Author: Adrian Estergaard
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Games/s/figureprints_behind_the_scenes/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.
With 11 million players and the recent Wrath of the Lich King expansion, World of Warcraft has become such a pervasive element of gaming culture and "What`s your server" is a solid icebreaker at parties. About a year ago Figure Prints arrived - a website that takes the virtual characters of WoW and painstakingly recreates them with 3D printing technology. Ed Fries, the former games guy at Microsoft, is the man behind the project. We had a few words with him about WoW, Blizzcon, the future of 3D printing and more. We also had a unique opportunity to go behind the scenes and find out what goes on at the top secret Figure Prints production site where all the figures are made. Read on for our chat with Ed, a video tour and an exclusive look inside Figure Prints - maybe you'll even recognize your character!
Adrian: World of Warcraft is a smash hit and the new Wrath of the Lich King expansion has flown off shelves. You started Figure Prints with just four 3D printers but now you have more machines, and more skilled staff operating them and cranking out figs. The latest lottery drew nearly 25% of the waiting applicants, and production is up to over 1,200 figures in a month. How is FigurePrints doing in the midst of the game's huge success and how long do you expect it take for the growing supply to catch up to demand?
Ed Fries: From the very beginning we’ve had more demand than we can handle. The challenge for us has been how do we increase our production while also improving the quality of our product. As we approach our one year anniversary but we are now producing almost 2,000 figures per month. Soon we will be in a position to meet the monthly demand here in North America then we will be able to expand to support the players in Europe.
Adrian: At BlizzCon you gave away a King Magni figure on a griffon mount and mentioned that creating mounts/pets is something that can be done. Do you have plans to let people add mounts/pets to their Figure Prints, perhaps for an extra cost or with an even more limited-access lottery?
Ed: We would like to support mounts and hunter pets. The main concern to this point has been that these larger figures would mean that we could produce less figures overall. As we get caught up on demand it will be possible for us to start to offer these and other cool types of statues.
Adrian: How many Death Knights have been created so far? Were there any difficulties in making them?
Ed: We’ve had over 50 Death Knight orders so far. The only challenges with them has been getting those blue eyes to print right!
Adrian: You've done special wedding requests in the past with figures dressed in tuxedos, dresses and the like. Have you ever done wedding requests for alternative lifestyle couples?
Ed: At this point we’ve done more than a dozen special sets of figures for weddings. Our first two requests came in the day we launched the company. I know of at least one wedding set we did where both characters were female. I have no idea whether that was true of the actual bride and groom...
Adrian: WoW Minis, a strategy game of collectible miniatures, was just released and is a way for gamers to get their hands on WoW figures with a bit more ease than FigurePrints. What do you think of it and do you think this will affect FigurePrints?
Ed: The WoW Minis are cool. I bought a set while I was at BlizzCon and I wish them the best of luck with that product. It doesn’t replace what we offer though. With FigurePrints you can create a statue that is exactly your character with your gear in a pose and on a base of your choosing. Each figure we produce is one of a kind, just like your character.
Adrian: With approximately 5,000 figures made, what's the skew towards Horde/Alliance?
Ed: I believe the ratio is right about 50/50. At BlizzCon we gave away figureprinted necklaces, one for each faction. We printed an equal number of each and allowed people to exchange if they got the wrong one. By the end of the show we completely ran out of Horde necklaces but still had Alliance necklaces to give away, so that says something, at least for BlizzCon attendees.
Adrian: As with anything else that gets shipped halfway across the world, stuff breaks. Your company policy is to replace broken, or even simply underwhelming, figures. But, having to wait another month for a figure to be delivered can be frustrating. Is there anything you can recommend for people to help keep a figure from breaking? Or, with upcoming 3D printing technology able to produce stronger items, do you see yourself upgrading the durability of FigurePrints products?
Ed: We are constantly experimenting on ways to reduce breakage during shipping. The best figures have three points of contact with the base, for example two feet and the cloak. Likewise characters wearing a robe almost never break. If a figure breaks during shipping we tend to modify it before printing it again so that it will be stronger the second time around.
Adrian: EA's Spore figures were a big piece of the inspiration for what became FigurePrints and there has been noise about them providing a similar service for the millions of oddities in that game. Are you involved with them on that project?
Ed: EA has had their own effort in this area that predates FigurePrints. They recently started providing figure from “Rock Band”. The rumor is they will launch Spore printing any day now but it hasn’t happened yet as far as I know.
*UPDATE* EA officially announced their Spore Sculpture service on Thursday December 18, 2008! *UPDATE*
Adrian: You've mentioned being in touch with other game companies about producing more figures. Can you name names?
Ed: We have been approached by quite a few other game companies, but, of course, nothing is even close to the size of World of Warcraft, nor does anything else have the kind of player involvement and attachment to their character as WoW. Before we support other games it makes sense for us to try to reach all the WoW players in the world.
Adrian: Do you see a future where video games will come bundled with the software, like Google's Sketch-Up, to export character models to 3D printers like the ones you're using?
Ed: I see a future where lots of people will own their own 3D printers, just as most have their own home color printers now. These are really amazing machines and their cost will come down and the quality will improve just like other types of technology.
Adrian: Thanks for answering my questions Ed!
Hit the next page for an exclusive video from inside the Figure Prints facility, why they won't be there much longer, how they make them and what's coming up next for Figure Prints.
The top-secret Figure Prints facility is hidden in the frozen wilds of Vancouver, Canada. I trekked across frozen tundra, through icy blizzards, and past hungry bears for a chance to bring you an inside look at how WoW characters are built. There was a Tim Hortons' involved too. I met the production manager Dan near the Figure Prints facility and, on the way over, he let me in on some big news - the crew won't there much longer.
Don't worry though! They aren't shutting down, it's because Dan just received confirmation that they're getting a new, bigger, facility. With 5700 square feet they'll be doubling their current setup, growing to 10 3D printers and getting even closer to their goal of eliminating the lottery. The news about the move was so new that when I mentioned it to the staff it caught them by surprise and I accidentally spoiled Dan's big announcement! Not only that, the new facility will also have better ventilation for each de-powdering stati... I'm getting ahead of myself aren't I? How about some basics to get things rolling.
There are basically three parts to the printing facility. The front (which is hidden behind a fake business name) is a packing and shipping area where finished Figure Prints are based, domed and sent out. Behind that is the office where orders are handled. That's where character data is pulled from the Armory for the printing machines and sets of characters are assembled into efficient printing layouts - fitting as many as possible into each lengthy printing batch.
The final area is the top-secret room where the printing is done. It's packed with 3D printers, each working away on turning a $2,000 bucket of the special printing powder into a half-dozen or so Figure Prints. After they're printed, the figures are pulled out and taken to a special room for de-powdering while the machine is cleaned for the next batch.
Here's a video from inside the Figure Prints facility. It shows you some of what's going on and takes you into the top-secret area for a special look at figures being printed.
Like Dan says, that's just the first step. After being printed, a figure is de-powdered, given a finishing treatment, dipped into a special blend of seven secret herbs and spices (DO NOT EAT!) and cooked. Then it's time to base it, pack it in one of the special domes and get it shipped out.
With the current setup, Dan and the crew are set to pump out 2,000 figures a month. Due to Christmas holidays and such they're going to be a bit short in December. But, the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, and Death Knights, actually slowed down the orders for new figs as people gathered more gear for their new characters. So, requests for figures should pick up soon and the new facility will let the team blow right past 2,000/month and let more WoW players get their hands on their favorite characters.
The biggest surprise about the Figure Prints facility is how eco-friendly it is! From limiting the number of paper documents used in the office, to recycling and re-using all their production materials, they even make sure all the chemicals they use to make the figures follow the California laws for health & safety - the toughest ones in US and Canada! They'd even appreciate if people could recycle the boxes their Figure Prints are shipped in.
The big move isn't the only thing going on at Figure Prints. Once production is able to clear up the lottery, more mount, pet and custom base options will become available. One base idea that's being worked on is of a victory pose with a figure standing triumphant over a fallen enemy. We'll have more on Figure Prints in the future and we'll find out what you want to know, so go hit the forums and let us know what you're curious about!
Please do not redistribute or use this article in whole, or in part, for commercial purposes.