Kickstarter Lesson #183: Epic-Level Rewards

4 April 2016 | 33 Comments

A few years ago, a backer paid $10,000 to get a speaking part in the Kickstartered Veronica Mars movie.

Around the same time, five backers paid $1,150 each to have Seth Godin include their stories told in his book, The Icarus Deception.

Last year, two backers paid $5,000 to spend a week hanging out with the folks at White Wizard Games as part of their Epic card game campaign. Genius Games has a similar pledge level (for a day, not a week) at $1,500 on their My First Science Textbook project.

What do these examples have in common? They’re all epic-level rewards.

An epic-level reward is very expensive reward that gives someone a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A number of projects have one of these types of rewards–should yours? Here’s my experience with them, as well as some things to consider.

***

I’ve only ever offered one truly epic reward. It was on my first board game campaign (Viticulture), and it was listed at $999 as follows: “1 copy of Viticulture, 1 copy of the expansion, and your choice of Alan (my cofounder) or Jamey will travel anywhere in the continental US to deliver the game in person on a mutually agreeable date. Your pledge covers our travel/expenses.”

No one pledged for it.

However, on the same project, I listed a somewhat similar epic reward level at $149, and 2 people pledge to it: “2 copies of Viticulture, 2 copies of the expansion, 4 Viticulture wine glasses, and your choice of Alan or Jamey will attend a game night with you and your friends to teach you how to play. Mutually agreeable date in St. Louis, Richmond, or Kansas City.”

The 2 people who pledged at that level were friends, and only 1 of them ever took me upon the game night offer. We had a good time drinking wine and playing Viticulture with a big group of people.

But here’s the thing I realized that night: I’m not comfortable charging people to play my games with me. Can you imagine how your friends would respond if the next time you showed up at game night, you said, “Hey everyone, tonight I’ll be charging each of you $149 for the pleasure of playing games with me.” It’s ridiculous.

So I decided to never again offer paid rewards for things I would gladly do for free.

***

This ties into the first point when considering an epic-level reward: What is the value of your time?

Take the Genius Games reward, for example. John is basically saying that his team is willing to not work for a day to help a fellow entrepreneur with their business. Is that worth $1,500 to the entrepreneur? Maybe, maybe not. But is it worth $1,500 to John and his team? Absolutely. That’s an entire day they’ve given up.

How much is a day worth to you? Make sure to calculate the value of your time when determining the price of the reward, and limit it to only a few backers just in case it’s more popular than you think.

The second point is about creative control. Sometimes an exchange of money creates entitlement, and you don’t want that to ruin the integrity of your project. (This is one of the reasons why I stopped having custom art reward levels in my projects.)

That could have been the case in the Veronica Mars reward, but the creator made sure to say this in the reward description, “We guarantee you will be on camera as you say the line. Unless you go all hammy and ruin the scene and we have to cut you out, but that would be a sad day for all of us. Just say the line. Don’t over-think it. You’re a waiter. Your motivation is to turn over the table.”

Thus, be very clear about boundaries and expectations in the reward description.

The third and final point is don’t rely on epic-level rewards to reach your funding goal. The chances that anyone will pledge to that level are exceptionally small unless you’re famous or if your grandmother is feeling particularly generous.

There’s no harm in including such a reward, but just don’t expect for anyone to actually back it.

***

What’s the best epic-level reward you’ve ever seen? If you’re considering an epic-level reward, feel free to describe it in the comments for analysis.

Also read: Kickstarter Lesson #177: The “Everything, Forever” Reward Level

33 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson #183: Epic-Level Rewards

  1. The other advantage of an epic-level reward (or even a semi-epic-level reward) is the same as a $1 reward: it’s an opportunity to show some personality. I make the majority of my income from my Patreon account. My $1000/month reward level is “Every month, I will mail you both a trophy and a plaque just to remind you of how awesome you are. (Plus all of the above).”

    No one has taken me up on it and I don’t expect anyone to, but it’s nice to show someone who’s read through my entire page something to make them laugh. Similarly, my Scuttle! $1 reward is reading people’s names out in a video (fairly standard) + “If any of us ever become real-life pirates, we’ll invite you to join our crew.”

    It’s a nice way to make someone smile! :)

    (I was seriously considering making a $1000 pledge level of “10 copies of Scuttle!, plus if you mail me your laundry I’ll do it and mail it back to you.” Ultimately it had nothing to do with the theme of the Kickstarter campaign, but if I ever come up with something similarly amusing but more on-theme, I’ll probably include it.)

    1. Peter: Thanks for sharing! As you indicate, I’m a big fan of using the $1 reward level for stuff like that. It feels a little weird to me to use the really expensive rewards for it, though. It may make backers wonder if you have a realistic impression of the value of their money or your time, and it could reflect poorly on you as a creator. I’m not saying it does, but it could (unlike the $1 reward, as it’s just $1). I like your creativity, though!

  2. I’ve always just thought “pay to play my game with me” pledge levels are exceedingly weird. It just seems like a weird ego stroke to say you’re someone worth paying money to play a game with. Don’t get me wrong, they’re probably great people and the intention of the goal may have nothing to do with ego, but someone asking money to go play a game with them just strikes me that way. Then again, I’ve never been one to get all hyped over celebrity either; everyone is a person to me, whether “famous” or not.

    It reminds me of the couple times I’ve been asked to go to a board game tour’s dinner as the special guest, so they can have a BGG “celebrity” or industry insider there. While the people were a joy to hang out with, I just felt weird that part of the tour billing was that I’d be there, as I don’t feel that industry folks should be on a different plane than the fans that enjoy the industry. We’re all just people that love other people and playing games with them.

  3. I think there is a side to this that maybe not everyone understands. I have a friend who is in game distribution. A lot of people think that is totally cool and would love a chance to play with someone around so many games. Or being friends with a game store owner is something that can be perceived as a lot of fun.

    For a lot of people paying to be able to game/hang out with someone who makes games is about the only way they know to be sure to get what they want. At a convention you might get to chat with a game designer but the opportunities to game with them is harder to come by if you don’t have the right connections. So while people might not be comfortable in charging people to play games with them… some people are perfectly happy to pay to play the game with someone they think they will enjoy. If they don’t pay for it the odds of being able to play with person ‘x’ or ‘y’ go way the heck down.

    Many people who have been gaming for a long time aren’t just super excited over expanding who they play with. Or they their criteria for whom they play with might need a cash infusion to make it more flexible. So while we are all gamers some of us have a whole lot bigger pool of people to choose from then others. Also cash is a really handy way of saying that you think the person deserves recognition for being an important part of gaming life. Consider it a one thousand dollar tip for hours and hours of service.

    1. Shiver: Thanks for sharing! I should clarify that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with including that type of reward level–it’s just not for me (as a creator). As you said, there might be people out there who will derive value from the experience equal to the money they spend. I wouldn’t spend $10,000 to be in the Veronica Mars movie, but I bet the person who snagged that reward is happy they did. :)

  4. I don’t think you should feel bad about charging to play games. It’s not really playing the game that people pay for – its meeting and spending time with you. You’re world-famous in the game design industry. I go to see musicians I love whenever I can. Part of the attraction is seeing them, being in the same room as them. The story you’ll be able to tell about it. I think there’s something about being physically close to people you respect.

    It’s no different than people charging to speak at dinners, or meet-and-greet with entertainers.

    You clearly have a lot of good ideas. $149 to get to get the booty you mentioned and spend a few hours with you and pick your brains about all sorts of stuff sounds pretty good to me, although I’m not sure it would cover your travel cost to Sydney.

    1. Michael: I appreciate that, and it’s certainly possible that there are people out there who might pay to play a game with me. But I really don’t want them to–I’m not comfortable with that idea. It’s just personal preference. :)

      1. This may be a ridiculous thought, but how would you feel about offering your company’s presence at a convention? My understanding is that you don’t go to many conventions, but a reward level of “$700 and we will try and book vendor space at the North American convention of your choosing and play a game with you there” might work a little better to assuage your feelings about it?

        1. Andrew: That’s an interesting twist. It might work for some people and companies who are more convention-focused, but attending a convention is a pretty big undertaking in terms of expense and time. I’ve been invited to be the guest of honor at several conventions, with the convention paying me to attend, but I’ve turned them down because I’d rather they invite someone with enough draw that they would help to attract more people to the convention. I’m not that guy. :)

  5. For a future epic reward, you might have a consult on a kickstarter, or evaluate someone’s game design in progress. While you do this to an extent already, you usually do it for pay. You can set a time limit to your involvement, so you’re not sucked in, and somebody else could benefit from your experiences.

    1. Alfred: Some people may accept money to evaluate game designs and consult on Kickstarter projects, but I don’t do that. I’d rather offer my insights, mistakes, and research to a bunch of people at once for free (like through this blog) than to one person (for money or for free).

  6. The very first project I ever backed (heck, I even chipped in money before crowdfunding was even a thing) is the fan film of Terry Pratchett’s Troll Bridge
    ( https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/snowgumfilms/terry-pratchetts-troll-bridge ) and yes, even though that project was in 2011, they haven’t finished it yet, but progress is going well, and we get regular updates.

    The epic reward level in that campaign at $5000 included “a slide of the director’s blood” which got two backers. Despite the legal, logistical and health issues involved, the director did actually have his blood taken (by a trained nurse) at the last Australian Discworld Convention, so that they could deliver that part of the pledge to the backers.

    Both of whom, afterwards, said they’d be happy with metaphorical blood rather than actual blood. Whoops.

    Still, it was an epic reward level and deserved an epic effort to ensure it’s fulfilled.

  7. Hi Jamey,

    One thing that other projects I have backed does that I am a huge fan of is allowing people to pay an extra amount in order to customize the game to themselves (name a planet, etc) In the context of Viticulture you could offer for $100 the chance to have someone’s likeness added into the game as a visitor.

    I recently pledged this with Biergarten, and for an extra $80 the creators allowed me and my girlfriend to get drawn into the game as background characters. Since they have complete control over the look of the characters, and in the absence of pledges, they’d fill the backgrounds with generic people, it offered a great opportunity to both me and the developer.

    This isn’t quite the “epic” levels you’re talking about, but it is a way that a creator can get a bit more money without sacrificing much. Most of the projects I’ve seen that have these sorts of rewards sell out relatively quickly, and for a beginning creator, even $1000 can help get your project funded.

    Andrew

  8. Depending on location, I see the “deliver a board game copy” or “play a game with me at a location of your choice” to be quite an undertaking to you. Like you say, you have to evaluate your time and expense to satisfy the pledge, and work out what its worth to the pledger. How much would you charge for a “play against me and I promise to battle well but lose” epic reward? :-) I never win at games! :-p

    1. Andrew: Indeed, I poorly wrote that reward, and it could have ended up costing me a lot of money if someone in Antarctica had selected it. :)

      I would charge $0 for “play against me and I promise to battle well but lose”. Though I would really try not to lose on purpose–I don’t like to tank games. I might take a riskier strategy and have fun with it, though.

      1. Let me know when you’re in the north of the Uk next and we’ll arrange a game of Scythe – I can just about afford $0. :-D

  9. Great article Jamey.
    I did some epic level rewards on my own Kickstarter for “Infected Zombie RPG.” Started off with one like you said…I’d game with people and sign a book for them. No takers. It felt silly to me from the start, and like you say, why would I charge them for something I’d do for free normally?
    However, I did put up one epic level reward at $1000 for a backer to be able to create, with me, a whole custom region in the book, including having a pic done of them and everything. And I had a taker! That was awesome. Even better, the backer turned out to be a really cool person, who was very responsive to my feedback on his ideas, and we worked on it together.
    What I had been worried about was someone who wanted their idea no matter what, and no matter if it would ruin the theme of the book. I think I totally lucked out with such a cool guy. And, to be honest, I have been determined to deliver a product that he felt totally justified the expense (his response has basically been, “this is even better than I thought!” which I find is both a weight off and very satisfying).
    But would I do it again? It’s a good question… as I say, I lucked out last time. I’m not sure if I’d do it again… at least without putting in a few more provisos on them needing to work with me and take feedback!
    I also did a lot of custom art for backers, which was also great, except that it totally controlled what art I could create. I wanted to do a lot more epic landscape pieces, showing off a great post-apoc world – but instead I had a lot of closeups of people. Still cool, but not quite the theme I was going for.
    And lastly, I also had lesser levels where people could make a group, or a character. This went pretty well actually, and I had great feedback from most people on the way their ideas were put into the book.
    I think I’d do it again, but reduce the amount of pics that could be customised, and certainly put in some terms and conditions! :)

    1. Oliver: Thanks for sharing that example of the $1,000 reward. That’s really creative, and I’m glad it worked out. It’s neat that you were able to offer that one person something that was worth their money, and at the same time it benefited everyone who was involved in the project.

  10. I have “epic” level rewards in all my projects. Typically they provide things like the original artwork, special mention on the packaging, or some special experience (like editing a music video).

    One thing I do is start them with a high price, and then drop it a bit every day until someone grabs it — though in the most recent campaign the top rewards got snagged in minutes.

  11. I offered a kind of cool “epic” level reward in our Frontline General Spearpoint 1943 Village and Defensive Line Map Expansion kickstarter (2012) [way too long of a title, I know]. The reward worked the backer’s name into fiction that backed up various scenarios for this game, a wargame. The backers who pledged for it enjoyed it immensely when they felt like a part of the creation, the story. This kind of reward doesn’t cost anything and doesn’t give up much creative control.

    I’m not a fan of custom art based on a backer and rewards similar to that… but… work backers into the game somehow, or flavor text on a card, or whatever, something cheap and easy to execute, and some people really go for that.

    In the same series of Kickstarters for Spearpoint 1943, I had some success with limited “line for life” rewards, which I’d call ‘epic’. This appealed to some existing customers primarily who knew they’d want everything I’d do in this particular line of games. Basically, they pay quite a bit up front to become a “lifetime supporter” of the game series, and, upon production of a new title in that series, I check with them for their shipping address, and just ship it to them.

    This only works if 1) they have confidence in you as a publisher to produce more games… and 2) you’ll actually follow through when you do. With this type of reward, there is a ‘break even point’ for the funding involved, but, you’ve also made lifetime customers. They’ve fully invested in what you’re doing not only now but in the future. I would only recommend this if you’re planning to create a series of titles with expansions. Even then, seriously limit it.

    The people who supported this have been happy with ‘buying in’ to the series early, which is now 4 games strong. For the particular KS they were in, these levels provided a serious chunk of the funding needed for production.

    Best,
    Byron

  12. I’ve had some success with an altruist epic pledge.

    Coming to the end of the 404 campaign there were stretch goals that my backers really wanted and it was apparent that we weren’t going to hit them, so I created some pledge levels with a high profit cost (£300) that contained the game, some decent bonus stuff (Most notably a gold plated model, which sounds good but isn’t that expensive) and added the line “Unlock bonuses for all 404 backers, have your name in the rulebook” Then made a pledge detailing which bonuses would be added to all copies of the game depending on how many people went for it.

    I had 2 people back it on the campaign and 1 more via paypal – which generated just enough to pay for the stretch goal that everyone was most excited about – the alternate board.

    It worked in this case because the expense was a high setup cost with a low per unit cost (The alternate board was printed on the back of the main board, so the main cost was hiring the artist to draw a second board) so it could be supported by a few high pledging backers. I think (hope?) it was a really great experience for them and the backers at large.

    I think there might be something in the “epic altruist pledge” in which someone pays a lot to add something to every copy of the game for everyone. I don’t see it offered often though.

    1. Greg: That’s really neat! I guess those backers could have altruistically increased their pledges anyway, but it’s always helpful to have a specific reward they can choose. Very clever!

      1. Aye, but the reward let me count their contributions as being higher.

        If you have a new backer at (lets say) £30 you might spend £15 of that on manufacturing and shipping their game to them – so at most you could spend £15 against the cost of a potential stretch goal.

        On the other hand if someone increases their pledge £30 just to get to the stretch goal and expects no extra reward then you can put the whole increase against that.

        So building pledges specifically for that is a way to offer backers more bang for their buck in making global improvements to the game in a way that costs you nothing.

        1. This seems like the first epic-level pledge that I can really get behind. In your original example, the £300 pledge counts the same as 19 £30 pledges for reaching stretch goals.

          Math: £300 -£15 for the game = £285 / £15 surplus £ on a £30 pledge = 19 games.

          This means that while they only pledged £300, they are really bringing you £570 closer to your stretch goal.

          To further incentivize this pledge level, you could potentially give this backer choice between stretch goals (if financially applicable).

  13. For my first Kickstarter campaign, I offered limited edition 24 ct gold-plated version of the Ockham Razor which was my product (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/robhallifax/the-ockham-razor-a-simple-beautiful-razor/). I got five backers at £200 each which raised over 4% of the whole campaign.

    Kickstarter backers aren’t looking for an ‘Amazon’ experience, so for a group of people already predisposed to something a little different, why not offer them a chance to get hold of something truly special.

    Such a tactic can also have a beneficial ‘price anchoring’ effect.

  14. I agree about the whole “playing my game with me thing”. I do an average of one convention a month, if you want to play my game with me its about the cost of a ticket to your local gaming con, and if its not I’m not willing to travel that far because if I was, I’d be doing cons there. You’ll also not have to wait as long for the chance to roll around as if you back a KS. Also, if you want to have a long, involved and detailed conversation about every thought I have on game design, just stand next to my booth long enough.

    What I will say, and I mentioned this on another post, is be very aware of Epic pledge levels that you can’t afford to have cancelled. If someone sees your project on day one and really wants it to succeed and so gives it the momentum boost of backing your epic level with the plan of coming back later and dropping to the normal level can you cover that? Because if you can’t then you’re essentially putting the entire success or failure of your campaign in the hands of a single total stranger who might well meaningly tip the balance against you, never mind if someone does it maliciously.

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