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Kicking Back (a guide to using Kickstarter)

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No subject has caused me to start, stop, and delete more posts than Kickstarter. Perhaps because it’s a hot-button topic in the gaming world at the moment, or maybe because of backer remorse or joy, I’ve not felt the distance necessary to adequately consider Kickstarter…until now.

So what is this guide?

This guide is advice on using Kickstarter from the perspective of 1) a game reviewer and news finder who sees a lot of Kickstarter games and campaigns; 2) a modest Kickstarter backer (17 projects backed/9 received/0 currently late), with all the joys and sorrows attendant to this role; 3) an employee of a traditional book publisher and a staunch supporter of editorial gatekeepers; and 4) a thrifty person with a limited gaming budget who works a regular job and feels the results of bad purchasing decisions keenly. In other words, I would describe myself as a cautious observer and occasional participant in Kickstarter.

This guide is divided in two and is one gamer’s advice to two segments of Kickstarters: 1) gamers who are considering backing projects on Kickstarter, and 2) designers and publishers who use Kickstarter and would like the money in my pocket to be transferred to theirs. Again, this is one gamer’s perspective and doesn’t even reflect the views of all the writers on this site. Take it for what you will. (And if you want to read a fantastic series about Kickstarter that’s aimed primarily at content producers, I can’t recommend Stonemaier GamesKickstarter Lessons enough.)

On to the guide!

Advice for Backers

  • Be choosy. Just as you wouldn’t indiscriminately purchase all the goods in whatever store you enter, just because something is on the shelf at Kickstarter doesn’t mean you have to buy it. And Kickstarter isn’t the only way to fund others’ dreams. Consider: even a purchase of a product on the shelf of a store (especially in a niche market such as hobby board games) is helping to fund someone’s dream.
  • Just because you like someone doesn’t mean you need to back their project. I have a lot of game designer friends and acquaintances on Twitter. That does not mean I own all of their games. If I did, first of all, these would be costly relationships to maintain. And second, it wouldn’t be true to myself or the designer. A four-hour space epic is not a game I will play often or enjoy much. Similarly, a simple children’s game isn’t in my range of interests. I have more “gateways” than I know what to do with. While I like and respect game designers, a relationship should not be the deciding factor on where to spend money (though it can be the tipping point if I’m on the fence).
  • Ask yourself: Is there sufficient reason to back now rather than buy later? Are you missing something if you wait to buy the game? If not, you might be better holding off. First, you have money in your pocket now (which could mean you can get a different game now rather than one later). Second, you’ll have time for the game to be evaluated outside of the hype that often surrounds the shiny and new. Is a game really a good game, or is it a novelty? There are plenty of novelties in discount bins and on trade lists, but you’ll hold on to a good game for much longer, and thus get better value for your money. So the longer you can wait to evaluate the purchase with a level head, the better. If there is no immediate need to back, you might be better off waiting.
  • Understand that you may be disappointed. This goes for any purchase of an untested game: you may not like what you get. With Kickstarter, though, there’s the added potential of delayed or shoddy production that comes with inexperienced publishers. Similarly, because when you back there is no product (unless someone is using Kickstarter in a way they probably shouldn’t…), there is a possibility you may get nothing at all. Projects like Odin’s Ravens and The Doom That Came to Atlantic City may be salvaged, but there’s no third-party obligation for them to be. My advice is to only spend on a Kickstarter what you would be okay to lose.
  • Do your research. There are lots of questions you might want to answer when considering backing a Kickstarter campaign.Is the company or person you are considering doing business with reputable? Have they done anything in the past? If they’ve used Kickstarter before, have all past obligations been fulfilled–and in what manner? Is there another game that offers you what this one might, and is it already available? Are there any third-party reviews of the game (that are not from the publisher’s usual circle of friends)? Is there a rulebook or print-and-play (and is it worth your time to assemble)?
  • Remember that promotional content is often not that great. There’s usually a reason that something is a promo rather than included in the base game. My record on promos has not been very good, even for well-established games. I’ve ended up selling almost every promotional extra I’ve received (unless it was bling to make the game look better). So…if what’s causing you to back now is just extra stuff that will likely not improve the game, is now the best time to invest? Of course, sometimes the extra content isn’t “promotional” but is early access to future expansion content. In either case, your mileage may vary. But it’s good to consider whether you have enjoyed promotional extras in the past.

Advice for Publishers

  • I’d rather have a quality project delivered on time than a lot of extra swag. I’d rather have a well-designed game than a good-looking one (though, really, it’s best when the two go hand-in-hand). Similarly, when designing “stretch rewards,” I’d rather have more/better bling than untested cards and variants. (See bit on promos above.) And I’d really like for it to be delivered on time. I approve of the new trend to extend Kickstarter estimated delivery dates so as to deliver “early.” The comfort of receiving something early is much better than consternation at receiving something late.
  • I need some proof that you have a decent product. Third-party game reviews help, but be advised: croneyism is obvious in a hobby this small. If the usual suspects are always plugging one company’s games, it limits the value I place on the review. Reviews are still helpful, though. So are rulebooks. In fact, a preliminary rulebook is absolutely essential to secure my backing. A full print-and-play is even better (and although I am unlikely to assemble it, it’s comforting to know it’s there).
  • Give me an incentive to back now rather than when the game is on shelves. As callous as it sounds, “This game might not be made otherwise!” is not a good enough reason for me to spend money now while receiving only the promise of a product in the future. When I spend money in any sphere, I expect some form of return on my investment, especially if I’m not receiving a product or service at the time of payment. Just because the emotion of supporting a dream is involved doesn’t mean I should become more cavalier with my limited funds. Give me something that motivates me to action–a sweet discount, extra game content, some game-inspired bling (my preference is for discounts and bling). Otherwise there’s not much reason to back your project instead of waiting for it to appear on store shelves, when a more level-headed me might choose to purchase a different game.
  • I have no obligation to support your dream, so please don’t guilt me into thinking I do. I realize, again, that this sounds callous, but it’s true. I work hard at my job, and I often take extra work on the side in order to fund my and my family’s own dreams. I realize the goal of game design is ultimately getting others to play your game (and, really, to have a salable product), but there are plenty of companies that have started out the hard way. A dream alone does not (and should not) give you direct access to my wallet, especially considering that there are a lot of worthy charitable causes to contribute to. An attempt at guilting me into support is more likely to have the effect of me contributing elsewhere.
  • I’m more likely to back your project if you participate in the community. This doesn’t necessarily mean, “You need to back other people’s projects.” And it definitely doesn’t mean that you have to “kick it forward.” It does, however, mean that you need to be available on forums where gamers usually are. Board Game Geek is a good place to start, as is Twitter or other social outlets. It’s easy to spot those who show up only when they have a new Kickstarter project and are gone just as fast once funding is finished. I’m not interested in supporting (at least via Kickstarter) those who are not involved in the gaming community. It seems a violation of the crowdfunding ethos.
  • Show me what is different about your game (hint: it needs to be more than theme). If your game is a rehash of something else, I’ll just buy that something else and not endure the teething troubles that often come from working with new companies. So you need to have something more than a reskin of something that’s already available. And you need to be clear about what your game is.
  • Give me proof that what you have is more than a dream. There are idea people, and there are detail people. Sometimes a person is both a dreamer and a manager, but in my experience, the two don’t always (or even often) go hand in hand. So, what do you have beyond the dream? What skills do you, or a business partner, bring to the table? Can you deliver what you say you can deliver and in the timeframe you say you can deliver it in? The new “risks” section on your Kickstarter page isn’t another place for you to sell your game. It requires a sober look at your process. Are there any holes in your strategy that need to be patched?

Where am I wrong? Where am I right?

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion11 Comments

  1. One thing I’ve been noticing with a lot of Kickstarter projects – especially with brand new “game companies” or 1-off game productions not backed by or intending to become a game publisher is the lack of clarity.

    There will be lists and lists of add-ons, bonuses, promos, expansions, etc. etc. but it is not very clear what the base game includes, what’s necessary for play, what add-ons are bling and what are actual addition content. I’ve studied many a KS page that looks fancy and has lots of bits to offer, but I can’t make heads or tails of what’s actually what.

    Clarity is extremely important.

  2. This is some really great advice, Lenny!

    The only point of contention that I might have is that you seem to be looking at Kickstarter almost exclusively as a preorder system. Now, I know that a lot of people use it that way, but the whole intent and original purpose of it was to give creative people a forum to seek individual backers to make their projects happen.

    So while I agree that “guilting” people into backing is manipulative and undesirable, there’s nothing wrong with a passionate designer or publisher sincerely asking the community to help and make their dream of publishing a game come true.

    Maybe I’m still a bit of an old-school Kickstarter idealist, but at least a part of the motivation for backing projects (especially for truly independent designers) should be more about helping them out rather than just “what’s in it for me”. And more than anything else, that’s the main reason I choose to back some projects rather than waiting for them to be released later.

    • Thanks for your comments!

      And that’s a very good point, that I’m using it as a preorder system. Personally, that’s how I prefer to use it, especially as publishers are turning to the site again and again and larger publishers are using it as well. I’ve been burned by enough first-time projects that I need some sense of establishment to risk my money. That means my usage does fall under the preorder model, although I do like the more personalized touches that Kickstarter brings over a strict preorder.

      I guess I’m more of an old-old-school idealist, that good ideas will eventually rise to the top and find interested publishers. Occasionally a great idea will be overlooked, but in general, I’m willing to take that risk.

  3. This is a great post (and thank you for linking to my Kickstarter Lessons). I like a lot of these points, and one that I haven’t seen before (that I agree with) is the idea that you don’t need to back a project just because you know someone or like them. There are many ways to support a project without spending money, and I think it’s important for project creators to remember that. Not all of your friends and family are going to want to own your 7-hour fantasy miniatures wargame, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean they’re not out there rooting for you and telling their friends about your project.

    Great post!

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments about Promo material. Sometimes publishers will throw in extra variants that weren’t good enough for the full game. Forget that crap! If anything just make the game better by increasing component quality – don’t add on a bunch of extra stuff.

    One more thing I would add is that the amount required to get “it all” in some of these KS pledges is RIDICULOUS! Look at Kingdom Death, Zombicide, Kaosball, Cthulhu Wars – any of the big, miniature driven KS and you are looking at several hundred dollars to buy in and get the complete package. I pledged a lot for Zombicide Season 2, because I have and love the first game, but I can’t believe some people are willing to throw down hundreds of dollars for games they’ve never played – especially ones without rulebooks.

    I wish that more companies would KS the product they had in mind – use SG to add on some bling and better components, and then throw all the “add ons” that cost so dang much, into an expansion that can also be placed on KS after the base game has proven itself.

    The truth is though that they don’t want to do that. It is much more convenient and profitable for them to get all of that money upfront. I just think we as geeks need to stop supporting the practices that we don’t enjoy. If we never show that we disapprove of the behavior, it won’t change.

    Great tips here, thanks!

  5. As far as not backing friends and acquaintancesm even with a $1, just remember… What goes around comes around. If you ever expect to do a Kickstarter or promote your own game, what do you think your “friends” will say to you when it’s your turn to ask for support? Reciprocity is a deep part of human culture for a reason, it works.

  6. This post is a cold slap of realism to Kickstarter Campaign managers and I’d say I have to agree with a lot of it. By my nature, I tend to be frugal and calculating when it comes to my purchases, especially ones that by their nature mandate uncertainty. But let me come at the issue from the opposite side of the spectrum. As a soon-to-be runner of a Kickstarter Campaign, I’m committed. I have spent hundreds of hours and dollars designing my game. The decision to create a Kickstarter Campaign has also consumed enormous amounts of time designing it and money promoting it. All of the stretch goals and incentive to get people to pledge are there to take advantage of excitement, mob mentality, and impulse buys.

    But I don’t do that because I’m greedy. I want the funding goal to be as low as possible, meaning the absolute minimum profit for me, because a low funding goal is more likely to succeed. This is where the mob mentality is used against the owner of the project. The “perfect game” that I’d like to design though is going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you want custom components and the best art it costs bank, because factories will only produce that kind of quality and custom product in minimum orders of 1,500-3,000 units.

    I can’t have a funding goal of $200,000, because I’m a nobody. I don’t have previous games to my name or a fan following to back me up and support me right when the project begins. The mob mentality hurts the project because people don’t want to back something that isn’t going to be successful; they don’t want to be disappointed. Even though it is “no risk” because backers get their money back if a project isn’t funded, the most common human characteristic is that they want to be part of a team of winners. They want to help be on the side that helped something get accomplished, not on the side that failed. If nobody else is backing it, or the goal seems impossible, few will want to be part of funding it, even if they like the idea.

    So I’m stuck in this position, as I’m sure many first time board game designers using Kickstarter are, where I want to raise all the money so my game can be the best, but I know that if I ask too much, I’m destined to fail. I want to make a small print run so my funding goal is reasonable, but then my minimum pledge to get a game is higher because the unit cost goes up the fewer units you print at a time. So I need to make a large print run to make backing more accessible on a per-backer basis, but then I need a higher and more prohibitive funding goal for a larger print run.

    So I would say to take the opposite approach. Pledge Freely. Pledge $1. If the project doesn’t fund, you get all your money back. 2 days before the project ends, you get a warning and can cancel your pledge if you want to, or add enough to get the project if you so wish to. There’s no risk to pledging. That doesn’t mean anyone should go off and pledge $50 at everything that they think looks remotely cool without doing any research. What it does mean though is that pledging $1 is going to make you really think about the project you just pledged and give it a fair shake before you decide that it really isn’t for you.

    Now, with all that said, your post is something that I am definitely going to consider as I design my campaign and try to make it as effective as possible. So, thank you for putting your thoughts out there and also the invitation to discuss them.

    • Thanks for your perspective! I can understand that running a Kickstarter campaign is a lot of work, and the situation you find yourself in.

      I guess what I was trying to get at in this post–and may not have communicated under my layers of Kickstarter annoyances and regrets–is that the best Kickstarter strategy is to have a great product, clearly defined and well delivered.

      Good luck on your campaign!

  7. That is certainly the best strategy. Being transparent about your motives and clear about what your game is, is more important than all the shinnies and flimflam. Thanks for the encouragement Lenny.

  8. Hey Farmer Lenny,
    Thanks for sharing this great article with us. Your total post was fantastic and the sound was very pretty. I’ll follow your suggested Kickstarter Lessons to learn lot for this matter. Keep Well !

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