My Thoughts on the P500 Program

20 August 2018 | 23 Comments

Every now and then someone asks me what I think of GMT Games’ P500 program, and I typically tell them, “It’s cool! I’ll write about it someday.” Well, why not today?

GMT is a tabletop game publisher most known for Twilight Struggle, Dominant Species, and Battle Line. For years now they’ve used a really unique system of determining which games to publish. This is Project 500, or P500.

What Is P500?

The core idea–which I’ll explain more in a second–is that GMT shares games they want to publish with their community, and people “vote” on those games with their dollars (though without actually being charged yet). If a game receives 500 votes, GMT proceeds to make the art and finalize the game, charging people right before it goes into production.

Why would a company do this? I think GMT says it well here: “What if the company knew ahead of time that there was a committed interest in the game, before they committed all those funds? They could produce exactly the games that their players want!”

The addresses 4 of the 6 reasons that creators often use Kickstarter for a similar impact: gauging demand, generate buzz, build community, and raising funds. It also addresses a customer need, guaranteeing that you get something you want (as long it actually goes to production).

Before I continue, here’s a sequential outline of the steps GMT takes for a P500 game.

  1. When GMT learns from the designer that a game is nearing completion, they use the components list to request a price quote for the game.
  2. The game is added to the P500 listing and people can start to “order” it at a discount.
  3. If the game has 500 “orders,” it makes the cut and receives art and final development. People can continue to order it at this time (still at a discount).
  4. When the game is ready for final production, they announce a “charge date” when people will actually be charged.

What Do I Like?

I’ve never looked so deeply into the P500 system as I’ve done today, and I must say that I’m very impressed. The scope of it is incredible–just look at this page to see what I mean. Keep scrolling and scrolling. They currently have 47 games in art and development, and those are just the games that have made the cut!

  • I love the idea that customers/fans have a direct impact on what a company makes. GMT clearly listens to their customers, as they’ve built “listening” into the backbone of their company. It’s also incredibly transparent, which I admire, and it encourages customers to sell others on games they want.
  • I also like that it helps them gauge demand in a much more accurate way than the future printing request form that we use at Stonemaier Games–it’s one thing to click a box on a Google Form, but quite another to vote with your money (even if your credit card isn’t charged right away). Also, GMT can use the higher order quantities to prioritize certain projects over others (as long as they don’t neglect any that have reached the 500-order threshold).
  • I appreciate and can relate to the way the pre-funding helps with cash flow. That was hugely important during our time on Kickstarter, and it’s something we’re still adjusting to. I can see how P500 creates a regular stream of cash flow for GMT.
  • Last, I like the amount of information GMT provides about these games. Not only does their website show the exact number of orders to date for each in-progress product (the current leader is Imperial Struggle, with 2702 orders), it also shows detailed information and links about each game (kind of like mini KS pages). They’re not just asking customers to blindly pledge their money into the abyss.

What Are My Concerns?

I want to be clear in saying that I think this system is working well for GMT, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from putting their own twist on this unique system.

Really, there’s only one thing that makes me hesitate about P500: Customers know very little about the aesthetics of the games they’re pre-ordering. They can see the box art, but that’s typically it. However, my perception of GMT–and I could be wrong–is that their budgetary focus is much more on mechanisms than it is on illustration.

It’s just very different than Stonemaier’s philosophy, as I like to show people a lot of art and components to inform their decision to purchase the product. So if we invested heavily in art up front but a game didn’t reach the 500-unit threshold, it would put us in quite a hole, defeating the point of P500.

Also, most publishers don’t have dozens of projects in the works at any given time. So while P500 is much more low-key than Kickstarter or a self-hosted pre-order campaign, I can see why publishers would just prefer to maximize the spotlight of Kickstarter on the primary project they have in the works.

As for Stonemaier Games, I don’t think we would use a system like this. I’m comfortable with approximating demand through surveys and polls, and overall we produce far fewer games than GMT (I prefer to stay focused on 1-2 new games each year). We’ve moved more and more towards a system where we announce new products at the moment when they actually arrive at our warehouse (the Mechs vs. Minions model) so that people can get excited about something and have it in a few weeks instead of months later. Also, we sell the vast majority of our games through distribution, which doesn’t necessarily contradict the P500 model, but it’s just that getting a few hundred pre-orders barely moves the funding needle (or even accurately predict worldwide demand) when a standard reprint of, say, Viticulture is 10,000 units.

What Do You Think?

Have you purchased a game through the P500 system? Are there situations where you would prefer it to Kickstarter, or vice versa?

Also read: The Power of Pre-Commitment

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23 Comments on “My Thoughts on the P500 Program

  1. I really like the P500 model, and we’ve talked about rolling our own version of it as an experiment for our “fringe lab” games; games where the audience may not be large enough to merit a full-blown Kickstarter campaign.

    I think the twist we would put on it is paying for the art in advance when possible, and giving each game it’s own page that details the visuals in much the same way Kickstarter does. Of course, this only works if you’ve built an audience that follows your company and trusts the products you put out, and you’ll lose out on the exposure Kickstarter can provide. Time will tell if we opt for this strategy in the long run.

    1. I like the idea of using this for “fringe” games (or games that might be too expensive for distribution. I agree that it’s crucial to have an audience who already pays attention to your brand.

  2. I’m a huge fan of GMT’s line of games and play a lot of them. Having experience with their games I agree with your conclusion that such a thing would not be appropriate for Stonemaier Games. For a couple reasons

    1) As you touched on their focus isn’t really on art but mechanisms, so they don’t have a lot of art to show. Their bread and butter is Hex & Counters and Point to Point Wargames. So there isn’t much art in their games to begin with beyond that maps, the tiny chits, and cards if the games have them. However, the games lay heavily on the simulationist side of the design spectrum, more on that later, so the focus is certainly mechanics over art for that target audience. This can be seen in their previews, their blogs mainly focus on the mechanics of an upcoming game.

    2) Because the majority of their games are simulationist, they are very niche. The truth is there aren’t a lot of people like me who enjoy recreating historical battles and wars in intricate detail. Most people I find have no interest in that level of complexity or that level of simulation (they do have some other games. Since many of their games are so niche they don’t have large print runs by nature. I can’t imagine doing something like P500 with a game like X-Wing that needs to be produced in large quantities (though I suspect ANA has an exclusive deal with Alliance to gauge pre-orders from retailers before print runs). In fact some of GMT’s most popular games do get regular print runs instead of P500.

    Lastly I would say don’t forget that reprints also go through P500, so it isn’t always the case the customer knows little about the game, as there are usually ample resources on BGG to find out about ones being re-printed.

    Just my thoughts and observations on why I think it works for GMT but wouldn’t work for a company like yours that has more mass appeal.

  3. My one issue with the P500 system is that games often seem to languish for a long time after they hit the 500 level. For example, “Mr. President” was over 1000 in June of 2016 and there is no telling when this game will actually be in final production. It’s been in “art and final development” that whole time kit seems. Another one, “Dark Sands,” made the cut over 18 months ago and is only listed as “at the printer.” So I have found it takes a very long time for GMT to actually get games shipping to customers. I do very much like their games, so I wait. But I have cancelled numerous orders after a year when they appeared not to be moving beyond “made the cut” and I felt I wanted to get something from another publisher that was available and addressed some of the same theme/mechanics.

    1. Scott: That’s interesting–I didn’t realize that they could take so long! I guess that’s one of the perils of having people vote on games at such an early stage in the design process.

  4. I think it’s important to remember when discussing the P500 that it predates Kickstarter by a considerable margin – It dates back to the late 90s as far as I can tell. (And it exists within what is a niche within a niche. Wargames… Have a significantly smaller audience, therefore smaller print runs, than Euros and American style games, which in turn makes them more expensive for the same component quality)

    I used it for Comanchería: The Rise and Fall of the Comanche Empire and was very happy with it, And was very happy with the process, though as I understand it I got a bit lucky with them happening to have a UK distribution partner for that game, so I haven’t used it since, but would consider doing again.

    I’m going to have to disagree with you on the art quality of GMT’s games, though. Component quality, yeah, they’re basic (Though they’re ridiculously good when it comes to dice quantity – I’ve never even had to pass a die in a GMT game, and some of their solo titles seem to come with one more die than you’ll ever actually need for any roll that I wind up using to help remember numeric information I need to add to a roll when playing those games), but the flat art? Board art especially? I’d easily put Navajo Wars into my top ten game boards.

    1. I don’t think I necessarily commented on the art quality. :) I said, “their budgetary focus is much more on mechanisms than it is on illustration.” I’ll stand by that. In many of our games, we have hundreds of unique illustrations that cost tens of thousands of dollars. While art quality is subjective, budgets are not. :)

  5. Always thought the P500 system and GMT in general was way ahead of its time and showing that as long as you know your customer base you can tailor your business model after it to achieve some remarkable things. Without it a lot of excellent niche games would never have been made and we might have missed Twilight Struggle, Europe Engulfed just to mention two of my favourites. GMT is one of the strongest brands on the market for me and I’ll always have a closer look at their releases.

  6. I have ordered lots of games via the P500 system and find it works really well. In GMTs case it works for me because they publish and re-publish wargames in the SPI style (hexmap based simulations) that I am attracted to. As you point out they don’t have a lot of art work in those styles of hex board games and that is find by me. It can be a bit sad when a game you want doesn’t make the cut and is taken off the list.

  7. I think the most incisive part of your posting was the comment about why it works for GMT but would not for SM Games, namely artwork. They do have several games on offer for possible production, and frequently have little to show beyond the box. Not a big deal for a reprint, but massive for a new game. GMT has a large population of wargamers, players who on average care more about the accuracy of simulation in a game system than they do about aesthetics. They can see what a game focuses on, what designer it has, and what rules systems it may share in common with other games, and know if they want to purchase based on that alone.

    Your games focus on a different sort of experience. The right/wrong theme, artist, or even layout can make or break a game in comparison to something on offer by another company with something similar. Game play will always be foremost in any game, but how a player interacts with the mechanics via the visuals/tactiles will always be important.

    One thing worth considering about the P500, and it not applying to your model when compared to the simple reservation system. You mentioned that the scale of 500 games was a poor guage for demand when put against your 10,000 copy production. That’s fair, but it also overlooks some additional information GMT is able to glean. The speed at which it hits 500 can also be extrapolated to determine how many copies beyond the 500 would be in demand by the non-reserving public. 500 may still be too small a number for your uses, but watching reserve time up to 1000 or 1500 might actually work well. Really, it’s the same sort of information so many companies use kickstarter for, only they measure against X backers in 4 weeks, rather than 500 backers in X weeks.

    1. Also, please note that for whatever reason I could not see anyone else’s comments until I posted my own. Where I make previously made points, please do excuse me.

  8. I’ve bought maybe six games through the P500 system, and tbh I much prefer it to Kickstarter. It is very transparent, and you can trust it much more than you can most kickstarter projects (present company excluded of course :) )

    That beautiful by said, GMT is a very specific company with a specific focus on wargames, and they’ve built their audience up over many years, I don’t think a company with less name recognition would be able to put something like this in place.

  9. Recently, the P500 has been victimized by the Cult of the New. The new hotness shoots to the top and displaces another game already in line for work. Awesome if you are COTN but frustrating when a game you backed maybe a year or more ago gets pushed off, again, for an upstart.

  10. I currently have 2 P500 games “on order”. I think it’s a fantastic idea, especially since you don’t get charged until it goes out the door and they give you plenty of warning.

    A few days ago on Twitter Capstone Games asked their followers what they thought about Capstone moving to something like a P500, or subscription service for their games. I’ll be interested to see what they come up with!!

  11. Hi Jamey,

    Once again nice read. I think you guys could adopt a p500-esque approach for gauging reprint demand. Kickstarter could still be used for initial development and printing, but no extra cost for art and such need to be made afterwards so it could work well for reprints :)

  12. I personally STRONGLY prefer it to Kickstarter. I’m not charged until they actually ship it, and if the designer/developer are giving updates as things go along, I can always change my mind later. Chances of getting screwed are probably only 1-2% of what they are in KS, plus, the product is a lot more likely to be done well. They don’t already have your money and thus already have all the leverage, so there’s a lot more incentive to put out a quality product and not a crappy half-baked game.

  13. Jamey,

    The P500 works exceptionally well fo GMT for myriad reasons, but most of all because many of the folks who order from them, myself included, are long-standing wargamers, who don’t stand on ceremony when it comes to great artwork. We know that the rules and the gameplay are exquisitely sound. Don’t get me wrong, I stood gobsmacked at the beautiful look of Scythe, but that’s what I’ve grow to expect from Stonemaier Games. Many folks have, in fact, seen the game or the artist’s work in the past as there are only a few in that arena, especially if the game in question is in it’s 2nd (or third, as it was with Space Empires 4X).

    You’re points are very well articulated, but I think there’s simply a fundamental difference in expectations between and among the gamers in our broad community.

    Cheers,
    Joe

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