Wednesday, March 2, 2016

On Quality, Value and insulting Artisans.

I did a little thinking about "items" and value.  As I've said previously, I have a "maker" streak, in that I make stuff.   To anyone following this blog, that's clearly obvious.   Usually, I make stuff for me.  When I was 8, I wanted a Space 1999 stungun.  They didn't have one in Ames, so I built one out of Lego and I was happy.  Later, as I grew, I started making models and I found that my preferences ran toward those subjects that are somewhat more rare.  Space 1999 Eagles, Star trek Romulans, etc.

While this particular post is focused on models, it applies to just about any "garage industry manufacture."  When I say that, I mean one-man operations or collaborations of small groups of people who turn out subjects that they're passionate about.  I will preface this with the statement that I do NOT produce models.  I buy kits, and I build them, either from the kit or from scratch.  Typically I build for me but on the rare occasion, like with the Hatchetman, I build for a friend.  I DO have a side-business in leather work, and I see similar things that "community."

When it comes to computing the "Value" of a subject (I'll use the words subject and kit interchangeably), I figure there are three main factors:  1)  Actual manufacturing cost  2) Quality of the product relative to similar subjects and 3) the ratio of supply to demand.

The first factor is also the one that I see so many folks argue about when they complain about kits.  "But it's only XX euro worth of Resin" or some such.  Cost of manufacture isn't just the cost of the resin that gets poured into molds and a fraction of the cost of the molds themselves and the casting equipment.  It's the time involved in making masters, the time involved in making quality molds and the time involved in making quality casts.  Time.  Professional time.  That's not cheap.   Take a look on evilBay for 40k painted models.  Let's say we look at a Knight Titan model;  you'll find KT kits for about $120, and painted/finished KT's for about $350.  Why?  I mean, there's only about $10 worth of painting on those models?  Because it's the professional application of those  paints to make the end result. Making a model kit involves not only the professional application of making skills to build up a model, but also engineering the thing so it can be cast in parts and duplicated.  Whether this is 3-d rendering on the computer for automated creation process or the manual process I use to work clay, plastic, and resin, there are very specific skills involved in this and the final kit is the end result of that effort, just as the painted 40K knight Titan is the end result of the effort of the painter.

In a large manufacturing environment, that skill is compensated by a wage, either hourly or per-project base.  That cost is then factored in to the rest of the costs of manufacture, etc. when it comes to the final kit price.  Again using Knight Titans as an example, those kits run, on average $120 up to $170.  The Warhound Titan, which is a comparable kit to say, the FCY Atlas Battlemech, runs an average of $500 for body and legs, with another $150 for the specific arm weapons.  And these are costs coming out of a major manufacturing corporation.  On the garage industry scale, manufacturing costs are much higher per unit.  Typically, where the garage manufacturer takes a hit, it's on the compensation for the artistic process part.

The second factor is quality.  I will have a video of quality comparisons of similar kit subjects at some point soon.  Again using evilBay as an example, you can find Knight Titan model kits that run about 40% cheaper than the going rate coming out of china.  Those kits are clearly re-casts of original models and as such they suffer from the typical issues for second-generation products.  The details tend to be softer, the parts tend to be sized a bit smaller (suffering from shrink from poor plastic) and so on.  For some people, those recast parts are close enough that the cost savings is worth that slight suffer of detail.  For others, it's not.  As another example, I have some moderate skill as a modeler, and while I'm improving, my skill is not yet comparable to some of the masters of the industry.  If I put my Hatchetman next to Tim F's Victor or the Tim/Scott collaboration for the Atlas, my work clearly is inferior.  So if I were to put out a kit and Tim were to release a kit from the same subject, I would reasonably expect that the public would be unwilling to pay as much for mine as they would for Tim's.   Speaking of Tim's work, I have done unboxings of his work and the product he releases ranks right up there with the best I've ever seen.  For comparisons, I have a Company B Gaz Jeep, a Hunk-o-Junk Serenity kit from several years ago, a BadAzz BSG 1/32 scale Raptor, the ArmorCast Timberwolf(MadCat) and some 3-d printed Battlemechs.  Of all these kits, Tim's work is comparable with the best of them.  The 3-d stuff is ok, but to make them good-display quality requires a very great deal of effort and work.  As a modeler, I don't mind, but it is a definite quality difference.   The Company B stuff is arguably the worst of the lot.

The Company B Gaz Jeep is a good representative of the quality of Company B products.  They're "ok" but not "awesome."  This particular one is about $30 for a 1.5" long mixed media kit of a Soviet jeep for the game "Bolt Action."The model itself is "meh."  The detail is ok, but the execution is poor.  The example I got has mediocre detail on the metal parts and the body of the jeep was warped, had bubbles and casting anomalies.  Even the overall master was "meh" in that the design of the model was only ok.  The detail for the side or front was mediocre at best.  So how is it that they can charge $30 for this?   That segues into the third factor.

Which is a segue into the third factor: the ratio of Supply to Demand.   BA is a growing interest and has a fairly high volume of sales and players among the historical gaming community.  The Gamer demand is much different than say the Historical model-builder community.  That community demands absolute accuracy wherever possible and they pay a premium for it.  They think nothing of paying $20 for a plate of Photo Etch parts to hyperdetail a gun breech that may or may not even be seen.  The gamer community is a bit more frugal as the intent is more "hands on play" than "gorgeous display model," but even so, $30 for this particular kit is.. high.  So.  How do they get away with it?  Simple: it's the only one out there.  If you play Bolt Action and you want to include the Jeep in your army, there is only one option for the army list, the Gaz, and only one source for that kit: company B.  So, it's either spend $30 and get a "meh" kit, don't take the Jeep, Proxy a willie from the American/british, or build one yourself.  Most people don't have the skills to do it themselves, don't want to Proxy (or are forbidden by their gamer group) and are happy enough with the representation Company B puts out, so they're willing to drop $30 on it.

The demand is high enough for specific pieces that Company B can turn out mediocre quality subjects and charge a decent pricepoint for them.   Now, let's look at something like the Warhound Titan from Forgeworld.  Now we're talking about a fairly high price point, in the realm of $500 - $800 for a full, unfinished kit that stands about 14" tall.  It's a big kit, it's pretty well detailed and is a nice looking model.  Will I pay $600 for one?  No.  While I like the 40k game, and I like the Titans, my group of friends do not play games where we'd use them and it is a very large price tag for somethat would, in my world, amount to a katchkie.  To other people, they are worth it.

This is where value becomes subjective.  Many years ago, I had an opportunity to get my hands on an ArmorCast version of the BattleTech Atlas.  At the time, I didn't have the available funds, or rather, I had other priorities for them, and didn't acquire one.  Now, those kits do still exist, but finding one that is available is extremely rare and when you do, it's not going to be for the same cost as ArmorCast was selling them for.  I have always regretting missing out on that offering.  I was fortunate enough a few years ago to get my hands on one of ArmorCast's Timberwolf(MadCat) and counted myself lucky.  When MWO came along, I started actually scratch building an Atlas in that style, as I found that to be an even more attractive aesthetic.  Along comes Scott over at Messydesk.  I was watching his build and duplicating much of the techniques he seemed to be using.  Then came his announcement that FCY was going to kit that out and release it.  I stopped  working on my own and decided to get in on the pre-order of that kit.  There was a run of about 20, and I got my kit.  I've done an unboxing of it and I was not disappointed in the least.  The cost Tim F is asking is the same that ArmorCast was asking for theirs, and this Kit has, in my opinion, a higher degree of quality and detail.  

Granted, I am a big fan of Battletech.  The Atlas, the Timberwolf, the Warhammer, the Archer.. all these things have a high-value to me.  These are niche subjects that some people simply do not value at all, and the model kit becomes less about the subject and more about "how can you charge that?"   With that said, I could put my Hunk-o-Junk Serenity kit up on evilBay, or out on the Forums, and ask $500 or more for this and there would be a long list of "Take my money" messages.  Why?  The kit is very rare, of extremely high quality and is of a high-demand subject.

So why the difference between FCy's Mech and the Serenity?  Simple: perceived value.  The Serenity is a high-demand subject.  There are no model kits available to be purchased.  It's as close to a one-of-a-kind that you can get.  FCY's kit is being thought of as "hey, all you have to do is pour resin, so it should be cheap."  That's the perception.  Sadly, that perception, and the arrogance of the people who think that way is why these things *are* so very rare.  People like Tim see his work criticized and de-valued, and are not motivated in the least to continue to produce these high-quality, very rare kits.  I'm very much of a mind to pre-order 3 or 4 for his next run, which is also likely to be the last. The molds last usually only 2 or 3 runs and then they'd need to be re-done, which is cost prohibitive, especially in light of the other factors.  And then, 3-5 years from now, sell them at either a Con or on evilBay for over $500 a piece.  There will be a lot of people that will have a "wow that's too expensive" reaction.  However, I suspect I will find 3 people who value these the same way I do.  The only thing that holds me back from that is the fact that I remember what it was like when I missed out on the ArmorCast Atlas, and don't want to take one of these things away from someone who DOES value them the same as I do.

So, there are a lot of words up there, and even with all that, I still only scratched the surface of the subject.  The one thing I really do want to express, is just how insulting it is to an artisan when a person devalues their work and says "but it's only paint on a canvas," or "It's just a picture"  or "It's only $50 of resin" or "I could make that..".    Folks, please think.  Before you open your mouth and insult the guy who is making something, understand that value is subjective.   In the case of FCY's Atlas kit, there are according to my estimation, only 22 of those Kits in the world including the master and the prototype.  There may, emphasis on "may," be another run leaving a total of only 30-40 of them.  If you think you can make one, rock right on and please share.  I'll happily oooh and ahhh over the work.  So will Tim.  He was a great source of encouragement as I made my Hatchetman.  If you just aren't willing to pay the asking price? Please don't insult the artist.  Just move on.  I can guarantee you that the portrait is more than "just a picture" that the photographer took, or that live performance is much more than just music by the musician, and that model kit is way more than "just $50 of resin."  It may not be *worth* the asking price to you, but that doesn't mean it's not worth it at all.  

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