28 December 2017
Charterstone, my village-building legacy game, is the first new game published by Stonemaier Games that didn’t launch on Kickstarter. In fact, there was no pre-order campaign of any kind. Today I’ll discuss the process I used to bring this game to market, as well as any pitfalls, mistakes, and successes I encountered along the way.
Why Didn’t We Use Kickstarter for Charterstone?
Let’s start here, because usually our publishing process starts with a Kickstarter campaign. Originally, the plan was for Charterstone to be on Kickstarter. I had started to think of ideas for the campaign back in spring 2016.
But then we delivered Scythe to backers, and we decided not to use Kickstarter anymore. That link includes the big reasons why Charterstone–or any Stonemaier game–isn’t going to be on Kickstarter.
However, even before we made that decision, I’m not sure that Charterstone would have actually ended up on Kickstarter. It’s just not a great platform for a game built around the idea of discovery and secrets. There’s a minimal amount of information I could have divulged on the project page, and the stretch goals would have been infuriatingly mysterious for the backers. Also, getting suitable review copies to reviewers would have been difficult, given the nature of components like the sticker cards.
So What Did We Do Instead?
Despite our move away from Kickstarter, I still wanted to replicate all of the benefits of crowdfunding within the traditional publishing process:
- Gauge Demand: I gauged demand for the first print run by polling our e-newsletter subscribers, then retailers, then presenting that information to distributors.
- Build Community: I created a Facebook group for this purpose, which currently has 5,398 members. I posted a design diary entry in that group every week for 8 months. This was/is a great group to be a part of, completely void of the toxicity I’ve seen all too often on Kickstarter.
- Make the Product Better: I wanted Charterstone to feel like a complete, premium product out of the box, hence the 230 wooden tokens, the special magnetized Index tuckbox, the hundreds of cards with unique art, and the 36 metal coins. Normally these are components that may have emerged out of stretch goals.
- Generate Buzz: Most of this was organic. A key element was that the Facebook group was open throughout the process, meaning that people could share content in that group, and their comments were visible in public feeds. I also posted a teaser trailer edited by Josh McDowell, with currently has over 25k views.
- Raise Funds: With distributors asking for tens of thousands of games, we didn’t have enough cash on hand to make what they wanted. So we offered them a small discount if they paid in advance. Many of the international distributors accepted this offer, along with one US distributor. Without those funds, the initial print run would have been much smaller than the 40,000 English copies we made.
- Ship Effectively Worldwide: By accepting orders from distributors up front, we were able to ship from China directly to each distributor.
One other important note is the involvement of our international publishing partners. We wanted Charterstone to have a simultaneous worldwide release in as many languages as possible. This bumped the size of the initial print run up to 58,000 units, which significantly helped with economies of scale of language-independent components (wooden tokens, metal coins, etc). These partners also caught some key mistakes during the translation process.
Did It Work as Well as It Sounds?
Of course not. :) Here are some aspects of the process that didn’t go as planned:
- Gauging demand isn’t as accurate as Kickstarter: On Kickstarter, you know exactly how many games to make, at least for backers (beyond that it’s a guessing game). The system I used for Charterstone is accurate in a sense–I made the quantity of games distributors asked me to make–but for the distributors, it’s just an informed guess.
- Customers prefer a single source for buying stuff: I think it’s frustrating for some customers to have to hunt down a retailer for the product rather than just pledging or pre-ordering it from us. However, I think this problem is somewhat mitigated because many customers already have a preferred retailer, so as long as that retailer lists the game for pre-order, the customer’s needs are covered.
- The creative process of crowdfunding was nonexistent: One element I really enjoyed about Kickstarter was the creative energy surrounding the project. Backers have so many cool ideas and suggestions to improve the product. Now, I could have used the Facebook group for Charterstone–Kickstarter isn’t necessary for this creative process. Instead I tend to rely more on playtesters and ambassadors for this feedback now.
- Direct communication is limited: On Kickstarter, at any time you can send a message to every single one of your customers. This is an incredibly powerful tool. Our e-newsletter is fine, but it doesn’t come close to the breadth and accuracy of Kickstarter’s messaging system.
- The margins were much smaller: On Kickstarter, Charterstone probably would have been a $59 game with a $10 shipping subsidy built in. So that’s $49 in revenue for each game. Compare that to the $28 distributors pay us per copy. Now, that extra $21 isn’t necessarily profit–instead, at least some of it would have allowed us to make the game even more special. Like, one thing I wanted to add was for the Index to make a triumphant trumpet sound every time you open it to unlock a new component, but the cost of adding the battery, microchip, and speakers was too much based on the margins we were working with.
- The marketing splash normally created by Kickstarter was greatly diminished: I love that the constrained timeframe of a Kickstarter project shines such a bright spotlight that all types of people discover the project and become engaged in it. I haven’t found a way to replicate this off of Kickstarter.
- Funding is really tight: Thank goodness for the distributors who were able to pre-pay for Charterstone, because far fewer copies would exist if that wasn’t the case. We simply don’t have enough of a cash reserve to print the number of games to meet demand.
- Translations add complications: Because we had very tight deadlines for our international partners, we made a key mistake: We sent the final English source files to those partners before sending them to Panda for review. As a result, when Panda found typical issues with things like dielines and bleeds, each individual partner had to fix those issues in their files instead of us fixing them in a single file. This led to the entire proof review stage taking much longer than normal.
Are We Glad We Used This Process Instead of Kickstarting the First Print Run?
Absolutely. Despite the mistakes and pitfalls, I’m 100% happy that we chose not to Kickstarter Charterstone. It’s significantly less complicated to sell and ship 58,000 games to 30 distributors/partners than it would have been to sell and ship 58,000 games to 58,000 customers worldwide. Plus, that quantity probably would have been much lower. Even on Scythe, a hugely successful Kickstarter project, we only had 17,739 backers.
One really nice thing about having distributors as customers instead of backers is that distributors are VERY relaxed about the schedule. They understand that there are so many factors involved in producing and shipping a board game, and things don’t always go as planned. So even though I originally estimated Charterstone as an October release, not a single distributor pestered me when that didn’t happen.
The Schedule and What We Would Do Differently
My biggest angst about Charterstone is in regards to the schedule. It’s tied closely to some things I would definitely do differently next time.
I mentioned earlier that I gauged demand from distributors. Specifically, I asked them to commit to buying a certain number of copies. In that way, I could guarantee that we’d make that quantity, thus allowing them to guarantee quantities to their retailers.
However, in September when Panda was supposed to be wrapping up production of Charterstone, they sent me some bad news: Due to several issues–including a major issue with the cutting process required for the sticker cards–Charterstone was taking them much longer to make than they originally projected.
Under normal circumstances, I would have asked Panda to focus on finishing the international copies and around 10k-20k English copies. Ship them out, release the game, and continue to print more in the meantime.
But because of those commitments to distributors, I was locked into providing specific quantities to each distributor. I couldn’t allocate them, and I couldn’t ship to some distributors and not others. So it created an all-or-nothing situation, and the result was that Charterstone was released in December, not October.
December just isn’t a good time to release a game–it’s best to get products to stores before the holiday shopping process begins, not during, both for sales and for shipping reasons. Also, you want to give your game enough time to have a chance to make it onto end-of-year top 10 lists.
So in the future, my plan has a few different layers:
- Print the first run in English only. While the English files pass proof review, send them to international partners to translate for an international print run.
- Print 20,000 units in the first print run (no distributor commitments). This is enough to meet a reasonable amount of demand, yet it’s not so big that we can’t afford it.
- If there are issues during the product process, adjust the quantity as necessary or simply adjust the schedule (at this point, no one is invested in a specific schedule).
- When the game is almost ready to ship out of China, solicit orders from distributors and allocate as necessary.
- Wait until the first print run passes through customs before declaring the release date.
Honestly, I’m just excited we were able to make Charterstone. I’ve heard so many stories of people connecting with friends and family over it and having the moments of joy and discovery I hoped they would experience.
I’m also glad that it solidified our relationships with retailers and distributors. They’re the ones who specialize in getting games in the hands of people worldwide, so I’m happy we were able to find a way to facilitate that process instead of circumventing it with Kickstarter.
It’s also continued to make me respect and appreciate what Kickstarter has done for the gaming industry. As you can tell, it’s completely shaped the way I look at the publishing process. It’s not just pushing wood and cardboard out into the world–it’s about community, engagement, passion, and creativity.
What’s your perspective on this process and the results? If you have any questions about things I didn’t cover here, please ask them in the comments–I’m happy to answer.