Could a Designer Use Kickstarter to Demonstrate Proof of Concept?

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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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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15 Comments on “Could a Designer Use Kickstarter to Demonstrate Proof of Concept?

  1. I tried option 2.
    Did a mini-kickstarter (with a “success” set at 100 sales and a max limit of 200 sales) to explicitly show there was a market. I did the kickstarter after some pitches.
    I spent zero on marketing and didn’t really have followers/email lists, so it was just through previous interest generated when user-testing. I really didn’t want to get into self-publishing as a business.
    The kickstarter sold just over the minimum 104 units – i felt this was a success, but it didn’t wash with publishers.

  2. Is there a fee to start a kickstarter? I understand there is a cost if your project funds, but unaware of an upfront fee. If your goal is ultimately to generate buzz and serve as an advert to a publisher, you could set the funding goal significantly high such that it likely fails to fund.
    Or if by some stroke of luck it does fund, I’m sure you could a publisher to take over the business side services and you end up with the similar 5-10% designer take that I am told is standard.

  3. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/aaronstanton/the-game-of-books-a-discovery-game-for-libraries-a

    This was one of the first kickstarters I backed, and I was super excited about the idea. Only to find out the creator refunded all the money saying they were going in a different direction. There were rumors that I think I looked up at one point or another, where they then sold the successful idea to Apple.

    https://techcrunch.com/2014/07/25/apple-booklamp/

    If this was their idea, I guess it worked, but it really didn’t make me happy,even though my money was refunded.

  4. Great post Jamey. Thanks for the insight. My personal experience dealing with this issue (Kingdoms Lawn Game) has been positive. I had two previous failed KS campaigns, but my third was successful after I partnered with a game company that had more resources and experience. The game company (Et Games) saw the potential and value in my product. They also saw I had generated a lot of support through various channels (festivals, conventions, schools, camps, breweries, etc.) The two giant obstacles that were always holding me back were manufacturing and shipping…two areas where they excelled.

    Now, I had every intention of publishing Kingdoms Lawn Game myself, so I had spent a lot of time getting the word out about the product. My friend, like others, only wants to purse a very small number of backers, around 100 without any real marketing or advertising.

    If he were successful with his KS campaign, do you think a concern that publishers might have is how many of your backers were friends and family? And if the answer is most backers were friends and family, does this potential skew the real interest in the game and make publishers shy away.

    1. Thanks Denny! I appreciate you sharing your question and your experience in this realm.

      “If he were successful with his KS campaign, do you think a concern that publishers might have is how many of your backers were friends and family?”

      Potentially, yes. I think that’s a valid question for publishers to ask and for the original creator to share. If I heard that from a creator, it might make me more confident in the next Kickstarter, knowing that the creator is able to generate that much day-one support without even tapping into a broader audience.

  5. Hi Jamey, thanks for this really insightful post! I have a question about this part:

    “ 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.”

    Why would a publisher care if they like or not the art and gameplay, if they see that the game has marketability from the acceptance of people backing the project? Shouldn’t they be focused on what brings them customers & revenue more?.. sorry if this sounds dumb, just trying to understand how the business “thinking” of publishers work.

    1. Gustavo: Thanks for your question. I agree that in most cases if a game would be a huge success on Kickstarter, its art and graphic design clearly resonate with people. I don’t necessarily think that means that art and graphic design are as good as they can be, but in most cases in that situation they’re probably pretty close.

  6. Hey Jamey – thought I might be able to share our experience as it somewhat falls in to Option 1. We ran a successful Kickstarter for Escape Room In A Box and ended up licensing it to Mattel (the head of their games team was one of our original backers). We produced the first 3k, so our backers got the art they saw in the KS (somewhat – some of it was prototype art anyway), and then Mattel did their own art for their version, and it has sold very well for them (and us!).

    We developed the second game in the series in conjunction with them and are working with other publishers for future games with no plans to return to Kickstarter. In answer to your question about why we would hand marketing, project management, etc. over to others, it all boils down to how we choose to spend our time. In the year we focused on manufacturing our Kickstarter, we designed one small thing. Since handing that all over to publishers, we’ve been able to work on tons of projects doing what we love: designing puzzles and games. And we are happy to help with marketing since it is something we are also good at. But a Kickstarter is a serious time commitment, and we would rather focus in other directions.

  7. Option 1 happened to me. I decided to get into game design because I was running a web comic, Itchy Feet (about travel and language learning) that already had a sizable audience, and I thought some of them would enjoy a card game based on the comic. Well in 2017 the campaign ended up funding at six figures – and the funding graph was a straight diagonal line, no mid campaign slump – it was an astounding success. I had read your KS posts before starting but that was the full extent of my research and preparation. I was shocked. It’s what got me thinking about more games – originally it was meant to be a one and done.

    Anyway, I thought publishers would be knocking down my door to take the game. I was wrong. I even went to Essen hoping to find a publisher. I did not. So I gave up.

    Then, one day, out of the blue, a small UK publisher called Ginger Fox made me an offer to republish the game with some very minor tweaks. I accepted. A few months later, a Korean company called Lotus Frog Games did the same for Asian territories.

    I think I just got lucky. I’m not counting on that kind of fortune falling from the sky again. And I think a small travel sized card game is far more likely to be picked up than a board game. But – it can happen!

  8. Yogi is a case of option 2.

    My first KS barely funded and had 173 backers.

    During the KS, I actually got one offer of interest from a publisher, but decided to hold off, partially because I wanted to have a taste of what publishing is llike. A year later, when it was a real thing, a friend of mine (Dave Cousins) showed the game to a few pubishers, and I got offered a coupe of actual contracts with international publishers.

    In the end, I went with Gigamic, and Yogi (over 3 years) continues to grow in sales and is now in 19 languages (16 editions, as 2 are multi-lingual).

    I think that Gigamic would say it was a good choice, since they asked me to make a sequel, which is now selling reasonably well.

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