Like many of you, I was dismayed at the cancellation of the D&D minis line. I had been collecting (and playing the miniatures game) since the very beginning. Even before that, I had seen some very early Mage Knight demos at conventions and loved the idea of plastic pre-painted miniatures, having previously burned out on painting Games Workshop minis for many years.
Anyway, I was sad for the D&D minis to go- I thought the last set had been a huge step up from the past few, and was hoping to see more minis to fill in all the new stuff coming from 4e, even if the release schedule had been cut back to something like once a year. Instead, the announcement was made that D&D minis was ended, citing rising costs and other factors.
Understandably, this raised some questions among the community. “Are minis really that expensive to make?” “Why can’t I just buy a box of assorted monsters?” “Isn’t it stupid to reuse sculpts?” I hope to be able to answer some of these questions, with what limited knowledge I have about the situation.
First a fairly strong disclaimer: I am not an expert. My experience comes from working with/for a few board game companies, most notably for Robot Martini who first put out my game Get Bit! which used plastic figures that were produced under similar circumstances to how a miniature would be made. Thus, my experience is slightly tangental, and many of the numbers I can provide for it are based on something different, and are 4-5 years old. And I absolutely have no insider knowledge into WotC’s business numbers whatsoever. Still, I hope that it can at least provide some context for the whole situation, and will help you understand some of the economic realities of miniature production.
Still with me? Let’s start off with one of the most important parts of the plastic figure-making process: the mold.
Molds, and I Don’t Mean the Kind That Cause Disease
The process used to create the Get Bit! plastic “dismembermen” involved a factory in China injecting liquid plastic into the mold to give it its shape, after which it cools off, becomes solid, and you have your hunk of plastic in the shape of a dude ready to have his limbs torn off by a shark.
That mold isn’t a trivial cost, though. Each shape you want your minis to form requires a different one. So that D&D minis set with 80 different minis requires 80 different molds, and possibly even more depending on how fancy/multipart you get with the set. On Get Bit!, I was working with someone who had previous worked for a defunct toy company who already had this mold created for their product line. Thus, we didn’t have to pay to get the mold created, which was a huge savings. At one point, we priced it out (including for a shark figure to include) and some estimates came in the $5,000 to $10,000 range. The pieces aren’t very detailed, though they are articulated. For something more detailed, the cost might even be higher, or for something simple, might be cheaper. (I can’t discuss numbers on the new Get Bit! run with a new company, but I can say the goal was to make it cheaper.)
Another cost that is easy to overlook is that someone has to design that mold. Depending on the process, you might be paying someone to do it all in a 3D design program, or actually starting from a sculpted figure then translating it into whatever form the factory needs to actually make it.
More Filled Than a Gelatinous Cube
Of course, what you hope is that the cost of the mold will get spread out. Since you only have to pay that mold cost once, usually no matter how many figures you make with it. So if you have to make the mold for $5k, and you make 5k of that particular figure, you’re potentially adding $1 to the cost to make each individual mini. However, if you make another run, you already have the mold, and you’ve already paid to have it created. Thus, the more of the same exact mini you make, the more you’re spreading out that cost.
And speaking of spreading out the cost, plastics factories are classic economies of scale, just like printing. The more you make at once, the more of a discount there is. Our original run of Get Bit! was 500 copies- a very small run by the factory’s standards. For just solid colors of plastic, our cost for each piece in dismemberman ran around $0.60 each. We priced out paint jobs for the figures that would have added painted on eyes, clothes, etc. but it would have added further to the cost for each color of paint they would use on each figure. This could easily have added another $1 to the cost of each plastic guy we were making. So mold cost + plastics cost + paint cost, and you have a rough estimate of the minis cost.
Your Owlbear Cares About International Diplomacy
Now, let’s throw some curveballs in here. Remember how I mentioned that the factory we dealt with was in China? That’s because, by far, the world leader in mass manufacturing of cheap plastics like these is China. So taking your business anywhere else is likely to come with a hike in those raw costs I’ve already given you.
But, those low prices come with some setbacks. The factory in China has made them, but how do you get them back to the US in order to sell them in Friendly Local Game Stores? The cheapest way is to put them on, literally, the slow boat from China. Of course, you’re going to have to pay the transportation costs on those too, as well as any import costs once the ship hits shores… and account for the time that all is going to take. Now what if the US and China are having a spat over, say, a human rights violation or any number of other international issues? You might have all those costs and processes changed by foreign policy- something out of the control of a company like Wizards of the Coast (until they hire a LOT more Enchanters on staff.)
That’s one potential problem with keeping the costs manageable and predictable, but there’s one that we all deal with: the cost of oil. As Wikipedia says, “The raw materials needed to make most plastics come from petroleum and natural gas.” That’s right, the next time you’re cringing at how much it costs to fill up at the pump, realize that your plastic orcish hordes were affected by the same thing. That’s why the rising cost of oil was cited at DDXP for a reason to discontinue the minis line. So that $0.60 cents per model I quoted earlier has probably gone up quite a bit since I was involved in 2007- and much higher than the state of things when Harbinger was released in 2003.
That’s not the only things that can go wrong either. Just as an example, the factory with the original Get Bit! mold went out of business and, so I heard, burned down. The original mold is gone, gone, gone. So in order to make a new version of the game, a new mold has to be created. In the case of WotC’s miniatures, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the old molds were long gone, whether it was because they changed factories and couldn’t take the mold with them, the factories changed technologies and couldn’t use the old mold, or like my example, they were just plain lost.
Collectability and Extra Unicorns
So now that you have some idea of the costs involved in producing miniatures, and how much they can quickly go out of control, here’s some closing thoughts about how this relates to WotC’s business model.
Remember just in the past year or two when WotC released miniatures that weren’t blind and collectible, the PC heroes set and the monster sets with one visible? From what I’ve heard, those didn’t go over too well, and it’s where blind packs have the edge: gamers like you and me are more likely to buy multiple packs in the hopes that we get what we need, instead of buying multiple packs of something we don’t need.
Obviously, any unsold packs sit around on game shelves and don’t make money. That has to be factored into the cost too- if something doesn’t sell, you won’t recoup the costs put into making it in the first place, and orders for subsequent products go down, which is likely what happened in the last few sets. Couple that with there just plain being a lot of minis already out there from previous sets, with a strong secondary market, and you have a recipe for likely flagging sales and rising costs.
Now, one question that came up while thinking about their minis cost is why can’t they just use the molds they have, and produce some of the boxed sets filled with minis that many DMs have clamored for since the beginning? They’re doing it, just with a bunch of other stuff included: it’s called Castle Ravenloft (and Wrath of Ashardalon.) Those are all molds they had previously, but with solid color filling, and no extra money being spent on paints. They’re also producing them in enough quantities to manage the costs, and bundling them up with a fun board game and rolling the costs all into one package.
Yes, this isn’t the same as being able to buy a big bag of orcs or whatnot, but is a way around the “sit around unsold” problem, since you can buy it for the minis, or you want the game, or both (thus creating a more varied demand.)
Would I like to see something like the orc bag (that sounds dirty) or even better, more new miniatures? Yes, definitely. Unfortunately, with these economic realities I don’t see it significantly changing until technology changes. That’s one reason I’m following technologies like 3D printing: maybe someday, instead of needing to buy a box of minis, I’ll just be able to download a pattern from the internet, hit print, and wait for the resultant Dwarf with a santa hat wielding a double battleaxe with a fox on his shoulder. There’s some possibilities, I’d say.