply from the descriptions and feedback that we provide over email and instant message. It has sometimes been difficult for me to tell them when I’d like things changing. I feel like I, with my utter inability to draw, paint or sculpt, should have no right to question these hugely talented artists. I worry that suggesting changes is insulting their skills.

Thankfully, all of our collaborators are very secure in their own abilities and more than happy to engage in active discussions on the direction of their work. They have been extremely receptive during the conversations about the modifications and changes of directions that we have requested of them. This has made my job very easy and confirmed our opinion that it is worth paying for the best, most professional collaborators. Not only is the standard of their work high, but interacting with them is a pleasure and the process of design very much a collaborative effort.

It also makes me realise how sometimes products come to market that are less than stellar. They might not simply be a case of bad or lazy design; there may have been less experienced people involved or corners cut on materials. Perhaps the brief wasn’t clear or maybe people were simply too polite when it came to offering criticism, and they held their tongue when they should have pushed back. Either way, I hope I know what to do if I experience one of these tricky situations but my preference would be to keep hiring the best people so that I never have to.

Letting Go

Now that the game is public knowledge, I have had the odd but very satisfying experience of seeing it mentioned on gaming websites and blogs. It has been a real pleasure to see that people we have never met seem excited about what Simon and I are working on and are looking forward to playing the game and handling the miniatures that we’ve created.

This of course also comes with an additional level of responsibility, as we are no longer working just for ourselves but for a public audience. It also comes with the knowledge that we no longer ‘own’ the conversation around the game. Sure, we can try to steer it in the direction that we prefer but, going forwards, people will be less likely to get their information about the game from us directly and rather from website writers, reviewers, bloggers and the commenting public.

This level of public scrutiny is nothing new for Simon, who has gone through it countless times on big video game releases, but it is not something I have any experience with. The work I do in my day job will generally only directly affect a few dozen people and I know who they all are, so the whole concept of an unknown audience is taking some re-adjusting on my part.

Of course the whole purpose of starting the company was to create games that will reach a wide audience but, until now, only a few friends and family members have known what we are up to. So the best we can hope for is to try and enjoy this transition to having hundreds or even thousands of people read our words and view our art. After all, if the game is a success, this is the last time we’ll be in this position.

Age of Sigmar is Pretty Great

I’ve been a professional video game designer for 15 years. I’ve studied countless other games, read essays and listened to talks, and continually tried to improve my craft. I’ve also been a hobby gamer for almost 30 years. In that time I’ve created my fair share of house rules, and complained loudly about many more. Hobby gaming was something I understood from the outside looking in, and I thought that my professional experience gave me a better perspective when designing rules. It turns out I was only half right: writing a war game has been like going back to school.

I’ve always believed that good game design should be a process of simplification, reducing core mechanics down to their essential components. That doesn’t necessarily mean that games should be simple, only that any complexity should derive from the interactions between rules rather than the rules themselves.

When I first read the rules for Age of Sigmar, Games Workshop’s new skirmish game set in the venerable Warhammer universe, I was pretty shocked. Only four pages long? Given that the previous edition of Warhammer is the largest rulebook I own at just over 500 pages, you can probably see why. I’d read the forum posts from other concerned gamers and echoed a lot of the same concerns myself – but none of us had actually sat down and played it yet.

Earlier this week I had a demo of the game at my local Games Workshop store. And do you know what? Four pages is apparently all you need. So whilst the title of this post may have a faint whiff of click bait about it, Age of Sigmar is actually pretty great. Yes, I still feel like there are some issues that need addressing, the most notable being the lack of composition (no matter what Jervis says, even a casual game is improved when the sides are in balance). But the core rules – the real nuts and bolts of the design – are beautifully simple. They have followed the process of simplification to the point of removing entire sections of the rules that are otherwise ubiquitous in other war games.

This idea of challenging conventions is why Age of Sigmar deserves consideration. It may not be our intention at Massive Awesome to simplify the rules to this extent – as I mentioned above, I’ve been playing war games for nearly 30 years, so a little more depth is always welcome – but there is a modern, video game design philosophy at work here. In hindsight, my career as a video game designer had clearly put me on the right path, but it took a war game to make me realise that.

Feels Like ‘Work’

At first the writing came easily, words falling onto the page almost as quickly as I could conceive and then type them. After years without a real creative outlet, I think it was just a case of opening a tap and letting them pour out. Because of the huge size and scope of the universe that we’re creating, I could look in any direction and find fertile ground to go and wander in, creating structures without fear of contradicting canon. Of course at that stage continuity wasn’t an issue as nothing had come before.

As I’ve covered in a previous blog post, I did plenty of background planning, sketching the very broad outlines for the factions and main characters, and prioritizing the best order to tackle them. This still left plenty of room in each individual piece however, enabling me to just write, sometimes for hours without needing to stop and check the details. This was also very convenient for my haphazard way of writing: ten minutes on the tram here and half an hour after the kids have gone to bed there, able to just pick up where I left off the previous time.

Now I’m covering events that interact with previous writing and characters who’s timelines need to match up with each others’. This stifles the free-flow of thoughts that characterised my earlier pieces and that is, well, annoying. I guess this is more like ‘real’ writing. It certainly feels more like work. It also lends itself to more sustained periods of preparation and writing, with each session needing ten minutes of prep time where I look at the history tracker and the short guides to get prepared. When those ten minutes are followed by an hour of writing, that’s no problem, but when they’re followed by only ten minutes of actual writing and I need to repeat the same process the next day, the ratio of time spent working versus the end product produced is getting lower.

So to combat this I guess I have a couple of options: I could just write whatever comes into my head and rework it later, editing the details on future drafts, or I could pre-plan each piece more thoroughly, plotting the points I should hit and details I should include ahead of time. I’ll probably give each one a try and see which feels right. Of course there is the third option: when stuck, save and close the fiction piece and write a blog post instead.

Foundations Laid

So now the proper work starts. Simon and I decided early on to spend much of our initial effort doing groundwork before getting to the more interesting aspects of the creative process. With him, it has been the huge task of setting up the business and sorting out myriad contracts and official bits of paperwork. For me, it has been the more mundane tasks of deciding on a process that fits around my life and schedule; where and when to write (on my iPad while travelling for the most part), how to decide what to work on next, and whether to slowly go for a first pass finished product or knock out quick, rough drafts and constantly iterate.

There are also practical decisions like how and when to best communicate with Simon, when to be proactive versus when to discuss, and whether or not to stump up the cash for professional tools that enable direct uploading to our project server. Which reminds me, Simon also had to set up our server…

I have spent a good few hours preparing faction histories, story timelines, and a master work tracker, as I know from experience that without these tools, I’ll start going in a million different directions at once. My project management background means that I definitely find splitting writing up into discrete, smaller chunks keeps focus and motivation high, and ameliorates the panic that can appear when starting out on a huge new activity.

The five Ps of Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance have always been true, and the size and complication of building a viable business from the ground up only magnifies the importance of getting your house in order and being prepared for every eventuality before getting stuck into the fun creative stuff.

Now that we have a centralised area with the ability to track work and keep a tight hold on canon, all that remains for me to do is to write tens of thousands of words of gripping, original, and exciting fiction. But that’s the easy part, right?

A New Perspective

I have always been into movies in a borderline obsessional way, staying up late watching TV, renting VHS, and eventually amassing a frankly silly DVD collection. About fifteen years ago I wanted to better understand exactly why the films of great directors – like Kurosawa, Kubrick and Hitchcock – were critically revered, and so I started to actively educate myself in cinema. I watched all the extra features, read magazines, joined forums, and bought university ‘Film Studies’ textbooks. I started to understand themes, narrative arcs, mise-en-scene, and the building blocks that went into every movie.

This understanding of the components that contribute to that nebulous ‘magical’ quality has given me an appreciation for some film-makers that I hadn’t previously understood and now I see every film in a new light (although I don’t care what the critics say: I still hate Bresson). I find myself constantly noticing clever editing tricks or lazy directorial choices and exposition. I don’t enjoy films more now that I know more about them, but I do tend to have stronger extreme feelings, so I really hate bad films and really love well made ones.

This has been on my mind recently for the first time in a decade as I am now viewing lots of things through a new ‘educated eye’. Going through the process of starting a business from scratch means that every area of my hobby is torn down to its constituent parts, evaluated and costed.

Every website I look at I am thinking about the quality of the design, every rulebook I read has me counting up the number of original art pieces and calculating in my head the cost, and with every model I handle I am evaluating the sculpt quality and the way the cuts are designed and hidden. Like with films, I find myself being drawn to the extremes: the clunky art direction and bad font choices at one end, and the delicately detailed paint jobs and cleanly and consistently designed pages of the best books at the other.

It would be nice to win the lottery and start a business without compromise; have renowned artists producing dozens of concepts, veteran sculptors sending multiple designs to be mass-produced in injection-moulded plastic, and a rulebook with original art on every expensively-designed page. But that is the end goal, not where we are now.

We have been lucky to work with some truly talented artists and sculptors, and seeing Simon’s and my ideas come to life through them has been inspiring. But now we have to make some difficult decisions about when to compromise and when to go for broke, and that is difficult for two guys who have exceptionally high standards and can’t help looking at everything through a hyper-critical eye.

The hard part isn’t producing a game, rulebook, and range of miniatures that are really good on a finite budget – I can see how we could do that if we were prepared to constantly compromise. The hard part is producing a game, rulebook, and range of miniatures on a finite budget that look like we had to make no compromises and had millions to spend.

Creative Collaboration

My professional life has never really involved being artistically create up till now. So, although I have been expecting to experience different thoughts and emotions working with Simon and our artists than when working with my colleagues in my day job, it is still a pleasant surprise to realise that we can shape the reality of the universe we are creating simply by thinking it.

Last month Simon and I were having a conversation about whether two of our factions would once have been allied and, after discussing a few pros and cons, we paused and I wondered to myself how decisions like this could be taken in an environment with no hierarchy to ask, no best-practice to implement, and no existing process to follow. Then it hit me: “Yes” I said, “They were allies a few decades earlier. Because I just said so.”

Now this decision was not Tolkien deciding that Saruman was a bad guy or George Lucas announcing that Vader was Luke’s father but, for me, it was a pivotal point in my understanding and appreciation of the creative process. It is still very early days in this project but mine and Simon’s aim is to create a successful game, based around an original IP that could conceivably one day support multiple expansions, secondary games, novels, and spin off films, so it is taking a little time getting used to the idea that I have the power to make sweeping changes to our game universe by simply having a thought and writing it down.

I had a second ‘moment’ last week while discussing the fundamental design of one of our game’s main characters with Simon and one of our artists. The discussion involved an iterative process that I now see will spiral outwards and affect the rules of the game and the fiction of the universe. The backstory I have written moulds the way the artist designs the look of the character, which gives Simon an idea for a weapon or ability that would fit particularly well, necessitating a slight rule change. That in turn gives me an idea for the character’s back-story, which is then discussed again through the prism of art, rules and story, each feeding off and influencing each other.

It is a much rewarding process and one that I am very much looking forward to continuing with for as long as possible.

Massive Ego: Images and Words

Earlier this week the first concept images appeared in our Slack team. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – I’d been anticipating this moment for several weeks and still hadn’t quite worked out how I was going to approach it. Half of me was calm and professional, the other half was screaming like a fanboy. I’ve seen many pieces of artwork for many concepts over the years, but I knew these would be different, more special somehow.

My initial thought was: ‘It’s alive!’, and then my 15 years of gaming industry experience kicked in and I began to thoroughly tear it apart… Okay, so perhaps that’s an exaggeration. The artwork was excellent, and a pleasure to review, made even more enjoyable because it was the first time either myself or John had seen our words transformed into images.

And I think that is the critical lesson I (re-)learned this week: to detach yourself from the concept enough that you can be objective, but not so much that you lose the sheer joy of it. I wrote in an earlier blog post about sometimes falling in love with the process if not necessarily the project, and I suppose I had developed a practised ease over the last few years for reviewing work. But this was different because it meant so much more to me, and I didn’t need to ‘fake’ it.

Since then we’ve had several more concepts drop into our inboxes, and the progression has been astounding. The more the concepts come to life, the more unique this universe we have created becomes. Of course, it’s all well and good me saying that in advance of our official unveiling – if the internet has taught me anything, it’s that there’s very little room for objective criticism.

There’s no harm in us keeping this to ourselves for a little while longer, is there..?

Being a Good Business Means Getting Good at Being a Business

Starting a new business is challenging and exciting in equal measure. Quite apart from the fact that you need a good idea for whatever it is you are selling in the first place, you need to get good at being a business. If you hate admin, spreadsheets, sending and responding to dozens of emails, and keeping track of every penny you spend, then you probably ought to reconsider.

But if not, here are three things you should probably keep repeating to yourself – perhaps recorded onto a Dictaphone and played back at low volume while you sleep – in order to keep things on the right track.

  1. Be smart

If you’ve ever worked in the video games industry you’ll know all about the MVP, or minimum viable product. This is generally the path of least resistance when getting a game to market, creating features that are just about good enough to be released. Being smart doesn’t deliver the minimum viable product, it delivers the maximum viable product.

You should work out as early as you can what you need to spend your money on; and I mean really spend your money on, not the things you think you should spend your money on. It can be all too easy to fall into the ‘production cycle’ trap too early, where you’re paying for a conveyor belt of work when you only really needed the first couple of pieces that came off the line.

John and I are currently debating whether or not to spend a significant amount of money on a centrepiece terrain board for the game. In isolation it would appear to be an irresponsible use of our (limited) funds, but when you factor in the usage we would get out of it – publicity shots, promotional materials, interior art for the rulebook, live gameplay demos, social media shares, word of mouth – it starts to look like a much smarter investment than simply producing more concept art.

  1. Be enthusiastic

Seriously, if you don’t love your product then you’re probably better off calling it quits now. You need to become the world’s foremost expert on whatever it is you are selling, and give people a reason to believe what you’re telling them. And yes, you can blag it! I spent the best part of 15 years creating racing video games, and do you know what? For at least 5 of those years I didn’t really enjoy playing racing games, yet the games I designed in those 5 years where the best of my career.

It doesn’t matter where that passion comes from – be it the project or the process – as long as the passion itself is genuine. Let loose, run wild, live free! At the end of the day, you can’t expect anyone else to take an interest in your product if you don’t have one yourself. And when things get tough – believe me, they will – you’ll need every ounce of that passion to get you through it.

  1. Be realistic

This should really be number one given its importance: everyone running a business needs to be realistic about their aims and ambition. I realise that most people will start a business because they want to follow their dream – that’s why I started Massive Awesome in the first place – but you need to have a realistic approach to getting there. Whatever your ultimate goal may be, the best way to approach it is to break it down into logical and manageable chunks.

In our current business plan, the ‘dream’ doesn’t become a reality until year three; that’s after the first game has launched and we’re well into the second one. Jamey Stegmaier makes the point that you shouldn’t count your Kickstarter money until you’ve fulfilled every backer’s pledge, and it’s the same principle here. Our dream doesn’t become a reality until we have proven that the business is sustainable, and we can both make a living out of it.

I know how tempting it is to rush ahead because you’re excited or you need to start making money, like, NOW, but taking the time to get things right at the start will not only save time later, it will prevent costly mistakes. You need to write a business plan with realistic aims, and create a financial plan that covers at least the next three years, and review them both regularly.

I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some very smart, very enthusiastic, and very pragmatic people over the years, and I’ve made it my business to learn from them whenever I can. We still don’t have all the answers, and I’m sure we’ll make mistakes along the way, but I feel like we’ve given ourselves at least a fighting chance at success.