Kickstarter Lesson #134: Pull the Tooth

12 January 2015 | 31 Comments

Have you ever had an idea you couldn’t let go of, even to your own detriment?

I’ve experienced this personally many times over. In fact, just in this past year I spent a huge amount of time trying to design a dragon-themed game (deckbuilding with a board). I went through dozens of iterations, and it never reached a point where it was fun. So I let it go.

I also got it in my head that I really wanted to design a large-group game in the vein of The Resistance. So in the last year I’ve designed at least a dozen games of that type, none of which have held a candle to current games in that category.

Sometimes we get so caught up in a specific project that we fail to realize it’s simply not going to work. No matter how hard you try, no matter how passionate you are, some ideas are not good enough. And that’s okay. It’s okay to not put a mediocre thing on Kickstarter just because you’ve spent a lot of time on it.

The key is to remember that you always have the power to get that idea out of your system–to pull the tooth–and move on to something better. By finally saying “no” to that idea that has dominated your time, you open yourself to all those little ideas you pushed to the side in the meantime. I bet you learned a lot in the process of pursuing the obsession that you can apply to those new ideas.

Kickstarter and crowdfunding will thrive if we use those platforms launch our best ideas (in near-finished form). I’ve said before that YOU are the last gatekeeper–there’s nothing stopping you from crowdfunding any idea. But every time you launch a mediocre product or project, you lose a little more of that hard-earned trust.

This is one of the reasons why Stonemaier has only run 4 Kickstarter campaigns. We’ve tried to crowdfund our best work, nothing more. And it’s why we’ve been incredibly selective about publishing the work of other game designers. We hope that will speak volumes to backers when Between Two Cities (designed by Ben Rosset and Matthew O’Malley, and developed by me) launches on Kickstarter on February 25.

There’s a powerful moment in Douglas Morse’s new documentary about this concept of recognizing and letting go of our mediocre ideas so we can continue to grow and evolve. This scene gave me chills, and since I’ve thought back to it many times. Douglas kindly clipped the scene so I could share it here on the blog.

If you’d like to watch the rest of the documentary, please visit Douglas’ website here.


Can you think of a time when you couldn’t let go of a mediocre idea? What happened when you finally did (or didn’t)?

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31 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson #134: Pull the Tooth

  1. So how do you know when an idea leads to a dead end?
    Especially since ideas very rarely appear in their perfect form and they all need polish like diamonds in the rough.

    On the one hand, you don’t want to waste your time pursuing mediocre ideas.
    On the other hand, you can’t wait forever for that ‘perfect idea’ that might not come.
    On the one hand, you have to realize that every idea needs work for it’s brilliance to reveal itself to you.
    On the other hand, you can’t afford to work endlessly on every idea until it’s perfect.
    As they say “Done is better than perfect”.

    So what do you do?
    I suggest 3 tips:
    1 – accept some things as absolute truths that cannot be overridden:
    – There is no ‘perfect idea’, every idea needs work.
    – Done is better than perfect.
    – Most ideas won’t tell you if they’re good or bad before you put in them hours.

    2- Keep your emotions at bay.
    I’ve seen enough interviews with poker champions and successful investors to know that what the layman might perceive as ‘luck’ is actually discipline. Good poker player/investors control their emotions when others can’t. They stay calm and stick to the odds they know and minimize unnecessary risks. They know when it’s time to quit, even though the market/table has some hefty rewards for whoever stays to the end, and the know when to keep going even if the gain won’t seem a lot to most.

    3 – Set specific goals and stick with them!
    The only way to know when to quit or when to keep pushing is to set out clear and realistic KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) make them S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound). As long as you’re hitting your goals, humble as they may be – keep pushing! When you aren’t hitting them – be honest with yourself is it because you weren’t working hard enough or is it because the idea doesn’t work.

    Don’t quit when you’re tired, quit when you realize the road isn’t leading to where you want to go.

    I’d suggest reading Seth Godin’s book “The Dip”. He talks about this subject.

  2. When it comes to ideas – their worth is in the eye of the beholder. One person may think an idea is bad, but a thousand others think it’s good… or visor-versa. This applies especially to cutting edge creative ideas. Personally I have to be passionate about an idea to pursue it – as it’s that passion that will sustain me enough to bring the idea into the world as a final complete form.

  3. I think it dilutes the platform when people put weak ideas and products to be crowdfunded. However, some people might truly enjoy the product, so I try not to judge. Good read as usual.

  4. It’s great to see this concept written about here. Facts are, we all make canine-fang-teeth-games that just gotta go sometimes. But like most baby teeth, it sure hurts a lot less the sooner you let it fall out. It’s the “holding on” to it that makes it hurt. (…or the pliers).

    I wonder if there’s some dental analogy for having adult teeth early. The pearl of greatness that just falls into your lap with perfection written all over it.

    Either way, what’s important is having the wisdom teeth to be able to tell the difference. ; )

  5. While I agree I do wonder if in some cases it could go the other way, if you were totally honest about it? Board games are less subjective, to a degree, but say with musicians, how everyone has a different favourite album? Is there a case where a musician can go “I’ve put a record together that’s a bit out there, and I’m not convinced it’s great, it’s certainly not my best work, but if 1000 of you want a copy I’ll get them pressed, if not, no harm, no foul”.

    I mean, that’s what a niche thing is, no? Something 99.9999% of people have no need for or would hate, but the remainder really want? I’m convinced there’s a use case for Kickstarter that isn’t “all my projects must succeed” but instead is “I’ve got a plan to do a thing, I’m not even sure there’s a market for it, let me know”

    1. Dean: I do like the idea of crowdfunding as a way to gauge demand for a thing or an experience, and if the creator is honest about it, sure, I could see that working. The crowd serves as the gatekeeper.

      The caveat is when a creator already has the trust of the crowd. I’ve heard many backers say that they’re looking forward to backing my next project before they know much about it at all. So it’s part of my covenant with them to only Kickstarter awesome things (at least, things I think are awesome). If I started doing that with subpar games or products, I would betray that trust.

      1. Seems to me that what Jamey is cautioning us about is sub-par things that wouldn’t be a niche hit – there’d maybe already be better games to scratch that same itch.

        I agree with Dean – if there’s something totally wacky and only a subset of folk will enjoy it, you should put it up there. Maybe you have a game designed to express your political views? Certainly a niche and not something that should be marketed as a general-interest game but something that should be put up in case others are willing to get behind you.

        Mediocrity can be abandoned, but when you’ve got your fanbase, there’s even more reason to tap into a niche subset, I think.

  6. Sorry for the nit-picky comment, but in paragraph 6, I think you’ve accidentally omitted a word.

    “you a little more of that hard-earned trust.”

    Assuming you mean, “you lose”, I absolutely agree.

    That final clip is a bit odd. Is he basically admitting that he’s holding onto his idea for far longer than sensible?

    1. Thanks for catching that, Behrooz!

      Yeah, the documentary is largely about Randall’s unwillingness to let go of his original idea. In that clip he talks about how he hasn’t fully let go, but he was willing to completely retheme it. And something else happens too that’s even more revelatory, but we didn’t want to spoil that part.

  7. It took me nearly six months to settle on Randall as a worthy subject of two years of my time. It meant letting go of half a dozen false starts over six months and countless hours of footage that would never make it into the film. Great post (as always!)

  8. My dad and I tried launching a re-design of a game he published in 1988, called Hurricane. We put the game on KS a couple years ago, hoping to publish it as a more modernized 2nd edition. However, we were too quick to assume that just because the game did well in 1988, that it would also be marketable today. We were wrong. We were new to KS, and hadn’t done our research regarding what constitutes a great game in today’s market. Our redesign was still based on the old mechanics and the art was generic. This was completely my fault being new to graphic design, and not familiarizing myself with enough art styles seen in modern games, at least successful ones.

    Nevertheless, we were too consumed with our “idea” at the time, and hadn’t taken a step back to look at the marketability of the game, and whether or not is was actually fun. To us it was fun, but now looking back I realize there was way too much luck, and not enough decision making in the game. I think it is so important to really analyze how much fun your game is, and reflect on your experience playing it. Did you truly enjoy it? If not, what can be changed to make it enjoyable? If you have to change your entire game into something else just to make it fun, it’s probably better to move on to another idea altogether instead of wasting more time.

    Once we realized our redesign of my dad’s game wasn’t going to work in today’s market, we decided to completely change our direction and begin work a new idea. I’m so glad we did this, and 17 months later we now have an almost complete game that is fun and balanced. The road to finding a good design isn’t easy, and sometimes we just need to take a step back to move forward.

    1. Mike: Thanks for sharing the story of Hurricane. I think this is so important, and I’m glad you shared it with others: “Nevertheless, we were too consumed with our “idea” at the time, and hadn’t taken a step back to look at the marketability of the game, and whether or not is was actually fun.”

      I’m glad you two were able to get a new perspective on the game and rework it!

  9. I believe everyone who has tried to design a game has reached a dead-end at somepoint. I think the best way to deal with it is to put it aside and return to your old idea with new perspective after a few months.
    It does’t have to be a different year or whatever, but returning to an idea after you have stopped thinking daily about it can result to a very elegant sollution.
    It is all in the progress of our improvement as designers.

  10. I certainly agree with making sure a game is real quality and has the chops to make it before considering a Kickstarter for it.

    For new designers who have a game that they think is good and plays well, but maybe not quite what they’d want as their first kickstarter project, what is your take on putting the game up on a print on demand site rather than scrapping the project completely? Just curious whether you think the potential pros that come from having a decent project that’s playable available somewhere for people to try outweighs the fact that the game might not be something a designer has enough confidence in for a full-on, crowd-sourced production run?

    1. bduerksen30: Hmm, good question. I certainly think there’s value in putting something out there to get feedback on it–sometimes that’s how we figure out that our ideas aren’t as good as we think (or that they have the potential to be great). But I’m not sure I would charge money for them. I know that I wouldn’t feel comfortable charging people for a game I knew was mediocre.

  11. Well, I have lots of ideas that I’m not really sure whether they’re mediocre or not, but I certainly wouldn’t put them up on KS unless I *knew* they were my best. As someone with way too many ideas and nowhere near the time to work on them, I continually bargain with myself to make sure I’m working on the best possible idea.

    I read some quote somewhere by someone (I think it was a filmmaker) that basically said “Only work on the single best idea you have – throw everything else away.” I’ve tried to live like that in my creative life. So maybe it’s not about letting the mediocre ideas go, but instead never letting them see the light of day?

    1. Dave: That’s an interesting point. I think the tough part is figuring out that an idea you were previously in love with is actually mediocre. That’s difficult to come to terms with. But once you know, yeah, I agree that it’s a good idea to showcase your best work and only your best work.

      1. With creative things, I think it’s doubly difficult. You not only need to be able to let go, but you need to be able to figure out which ideas should be let go of: How do you seperate the ideas that are ‘horrible why did you ever think they’d work’ with the ones that are solid ideas, you just need a breakthrough to get them into shape… And I think that applies to all creative projects, be it traditional art, writing, game design, or whatever.

        1. Gizensha: Indeed, it’s quite difficult. I was just reading an interview with Rob Daviau today in which he said something very similar–you have to learn to tell the difference between the crap that will always be crap and the mediocre that could be great.

  12. Hey Jamey. (With an “ey” not “ie.) The idea of “pulling the tooth” tangentially reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The quality of Kickstarter campaigns is going down. Or rather, there are still quality campaigns, but there are also projects that are horrible that I’ve been stumbling across. For instance, the “Shitbag,” which literally is a plastic grocery bag taped to the back and held up by an erection. And it’s been up for days. As someone who has utilized Kickstarter and genuinely loves Kickstarter, I’m worried that the “brand” will lose respect if they don’t get a handle of stuff like this. I’m not a very uptight person, but I mean… it isn’t even an invention/new product. It’s a plastic bag. I’d love to know your thoughts on this.

    1. Dylan: Thanks for sharing your concern. I’ve been worried about that ever since Potato Salad. My hope is that capitalism will weed out those projects, but I imagine they’re making people less likely to spend time browsing through random projects.

  13. A popup sailing ship model. At least 100 hours of work. No dice. SUCH a relief when I finally decided I could let it go, move on.

  14. How I wish more people would resist the temptation to put their dental problems on kickstarter!

    I’ve been working on a traitor type game for about 2 years. It started great and was inspired and fun. It got better, and better, and then hit a plateau. For the longest time nothing could get it over the hump. Every “improvement” simultaneously took something away. I gave it a very long break. I look forward to coming back to that design with a fresh perspective.

    1. “Every “improvement” simultaneously took something away.”

      Luke, the above comment you made hits the nail on the head for me. I took a great idea and kept adding improvements until the basic premise got lost under way too much complication. So now it’s the KISS principle for me as I come back to my word-game after a long break, and like you, with a fresh perspective.

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