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Games industry veterans bring custom, 3D printed minis to life

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

When Joshua Bennett went shopping for Christmas gifts for his Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying group he wanted to find miniatures that accurately represented players’ characters at the table. He couldn’t, so that’s why he helped co-found Hero Forge, a start-up that uses 3D printing technology and computer modeling to make custom miniatures.

After a $360,000 Kickstarter campaign, his company has now partnered with the industry leader in 3D printing, Shapeways, for manufacturing and fulfillment. If all goes according to plan, Hero Forge products will begin shipping before the end of the year.

"People have been customizing minis for years through ‘kit bashing’ for as long as there have been minis," Bennett said, referring to the practice of blending parts from multiple kits to make alternate models. "You know, melting off arms and gluing them on and poking new holes and jamming swords in and things like that. You can even get conversion kits online. But that’s a hassle."

Even more of a hassle is getting a base model in your character’s race and gender in the first place. For instance the dragonborn, one of the most popular new races from the 2007-era 4th edition of D&D, only has one hero miniature that’s ever been officially produced. It’s currently going for upwards of $35 at online auction sites. With Hero Forge, players will be able to customize their miniatures for a little as $15 each.

The team have or currently do work for Weta Studios, Telltale Games, Nickelodeon Animation Studios and Fantasy Flight Games.

Creating the technology to make Hero Forge work has taken his small team the better part of a year, Bennett said. When you think about it, that’s actually incredibly quick. He credits the experience of his team, which includes co-founder Teagan Morrison, the technical art director for Naughty Dog, the studio behind the Uncharted series, and David Lenna, the chief technical officer for South Park studios. Members of his team have or currently do work for Weta Studios, Telltale Games, Nickelodeon Animation Studios and Fantasy Flight Games, and they've helped to create art and assets for The Last of Us and Pacific Rim.


"It might be unique to LA," Bennett said. "With the game industry and the animation industry, to get these kind of super dense pockets of really talented people. There were a lot of people at hand, and we didn’t have to look far."

Kickstarter backers now have access to the beta of Hero Forge, which consists of an online portal for designing their characters. They can switch heads, armor, weapons and poses at will, even going so far as to adjust the height, weight and facial expression of their miniatures. It’s the same kind of experience gamers might be familiar with from series like Dark Souls or The Elder Scrolls, but with the potential to hold the product in your hands.

There have been other hopeful 3D-printed miniatures companies, Bennett said. What makes Hero Forge so timely is that the technology now exists to make the dream a viable business model. "Not long before we started researching this, Shapeways announced that they were putting out a developer API, which is this really simple interface where you can plug into their manufacturing facility and get models over to them en masse and they’d handle pricing and manufacturing and shipping and things like that."


D&D isn’t the only universe supported by Hero Forge. Future improvements to the service will broaden the offering of parts and pieces available in certain genres, like western and cyberpunk. It will allow the creation of miniatures mounted on horses or motorcycles, and eventually miniatures printed in full color. But don't expect to be able to go to their service and print out a Games Workshop-licensed Space Marine. Everything his team of artists creates is original, and not based off of any other properties. Also, there's no plan to accept user-created models or accessories.

"The hardest part is getting the system in place," Bennett said. "Once we’re finished polishing things and figure out the clipping problems — which we’re well on track to do — after that’s all squared away, the easiest thing in the world to do will be the add more parts."

Miniatures were the second largest segment of the market, and accounted for $125 million in sales.

The potential market for Hero Forge is much larger than you might think. Analysts at ICv2 wrote in August that the hobby games segment had grown to $700 million in 2013. Breaking down the market by category, only $15 million of that total comes from RPGs. Miniatures were the second largest segment of the market, and accounted for $125 million in sales.

Where Hero Forge could see serious growth, Bennett says, is in the hobby wargaming market. There aficionados don't need a mere half dozen heroes to play a game. They need thousands.

"We’ve got a lot of people interested in Napoleonic stuff. The miniature community for historical wargaming is just huge, and we’d love to cater to them as well."