Winning strategy: War gaming firm Slitherine on balancing niche appeal with mainstream success

Matthew Jarvis
Winning strategy: War gaming firm Slitherine on balancing niche appeal with mainstream success

Slitherine could very well be the biggest publisher you've never heard of.

Formed 15 years ago, the Epsom-based firm has long been the flagbearer for war gaming titles in the UK – so much so that it doesn't even fully consider the complex strategy titles in its catalogue video games, instead aligning them with their tabletop counterparts like Warhammer.

Our world is not the video games world, per se,” Slitherine Group director JD McNeil explains defiantly. We operate in a different sector. What we used to say is that we're not in the video games industry, but in the war games industry.”

Development director Iain McNeil agrees: We know that our market's different. It doesn't obey the same rules as the mainstream industry. Some of the things just don't apply to our sector.”

Purposefully placing itself outside of the games industry has helped Slitherine to attract an audience that differs from the traditional 16 to 32 age demographic enjoyed by traditional games. But JD retorts that war gaming's reputation as a genre for older players is an outdated view.

One of the concepts that is often put to us is that we're dealing with an ageing audience and that the business will decline because our fan base is getting older,” he recalls. That's a perception, and the data proves it quite wrong; we've grown fivefold over the last five years. The audience isn't dying – it's evolving.”

In fact, Slitherine estimates the entire strategy genre – everything from niche hardcore titles such as Pike & Shot to more mainstream efforts such as XCOM and Civilization – to now be worth $1.25 billion (0.8bn) – a figure that trumps the $194 million (124m) value of the eSports sector outlined by market tracker Newzoo for 2014.

Slitherine's own contribution to this figure has been driven by its steadfast confidence in its pricing strategy. While price tags of 50 and above may be off-putting for casual gamers browsing for a new title to try out, war game devotees are more than happy to shell out.

Our market tends to be short of time – rather than money – and not so price-sensitive,” explains Iain. If they see something that they really like, then they will buy it – the price is not really the issue.”

"Civilization, XCOM: those are the games that we want to be competing with."

Iain McNeil, Slitherine

Slitherine's purity in its war gaming vision has endeared it to its existing fan following. But it has also alienated it somewhat from the mainstream audiences enjoyed by more accessible strategy titles such as Civilization and XCOM.

It's this group that the publisher is now zeroing in on.

There's no question that we need to try and appeal to the players watching on Twitch and so on,” admits Iain. We're a long way from being direct competitors with games like XCOM, but that's the goal. Civilization, XCOM: those are the games that we want to be competing with, and that's the direction that we're headed towards.”

One publisher from which Slitherine might take heed is close rival Paradox Interactive, which has found mainstream success with its complex strategy series Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis.

Civilization, Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings show you the potential for complex strategy games,” acknowledges Slitherine marketing director Marco Minoli.

One of the biggest barriers facing Slitherine and the 200-odd developers it represents is gaming's growing superficiality.

Take a look at a Slitherine title and you're likely to be struck by how antiquated it appears. It comes down to a question of focus and resource – for games to look as good as they play would obviously be a plus, but realism in gameplay mechanics trumps visual flair for war game creators.

Every game would benefit from better graphics, absolutely,” Iain concedes. The difference between our best- and worst-selling games has been magnified over the last three to five years. The titles that get things right – the level of complexity, the look and so on – their sales are going up significantly, whereas those that don't keep up-to-date with modern expectations have seen a decline.”

One close competitor to have played into the hearts of PC fans is Creative Assembly's Total War series. Criticised among the war gaming crowd for its preference for allure over accuracy, the series has nonetheless become a hit, partially on the back of its ability to render historical battles with visually-impressive fidelity.

Iain counters by arguing that, for the compact teams creating the majority of war games, resources can only stretch so far.

The teams are generally quite small – they can't jump from where they are to competing directly with XCOM,” he explains. We know we can do better, but we don't want to push too far and have it all collapse around our ears.”

"The war gaming cult doesn't get recognised because it's not really that attractive."

JD McNeil, Slitherine

Is Slitherine planning to sand the rough edges of its intricate, but impenetrable, war games down to a mainstream-friendly sheen?

Simplifying?” responds JD. No. Absolutely not.”

Herein lies the rub; flirting with the mainstream means risking the very thing that has driven five years of growth – an intimate relationship with its market, games or otherwise.

This doesn't mean that the company is static, content with the dedicated fans it has. On the contrary: it's ready to embrace a brand new set of gamers.

We can move and change direction and create new ideas as they enter our heads,” enthuses JD. We're never afraid of taking a risk.

We fully realise that the war gaming cult could be better. At this moment in time, it doesn't get recognised because it's not really that attractive. It's our job to make it more attractive – it's a whole new world out there.”


BACK TO THE BOX

Although digital sales comprise the majority of Slitherine's sales, boxed products contribute around a third of the publisher's figures.

In fact, the popularity of its physical software is such that Slitherine is flying in the face of the industry's transition from boxed to digital.

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