Polymath Tabletop

3D Printing – The Hero or The Villian

Anyone who has been a part of the wargaming community for more than a few years will remember a time back before home 3D printing. When it was first introduced, some people heralded it as the game killer. Why buy models when you can just print your own for a fraction of the cost? This argument was soon disproved as the technical limitations back then were very apparent and you would need to invest significantly more than the cost of the models to end up with something you could put on the table. But, as it always does, technology improved, and now it’s not crazy to spend a couple of hundred dollars on a printer that can pump out high-quality miniatures for a fraction of the cost. 

But what does this mean for tabletop wargaming? Is 3D printing the hero, that will open up the hobby to a whole host of new people, or is it the villain, that will kill off the hobby as established companies go under due to people printing their own models, instead of buying from them?

This topic is HIGHLY divisive. I will attempt to provide an objective view, but I fully expect to have people get offended because my views don’t perfectly line up with theirs.

When it comes to 3D printing, you can roughly divide hobbyists into 3 groups; purists, supporters, and reformists. These groups reside on the full spectrum, and it is expected that people can sit between groups, as most groups have pretty good arguments to why their opinion is the most justified.

Purists prefer that all models are the official models of the game, made and sold by the company that makes the game. The benefits of this mindset is that players are supporting the game, so the company will continue producing and developing it. The side benefit is that comparisons between models in the range are easy, as players can learn to recognise the difference between models, and even get an understanding for stats just by looking at the models. This recognition can help greatly in competitive and high level play, where players can easily tell which model is which and what they are armed with.

Reformists sit at the other end of the spectrum, and the defining characteristic is innovation. They think that everything can be improved, including model design, so they are actively looking to improve what they can. Some model ranges are quite old at the moment, and the sculpts are quite lacking compared to what else is out there. Reformists look at these models and think, “I can do better than that”, so they will redesign, rework and rethink the model, add their own unique spin and then print it out. Now not everyone has the skills to sculpt digital models, but those that can, combine their skills with people who build and own 3D printers, and once combined you can get absolutely beautiful models.

Supporters are the middle ground between the two. These people think getting access to amazing custom models is awesome, but understand that without buying from the game company, they run the risk of alienating them. No company can survive without customers, so supporters will mix and match, buying a 3D printed model here and there, but also buying official models as well. This mix of models can create beautiful armies or warbands, and also support the company producing the game we want to play.

Now, the most important question, which group is right? I would consider myself part of the supporter group, so I think they are right. That is the short, albeit biassed, answer. The longer version is considerably longer, and hopefully a little less biassed.

Why do companies create, produce and develop games? To make money. Sure, a lot of companies are invested in bringing their game to players because they think it is fun and other people might think that too, but a company needs to make money, otherwise the company shuts down. The main way, at least in the past, was the company made models and rules and sold them to players. These players bought these models and rules and used them to play the game. If the players didn’t buy the models, just the rules, that means that company would have to partly shutdown, lay off staff, close factories/offices, and generally downsize. 

This would have a snowball effect, that there are now less talented people working on developing the game further and this might be the start of the game’s downfall. Game companies need to continuously innovate and improve to keep people’s attention. “We live in the golden age of gaming”  – Me, in a previous blog post, so companies need to constantly work to make their game as good as it can be. Without this improvement, the game will become stale and eventually die out and be replaced.

But, with the advent of 3D printers, the capability of producing models in your own home is now a reality. This means that people can start playing a game with only minimal investment, which leads to many more people getting interested in the hobby. Those people will still need to buy rulebooks and dice, so the game company is still making some money, at least that is the argument from the reformists.

“I wouldn’t play the game without my own models, so they wouldn’t have gotten any money out of me anyway”. 

I personally hate this argument. The argument that companies wouldn’t get any of their money without 3D printing, so it doesn’t matter that they don’t. But that game company spent time, effort and money into creating and developing something that you want to enjoy, and they deserve to be compensated for that. Without them you wouldn’t have a game to enjoy.

“But those companies are too big to fail, they wouldn’t even notice my business”. 

Yes, some of the gaming companies are posting record profits at the moment. But does that success mean that you shouldn’t pay them for their work? I know that I would get annoyed if I had clients that refused to pay me for my work, because I was already doing pretty well. 

And it’s not just the gaming company itself that will miss out. Independent hobby stores would also suffer. Yes they make some of their income through paints, dice, mats, etc that people would still buy. But if they can’t make money off models, why should they offer them? And more importantly, why should they offer a gaming space. Without independent hobby stores, communities have a much harder time forming and staying together. Without a community, you don’t even need models as there is no-one else to play. Now, that is a worst case scenario, and it has definitely been blown up to the extreme. But it’s not wrong. I personally know several stores that have gone under due to lack of sales.

Now, so far all I’ve talked about is the consequences if no-one buys models anymore, let’s get onto the benefits of 3D printing. The models. Some of the models people have designed for 3D printers are absolutely insane. They are some of the most beautiful, inspired, characterful, and amazing models I have even seen. But that’s not my favourite part of it. It’s the options. No longer do I need to browse catalogues of other games to find that perfect weapon swap, or endlessly google different viking heads, because I just don’t love the ones of the proper models. 3D printing has solved that. I can look at the catalogues of ready to print designs, pick the one I like best, buy it, download it, and print it. I can even use my limited design skills to tweak it slightly. And then done, I have the perfectly scaled custom heads/arms/weapons/base/whatever that I wanted.

The other big benefit of 3D printing is terrain. There are so many wonderful terrain options out there that are ready to print and look amazing with minimal effort. I know some people who have been able to put together massive amounts of terrain quickly and have it look amazing, where previously it would be weeks and weeks of work. 

Personally, I’m on 2 separate Patreons and follow about 10 different people on Kickstarter, all who focus on 3D models. I’ve been slowly acquiring these over the last couple of years, as it has really taken off. Now, most of these models, I will never print. It might not be a model I love, or it’s for an army that I’m not interested in, or I just don’t like the aesthetic. But I’m happy to support these artists, as each of them has produced models that I absolutely adore. And the only way for them to make more is to support them, so I’m happy to pay my monthly fees and download their latest releases, even if I’m confident I’ll never use some of them.

So, in my personal opinion, overall 3D printing is good for the community, provided the community doesn’t take it too far. Printing a model here or there, or swapping the heads/weapons for a range can provide some diversity in the hobby that can promote growth and encourage new and existing players. Printing an entire army is definitely taking it too far. Printing some terrain is good, and mixing it with any official terrain for variety is even better. 

For the tournaments I run for Warhammer Age of Sigmar, I use the below system that I created to moderate the amount of 3D printed models used at any of my events. This isn’t perfect, but I feel it is a good mix without being too restrictive or too loose.

Conversions/Proxies/3D Printing Checks – The Vowel System
Basic Rules

1. No army made solely of 3D printed models or proxy models will be allowed to be used. 
This is without exception, it doesn’t matter that your army is beautifully painted and full of amazing models, if it doesn’t use any models from the original game, then it will not be allowed at the event. This is not an outright ban on 3D printed models or proxy models though (See 2.).

2. All 3D Printed, Converted, or Proxy models, must be approved by the TO. 
This is to ensure that all players have an equal footing in the game, your models must be instantly recognizable as the correct model they are representing. It also ensures that the armies being brought to an event are all of a high quality and do not detract from the game. The TO will approve/reject the model based on the guidelines below;

For the approval process we will be using the vowel approval process – AEIOU

A – Amount – How much of the army has been converted/proxied/3d printed? If more than 25% of models/points are, then it is unlikely that the model/army will be approved.

E – Execution – Is the conversion/proxy/3d print similar or higher quality than the original model?

I – Intent – What is the reasoning behind the conversion/proxy/3d print? Is it following a theme, or is it just cheaper?

O – Obvious – How obvious is the conversion/proxy/3d print? Does the original model easily spring to mind or does it need to be explained each game/turn?

U – Usability – Is this modelled for advantage/disadvantage? Is the base size correct, is the silhouette similar?

The Vowel Approval Process will be carried out by multiple people before any approval is given.

Feel free to use this system at any events you run, or suggest any improvements that could be made to it. Overall, I’ve had mostly positive feedback, with players appreciating an explanation why their model was disallowed. Some people have issues with it, but no system is perfect (especially one that I designed).

So in summary, let’s use 3D printing to open up the hobby to the mass of opportunities it offers, but let’s not burn any bridges along the way.

Until Next Time,


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