Kickstarter Lesson #240: Why Have a Release Date?

18 December 2017

In the midst of a 2-week period when we released two new products (Scythe: The Wind Gambit on December 5 and Charterstone on December 12), someone on Facebook asked me why we even have release dates. Why not just let stores hand over our products to paying customers as soon as they arrive?

It’s a good question, one that took me some trial and error to figure out as a publisher and as a Kickstarter creator. Here’s the deal:

Creators and publishers create release dates largely out of respect for retailers. It’s not fair for one store to sell the game early just because their distributor was a little faster than another store’s distributor.

I didn’t realize how much the game industry infrastructure values this practice until I released Invaders from Afar last year without a release date. At the time, I simply told stores to give the expansion to customers as soon as they received them. After all, that puts customers first, right?

Unfortunately, I was wrong. Stores were angry because some stores received the games earlier than others. Distributors were angry because stores were complaining to them and ordering from a bunch of different distributors instead of focusing on one. And customers were angry because other people were getting the game before their preferred store got it.

Here’s a Crude Analogy

If you want to understand why release dates are important and if you have kids, try the following: Tonight at dinner, give dessert to one of your kids. Tell your other kids they have to sit and watch their sibling eat dessert for 20 minutes until they can have theirs.

I know, that’s a crude analogy that unfairly compares customers to children (though perhaps we can all relate to that–we’ve all gotten childishly giddy about a new product or game, and that’s a good thing!). But it helps to explain why publishers like to offer their “dessert” at the same time to all retailers.

Why It Matters to Kickstarter Creators

Say you make 3000 units of a product. 2000 are for your backers, and the other 1000 are for retail or direct orders. Perhaps this is obvious, but I’ll say it: If you release the game via retail to non-backers before backers get the product they’ve waited on for months and helped to create in the first place, they’re not going to be happy (and justifiably so, in my opinion).

So for a creator, a release date gives you an element of control. It’s a declaration to retailers that they can’t sell the product until you’ve fulfilled your promises to backers.

When to Announce Release Dates

If you have a product that people are eagerly anticipating, they will ask you early and often for the release date. That’s my experience with The Wind Gambit and Charterstone, and as a result, I announced their release dates 3 months in advance.

I wish I hadn’t, though. There’s just so much that can go wrong in production, ocean freight, customs, land freight, etc. So in the future, while I might offer estimates (i.e., December), I will wait until much later to announce the release dates, possibly as late as when a game passes customs. There’s still another month after that to ensure that the warehouse can process the incoming shipments, send them out to distributors, have the distributors sort them, and have retailers receive them.

I’ve been told by distributors that they prefer to receive products at least 2-3 weeks before the release date. The Wind Gambit met that requirement, but Charterstone did not, which put a lot of pressure on our warehouse and on distributors.

Regional Releases

One thing I did with Charterstone and The Wind Gambit is that I issued different release dates for different regions. Like, the release date in Australia was a little earlier than the US/Canada date, due to various elements related to freight shipping/timing.

I probably wouldn’t do this again, as it mostly just created confusion among customers.

Potential Issues

I ran into two issues with the recent releases:

  1. Retailers didn’t heed the release date. There were a number of reports of retailers simply putting the games on their shelves as soon as they received them. Whenever I heard about this, I called the retailer to politely ask them to wait until the release date. Most of those retailers claimed that their distributor never told them the release date. From the distributors I talk to, I have my doubts as to whether or not this is true, but it’s the way it is. There really isn’t much you can do to prevent this other than to try to get as many retailers as possible on your retailer e-newsletter.
  2. Distributors didn’t get games to retailers in time for the release date. This is either a publisher problem or a distributor problem (or some combination of the two). The Wind Gambit and Charterstone provided an interesting test case for this, because The Wind Gambit arrived at distributors weeks in advance–so, not a publisher issue. Charterstone was much tighter, and it was compounded by distributors trying not to ship the game to retailers before December 11, because they’re afraid (reasonably so, per #1) that retailers wouldn’t heed the release date. What I learned, though, is that you want your release dates to align with distributor shipments. In the board game industry, we’ve gathered that this means that Friday release dates (any Friday other than a Magic release) is a great day for distributors to get the product to retailers on time. In the future, I’ll be shifting from Tuesday release dates to Fridays.

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I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic from any perspective: creator, consumer, publisher, retailer, distributor, etc. Let me know what you think in the comments!

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

27 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson #240: Why Have a Release Date?

  1. My personal experience is all second and third hand of course. But I am friendly with one of the smaller FLGS in my area, and they didn’t get Charterstone until the day before release day (11th). I had been kinda bugging them the previous week, just to see how many copies they were expecting, and they let slip that most distributors don’t “trust” the smaller shops to not sell early, so they wait until the last possible date to ship before release.

    I can’t say how much of that was hyperbole, but they have always been up front with me about everything, so I’m inclined to believe that something must have come up in their discussions with the supply chain to make them think it.

    1. Dan: I’m glad you posted this, as it was a good reminder for me to add an important note: Because distributors are worried about retailers violating release dates, they often schedule the delivery to arrive the day before the release date. So it’s an intentional thing.

      1. In the movie industry the movies ship weeks before the release often times but not only, it’s against the law to distribute the movies to the public before those dates and the retailer would loose their affiliation anyway. But that’s all protected by unions and guilds, I wonder if there is anything in the publishing industry which does the same? I’ll have to do some research on that….

        Also, release dates are important method for creating demand, if the product is found out not to be as delightful as the anticipation then the public is likely to turn away from the product.

        That’s why video games, books and movies often have midnight release dates. I wonder if it would be good to begin doing that with board game sales in select markets—in store sales happen before online sales, anyway just a thought!

        1. kevin: Thanks for sharing that about the movie industry. I don’t think there’s any such protection/enforcement in the game industry other than if retailers consistently violate release dates, distributors may intentionally start sending games to them late.

  2. Great article, and great advice! It’s interesting how much anger that lack of a release date can generate in retailers, distributors, and consumers, each for their own reasons. And it is also eye-opening how all of this anger stems from selfish impulses.

  3. “t was compounded by distributors trying not to ship the game to retailers before December 11”.

    In the future are you going to tell the distributor to ship to the retailer earlier? But then you have to think if the retailer has enough space (off-shelf) to store them for a week. It might make some retailers angry not to get the game before the release date and it might make other retailers angry to get the games too early. An enviousness predicament.

    I’d imagine picking a release date prior to a kickstarter campaign would be even more difficult. Do you have a tip for that? Maybe work out the schedule and add 3 months.

    P.S. If you don’t want to offend a small number of people about the customer and child comparison, you could change it to adults in a restaurant eating a meal, and the parent to a waiter. But no matter what you write someone will express themselves as being offended.

    1. Anthony: Well, I learned through this process that distributors are pretty good at getting games to retailers in time for the release date…if you align with their weekly shipments. So I think the change to Friday release dates will solve that issue.

      As for picking a release date before a Kickstarter campaign, I don’t think that’s possible. :) There’s too much that can happen! I’d wait until I start fulfilling rewards to declare a retail release date.

  4. Release dates creates anticipation. I see how Star Wars (or any other trilogy the past 16 years, since LotR) is releasing in December, just before Xmas gifts (=merchandise). It’s the same with ads on TV, there are time zones for every consumer (eg noon for mom-related products, 9-11 during a derby dad-related products etc) .

    So, announcing a release date creates a time zone for your product, that was never there before. It is a different thing to just walk in a store and say “oh, there’s A new SM game in here, I wonder when it was out?” than “Oooooh my goodness, tomorrow first thing in the morning I’m going to my FLGS to get THE new SM game I’ve been waiting for the past couple months!!!”

    Bonus references: I-phone releases and Black Friday chaos.

    1. Harry: That’s a great point about anticipation. I’ve found that can even happen with reprints–if someone has been waiting for a game that’s been out of stock, they like to know the exact date it’ll be back in stock (which is almost impossible to provide, but I try!).

  5. Jamey,

    We had the most horrific thing happen which was generally out of the publishers control. When the shipment to Europe had a catastrophic accident, resulting in the loss of one third of the games, many of the retailers did receive their games and were able to sell them…now months in advance of some of our Backers! The publisher, in good faith, couldn’t ask the retailers to not sell their product, but they also felt terrible about the fact that a large number of backers could see it in their FLGS, but not on their own gaming table.

    Cheers,
    Joe
    P.S. No, the analogy with the children is quite apropos :) I’ve been there myself

    1. Joe: I’m so sorry to hear that–that’s terrible about the accident. It sounds like the retailers were backers of the project? I think it’s fine for any backer (retailer or consumer) to do what they wish with the games when they receive them, though I can see (and have seen) how other backers may not like that.

  6. The analogy between customers who behave this way and children is spot on. The “I don’t want anyone else getting this before me” mentality is immature. I don’t believe most customers think and behave this way, but the ones who do, loudly, are acting childish when they do so. As the article points out, setting release dates can help avoid the hassle of dealing with the hurt feelings and wrath of childish individuals.

    1. Game o gami no they all do, it’s what creates demand and that’s a very good thing, it’s far from being childish, it’s spending money they’ve earned when, where and how they want too, because it’s their privilege.

    2. GAME-O-GAMI,

      In principle, I agree with you. Having a release date doesn’t get me my game any earlier; at best it delays someone else’s game so they get it at the same time as me. I would rather someone else be able to enjoy their game as soon as possible rather than have to wait for me to receive mine.

      But from a business standpoint, it allows retailers to compete on a level playing field.

      To use a different analogy involving children, suppose you had three kids, and you told them that they needed to take a shower before opening their Christmas presents. However, you also only had one shower. So whoever got to the shower first would be able to open their presents first.

      Now, taking a shower really has nothing to do with the order in which your kids deserve to open their presents. It is merely a limited resource that forces an order in an arbitrary manner.

      One option to make things fair would be to add enough showers in your home so that your kids could all take them simultaneously. But that would be very expensive.

      So instead you say, “We are opening presents at 8 AM”, which gives all 3 kids enough time to take their showers in any order, and be able to open their presents at the same time.

      Shipping is a similarly limited resource that imposes an arbitrary order on when retailers receive their products. It would be extremely expensive and impractical to ship things in a manner such that all retailers received their products at the same time.

      So instead, a release date is set such that all retailers can reasonably get a hold of copies in time to sell them. Then, when the release date hits, all retailers can sell the product at the same time. In this way, they aren’t competing based on who happens to get lucky enough to get their copies first, but rather on other aspects of their business over which they have more control.

      1. Just like theaters do with movie releases. I second that. Only thing is,you can’t control soneone’s shelves,just take their word on that. Or you could have a hard contract that if they do not follow your release date,you won’t continue to do business with them (harsh though)

  7. Jamey, thanks for your thoughtful consideration of how to hopefully fix the problem. As you know, I was one of those affected by the “distributor schedule” issue. I didn’t care when the release date was, I just wanted access to the expansion at the same time as everyone else. The distributor in my case may have been thinking they were helping by not delivering a week early, when in fact they did a disservice to you and your fans by delivering late. We deal with timing issues in my business as well, and hopefully recognizing the things that you can change and the things that you can’t will reduce or eliminate friction and dissatisfaction among publishers, distributors, retailers, and customers.

    1. Sam: Thanks for your comment. I agree, I would much rather a distributor deliver a few days early than a few days late (especially given that distributors–particularly one distributor–prides themselves on being on time).

  8. Jamey,

    Having worked in a major North American Production/Manufacturing facility for some time and having worked in logistics and transportation for many many years I learned two things— 1) the best companies order there product and have it produced many months before it ships, they have a minimum requirement for the manufacture to have on hand so they can ship on a moments notice—While I completely understand the publishing industry is a different beast, it’s still supply side economics, in other words, profits earned this year spent on goods that will be sold next year helps to minimize taxes this year and allows you–to focus on creating demand or focusing on sales because you can rest easy that the product is finished and has passed muster.

    2) I also learned with my time at a major oil company, when it’s time to go it’s time to go, sometimes the only way to get goods to market quickly is to have a good crew they DO make all the difference. the folks working in distribution centers and warehousing aren’t the best of the best either and that’s why bigger companies often have their own logistical outfits, it saves so much time and money in the long run.

    There are some very good printers in the United States now which would save a lot of that time and since time is money….

    1. kevin: Thanks for sharing! Though I should point out that this isn’t how the accrual accounting method works: ” profits earned this year spent on goods that will be sold next year helps to minimize taxes this year”

      With the accrual accounting method (which I think is pretty standard), expenses and revenue only factor into taxes based on when you deliver the product. So if I spend a bunch of money to make a game in 2017, but I don’t actually deliver it to distributors until 2018, the expenses and the revenue show up on my 2018 taxes, not 2017. You can learn more about this here: https://stonemaiergames.com/kickstarter-lesson-4-accounting-and-finances/

  9. When I released my first thing, I set a release date of 1st August. I got it to backers in June, and then sent it to shops the following month.

    When I was about to release my 2nd things, I realised that the timing meant that a similar release date was sensible, so I decided (arguably not very sensible) that I’d set a tradition – to release ALL my things on August 1st.

    I’ve only done this for 3 years so far, but my plan is to have at least one new thing every 1st August.

    At the moment, my reach isn’t anywhere near yours so this only happens in a few shops around UK. But I have aspirations that one day people will be looking forward to what new things they’ll get each 1st August.

  10. “One thing I did with Charterstone and The Wind Gambit is that I issued different release dates for different regions. Like, the release date in Australia was a little earlier than the US/Canada date, due to various elements related to freight shipping/timing.

    I probably wouldn’t do this again, as it mostly just created confusion among customers.”

    One of things I love about this blog is to read what was tried, found not to be helpful, and then dropped – while providing the reader for the reason they may not want to try it. Such comments provides a huge help to those who haven’t made it as far. Thanks for sharing not just the successes, and not just the failures, but the analysis of those failures!

    1. Thanks Warren! It’s one of the perks of being the only employee and majority owner of a company–I can try experiment with a lot of different things to see how/if they work, and then report the findings to other entrepreneurs so they don’t have to make the same mistakes. :)

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