Kickstarter Lesson #253: The Psychology of Anticipation

8 October 2018 | 14 Comments

Is there an anticipation sweet spot?

I posed this question on the Ludology podcast a few weeks ago. While Geoff and Gil didn’t have a specific answer, our overall conclusion was that some anticipation is good, but if you wait too long (like Kickstarters that take years to fulfill rewards), people tend to forget that they are anticipating anything.

The topic of anticipation has been on my mind quite a bit recently. Actually, it dates back a few years. Here’s a brief history of Stonemaier Games anticipation:

  • In December of 2014, I revealed the box art for Scythe on BoardGameGeek, starting a roller coaster of excitement, assumptions, and trepidation that resulted in a huge launch day on Kickstarter in October 2015.
  • I announced the name and theme of Charterstone around 18 months before the game was released, leading to a long series of design diaries and speculation, particularly in the Charterstone Facebook group.
  • A little over a month ago, I announced a product, accepted pre-orders, and started shipping a completely unknown game, Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwigall on the same day. The only potential for anticipation was while their pre-orders were in transit.
  • Several months ago I started talking about Scythe Encounters on social media, followed by an official announcement and the opening of pre-orders last week. Despite the low-key, unadvertised approach, we’ve sold 1826 copies in 5 days.

So I’ve tried different methods, and each of them have pros and cons that I’ve detailed here. In fact, on that article I featured a reader poll asking how far in advance backers like to hear about new projects, and the top two picks were (a) 1-3 months before the campaign and (b) a few weeks before the campaign. But that’s a Kickstarter question–does anticipation work differently now that we don’t use Kickstarter?

I did some online research about the psychology of anticipation, and here are a few highlights:

  • According to multiple studies, “Anticipation of experiences was linked to greater happiness, more pleasantness, more excitement and less impatience than was anticipation of material possessions. Looking forward to a vacation or other such experience was also more positive overall than not thinking of any new purchase.” To me, this signals that people really do look forward to the campaign portion of a Kickstarter project, not just the product itself.
  • This article discusses a studying involving conditioning monkeys to expect an incoming treat. “What the researchers found was that once the monkeys had learned that the light meant juice was coming soon, their dopamine levels were highest when the light was turned on—as opposed to when they finally tasted the juice.” I’ve certainly experienced that when I’m looking forward to a new book, movie, or game, especially if I know in advance exactly when I’ll get to consume that new content.
  • As cited here, “This study illustrates how anticipating a future situation (especially a pleasurable one) can sometimes help us to get through a difficult present situation.” Anticipating something in the future often makes us happier in the present.

But I couldn’t find an article that indicated if there is an exact sweet spot between when you learn about something new and when you actually get to experience it for the first time. I will say, though, that the results of the Scythe Encounters method is particularly encouraging. Here’s a rough description of how that method applies to us (and how it could work for you):

  • 1-2 months before official announcement: Start talking about the product on social media.
  • Official announcement and pre-order launch: Reveal MSRP, SKU, and release date, opening direct pre-orders. Fulfillment of those pre-orders begins soon afterwards.
  • 2 months after announcement: Retail release date.

Obviously things are a bit different on Kickstarter, as there’s a big production gap after you successfully fund. But you could use similar methods twice instead of once: Start openly talking about the product a few months before launch, then start to really churn up excitement again as you approach the fulfillment process and retail release date.

I would love to hear your perspective on this topic. How much time do you want to maximize the good feelings you get from anticipating something?

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14 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson #253: The Psychology of Anticipation

  1. I have anticipation anxiety.

    I do not want to wait long between hearing about a new exiting board game and being able to purchase it. It is worse when I back a great game, or pre-order it on KS with bonuses, and have to wait FOREVER to receive it. The constant updates about the manufacturing process are extremely annoying. Just let me know when it is being shipped so I can play it.

    The worst part, is I already paid for something I can’t even use. My KS mindset has to be I am providing $ for the gaming company to help them, and not from the perspective, I prepaid for a game I wont see for months upon months. I track my KS in a spreadsheet and then get more annoyed when they miss the date, which happens too frequently. I call the KS anxiety.

    The Board Game industry is even worse when the reviews and videos are months in advance. The companies are sending it to reviewers to comment on a product you can’t see, touch, or play. Trying to keep track of what is upcoming, what is being release, what is on KS, what has been delayed requires too much effort.

    Video Games for me are easy. Visit Game Stop, read game informer or PC Gamer magazine. Waiting is easier, for me because there is a single communication channel, the release dates are accurate, and there is plenty of pre-release hype to keep me hooked (Fallout 76).

  2. For me the anticipation works differently depending on what it is. If I book a holiday trip, I will look forward to it for months. Regarding board games, there is a huge range of games available already so why wait for something to happen months ahead when I can focus on something that is already available?

    As a designer I find it interesting to follow the development of games so for that reason I like early updates, as a consumer I very seldom pre-order things. For Kickstarter, I often just back the project with money ($5-$10) if I find it interesting, then when the game is released I check out the reviews and if it seems to be something for me I purchase it. Yes there are a lot of Kickstarter only projects but if they are really good they tend to find there way into regular stores, or you can buy a used copy.

    As a conclusion I would say that in this crowded market, if you want me as a customer I want to buy it when I find it.

    1. Offshoots from Magnus’ comments re anticipation:

      1. Given that an announcement is necessary to notify potential buyers (a la Scythe Encounters) and that an initial surge in sales leads retailers to reorder, few if any of the initial buyers have played the game in its final form. So I wonder how predictive initial sales are—with and without measures taken to boost anticipation—for longterm sales?

      2. Is building anticipation overrated?

      For board games, much is made of avoiding spoilers or signaling when they are about to occur in a game preview or review. I can see that prospective players don’t want advance notice of surprises crucial to game play, but does it really matter if they know the game topic or even some content of leading designers’ next game before the scheduled revelation date?

      I pose this question with crowdsourcing in mind. Usually, crowdsourcing for board games, other than that inherent in playtesting, occurs after the game is officially announced—e.g., surveys or requests for help with rules or content explanations requested during Kickstarter campaigns. But what if gathering inputs via crowdsourcing would be helpful to the game designer during the design process. Would such revelation of content specifications—and even specific content where credited crowdsourced contributions end up in the game—before the game is available be likely to “spoil” the player experience for the crowdsourcers or other prospective players? Or would active crowdsource participation by likely players boost their enthusiasm above even the usual KS backer level without diminishing their enthusiasm or player experience or that of others?

      1. Dorothy: That’s an interesting question about longterm sales. I’ve found that it’s really hard to predict how a game will do, especially given the sheer number of options gamers have these days.

        As it relates to crowdfunding, I actually think it’s good for as much information as possible to be available about the game so your backers can feel involved in the process, even if the game is 98% complete.

      2. I really find Dorothy’s question interesting, about spoiling the player experience. I wonder what percentage of playtesters go on to purchase the final game? Especially early playtesters that experienced the game not in it’s best state.

  3. Despite the board game industry being thousands of years old, the video game industry is more mature, successful, professional, and now ubiquitous. They announce games years beforehand, and it works for them.

    If the game is great they make lot of money and everyone is happy (E.g. Cuphead). The negative side is that if the super-hyped game is rubbish (No Man’s Sky); the developers make a lot of money and the customers are not happy as opposed to a non-hyped quick release (the customers are not happy and the developers don’t make money).

    1. I’m a video gamer too. Definitely for longer than I’ve been a board gamer, but that approach has had mixed results too. In terms of waiting forever, different revisions of ‘demo’ or ‘sample footage’ has produced the whole “Graphics got worse!” or whatever situation. On the other hand, Bethesda made a huge impact with Fallout 4 by announcing the title out of the clear blue and then saying available in 2 months or 3 months or something. It was unheard of. People were shocked and excited! I heard several game journalists say, “this is how it should be. Get us excited about it and then boom, you can play is soon.” Not years and years later, a’la Tom Clancy’s The Division. But you’re definitely right about hype hurting No Man’s Sky.. and the very long delay on Cuphead and it still resulting in being a critical darling.

      1. Dusty, good points about graphics and Fallout 4.

        I think for most things the Fallout 4 and Cards Against Humanity strategy can’t be replicated. It’s easy to create instant news and instant massive hype if you already have a huge excited following. But if John was releasing Bubble Force next month for only $10, are you excited? Probably not as I just made that up. But what if I told you [gigantic game company] was releasing E.T. the Euro thematic board game next month for $50?

        My point about No Man’s Sky was which is “better”:

        A) Release a bad game with high hype and anticipation, and get a bad developers reputation.
        B) Release a bad game with low hype and anticipation, and get a bad developers reputation.

        For consumers B is better.
        For the developers A is better, financially.

        If you change the words “bad game” to “good game”. Which is better A or B.

        But if you are Bethesda or Nintendo A or B doesn’t matter, you can do what you want and people will say that was such a smart move and John might copy it.

        P.S. Sorry John :)

  4. For me, the length of time is a few weeks.

    For example, since the last DiceTowerCon ended, I knew when the next one would be and when tickets would be on sale. The latter is now about a week away but the anticipation is just about getting the tickets confirmed before they sell out. I won’t have much satisfaction until that is achieved. If anything, there is some anxiety since I cannot purchase exactly the day they are available. Regarding the Con itself, assuming I get tickets, my anticipation of the experience will ramp up a few weeks before early July of next year.

    For KS campaigns, I rarely have significant anticipation about the start of a campaign or after I have pledged one I want. Since I know the actual delivery of the product is as much as a year away (being optimistic and believing the initially forecast), there isn’t much anticipation until I get the news that the boat has arrived, things have cleared customs, and shipping is due to start in a week at most. (Maybe this is all like the monkey’s bell?)

    1. Scott: I can absolutely see where you’re coming from, and I particularly like the DiceTowerCon example. I like the idea of knowing when I’ll know more (and/or when I’ll experience the thing).

  5. I think for me, personally, I like the 1-2 months of hints prior to release, but not like teasing or hype. Just casual throw away lines over the course of a normal conversation. I like maybe a month between announcement and fulfillment. I do like campaigns for KS because it provides a place where a lot of people excited about the game come together and talk through the statuses, speculation, etc. It’s fun to work toward stretch goals, etc. Though for a product, I would never want that long period of ‘anticipation’ time. Look at Apple too, they try and keep spoilers under wraps to varying degrees of success, but they announce their product, a few days later it’s available for pre-order and like a week after that it’s available. I like that model it gives time for anticipation while not allowing enough time to pass into impatience. These are just my preferences though and I know that my opinions don’t necessarily reflect the popular opinion.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Dusty! I’m trying to figure out what that balance is for talking about a product but not actually announcing it. Like, mentioning it by name on livestreams, Instagram, and Twitter seems fine. But what about creating the BGG page and Facebook group (and letting people know the group exists)? Is that too much? I lean towards saying the creation of that page and group are okay, as it gives me a specific place to talk about it from time to time (and for people to post their own thoughts and threads, which they can’t do on the Stonemaier Facebook page). What do you think?

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