Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Hero Forge Miniatures Review: A Massive Improvement

Too Long; Didn't Read Summary:  So, you probably just want to know, "How much better is the new Gray Plastic offering?"  In a word, immensely better. OK, that's technically two words. The new plastic offering from Shapeways means that the Hero Forge Gray Plastic miniatures are an order of magnitude more durable than the previous Ultra Detail figures. The detail of the Gray Plastic is also much better in my estimation than Ultra Detail (now somewhat ironically named). In summary, buy Gray Plastic. Avoid Ultra Detail.

UPDATE 08/17/16: Gray Plastic (now called "Premium Plastic") is available again as an option. Ultra Detail has been discontinued.

The Bronze figurine works well as a
showpiece. Detail is very good.

Introduction


A little over a year ago, I came down hard on Hero Forge miniatures (rightfully so). I had ordered 2 "Ultra Detail" miniatures ($50) as a gift for my wife and myself... a gnome and half orc. After receiving the figures, I immediately noted issues with the detail. While the detail was not considered a show stopper, the fragility of the figures absolutely was. The Ultra Detail printing process creates a very stiff and brittle plastic which breaks under even the most minor pressure. My gnome's sword blade broke off during light handling while painting, and later a drop of a few inches fractured the ankles separating the base from the figure. Both breaks could be re-glued, but it illustrated that the figures would not be durable enough for play.

Fast forward a year later, Hero Forge contacted me to try out their new "Gray Plastic" material as well as their metal offerings, Steel and Bronze, to see how they compare. They have also added some new items and features to their figure creation software, I will touch upon those later as I know everyone wants to know about the new plastic.

Full Disclosure: Hero Forge provided me vouchers to print 3 miniatures for the purpose of evaluation. There were no strings attached to provide a positive review. I hope I have provided an unbiased view of the results.

Plastic Comparison 


So, I'll cut right to the chase. Gray Plastic is just flat out better. There is no reason to order "Ultra Detail" any longer and Hero Forge will be phasing it out entirely once production on Gray Plastic ramps up to manageable levels.

Last year, I initially was not overly bothered by the graininess of the Ultra Detail. Perhaps because 3D printing a custom figure was so new and innovative at the time, I was more forgiving of the technology. But once you compare the old figures with the new ones, there is no comparison. I don't know how I was so forgiving of the detail issues in my prior review. The Gray Plastic blows away Ultra Detail in both durability and level of detail.

The Gray Plastic option (left) shows an immense improvement over the Ultra Detail (right).

Taking a look at the side by side image of the figures, there is just no contest. The Ultra Detail on the right has a very grainy look. Textures are indistinct and features of the figure's clothing get lost in the roughness of the print. With the Gray Plastic on the left, you can clearly see the tunic, belt buckle, pants creases and other minute details that are lost on the older model. At $27, the new plastic is a couple dollars more than the Ultra Detail offering, but that's marginal given the improvement in quality. The new printing process does add occasional "sprues" (small bits of plastic that may need to be trimmed with an Exacto knife), but they are usually small, inconspicuous and easily filed or cut off. They are no worse than the occasional mold flash seen on some metal minis.

As far as durability, a video is worth 1000 words (embed below). As you see in the linked video, the Gray Plastic figure takes a fair amount of abuse. You may still need to be slightly careful with very thin parts, such as a long spear handle, but even with thin parts, the Gray Plastic stands up well. You certainly would not need to be more careful than you would with a metal miniature which could have a weapon that would bend or break if dropped. There is no comparison with Ultra Detail here. Ultra Detail would absolutely break if dropped even from a much lower height. (More photos will be coming soon).

The Steel figure is very solid,
but has slightly obscured detail.

Metal Options


Hero Forge also offers two metal options -- Steel at $35 and Bronze at $99.

The Steel figure gives you a very durable miniature at the cost of some loss of detail. The printing process om the Steel figures leaves a slightly "frosted" texture to the figure, so very fine details will be somewhat lost. In my test print, I selected a breast plate for the the dragonman that has some ornate inlay. While some of the pattern is visible, the decoration is largely obscured, so don't expect the smaller details of a figure to be visible on very close inspection. Also, due to the texture, painting the Steel figures is probably not recommended. You could paint it, but the texture will probably prove to be a challenge and results may vary.

Despite the rougher texture, I actually like the way the Steel figure came out. From table top distance of a couple feet or more, those details are not particularly visible anyway. For the dragonman, the Steel option actually makes him look pretty cool with the copper-tone color of the metal. I probably would not spend $35 on a figure for myself, but this could be a pretty cool gift (assuming you don't want to spend $99 on Bronze).

I did not perform a drop test with this figure, as it may be possible to bend the sword, but overall, the figure is solid, and I would not be too worried about dropping it a short distance. I will still treat this miniature with the similar care as I would a pewter (or 1980's lead) mini even though it will likely accept much more abuse without problem.

The Bronze figure has very little issue with detail. The Bronze figures are cast (in the traditional sense) from a wax-printed figure to create an actual mold (which makes this option much more expensive). One can see a tiny amount of texture in crevices on the model, but only when you hold it right up to your eyeball. From a quality standpoint, it equals other traditionally cast miniatures, but obviously allows a more diverse range of poses due to the customization.

At $99, this is bound to be a very special gift or splurge item. It does make an awesome showpiece if you have a special display in mind. I tried to model the figure to look like my wife in "warrior princess" gear (which lead me to a couple minor nitpicks about the modeling software... but I'll save that for later). The resulting figure is quite nice. The Bronze is so shiny, it's actually a bit difficult to photograph, but I'll try to get more pictures up this week. At $99, I probably would not buy one of these for myself, but again I can see how it could be an excellent gift idea for the right person. (More photos will be coming soon).

Visualization Software


Over the last year or so, Hero Forge has added a lot of items to the character builder. They've expanded the number of weapons and other handheld items as well as the variety of sizes for those items so your Halflings and Gnomes now have more appropriately sized weapons. They have added texture options to the bases (like cobblestone or wood floor) as well as some animal companions like mounts and familiars. Mounts include a horse, a pony and a warg (riding wolf). You can even add a cat familiar to the base which changes its pose to match the character pose (what a great idea!).

I like their new animal options so much that I was almost a little disappointed there weren't more. No doubt they have more ideas in the pipeline. I would love to see a Mastiff-like riding dog, a giant boar, a dinosaur or Taun-Taun... I mean a non-infringing giant kangaroo-like mounts in the near future.  Mounts do double the cost of the figure which seems a bit much in my mind. I can't speak to their cost structure, so I don't know how "fair" this is, but it'd be nice if they could lower this to 150% of the cost an unmounted figure, rather than double the cost. Despite that, I almost bought one with my own money anyway, but couldn't justify the $54 cost in my own mind for a single mounted figure.

As for the rest, I do have a few very minor nitpicks and suggestions. (I emphasize again, these are mostly nitpicks. I love what they have done so far with the character visualizer).

1) Non-Human Options - Hero Forge now offers more non-human features, but these are generally limited to a head/face and a tail. There are scaled feet and scaled hands options, but those don't change the legs and arms to match, so there is a bit of a disconnect where a dragonman will look like they have normal human arms and legs if they don't wear armor. It would be nice to have scales or fur option for arms and legs (or even torsos).

2) Poses - These haven't changed too much. I would really like to see a a two-handed weapon grip, a lifted-sword pose (straight above the head He-Man or Skywalker style), and a musical instrument pose (where one hand is holding and the other is playing, like with the lute).

3) Faces - There are a limited number of faces which have preset eyes and noses. I would be nice if one could switch the noses (and perhaps even eyes) to different facial shapes in order to add a little more variety. This is a very small detail on most figures, so probably is not a high priority for the development team, but would be nice for the larger 2x and 4x scale figurines where the detail would be more visible.

4) Items - In the Science Fiction genre, there is no lightsaber... I mean... laser sword. The closest thing is an escrima stick which one could (sort of) paint to look like a plasma sword. This lack surprised me most given that there is a new movie release and several new Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPGs.

5) Items - In the East Asian genre, you can wear a Wakizashi in a scabbard, but can't wield one. It would be nice to have a Wakizashi or Tanto sized-blade in addition to the Katana.

6) Hair - A few more modern hair options might be nice. My wife has the very common and popular bob haircut that does not have the 90's style "Rachel Bangs".

7) There is a necklace / earring loop option, but it takes up the "hat" slot so the figure can't have both head gear and the jewelry loop.

Final Thoughts


There is no doubt in my mind that Gray Plastic uses a clearly superior material and printing process than the Ultra Detail. UPDATE: Ultra Detail is no longer offered as an option. Premium Plastic is the only high detail plastic option now.

The metal options from Hero Forge are pretty cool, but given their price, are probably limited to a particular audience. Even the plastic options at about $30 per figure are a risk in that your PC may die before you get enough play time out of the figure. Given that you can likely find a figure from Reaper or other plastic / metal miniature companies for $5 or less, the $30 price tag is a hard one to justify. However, being able to print a figure with a completely custom pose, look, and gear is pretty damn cool, especially if you have a favorite character.

For those still with Hero Forge credit from the Kickstarter, you will be extraordinarily happy with Gray Plastic.

In my mind, if Hero Forge could get a Gray Plastic option priced below that $20 mental barrier ($19.99), their orders would probably explode beyond reason. Even at $27, they were somewhat overwhelmed by the popularity of the new option during their Beta test run. Given the speed at which 3D printing technology is improving, I can see a future where a $20 custom figure becomes a reality. Hopefully, that future is not too distant.

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