7 January 2019 | 74 Comments
Well, this went better than expected!
The last time we accepted preorders for a new game, Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig, it was a bit of a surprise announcement. The game was well received, and we sold around 600 copies directly to consumers within a 1-week span. The experience set my expectations for what a direct order from Stonemaier Games would be.
Flash forward to today. The Wingspan preorder has been live for 5 days (1 more to go), and we’ve sold over 4700 copies directly to consumers. [Final update: We sold 5105 before ending the 7-day preorder]. Some of those copies have already shipped from fulfillment centers, and the others are in the works. I’m incredibly grateful for the enthusiasm shown by early adopters for this game, and I’m happy for new designer Elizabeth Hargrave to have such a success out of the gate.
Granted, there were a few small differences in the methods I used for Wingspan:
- Before we started production on Wingspan this past summer, I asked a few distributors if they recommended that we print our normal first-run quantity of 20k for a bird-themed engine-building game versus a more conservative 10k. Across the board, all of those distributors recommended 10k for the first printing.
- I unveiled information about it slowly over the first few weeks of December. This was nice because it meant that I could post the content at a relaxed pace instead of all at once, and people could consume it over time (or wait until full details were revealed).
- I offered a 9% discount off MSRP for pre-orders of Wingspan (there was no discount on Castles).
- I shipped 1 pallet in advance each to fulfillment centers in Canada and the UK. That way, Champion preorders within those regions could be dispatched simultaneously with other preorders (for Castles, we shipped pallets to those areas immediately after the preorder period ended).
- I had our manufacturer produce the non-printed components for the game along with the localized printing to reduce the time needed for the second printing by about a month.
- I limited orders of the game to 2 per person, as I heard some rumblings of people trying to pre-order in bulk, supplanting retailers in their area by becoming secondary sellers, which isn’t the intention of the preorder.
Otherwise the process was nearly identical, notably the difference between our preorder fulfillment (within a few weeks) and the retail release date (2 months later). In the long term, the vast majority of these games will be sold by retailers, but it’s very helpful for our cash flow to have some sales up front.
Another noteworthy statistic is the huge increase in Stonemaier Champions in alignment with the Wingspan timeline (Champions are people who support content like this blog and my YouTube channel with an annual contribution of $12, and they get a few perks like free/discounted and early shipping).
For Between Two Castles, we gained about 175 Champions. For Wingspan, over the last 40 days since the soft announcement, we’ve gained 1247 Champions. Provided that I engage those Champions with compelling opportunities over the next year, they could be incredibly helpful in stabilizing our up-and-down finances.
It’s always hard to tell with these things if it’s the strategic differences that resulted in the increase in sales or if it’s more about the product itself. Probably some combination of the two.
Mistakes and Potential Improvements
While the Wingspan preorder has gone well, there certainly have been some hiccups that need addressing for future preorders:
- Unpredictability and fulfillment centers: As I mentioned, I sent pallets to fulfillment centers in Canada and the UK in advance, but it was a total guessing game as to how many units we actually needed there. The result is that I’ve now dispatched an additional pallet to Canada and 4 more pallets to the UK (to serve Europe). Fortunately, FedEx has really good air freight rates to Europe. I don’t think I’d change much in the future, though, as I’d rather be conservative with advance freight shipments.
- Australia and Asia: Compounding the previous issue is that we don’t have any copies in Asia or Australia, so customers in those areas are paying really high shipping rates to the US. I’ve worked with fulfillment centers in those areas in the past, and I’m open to doing so in the future, but a pallet each may be too much.
- Length of “Campaign”: During the preorder period of January 2-8, we offer the $6 discount, a guarantee that you’ll get a copy, and friendly shipping from Canada and the UK. One week doesn’t seem like a long time, but I actually think it might work better if I truncate it to 4 days in the future (Wednesday – Saturday). People can still order after that, but it lets me act faster and more efficiently on bulk order exports and quantity declarations for distributors.
- Reviewer Embargo: I had a reviewer embargo on Wingspan until January 2 to give advance reviewers plenty of time to play the game and compose their thoughts without feeling like they had to rush to be the first to post. However, I did let the Watch It Played rules video go live in the middle of December, which sent mixed messages to other content creators. I think in the future I’ll just be more relaxed about content creators sharing what the game IS after a specific date, but they’ll still have an embargo to share how they FEEL about the game until the official announcement and preorder date.
- Tabletopia Timing: I let Tabletopia release a “digital playground” version of Wingspan a few days in advance so people could try it before they bought it. In the future I think I may just hold off until the preorder date for this, because once the game is out there, anyone could technically review it, which defeats the purpose of a review embargo for advance-copy reviewers.
- Cancellations: One of the nice things about accepting preorders for a product you’re shipping within 1-2 weeks is that the cancellation rate is so much lower than on Kickstarter. However, when someone does cancel, it significantly increases the chances that a miscommunication will happen between me, Shopify, and the fulfillment centers. It’s particularly annoying because many of the cancellations happen immediately after the order is placed, or within a few hours at most. This just creates more work for me and more errors without any positive benefits, but I’m not quite sure what to do about it.
- Champion Promo Code Issue: I use a Shopify app called Bold for the Champion program, and it basically tags your email in Shopify with the word “Champion”. I then create some promo codes in Shopify that only work if it sees you as a Champion, and that’s how Champions get free/discounted shipping. However, even though Bold sends out a variety of emails to members, it does not have the option to send out a signup confirmation email. Weird, right? The result is that many Champions don’t know the promo code until I tell them, which I’ve done every few days via mass email for new Champions. I’m working with Bold to solve this for the future.
- Lack of Progress Bar: One of the exciting Kickstarter features missing from preorders like this is the ongoing count of backers and total funding. Wingspan customers don’t know how many copies have sold unless they read something like this article. I bet there’s a Shopify app or line of code that can let us do this, and if not, I could update the corresponding product page on our website once a day with the results.
- CSV Export Issues: I’ve needed to export a CSV file for Canadian and European orders to send to those fulfillment centers, and each time, addresses in Germany, Portugal, Sweden, and elsewhere end up with garbled text and odd characters. This means I’ve had to spend a few hours manually updating those addresses. Fortunately, this appears to be a solution, though I haven’t tried it yet (and I’m open to suggestions).
- Different Products to Canada and the UK: As I mentioned, we only shipped Wingspan to the fulfillment centers in Canada and the UK. I told customers in those regions that they couldn’t add other products to their orders, but not everyone reads the newsletters, so there were around a dozen orders of Wingspan plus other products that remain in our warehouse in the US. I see this as the main downside for freight shipping the game in advance instead of waiting until preorders are received and then putting a mix of products corresponding to the orders on pallets and sending them to the fulfillment centers.
- US Fulfillment: Greater Than Games in St. Louis serves as our distribution broker, warehouse, and fulfillment center. I prepped them in detail for the Wingspan fulfillment, but my main liaison there was out of the office last week, and his team accomplished significantly less than I hoped (and in a seemingly random order), especially given my commitment to ship Champion orders right away. They did ship some orders, though, and they’re catching up this week, but in the future I unfortunately think I’m going to need to micro-manage that process a bit more (and to tell Champions that their orders will ship starting the week after preorders begin, just to add a bit of a buffer).
- Tighter Timeframe Between Soft and Official Announcement: I started revealing information about Wingspan on November 28, and the preorder began on January 2. I think that worked out for the most part, given that a lot of people weren’t paying as much attention to social media over the holidays. But in the future, I’d like to close that gap a bit but still align it with 2 monthly e-newsletters.
With 1 more day for preorders and several weeks for fulfillment, I’m sure there’s still more to learn. Also, I bet you have some thoughts and observations, and I’d love to hear your opinions.
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