3D Printing is(n’t) killing the miniature wargaming industry

Last week, there was a series of rather negative articles on Spikey Bits (and even worse facebook comments) regarding 3D printing that caused a bit of a stir in the 3D printing community. These started off with one regarding a Warhammer 40,000 tournament army that consisted of unpainted, 3D printed proxy models for an Adeptus Custodes army. It quickly devolved into the usual trope and gatekeeping from those who know next to nothing about 3D printing, accusing everyone who has a 3D printer of being a pirate, calling it IP theft, and comparing it to Chinese “yoyhammer” recasts.  You can read it all here:

3D Printed Adeptus Custodes Army from Spikey Bits

Coincidentally or not, a day or so later, there were a bunch of takedowns of Warhammer 40,000 related files on thingiverse, including those by well known creators that might have walked a particularly fine line when it comes to fair use of IP (which we’ll get into later).  The tone of these articles reminded me of some of the old sterotypes that get thrown about by anti 3D printing luddites, claiming at various times that there is no skill in it (not realizing that the miniatures that they purchase from the game store were most likely designed in CAD and had 3D printed masters before being “recast” in hard plastic or resin, that 3D is destroying the miniature wargaming industry etc, something that reminded me of some of the very negative feedback I got earlier in the year on Reddit when I posted a post about (mostly) finishing a 1500 Point New Zealand force for V3 Flames of War, where I’d 3D printed all the tanks (and my figures were from a 3rd party creator – plastic soldier company).  I posted it around the place, and eventually I ran into the “3D printing will kill wargaming”/”why don’t you support X company”/”I bet you download your rulebooks” crowd:

Urgh.. Reddit

The  Reddit thread, went downhill pretty quickly for obvious reasons, half of which being that I was still in bed and hadn’t woken up yet, and the other half being that the person I was arguing with was the sort that spends their in the more “interesting” parts of reddit, full of conspiracy theories, and other rubbish:


So, I thought I’d lay out why I think that 3D printing (be it at home, or commercially) doesn’t harm the miniature wargaming industry, but in fact helps it grow.

So – let’s start with a bit of background.  I’ve played miniature games since I was about 7 or 8 years old, starting with Heroquest, moving onto Warhammer Fantasy Battles (back when it was High Elves and Goblins in the Box), Warhammer 40,000 (2nd and 3rd Editions) and the original incarnations of Necromunda. At some point I was playing Rapid Fire with 20mm figures, while others in my games club (at that time the South Auckland Miniature Wargames Club in New Zealand) were playtesting this game that would eventually be called “Flames of War”.  I took various breaks during university before selling up completely my last of my Necromunda, Gorkamorka and Blood Bowl collections before spending a few years traveling south east asia, meeting my wife and moving to the United States – I’d completely forgotten about miniature wargames. Then I saw it, a brand new version of Necromunda, and down the rabbit hole I went,  and thats how I discovered 3D printing. It all started with a single file on Thingiverse, walls for Zone Mortalis boards (which I’ve still yet to print!) that resulted in my purchasing a 3D printer, and getting into printing terrain for our Necromunda boards.

The reason I purchased a printer

There is no way my wife would have let me get deep into multiple game systems if it wasn’t for a 3D printer.  Since then I’ve got back into (in one way or another) playing a wide manner of games at my Friendly Local Gaming Store (shout out to Eagle and Empire games in Alexandria, Virigina!) including:

  • Bolt Action
  • Konflict 47
  • The 9th Age Fantasy Battles
  • Warlords of Erehwon
  • Cruel Seas
  • Flames of War (incl Nam, Great War and Fate of a Nation)
  • Team Yankee (incl Oil Wars)
  • Gaslands

as well as picking up a bunch of second hand minis for

  • Necromunda
  • Warhammer 40,000
  • Age of Sigmar
  • Blood Bowl
  • Epic 40,000
This isn’t hoarding..

There is no way I would have got into any of these games without having access to a 3D printer.  It all started with Bolt Action, realising that I could purchase a box of plastic figures, and then print tanks, trucks, artillery etc to create an entire army cheaply and easily. But this didn’t mean I stopped spending money at my friendly local gaming store – far from it. Instead, I started getting into more game systems, creating multiple armies, having forces for my friends to test out and give a new system a go.  And every time I went to the local store I’d be purchasing something, due to the lower barrier to entry if a new game came out, I’d purchase:

  • Rulebooks
  • Dice and Accessories
  • Paints, Primers & Glues
  • Plastic and Metal Infantry
  • Decals
  • Gaming Mats

My spending habits changed, but the amount of time I spent gaming, and the amount that I spent on gaming actually increase.  Instead of on company having a monopoly on my spend, it went wider (though I must say, Warlord Games, with their agnostic approach to miniatures is receiving the majority of my spending). I’m not going to say exactly how much my spending increased as a result, for rear my wife might eventually read this, but I can easily say, along with every other person I’ve spoken to, that access to a 3D printer has resulted in an increased spend and level of support for the local store, not less.

What about intellectual property and copyright?

A common argument against 3D printing in wargaming revolves around IP and Copyright, and in some cases there is some merit to this, especially in games where the company owns and has created the universe where the games take part, take Warhammer 40,000 for instance, in a post Chapterhouse World, GW owns the content of the game, and have made it very clear what their policy is and that they intend to enforce their IP where it is threatened, as well as more dubious attempts to protect rights that aren’t theirs such as attempting to claim ownership of the term “Space Marine” even though it has existed in Science Fiction since the 1930s, while Warhammer Fantasy Battles earlier editions were directly inspired and influenced by Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons. Their policies are quite clearly stated on their website:

The Chapter House ruling gave some clear legal precedents as to what is, and isn’t allowed (such as around shoulder pads etc). Though there are still many grey areas as to which is, and isn’t legally allowed. Back in 2016, Vice posted an article stating that with the fidelity of 3D printers being so low, that GW and other firms didn’t have much to worry about, since then, the availability of high quality settings for FDM printers, and sub $500 resin printers has changed that, and major companies will see direct competition from 3rd party accessories, designers and the like, which will sail incredibly close to the wind with regards to their IP policies.

Anecdotal evidence however appears to show IP lawyers reaching out to creators where they see something that is likely in breach and politely asking them to modify the files in some cases (and even providing guidance as to to to make them compliant), while in other cases (as with what happened last week, where a large amount of Warhammer 40,000 related files were removed) we are starting to see more takedown notices under the DMCA when files are hosted on websites like thingiverse. Generally speaking, as required by the law and in order to keep their safehabor protections, the sites will err in favor of the rights holder.

That said, this isn’t always the case, as with earlier in the year when the makers of World of Tanks issued DMCA notices to thingiverse in regards to creators TigerAce1945 and m_bergman. There was once again, lots of rumors and innuendo surrounding this incident, in the end it was nothing more than them defending their trademarks when it came to things that were tagged “World of Tanks” when it came to user generated collections, and how things showed up in search, it also didnt’ help that things that contained the words ‘World” “of” “Tanks” could theoretically show up in searches for said search term, and its highly likely that every single “World” War Two pack “Of” “Tanks” could show up in that type of search! Regardless, they challenged the takedown and the files were reinstated.

When it comes to historical models, most AFVs were designed for national armies for nation states (many of which no longer exist anymore), and are public domain. This makes historical models much, much safer from an IP point of view, there are still potential issues with trademarks from companies that still exist, but this is a hornets nest that still hasn’t been shaken.  As it stands, the historical wargaming wargaming scene is likely to be far more friendly to 3D printed models from an IP point of view.

Last by not least, there is the more generic end fo fantasy wargaming, where forces are based on myths and legend.  Generic orcs, goblins, elves, dwarves, trolls and dragons are safe from any IP, while those that are directly linked to a game system, film or novel are likely to have some from of IP protection. The same goes for light sci fi, where space elves, space orcs, space goblins and space dwarves are IP free, while Orks, Gretchin, Eldar etc, are more likely to be protected as are any particular design elements that are peculiar to a particular gaming system.

What does this mean for miniature wargaming industry?

As with other industries that have had to deal with digitization, such as photography, music, taxis, hotels etc, the miniature wargaming will be disrupted by 3D printing and other emerging technologies.  There will be clear winners and losers in this space.  Some of the old guard may fail to adapt, such as with Kodak during the age of digital cameras (who would have thought 20 years ago, that the most popular form of photography would be on our cell phones for instance), but this doesn’t mean it will kill the industry, only disrupt it.  There is now lower barriers to entry to create new game systems, new scales, rules without miniatures, or digital distribution of miniatures and rules. Larger entrenched firms will lose their monopolies, or they may adapt if they take advantage of possibilities for customization and niches that were not profitable to manufacture when it required 10s of thousands of units to justify the production process, creating a long tail business model of miniature wargaming where innovation is democratized amongst the users.

Eventually major games companies are going to have to adapt, just as they did to the internet and piracy of rulebook PDFs, by making legal, digitally watermarked versions available online. This means selling STLs or similar of designs for products (perhaps  in the Warhammer world we may see this happen via GW offshoot Forge World, for conversion parts where it’s not cost effective to mass manufacture?). Other new technologies such as blockchain and digital ledgers might be used for recording digital rights management for 3D printing.Perhaps we will see companies producing their own 3D printers with some form or rights management, subscription services for files similar to patreon, branded filament or resin etc once 3D printing becomes more user friendly for the average consumer.

In other areas, especially historical miniatures, we are already seeing this with an explosion of grown in the availability of STL packages being available here or on other sites such as thingiverse, myminifactory or CG trader.  3D printing is here, and it’s here to stay. We may see (at least to begin with) restrictions on 3D printed models at tournaments, but this only makes sense at events that are put on, or sponsored by miniatures manufacturers, or stores that are specifically trying to sell their own ranges of miniatures, but this will only be in the short term, as the practice is normalized.

What about the “ethics” of using 3D printed models?

When it comes to proxies for models where it’s clearly someone else’s IP, this is a pretty big grey area, and is really going to depend on where you are playing.  I’d strongly recommend against taking entire armies or whole models to your local GW store for instance, considering their stance on 3rd party conversions, let alone 3D printing.  I’ve got a fair few space dwarves I’ve printed as a squat kill team, and some other parts here and there that I have for home use.

When it comes to your FLGS however, things might be different. I’d always suggest asking first. I play at my local store with quite a few 3D printed models mixed in with ones I’ve purchased at the store, which I use all the time. In fact you’d be hard pressed to find me playing a game without them.  But then honestly what is the difference between me playing Flames of War with some Zvezda or PSC models and some that I’ve printed myself using the m_bergman files, or something I’ve purchased elsewhere – virtually nothing. The same goes with playing Bolt Action with Rubicon tanks, or 1/48 scale models.

That said, when playing at your FLGS abide by the golden rule – DBAD (Don’t be a dick). That means, don’t make big deal about your models being 3D printed unless asked, under no circumstances try anything silly like selling them to customers, ask permission before bringing/using them and above all – support your FLGS by actually buying something when you are there, whether it’s a rulebook, gaming accessory, paint or infantry. Demo games at home and bring new customers to the store. The staff will notice, and have a far more positive opinion on 3D printing if you are a paying customer.  3D printing shouldn’t replace your gaming habits, it should supplement them instead. Offer to supply terrain or other things that might be useful to the store, basically – make sure you represent the 3D printing community in a positive light. Only use high quality prints, and make sure you paint them – you want people to see 3D prints looking good, and not some unpainted, poorly based fluro green proxy of the type that sparks articles on Spikey Bits.

And there you have it.  3D printing isn’t a threat to the industry, but it will change it. Home taping never killed music. MP3s never killed music. Spotify hasn’t killed music. We still have music, and always will. But, just like in the music industry, those who do not adapt will be disrupted, while those who integrate it into part of a wider strategy will prosper.  So go forth, print stuff, paint it, and show 3D printing in a positive light to the wider gaming community.

16 thoughts on “3D Printing is(n’t) killing the miniature wargaming industry

  1. Martin says:

    Very good! Just my toughts on printing. I think we are movining to were one can buy lets say “X” amounts of a print, were you buy the model and its ok for a certain amount of prints. The technology isent quite there yet, but its possible. I also buy more now, that i was before, because i know i can test systems and flawours without paying a starting fee of hundreds of dollars. Now i just buy the rules, print some test models and then test it out.

    • Wargaming3D says:

      This is where I think technology like blockchain will come in in the future. Moog is already working on something similar for 3D printing aircraft parts on carriers where a smart contract will dictate the type of material, how many can be made and the minimum standard, with each having a unique identifier essentially providing a licensed 3D print. The tech isn’t here yet on the consumer level, but it will be soon. (Something I learned at a enterprise blockchain event I ran in San Francisco last year for my old job). Read more here: https://www.moog.com/Innovation/DigitalManufacturing/Veripart.html#

  2. David says:

    I recently bought one of printable scenery’s ships because they look really cool. As I was assembling the printed parts I thought “now I need some crew”. After searching for pirate miniatures I came across the game Blood and Plunder, had never heard of it before.
    I watched a few videos on the game and quickly ordered a 2 player starter set.
    So 3d printing caused me (much to my wife’s dismay) to buy and get into another game.
    If someone can tell me how that hurts the gaming industry I would really like to know.

  3. wargame says:

    Awesome post! I think another point for 3D printing is that some of the larger companies, and GW in particular, just have holes in their ranges or models that haven’t seen an update in years. It gets hard to blame people for printing their own models when bigger companies have weird voids that some of their models fall into. If there’s real worry about 3D printing, I’d like to see wargaming companies step up their game a little in response.

    • David Nye says:

      If they are that worried they should start selling their own 3d files for gamers to print and get ahead of the curve.

  4. sfisher says:

    I came back to wargaming because I can now afford to do it! The costs of international shipping make ordering physical goods prohibitive in many cases. I can buy STL files and print a lot of stuff in comparison. Also, I can get exactly what I want in the numbers I want — this is the way things are now in so many different retail areas. The customer is used to getting what they want instantly. I don’t wait two weeks for a shipment now, I download a file, hit print, and at worst get up in the morning to have my new wargaming content ready to paint.

  5. Steve Philp says:

    This sort of thing has plagued the hobby ever since Games Workshop ‘invented wargaming’.

    I had a similar problem a few years ago when some guys from one of the local clubs had a real go at me for buying stuff off eBay rather than direct from the company and how it was hurting the hobby. That was until I showed them the return address on the box (GW Nottingham) and the name of the person that sent it….. That was my brief intro to GW.

    3rd printing is the latest target for these witless, brainless, socially challenged zealots. I use it to supplement my historical terrain and vehicles. It means I’m constantly buying more infantry to fill out my printed army, not less.

    These idiots that constantly preach brand loyalty are sick beyond redemption and are being fleeced by their god like plastic pushing dealers. They probably flagellate nightly in front of a picture of Gave Thorpe. It should be illegal to sell GW figures to anyone under the age of 25… Anyway If it wasn’t 3d printing it would be something else.

    Adapt or die. After all its much easier to protect digital IP.

    • Wargaming3D says:

      That said, I do have a Shrine to the almighty Rick Priestly in the workshop, as he is a god amongst men. One of the reasons I love him is that he made Warlords of Erehwon agnostic to figure ranges.. which is what I’d love to see more of.

      • Steve Philp says:

        True, nice to see demarcation between mainline rulesets and figures coming back into vogue again. I just wish TFL would do a Fantasy ruleset.

  6. Andrew says:

    If you like a thing and you want it to continue, support it. It is a simple virtue, and one that I feel the world is losing day by day.

    The truth of the matter is that Miniature games live and die based on miniature sales. Support items like Books, tokens, decals and so on are often sold close to the margin, this is to make it easy for players to get into the game.

    Rulebooks are never big profit makers, the amount of work hours and the amount of employees that it takes to create a core rule book is massive and their sales never reflect well, in fact if game companies like GW or Battlefront had to run based solely on support product sales they would close quickly.

    Saying you support games by only buying the support items is like saying, “I am supporting my local game store by buying the candy bars they sell”, while getting all your gaming stuff online for a cheaper price. Luckily players like that are not in the majority or game stores will quickly go out of business, this is true with 3D printers. Lucky for us the gamers there is still enough players who believe in supporting a game by buying models form them, and for now there are enough of these sort of players to keep the doors open for both Gaming companies and gamestores.

  7. Stephen Philp says:

    The horse has already bolted. There are already a growing number of 3D printing shops out there, although prices for a printed model are not all that much cheaper than the cast resin, metal or plastic kits and in some cases much more expensive. It’s here to stay.

    These sort of arguments come out every time technology changes business and have been repeated since beyond living memory. What I see is a shake up in the established order which increases opportunities for new businesses as well as old (if they’re willing to adapt). The fact is that 3D printing technology is already being used by some of the major players (and not just in the gaming industry).

    In next couple of years it will all come down to the quality that can be produced and the ranges available as to who sells what to whom. 3D Printing adds significantly to that formula in the same way that automation impacted the car industry or the way that the Internet affects the high street and our local games stores. All it takes is some forward thinking to take advantage of it.

    Home 3D printing is still relatively slow and complex and not for everyone. It is likely to remain so for some time to come and there will always be those that are willing to buy rather than make. Home 3D printing is usually for one’s own use with a few bits going to your mates, it’s never going to replace the mainline manufacturers. Commercial 3D printing is completely different beast although savings for the individual tend to be limited.

    Personally I tend to print the buildings I need rather than anything else. If I start printing vehicles then it means there’s an order going out for the infantry to accompany them as well as the tools, rules and auxiliaries that I wouldn’t normally touch with a bargepole. Infantry isn’t cheap….

    Ultimately, certain parts of the gaming industry needs to adapt to 3D Printing technology or they could find themselves at risk.

  8. Paul says:

    Rebel Minis is an example of hwo to do things. They sell physical models on their web site but you can also purchase digital versions of many of their vehicles from wargame vault. If someone like GW pulled their finger out and started releasing stl files they could embrace the new tech rather than trying to suppress it. Battletech Facebook page had a long discussion about how 3d printing was a “problem”, but counter argument was that some of the ‘Mech models were 30+ years old and long OOP, if Ironwind Metals weren’t going to update the range hen what option was there? My thought is that if you’re going to argue against 3d printing, you should also argue against buying anything second hand on ebay and you should never build your own scenery, only buy “official” stuff, but that puts a massive hurdle in front of anyone who doesn’t have silly amounts of money to splash around. As with everything, you sould do things in moderation. I intend to print some vehicles which are long out of production (Epic 40K) or which have never been produced, whilst still buying infantry from my regular suppliers. I mainly play 15mm sci fi anyway, and it seems a much friendlier environment that a lot of the “rules lawyer” dominated 40K etc groups.

  9. stephen philp says:

    I’m an old school historical wargamer and I’ve always bought the figures I want to go with the rules and terrain I want. This ‘official’ BS was created by GW so they could brainwash kids into buying their kits and defending their slavery to everyone that questioned it. I’ve always found that side of our hobby disturbing. I can see the point if 3D models were a straight scan and rip off but that’s still rare in this hobby. Personally I’m glad of anything that breaks this ‘official’ nonsense and lets people play their hobby with the stuff they want to play with (rather than being fleeced for ‘official’ gear). Companies will need to adapt or die, especially just now.

  10. HeadHunter says:

    Digital technologies and streaming didn’t kill music… but what it did kill is record stores. Ever been to one? How many are there now as opposed to 20 years ago?
    Yes, the gaming industry overall has to “adapt or die” and companies that produce wargaming rules, models and accessories will be able to find new ways to do business and remain profitable.
    But what *will* suffer are your local brick-and-mortar game stores. The FLGS where you meet new players, play many of your games and get the newest stuff? Ask the proprietors how long they’ll be able to stay afloat selling just paint, hobby tools and the like. And when they go under, the gaming community as a whole becomes more insular. You may be able to get into a variety of new games but I’ll bet you find it harder to get a game in with others.
    I’m not saying 3D printing is bad, it’s a natural use of the technology – but the only stores that won’t suffer for it in the long run are the GW stores. Yes, this will take a bite out of even that 800-pound gorilla – but with little competition left in the retail space, they will grow more powerful, and left unchecked they will not be beneficial to the overall well-being of our hobby.

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