Kickstarter Lesson #119: Release with a Boom, Not a Whimper

25 September 2014 | 17 Comments

Note: I try to write these lessons so they apply to any type of Kickstarter project, but a lot of what I discuss in this particular entry applies specifically to board games.

Recently I was talking with Eduardo Baraf, creator of the successful Kickstarter campaign Lift Off!. Ed asked if I had written about how some game projects get a lot of attention when they arrive to backers and others don’t at all. I hadn’t written about that, but I thought it was a great topic to delve into.

Guess what? Viticulture 2.0 is almost here!
Guess what? Viticulture 2.0 is almost here!

The subject has been on my mind a lot lately for a couple of reasons. The first is that I recently attended Gen Con, and I’ve been informally tracking many of the games released at Gen Con on BGG. The main things I’ve looked for are rank on the hotness list and number of ratings. It’s fascinating to me to see the games that appear to be actively played and discussed compared to the many games that seem to garner very little attention post-release. Note the emphasis on the word “appear”–more on that in a minute.

The second reason this has been on my mind is that I’ve received a lot of games I Kickstarted over the last two months, and I’ve been tracking them on BGG as well. Again, the appearance for a few of them is that they’re being played and discussed, but there are a few that have 0 ratings on BGG. 0! These were successful projects on Kickstarter, and now no one is talking about them.

Granted, before I continue, I should note that there is a huge gap between the number of ratings on BGG and the number of games being played. For example, Dominion has several million copies in print at this point, but the based game only has 38,556 ratings (a huge number for BGG, but still a small percentage compared to overall sales). I can speak specifically about Euphoria since I published it–there are 9,000 games in print right now, and it has 2,285 ratings on BGG.

What’s going on here? Why are some games in the public eye while others aren’t? What can we do as project creators to make sure that our products arrive with a boom, not a whimper?

Here’s my answer, followed by some actionable steps: It’s human nature to get excited about stuff that other people are excited about. It’s why we wait in line for an hour to get brunch when we could walk half a block to the place with no line. It’s why we inexplicably pay attention to sports we don’t care at all about if our roommate is the sport’s most passionate fan. It’s why we’re more likely to jump on a Kickstarter campaign that has wildly overfunded than one that hasn’t funded yet.

We’re drawn to popularity. Popularity breeds popularity, just like momentum breeds success.

The thing is, you don’t get to choose which products of yours are popular. You can try, of course, but the true popularity is out of your control. You can, however, make a big impact on the perceived popularity of your product. Here’s how:

  1. Write Backer Updates: Have you ever been excited about a new movie, and in the weeks leading up the movie you see more and more commercials for the movie, and every time you see one you get more and more excited about the movie? Use backer updates to do this as you get close to the release date. Your backers are your best asset because they wouldn’t have backed the project if they weren’t excited about it, so you just have to help remind them of that original excitement 6 months later. Post photos, fun details, share your excitement, shipping updates, etc.
  2. Post Photos on BGG: One of the most important areas on the BGG homepage is the images section. Leading up to the game’s release and for several weeks afterwards, post one beautiful photo of the game per week. Give it a few days to garner thumbs, then share the photo somewhere (Facebook, Twitter, project update, etc). Don’t bribe for thumbs–just put the photo out there so people who like it can thumb it.
  3. Get People Talking About Your Product: This is a pretty broad category, but the key is to view yourself as a moderator. Your job is to create the potential for discussion. Start threads on BGG that pose questions. Ask questions in project updates. Talk about the game on your blog or Facebook or Twitter in a way that invites opinions and feedback. A big part of all this is that you want people to play the game as soon as possible, so if people see others discussing the game, they’re going to want to play the game so they can be a part of the discussion. Make sure to be an active part of these discussions, and continually invite more discussion through your responses. For example, even if you definitively answer a question, leave the door open for other questions or discussions about strategy.
  4. Have a Limited-Time Money-Back Guarantee: The heart of why we offer our money-back guarantee is trust. But there is also an ancillary reason tied to the one stipulation of the guarantee: The guarantee expires 1 month after a backer receives the game. The purpose of that (other than to ensure that people don’t ask for their money back years after they received the game and played it to death) is that we want backers to play the game upon arrival. We don’t want our games to sit on the shelves for months. Of course, there are many other ways to get backers to play your game that are more important (i.e., make a great game with accessible rules and beautiful components), but the extra push of the money-back guarantee is really helpful.
  5. Make a Call to Action for Backers: As I’ve discussed in detail elsewhere, you should use calls to action very selectively with backers. Asking them to Like or thumb or share something in every project update will quickly lead to mass unsubscribes. But when the time is right–perhaps a week after they’ve received the game–give backers a specific call to action. The easiest things to do are on BGG: thumb a photo, become a fan, or subscribe to the game. You can also remind backers to mention the game the next time they’re at their local games store. Remember, backers are your biggest fans (until you let them down): They want your product to do well post-Kickstarter.
  6. Invite Fun Engagement: I much prefer this to the more self-serving call to action method. The idea is to give backers the opportunity to share the game in fun ways. For example, the aforementioned Eduardo Baraf did something at Gen Con where he encouraged people to take one of the meeples from his game and take a photo of it doing something mischievous and silly. I love that idea, and it’s a great way to get backers to open up their copies of the game and hold the components in their hands, building excitement. They can then take photos or videos (I think the kids these days use Vine? Maybe?) with those components in a fun way as you suggest and post them on Facebook, Twitter, BGG, Pinterest, or YouTube.  Encourage unboxing videos. You could do this just for fun or make a contest out of it. Again, this is a way to get the game in the public eye.
  7. Send to Reviewers: You should absolutely send copies of your game to reviewers. Even if they don’t like the game (though you might want to start off by targeting reviewers who you think will enjoy the game), they’re drawing in hundreds or even thousands of people, many of whom may have never heard of the game. As much as it might sting, pay attention to the comments and engage in them selectively (don’t get defensive or interrupt a discussion that is already flowing well).
  8. Send Out Press Releases: Press releases don’t have the impact they once had, but particularly in the board game community, there are lots of blogs that have weekly news sections. Be a part of that news by telling the press when your new game is on the market. This can lead to interviews and perhaps a designer diary on BGG–basically, you’re doing the same kind of press tour you did during  your Kickstarter campaign.
  9. Advertise: If you’re doing your job with backer updates, your backers know when the game is being released. So at best, a few thousand people are aware of the release of the game. What about the other 10s of millions of gamers around the world? Banner advertising isn’t a sure thing, but it’s worth considering on BGG when your game comes out.

The combination of all of these factors should result in the appearance of popularity, which will hopefully lead to actual popularity.

Have you seen some Kickstarter projects release with a boom using these methods or others?

17 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson #119: Release with a Boom, Not a Whimper

  1. Eduardo’s #LiftOffGenCon was one of my favorite Twitter trends to follow during the con. I wish it had translated into more funding for him. I’d love to see others try new and creative things like that (much like the current Hooch Kickstarter).. But, maybe even more, I’d like to see incentive to get people to do those fun and crazy thinks immediately upon game delivery, as you said. Get everyone who’s waiting for their delivery excited, get social buzz going.. Generate FUN. Which is the point of all of this anyway, right? :)

    1. Jason: That’s a great point–this whole industry is about having FUN, so it’s great when creators create an ongoing sense of fun starting before the campaign and carrying well past the delivery date.

  2. With respect to the BGG ratings: I tend not to rate a game on BGG until I’ve had the chance to play it a few times – I know a single playthrough of a game is not enough to get a feel as to whether I like it or not (although a few games are amazing on that first playthrough).

    Heck, most of the time I /forget/ to rate games, as BGG is not a portal I stop at all that regulary. And I’m sure there’s millions of board game players out there who don’t use it at all.

  3. I think the send out to reviewers is huge. The Rahdo/Dice Tower/Etc. effect is pretty impressive. You always see a big surge when Rahdo does a play through of a KS game on the funding. I think the same can happen post delivery if the reviewers are putting up their reviews of the final product the backers then get reignited to play the game.

  4. Hi Jamey.
    Thanks for the article, bookmarked.
    The more often I see it & think about it the more sense money back does to me. Though do you think it applies to other media. How would you see it in, e.g. comic books, since they are usually read once? Can you possibly share data from your experience with us?

    Another idea I got while reading the article – it involves a few of the points stated – was to encourage backers to review your PnP before & during your campaign maybe offer an exclusive if they post it online. What do you guys think about it?

    Finally, I do not think adverts can be successful, partially the points stated by Molokov, though mostly the amount of money they charge per service. If it was max 50 it would be not that bad though 500 never… certainly it is a no go for a first timer.

    All the Best & thank you for the food for my thoughts :)

    1. Konrad: I think the money-back guarantee works best for things that you physically need to hold and use before realizing if it truly is the right purchase for you. Things you need to test out. For any content that can be previewed in advance online, I’m not sure it’s needed.

      Data from my two money-back guarantees are here:

      https://stonemaiergames.com/the-results-of-viticultures-money-back-guarantee/
      https://stonemaiergames.com/the-results-of-euphorias-money-back-guarantee/

      I like the idea of getting people to share photos of their PnPs–people take a lot of pride in a well-constructed PnP.

  5. About the number of BGG ratings: I don’t think the number of copies /sold/ should be the reference number, but the number of BGG users /owning/ the game. A lot of Dominion copies are sold to people who have no account at all on BGG…
    On BGG, Dominion has roughly 51k users owning, and 80% of them rated this game (ignoring the possibility of users not owning but rating it nevertheless). Euphoria has 4k users owning, and 70% of them rated the game. That is a little less, but not a bad number (in my book).
    What do you think about /these/ numbers? I don’t know which games you followed on BGG that had 0 ratings, but maybe there were nearly no users who indicated possession of a copy?

    1. Rob: Thanks so much for sharing that data! I must admit that I rarely look at the number of copies owned–I just look at the number of ratings. But it’s an interesting comparison.

      1. Jamey, I just realised another point in this specific discussion on ratings is the age of the game. Dominion is from 2008, Euphoria is from 2013 (five years later; it’s not even two years old at this moment!) and Kickstarted games that appeared in your collection only a few weeks ago are even younger.

        How older a game, the more plays a gamer can have had. And thus more chance that someone has an opinion based on more plays, hence the more someone might be inclined to effectively rate a game.
        So, when comparing Dominion to Euphoria, the 70% is actually rather good. Probably because you used Kickstarter to not only enable the publication but also to create a community with interested users.

        I wouldn’t rate a game I played only once (at least, that’s my sentiment right now). But when I have more than a few plays under my belt, I might rate games. Which I didn’t do up till now, however. Looks like I have a small task ahead… ;)

  6. Hey, Jamey.

    I’m a new publisher without a published game yet (soon!). What could I expect for the sales of a title post Kickstarter?

    For instance, after an initial, successful KS campaign…let’s say it raised $50k of a $25k goal…did ok, what does the future sales of the game look like? I know this is a wide open question and depends on the game, the popularity, etc. But the average/above average game, what is a possible average one could expect (again, wide open, I know). Is 1000 units a year relatively uncommon? Do publishers do more? Usually way less? How long does a print run of 1500-3000 units take to sell? Any insight would be great. (I know you’ve only had a few games to have this experience with.)

    Thanks!

    1. Jason: Thanks for your question. The answer varies widely based not just on the quality of the game, but also how you market it (review copies, convention sales and play-and-wins, paid advertising, etc). Is it tied to how much you raise on Kickstarter? I think there’s some correlation there, as it indicates a strong interest in the product even before it hits the market. Different publishers use different formulas for determining how many copies to make based on Kickstarter sales. For example, I know of one publisher who publishes 200% more retail copies in the first print run as compared to KS copies (so if they sell 1000 copies on KS, they’ll print 2000 retail copies too). I’m much more risk averse–I tend to print about 25-50% (if I sell 1000 copies KS, I print 250-500 retail copies).

      My perception is that Kickstarter or otherwise, very few games ever sell more than 1500-2000 copies in their lifespan. By “very few,” I mean in comparison to the thousands of different games that are released each year. I think the key is that you want to print enough to test the waters of distribution/retail, but not so much that you lose money. You can always print more later if there’s demand.

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