A Lesson in Focus from Tainted Grail (KS Lesson #261)

4 January 2019 | 19 Comments

Recently there was a massively successful tabletop game project on Kickstarter called Tainted Grail. While I wasn’t a backer, I kept an eye on the project, and I admire the vast majority of their methods. Congrats to Awaken Realms!

However, they did one thing that I think can be a cautionary tale for other creators. 18 days into the project, having raised millions of dollars from tens of thousands of backers, they announced that they were making a digital game in addition to a tabletop game.

I think they presented this news as well as they possibly could, and in their minds (and surely in the minds of some backers), it was a good thing. They were offering the digital game for free to all backers of the tabletop game, and they made it very clear that the development of the digital game would not impeded that of the tabletop game.

However, as many of the 30,000 backers pointed out in the comments (some more constructively than others), they backed a tabletop game, not a digital game. They wanted their money to go to making the tabletop game as awesome as possible. Their trust and risk mitigation was based on the premise that they were backing a tabletop game.

Even though the creator’s intent was pure, the announcement felt like a betrayal to quite a few backers. I don’t know what the cancellation rate was that day, but I’m guessing it was higher than average. The project was still, however, incredibly successful.

My takeaway from observing this situation is that if I had a spinoff product to announce, I would not associate it with the project at all. In fact, I probably wouldn’t announce it until after the games had shipped so that there’s no association between backer funds and the separate product.

The alternative would be to announce the other product up front at the beginning of the project, but then I would be selling two different things to different audiences at the same time. I just think it’s better to keep them distinctly separate.

I’m glad Awaken Realms was able to overcome this hiccup–it’s nice to learn these lessons when you already have 30,000 backers and not when you only have 10. :)

How would you deal with this situation as a creator who wants to announce something new (and at least tangentially related) in the middle of a project? Would you do it or wait?

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19 Comments on “A Lesson in Focus from Tainted Grail (KS Lesson #261)

  1. Thanks for this Jamey. Yes, the digital announcement was one of the reasons I did not back this project. I’d been watching it for days. I’ve decided to wait and see what reception the board game receives.

    As the market becomes more saturated with board game releases on Kickstarter, I’m trying to cultivate greater awareness around how designers release products AND how they communicate their value to gamers. There’s truly lots of strategy involved.

    As an indie designer / business owner myself, these lessons are gold. Happy to be a Stonemaier Champ, thanks again!

    –E

  2. Glenn Drover did something similar with Victory & Glory: Napoleon. After the campaign was over by many months, it was announced a video game would be done before the board game claiming they’d learn things on the former to make the latter better. Then, after being very late with anything, what was finally delivered as a board game did not have much of what was promised originally (but still in a massively over-sized box) in terms of (embossed) meeples, battle boards, and dice. We got no battle board or dice and substantially fewer meeples. The latte came with little round stickers with numbers on them. And then the rules didn’t say what to do with the meeples and stickers (so you had to make a guess). And the rules ignored using the meeples in place of cardboard counters. Other than two campaigns that never delivered, this was the worst backing experience I’ve had in years being involved with Kickstarter.

  3. Even more than that, Having 30000 prepaid app purchases loses the purpose of an app. I mean, you target at first thousands of purchasers for profit, then by word of mouth to make an digital app popular. If the 30K is the only target group (plus lets say, as little as 150 more people), then the company has built a digital version for a small crowd. It is higher risk than Kickstarter itself. Then again, I am no expert in digital stuff and Awaken Realms may have profit from making the digital game from scratch as a Stretch Goal anyway.

  4. I think in a similar situation I would a) make very clear that none of the money from the board game KS campaign was going toward making the digital version, and b) not give it away free to backers as part of the campaign.

    It’s a separate product, not a “supplement” to the main game. It might have been a better move to, like you said, announce the digital game after the KS had ended, as a separate product. Then if you want to give it away free to all the backers, you end up with a nice bonus for those that want it without muddying the waters during the campaign.

  5. I received a comment from someone who isn’t able to post, but I think they make some great points about how money is spent. I think some people don’t realize that when a company earns revenue, it goes into a general pool of funds that they spend in a number of different ways. That company hopefully budgets well so that expenses for one project don’t prevent another from happening (especially in situations like on Kickstarter).

    Here’s the comment:

    “While I don’t disagree with anything Jamey said, I think this also highlights some of misconceptions that backers may have about what the crowdfunding process has become.

    Awaken Realms set a funding goal of $45k to make the game (it would actually cost more than this to make even at a minimum order quantity), and they raised $6.2M. While they did unlock a lot of stretch goals, I don’t think it would be possible to spend the difference on manufacturing costs. And with nearly 42k backers, the manufacturing costs are likely considerably lower on a per-unit basis than what they planned as worst-case scenario.

    Sure, some of it will be spent on making extra copies of the game to send to friendly local game stores, but Kickstarter is affecting that model. Distributors are feeling pressure to quickly jump to what’s hot this month. As a result, they are taking a much more cautious approach to how much they buy and send to stores, and publishers have to be cautious about how much extra they produce.

    So of course that money is going to spent in other areas for the company, including other sources of revenue. It’s also going to be spent on growing the company: new computers, software, and staff, maybe a new office. It’s going to be spent on art, 3d modelling, marketing, and advertising for their next game or maybe multiple games.

    If you back a game after all of the goals have been unlocked, your money is almost certainly going to anything other than that game, but that’s not a bad thing. You are helping a company you believe in to make more games that you will like, and strengthening our industry in the process. So if you like and want a game, back it and don’t worry about how the company is allocating its profits.”

  6. I honestly don’t mind if some of my money goes toward the digital game as long as they don’t skimp on the tabletop game and provide what they promised near the timeframe they sold us on. I just got Nemesis and it’s pretty phenomenal, quality-wise (at least my copy is) and the timeframe wasn’t too far off (for the core game anyway). I have the same expectation of Tainted Grail.

  7. Maybe frame it clearly as a separate group of developers liking the board game so much they asked if they could do a digital game alongside it? Try and keep the pitch at arm’s length as much as possible from the board game developers. They kind of clarified this in later updates but it could have been better articulated to begin with .

  8. As Joseph pointed out, it doesn’t appear like the campaign was negatively impacted by the announcement of the digital version. While there is a decrease in pledge amounts from the 22nd (the day of the announcement) to the 23rd, that decrease started the day before (the 21st), and was only because the 21st was unusually high (most likely due to them adding pledge levels that included add-ons and ones for group buys). The days following the announcement matched fairly closely with the rest of the middle of the campaign both in terms of pledge amounts and backer count.

    So I think it was a vocal minority of people who were upset by the announcement. And even many of those people changed their views once Awaken Realms clarified the situation the next day ( https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/awakenrealms/tainted-grail-the-fall-of-avalon/posts/2375592 ). Even though in the original update Awaken Realms stated that there was a separate team working on the project, and the project had been in development since before the Kickstarter campaign (i.e., this wasn’t something they had just decided to do on a whim because of the board game’s success), they didn’t explicitly state that funding for the digital edition was separate from the board game. In the following update, they clarified that the board game was still their priority, and that funding from the current Kickstarter was not being used for the digital edition.

    For me, the lesson here is that when giving backers/customers a gift, be sure to make it clear that it is truly a gift, and not you giving them a “gift” that in reality they are paying for. At the same time, I don’t blame Awaken Realms for not expecting any negative reaction to their announcement. Even though there was two expansions worth of stretch goal content, there were still people asking for more stuff. So I’m sure Awaken Realms was excited to be able to offer additional content to backers beyond what was planned for the stretch goals, and figured the worst reaction would be apathy. It was probably quite disheartening to see a gift that they had already put a lot of effort into and were planning to put even more be received with such negativity.

    And while I can understand that some people might have had concerns about the impact of the digital game on the board game, I think they should have given Awaken Realms time to respond to those concerns before accusing them of using the board game Kickstarter to secretly fund their digital game. If Awaken Realms had wanted to do that, they would have waited until after the campaign was over to make their announcement. Since one is not charged until the end of the campaign, there is plenty of time to patiently wait for a creator to address one’s concerns before making a decision about whether or not to reduce one’s pledge or drop out.

    All that being said, if I had been in their shoes, I probably would not have offered the gift during the campaign. While as a backer, I’m glad to have received it, I do wonder how much appeal it will have outside of fans of the board game. If the digital game’s audience is limited to mainly those who enjoy the board game, then I as the publisher would have to hope that the board game is popular enough post-Kickstarter to have a good market. If the board game was popular enough or I could see that the game would likely attract enough people who didn’t have the board game, then I would feel more confident in giving my Kickstarter backers free copies because I would still have a big enough market in which to sell the game. But currently there are a lot of unknowns.

    Also, while Kicktraq showed little to no negative impact due to the announcement of the digital game, it also showed little to no gains. So from a purely business standpoint, it probably makes the most sense to wait to get a better sense of the market before committing to giving copies of a tangentially related item away for free or at a discount. But I think the decision to give away copies of the digital edition was borne from the joy Awaken Realms was experiencing working on it, and their desire to want to share their creation with others.

    It is this passion that Awaken Realms has demonstrated in continuing to push the bar higher in their games that has led to them having the #1 and #4 highest funded projects (in general, not just amongst games) on Kickstarter in 2018. So it will be interesting to see what they end up doing in the digital realm.

  9. Tough call here — I see it from both sides — I am backing a board game and it’s not a “simple thing” aka takes time, money, skill and resources to do a digital version

    However, it’s a good idea and a good add on — as usual, Jamey (and others) are right in that it could have been handled a little differently to avoid confusion or hard feelings
    .

    Probably the best way would be to announce that they are working on a digital version but that the funds from the Kickstarter are going towards the board game first (or exclusively).

    Then also announce that everyone in the Kickstarter is invited to the closed Beta of the digital version and if you participate even just a little in the closed Beta, you get the digital version for free — making the bar possibly just playing one game in the Beta or something very easy to accomplish.

    This would significantly cut down on risk by getting hundreds/thousands of playtesters, give you a nice wide audience for the beta and allow backers to have the “I am in the cool kids club — I get to (possibly) see the game pre-board game launch and be part of the launch” feeling

    Very interesting topic and one that will come up again — it also has a “side topic” of whether or not a company builds a companion application for their board game (aka 5 minute dungeon free downloadable application with voices for example).

  10. Pretty early in the project I backed this and although some of the comments were insane – I do understand some of the negative feelings towards the announcement. Jamey you make some very valid points, although for me there was one thing that gave the whole thing a sour taste… The comments sectioned exploded when this was announced btw, not a fun read.

    Computer games, especially if you opt make a full-blown 3D version of just about anything, require a substantial amount of resources, time, dedication and experience. Although there have been some excellent indie 3D creations, it is by no means a guaranteed succes. Now if they say they would develop an app, sure anyone with even a small budget can create a half-decent one. If they would have opted to create a simpler, or easier/cheaper to make game (aka what Thronebreaker is to the Witcher IP, not saying either is in anyway easy or cheap to make), I might have been more positive. But to try to make a AAA-sort-of title doesn’t do right to the IP to suggest you do it as an ‘extra’. The perceived chances of succes are just way too low. The disconnect between the products as Jamey advised is therefor a good one, but even then, I for one much rather have them dedicate all resources into boardgames (even the next one!) as opposed to computer games, which is a different game entirely (and which I would almost never back).

    The argument mentioned before about a point in sale-numbers after which extra revenue does not (or realistically can not) be spend on further R&D / production of the KS product directly is a valid one. However, in my opinion, I don’t think backers realize this as much. It seems to me that most people think it is -their- cash the company is dealing with. People seem to feel entitled to certain things once they commit to a project. Last thing they would want is to see their money being used for something they didn’t sign up for in the first place. Now of course we all know that the company should spent it as they see fit – that’s all in the game. However, good intentions aside, they should be careful when spending (although they clearly stated they used other funds for the game) ‘project’ money on non-project ventures AND communicating it as such.

    Anyone got an educated guess of the cost-per-unit or gross profit margins for these kind of board games? Maybe someone got an idea how you can even spend x million on a single board game R&D?

    1. Joris: Thank you for sharing this! I appreciate your well-reasoned insights. As for your final question, I would estimate that at scale, the manufacturing cost of the core game of Tainted Grail is around $20. That’s before stretch goals, which are significant–they might bump it up to close to $35 USD. They were selling it with no shipping included for $89 USD, so that’s a margin of $54. Of course, they also have a ton of sunk costs regarding the art and written content.

      1. Thank you for your insights into this matter, I actually expected it to be around 50% in relation to the sale.. correction ‘investment-price’ to be completely honest. Although with this much scale, it might make sense it is actually closer to 35% I guess. As you are working on a coop exploration game yourself, can I ask why you opted not to back it?

          1. Well we will see how it turns out, there is quite a few seemingly good stuff on Kickstarter I have noticed… Different strategy now to judge whether or not a game is good with all the paid previews though. The FOMO is strong.

            I did notice you got Architects of the West Kingdom, which I like a ton. Nice vid on that one. The pace of the game is just great and the 3rd player Automa is a great addition. Adds something to the worker placement genre. The capture mechanism is also a brilliant example of a rather peaceful take-that system and a very pretty way to balance things out.

  11. I’d very likely run for the hills if a company made such an announcement. Developing a board game is very different from a digital game. When you’re paying a bunch of programmers, the cost can overrun quickly enough that a company could be tempted to just spend all their funding to get over the “last stretch”. If the board game production hits any kind of snug which requires extra funding, the company can go bankrupt and you don’t even get your board game. The fact that they had $6M does not mean much to me, because flush with that kind of money, some people might decide to just hire a huge team of programmers and burn through it quickly.

    kickstarter is all about trust. trust that the designers are making a good game, and trust that they can manage the funding.

  12. As a backer of the board game, I don’t care if they do or don’t develop a digital version (as long they don’t tell me some kind of app is needed to play the game – THAT would upset me).

    How I felt about the announcement was totally dependent on my opinion of Awaken Realms being the company making the announcement. They have a good track record in my opinion so far with Lords of Hellas, This War of Mine and everything I’ve seen of Nemesis. And they’re delivering Nemesis in a lot better timespan than some other mini-heavy Kickstarters I’ve backed. So, if they say they can bring Tainted Grail to market AND develop a digital game that won’t impact the board game, to me, they have the credibility to make that statement.

    If I had had the same announcement from some OTHER Kickstarters I’ve backed who do NOT have the same track record, I probably would have reacted as some of these people did.

    Sometimes, it’s not just a matter of what is being said, but who is saying it and how much faith you can put in them.

    Dave

  13. I’m a backer, and I don’t have a problem with them doing a digital version, as long as it doesn’t impact the schedule for the cardboard version.
    This is the first time I’ve backed one of their Kickstarters, but they seem to have a good reputation, and have done well delivering other projects on time.

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