3 Wrongs, 2 Rights and 1 Who Knows – Lessons from the What the Food?! Kickstarter

22 December 2013 | 4 Comments

I chat from time to time with fellow Kickstarter creator Peter Vaughan, and he recently mentioned to me that he learned a lot from running his Kickstarter campaign for What the Food?! I asked Peter if he would be willing to share some of the mistakes he made (so other creators could learn from them) and some of his wise choices (so other creators can emulate them), and Peter was very kind to write the following guest post. Enjoy!

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3 Wrongs, 2 Rights and 1 Who Knows – Lessons from the What the Food?! Kickstarter

If you’re like me, you’ve discovered that the Stonemaier Games blog has valuable post after valuable post. Just now, I made notes to go back and read KS lesson #70 on selling the retail version of your product. (Thanks Jamey!) I launched and funded my first Kickstarter this year for the game, “What the Food?!”, and despite all that I have soaked up, I still have a lot to learn. In fact, I mentioned that fact with Jamey and he invited me to share some of my experiences. I’m honored to be here to contribute, and hopefully I can add my own bit of value for those considering launching a game.

3 Things Wrong

A. SHIPPING

The level of time I spent on researching shipping was not nearly enough! In my defense, it’s not like I knew the weight of my game prior to launch or anything (we hadn’t made it yet and final card counts depended on the goal reached) and it’s not like Fed Ex, USPS or UPS make it easy to send many different individual orders – but admittedly, I knew this was my weakest part of the financial spreadsheet.

I calculated that US shipping was going to be ‘about’ $7 per box, with packaging. This was based on me weighing Munchkin and figuring I’d be similar and using USPS I saw prices like $5.80 in California (Note to future self: ‘about’ is not good enough to base huge business decisions on AND there are postal ZONES, duh!).  As it turns out, 1 copy of my game and expansion weighs 1 lb 6 oz, and shipping that to Pittsburgh from Burbank is $9.88 online. Those are the more exact numbers you wish you had at the start.  (and that’s not even final with packing). So it’s not as cheap as you – or KS backers – think.

Now that’s just domestic shipping. What about International orders? I had no idea, but I figured $16 or $24 or something. Yes, in my head, I thought, “or something.” And that’s about as firm as I had it while I was launching.

Truthfully, KS is a bit weak here in the tools they give you to navigate it. I knew from studying other campaigns that this was a problem issue and a variety of strategies existed. Among the main ones were a flat fee like $10 or world maps, with complex instructions on how to pay per country. The latter tended to lead to comment walls of complaints. I was launching before Jamey outlined his awesome shipping model, but I saw Dungeon Roll used 3 tiers for every version of product – US, Cananda and Worldwide. Not bad, but they had to burn precious page space to repeat the same thing, and it still wasn’t that welcoming to the non-US folks.

I had a lot of expected Canada pledgers and my main goal was to get the game played, so I said, “to hell with it, $10 flat it is!”  I figured it would just even out with local copies I didn’t need to ship.  Yeah, um – don’t do this strategy. Go read Jamey’s blog and do that instead. In the end, I was saved by my distributor, Aldo Ghiozzi at Impressions who put me in touch with a third party fulfillment company who brought my costs into reasonable range, despite my own efforts.

B. TARGET AUDIENCE

Ok, since we made a food themed game, how about a food analogy… designing a game is a lot like making a roux. Come again? You know, the flour/butter thickening agent that goes into almost every master sauce? You can take a basic roux and make it as simple or as complex in flavor as you wish. (You can also screw it up royally and have to start again – welcome to game design). Now, when I started stirring the mechanics in What the Food?!, I taste tested the heck out of it. We play tested dozens and dozens of times, with different groups. I was sure the base mixture was good, but who to cook it up for?

Casual gamers! I love to host game nights and teach games, and we need more entry-level games for big groups. Also, I had partnered with an artist and co-designer who were primarily video gamers and new to card/board games. As I thickened the sauce, I could see that my partners and many of the people who enjoyed the game at first were getting lost. And families with kids were loving the quick, fun silly game – so peeling off the extra mechanics seemed the way to go as we headed into launch.

No wait – It’s for core gamers too! I continued to worry though that there wasn’t enough in the game to keep it different every time. I wanted to keep characters with variable starting powers, even though casual players aren’t used to that. I myself loved the deeper elements. After pulling the trigger and launching, early reviews came in (from hobby game sites) and of course, they wanted a fancier sauce as well. Faced with the reality that I was primarily talking to board gamers on Kickstarter rather than casual players, I quickly agreed to add more rules and deepen the gameplay – mid campaign!

Now the campaign is over, I made my dream possible and I don’t regret the game I cooked up. What the Food?! is fun, light and full of flavor. Time will tell if I ended up too overwhelming for casual gamers and too light for core gamers, or found the sweet spot in-between. In the meantime, I highly recommend thinking long and hard about your target audience, because it impacts all of the other decisions you make.

C. WORK/LIFE BALANCE

At one point early in January 2013, I calculated the number of cards still to design and paint, and then I calculated how many I could do a night and on weekends. I was shocked when it plotted out to late April before I’d be done!  I had planned to launch in April too, but I had yet to call printers, plan and launch the Kickstarter, start a company, etc. The only way I could do it all was to work into the night, every night!

Surely though, once the campaign was done, the work would subside, right? Uh, nope! June was suddenly playtesting the new rules we cooked up, July was painting all the artwork I had left. At the end of July, I finally sent files to the printer. Now finally I could relax, right? Not a chance!

Every single day this year has been in some part spent on this business, every lunch hour crammed with work to do. There were KS add-ons to make, conventions to plan for, distribution logistics, shipping and fulfillment logistics, social media duties, staying on top of the printer all the time. Non-stop.  Just last week – 182 days after the campaign finished, I’m now in final stages of shipping and we’re looking at hours of work each night and in the mornings before I head to my day job.

In the middle of all that, I got sick and spent a week in the hospital, and 4 weeks bed-ridden with headaches. I’ve recovered and I’m fine and there’s no evidence that it the cause was stress related, but let’s face it – my immune system wasn’t what it should have been. The end story is a happy one for me and my loved ones, but the process reminded me that your health, your family are the most important things, even (gasp!) above making games.

2 Things Right

D. COMMUNICATION

When I say communication, I mean all the time, and of all types – backers, friends, teammates, etc. This is a big topic, but one area that I wanted to speak to is communication with other Kickstarters. I chatted up dozens and dozens of project creators, to ask what I could. Case in point, questions to Jamey about his process. However, I had not found Jamey yet when I first started, so I was bugging a few other folks. Just to name a few:

  • Michael Mindes at Tasty Minstrel Games (TMG), who always found time to answer me somehow even though he’s super busy on Kickstarter. His blogs and posts are very transparent on the process.
  • Christian Strain (Evil Intent) and Dan Smith (King of Crime). Both of those guys had relaunched their campaigns, so I figured they had lots of lessons to teach and they did. Dan invited me to tour his printer’s facility while he was making his game.
  • Nathanael Mortensen (Dragon’s Hoard) – he hit 50K with a light game and had a super clean project page so I wanted to know all his secrets. Nathanael gave me one of the greatest tips and suggested I add 2 months to the delivery. I’m so thankful I listened to that one!
  • David Malki (Machine of Death) – he was pretty busy this summer since he just hit 500K, but like Michael, he also took the time to answer questions. His entire project from video to project page inspired me.
  • Charles Boyd and Wyatt Kirby (Quarantine Z!) gave me all sorts of tips and a shout out to all their backers when I went live!

Christian pointed out that the Kickstarter community is a giving one, and most people are willing to help you out. I completely agree and as a result, I have built some new friendships, and received tons of advice that helped me shape my campaign into a success.

E. TEAMWORK

Despite what I said above in work/life balance, I did actually realize that it was a mountain of work and I couldn’t do it alone. I assembled a small team of 3 guys (and our spouses) and only because of that collaboration were able to launch this project, fund it, finish a physical product and put it on store shelves in a year!

My biggest example of this, and not to diminish anyone else’s involvement, is my friend Sebastien Duclos, who did the illustrations for the game. Sebastien not only breathed life into the characters, but he gave them back story and firmly established the school setting they live in. I can draw, but it was refreshing to let someone else in and allow them to shape the game. Sebastien contributed over 200 drawings when all was said and done, designing 30+ chibi style versions of the characters when design changes mandated new action cards. Most of this art was drawn prior to KS launch, and let’s face it – the characters and art style sold the game.

There are countless other examples of how teamwork made this game happen, and I have a deep respect for everyone who helped, whether it was making the project video with me, play testing, getting the word out in game stores or on social media sites, stuffing reward envelopes, etc. On the next project, I will likely involve even more help!

Who Knows?

F. MINDSET

One thing my brother told me (he’s a Certified Financial Analyst), is that on paper, making a game for these costs was not a sustaining business model. I laughed, and told him that sometimes you just do something because you have to do it. I needed to make a game and I did. That being said, is it possible that taking a loss is also taking a win? That is what I ask with my last point.

My examples include backers who told me they couldn’t afford the game, and I sent them one anyway, or upgraded folks who provided a funny survey answer. I sent free copies to teachers, game cafes, pubs, libraries, game stores and dozens of bloggers and reviewers. I’ll be making pins and stickers and lots of things for kids at conventions who like this game – just because. I agree with Jamey that people are individuals, not numbers. I made this game to share it with everyone above all else.

If you’d like to check out our company and the info on the game, it’s here: www.squirmybeast.com which includes links to the Kickstarter for What the Food?!

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4 Comments on “3 Wrongs, 2 Rights and 1 Who Knows – Lessons from the What the Food?! Kickstarter

  1. Great article! i have gotten to know Peter through his Kickstarter and i can say he is one of the people doing it right. i have personally received 4 Kickstarter games I backed in the last 3 months and What The Food?! was the only one that was done with a finished, well thought out design. the others all suffered from design flaws and obvious lack of play testing (and no, Jamey, I am not a Euphoria backer so it is not in this list :) ). Wish more creators would do it like Peter.

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