The Plastic Is Too Damn High: Miniatures Pricing Primer

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

Meet the Dismembermen

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.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.

Comments

  1. Really interesting Dave! Having access such fonts of knowledge is part of what makes this site so awesome. Thanks!

  2. Chris Hanrahan says:

    Good article. I am very interested to see how far Asylum Miniatures can get (http://www.asylummini.com/)

    Considering the cost of raw materials for producing metal minis, everyone is looking for alternatives. It’s a pretty interesting time in hobby minis.

  3. Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon are worth the price of admission for the minis alone! The games themselves are just icing on the cake. I hope WotC is making a killing with those games and that there are more in the pipeline (aside from the October release of Legend of Drizzt).

  4. Andrew says:

    Interesting article.
    I am also very disappointed at the end of miniatures. It seems odd that games workshop can make a go of minis but WoTC can’t.

    the problem with the boardgames is that you don’t want multiple copies. I have both and will most likely get the drizzt one, they’re fun to play and I want the minis and tiles, but I don’t want multiple copies of both.

    Surely a huge difference between your experience and now is the dominance of the internet. I would think there would be some way they could use the net to communicate with their customers to find out what could work.

    Maybe voting on the next bag of minis. how many want a bag of orcs (2 controllers, 5 artillary, 10 minions, 3 brutes etc), how many a bag of knolls etc

    all using combinations of existing moulds

    all speculation of course but I just find it hard to believe that as so many of us seem willing to support such a system that with a little more collaboration between producer and consumer some workable, profitable solution can’t be found.

    Maybe we’re just a very vocal minority. I certainly know people who love minis but won’t pay more than $2 a mini and want them pre-painted, somewhat unrealistic.

    Dunno, just disappointed

  5. Gerald says:

    Great article, as it provides a new insight into one of the biggest heartaches I’ve experienced with WotC lately. I understand it’s economics at play, but I have money to burn on minis, dammit, and I need someone to fill my need.

    If someone out there finds a way to sell minis-on-demand, I will pay a premium for them. I can’t be the only GM that doesn’t have the time to spend painting, but is more than happy to pay for convenient, prepainted plastics for the role-playing game.

    I’m not a fan of the collectible distribution model, but I suffered through it because I understood the inherent limitations of the product. Shelf space are limited, so it’s nearly impossible to sell individual miniatures (or boxes of orcs, goblins, etc.) without being able to secure a huge amount of store real estate.

    I desperately hope that someone comes up with a solution, as I’m spoiled by minis and don’t want to play with tokens.

  6. I think something else you have to consider is WotC also changed their pricing with the latest minis that was a little dirty. Yes they changed from the fully blind boxes to the ones where you can see at least one figure but they took the number of figures in the box from 8 to 5 and increased the price a little.

    (Please excuse the pounds)

    Example:
    Dungeon delves booster pack – 5 minis @ £9.99 = £2 per mini
    Older: Against the giants pack 8 minis (one huge) @ £14.99 = £1.87 per mini

    Older sets were better value still.

    So if you imagine it costs them £1 per mini to make, that includes the molds, painting, packaging, shipping. Is the real problem the cost or just the fact for the effort they are not making as much profit as they want? Because they are making profit especially at the scale WotC work at. It must be especially hard to justify a mini line when something like Magic cards are almost pure profit.

  7. Thanks for sharing – this is an informative look at a part of the business that most players just have to speculate wildly about. I’m not even a minis guy, but I still found this to be a really interesting post.

  8. Binny,
    at your numbers you forget that out of the 2 pounds. roughly 1 pound goes to the retail/distribution … and wotc gets half or less from retail price.

  9. I’ll be honest, being a lifelong wargamer, I’ve always disliked prepainted miniatures. But I’m also aware not everyone gets a kick out of painting toy soldiers. Or assembling them. Or playing silly buggers with drills and pins and green stuff trying to assemble the larger metal monster kits.

    The times I have roleplayed, either as a DM or as a player, have generally been digital. But the best suggestion, by far, I’ve ever seen in regards to markers when you’re playing at a physical table with the rest of the party in the same room, is Lego men. Hit up BrickLink, and you’ll find a huge selection of bits and pieces that can knock up a decent party and a vertiable horde of monsters. Sure, it’s not perfect by any means, and if anything is probably better for Gamma World or any game that isn’t pure fantasy, but you can get a horde of Orcs (Or Trolls, as Lego refer to them) with a selection of weapons and armour for a very reasonable price. Unless you want Star Wars minifigures. Then you’re going to get gouged like you wouldn’t believe.

    Truly, Lego is the saviour of the roleplayer on a moderate budget, if you buy second-hand.

  10. Very informative article, thank you!

    A big problem I see with selling minis is a small percentage of the gaming group needs to have some in order to play. In a group of six with five players and a DM, only one of those individuals needs to buy minis to play the game. I’ve been playing 4th Edition for a couple of years now and the only minis I have bought are those from Reaper that I have painted as gifts for my friends. The first group I played with – the host had three bins of minis to choose from. The second group I currently play with – the host has shelves of minis to choose from. The host of our games and one of the players buys minis here and there, but I have no reason to buy them since I don’t game anywhere else.

    This is an issue that comes up with selling adventure modules; only the DM needs to buy it. The players don’t require the module to play. So out of six people playing the game, your “market” is only the one DM.

    It’s my very limited experience that one person has all the minis that everyone can use. And once you get enough minis to run your game, it’s easier to hold off on buying more.

    I’m not sure of how WotC would navigate that problem, but I enjoy using the minis in my game. I’d probably buy some if I lost access to our host who has a TON of them.

  11. NoxInfernus says:

    It’s been just over a year since I tarted collecting mini’s for my 4th edition game. Prior to last year, I had taken a decade break from gaming. When I came back I went full out. In the last year I’ve purchased several hundred D&D mini’s from various series. The ones I purchased are (for the most part) the staples of the D&D game (goblinoids, orcs, dragons, giants, elementals, undead, and various fiends).
    When WotC discontinued I noticed that my suppliers jumped their prices (supply and demand), so I started to look for alternative sources for the more off-beat monsters in the D&D stable.
    I found games like Mage Knight, Dreamblade, some World of Warcraft, some Star Wars, and a few Horror Clix mini’s to have some passing alternatives (so long as you don’t mind the scaling issue and you have the time to re-base them.
    The nice thing is that with the DDi (classic) Monster builder you can spend time making up unique adversaries if these non-D&D mini’s inspire you.
    The best part is that for many of these other mini’s, the prices are dirt cheap, as many of these games fell by the wayside and vendors are trying to get rid of them to re-coup their costs.
    My collection continues to grow, all-be-it as a motley crew of characters, but i don’t mind and neither do the rest of the players at my table.

  12. I’ve started making my own minis out of sculpy, then resin casting them. Why buy 10 packs to get your skeletons when you can spend hours and hours making one, then slowly reproduce it 5 times over the coarse of a week.
    I will miss the wizards minis though, and they just started using 3d printing on them too.

  13. I’m guessing it’s a lot easier to do minis if you happen to own your own factory. That’s how Games Workshop do them, and they NEVER have a problem with their minis…

  14. Starvosk says:

    Miniatures are great, and I have used them for a lot of games.

    But honestly, I see them being used less and less. People are getting more big screen televisions and home theater setups are getting more complex. It’s easier to put a virtual tabletop like Maptool on the big screen rather than spend a whole bunch of cash on minis.

    Once cheaper Surface-based computers come along in 10-15 years, I see use of miniatures in RPG communities becoming smaller and smaller. Even now, I find a virtual table top neater, more organized and more flexible than miniatures use.

  15. Maybe it’s time I finally take up wood carving… 😀

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  1. […] yesterday, Dave the Game posted a discussion of the economics of pricing plastic miniatures over at Critical Hits.  If you’re interested in why WotC discontinued their minis line, this […]

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