Games Workshop has been licensing out its IP for the best part of 30 years now. So, you may ask, why is it now that the real benefits of operations that have spanned a generation, are only being recognised?
For a bit of context, take a look at Games Workshop’s most recent earnings report. The retail chain and owner of the gritty, dystopian, oftentimes bleak tabletop miniatures franchise, Warhammer, has just seen a stellar half for sales.
It has seen profits almost double, reaching a whopping £74.5 million pre-tax, compared to its £38.4 million in pre-tax profits one year prior. The same annual report has also confirmed that the Nottingham-based manufacturer and retailer saw a surge in revenue from £158 million to nearly £220 million over that time.
Most of the company’s overseas revenue is made through licensing and has, over this year certainly, helped cement Games Workshop’s place among the British retailing, manufacturing and IP-owning elite.
But it wasn’t always this way. Games Workshop has also weathered a storm to prove an entire collective of naysayers who suggested that the outfit would never survive the coming of the digital age – especially by making and selling tabletop miniatures, some of which retail for upwards of £100 – wrong.
The biggest change over the company’s very colourful history is arguably not the social shift from analogue to digital, but in Games Workshop’s approach to working within the interstice of each.
Recent years have seen retailing-manufacturing-franchising hybrid carve itself a distinct niche, straddling the analogue and digital worlds with its Warhammer franchise, and doing so through licensing and merchandising.
“We have been licensing out our IP for almost 30 years now, but for most of that time we focused almost exclusively on video games as there’s a natural fit there with our fans and IP,” Games Workshop’s head of global licensing, Jon Gillard, tells Licensing.biz.
“We also kept our number of licensees low, giving very broad rights for long terms and large guarantees.
“However, that all changed a few years ago. We’d realised two key things, firstly that the route to market was far more open due to platforms like Steam and the App store, and secondly that the sheer depth and breadth of our content was not being served by giving so much to one or two partners.”
Games Workshop has been working on video games with multiple partners since 1991, and has, over that time, built an enviable set of contacts within the industry. The pay-off of its years of labour in this field continues to be substantial today.
“Our partners have sold well over 30 million games over the years and there are over 50 games still available across pretty much all of the platforms,” says Gillard.
“The consumer products side is one that we have only been doing seriously the past couple of years and we have got some great partners already, such as Half Moon Bay and Difuzed, making some awesome stuff, but there is lots to go at here, too.”
Last month, Games Workshop’s licensing manager, Alexander Thieme told Licensing.biz and its readers to “expect to see its Warhammer IP take up more presence within toy shops and hobby retailers,” thanks to its ever-growing
licensing portfolio. Off the back of this year’s tabletop convention GenCom in the US, the outfit confirmed a new collaboration with Steve Jackson Games to launch a Warhammer 40,000 themed version of its iconic table- top gaming title, Munchkin.
It’s the first of many new announcements to be emerging from its time at the show. And through establishing partnerships such as this, or via its new children’s book series, the company has embarked on a mission to broaden its audience base and innovate its way to more shelf space in high street retailers.
It’s all part of what Gillard has described as a newfound open-mindedness towards licensing in general. A stark contrast to where it was only some five years ago.
“By only giving rights for what a partner actually needed to make the product they were proposing and taking a more open minded approach to deals like profit shares as well as traditional MG contracts, the door opened to many more partners, from large publishers through to smaller talented ones.
“And once we’d done this with video games, we started to look at all those things that we’d for one reason or another never really got into. So apparel, collectables, and other merchandise, as well as starting to consider media.
“This was both to monetise our massive investment in our IP over the years, but also to consider how licensing can help us break into new territories.”
The impact of this, by the way, has been significant. Games Workshop’s licensing income has risen from £2 million to £10 million in the past five years.
“That’s the equivalent to sales at retail of $155 million,” boasts Gillard.
Just for the record, the firm’s retail footprint is no shrinking violet, either. It’s a growing behemoth of activity spearheaded with an aim to increase its global presence by increasing the number of locations selling Warhammer products.
“We have many opportunities in all territories, including the UK, which we consider our most developed market,” Games Workshop’s European trade manager, Zaki Kaitila tells Licensing.biz.
“Worldwide we see great growth potential but there are also some key geographical areas we are currently focusing on like Germany, the US and Asia.”
Growth potential is no new concept to Games Workshop, the firm does, after all lay stake to the claim that it drove the growth of the tabletop wargaming market itself from the point of its inception back in 1975. For those uninitiated, Games Workshop’s founders, Ian Livingstone, John Peake and Steve Jackson have gone down in history as the pioneers of the role-playing and tabletop genre and oft revered as gods among mere mortals. (This is a very enthusiastic crowd of fans, remember – ed)
“We have always been very self-reliant in terms of generating business for ourselves,” explains Kaitila.
“If anything, we drove the growth of tabletop wargaming with miniatures and made it a hobby that appealed to a wider audience.
“The growth in hobby gaming, though, offers some opportunities to enable consumers to discover Warhammer and our miniatures. Realising this, we brought some new product types into the market that enabled our stockists to offer new ways to enter the Warhammer miniature hobby.
“Two good examples are the Warhammer Quest and Warhammer Underworlds games, Warhammer Quest follows a classic board game approach with everything being contained in one box but adding exciting miniatures and background story to the mix.
“Whereas Warhammer Underworlds was launched last year as a fast-paced battle game with a wide appeal including organised play to support in store activities.”
For those working within the Warhammer or Games Workshop sphere – shall
we call it a realm? – life is looking pretty good right now. In fact, all 1,700 members if its UK staff recently took home a share of the company’s £5 million bonus this year, signalling that this is firstly, a company with some excellent employee benefits and secondly, one on an exciting growth trajectory.
“For sure we will continue to grow the core of our operations which is fantastic Warhammer miniatures supported by the games, hobby supplies and novels,” continues Kaitila.
“Also our licensing activities are growing the brand beyond our miniatures and will help us to reach even more future miniature collectors while we make sure Warhammer Bestsellers will be available in more and more places around the world.”
But before it lets the licensing side of the business run away from itself, Games Workshop is quick to iterate that retailing will always remain at the heart of what it does. In fact, just as it drove the nation’s love affair with tabletop gaming to where it currently sits, so too, does it claim fame in delivering on that buzzword of today, location-based entertainment.
Gillard explains: “Location based entertainment is actually what we have been doing since we first opened shops in the 1980s. A Warhammer store is a retail location selling product for sure, but it’s more importantly a hobby centre where customers go to learn how to build, paint and play with our models.
“The biggest example of that is Warhammer World at our head office, with its massive gaming hall, Citadel miniatures museum and themed Burmans Bar.”
Experiential is well on the radar for this company, then. This is a firm that has been turning up to conventions and other events “since forever.” And while Games Workshop is certainly no stranger to the experiential side of consumer engagement, it still has a few boxes to tick before it can consider itself ‘completely 360.’
“What we haven’t done so far is the more elaborate or technological kind of thing you see at theme parks and the like, but it’s an area we’re looking at.
Digitally, we will carry on doing video games of course, and we’re exploring new technologies as they come along like VR and AR.
"We are also exploring other forms of narrative entertainment – animation and live action – both doing it ourselves and through partners.”
What’s the overall objective for the Warhammer franchise? Growing its audience and fan base of course; building it out into a fully franchised model in which sci- fans, geek pop culture fans, hobby fans and gamers alike can all find a place to settle within the Warhammer IP.
“Our opportunity is to find ways to let these fans, this growing base of pop culture enthusiast, into the Warhammer world, no matter what products they like or where they are in the world,” explains Gillard.
“It’s pretty exciting to think that there are still many unexplored markets out there for us to discover, and many more people to introduce to the joys of Warhammer.”