Dealing with an Unsuccessful Kickstarter

As many of you readers know, last week we made the decision to cancel the Kickstarter for New Bedford.  Episode 76 of The State of Games spends several minutes discussing the reasons behind this. The brief explanation is that while there was still a chance for it to fund, the backer numbers and total pledge level were not what we expected, and not what we thought the game deserved. The bare bones version that the funding goal enabled would have been awesome, and I’d still be proud to have made it. But because Chris and I take so much pride in our work, we wanted to make sure we gave people the absolute best version of New Bedford possible. Simply meeting the funding goal would not have accomplished that. Any time you produce something you have a lot of pride in, you want to see it through to the end. The plan is for New Bedford to return next year an be wildly successful. Because I can guarantee you that Chris and I are the two people most excited for all of the extras we want to add in.

Now, to make this happen, it’s important to engage in some self-reflection to figure out what went wrong and what we could have been done better. We asked for feedback on the project and received some from backers, non-backers, and fence-sitters. This taught us some valuable lessons I’d like to share.

First, this is a tough time of year for Kickstarter projects. It’s not an exhaustive look, but Paul Owen pointed out on the Dice Tower News that the number of successful projects always seems to drop this time of year. There are two major factors people cited. For one, it’s the run-up to the holiday season, so people are saving their money for gifts. A lower price point seems to be helpful for that, though. For another, a lot of new games from Essen are releasing this time of year, so there is a lot of competition from games people can play immediately. All that competition makes it hard to even get noticed, as people are so intent on trying out the new games.

Lesson: Timing makes a big difference. Unforeseen events can force you to change your schedule, so give yourself a buffer.

Second, people were waiting for more art. By my own observation over the past year or so, the boardgame arena on Kickstarter has been moving more toward more complete-looking projects. Lots of games show up with almost final-looking art. Even though Dice Hate Me Games has a track record of producing phenominal art, there is no guarantee that people visiting the project page were familiar with DHMG’s previous work. Most people only saw my own prototype art. Even though it was marked as prototype, a lot of people commented that they were disappointed in it. (Hey, if people confuse my prototype art for bad DHMG art, that’s still a compliment, right?) For people skimming the page, I think getting the impression of the final game is very important, and it energizes people to share it.

Lesson: Having a good sample of final art is crucial to attracting backers. The art is often the first impression your game makes, so make it count.

Sharing was another area we could have done more in. Though I traveled to several events this year to promote New Bedford, it’s really hard to reach enough people. New Bedford is a pretty quick game, but even spending an entire day showing the game off, I may only have reached a dozen people, not all of whom are likely to back it. But I discovered something. Somebody borrowed an extra copy at BGG.Con and showed it off. Chris eventually broke his copy out. And after I returned, I met an enthusiastic local backer, Ed, who took a copy of New Bedford around to some other local game shops. Several recent games (the entire Tiny Epic series from Gamelyn for example) sent out a dozen or so review copies to random players across the country who agree to write a review on BoardGameGeek. Stonemaier has the Ambassador program, Stronghold just started Knights.  The way to reach new people is to get your current supporters excited about showing it off. It’s crowdsourcing the publicity in addition to crowdsourcing the funding.

Lesson: Help backers share the excitement directly. Sending out more prototype copies before relaunch might be a good way to do this. It’s not cheap—about $50 to assemble and ship a copy of New Bedford—but it’s definitely something I’ll consider next time.

One factor I’m not sure of is the theme. There were a few vocal detractors of the game’s use of whaling as a theme. There are undoubtedly people who read the word “whaling” and immediately rejected the game, and there are others who were concerned about a negative reaction by their family or game group. I always try to sincerely explain why we think it’s a worthwhile historic subject to make a game from. But as I just mentioned, it’s hard to reach everyone. My impression is that it’s simply not an issue for the vast majority of people, and not that there is a large but quiet group who is politely ignoring it.

Lesson? No matter what the subject, theme, or mechanic, some people are going to dislike your game. That’s ok. It doesn’t have to be everything for everyone. What’s important is how you react to them.

There are there are minor details we could have tweaked in the New Bedford campaign that we’ll want to examine before a relaunch. Kickstarter fatigue may also be playing a role in the funding. I personally expect a number of game deliveries the next few weeks. A lot of people are starting to cite Kickstarter fatigue. This has been a strong year on Kickstarter, and even the first few months of next year are already looking full. It will be very interesting to keep an eye on how they do to see if this is a big factor.

And finally, it’s important to let it be OK that you didn’t fund. Some things are out of your control, so it’s only a failure if you learn nothing from it. Running a Kickstarter campaign is a lot of stress. (heck, it’s a lot of stress even if you’re not running it). And games will continue to fund regardless of these challenges, though it’s not a competition. I happily backed Red Raven Games’ Artifacts Inc. which successfully funded over the same period , but with a smaller goal and price point. Kickstarter is starting to look more like running a professional business as far as boardgames are concerned. It’s a sign that the industry is maturing, but it also makes it hard for people who are still making the transition from hobby to vocation. I’m looking forward to returning to New Bedford with a fresh start next year, and producing a game that exceeds expectations.

Lesson: It’s important to have a publisher who believes in you and your game and will stand by it, even when things don’t go as expected.

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  1. #1 by Stephen B Davies on December 18, 2014 - 8:28 pm

    I’ll never understand the outrage some people expressed over the theme, especially after you took pains to explain that you and DHMG don’t condone it today. Don’t really understand the disappointment in the art, either. No accounting for taste and misguided morality, I guess.

    Good write-up and analysis. I’ll be a backer again when you relaunch.

  2. #2 by BilboAtBagEnd on December 19, 2014 - 11:38 am

    I’m truly sorry to hear about this. I did not back for many of the reasons above. There’s too much games right now. I think it would be wiser to do as what Gamelyn Games is doing with Tiny Epic Galaxies — build up minor hype now and launch with a fanfare in mid-January. Ringing in the new year is poetic.

    I can tell you that in the Visual Novel arena the days of the Kickstarter hobbyist are long gone. In order to fund an entire VN project (an expensive affair already) you need to be able to present final art for multiple CGs and characters, present a demo with one or preferably two full chapters implemented with final soundtrack and effects, and that all costs a dear amount of change (something like $5k to easily $10k). And that’s assuming that you already have proven yourself with previous visual novels of nearly equal quality.

    It’s why I haven’t bothered to enter the Kickstarter arena.

  3. #3 by ISOHaven on December 19, 2014 - 12:24 pm

    Flat out piss poor project handling.

    • #4 by Oakleaf Games on December 19, 2014 - 1:56 pm

      @ISOHaven I’m sorry you think so. The outcome doesn’t reflect the amount of work and all the good decisions that went into the project behind the scenes. DHMG’s history of good campaign management was one of the reasons I wanted to go with them as a publisher. It really shows that experience and prior success aren’t guarantees. I don’t think we dropped the ball, but we did decide to put it down to get a better grip. It’s just unfortunate that we needed to get that close before we decided to regroup. I hope you’ll consider supporting us again on the next project.

  4. #5 by Paul Phillips (@Ofcrpaul1318) on December 19, 2014 - 2:32 pm

    Personally, the Whaling theme is what attracted me to the game. I thought it was so unique. I HAD to have the game. I look forward to backing it again in 2015. I don’t currently own any DHMG’s, Although there are a couple I’m interested in, that I missed on KS originally. I really appreciated the honesty and integrity in the decision to cancel the project. I look forward to future projects and can’t wait to see New Bedford in it’s final glory..

  5. #6 by Gamer Dave on December 22, 2014 - 10:31 am

    I think it is a little misleading to say it was unsuccesful. If it was on track to fund, then the project, as presented, was going to be successful. Seems to me another important lesson is to not launch a project with a goal that you are unhappy if met. If the goal was higher and included all the things you wanted, but failed to fund, then that is unsuccessful. It is still successful if you met the goal, even if it wasn’t as popular as you think it deserves and stretch goals weren’t met. Lets face it, there is steep competition out there and hits are hard to predict.

    That being said I undestand why you pulled the plug, especially on the publisher end with the tax situation. Hope you do better next time.

    Also I didn’t back it because of theme. I’m not offended, but I just know getting others to play will be hard.

    • #7 by Oakleaf Games on December 22, 2014 - 1:45 pm

      Yes, I think there are really two meanings for success in this context. One is Kickstarter success, meaning you reach the funding amount you publicly ask for. The other is personal success with the project that includes private goals, long term plans, and decisions in the context of a business. I think there are enough quirks with the psychology of running a Kickstarter that the two are different. I might liken it to opening a restaurant versus keeping a restaurant open. Simply achieving the first is a success that many people never reach, but the second is an entirely different scope.
      The decision to cancel wasn’t simply based on popularity. “Popularity” is a single indicator of multiple combined factors, so when it’s out of sync with expectations it signals that you need to consider the underlying causes. Discussing what we learned by examining those causes was the motivation for writing this article. I think Chris put it the best way, that there seemed to be a several things aside from the game itself that were holding the project back. We want to minimize those external factors so that our next attempt will be the best chance we think we can give it.

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