Tristan Morris isn't optimistic about how miniatures for tabletop games are produced these days. "Those business models are going to die in the next 2-3 years," he said. But he's counting on that. Morris and his business partners are currently running a Kickstarter for their business: Proxy Army. They want to 3D print custom models on demand. They want to make the old ways of making miniatures obsolete.
At its core, the service works like this: A web interface will allow users to mix and match from a database of parts. Their finished model will then be printed and shipped. The software base for designing models is finished. "It works now, but it looks like you're flying the space shuttle," said Morris. "The Kickstarter money is both to conclude user interface development and expand our database with additional bits." How many bits? "Three to four thousand." So, I asked them, can I put dragon wings on a tank? "You can do that." In fact, you can put anything together you want. Bits in their interface will be interchangeable, meaning that you can resize a drone head for your tank turret, or place robot weapons on your zombies. Though the bits will be spread across genres like fantasy, sci-fi, modern, or steampunk, they'll all be available for any given model.
That's not where they're stopping, though. They have a team of designers ready to make completely original models. "You come to us with ideas, or maybe just some pictures you found on the internet, and we can make that. Our sketch artists and designers will work with you to make it," said Allen Clark, one of Proxy Army's Co-Founders. Those original models get made for you, custom, and then they're broken down into pieces and added to the database for anyone to use. It keeps the database growing and makes sure you can re-order copies of your custom model for cheap. "And the best part about those custom parts," said Clark, "Once those custom parts get pulled apart and shuffled back in you, as the designer that was partnered with us, you get a cut of the profits from every single mini that those parts get used in."
That's not the only way the pool of available bits will grow larger, though. By partnering with miniatures games they'll add parts to the pool. For example, Proxy Army is going to partner with Clockwork Empire and Brass & Steel, both steampunk miniatures games, to produce a database of steampunk parts. "We don't know what steampunk players want," said Morris, "but steampunk players do." Once they get the designs for miniatures from those companies, they break them down into bits for the database. As more games sign on to have their designs producible by Proxy Army, the database grows. Everyone gets their dreams more accessible.
Making people's dreams a reality is what's important to both Morris and Clark. Morris told me that when he was in Undergrad, he designed a tabletop space combat game called Corona. "But models are too expensive. If I had been able to take this to a finished game with models, cards, and rules I would have done that." For Morris, it's about enabling designers and home groups to play the game they want - and that others might want. "There's a million gamers out there, frankly, who are much better at building games than we are. One of them out there is building the next D&D, and we want to be able to make models for them." In fact, having the Proxy Army team help design and print your new game is a Kickstarter backer level. "We set forth not just to be a games company," said Clark, "but a helping you make games company."
It's all about the democratization of making games for Clark and Morris. That's what brought up the demise of traditional miniatures production. Morris laid out how it's going to go: "Right now we buy time on big industrial printers, but there's a prototype of a printer that can print full color models for a few cents each. That will be available at the end of next year... When anybody can print a fully custom army, why would I want to have to sort through stacks of predesigned miniatures?" Clark elaborated for me, saying that "3D printing in the games miniatures industry is going to cause the perfect storm of cheap, easy, and good quality. The customizability is what's going to provide that quality, cheap is going to come around as a number of key patents go up, and easy will come from doing it in a single in-browser interface."
I asked them what would happen to their business model once everyone owned a 3D printer, five or six years down the line. "Realistically the cost of a model with us is mostly boxing it up and shipping it," said Morris, "so our long term plan is not to have a warehouse full of 3D printers."
"That'd be sunk capital," Clark chimes in.
"Our long term plan is to stream model designs right to your home 3D printer and charge you a small fee," said Morris. "Maybe even a dollar or less." That's on top of the few cents it would cost you to print the model yourself, of course.
"One of my biggest grievances with the industry is that your manufacturer has a game, and the only way to get models for it is for them to rip you off. We don't want to shackle players to a given manufacturer."
In the end, the means of production are going to change. According to Clark, "There's going to be a major revolution in miniatures gaming, and we're firing the first shot."
Proxy Army is currently on Kickstarter with a delivery time in March 2014.