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.
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.
I ran into two issues with the recent releases:
- 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.
- 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.
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!