Fantasy Fisticuffs #42: The Complicated Issue of Tabletop Simulator

I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but 2020 got REALLY weird on our planet.  Among the many disruptions to how we normally live our lives, in-person tabletop miniature gaming became a rare experience (and for many continues to be a reality).  Passionate people always find a way to indulge though, and as such the rise in virtual tabletops has become a main story in our hobby.  The issues that arise from it, good and bad, are numerous however, and a conversation feels worth having.

If you’re a part of this hobby and on literally any social media platform, you have seen people sharing TTS battle-reports, or hell, whole league/tournaments taking place.  For those not in the know, TTS or Tabletop Simulator is a piece of software available on Steam, for PCs.  It allows at a base, for people to sit at a virtual table with friends online, and play any number of public-domain games (Chess, Mahjong, etc…)  The software is deeply and easily moddable which is where the rabbit-hole begins.

Enthusiasts can do everything from scan 3d models, to cards, to entire rulesbooks, and with that powerful flexibility comes the ability to play any game.  Many game publishers do this themselves, officially selling virtual copies of their boardgames, but far more are labors of love from fans… that also happen to create copyright infringement whack-a-mole, where publishers squash one mod only to see others pop up.

Now that we’re all up to speed, I hoped to prompt some discussion, and maybe play some devil’s advocate.

The Argument for TTS:

When 2020 happened, we were all a little shell-shocked.  A very real impact of in-person gaming having to go on a back-burner, is no doubt a giant blow to the sales of countless tabletop games.  Less gaming happening means fewer models sold, less foot traffic in local game stores, and a less visible hobby that always needs new blood, and younger people joining as others move on.

In what could have been a period of contraction where the whole hobby shrank, we have whole communities springing up around games, with events being held online when they would be cancelled otherwise.

Games have become more equitable than ever.  With no barriers from painting, budgets, or inventory shortages, games are more skill-based than ever, and less beholden to haves vs. have-nots.  If anything, this may well accelerate the trends we have seen with some games garnering serious attention as serious competitive exercises, not unlike what has happened with e-sports.

Finally… we all kind of just need the escape right now.  I can only speak for myself, but this has been an exhausting time to live in, and asking people to forfeit a safe way to enjoy something that gives them a modicum of peace right now, seems like a rough ask.

The Argument Against TTS:

There are also real issues that need to be addressed with TTS, chief of which is that however we dress it up, many of these mods are outright theft.  Mods with full codexes exist, while others for games like Starwars Legion or A Song of Ice and Fire, offer the entire card libraries, making the games fully playable without having spent a dime.

Most of us have seen folks banned/ejected from communities for encouraging piracy, and yet here, we see whole events organised by fans openly, amounting to the same.

Our beloved hobby, relative to Hollywood, video-games, and so on, is very small, and deserving, excellent games frequently die because profit cannot be had.  If we want these games to thrive, and grow, we need new fans, but money also needs to be spent to ensure further development continues.

Remember gaming at game stores…? Feels like five-hundred years ago.

Beyond that, there is no doubt that some of what makes this hobby unique and special, is lost in translation to the virtual platform.  There is something to be said for the ownership one feels for the models they invested money, assembly, paint, and passion into.  They’re “our guys” because everything that went into them somehow makes them different than everyone else’s.  This is a subjective issue based on what a given player wants from this hobby, but I bet most of us have a lucky Space Marine, or a sub-par unit we field because it has been our favorite forever.  To see any of that side of the hobby diminish, is to turn these games into essentially half-developed video-games instead.

So Where Do You Stand?:

This genie isn’t going back into its bottle.  For many, instant, widespread access to models is going to make it a tougher sell to return to an older way.  Clearly this presents an opportunity for the industry to respond, and adapt in exciting ways, but responsibility also lies in fans as well, in part.

Obviously, my opinion is that I can clearly see valid arguments from both sides, but know this is a conversation that really needs to happen.  Is this a giant case of next-gen proxying taken to a virtual extreme, or just a fad to get us through quarantine-mode?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what happens in the long and short term, from here.

And remember, Frontline Gaming sells gaming products at a discount, every day in their webcart!

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About Mark Gottlieb

Writer, Game Designer, and owner of Fortunate Sun Studios, I have always tried to lead a life in some way built around paying back to gaming, and the gaming community. This hobby, and everyone in it, saved my life on more than a few occasions, and now I get to put my heart into helping it thrive for everyone!

19 Responses to “Fantasy Fisticuffs #42: The Complicated Issue of Tabletop Simulator”

  1. Avatar
    Gadget September 18, 2020 10:34 pm #

    I seriously doubt that TTS has negatively impacted the sales of Games Workshop. Most people I’ve come across who play on TTS are collectors who enjoy playtesting armies against other people and it is an excellent tool for making more informed purchases as one can determine if a unit or army is worthwhile buying before sinking thousands into models that may not end up getting used. Playing the physical game is also always superior to digital as it is faster and more social. TTS is also a way to grow the community outside of the niche gaming stores and bring in players who may not be rich enough to afford an army, trying the game before making the investment. There are many board games on TTS and I haven’t heard of any failing or suffering a significant sales decline because of a version on a virtual tabletop.

    • Mark Gottlieb
      Mark Gottlieb September 19, 2020 1:25 pm #

      I think a very real complication is that those smaller game companies can ill afford any lost sales. The margins on some are razor thin, and for every Asmodee who publishes stuff like Catan… there are games made by two people just hoping to break even.

      I think its a bit of a sliding scale. GW doesn’t even notice, while others are probably effected more dramatically.

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    Spera September 18, 2020 11:48 pm #

    Well, ill ad few of my points.

    It ads you way to play against people around the world. It was helpful before when my buddies were far away(6000km to give perspective) and we still could play. That was even before pandemics. After that i bought my models, now having two armies, and expanding.

    I lets you experiment with armies and new models before you play. Yes, proxing exist, but when you are planing whole new list, proxing could get out of hand and get very tiresome. This hobby is expensive, with little try before buying possibilities. This eases this problem even if just a little bit.

    It also lets you play games that no one in your area plays. It does also have some convinieces, like supper good measuring, or automatically sorted dice rolls. But it also is somewhat inconvenient in other areas, and wont beat real table experience.

    Overall, even if just slightly, its still is net gain(especialy now) for gw and hopefully other companies. For this kind of hobby, most important asset is community. And anything that helps prevent decline and expand instead is good in the long run.

  3. Avatar
    Zweischneid September 19, 2020 12:53 am #

    Having the community for 40K (or any game) propped up during the pandemic is clearly a good thing.

    The theft thing is a pretty intractable problem, but IMO not even specific to TTS. The 40K scene always had that weirdly warped morality, where outright theft of IP was considered a minor issue, if not even something to be encouraged as a “lesson to teach GW”, while the equivalent of stealing from a fellow player or even far lesser, non-criminal forms of misconduct like, say, using loaded dice or cheating in-game are viewed far more negatively by the community.

    • Avatar
      Ohlmann September 19, 2020 3:16 am #

      It’s only strange for people unaccustomated to numeric. Turn out ideas and concepts cannot follow the same model as physical items, both because people have less emotional attachment to it, and because there is no repro cost.

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    Zweischneid September 19, 2020 12:57 am #

    If anything, the ITC code of conduct would, I believe, have been a good place for the ITC to make a firm stance against IP theft, piracy, re-casts, etc.. . whether digital or at actual tournaments.

    Of course it cannot always be enforced consistently, but even the signal of taking a stance and/or avoiding the implicit condoning of piracy by not mentioning it while simultaneously stigmatising / adding punitive threats to lesser misconducts would be a good start IMO.

  5. Avatar
    LOGAN September 19, 2020 7:39 am #

    Continuous studies have shown that the average person who engages in piracy spends significantly more on the IP than those who do not. They are avid consumers.

    The proportion of people who use TTS to test out and acquire information before they go through the not insignificant process of purchasing, assembling and painting miniatures that could be FAQed at any time is massive. It would be a very rare situation to find someone who solely uses TTS and doesn’t put anything significant in to the coffers of GW.

    The music industry shifted and turned illegal downloading and streaming in to a viable business model. I expect GW to continue to pivot their business from relying solely on selling physical miniatures and opening other revenue streams through their intellectual properties.

    • Mark Gottlieb
      Mark Gottlieb September 19, 2020 1:28 pm #

      It is true that “engagement” with a brand has a value unto itself, and loads of companies will happily take it over any short term gain. Great point!

  6. Avatar
    Nicholunch September 19, 2020 7:46 am #

    What sort of facts done we have that stores are suffering because of TTS? I think stores are suffering because the manufacturers are pushing online sales more than in store, not because of TTS. It’s too easy to buy online and get games consistently for 15-20% off than vs in store.

    GW is booming during this time with increased stock growth. That means they are still selling strong online. I’d like to see the manufacturers support distribution through the store on a better scale.

    I think TTS hurts the manufacturer when you don’t impulse buy a game to play test on TTS instead…but that’s it. The game play doesn’t replace in person satisfaction, unless you you don’t personally like in person interaction…which then means you probably weren’t buying board games anyway.

  7. Avatar
    Sheldon Steere September 19, 2020 8:42 am #

    I think the premise that TTS hurts sales at all is an outdated one. Everyone I know who plays on TTS has across the board been encouraged to buy more models from GW than less because of the ability to play armies you had only theory crafted and then seeing their efficacy leading to a sale IRL for those models. Very few people want to play TTS forever and see it as a tool to play in adverse conditions, such as when it is impossible to get together, or when the opponent is far away. So experiments of models in TTS almost always leads to sales of actual models in the real world. Because almost everyone who plays 40K does it for the real world models. Let’s not be naive and pretend that people play GW games for their excellent rules writing. They’re doing it because they love the models, so TTS becomes a platform for advertising new models they can add to their collection because players can playtest them and grow to love their play style and it only serves to encourage real world sales.

  8. Avatar
    TheRealJohnWilliam September 19, 2020 2:35 pm #

    Piracy of things like books is one thing, where you are taking a product and copying it word for word from its specific format.

    It becomes a gray area when you take a game, modify it to represent another game, and then call it piracy. That’s where TTS falls into all of this. It is a group of people using the game that they bought, to modify and represent another game.

    That would be like me buying a riding lawnmower, and then modifying the lawnmower to go faster than it’s supposed to or modifying it so it can carry loads heavier than it’s supposed to, then having John Deere come in and tell me I can’t do that.

  9. Avatar
    Big marty September 19, 2020 3:10 pm #

    I think TTS and battlescribe is great! I have multiple friends who have not played warhammer 40k since 4th edition playing 9th edition because of things like TTS and battlescribe make it so easy and you can play test what you want before you spend 100’s if not 1000’s for dollars. They liked the new edition so much they are now buying models again after years and years of not even glancing at the hobby! I think its great way to bring people back and introduce someone to something as daunting as warhammer 40k!

  10. Avatar
    Twizzly Wizzle September 19, 2020 4:30 pm #

    For the record, the main body of folks behind the 40k scene on TTS constantly encourage people who play in TTS to go buy the real stuff. It’s actually front and center on the Twitch page…

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    Steven Ayers September 19, 2020 5:00 pm #

    I think it would be great for GW to finally cave and build their own version of the game to play online. Charge people for buying the game, but not models/armies. However, have all of the major tournament organizers (or most) just continue to commit to hosting in person tournaments. You can pay 50$ to play their game online (or even do like a yearly 50$ sub). But you have to play with real models on a real table at a tourney. You’ll have to play in person with real models to train if you want to do well. You’ll need models regardless to play in person at the tourney. And you get more people interested in the hobby at a lower level. That would boost viewership of like SHOUTCAST events and twitch streamed live tables. Which would grow the game. Which leads to more people buying their digital game, which leads to those people buying models to play in real life etc

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    DWHawthorne September 19, 2020 5:09 pm #

    I also see it as a complicated issue, and one we know companies are aware of. After a few takedown requests GW stopped. I think other companies are either big enough to not care (Milton Bradley) or waiting for another company to set precedent.

    For GW’s part, I don’t know if they’ve realised it yet, but it could potentially be a revenue stream for them, selling Licensed uncustomizable 3D models they make stemming from the files they already have. And it might be something they could reproduce in a closed system, or just sell as objects usable in TTS.

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    Firestorm Falcon September 20, 2020 12:11 am #

    I’ve actually discussed the legal question with a couple of my solicitor friends.

    Its clear that there’s no legal barrier to playing 40k on a digital tabletop. GW etc don’t own any copyright on dice or terrain.

    The issue is around rules (clearly including codexes isn’t permitted) and the 3d models used to represent units.

    Even if GW wanted to shut down tts 40k you could replace the models with suitably sized generic tokens without affecting gameplay hugely. It would just be less fun. Setting the legal team of your company against a popular indy game publisher; where your best outcome is: a chunk of your player base enjoys the way they play your game, currently, less is not a great plan.

    On the moral side gw is a global corporation which has made massive profits and gives that profit to investors rather than the staff that make the game we love. No level of personal or not for profit ip theft compares to the moral vacuum of operating an international business in the current economic system. Maybe don’t upload rules though that’s clearly illegal and the kind of thing that forces companies to act or risk setting a precedent they don’t defend their CW. Same reason they had to go after chapter house and ruin their names/ wargear lists (not again plz).

  14. Avatar
    Steve Dulson September 20, 2020 3:01 am #

    This article does introduce s relevant discussion point. There was a similar situation a few years back when Magic The Gathering first went online.

    Cards were sold to players (at the same cost as physical cards, with the same distribution of uncommon and rares). This meant players who wished to play online were forced to buy into recreating their collection online at great expense.

    I can see GW for example trying to implement a similar model. Allowing you to purchase codices and models from them, and rabidly litigating against any parties supplying the content for free.

    This might be acceptable if the prices were reasonable for authentic digital content, and that all models come with a one use code for adding them to your digital collection. Sadly I think we will see the MtG model repeated. GW are great believers in the whole “reassuringly expensive” pricing model. So the digital product with zero production and distribution costs after initial creation is still likely to carry a high price tag.

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    Yarium September 20, 2020 5:32 am #

    I tried to make some local TTS games happen, but no one here was up for it. Thing is, I play 40k because it’s social. TTS is a hold-over, but it’s absolutely not a replacement for the real thing with real models and real people. I don’t want to play it with random people – I want to play it with the people I’ll actually play against.

  16. Avatar
    Sporknado September 20, 2020 7:18 am #

    Steam is a lot more diligent about policing infringement of games that are legitimately being sold by publishers on TTS. It is extremely easy to find “pirate” mods of games that are not otherwise obtainable, but the minute a game is added as a purchasable mod, all the other versions disappear from the workshop. Yes, there are still ways to get pirated copies to friends, but taking mods off of the searchable workshop does limit widespread distribution.

    So the simple answer to this so-called quandary is for publishers to sell their assets on the workshop storefront. Steam will then be motivated to defend those assets from piracy because they lose their cut of every sale that’s lost that way. If a publisher doesn’t care enough about this digital segment of players to accommodate the demand, too bad for them. Many (possibly most) digital gamers were never going to buy the physical product anyway.

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