12 December 2016
Let me be clear: I love crowdfunding, both as a creator and a backer. And as a writer, for that matter–I wouldn’t have written 207 Kickstarter Lessons about something if I weren’t passionate about it (and I will most certainly continue to write about it). This post is not meant to discourage you from using crowdfunding.
But my team and I decided a few months ago that we were going to move away from using Kickstarter or any kind of pre-order system for the foreseeable future. Instead, we now sell games to distributors, and they sell to retailers, and they sell to consumers.
Today I’ll explore why we made that decision, and later this week I’ll talk about what I’ve learned from our first direct-to-distributor release, Invaders from Afar, including upsides and downsides for not using crowdfunding.
The Top 3 Reasons We Stopped Using Kickstarter and Pre-Orders
If only one or two of these reasons was a concern, we would probably still be using some combination of Kickstarter and pre-orders. But the combination of all 3–plus the other notes below–added up to our decision.
Fulfillment Risk: There were a few fulfillment centers that really let us down during the Scythe fulfillment (full article here). The scary thing was, we had worked with both of those fulfillment centers in the past, and they were fine. This situation make me realize just how precarious the fulfillment system is.
Think about it: You can do almost everything right as a creator, but in the end, if your fulfillment center doesn’t treat your product with care and respect, it can have a huge impact on the project.
In a worst-case scenario, a fulfillment center could simply refuse to send your rewards to backers. On a small level, we had a warehouse do that to us for Scythe near the end of fulfillment, and short of me flying to France, there was nothing I could do.
So we weighed the risk of fulfillment against the rewards, and despite our confidence in a number of fulfillment centers, we decided it wasn’t worth it.
Time: If I added up all the time I spent on Scythe’s Kickstarter campaign (planning, running, data mining, updating, and fulfilling), it would total about 5 full-time months. That’s a lot of time that I could spend designing and developing games, providing customer service, and doing all of the other elements of project management that already require the bulk of my attention.
Granted, not every project is like Scythe. We did a direct-to-consumer pre-order for the Token Trilogy that took much less time, as well as a retailer pre-order for Tuscany Essential that took even less time. But those strategies are still impacted by the other reasons I’m listing here.
Some people have asked why I don’t just hire someone to plan, run, execute, and fulfill campaigns for Stonemaier. It’s a viable option, but I can’t see myself not getting sucked into it. It’s like chocolate–I know it’s bad for me, but if it’s on my desk, I’m going to eat it. (I write this while staring at a bowl of Hershey’s kisses near my computer.)
In the end, it’s just a lot simpler to sell and send 1,000 games to 10 different distributors than sell 10,000 games to 10,000 unique consumers. It’s really important to me that I treat customers as individuals, not numbers, and I believe I can best do that if I’m freed from managing 10,000 transactions.
Human Nature: We delivered 21,000+ copies of Scythe 1-2 months earlier than originally estimated for 99% of backers (and simply on schedule for the other 1%). I don’t think I’m exaggerating by saying my communication with backers throughout the production and delivery process was frequent, clear, and transparent. I provided all of the information I had at my disposal every step of the way.
I love my backers and an incredibly grateful for their trust, support, and passion. Yet, as I detailed here, I witnessed how that passion can manifest in both the best and worst of human nature (well, not the worst, but subpar). I don’t want to do things that enable that type of behavior.
Here’s an analogy: Say you run a retail store. Last year you held a special Black Friday sale that was financially successful, but it also resulted in a riot, a stampede that injured three children and ten adults, and several knife fights. Would you offer the same sale next year? I wouldn’t. I probably wouldn’t even open the store that day, not if people are going to act like that.
I want Stonemaier Games to do things that bring out the best in people. I believe that people are inherently good. So if Kickstarter has the opposite effect on a significant number of backers, that’s a clear sign that I need to try something new.
The Other Reasons We Stopped Using Kickstarter and Pre-Orders
There are a few more minor reasons that contributed to our decision:
- Importance of distributor and retailer relationships: For a while I considered our retailer pre-order system (like this one for Tuscany EE) to be a great replacement for crowdfunding and consumer pre-orders. Retailers definitely like it, as do consumers. The problem is, distributors really do not like it because it cuts them out of the first print run. Why do I care about distributors? Because for almost any publisher to be successful in the long run, distributors are necessary for disseminating our products quickly and cost-effectively. Also, it still requires a heavy reliance on regional fulfillment centers.
- Emotional toll: Sending Scythe to backers should have been an energizing and exciting time for me. But it wasn’t. Nor was the first day of the Scythe Kickstarter campaign. I was just really stressed, sad, and on edge. This wasn’t just hard on me–at times, it also had an impact on our customers. You probably saw the worst version of Jamey Stegmaier in 2016. Kickstarter isn’t at fault, of course, but I’ve realized that the things required to run a Kickstarter campaign don’t bring out the best in me. I need that weight off my shoulders, both for my sake and for yours.
- Stretch goals: I describe this in detail in my 2016 assessment of stretch goals, but a short version is that stretch goals have created a catch 22 situation for tabletop game projects on Kickstarter. They’re close to a necessity, and backers expect them, but they create entitlement and an unnecessary puzzle for a creator who is simply trying to release the best version of their game. I’m at the point where I just want to make final version of a product and sell it for a fair price, and if I think of any extra special stuff that doesn’t fit into that model, I’ll make the best version of it as a separate product and sell it at a fair price too.
- Hype: By their nature, Kickstarters and pre-order campaigns happen many months before the product is delivered. The excitement generated by anticipation (“hype”) can result in sky-high expectations. I’d rather go see Rogue One this weekend expecting the worst and hoping for the best, not the opposite. To combat this, I’m trying my best to move to a model where we don’t announce new games until they’re a few weeks away from being released.
- Kickstarter isn’t the only way to reap the benefits of crowdfunding: We have other ways of building community, gauging demand, marketing our products, funding print runs, and improving our components. Kickstarter is great at all of those things, but as other publishers have shown, it’s certainly not the only way.
I’m really excited about this model. It’s more of an experiment than a permanent decision, and I’m curious to see how it goes for our next new game, Charterstone.
I’d love to hear your thoughts as backers and creators. I’m happy to answer any questions in the comments that aren’t related to what I’ll write about in Part 2, which will focus on the pros and cons of the traditional publishing model based on my recent experiences with Invaders from Afar.
The journey continues months later with Part 3.
Also read: This interview with me on this subject on The Campaigner.