Sunday, August 27, 2017

On the Closure of Spartan Games

"Let's go hide in a Rorke's Drift set. No one will notice!"
I was fairly shocked when, on Friday evening, I saw an announcement abruptly stating that Spartan Games, makers of the tabletop miniatures games Dystopian Wars and Firestorm Armada, and their spinoffs, had gone out of business. I had assumed based on what I believed was a moderately successful Kickstarter campaign to add to Dystopian Wars last year, along with the launching of a Firestorm Kickstarter, that things were puttering along. It's true to say that the game I actually collected, Dystopian Legions, had fallen by the wayside, but as one of the regular contributors to the Legions section of the Spartan forums I myself had recently answered a call for the formation of a new official group of fans aimed at revisiting and discussing the future of that game. The very sudden announcement of the closure suggests to me that the company's directors did not themselves expect the need to close when it occurred. Seemingly a point was reached at which debts could not be paid. I've never studied business, but this is what I gather from what I've read online.

I think there are a few reasons to account for Spartan's unfortunate demise. I intend to sketch the external ones before considering the internal ones in-depth. Obviously, tabletop gaming is a very competitive market. The combined revival or boom of board games along with the appearance of new toy soldier games obviously means there are many more products vying for consumers' attention than previously. Nonetheless, Spartan's two main games seem to have filled something of a niche, as to my knowledge there isn't a glut of naval combat games in the current market, and I get the impression that Dystopian Wars was their most successful intellectual property; if so this was probably because it occupied such a unique position. On the other hand, while Games Workshop's Battlefleet Gothic doesn't have much presence anymore, I suspect that in recent years Firestorm Armada faced increasing, and probably insurmountable, rivalry from big-brand space combat games, particularly the Star Wars franchise's Armada and X-Wing games. The other factors are, of course, that running a business is, to the best of my very limited knowledge, extremely challenging and that personal factors of health seem to have been an issue as well.

To discuss Spartan's apparent issues from an outsider's perspective obviously risks presuming a great deal. Not being privy to internal goings-on, I can mostly discuss Spartan's reputation rather than anything factual. However, since I became a collector of their products in, if I recall correctly, late 2013, and having read discussion across the internet, the following apparent problems seemed to be identified repeatedly.

How do you make guys who look like this and still not
manage to get stereotypical nerds to give you loads of money?
1. Lack of Focus
Almost certainly the most common complaint against Spartan was that their company's direction lacked focus. When I started collecting, Spartan had four main games: Uncharted Seas, Firestorm Armada, Dystopian Wars and Dystopian Legions. Legions was, at the time, seemingly the latest big thing as I believe there had been a recent number of releases fleshing out the four starting armies of the game. Spartan promised three more armies in the near future.

However, this never really came. Instead, the next big release was Firestorm Planetfall, the ground-based game set in the Firestorm Armada universe. This seemed reasonable enough to me, as it meant that now the Firestorm and Dystopian settings had two levels of game. New releases for Legions dried up, however, and with heavy focus now given to Planetfall the promised additional armies only manifested in the shape of a couple of pieces two or so years later. Only one of these was ever expanded upon, and that not completely.

At this point I started to get the impression that Spartan's approach was becoming a little unfocused. They had a particular problem of telling their fans that things were coming, and even setting dates, and then not matching the expectations they set up. I was rather bemused when Spartan announced that they had made a deal with Microsoft to make games set in the Halo universe, and as with everything else this rapidly expanded to both a space game and a ground game, much like Firestorm. Spartan's own official announcement admits that the Halo games distracted from the other products, which rather leaves me wondering why Spartan took on the project in the first place. Meanwhile it seemed there were occasional bursts of releases for Dystopian Wars and Firestorm Armada, but I got the sense from what I read that players of those games felt that there were deeper issues not being addressed.

All on board the Legions hype train that never left the station.
This came to a head when, in 2016, Spartan announced that they were going to use Kickstarter to launch yet another game, "Dystopian Empires", which was to be set at a scale between Wars and Legions. Fan response was overwhelmingly negative, and after much consultation the Kickstarter was reworked into a Dystopian Wars project intended to support the existing game. Spartan seemed surprised at the fan response to the Dystopian Empires proposal, which strongly suggested to me that they had lost touch with their customer base and were becoming increasingly sidetracked by whichever pet projects took their leaders' fancy at the time. Another indication of this was observable in that, at a convention last year, rather than promoting all of their existing games, Spartan instead demonstrated a "Weird World War Two" game they had been working on in their spare time called "Project Götterdämmerung", which was never released for purchase. It appeared in fact that the "hobby" aspect of the "hobby company" had taken over, in which the hobby interests of people running the company were heavily distracting from running the business effectively.

All of this gave Spartan a reputation for spreading itself too thin, trying to launch lots of games rather than develop them in depth. Unfortunately, I would be inclined to argue that the launch of Dystopian Legions was the first mistake, as this started the trend of more and more games being launched. As Uncharted Seas was already passing out of focus, it seems to me that Spartan's most sensible approach would have been to keep investing in Firestorm Armada and Dystopian Wars and to have left the spinoff projects as speculation. Perhaps then Spartan could have comfortably maintained itself until such time as it was safe to try something new.

"I never even got my own rules!"
2. Lack of Market Research
As I have said, it seems that with Dystopian Wars in particular Spartan had found a strong niche for 19th-century battleship combat not provided by any other major system. Dystopian Legions, however, was a different story. The game was trying to enter an extremely competitive 28mm war game market with many established games. In addition, the game competed with two major genres: the sci-fi war game market, traditionally dominated by Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000, and the historical war game market, which has had countless rival manufacturers for years. The game was also released using exclusively metal miniatures. While historical war gamers, who traditionally are from an older generation or more mature market, would be accustomed to this, younger game players, particularly of sci-fi games, are used to plastic, and perceive metal models as cumbersome and irritating. Furthermore, as was repeatedly pointed out, the Dystopian Legions models were of a slightly larger than 28mm scale, being closer to 33mm, making them not entirely suitable for use in other games. The Kingdom of Britannia models in particular could have been used under different circumstances as substitutes for Games Workshop's Imperial Guard, particularly the long-abandoned Praetorian army, but players were not willing to use the larger models for this purpose. Spartan cannot really be blamed for not making models which were usable in another company's game, but it's worth noting that making a product which can also be used in the games of Games Workshop, the biggest company in the market, is a very sensible way of attracting custom from existing collectors. This is an approach which has allowed Mantic Games to flourish.

Firestorm Planetfall, meanwhile, was trying to enter a market for a vehicle-scale science fiction tabletop game, traditionally occupied by Games Workshop's Epic 40,000 but more recently entered by the game Dropzone Commander. Spartan was, therefore, probably not well-positioned to enter this market, particularly when their customers were already desiring changes for Dystopian Wars and Firestorm Armada, and when Dystopian Legions was not complete.

Not even these guys could heal the cash haemorrage.
Making a deal with Microsoft to produce Halo games seems to have been a further unwise decision. Not only was this licensing deal probably rather costly, it likely suffered from other drawbacks. One is that Halo is simply not the hot property it was in the mid 2000s. The games are still popular, but not traditionally with the same demographic as collects tabletop games. Furthermore, by launching both a space battle and land battle game for Halo, Spartan not only appeared more unfocused than ever but was in fact competing with itself by producing rivals to its own Firestorm games.

Spartan's apparent naïveté concerning the market was also demonstrated during the first Kickstarter they launched, in which they attempted to fund a modular scenery project for which there was no apparent demand, and which did not have a clear use with their own games. They also appeared to set an excessively high funding threshold which was too ambitious for a company performing their first Kickstarter. This project additionally tried to launch through the back door yet another game, a Greek Mythology-themed skirmish game called "Death or Glory". This project had to be canceled when it was nowhere near completion, and created a sense that Spartan were approaching projects and products willy-nilly, assuming that if they put a product out enough people would buy it. Of course I cannot know what the situation really was, but this was how it seemed to an outside observer.

3. Impenetrability
This may be a more personal reason of mine for Spartan's problems, but in my view an issue with their products were that the rules for their flagship games were too complicated. Dystopian Legions I found manageable, but the rules for Dystopian Wars, when I tried to collect it, I found virtually incomprehensible, and their sheer complexity and lack of straightforward organisation put me off collecting the game any further. A simplified rule set did attract my attention, but of course trying to manage yet another set of rules was also Spartan seemingly stretching itself even further.

It's okay that the South won the civil war in this universe because it was fought for different reasons...
(Probably Unfair) Comparison with Mantic Games
It's worth comparing Spartan with Mantic, who appear to have been flourishing in recent years. They have used Kickstarter effectively and have, like Spartan, launched numerous games: Kings of War, Dreadball, Deadzone, Dungeon Saga, Warpath and two licensed games: Mars Attacks and The Walking Dead: All Out War. Another game, Star Saga, is upcoming. So what's the difference?

1. Mantic supports their games if they are ongoing or completes them if they are limited. Kings of War receives regular new releases. Dungeon Saga had all of its expansions released so that the game was completed. Spartan, by contrast, released about half of Dystopian Legions and then gave up, apparently through a combination of insufficient return on their investment and distraction by other projects. It's a different situation as Legions was not Kickstarted, but it shows why there needs to be a clear plan for completing a project when it is begun.

2. Mantic makes straightforward rules. Some might find them a little too simple, but one of Mantic's biggest advantages are that their rules are easy to understand. Learning the rules to Kings of War can be achieved in one or two read-throughs. Learning how to play Dystopian Wars is a project in itself.

3. Mantic provides a clear alternative to Games Workshop. This is how Kings of War started, and this approach has continued to allow the company to fill a niche, in this case for more affordable fantasy and science fiction miniatures and for alternatives to long-dead Games Workshop board games. Projects like Dystopian Legions missed an opportunity to poach similar custom from existing collectors.

4. In their early Kickstarter days, Mantic set humble funding goals. The initial Kings of War Kickstarter had a goal of $5,000 USD. Compare that to Spartan's first Kickstarter, for the modular scenery no one wanted, which asked for a rather unrealistic £80,000. Obviously the circumstances are different, but it shows different levels of awareness of entering the crowdfunding scene.

Now, I realise that Mantic has plenty of its own problems with things like quality control and having issues with deadlines at times, but nonetheless they've managed to take a fairly robust approach. Perhaps this comparison is unfair, but Mantic have been, I would argue, in a position to expand because of the nature of their product. Spartan were not in a position to because of the largely more niche nature of their products, yet tried to anyway.

How could you screw up British Redcoats in pith helmets
fighting Prussians in pickelhauben?
I hope the people who worked for Spartan find their feet, and it'd be nice to imagine the Dystopian and Firestorm intellectual properties falling into the hands of someone who can handle them with a more focused and market-savvy approach. It's also possible that I have no idea what I'm talking about, and everything I said is based on random observation and a dilettante's "gut instinct" perception rather than anything scientific or rigorous. Nonetheless, in the meantime I'd say the fate of Spartan functions best as a warning of the risks associated with the current tabletop market and a reminder for businesspeople who are also hobbyists to not let the hobbyist's passion and tendency towards distraction overwhelm the importance of pragmatism and focus.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Annabelle: Creation

I liked The Conjuring, and I mostly like The Conjuring 2. While their jump scares are a bit predictable, they generally create a good, spooky, disturbing atmosphere mixed with entertaining ghost-hunting pseudoscience (and pseudotech), and the two leads are very watchable and likeable. The Annabelle spinoff/prequel was complete schlock crap, but I didn't expect it to be anything else, and regardless, well, let's just say I didn't exactly spend a great deal of money to watch it, if you catch my drift. I wasn't exactly taken with the idea of another film, a prequel to the prequel, but when I heard it was getting decent reviews, I thought "Why not?"

Annabelle: Creation feels like a few things. Firstly it feels like a film which, way back at some point in the development process, was meant to subvert some of the recurring elements of the Conjuring franchise and some clichés of modern horror films. The reason I say "way back", however, is because it also feels like a film which was rewritten by a Hollywood hack at some point. It thirdly feels, with two overt links to other films, one already made and one forthcoming, as another desperate attempt on the part of Warner Bros. to establish a "cinematic universe" surrounding, I suppose, the demons featured in the Conjuring films.

The ever-credible Wikipedia informs me that director David F. Sandberg, filmmaker of Lights Out, took a less meticulously-storyboarded approach to this film, instead opting for a "figure it out on the set" one. I believe this is PR speak for "Warner Bros. and New Line didn't give me enough time and money to make this properly." This shows, as while Lights Out is hardly a masterpiece, it perhaps still has threads of Sandberg's YouTube viral-video auteurship in it, while Annabelle: Creation simply feels botched, like the half-made dolls in the eponymous character's father's workshop.

Annabelle: Creation's strongest moments almost entirely occur in its first half, seemingly before the scripting or editing process, or both, collapsed. While the premise of a group of vulnerable girls and resident nun being sent to live in a somewhat spooky house out in the country is hardly original, the film appears to be possibly doing something vaguely interesting with Janice and Linda, two orphans hoping to become "real sisters" if they are adopted by the same couple. This follows a fairly engrossing prologue in which the titular Annabelle, innocent originator of the notes the doll would come to drop, is abruptly hit by a car.

The problem is that this feeling of engagement starts to fall apart when Janice, predictably, makes not one but repeated trips to the dead girl's bedroom, almost as if she's a robot programmed to seek out horror scenes. You'd think after having one spooky experience in there, as well as finding the creepy doll, she'd tell that bedroom where to shove it, forcing the demon to get a bit more creative, but that doesn't happen, and virtually the rest of the film becomes a series of endless lead-ups to Janice or, later, Linda, making sojourns to the late Annabelle's bedroom just to get spooked again. I was finding the film reasonably enjoyable up until the point at which, on Janice's second or third trip to the room, she witnesses what appears to be an apparition of the dead girl. However, as we later discover, it's just a demon pretending, and when Janice asks what she wants, she abruptly turns around, adopts the yellow-eyed fanged horror face that every Conjuring demon has, and proclaims "Your soul!" I was staggered at how unbelievably stock, generic and cliché this moment was, especially in contrast to promise shown to that point, and from this moment the film started to fail.

In this regard the film is infected with innumerable clichés once it loses its drive, especially ones which make the Conjuring franchise as a whole seem repetitive and stale: demons levitating people, demons telekinetically throwing furniture around, the ancient trick of flickering lightbulbs and of course, a more modern favourite, fleeing people being tripped and dragged by the ankles back the way they came by an unseen force. The glimpses we get of the demon itself show something appallingly generic, just a charcoal-skinned hornéd beastie let loose from a medieval woodcut. Janice also gets trapped, frightened and subsequently possessed in a manner highly reminiscent of the original Paranormal Activity film, especially once she starts pretending she's fine when she obviously isn't. The barrage of these desperately unimaginative moments makes the film predictable and, as a result, boring, surely the worst sin a horror film can commit.

What makes this so exasperating is that the film itself has some strong elements. As was the case with The Conjuring films, it gives a decent share of screen time to a relatively large cast of relatively talented young actors; Janice and Linda are particularly well cast, and their performances when they're still trying to figure out their situation are fairly believable and likeable. The biggest problem is when Janice is forced into the boring, routine "possession" role which basically just means she becomes a child-sized knife slasher with a creepy head tilt and waxy makeup. There is, however, some effective use of humour, particularly derived from Linda's behaviour: her willingness to leave Janice inside so she can go enjoy herself when Janice says she's fine, her quick departure to avoid chores in the schoolroom and, best of all, the cut from her declining to enter Annabelle's room (perhaps the only time anyone makes this sensible choice) to a shot of her guarding her own bedroom door against the fiend with a popgun she acquired earlier.

Yet none of this can compensate for what is perhaps the film's biggest failing, a huge problem with pacing and structure, which coalesces with the bombardment of horror clichés to make the viewing experience of the last half-hour or so of the film tedious to the point of absurdity. Miranda Otto, out for a quick buck, is forced to deliver an extremely clunky exposition-dump immediately prior to her character being killed off, revealing the origin of the demon in their home in a way that was partially obvious or could have been guessed and partially could have been teased out through more gradual storytelling. This hurls what should be the start of the film's climax into a series of flashbacks. Furthermore, the film ends with an entirely unnecessary epilogue linking this film's events directly and explicitly to that of the previous Annabelle film, as if anyone cared or remembered, assuming they'd seen it at all. Footage is reused from early in that film to anticlimactically end this one. I also believe that this involves some torturous storytelling, as the original film simply said the doll was used by a demon after a cult ritual involving Annabelle, the neighbours' wayward daughter. Now "Annabelle" is actually a demon pretending to be a dead girl named Annabelle who possesses Janice who then calls herself Annabelle who is adopted by the neighbours in the first film and grows up to be the cultist, who then I think somehow puts the demon back into the doll, as if it would want to go back into the doll. Good grief.

The most egregious element, however, is a brief scene shoehorned into the first act (or so) of the film in which Sister Charlotte, the girls' guardian, shows Annabelle's father a photograph of herself with some other nuns, one of which is actually Valak, the demon from The Conjuring 2. This is obviously done not just as a reference but as a piece of promotion for 2018's upcoming "The Nun" film about the character, as the scene bears no other real relevance to the plot or characterisation of this film. It's clearly another pathetic attempt to rip off Disney/Marvel's successful, yet increasingly bland and soulless, "cinematic universe" method, as Warner Bros. already tried (and presumably has failed) to do with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Universal is apparently attempting with its dare-I-dignify-it-by-naming-it "Dark Universe" franchise. By this stage it is so transparent that all it accomplishes is making the surrounding film less immersive and damaging further any possibility of suspending disbelief. This is exacerbated by a moment in the epilogue when Janice-possessed-by-the-Annabelle-demon is given a Raggedy Ann doll, which is what the "real" Annabelle doll is. The wink to the know-alls (like me) in the audience is just distracting, and it only leaves me thinking that using a Raggedy Ann doll would actually have been a lot creepier, if done well, than the overdesigned doll of the films, which I can't imagine anyone from even the most twisted era of American nursery culture not finding grotesque.

Fair play to David F. Sandberg for making the transition from YouTube to Hollywood; his wife Lotta Losten, star of the original Lights Out short, makes a cameo in this, but unfortunately in the risible and exhausting epilogue sequence. That doesn't change the fact, however, that Annabelle: Creation is a film I shouldn't have allowed to disappoint me. Maybe someone who really cares could make a worthy fan edit of this, eliminating CGI demon-faces, multiple trips to Annabelle's bedroom, the epilogue and perhaps a sequence in which Linda, having laboriously descended the house in the dumbwaiter, then decides to make the entire journey to the top again in real time. The fact is, if more people had given a shit, this could have genuinely been a standout piece of franchise horror-schlock. It might, for instance, have used its premise to consider in some depth the crises of faith and hope of orphans and people in similar situations of limited emotional support. It might have used Janice and Linda's friendship to put a different spin on the 'lone girl getting menaced in a spooky room' concept. It could even have gone down more of a comedy route, mixing chills with gags for an experiment with a sine-wave of mood. It doesn't, however, yet people are still offering it praise. I simply don't understand why. To my mind, this is for Conjuring franchise completionists only, if indeed it's for anyone at all.