Kickstarter Lesson #60: Exclusive Content

2 October 2013 | 46 Comments

UPDATE: Since originally writing this post, my stance on exclusives has changed. As I write here, I no longer think that exclusive content in any form is good for the long-term viability of a product launched on Kickstarter. I’ll leave the rest of this entry untouched so you can see how my thoughts on this controversial subject have evolved over time.

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Back when I was researching Kickstarter campaigns in preparation for my Viticulture project, I noticed a trend among successful game projects: Most of them offered some form of exclusive content. On some projects it was built into the primary level for the game (like promo cards); on other projects it was included as a premium reward level or on the stretch goals.

I thought all of those ideas had merit, so I tried all of them in various ways for Viticulture. I had promo cards, special components added to the box via stretch goals, and a premium level that included an exclusive expansion.

Those may seem like pretty innocuous additions, but they’ve had long-lasting repercussions on Stonemaier Games. That’s why I wanted to write this cautionary post so you can consider the full impact of Kickstarter exclusive content.

The Importance of Exclusive Content

I used to think that price was the distinguishing feature on Kickstarter. You take a gamble on a stranger and hope they send you something cool a few months later, and you get a special price for taking the risk.

Price is important (as are many other factors on Kickstarter, including the project creator), but I’ve learned that one of the most compelling reasons that people support Kickstarter projects is exclusive content. I’ve experienced this firsthand as a backer–if I think I’ll be able to get a game after the Kickstarter campaign, exclusive content is key for me to go ahead and back it now. It’s not the sole factor, but it definitely plays a role.

Creating a Product vs. Creating a Business

I should note here that there are many self-contained projects on Kickstarter for which exclusive content is relevant. If you’re trying to raise funds to create 100 woodblock prints of your cats, that is the exclusive content. You’re not going to continue selling the prints after Kickstarter, so you don’t need a reason to distinguish that non-existent product from your Kickstarter rewards.

However, if you intend to continue to sell your creations after Kickstarter, now you’re running a business, not just a campaign. In that case, you definitely have to give people many compelling reasons to support you now instead of just waiting for the retail version of your product. That distinction–the Kickstarter version vs. the retail version–will be a defining decision for your company.

Gameplay Exclusives vs. Component Exclusives

In my research for Viticulture, I overlooked one key distinction in exclusives–are they gameplay exclusives (i.e., promo cards or expansions) or are they component exclusives (custom pieces, box sleeves, etc)?

While this is a question mostly for game creators, it applies to other projects as well, but moreso in the context of content exclusives vs. component exclusives. For example, in a book project, do you offer an exclusive hidden chapter or do you simply upgrade the paper quality?

I didn’t realize the importance of this distinction, but its impact is huge, especially in the board game space. Most gamers want the full game experience, not just part of it. It’s like if Pandemic released a new expansion, but they only sold it to 1,000 people. Everyone else who loves Pandemic would suddenly feel like they’re missing out on the full game experience, and there’s nothing they can do about it if they don’t make the cut.

Now, that’s an extreme example–after all, on Kickstarter, there are rarely limits to the production. Everyone has a chance to get that exclusive content for a limited time. But plenty of people won’t even hear about your product until well after the Kickstarter is over. And others might hear about it, but they don’t realize how much they like it until they see it at a convention or a friend’s house. By then it’s too late, and they’re stuck feeling like they’re playing an incomplete game.

Component exclusives don’t have the same level of letdown as gameplay or content exclusives. Sure, it’s nice to get upgraded components (see the gold, stone, and clay tokens in Euphoria) and iconic box sleeves, but they feel like extras instead of essentials. That’s a key difference.

The Impact on Stonemaier Games

Like I mentioned, we included several gameplay exclusives in Viticulture. The impact has been much bigger than I thought. On one hand, it’s probably been a top reason that no one took us up on our money-back guarantee. The full Kickstarter version of Viticulture with the Arboriculture expansion does quite well on the secondary market.

We’ve been fortunate that we sold out our print run of 1200 retail copies of Viticulture. But the existence of those Kickstarter-exclusive gameplay elements makes the retail version a harder sell. Also, it has affected the way that some people view our permanent brand, despite my efforts to point out that I learned my lesson and changed course for Euphoria.

It has also impacted our strategy moving forward as we design the Tuscany expansion pack for Viticulture. Ideally I would included Arboriculture in all versions of the expansion pack, but it forever carries a label of “Kickstarter exclusive.” How do you circumvent that without disrespecting your backers? You can’t.

What You Should Do

This is easy: Don’t do what we did for Viticulture, but do exactly what we did for Euphoria. Don’t include any gameplay or content exclusives; instead, include a smattering of component upgrades and specials. Don’t let those upgrades add up to the point that the retail version pales in comparison; instead, be selective and choose some really cool ways to reward your backers. You can see what this meant for Euphoria on the chart at the bottom of this entry.

Also, give yourself a little bit of wiggle room. Include a note in the FAQ that although the vast majority of Kickstarter-exclusive versions of your game are for backers, you reserve the right to designate a few for bloggers and reviewers who were good to you during the campaign, conventions libraries and play-to-win sections, and charitable giveaways. After all, you will need to print extra copies of the Kickstarter version of your product to make up for lost and damaged products, so you’re bound to have a few extra copies when the dust settles.

Final Thoughts

For your sake, I hope you read this and take it to heart. It’s one of those cases where if you go on Kickstarter right now or research most past successful projects, you’re going to find they contradict this advice. Please don’t make the same mistake I did and assume those projects are correct (Viticulture among them). Just because gameplay exclusives led to successful funding doesn’t mean they’re the best way.

I strongly believe that component exclusives are the best and only way to offer exclusives on Kickstarter. Have any other project creators tried both methods and would care to share their insights in the comments?

Addendum: One additional idea I haven’t tried is a time-based exclusive (preferably component, but possibly gameplay). The idea is that the exclusives are exclusive for, say, 2 years, after which the barrier of exclusivity is lifted and you can produce any version of the product that you want. That way, Kickstarter backers can enjoy the exclusives for a significant amount of time before anyone else, but you eventually have the freedom to pull some of the most appealing exclusives into the retail version. What do backers think about that concept?

Also see this retrospective entry about my Tuscany Kickstarter campaign for notes on this subject.

3D board with component list

46 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson #60: Exclusive Content

  1. Uh oh! (I thought). What’s he gonna say? I figured you’d probably come to the conclusion I hoped you would but this is such a strong button with people, me included, that I had a moment of apprehension that didn’t quit till I’d read the section titles. (yes I ‘skipped to to the end’ first! The shame!)

    Such a good point that needs to be pointed out. We fell into this trap ourselves. We had an exclusive card for guys who pre-ordered. But later on we had people interested in the game who wouldn’t buy it as they couldn’t get this card. Those complaints really brought home to us that we’d listened to one of those ‘rules of business’ that just aren’t true. We thought we were doing what people wanted. We weren’t.

    To illustrate what this means to people: a fan suggested an exclusive card or expansion for our upcoming Kickstarter and I explained that we wanted to avoid exclusive in-game things that people who come later cannot get.

    He said “Wow. You spoke volumes in that sentence. I literally slapped myself after reading it. I immediately thought of all the promos and exclusives that I read or heard about and could only get at this Con or that event, and if I wanted would have to pay a king’s ransom on ebay. I was thinking of only a hook to ‘buy it here, now, or miss out!’ But you guys are putting the fans first, another reason you guys rock!”

    I think that says it all. (I thought about not including that last part as it seems a little self-aggrandising, but it really shows how much people appreciate this kind of thing and how much it means to anyone who might only find a game later)

  2. Exclusives and getting the game early are definitely the only way for non-US backers to even think of getting the game (once you add in shipping costs, it is normally cheaper to wait and buy the game from FLGS or in an online shop). Gameplay exclusives brings the problem that people complain not being able to get them (and thus having a non-complete game), but there are several options:

    -Sell the exclusives afterwards (say 1 year later) for 5$ or so. That gives backers a bigger discount and the game earlier in their hands (exactly the 2 things for which they back the game).

    -Add the extra items with other art and name in an expansion, but with the same gameplay.

    Whatever choice you like, you should clearly state so in the KS and stick to it

    1. MK–Thanks for your comment. It branches off the idea I had of letting exclusives be time-limited, and you added the idea of selling the exclusives separately after a certain point.

  3. I’ve been the buyer of a lot of kickstarters lately, and I have to echo this post exactly. I’m the kind of person that wants everyone to be able to get all of the components, but when a kickstarter offers exclusive components, buyers get very possessive over them. There becomes an instant trust and expectation that can be easily broken if your intentions are not laid out properly.

    As per your last paragraph, time based exclusives I’ve had the opportunity to experience as well. In the forefront I think that they are overall good, but they will only appeal to a few. Its a much better way to market it as “We are planning an expansion to come out a year after we finish releasing this, but back us now and you will get everything at once!” People love getting everything at once, (See Krosmaster) and a timed exclusive is something someone else can still show off to friends. Even though it can be the same thing, my mind differentiates ‘All the things now’ and ‘Timed-exclusive’. All of the things now sounds better to me, and I think it gets the idea that it will still be available to others later across a lot more effectively. My only issue with this is you have to be certain about your production dates. A lot of kickstarters run over their expected date, and if you have a specific date in mind for your expansion, the exclusive time will be shortened, and people will get upset. (Also see Krosmaster) But its still not as effective as component upgrades. :)

    I also want to note that I think timed exclusive should only be used for expansions or components. I don’t think it works as well for the base game. I saw one game doing it for their main product (See Xia) and I felt that they were limiting their exposure. It wasn’t a good enough take away for me to want to pledge, and it made me uninterested in the game as a whole, because I knew I wouldn’t see it on the market for a long time.

    1. Nik–Thanks for your insight. I agree that “All of the things now” can be very compelling for most people. I think you can solve the Krosmaster issue by simply saying that the exclusivity will end X amount of time after the Kickstarter version is released. That way if there is a delay with the original delivery, the clock doesn’t start until backers get their games.

  4. Agreed on all counts. I liked the Euphoria option a lot – gameplay is unaffected, but the additions make the game much cooler (the upgraded components really make the KS version feel like a ‘limited’ edition). I’m going to be bragging about my realistic tokens to no end. :)

    Artipia has an interesting philosophy which seems to work well for them. All (or at least most) unlocked stretch goals involve additions to the game which the backers get at no extra cost. But the content itself is not integrated in the game, but offered as a package of ‘extras’, and the exact same ‘extras’ package is later made available (at a cost) via the Artipia website and in following KS projects (eg. compare the unlocked stretch goals in the Among the Stars: Ambassadors project to those available in the Shadows over the Empire campaign, which makes all extras available – at a discount when compared to the website price). So the content itself is not exclusive, but if a good amount of stretch goals is knocked down, you get a nice value (about $16-$20, plus shipping savings, in the AtS:A case). Also, it means that the success of a campaign decides how many extras are offered down the line, which might convince some backers to join the fun early.

    I kind of like the time-limitation option also – it does allow to offer exclusive content to KS backers without shooting yourself on the foot. However, I feel that 2yr is perhaps too much. A year should be enough, as long as you count it from the actual date the games are delivered and not from the campaign end (or something of the sort).

    1. andvaranaut–That’s very interesting about Artipia. So backers get the game plus all the additional gameplay elements unlocked during the project, and Artipia sells those elements separately from the game after the project. Thus backers get more for the same price, but they could also wait until after the campaign and buy everything (but as separate packages and a higher combined cost). It’s a clever concept. The only two problems I see with it is that it might be somewhat hard to communicate (but I’m sure they’ve found a way), and they have to deal with packaging all the extras separately for retail. Those are fairly minor barriers.

      1. Well, I’m a bit late to the Artipia party (SotE is the first project of theirs that I’m backing), but I don’t think they bother much with communicating this. There’s nothing in the project page which explains that’s the way they plan on doing things – that’s just an observation (based on their current & previous KS contents, plus the items offered in their website). However, a FAQ question should get that out of the way, something like:

        “> Are the extras unlocked as stretch goals exclusive?

        All backers at the $XXX level or above will get all unlocked extras at no cost, along with their copy of the game. For extras which affect gameplay (such as extra cards), we might decide to offer them after the campaign for interested people. In any case, we expect to do so as a separate package, available at additional cost – not as part of the retail game box. If the campaign goes as well as we hope, this cost might be about $XX-$XX (plus shipping and other fees). This means that you are not only getting your game before anybody else, and for a price below MSRP – you are also getting the gameplay extras for free.”

  5. What do you think about offering exclusive components and packaging to backers, but stating that any stretch goals that add game-play related components would be applied to both the Kickstarter version and the retail version?

    1. Jeremy–Yep, that’s exactly what we did with Euphoria. If you look at the stretch goal chart, the only elements that have “Kickstarter exclusive” on them are component upgrades and inclusions, not gameplay elements.

  6. As per your Addendum, I like it when stretch goals include game content, but have the caveat that the content will be included in a future expansion and is not KS exclusive. It reduces the disappointment from missing it, and reduces the pressure to “buy now or forever miss those pieces.”

    PS: Since this is my first comment, I just wanted to mention that I greatly enjoy reading these blog posts fairly regularly!

    1. Thanks for your first comment, Kenny! I’m glad you enjoy the blog. Indeed, I think you’re describing what we did for Euphoria (see the stretch goal chart on the project page).

  7. Amen. The computer game industry continues to flounder on this.

    If the KS version is “limited”, you can also simply number, and perhaps sign, the games.

    I must say that signed copies seem to be under used. I often support a project for a more personal connection with the creator, but signed copies seem mighty rare and expensive.

    1. playnoevil–Signing some games as possible, but it all depends on the scale and the logistics of shipping the games. I ship the majority of our games from Amazon fulfillment center, thus I never see them.

  8. I wonder if you can get the same “I want to get it now” effect as an exclusive by including promos/expansions with the Kickstarter game but selling / distributing them separately when it comes to retail. I could see how it would be useful to have a handful of promos that you give your backers as a “thank you” but you can continue to use as promotional items going forward (so non-backers can still get them, they will just have to pay a little extra or track them down). This is the model I’m leaning toward at the moment.

    1. This is similar to the method used by the Robotech miniatures game Kickstarter. Backers get everything at once, but after that the different models are planned to hit retail in waves over the course of the next year or two.

      As a backer, I think that’s an excellent way of doing things. Backers are rewarded, but people who discover the game later aren’t permanently penalized.

    2. Roger and fulminata–That sounds like the Artipia strategy that andvaranaut discussed above. I think it’s a viable model.

  9. i think the KS exclusive tag should only be timed, and I backed a lot of KS, the main thing is you should always give KS backers the best deal for the content they get. As long as thats achieved then if the bonuses cost $$$ more in the future, then they won’t raise much of a stink IMO.

    1. hobbes–I agree that Kickstarter backers should always get the best possible deal. They’re ordering something sight unseen that won’t even arrive for 4-12 months–they’re taking on a lot of risk!

  10. There was a recent KS that promised certain items as exclusive… but… within a month of the close of the KS… they had that content available for preorder on their website. I was sure theyd be in for a mobbing. But surprisingly only a few were vocally opposed.

    1. Jason–It’s good to hear that the backers were forgiving about that, but it’s unfortunately the creator went that route.

  11. You are thinking along the right lines, but you haven’t taken it quite far enough: never say never.

    Exclusives should always come with the disclaimer that you reserve the right to make them more generally available in the future. The hazards of not doing this pre-date Kickstarter.

    You just have to look at Z-Man Games and Agricola. They made special tokens an exclusive for pre-ordering the game and when Lookout Games later published the Goodies expansion that included those tokens Z-Man refused to distribute it in the US because of the promise of exclusivity made to pre-order customers.

    In the end I suspect that Z-Man generated more ill will by not going back on their promise of exclusivity than they would have if they had.

    It would have been better to have never promised exclusivity in the first place and simply said “you get this cool stuff that may or may not be available in the future, but which we have no plans for making available outside of this pre-order.”

    Always leave your options open.

    1. Fulminata–That’s a great point, and a good reminder for me to go back and see what I actually wrote about Viticulture in the first place! It actually looks like I gave myself an out in the FAQ:

      “The additions for the expansion are not enough to warrant a box for themselves, so even if the game is a huge success, we won’t be selling the expansion by itself. We might try to find another way to package it–perhaps with the game at some point at a $60 price point–but this is definitely the best time to ensure you get it.”

      1. This is essentially what we did with the expansions we offered as stretch goals. We didn’t say they would be exclusive, but we included them at no additional charge to backers once we reached a certain level. When people asked if they would be available retail, we said that we would like to make them available eventually if there was demand and if we could do so at a price that makes sense.

      2. Great post, Jamey. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since the end of our Kickstarter campaign in April, and I’m still really torn. Even with the component upgrades, I would want the retail copies to be as good as they could be. I would hate to make some component exclusive, only to find out later that the game won’t really sell retail without that. Everyone loves the animal meeples in our game, and I certainly wouldn’t want those to be exclusive to backers.

        How did you decide what the retail version of Euphoria should include and what should be Kickstarter exclusive upgrades? I suppose the decision comes back to manufacturing costs and expected margin. Can I (as a publisher) afford to have the great components I want in every copy of the game and still get the costs where they need to be? If not, then perhaps offering them as Kickstarter exclusives is the right solution. That way, my ideal version of the game exists, alongside the version that makes more business sense.

        1. Randy–Thanks for sharing your insights from your project. That’s a good question about our component upgrades. Some components had to be upgraded in every version (if at all). For example, we couldn’t have upgraded cardstock in the KS game but not in the retail game–it would make future expansions incompatible with one of those versions.

          Mostly the decision came down to price for the component upgrades we did go with. The Kickstarter version of the game is almost twice as expensive to manufacturer than the retail version. I don’t know if that would work for a mass version of the game. But custom wooden icons? Those go in all versions of our games. We don’t like cubes. :)

    2. It’s good to bring the Z-Man and Agricola situation up – it’s a textbook example of “exclusivity” done wrong. Though in that case Z-Man also had the problem of several different publisher sharing the rights to Agricola & cousins.

  12. Exclusive content was something I chose to avoid in my most recent Kickstarter attempt.

    Instead of exclusive content, I chose to offer a variety of promotional content that might also be available at an additional cost to anyone interested once the Kickstarter concluded. It was the only feasible way I could think of that would also allow disbursement of any remaining inventory that might result from any minimum quantity order requirements of the promotional items.

    I am still reviewing the best way to relaunch this campaign and will be considering the option of Kickstarter exclusive components vs. the inclusion of promotional components.

    There seems to be a stronger demand for exclusive content… yet, as I have mentioned before, the variability and disbursement of any remaining inventory can be problematic and harmful to the overall success of a campaign.

    1. Tom–Yeah, it’s a really tough balance to maintain. Exclusive content–“now is the only time to get these special pieces!”–can be a really compelling reason for people to back the project now instead of wait for the retail version, but then you’re kind of stuck never releasing that content again. On the other hand, separating out promotional content and releasing it separately gives you more flexibility, but it’s a less compelling pitch up front.

      I appreciate you bringing in the perspective of the manufacturing side of things. If you sell 400 games through Kickstarter, all of which with really cool exclusive content, you still need to produce another 600-1100 units of that content, and you’re kind of stuck with that.

  13. An interesting (t0 me anyhow) take on this that I saw on a KS that launched today is backers at certain levels are guaranteed all the promos for the first year up front. The balance will be available ot various conventions and stores throughout that year. This gives backers the advantage of getting the exclusivity of all the promos and right away while still allowing others the chance to get them througout the year. After that year is up, I presume that KS will no longer produce that years promos and start the next year.

    I guess, where I’m rambling with this is that you could offer an exclusive game play element to backers up front and trickle it out as an exclusive over the course of ‘X’ amount of time. After ‘X’ you do a general release. That’s mostly what you were suggesting, but with a twist of giving initial backers that initial exclusivity in game play.

    YMMV

  14. I could be behind a two year moratorium or something similar.

    I mean if I want the company that makes the game to be succesfull than I should let them be able to sell the game I liked so much to others as well.

  15. What is the main reason someone wants semi-exclusive content (for a limited time)?

    Bragging rights?

    Secondary market pricing?

    Acquisition disorder?

    Customized content to enhance the gameplay experience?

    I don’t have anything negative to say about any of the reasons… I’m just curious about the main driving factor for the need of exclusive content and how long would be appropriate for a given backer to maintain that benefit.

    I want to reward backers for their support, yet, I want to be able to do so in a manner that benefits both parties in the long run.

    1. Tom–I think it’s a combination of all of those things. If I’m really excited about a game–excited enough to back it on Kickstarter well before it’s been manufactured–exclusive content may not be necessary. But there are some games that I’m on the edge about, and exclusive content–even if it’s only exclusive for a year or so–can put me over the edge, especially at a competitive price point.

  16. “long-lasting repercussions” … Hey, you didn’t back the KS, so you don’t get the cards. Deal with it. I didn’t buy a Black Lotus or a Time Walk in 1994, so should I be able to get one today for ten bucks? I do not think so. That’s what eBay is for.

    1. I do deal with it… by not buying the game. That seems more harmful in the long run.

      Also, you’re talking about things they don’t make anymore vs. incomplete games still being mass produced. Total false equivalency.

      1. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t consider these things analogous. If there are KickStarter exclusive extras, then they are, by definition, extra. The retail game being mass produced is complete, in and of itself, even if retail buyers cannot obtain the extras without using the secondary market. Similarly, I can play Magic using only the cards being published now, even though I cannot get some content without resorting to the secondary market. Magic is still in production, and the content they no longer make is compatible with the content they are currently making.

        That said, if you deal with Magic by not buying into it, that is completely understandable ;-)

  17. Interesting dynamic going on in the MeepleSource campaign which announced a KS exclusive this weekend, but not only is it exclusive to KS, it is exclusive to a specific high dollar (but not the highest) pledge level.

    It definitely appears to have prompted quite a few TEK backers to jump to the higher level (maybe a 20% increase over the weekend from ~120 to over 140 as of now, plus add-ons that you can’t see (so that level alone is about 18% of the total funding currently), but lots of lower level (and potentially other high dollar level) backers are unhappy (quite a bit more discussion on the TEK update about it).

    Overall it might work out for MS, but the project was coming off some really good days, and has nearly stalled in the last day and a half. Saturday (immediately after the announcement) was one of the best days of the campaign, but it seemed that as more people got worked up all that momentum was lost. Sunday was the next to worst day of the campaign and today isn’t faring any better.

    Can’t tell how much (if any) of the slowdown is just a regular mid-project/mid-stretch goal slowdown or if new backers are still coming in at a good pace, just being offset by backers leaving. MS said Sunday wasn’t really any different from other days for cancellations, but there are still people announcing they are leaving, although it appears to have slowed down.

    Also interesting that in an explanation MS tried to phrased it as a thank you for the TEK supporters for helping make the campaign such a success, but there are dozens of other backers pledging as much or more than the TEK full set, and those backers can’t get the exclusive without adding *another* $110. I think it is great MSrecognized that the $110 TEK set was slightly “overpriced” compared to other similarly priced pledged levels, especially given that the other levels are extremely customizable and the TEK set is not customizable at all, however I am betting MS is now wishing they could just go back and instead just add a new slightly lower priced level for the large TEK set, or alternatively have figured out a price point that the “exclusive” could have been available to all as an add-on (probably would have been at least $20-30 though, so people would have been complaining about that instead, but it would be an option).

    Overall, I think MS is running a great campaign, but I figured the “case study” was very applicable to this KS lesson.

    1. Rebecca: That’s a fascinating case study, and I’m glad you mentioned it here. I agree that MS is running a great, innovative campaign, but I wonder about the long-term impact on this exclusive. It doesn’t really seem necessary (neither the KS exclusivity or the pledge-level exclusivity). But…we’ll see. :)

  18. I think it depends on:
    1) If you well known publisher with stable reputation (like Jamey Stegmaier:) then non-exclusive policy works fine.
    2) But if it is your first project then you are faced with “all or nothing” principle. If you don’t reach the funding goal your game wouldn’t see the light in 90% cases. So you have to use all methods including a lot of exclusive items (+ promo, pnp and private evenings with creators:) because you don’t have enough community and hype.

    IMHO

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