27 January 2020 | 15 Comments
Let’s say that you have a product; in this example, we’ll say it’s a board game. You’ve worked on it for a few years, and while you’d prefer for someone else to publish it–you love designing games, but you don’t want to start and run a game company–you want to demonstrate to a publisher that people really like your game.
In that situation, could a designer run a Kickstarter to increase the chances of a publisher signing the game?
This is the scenario presented to me by Denny Weston (a friend asked Denny for his thoughts, and Denny asked me). I’ve been thinking about it for a few days, and I’d like to run through a few different variants of this scenario to share my perspective.
Option 1: The designer runs a Kickstarter and it’s a big success.
The good news is that the success of the Kickstarter does demonstrate on some level that people want your product. Not only that, but the project page presents a wealth of knowledge to the publisher to help them make their decision, and the campaign has generated lots of awareness for the game.
This is not entirely unlike a game being published in one country and then picked up by a bigger publisher to release the game in other languages worldwide. An example of this is Tajemnicze Domostwo (published by Portal Games), the rights for which were acquired by Asmodee, who renamed the game Mysterium.
However, Mysterium serves as a cautionary tale, because Asmodee changed some of the mechanisms and all of the art. Publishers do this all of the time (because the publisher is responsible for those aspects of a game, among others). That wasn’t a problem for Mysterium because it wasn’t on Kickstarter, you have 5,000 backers expecting to get a specific art style and specific mechanisms. That doesn’t give a publisher much flexibility.
But perhaps the publisher loves the art and gameplay exactly as they are. Even then, a publisher may be disappointed that they missed out on the excellent margins provided on Kickstarter. That’s a big boost for publishers of any size.
So I think the only scenario in which a very successful Kickstarter would significantly increase the chances of a publisher signing the game if they already like the art and gameplay almost exactly as is, they see huge retail potential, and you share enough of the Kickstarter revenue with them to cover production and shipping for the Kickstarter rewards.
One last thought here is that if it you ran a very successful Kickstarter project, even though you originally just wanted to design games, you probably have quite a talent for marketing, art directly, project management, etc…so why would you want to hand off all of those elements to a publisher?
Option 2: The designer runs a Kickstarter and it’s a minor success (or fails to fund).
This isn’t necessarily terrible news. Sure, people didn’t swarm to your project. But there have been plenty of great products on Kickstarter that weren’t well presented, marketed, or priced. A publisher might see potential for the game, just with some sort of important, significant change.
This is where timing can have a big impact. If the publisher learns about the game during the Kickstarter project, it’s not too late for them to sign it, change it for the better, and relaunch it themselves (or not use Kickstarter at all).
That’s exactly what happened for a game called Toast, which eventually became Raise Your Goblets by CMON. Note: If you’re a creator in this situation and you’re approached by a publisher, if it seems “too good to be true,” it’s probably too good to be true. Please do your research and due diligence.
However, if the publisher learns about the game after a mildly successful Kickstarter, then they’re in the tricky situation described in Option 1, except with a game that people don’t seem all that excited about. I can’t see many publishers taking a risk on games like that.
Also, in this situation, in the likely scenario that the project doesn’t attract a publisher, you’re stuck running a game company, which you were originally trying to avoid. (I happen to love running Stonemaier Games, but there are plenty of people who would rather just design, not do all of this.)
Option 3: The designer doesn’t run a Kickstarter and instead pitches directly to publishers.
This is the most common way that designers pitch games to publishers. It’s a tried and true method, and I think a big part of the reason is that publishers don’t expect a game designer to be a master at marketing (as is important for Kickstarter). We just want you to design an awesome, fun, intuitive, and innovative game.
However, I like when designers think about the marketability of a game. Here are a few ways you can do that:
- Tell me the number of blind playtests for the game and the average rating from those playtests (on a scale of 1 to 10). Granted, a publisher doesn’t expect a game to be extensively blind playtested–that’s their job–but a few blind playtests make a big difference for a pitch (and for making sure the game can be learned from the rulebook).
- Share a few anecdotal quotes from playtesters that go deeper than, “I really like it!” For example, from a recent playtest report for the Tapestry expansion, “Overall the 3 of us felt that the expansion added new content that made the game more enjoyable overall. It seems that the entire expansion allowed more clear direction on a possible strategy on how to play (what to focus on and go for).” -Matthew B.
- Highlight a variety of “hooks” in the game–the thing that is likely to catch someone’s eye, draw them in, and make them really want it. In this blog post I describe examples of component, mechanical, and thematic hooks, among others.
Of course, you can still do those things if you also run a proof-of-concept Kickstarter for the game. I just think that doing so can add a number of complications, as mentioned above.
I’ve spoken in relatively general terms above so you can pursue a strategy that’s best for you. But what about Stonemaier Games specifically? Which of these strategies would most interest us?
Well, aside from our submissions currently being closed, because we haven’t used Kickstarter since 2015, a Kickstarted game almost certainly wouldn’t be one that we would consider. The only exception I can think of is the one described in Option 2 (we see a live Kickstarter that is struggling for reasons that seem unrelated to the game itself). Even that is extremely unlikely, but it has happened once (we still didn’t end up signing the game).
What do you think? Are you aware of any examples of a publisher signing a Kickstarter product during or after the Kickstarter? Did it turn out to be a good choice for the publisher?
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