Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Some thoughts on the hobby....

Hey diddle diddle!

I got a couple reminders today from an artist to send pics to him.

I did.

I said I’d send the edited Vehicle writeups off to be proofread.

I did that, too.

I said I would send Jim Devlin feedback on the new mockups he sent me, and pay a goodly number of people and check in on Daniel Cherng to see if the CM-33 ammo carrier was going back in the commission pile.

All that, I did.

Unfortunately, for the past day and a half, I have not received anything notable on the TRO. Bad timing, I guess. So for this installment, I will talk about something that is related to gaming, but not strictly BattleTech.

Back in the mid-1990s, we had a local hobby shop and I was a new father. Besides painting a scad of BattleTech miniatures for a Navy buddy, I was all about Magic: The Gathering and my wife and son. We lived in a little apartment in Poulsbo. A friend of mine got me interested in Warhammer:40K just after they began revising some of their models. Discontinued older ones (like the old Landraider) were still in demand, but what caught my eye was a Leman Russ tank.

I had been into hobby electronics since a teen, so it was a small jump from making costume props for Trekkers and other science-fiction convention-goers to coming up with some really neat lights and sounds for GW products. I even got into making plastic cardstock models of vehicles I’d seen in the books but which had not yet reached the shelves (primarily Imperial Guard Sentinels).

To make a long story short, I collected a LOT of miniatures in preparation for playing the game and created a lot of electronic tanks to play with. Unfortunately, the players were pretty poor sports and it always seemed like they were running what we BattleTech players would now refer to as ‘munch’ or ‘cheese’. Of course, back then folks were hopping from army to army, the GW people were aiming squarely at young teens and the game was eventually reset in 1998 or so with a brand new set of rules. Again.

I dropped out of the playing scene. For the next few years I took commissions to create new tanks, even making one for a window display in the local mall. The window display never made it there – the shop manager decided it would make a great gift for some big shots back East. I complained loudly at that last, but despite getting a hundred dollar gift certificate from the manager to shut me up (after he’d been read the riot act by his superiors) it was increasingly clear that folks really were impressed by the custom electronic enhancements in my models. And just as unwilling to fork over money to get one of their own.

I tried teaching people how to do it, but no one seemed to want to learn. For heaven’s sake, I even wrote a book on how to do it (for Star Trek fans) back in the early 90s. No one wanted to try it.

I now have a set of shelves filled with Monoliths, Eldar Grav tanks, multiple Leman Russ models, Landraiders, Rhinos and Sentinels (the real ones). And several squads of Mordian Iron Guard. I have a bench cabinet filled with all the lasers, strobes, LEDs and sound boards you could ever want for this kind of work. It has all been gathering dust for nearly seven years. But what really gets me is this: not only can I not find anyone interested in working with hobby electronics, I can’t get anyone to pay me what that kind of work is worth. So now I am on my own again.

Oh, sure. Johnny Worthen took a few tips from me and got his Landraider to look really squiff.

But aside from that, the only action I have seen in this regard was the GenCon 2007 dropship display.

If you take a look at :

You will find details on the creation of an electronic Leman Russ, Land Raider and Vindicator. To my knowledge, no one has ever emailed me to ask how to do them. Anyone reading the description of the Laser Russ would realize it involved my six-year old little boy pressing buttons for his dad.

He is now fourteen and he ain't little anymore.

The point being, that was - what? eight years ago? The stuff has been sitting in my garage for nearly ten years, and no one has ever played with it on a gaming table.

Just because you can do it, just because it is cool, does not mean it will be a success. I have a piece of advice for anyone wishing to take their electronic enhancement of a particular hobby to the level of business - don't.

You see, electronics done like this is a handicraft, and while folks may pay stupendous amounts of money to buy well-made handicrafts, they won't pay squat for this sort of thing. Electronics have gotten to the point where it is, essentially, disposable. I see the most amazing concatenation of abilities - digital camera, MP3 player, long-distance communication and video screen - in cellular phones - and they get *thrown away* because the man on TV said they were no longer the style. Imagine what that man is saying to kids who want to get into Warhammer.

I despair of ever getting my son behind a soldering iron, because there is nothing he can do that has not already been done in mass quantity by diligent Chinese manufacturers. Imaging trying to get him interested in building a little AM/FM radio receiver from transistors and other parts in a cigar box? Or learning to read a schematic? Why should he, when they give radios away in gum machines?

It’s the same with hobby electronics and modeling. I put working lighting, turning propellers and flashing machine guns into a nice 1/48 scale ME-109. Most kids don’t even know what it is. The hard work that goes into this little beauty? They see flashier effects in disposable cigarette lighters.

When is miniature painting going to go the same way? Plastic modeling is in the doldrums, control-line flying is so old-school most young adults have never even heard of it. Radio control is so ubiquitous it is hawked in every possible format; I have even seen a R/C dirigible, and who has not seen Radio Shack’s tiny helicopters for your living room?

I have seen the fall of wargaming from king of the sandtable to a sad has-been at all but a few select conventions. And yet most wargames have only gotten better, with new rules and wonderful miniatures. Its replacement, the role-playing game, has gradually been shunted aside for more competitive fare such as collectible card games and online social wargames. This, despite the fact there is probably a well-written RPG for nearly anything you could ever want to be, in any of a thousand settings. And thirty years of excellent miniatures, to boot.

I know things change, but are the needs these games (and my hobbies) were meant to satisfy going to be met by the hucksters pushing Halo 3: ODST? What do the online games produce but good eye/hand coordination, an ever-accelerating demand for the Next New Thing and the all-but-certain feeling that networking and self-promotion are all that you need to get anywhere?

No real skills are needed – if people think you are something, if you can project the image (online or otherwise), you only have to appear to know something and have lots of connections, and there you have it. Or so the Saturday morning cartoons (and the advertisers) would have us believe.

See, this is how I know I am getting old. I mourn for hobbies younger people won’t do anymore. Not only that; they don’t even know what these things are. When you explain it to them, it rapidly becomes apparent they don’t see any value in it. Does it gain you fame? Does it make you lots of money? If not, they turn away. It is not enough to have fun. There must be a profit or status gained with their peers.

You think I am kidding? Try explaining your miniature collection, or your painting, or the latest kitbash to nearly anyone not already in the hobby between the ages of 12 and 25. Most of them will give you a queer look. But if you begin the conversation with “I made an assfull of cash over the weekend painting a bunch of stuff for some guy in Montana”, or even “I got my face on YouTube with this cool tutorial and now folks are lining up to pay for my painting video” – then you will command friendly attention. Lots of it.

Well, enough. I am sorry to say I will probably see the day when tabletop wargaming will go the way of control line flying, and all the wonderful things that go with it (writing fiction, artistic drawing, design, painting, casting, kitbashing, terrain modeling and hanging out with folks who are better than you at those things) will be, as Rutger Hauer so eloquently put it in ‘BladeRunner’, ‘like tears in the rain’.

Time to die?

No, not yet. But like my son, these things won’t be around forever. Don’t miss a chance to enjoy the hobby and its many offshoots while you can. BattleTech has lasted for twenty-five years, but something in me doubts it and other games like it will around for another twenty-five. My grandchildren might get to pound on old Gramps with a Battlemaster someday.

But somehow I kinda doubt it.



Anonymous said...

I'm bad.

Will get you the edits hopefully yet today.


Paint it Pink said...

Wow, you sound quite down. I can relate to that, and my friend Glenn is pretty much in the same place. As you say, some of it is a sign of getting older, but the rest is down to changing values in society.

I can remember in the late seventies seeing a chat show discussing the morality of wargaming. Spike Milligan appeared on the pro side, along with at one wargamer I use to know, but who I can't remember the name of. On the other side were the chattering classes who like to do good, and more importantly, like to be seen to be doing good.

I watched this programme with friends and we were quite perturbed by the general direction the discussion took. Wargaming was seen as an activity for social pariahs.

I can also remember a dimmer party where a nice couple announced that D&D led to the worship of Satan and all that was evil in the world. I may be paraphrasing their comments, but that was the gist.

I caused a bit of a furore by saying that even in people who played D&D were dancing around fires at night worshiping Satan, they were doing far less harm to the world than the people who manipulated the stockmarket, making millions at other people's expense. Needles to say this comment went down like a lead balloon, not unsurprising really given the fact it was a dinner party full of accountants.

So, as to end of wargaming, all I can say really is that when you die, as we all do, then what happens afterwards is no longer your concern. However, before we die, we can choose to live our life to the full and do the things that we enjoy. Only by doing the things we enjoy will others become interested in what we do. Those who don't see anything interesting in what you do have other things to do. Be happy that they are happy doing what they do. Be happy that you do the things that you do.

Steven Satak said...

Well, in the late 1970s, social pariahs were what played any kind of game that was conducted in small, exclusive rooms in someone's basement. There were game shops back then (American Eagles in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle, anyone?) but they were heavily into sand tables. AE was just getting into the D&D scene, and chiefly because the owner's two young sons were into it.

Yes, a lot of it is values changing. But human needs are just the same. I cannot understand how the new stuff is filling the gap of the old, and frankly, I feel like a bit of a failure for communicating my enthusiasm for my hobbies' good qualities to my own son. If I cannot convince him, who will be pursuaded.

So yeah, I am kinda down.

I am also kinda tempted to address your last paragraph, because we come from opposite directions. I think it matters very much what sort of person you are when you die, and what choices you make while you live determine that. You know, the interesting thing is that while I do believe there are such things as angels (and their opposite), I don't believe in magic and thus, don't believe RPGs to be a direct conduit to hell. Or at least not the only one. But suppose I *did* believe there was such thing as working magic?

I suppose if I did, then Dungeons and Dragons might seem very close to a sort of training exercise.

Most of us don't believe in magic, and thus, we don't hunt witches. If we did, if we thought people existed who *could* curse their neighbors with rot, or plague, or death by cutting a deal with Old Scratch, who would deserve death more than those rotten traitors?

That is belief about facts, not any particular moral advance.
As CS Lewis once pointed out, you would not call a man humane for not using mouse traps if he did so because he thought there were no longer any mice in the house.