Over at the recently reconstituted The Warp, there's a discussion going on regarding competing with the larger entities in the wargaming market, specifically Games Workshop. One of the posters made a good point, and I gave them a nice, lengthy response illustrating that post in action. Since it's rather interesting (at least in my own deluded mind) I figured it would be useful to share it and get some feedback from the larger public.
The original comment, from Warp.net user "Americanbear":
Maybe if you tried somewhere GW hasn't got a stranglehold on you would have a bit more success...
And my rather long-winded reply...
Yep, this is how you "compete" with GW. As has been said, NOBODY can compete with the "giant" in terms of marketing. What has to be done to be "successful" is two things: define your intended level of success, and do something other than what GW already does. Trying to compete directly against 40k just isn't going to work (see, also: Void, VOR, Starship Troopers, Warzone). The best way to go is to offer a different enough product that stands out on its own merits (like Warmachine) or to find a different niche within the hobby and build from there (like Ætherverse).
What we did with Ætherverse is sort of two-fold. First, accepting the reality that GW isn't going to be going anywhere. Wishing that they'd stop doing what they're doing is totally unrealistic, because it works... for *them*. Privateer has had some success acting like GW in many ways, but they have the budget to do that. GW being omnipresent is partially a disadvantage... but it's also a HUGE advantage that can be capitalized on in many ways.
For one, having GW around means that I don't have to do anything to get people into miniature wargaming. GW handles that by recruiting kids and borderline-interested adults. The flash, the "waagh"s, the crowds, the giant Space Marine models... these all help to draw people in. While many of them spend 6 months playing and then quit when they move on to the next big thing, you also get plenty of "lifers" who become gamers. These new gamers will very frequently move on to other games. Thus, one can easily take advantage of that by not having to budget in anything to draw new people into the hobby.
Second, and this one is fairly obvious... GW turns off a LOT of customers every couple months. Price increases, rules problems, apparent army escalation, model obscelescence, general attitude problems, poor communication, and general "behemothism". This means that there are always lots of people looking for an alternative, especially a low-cost alternative that doesn't require a huge expenditure. Producing a full game line, including models, isn't going to bring over too many people from other games because they already spent a thousand bucks on their first game... and now they have to spend $500 just to get into the new one? Generally doesn't work that well (again, though, Warmachine did well with their $40 army boxes).
So, what did we do?
First, accept that we're not going to compete with GW. No 12 year old non-gamer is going to pick us over them. We can't be loud enough, and we just don't have enough of a presence. Triskele is also largely net-based for now, which means we don't take up half of any game store's stock.
Second, design a game that's good and fun to play... and expand those rules to make them more flexible and fun, NOT to help sell new models. Because we don't SELL models, we don't have to worry about pushing the new ones every month by including some über boost for them.
Third... determine the biggest complaints that people have with miniature gaming and work to ameliorate those. What are the general complaints? What I found was (and these aren't just limited to GW): Cost, extreme lack of flexibility and freedom, a huge emphasis on "must use Official Models® or you DIE", and fear of a game "dying off".
How did we solve those? Well, the first three were all solved by what Akhrin mentioned: directly supporting practically any models through the use of the Army Design System. We created a system that lets you bring your models from whatever game you used to play, make quality rules for them, and get down to playing. This means that Aetherverse has a flat $30 start-up cost if you already own models, and if you don't, you can shop through your store's budget bin instead of having to pay $9 for two figs.
The cries of "it's already been tried and it died!" are of course ringing out. We're different, though, for a couple reasons. The first is that the army design system is designed to actually have character. In pretty much every other incarnation of the "Universal Rules" phenomenon, the design systems were plain, uninteresting... and *boring*. You just made up a few statlines, and it sucked. With Aetherverse, we added in a really cool system of Army Characteristics which help to customize the character of your army. You're not just "high strength, low tech", you're "Barbaric". This also carries over into individual units, where we've got pages of unit abilities that you can give to your troops, fully customizing them within the baseline established by your main army.
The second reason the army design system works is... we don't have official models. This may sound weird, but the most prominent "universal" system to date was VOR. The default design system in the rulebook was boring... AND the armies you created with the design system sucked in comparison to the Official armies that were in the rulebook. In pretty much every other system like that, the armies that are designed to *sell models* are almost always more powerful than anything you can put together with the design system. With Aetherverse, the "stock" armies we put in the rulebook were created with the Army Design System... and so they're just as balanced as anything you can make on your own.
Finally, the "they're going to die!" problem. Luckily, we don't have thousands of dollars tied up in making miniatures. We don't have thousands of dollars tied up in books, because the game is published Print-on-Demand. We've done very little advertising for the game, instead building up through a steady word of mouth. Aetherverse isnt' going anywhere, and because we're realistic about our sales (we're not going to beat ANY of the "big boys") we're not going out of business. Because we don't have to release new miniatures every month, we can concentrate on simply making the game better. How? Every month (or two depending on "life" things) we put out a *free* download, the Aethergate Newsletter. The newsletter expands the game with new abilities, new scenarios, and interesting background "stuff". The newsletter requires NO monetary output for Triskele to put out, which means that the game will continue to expand and get better even if we never sell another copy of the game. The game isn't going to die from lack of support.
So, that's how you "compete"... you just don't compete directly with the big dogs. You find your niche, decide what your goals are, and go for them. For Privateer, their niche is the middle ground between sci-fi and fantasy. For the Flames of War guys, it's bringing historicals into the mainstream. For us, it's quality rules that do what nobody else can do: give you, the player, total creative freedom, and provide frequent and free updates to keep the game fresh and always evolving. It's a small niche, but it's growing every month, and we're really happy with where it's going.