How 3D Printing is Upending the Miniature Industry

The commercial release of the Micro 3D printer was squarely targeted at gamers with ads of 3D-printed miniatures on Facebook. Other enterprising artists have recreated Dungeons & Dragons-style monsters. But when established game companies begin issuing cease-and-desist letters against hobbyists, it raises the question...when do we reach the tipping point where gamers print their own miniatures?
[h=3]Miniature Makers Go Big[/h]
The advent of an affordable 3D printer has been heralded for some time now. In 2014, Home Depot got in on the action with the Dremel Idea Builder ($999) and a distribution deal with Makerbot ($1,299). Staples also sells a $800 Makerbot. But why buy a 3D printer when Staples can print it for you?

Customers just upload electronic files to the Staples Office Centre (http://staples.myeasy3d.com/) and pick up the models in their nearby Staples stores, or have them shipped to their address. Staples produces the models with the Mcor IRIS, a 3D printer with the highest color capability in the industry and lowest operating cost of any commercial-class 3D printer.


$800 is still more expensive than most home appliances, but that changed quickly in 2015. Two Kickstarters were launched to meet the demand of a smaller, more affordable 3D printer: The Buccaneer and the Micro.

Over 3,000 backers raised $1.4 million to bring the Buccaneer to life. With a projected retail price of $347. If it sounds too good to be true, it was; the manufacturer only shipped 200 of the 3500 units promised to its backers and has been slow to issue refunds. That's not the only problem:

Initially, Pirate3D explained that if it received $1 million in funding on KS, they would include a heated bed, automatic bed calibration, a filament feeder, and an air filtration system on their machines, but, even as the first few units shipped, the Pirate3D crew failed to deliver on its promises, instead deciding not to add any of those upgrades to their machines. Their backers took to the KS comments, filling pages and pages of the thread with litigious threats, name calling, and elegies of despair. Pirate3D explained that the decision not to include a heated bed stemmed from the desire not to support ABS, for which heating is required, as it produces potentially toxic fumes.


At nearly the same price and more successful is The Micro ($349). The Micro aggressively went after miniature gamers with its Facebook advertising, which makes sense -- the small size makes it ideal for hobby gamers who only want to print small sculpts. It's capable of printing approximately a four-inch square cube worth of material, large enough to produce 28 millimeter medium-sized, large, and huge creatures for most Dungeons & Dragons-compatible systems. Unlike the Buccaneer, it actually made it to production.

Finally, there's the Mini Fabrikator by Tiny Boy for $179.77. With a printing space of just over three inches, the Mini Fabrikator is the cheapest on the market with the least written about it. The downside is that there seems to be virtually no support for it -- it's a bare bones printer -- but it's certainly the opening salvo in bringing 3D printing down to the price of a typical printer. We likely haven't seen the bottom of the 3D price wars.

[h=3]Lawyers Kill the Unstoppable Tarrasque[/h]
It was only a matter of time before miniature publishers noticed. The first salvo was lobbed against Thomas Valenty in 2012. Clive Thompson reported on Wired.com that Games Workshop issued a cease-and-desist letter to Thingiverse for publishing 3D plans of Warhammer-style figurines (a two-legged war mecha and a tank), citing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

In 2015, Miguel Zavala did something similar, creating 3D monster files for the D&D Fifth Edition Monster Manual. He unleashed dozens of monsters on the Internet, including driders, Tiamat, flumphs, owlbears, even The Dread Gazebo...until he also got a DMCA from Wizards of the Coast.

The argument behind the DMCA letters seems to stem around the appearance of an object. This happened with an ill-fated Kickstarter by Chandler Walpole to launch a tarrasque sculpt. He received a cease-and-desist letter shortly thereafter from WOTC's IP Enforcement Specialist:

Were you aware that the tarrasque is a monster unique to Dungeons & Dragons© (more especially the Forgotten Realms©), and that your miniature is based on artwork that is protected by copyrights held by Wizards of the Coast? An important part of copyrights is the concept of derivative works -- the right to create copyrightable works derived from and (sic) underlying piece. Unfortunately, your tarrasque miniature is a derivative work and we would appreciate it if you would stop your Kickstarter project.


The letter set an interesting precedent because the monster the tarrasque was inspired by, the tarasque (one "r"), is a mythical beast from Provence, France, memorialized in the tale of St. Martha. It has since become an iconic representation of one of the most dangerous challenges adventurers have ever faced in D&D. Despite the fact that the tarasque (one "r") is in the public domain, WOTC claimed ownership of its. Years later, Reaper made Khanjira the World Breaker, clearly inspired by the tarrasque but with a slightly different appearance, and nobody (including WOTC) batted an eye.

The rising popularity of 3D sculpts has made these sorts of projects impossible to ignore, and Wizards of the Coast amended their response by asking Zavala to move the sculpts to an approved site:

They stated that they in fact want me to continue modeling and printing their monsters. They would just prefer it if it were on a site they approved of. http://Shapeways.com it turns out, does have an agreement with Hasbro to print all their fan art. So, all of my stuff is now there. My new page is: https://www.shapeways.com/designer/mz4250 The one stipulation they requested is I don't sell my stuff. This is fine on my end, because I was never intending on competing with them or making a buck. I just wanted to share my models with players so they can add some customization to their games.


Of particular interest is the creatures Wizards of the Coast claims unique ownership of a specific list of monsters: beholder, gauth, carrion crawler, displacer beast, githyanki, githzerai, kuo-toa, mind flayer, slaad, umber hulk, and yuan-ti. The tarrasque isn't listed there, but it's clear WOTC considers the appearance of the monster to be their intellectual property as well.

So why do WOTC and Games Workshop care so much?

[h=3]Throwing Out the Rulebook[/h]
Games Workshop, which prides itself on highly detailed miniatures, has struggled with the transition to the prepainted plastic miniatures market:

In 1993, concerns over the health and environmental effects of lead sparked a wave of legislation that caused US-based miniature manufacturers to switch to a lead-free pewter alloy that’s still used today. Since 2011, Games Workshop (the company behind Warhammer, the most visible face of miniature gaming today) has begun switching all of its pewter production to “Finecast” a urethane-based resin that’s cheaper to produce and can capture a higher level of detail than plastic or white metal. Simultaneously, the astronomical success of the Reaper Bones Kickstarter shows that high-quality plastic miniatures have become an appealing alternative to metal.


In December 2013 Games Workshop reported that revenue was down by 10.4 percent. Investors reacted poorly, punishing the stock by 24 percent. Thorne put it best:

That's a lot of shareholder value gone bye-bye very quickly. Imagine going to bed with a nice crisp $100 bill tucked away in your wallet and waking the next morning to find the fairies had replaced it with three twenties, a ten, a five and a one. That's how those stockholders feel.


Since then, Games Workshop has been clawing its way back. Last year, the company's earnings per share increased over 50 percent, but sales were down 5 percent globally (2 percent down in North America, 15 percent down in continental Europe), chiefly due to its restructuring efforts -- including closing larger locations and replacing them with one employee-run stores.

Games Workshop recently announced plans to rename itself Warhammer as part of its aggressive plans to reclaim its title as the number one fantasy miniature company:

Games Workshop's ambitions remain clear: to make the best fantasy miniatures in the world and sell them globally at a profit, and it intends doing so forever. All of our decision making is focused on the long term success of Games Workshop, not short term gains.


"Forever" is a long time and Games Workshop's stock is a long way from its 2013 high. If you take a look at the stock chart, you can see the market for Games Workshop's miniatures bottomed out around 2010. Wizards of the Coast stopped publishing miniatures soon after in 2011. Scott Thorne at ICv2 explained why:

I can actually understand the cancellation of the miniatures line. The rise in oil prices has driven up the price of plastic and the D&D Miniature line is not as hot a seller as it when the company promoted and supported it as a stand-alone product line. Though sales have remained respectable, with some stores I know reporting sales of several thousand dollars a year of the product line, movement of the product is nowhere near as large as it was two to three years ago.


And yet WOTC gave permission to produce miniatures while Games Workshop did not. The difference between the two companies may well be in how they approach 3D printing. Hasbro announced in 2014 a co-venture with 3D Systems to leverage their game brands in the 3D printing space. With the announcement of Wizards of the Coast relaunching its Dungeons & Dragons miniatures, could there be a customizable miniatures game in the near future? The Hasbro/3D Systems venture intends to:

...co-develop, co-venture and deliver new immersive, creative play experiences powered by 3D printing for children and their families later this year. This partnership combines Hasbro's world-renowned portfolio of consumer brands, extensive play expertise and retail reach with 3DS' powerful portfolio of 3D printing products, platforms and perceptual devices to mainstream new and innovative play and co-creation experiences at home and online.


It's uncertain as to exactly how Hasbro plans to use 3D printing, but it seems likely they will be partnering with their core brands (Transformers, My Little Pony, Magic: The Gathering) to create customized products. It might be entirely possible to produce your own Transformer or Pony in the future.

There are signs that 3D printing is threatening to upend traditional miniature channels. The 3D-printing boom has launched multiple Kickstarters featuring miniature games or board games with miniatures. Over 5,000 backers endorsed Hero Forge's Kickstarter to create a customizable 3D printed miniature platform. The NecroVirus Kickstarter included BoardCraft, a set of tools designed to allow anyone to create their own board game:

BoardCraft provides you with the tools to create your own board game fully compatible with the BoardCraft ecosystem. Select from the library of 3D buildings, miniatures, terrain, and other components or upload your own files. Lay everything out in the board editor. Design professional quality cards. Then print it all out and start playtesting! You can even create pieces for use with your favorite RPG or miniatures game.


The launch of a fully-customizable 3D-printing platform will certainly impact the current pricing structure of the miniature industry, as players will be able to create the exact miniature they want, when they want, without resorting to randomized packs. With services like Hero Forge, customers may well be wondering why they would ever pay for another random miniature ever again. What's holding the industry back from switching to the customizable miniature model altogether?

[h=3]We're All Level 0 on the Web[/h]
It started with music. Customers never wanted bundled albums, and buried in the cost of purchasing a CD was production and distribution. Once digital streaming of music became viable, the market bottomed out...a trend that continues to this day:

Digitization and illegal downloads kicked it all off. MP3 players and iTunes liquified the album. That was enough to send recorded music's profits cascading. But today the disruption is being disrupted: Digital track sales are falling at nearly the same rate as CD sales, as music fans are turning to streaming—on iTunes, SoundCloud, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and music blogs. Now that music is superabundant, the business (beyond selling subscriptions to music sites) thrives only where scarcity can be manufactured—in concert halls, where there are only so many seats, or in advertising, where one song or band can anchor a branding campaign.


Steve Jobs and Apple's iTunes led the way with $0.99 sales of songs. When books went digital they followed a similar pattern, which is why the Justice Department pursued publishers who artificially inflated pricing -- including iTunes.

Going digital radically upends the support structures that stand between the creator and the consumer. These legacy institutions do not easily give up the revenue built into their existing models, which is why they fight tooth and nail to hold on to them. Chris Anderson at Wired explains why free is the future of business on the Web:

It's now clear that practically everything Web technology touches starts down the path to gratis, at least as far as we consumers are concerned. Storage now joins bandwidth (YouTube: free) and processing power (Google: free) in the race to the bottom. Basic economics tells us that in a competitive market, price falls to the marginal cost. There's never been a more competitive market than the Internet, and every day the marginal cost of digital information comes closer to nothing.


3D models aren't there yet -- the cost of a 3D printer is still too high and the quality still too uncertain -- but if the pattern for music and books holds true, it will certainly impact miniature production companies' pricing models.

[h=3]The Future?[/h]
The implications of 3D printers for the hobby market are enormous. As Thompson reports:

Observers predict that in a few years we’ll see printers that integrate scanning capability — so your kid can toss in a Warhammer figurine, hit Copy, and get a new one. The machine will become a photocopier of stuff.


The model and miniature markets as we know them will be completely upended. Why buy a model when you can print your own exactly to your specifications? Why spend money on randomized miniatures when you can print as many copies as you want? If you break a model, just print a new one.

[LQ]Why spend money on randomized miniatures when you can print as many copies as you want?[/LQ]

The physical miniature market will look much like the 3D paper models available on DriveThruRPG; the value of a product will be in its design, not its physicality. The onus on producing the product is borne by the consumer – for paper models this is ink and paper, but for 3D printing it will be ink and plastic. Even then, the cost to the consumer should be considerably less than the cost of producing, storing, shipping, and painting a product through the usual distribution channels. As Wikipedia explains, when the 3D revolution arrives it may well be game over for the industry:

It is also predicted by some additive manufacturing advocates that this technological development arc will change the nature of commerce, because end users will be able to do much of their own manufacturing rather than engaging in trade to buy products from other people and corporations.


These changes will herald serious challenges for companies like Reaper and Dwarven Forge, who -- if they're smart -- will license out their designs for a fee. Most recently Fat Dragon Games transitioned from paper miniatures to DRAGONLOCK:

DRAGONLOCK™ is an all-new interlocking terrain system that allows you to create fully modular, multi-level 28mm scale dungeon terrain for your RPG or wargame on your home 3D printer. Each set is delivered in a downloadable .stl format via our online distribution partner http://DriveThruRPG.com, and once you have the set, you can print as many pieces as you like and never run out or need to purchase more. This new terrain system is the culmination of ten years of gaming terrain design experience.


Fat Dragon Games' entry into the miniature terrain market is notable because the company doesn't need a manufacturer to launch the product and it is working with a large digital distributor (DriveThruRPG). Will it be a success? The Kickstarter is $20,000 over its goal, so it seems likely we'll see more of these types of Kickstarters in the near future.

There will still be a market for certain kinds of miniatures of course. Just as vinyl records have experienced a resurgence, there will always be a need for high quality sculpts and prepainted miniatures. But that need will decrease over time as the price of 3D printers diminish and the quality increases. Large companies will have to embrace the new pricing and production model by cutting back on their footprint (like Games Workshop) or investing in 3D printing (like Hasbro) lest they -- like the once unstoppable behemoth known as the tarrasque -- become another casualty in the digital war for consumer dollars.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

D&Dsince76

First Post
Having seen & handled a number of 3D printed objects, I would not, at this time, purchase a 3D printer (although it would be cool to mess around with...). On everything I have seen, there has been a "graininess" to the items that doesn't allow fine enough details for my taste. I suspect that the "personal" printers mentioned above probably don't print even in as high-resolution as stuff purchased from Shapeways. However, it will be only a matter of time before they are awesome.
 

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Cergorach

The Laughing One
This article, like many of it's kind, is very misleading.

Printer resolution isn't high enough on the 'budget' 3D printers, your getting essentially Lego-lized miniatures (blocky as hell, although far smaller blocks). Filament 3D printers will never get smooth 3D prints. The higher resolution printers that have been kickstarted cost $3,000 or more. These printers use resins which are quite a bit more expensive then a roll of filament.

Especially the 'cheap' 3D printers require quite some skill to use, these aren't your average low cost inkjet printers that are plug and play. The resin printers up the skill level even further.

High resolution printing isn't fast, that requires time and power. Add to that the material and the part cost (as the wear out), you might beat a $30 GW 28mm character model, but not a big tank or monster will still be cheaper to buy in plastic instead of printing it out yourself.

Then the biggest issue, the actual 3D model in a printable format (most 3D models used in games for example can't be printed without a LOT of work). Making it by hand costs a lot of time and skill, skill most folks don't have. Although if someone bothers with a perfectly printable model, chances are that it's going to be available on some pirate site somewhere...

As for 3D scanners, most provide models that can't be used for 3D printing, those that do generally have crap results. Even if someone made a 'perfect' 3D scanner, don't expect it to be cheap or small. The magical 3D copier is a long way off from anywhere but the multimillionaire's home...

Then your stuck with the high resolution material, that's some sort of resin, not as strong as injection molded plastic. Might not even be as strong as the Forgeworld or Finecast resins. And some of the resins paint horribly.

3D printing is an awesome technology, but something that won't be a replacement for actual high quality miniatures for quite a long time due to the factors mentioned above. It's perfect for prototypes and the high quality printers can even print resin masters for metal and resin production.

The copy box has always been available, people can easily make silicon molds and make many resin copies quite cheaply. But even with expensive GW plastics, very few people actually do that themselves (unless your located in a low labor cost country like China). Where I see it most often is in conversions parts folks made or made extensive changes to or unique parts the need a lot of and those parts are rare.
 



gamerprinter

Mapper/Publisher
Well considering I am a person that has been playing D&D games for 30 years, yet I have never purchased a single miniature yet. Some of my friends do have collections of minis we've used for play, however, I even played games where we used Monopoly game pieces (terrier, shoe, etc.) or even slags of metal and tiny dice to represent our PCs and monsters - which just needed reference pieces for playing on a gridded space. Our table just doesn't need accurate minis to play the game.

That said, I've been playing with 3D modeling and rendering programs (for animations and still prints) since 2000, and am quite skilled at creating detailed 3D designs. In fact since I am a pro game cartographer, sometimes creating top-down views of specific objects are difficult to replicate (that look good) using Photoshop or other graphics tools, so for some elements on a map, I create a 3D model and render the image as a top down and use as map objects in my work. So I have the skills to create excellent 3D minis, only I wouldn't because I neither care nor intend to use actual miniatures in my RPG gaming, now nor in the future.

Here's a 3D model, top down view of an aboleth, I created some 6 or 7 years ago for a game, and I use as a map object, now and again. (ah, it seems attached images aren't allowed in these blog threads so I'll post my aboleth in my map emporiem thread).
 
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dmdcdubs

First Post
Nice article as I was thinking of purchasing a 3D printer myself as part of the Fat Dragon kickstarter since floor wall sections takes 4 hours to produce, makerspace locations might not want you to book an entire month to print a small dungeon of a room and hallway.

If this does become the norm, those prices on unpainted dwarven forge pieces would drop I would imagine.

...oh the $ I've blown on minis...
Regarding terrain:
I bought some of the basic sets and specialty rooms from Dwarven Forge and Dungeonstone then made my own rubber molds. Initial costs aside, plaster is cheap and I made enough pieces to actually build a dungeon (their sets are small).
 

Mistwell

Crusty Old Meatwad (he/him)
I think a lot of people are working off of outdated information on the cost of 3d printers, and the resolution levels of the more recent home and small business printers.

My company is buying a 3d printer in the next couple of months. It's a very high resolution, small print form type printer (to be used to make plastic molds that will be cast into metal class rings). It's going to be perfect for printing high detail miniatures and terrain pieces. I am so looking forward to that aspect of it!

For those curious, we are probably getting the Form 2. It's $3499. One liter of resin is $149 (and should last a long time). It's very high resolution, with Layer Thickness of 25–200 microns (that's .001–.008 in). The build volume is 5.7in × 5.7in × 6.9in, so that is sufficient for an almost 7" tall miniature (or more if I make it in attachable pieces).

For reference on the resolution, this guy was made on a Form 1, which has worse resolution than the Form 2 we're looking to buy:

3d-animator-3dghost-brings-creations-to-life-with-3d-printing-3.jpg


I could potentially print nine of those guys at one time, though it will take roughly all night at that resolution.
 
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D&Dsince76

First Post
Wow, that looks awesome; the detail & resolution are really great.

However, I will probably have to wait until the Form 33 comes out for the price to be in the "hobbyist" range ; )
 

Mistwell

Crusty Old Meatwad (he/him)
Wow, that looks awesome; the detail & resolution are really great.

However, I will probably have to wait until the Form 33 comes out for the price to be in the "hobbyist" range ; )

Sure, $3500 isn't hobbyist pricing for most. Though should note that was made on the Form 1, which is $2,799 on Amazon. Anyway, it's not the hundreds of thousands it was just 5 years ago. The price is dropping fast.
 
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Janx

Hero
I can't seem to buy a regular printer which works well for more than a few months, let along a 3D one!

What's the price of the materials for a 3D printer? Is it like the regular printer model where the actual ink is the money-maker?

Per the 3d printers I'd see a couple years ago, the plastic is pretty cheap. It is the same material that weed whackers use. You can in fact, rush out to Home Depot, grab a spool of whacker string, and load it into a 3d printer (the main issue being whether or not the spool has consistent thickness or not).

At this point, 3d printers are expanding to how many spools they can use (how many colors), and the types of materials. So it is possible a 3d printer exists for a more expensive material. But the base product has been pretty cheap for "ink"
 

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