You may have noticed that there are a lot of businesses, out there, offering customers the opportunity to buy miniatures designed in digital 3D: that is, rather than being originally sculpted in traditional media like Kneadtite, Sculpey, Milliput, ProCreate or any of the myriad options available to traditional sculptors, they are “sculpted” using software that lets designers build complex three-dimensional models.
But there are a lot of ways for these designs to reach the customer, so I thought it was a good time to take a step back and have a look at what they are, what they mean for the customer, for the producer and, importantly, for the future of tabletop miniatures.
The traditional modern approach is the one most people will be familiar with if they play miniatures wargames using miniatures from Games Workshop, Corvus Belli, Wargames Atlantic, Wyrd Games, Privateer Press, Steamforged Games, CMON Inc or, really, any of the bigger international names in the market.
These companies may sculpt their miniatures with digital technology, but they deliver them to market very much the way they always have: as kits in boxes and blisters. The materials may be white metal, plastic, resin or some plastic-resin hybrid abomination, but there is no way for the common consumer to get their hands on the digital designs themselves.
The next way that these designs have reached the consumer is through third-party production. So the digital sculpt is passed to a producer who manufactures it and sends it to the customer. The most familiar names in this market are Shapeways and TheShop3D, whose business model is built upon using banks of high-end 3D printers to print the designs their customers want to buy, but you may also have heard of Hero Forge, who broadly fit into this mould.Generally, these companies don’t design the products themselves but act as middle-men, selling the prints of independent designers on a royalty basis.
Hero Forge, of course, is the market leader in offering very simple design tools to customers, so the customer becomes the designer and the customer, using tools created by the company. The customer, of course, receives no royalties for making their own design, but the pay-off is that you get unique miniatures, albeit at a premium cost.
This is a straight-forward print-on-demand service in which the designer is also the manufacturer but, instead of putting the prints into mass production in a conventional casting process, the designer prints the designs to order and sends the virgin prints on to the customer. Mr Lee’s Minis is a good example of this kind of service, although they also do third-party production as well. You’ll usually find these operations also sell their products through third-party production services, as they don’t own enough printers or printers of a high enough quality to manufacture their products in bulk.
This is the sector of the market that is growing the fastest and which offers the greatest potential for disruption.Digital-only services just sell the digital files – usually called STLs (STereoLithography) – with the idea being that the customer will print the files at home. The routes to market for these digital-only producers are diverse. Some have conventional websites, like Anvil Industy or Antenociti’s Workshop, whilst others use a third-party marketplace like Etsy, and still others use a subscription model like Patreon in which subscribers receive so many new sculpts every month depending on their subscription level.In fact, most digital-only producers use a mix of these routes to market – which is hardly surprising because this is an emerging medium and no one has yet worked out the best way to do it. Which leads us to…
THE GATHERING STORM
There are some truly huge issues with the growing market for digital sculpting – especially the digital-only market, but these issues are also enormously exciting and interesting for the tabletop miniatures world.
The demand for tabletop miniatures and the associated miniatures-painting hobby is one of the key underpinning factors that is pushing 3D printing to improve its game. Although we once thought home printing would be about cups and plates and cutlery and keyrings, hardly anyone is actually doing that. Instead, the principal driver of home 3D printing is hobbyists. And hobbyists are demanding better resolution, more reliable performance and greater speed and the main manufacturers in this market – Elegoo, Anycubic, Creality and Formlabs among others – are competing hard to push the envelope in all of these areas. Because, it turns out, hobbyists are a little competitive. Increasingly, people who own a 3D printer in the hobby market tend not to own just one. They own three: one they run every day, one they experiment with and one they cannibalize for parts. It’s not uncommon to have a printer they just use to print new parts for the other printers! And they buy new ones on a regular basis.As a result, the ownership of a 3D printer among hobbyists is becoming increasingly normalized. Once it was owning a dice bag. Then it was having a dedicated hobby desk. Then it was having an airbrush. Now it’s having at least one 3D printer. It might be a high-end investment, but it’s becoming accepted as being just part of the hobby.
And this normalization has consequences, because digital products don’t act like regular products.
When you buy a space marine (like anyone can buy just one!), you have a space marine. You can build it, paint it, strip the paint off and paint it again, and sell it to someone else. Once you’ve sold it, it’s gone and you can’t do that any more.
But a digital design you can print over and over again. You can give or sell it to someone else and – guess what? – you still have it and you can keep printing it.
Of course, there’s an ownership issue here. Because when you buy a digital product to print who don’t actually buy the digital product. You buy a licence for personal use of that product. So you can’t, technically, sell it on or give it away. Doing so is piracy. But the problem with that is twofold: first, it’s incredibly hard to detect or prevent that form of piracy; and second, the hobby market just doesn’t have that mindset. Look at how hard the music and video markets worked to try to persuade their customers that ripping off their material and giving it away was a criminal act, and look at how little effect it actually had on people’s willingness to do it. I grew up in the cassette tape era and creating our own mixtapes to share and give as presents was completely normal.
But at least, in those days, the people we were ripping off were massive international companies with vast profits who could, let’s be fair, afford to swallow the hit. It all became a bit more pressing when we hit the MP3 era and unsigned bands without big contracts were suffering the effects of digital piracy. But at least it served as good marketing for them that could lead to a contract or to at least the chance at making a living on the live circuit.What about digital sculptors?
Most of these folks are independents, freelancers and small-time businesses who desperately rely upon the income from sales to put food on their tables.
SOLUTION ONE: SAVE THE ARTIST, KILL THE PLANET?
NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) offer an alternative: making a purchased file into a one-off good that can then be “owned” by the customer. This can then be sold on freely. Even though it’s a digital product, the file includes a blockchain account that indicates the legitimate owner, and – in theory – printers should be able to interrogate the file, identify whether the owner has the right to print it, and then refuse to print if the blockchain doesn’t confirm that right.There are a number of down-sides to this.
First, it will require printer manufacturers to cooperate in the software their printers work on: something that will require at least some level of international law to enforce. This will, inevitably, lead to a market for “unlocked” printers that will print any file, regardless of ownership records. But at least the majority of users are likely to stick to the rules or, at least, enough of them to ensure the artists continue to receive credit and income for their work.But if you’ve done any research on NFTs and blockchains, you’ll know that there’s an environmental cost coming down the line, because these massively distributed databases assert a power-demand on the servers across which the blockchain is distributed which only increases the more NFTs are created and the more they change hands, as each change in hands increases the size of the database. Imagine if every miniature in your collection had its own blockchain database to record its ownership.
SOLUTION TWO: PAY MORE FOR LESS
This isn’t really an alternative to the NFT so much as a solution to a different problem: the fact that the normal economics of miniatures selling reverses when you deal with digital files.
Think about Wellington’s army at Waterloo. How many riflemen did he field? I don’t know, because I’m not that sort of wargamer, but I reckon it was thousands. Now, how many Wellingtons were there? Again, not an expert, but I think probably just the one.So if, as a sculptor, you produced a design of a rifleman and a design of a Wellington, which one would your customer print more of? Of course: the rifleman.
But in traditional miniatures selling, the Wellington miniature will cost more than the rifleman. Because in traditional manufacture, you have to buy hundreds of the latter, but only one of the former. But the sculptor sells only two products.
It makes logical sense, therefore, that the design they want to print the most of, the rifleman, should cost the customer more than the one they want to print only once. Should a rifleman therefore cost the customer a hundred times more than Wellington?This is what is known as “value-based costing” – that is, the cost of a thing is unrelated to its materials or the effort that goes into creating it, but to the value it holds to the customer.
To take an example from a world I know well, think about a translator who works on two separate projects, each of 500 words. One is a translation of a letter a person’s grandparent wrote during the war. The other is a press-release about a new product. The letter is vastly less valuable, in terms of its potential return for the customer, than the press release. They both require the same amount of broad effort and work. But the press release should be priced much higher than the letter in a value-based economic model.In the same way, a digital file that has more value to the customer, because they will print it over and over again, ought logically to be priced much higher than one they will print only a few times.
The big problem with this, though, is that hobbyists don’t see it that way. They have been conditioned by decades in tabletop wargames to believe that the humble infantryman is worth far less than the vaunted general. They expect to pay more for Wellington than for the rifleman, and persuading them otherwise is likely a fool’s errand because an independent sculptor attempting to do so will simply find themselves undercut by some other sculptor willing to make the trade-off to put food on the table.
SOLUTION THREE: GET THE BIG BOYS INVOLVED
It is impossible, to my mind, that Games Workshop isn’t already trying to work out how the proliferation of 3D printing will affect its business model over the next ten years and how to respond accordingly.
With it well established, now, that aggressively policing its IP is counter-productive in most cases. They may be able to shut down people who are obviously selling straight copies of their designs, but going after designs like those of Puppets War and Artel W that merely reflect their aesthetics back at them is a losing game, both legally and reputationally.GW’s options are either to stand in the path of progress or to move early to get behind it, putting their economic heft to work. But whilst GW is a big fish in our world, they are a minnow in the world of international technology. I can just about imagine GW lobbying to get MPs to debate these issues, but to reach the point of supporting international legal frameworks to govern the management and protection of 3D designs? No. For that, we will need the Apples, Samsungs, Warners and Disneys of the world to get on board. The last two, in particular, with their vast array of protected IPs, are going to be crucial.But I began by stating this as a problem for small, independent sculptors and designers. And these megacorporations are… not well known for standing up for the interests of independents. So whatever solution is reached is likely to be geared towards protecting the interests of the big companies and towards impeding the ability of rising talents to challenge their domination.
It’s hard to reach an optimistic conclusion in the face of all this. To the individual hobbyist, getting in on the ground floor for 3D printing, I can only say: enjoy this while it lasts. Pay sculptors fairly. Don’t pass around their work illegally. If you find yourself printing one design over and over again, pop along to their site and look for the tip-jar link to Ko-fi or PayPal and throw them another payment to say “thanks”. And look for creators who are producing designs of real originality.Don’t get me wrong, I love the imaginative interpretations of GW’s aesthetic you get from people like Vanguard and Bradley, or Victoria Miniatures. By all means, buy them. But keep your eyes peeled for the ones who are doing something truly new, because those are, I suspect, the only ones who are going to weather what’s coming.