by Mike Brodeur
“Think globally, live locally” is a fairly common mantra these days. People are becoming more conscientious, confirming who makes their products and where those products are made. Local farmer’s markets, craft shows, and swap meets are all the rage. Organic! Cage free! Fair trade! We want products that come from a vetted source. But there’s limit. The issue is much larger than the specific area my little blog is going to cover in this piece, but hopefully you’ll see my point. Being a conscientious consumer has limits. We want what we want, and we wanted yesterday.
Is there a better example than the hobby industry? Card board, books, toy soldiers, and dice. Material produced all over the world, including the United States. All of it being done at someone’s best price, and some of it even being done with best practices. Whatever those look like. Where do your games come from and why?
It’s kind of mess, really. A lot of what we consume is produced internationally, due to cost. No surprise there, but why is it more cost effective? And at what human price?
Setting aside design, graphics, marketing, etc., producing physical material internationally is beneficial in many cases. Particularly when considering the hobby industry’s scale. A game company will generally find that materials + labor (automated or otherwise) + shipping (actually crossing an ocean) adds up to be more cost effective than producing domestically. Not that someone can’t do what they want here at home. They probably can. I think. Maybe? You see, not many people know. That’s a big hurdle. And it’s only one.
International production is a known quantity. It has established avenues for production, warehousing, and shipping. Somewhere – likely China – someone is willing to do your job at an agreed upon dollar amount. If you don’t know who, a friend or an acquaintance in the industry can point you in a direction. The hobby industry is smaller and more tightly knit than you know. There is a camaraderie in which companies want to see other companies succeed, so they help one another when they can. It is quite possible that someone you know knows someone near the proper channel. The ground work has already been lain. Asking a colleague for a referral is much easier and far less time consuming than hunting a manufacturer down on your own. “Do you know a person that knows a person that works with a company that makes those?” Eventually a network gets built. This situation is more challenging.
You are encouraged by convenience to produce internationally. I spoke with Robert Carty from Creative Goods Companies. If you go to a gaming convention and see a giant version of a game literally being played on a convention hall floor, that was most likely Robert and his team that produced it. Although Robert’s history in the hobby industry goes far deeper and much farther back than this topic, his tenure with Mayfair Games and Creative Goods Companies give valuable expertise. He enlightened me to one very crucial detail. Now I’m paraphrasing, but foreign governments compile manufacturing guides to provide for other countries companies to use. “Need printing/binding? We have it! Need injection molding? We have it! Collectable card runs? You must be joking? We are the CCGs!” And who could blame them? Our government is prohibited from doing so domestically. That blows. You can get access to this information from places like MNI.net, for Earth dollars. Not solicited to you for free at a trade show. In many cases internationally manufacturing is the only option because it is the only option known at the time.
Material may be nation specific. Mayfair, while making 97+% of a game in the United States still had to outsource their dice. The Germans had – and still do have – the plastic. (Oh, and the wood! Germany has the good wood; China has bad wood. And Mayfair knows wood…) You shop where, and with whom, you are familiar. Or where we must.
Scale is a colossal hurdle. Who wants to halt massive runs of specialized plastic parts for dental equipment or bicycle helmets to make plastic bits for a 1,000-copy boardgame run? What tools and processes are required? New safety procedures to learn and enforce? It is, as a general rule, not worth the time and effort of current domestic manufacturers to take hobby industry work. Even if someone is interested, the initial costs can be staggering. Please don’t misunderstand, there are many, many companies that manufacturer games and game components domestically, simply not at comparable scale relative to foreign manufacturing.
Manufacturing internationally makes sense, when viewed through the respective prisms of price and convenience. Okay, overseas has two clear advantages. It’s cheaper and the roads have been paved. But is it cheaper? According to Steve, owner of Armorcast Terraform Terrain domestic miniature production is feasible domestically. “I have priced injection molding out and the cost between the US and China is very close. Plus, if you are working with local tool and die companies, there is not a language or cultural barrier to deal with. No customs issues to deal with. The cost with dealing with China is great and I have seen and heard stories of too many companies failing due to the above issues. Plus, China does not have a good reputation for IP law. Keeping production in house is far more cost effective in the long run.” The cons of international manufacturing may indeed to make it too costly, especially in China.
Steve pointed out above that China does not have a good track record with IP protection. Even if every other step goes splendidly, you have still exposed yourself to idea theft. Fat lot of good all those NDAs your play testers signed are going to do you there. Idea theft, just like institutionalized pollution and indentured servitude, is only a real concern to us in this country inside its confines. Is every other step going to go splendidly? Trafficking with China has other hidden prices.
There are some horrific tales. The Golden Sample. Your production prototype is brilliant. Every detail is in spec, you couldn’t be more pleased. When you receive your production run it’s a different story. Good luck getting that corrected. What about thought policing? Catalyst had an issue years ago with Leviathans, a game of naval combat in the skies. Fictional or not, Taiwan is, and always will be, part of China (according to the Chinese government). For at least a few years after Catalyst received their product, it could have been set on fire. Take a gander https://www.exclusivelygames.com/call-of-cthulhu-campaign-books-destroyed-by-chinese-government/. Games get held ransom. Turns out the manufacturer needs another $800K to finish your Kickstarter, package it, and get it shipped. Not to mention the comical options: unpalatalized product and lost shipping containers.
My personal favorite though, predatory contracts. No money down? No problem! We’ll set up a payment schedule that coincides with, but is not directly tied to, a production schedule. If you are unable to make your payments, you’ll just sign over a small percentage of ownership in your company. What? Deliberately slow production, leading to poor sales, resulting in you unable to make your agreed upon payments, thus slowly over time losing your company to us? With no legal recourse? Metal AF! Real proper villain shit right there. Think that kind of thing could never happen? Come on!
Obviously, these things could be worse. Even if Chinese practices never improved the situation is not so bad that the industry has called a full stop. Also, China is not the industry’s sole option. Jason Walters from Indy Press Revolution, who was very positive about his experiences with Chinese printing, versed me in some international alternatives. “I think Mexico shows a lot of promise, in that it has a motivated, young, and competent workforce that’s just right over our southern border. I haven’t directly dealt with their print sector, but people say good things about it. A bunch of the European publishers I know have started having work done in Estonia. It’s a small country, but has an educated workforce, ports, and 50% of it is forested; much of that without commercial restrictions. So, it would make sense that it could make and export paper products competitively. I’ve also seen some nice work done in South Korea, though I don’t know much about the particulars. But I would guess close proximity to Siberian timber doesn’t hurt.”
Options exist. Hobby industry manufacturing does happen domestically. Hell, in my backyard Metal Oak Casting does a ton of toy soldier casting for Impact Miniatures (a US company) and Raging Heroes (a French company). Para-Bellum, the Greek company behind the miniatures game Conquest, does injection molding here in the states. I could not confirm this, but conventional wisdom dictates that the molds come from overseas. I suspect they are less expensive relative to what Games Workshop is using given the level of detail. That’s not a shot, just a hunch. If you have wanted to make your own game The Game Crafter will manufacture it, ship it to your game Kickstarter backers, and sell it on their website.
Domestic manufacturing is not without its attractions. You have much more control over the process. It is easier – perhaps an actual possibility – to fix errors. You have far fewer freight concerns. You have a system at your disposal that respects intellectual property law, in theory. Sure, its upfront costs are high, but are they prohibitive in perpetuity? Perhaps for the holy grail: injection molded multi-part plastic toy soldiers. That sweet plastic crack commanded by the English.
Which multiverse do we stumble into? Berenstein or Berenstain? A dominant domestic empire or full-service print on demand miniature gaming? Gravity pour, pressure, and spin casting are the low hanging fruit of toy soldier making. Injection molding is the Gordian knot. Will the hobby industry invest in domestic injection molding as a result of the current global pandemic? Will a growing Chinese labor costs help ease the pain of initial setup here at home? Will we look to a bordering neighbor nation with lower labor costs that also provides reduced freight cost? Perhaps the English will seize an opportunity? That’s not the future I see.
Now I can be wrong, and subject to flights of fancy. But the future is home printing. Envision a world where you purchase STL files and PDFs exclusively. Rules as living documents online is an existing reality for some games. PDF rules have been a thing for a long time. Made to order customer miniature files are offered by Hero Forge (they can now print in color!). Have them printed by someone, like Impact Miniatures, or print them yourself. Titan-Forge offers some amazing file downloads via their Patreon. 3D printing quality is increasing as costs are decreasing. It’s no stretch to assume this technology will continue to advance. Someday we’ll back Kickstarters for rules and opposing factions of printable miniatures. New models (individual or otherwise) and their respective rules will be released digitally. Files for new weapons, modifications, conversions, etc. downloadable and printable at your convenience. No production, no shipping, no delays beyond those created in house. Design, playtest, refine, and release. Errata, revisions, new editions? Comparatively, pretty fucking green. Granted we are way off, but I believe it’s a viable option for the future.
I know this for certain. We are animals that crave community and face-to-face gaming. I don’t see this possible future ruining the FLGS. If it comes to fruition, retailers (brick-and-mortar and online alike) will adapt.
I want to offer thanks to: Joe Gateway of Gateway Games (game designer and hobby industry veteran), Mike Wood (wizened caster and diorama architect), Viktor Dragosani (freelance sculptor), Atom Smasher of Table Top Minions, and Tom (Impact Miniatures) to whom I spoke at length for this article but did not quote directly. Of course, thank you to Steve from Armorcast Terraform Terrain, Jason Walters from Indie Press Revolution, and a special thanks to Robert T. Carty of Creative Goods Companies. If I shit the bed here, he’ll let me know.