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Tabletop Games Will Witness a 3D Printing Renaissance


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    We live in an era when anyone can own and operate a 3D printer. While not without its flaws, the technology has continued to make headlines during the Covid pandemic. And 3D printing has begun to disrupt the economy of tabletop miniatures, as entrepreneurs try to democratize an expensive and somewhat monopolistic market. Meanwhile, longtime brands increasingly fear destabilization as yet another door to piracy swings open.

    To get a picture of this world, we spoke to a few of its adopters about the paradigm shift it’s opened up, the tricky economics involved, and what it could all mean for the future of manufacturing for the tabletop.

    Has 3D Printing Changed the Game?

    3D printing isn’t new, but it’s much easier to get into now than it used to be. Slowly but surely, printing with plastic has moved from the realm of novelty to become a foundational tool behind a new kind of company—and a new kind of community.

    Alex Ziff, co-CEO at MyMiniFactory, a digital platform dealing in renders for 3D printing, has charted the short history of the industry. “The last three or four years have seen some amazing creativity in this space,” he says. “That’s all because of lowered barriers to entry—not just access to printing, but also people being able to up-skill into CAD software—and thriving communities, as well as the bump from the pandemic drawing people toward indoor recreation.”

    Matt Wilson, chief creative officer at Privateer Press, has seen the same thing. “With the quality of renders out there online, we’ve entered a little unannounced renaissance in this space,” he says. “And that growth will accelerate as costs decline, efficiency goes up, and the momentum in the community aggregates. Right now, what we're doing is still similar to what we did 20 years ago, but that won’t be the case in five years. And perhaps five years on from there, it could all change again.”

    Wilson’s prediction is a reasonable one. The implications of a fully realized tabletop 3D-printing industry have the potential for historic change.

    “With dynamic production methodology, early versions of a tabletop game can be created in full for play-testing, and they can then be revised on a tight schedule,” Ziff says. “You don’t need to print thousands of units of the product at once and live with the results, basically being a disempowered client of the plastics industry. Instead, you can print flexibly and have your community playing and feeding back early to evolve your creation reactively.”

    But we are still only at the threshold of this new world of on-demand manufacturing. Many mundane realities hold it back.

    “We see a lot of misconceptions about the labor intensity of modern 3D printing,” Wilson admits. “People watch a viral video about how easy 3D printing is, and they get the impression that it comes down to loading a program and pushing a button. The reality is, a lot of manpower goes into rinsing, cleaning, curing, removing build structures, and packaging—all by hand—which is about 90 percent of the work. We can manufacture reactively, but that hasn’t reduced the cost of labor. And anyway, that labor comprises human beings we aren’t interested in exploiting for the sake of the lowest imaginable price of our end product.”

    Both Wilson and Ziff highlighted several sour debates over 3D printing in the subculture. “3D printing can sometimes be a dirty word,” Ziff says. “There’s some dissent about the quality of casting that can sound alien to those outside our niche. You don’t walk into a tabletop gaming store and demand to know if a set’s been injection molded or cast, so why does the scrutiny fall on grassroots players like us?”

    While MyMiniFactory and its parent OnlyGames are based in the UK, the majority of their revenue comes from clients and customers in the US. They’re very interested in building from an office in North America soon. “We believe in localized manufacturing,” Ziff insists.

    Remote operation, automation, and virtualization are the pillars of the industries of the future, although Ziff doesn’t want to see them destroy authentic physical experiences.

    We Need a “Meta-Reverse”

    As a new era of tabletop, modeled and painted in 3D software, and played in augmented realities comes alive, we mustn’t leave behind the physical experiences that informed them. “We must never neglect the ability to reverse digitization,” Ziff says, “so we retain the ability to share the digital renaissance with the physical world. We call this the ‘meta-reverse.’ We’d love to see a hybridization of these art forms, seeing tech intuitively augment labor, rather than a shiny, fragile new paradigm eclipsing a tried-and-true one.”

    “We already see lots of consumers in this space with a 3D printer at home,” Wilson agrees, “But we’re not yet at a stage where printing from your house results in any cost savings. That may well happen soon, but for now, we’re behind the cusp of it—though I’ll admit that the ability to match the quality of something sold in-store with 3D printing arrived sooner than I anticipated.”

    In the face of these momentous changes, Ziff and Wilson agree that increasingly virtualized tools have brought together creative communities with a lot more design power, but a more impersonal, disembodied world has had all sorts of unintended drawbacks.

    “Contractual agreements can lock artists, painters, and writers out of control over their creations,” Ziff warns. “We hate to see that. We want creators to go on being known so long as their work is visible, and for them to keep being paid on that basis through revenue sharing. It takes teams of talented folks to bring these games to life, and we don’t want to minimize the work of anyone. These games are entire worlds that we don’t want to see limited.”

    Another issue is one that tabletop collectors have been aware of for a while, though decentralized production has made it more relevant than ever. “3D printing has made counterfeiting much easier,” Wilson says, “and a keen trend of look-alikes that aim to be just dissimilar enough to avoid legal attention has spread. This is how lowering barriers in a market can cut both ways.”

    With IP rightshot topic in this space, Ziff offers a more nuanced perspective. “We recognize that there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed with IP, but OnlyGames would prefer to defer power to the community and be able to trust them. Let’s let the community judge what’s fair democratically. I don’t want this company to end up being a team of lawyers, like the bigger companies in this industry. What we want is a better dialog, not more punitive legal structures.”

    Mini Figures, Big Business?

    These conversations over cost and counterfeiting, pricing and property rights, reveal wider dissatisfaction in tabletop gaming with big, impersonal conglomerates in a community-powered market.

    “When good creators come along and create a fun new board game all by themselves, we keep seeing the same things happen,” Ziff explains. “Big orgs like Hasbro or Ravensburger spot these cool new IPs with any modicum of success, buy them up, and run them right into the ground chasing a return on the investment at any cost. This kills innovation and makes for a more hostile space for creating something new at the tabletop. That’s by design.”

    Wilson’s and Ziff’s companies have a different approach, with the potential to disrupt old norms and reintroduce some much-needed competition into the market—not by offering a better product, but by letting creators themselves offer it.

    “Community is core to what we do,” Ziff says. “It’s deeply ingrained in the company’s values. That’s why we want to allow creators as much freedom as possible to do what they’d like. We get takedown requests from big players quite often, which we field on behalf of the designers who are sometimes working in very small teams or all on their own. We’ve even fought off this kind of action by standing behind creators and making it clear it’s not just them against the big guys. But we don’t want these conversations to be seen as us versus them. We’d like to build stronger bridges across the business of tabletop gaming—from the highest boardrooms down to the smallest independent creator.”

    Widespread use of 3D printing for tabletop games is still in the future, but it could open doors to more players, more people designing and developing their own games, and more possibilities yet to be realized.

    OnlyGames, for its part, intends to branch into printing trading cards, gamebooks, and eventually entire board games. “These products usually require complex counters and tokens, which can be a logistical nightmare, but this is our end goal, to be able to print for everything in tabletop gaming,” Ziff says. Privateer Press shares that optimism. “Making a leap of faith away from a decades-old manufacturing process into a relatively nascent solution wasn’t undertaken lightly,” Wilson says, “but we’re confident that the quality and scope of what we can offer is going to expand as the technology does.”

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