For the last couple of weeks our newest favourite gadget has dominated the ITB offices. Almost 50 prints in and we are still fascinated by our 3D printer’s power to transform cheap filaments into a range of shapes and objects. The potential of printers like these is magical, and for tabletop nerds like us inspires all kinds of wild ideas and thoughts.
Today 3D printing is more accessible than ever, with no signs of becoming less so any time soon. Budget printers that compete with some of the highest quality machines are readily available at increasingly affordable prices. The tech is now streamlined, easy to build and sometimes very compact too. On top of all of this, a growing community of 3D printers have created countless tutorials and resources making it even easier for DIY-enthusiasts to realise their ideas through this tech.
3D printing is on the verge of being a readily-available consumer product, one that has the potential to be as widespread as ink jet printers or dishwashers. The potential for this new technology spreading across the world is huge, as reading up on the subject reveals. With experts lauding applications in science, medicine, space travel and even food – it seems that countless industries are set to undergo massive change through a whole new approach to manufacturing and distribution.
For tabletop the potential of 3D printing is revolutionary. Not just on a hobbyist level, but within the industry itself too. The most obvious change for most is the potential for print-and-play games expanding beyond their current remit, into something significantly more appealing for the average player.
Many games, particularly war games, rely on miniatures and figurines to make their game come alive. Up to now there haven’t really been any alternatives to buying these sometimes expensive miniatures directly from producers (besides second-hand and a small number of pretty naff cardboard homebrew versions). With 3D printing the possibility to produce models at home means a greater ease of access, and lower costs, for many players.
Of course the DIY nature of 3D might motivate some to create pirated versions of popular models – but many companies are likely to look at online licensing; selling the files needed to print your own models at home. This kind of technology could mean huge change for popular franchises like Warhammer (or really any game with miniatures) that will force game makers into adapting their business model. As with films and TV shifting towards streaming models, at-home distribution is easier, profitable and hugely appealing for consumers.
Another change that this revolution could bring is a more decentralised hobby. With fewer people relying on game stores to provide their products, many businesses will pivot away from brick-and-mortar sites to online retail. This shift is already being seen in many businesses, ourselves included, who rely almost entirely on online sales. But for the traditional game store, access to at-home printing could be a real problem. However, these changes aren’t entirely bad, and a shift from traditional distribution is far from a disaster. With models, miniatures and entire games being available as high quality productions from your own home, 3D printing has the potential to spread games beyond borders, making the hobby truly international.
For those of us in Western Europe or North America relying on a games store or online retailer is barely a consideration. But imagine the rest of the world, and particularly the developing world, where stores such as these or reliable international delivery services may be sparse or completely non-existent. Dozens of problems, from import taxes to delivery costs, make it difficult and sometimes impossible, for people in countries across the world to access popular tabletop games. In the state things are, it’s no surprise that some markets seem impossible for tabletop companies to break into. 3D printing offers a solution to these problems in allowing customers to produce their own fun, without relying on the infrastructure that most of us take for granted.
One final disruption from this decentralisation is the freedom (or perhaps challenge) that it presents to game makers themselves. Without having to rely on traditional manufacturers to bring their games into reality, designers can take an even more DIY, independent approach than we have seen in recent years. The power of Kickstarter and other crowd-funding sites, combined with the ability to remotely distribute to millions of people without shipping and manufacturing costs is huge.
Within a few years we could be seeing an industry where anyone of any background, nationality or language could create the next big thing in tabletop gaming. Opening up game design to billions of people in this way is a hugely exciting idea when we begin to image the incredible innovations that might appear.
Games that span borders and cultures are something to look forward to, but games that literally exist outside of the box are perhaps just as exciting. Without relying on shipping and production in the way we do today, designers are free to create games with components that are interchangeable, or that can be released in a serial manner. Games that don’t have traditional expansions, but in which you can simply swap out components and mechanics could mean a move away from the singular final-product business model we’re used to, and towards a sort of game design that evolves and changes much like videogames and other technologies do with patches, updates and regular tweaks.
3D printing is arguably the most exciting technology tabletop has seen since the internet. Having already adapted and grown so much from the revolution that crowdfunding tech brought, designers and producers are likely going to have to adapt to this new tech in order to thrive. Although many may condemn the change that it could bring as a destructive force, the potential for innovation and fresh approaches is bound to be an amazing journey for the hobby and the industry.