You Tell Me: Why Wouldn’t You Use Kickstarter?

27 October 2013 | 24 Comments

kickstarter-badge-fundedHere’s a somewhat rhetorical question I’ve been pondering lately (and discussing with a talented game designer who can name himself if he wishes): Why wouldn’t you use Kickstarter? What is there to gain from not using it?

It’s something I think about a fair amount as I try to map the future of Stonemaier Games. Is this company built on Kickstarter, or did Kickstarter simply help to start this company?

Before I jump into the meat of this entry, I want to say that this isn’t about whether or not you should use Kickstarter. There are many other forums about that, and everyone has their opinions. I personally don’t want to ever use Kickstarter as a pure pre-order system–rather, I want to use techniques to engage backers, build community, gauge demand, incorporate input from the campaign into the final game, generate excitement, and improve the game based on the number of backers. The next time someone says, “Kickstarter is just a pre-order system,” remind them of those points. :)

Let’s start with the obvious reasons why you wouldn’t use Kickstarter:

  • You’re not looking to run a business. If you run a Kickstarter campaign, like it or not, you’re running a business. You have to deal with everything a normal business does. So if you’re just looking to design a game or conceptualize a product, you either need to find a business partner or sell your creation to an existing company.
  • You don’t want to lose the 8-10% in fees that Kickstarter and Amazon charge you. You might incur the Amazon feels anyway if you’re selling your product on Amazon or online (i.e., PayPal fees), but you could definitely save the 5% from Kickstarter.
  • It’s not how you want to run your business. This is more philosophical than anything else–I’ll explore this below.

There is a game company I really admire in St. Louis called Greater Than Games. They make a game called Sentinels of the Universe, and I’ve looked to them (as well as the personal guidance of Paul Bender) to help guide the path for Stonemaier Games. They’ve had several very successful Kickstarter campaigns for Sentinels expansions as well as one for a new game, they heavily promote their games at major conventions, and from what I can tell, they’re constantly ordering more games to fill demand. They’re doing a lot of things right.

One philosophical element of them that I’ve admired for a while is that they decided at some point that for the remaining Sentinels expansions, they won’t be using Kickstarter. They’ll put the other games directly into distribution and sell them in person at conventions. I asked Paul about this in my interview with him on this blog back in the spring, and he gave the following two reasons for why they wouldn’t use Kickstarter for those expansions:

The first is that Kickstarters are time-consuming and expensive to run. Not only do they require constant maintenance during the campaign, but they necessitate a ton of work after the fact to fulfill all of the orders. The second is that we really want to limit our Kickstarters to 2 or fewer per year, and to only use Kickstarter for projects where there are a lot of unknowns in terms of reception and interest.

I’ve returned to Paul’s wise words while mapping Stonemaier’s future, and it’s the second reason that really intrigues me. From my perspective, there are always unknown when it comes to reception and interest for a game–or any product, for that matter. If I knew exactly how many people were going to buy our next game or the next edition of an existing game, I would raise the capital for that order and place it with Panda. But it’s never that easy.

Let’s look at a massive company like Fantasy Flight Games. Technically they have no reason to use Kickstarter. They probably have plenty of cash in reserve, they have great relationships with distributors and fans alike, and they’re able to order enough games for any print run that the price per unit is really low. Why would they use Kickstarter?

Then again, why wouldn’t they use Kickstarter? Rather than place a shot in the dark for how many games they order, they could know exactly how many people want those games, and they could have that cash flow up front instead of after they make those games. I bet even a company like FFG has duds every now and then–Kickstarter could completely eradicate those duds because FFG would learn up front that there’s no demand for their My Little Pony/Warhammer 40k crossover game.

Obviously FFG is an extreme case. I guess I’m just trying to figure out why a company wouldn’t want to use Kickstarter to, at the very least, gauge demand for a product. Again, whether a company should use Kickstarter for this purpose isn’t what I’m focusing on here.

Stonemaier-logo - CopyMy dilemma for Stonemaier Games is that when I think about not using Kickstarter for a new game or expansion (I wouldn’t use it for a second printing of an existing game), I end up trying to find a way to mimic Kickstarter elsewhere, and I always just end up back at Kickstarter. I want to accept pre-orders within a limited timeframe so I can directly ship bulk shipments of games around the world, I want the build community and engage people before the game is finalized, I want to generate hype and excitement in a very visible way, and from a business side, I want/need to generate cash flow up front before placing an order. So rather than try to do all of those things in a patchwork way on this website, why not do it on Kickstarter?

At some point we’ll hopefully have plenty of cash on hand. Our e-newsletter subscribers will hopefully be double or triple what they are now (about 5,500 readers). We have a growing number of committed playtesters and ambassadors, and hopefully Euphoria will solidify our standing with distributors. At that point we’ll have a pivotal choice to make: Should we use Kickstarter anyway? Or just produce a game, hype it, and hope it sells? Or somewhere in the middle involving pre-orders on this website?

What do you think? Why wouldn’t you use Kickstarter?

Also read: Should You Crowdfund a Reprint?

Leave a Comment

24 Comments on “You Tell Me: Why Wouldn’t You Use Kickstarter?

  1. I would like to use kickstarter to support the manufacturing phase of my product. I’ve held back doing so as I’ve repeatedly read that China regularly reviews kickstarter to find projects to knock off and fully copy. I fully expect to be knocked off but would prefer to deal with that after my product has been released. I’ve read that many inventors have been knocked off before their kickstarter campaign has closed. I have a patent pending that should provide a measure of protection, however, I’m certain they will modify their design to knock me off. Any advice or suggestions appreciated.

    1. Annie: I think this is a risk when you manufacturer anything–it’s not unique to Kickstarter. Given how many Kickstarter projects there are, I actually think it’s much rarer than you’ve heard.

  2. That’s really cool! Thanks for sharing, Jose. While it’s not a good fit for Stonemaier to crowdfund or run pre-order campaigns anymore, I think that template could be a great tool for other creators.

  3. I might add as well, that with that template you could run your own crowdfunding business and allow users to create their projects. Than, you would get the fees…

    Since you are a big name on the board game industry, you could pre-select the projetcs that you seem fit to be on your platform.

  4. Hi Jamey,

    I am not sure if you thought about this, but there are wordpress templates for crowdfunding. Like this one:

    So you can run your own crowdfunding campagin. If I had a business like yours, I would go for that.

    1. You would save the KS fees;
    2. You would still test the market for your new game;
    3. You would sell directly and in a short amount of time.

    I just love the crowdfudning concept. I know that there are drawbacks, but still seems worth to me.

  5. I think if you are big enough as a publisher, there is no need to use Kickstarter (apart from having money up-front). With just two games published Stonemaier Games still has a lot of growth potential and also the awareness of this new company isn’t at it’s maximum. Kickstarter offers this and allows more direct interaction with the consumers, than through a intermediate like a FLGS or online store.

    From my point of view as a potential backer/buyer and looking at the Euphoria Campaign:
    – perfectly priced game at 50$
    – included shipping even in Germany
    – excitement of reaching stretch goals
    – direct communication with game designer and publisher

    If we would take Kickstarter away:
    – game priced at 70$
    – shipping situation unclear, depending of availability in Germany
    – no stretch goals
    – no communication

    Especially with a new company with no proven track record these factors are important to me. Would I buy a new unknown game for 70$ from someone I don’t know yet? Maybe, but I would wait for positive reviews and compare to other games. Do I need another Worker Placement game? How does it compare to my other games?

    With Kickstarter, the feeling of being part of the first stages of a new game is an incentive that let’s me put aside the thoughts that I do not know much about the game yet. My risk and trust is rewarded through the Kickstarter campaign and makes it more likely to invest in a unknown product.

    There is no reason why you shouldn’t use Kickstarter as a platform, since it reaches more gamers!

    1. @air: Well said–thanks for sharing your thoughts. However, consider this: If we ever accepted pre-orders on our website for a game instead of running a Kickstarter campaign, we would price it the same as Kickstarter, offer the same low shipping costs and logistics, include stretch goals, include early third-party reviews, and continue to have the same level of communication as we would during a Kickstarter campaign. We don’t need our project on Kickstarter to do those things. I think Kickstarter is a better platform for those things than this website, but we could (and would) still do those things here. And yet…I still like Kickstarter better! I’m trying to figure out why that is. :)

  6. One reason not to use Kickstarter is because order fulfillment isn’t automated. In the case of digital downloads, typical order or pre-order fulfillment can be fully automated. I’m new to KS, though, so maybe there’s an API that allows for this.

    1. ajb–Good point, it certainly is a lot of work to handle logistics. Amazon fulfillment automates the majority of the shipping process, though.

  7. Imho big game companies don’t run the best kick starters (I am sure everyone knows some of the ones I am thinking of so no need for names here). I think a lot of them have paid a lot of people a significant amount of money to get the game in the condition you see at launch and the last thing they want is for backers to tell them what to change, how to change it, and how many things need added to the game to placate them. They are big enough to produce it the way they want and feel if you don’t like it you can go elsewhere. And unlike the small guys they can afford to do that.

  8. I’ve been reading your blog for a while now Jamie. I really appreciate your hard work. It’s very informative.

    I’m actually part of a St. Louis based game company and we keep flip-flopping whether or not we want to try to Kickstart our first game. While we’re not afraid of the work that would go into it, we are quite frightened of a miscalculation occurring and having to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket.

    We went to a Kickstarter panel recently at a local convention and horror stories like shipping costs being increased mid-way through a campaign are frightening. I would say the only reason I wouldn’t use Kickstarter is the risk, even though I’m still leaning towards it as an option.

    1. Jacob–Thanks for reading! I understand your concern about miscalculating the amount it will cost to make your game. But in the end, if making games is a business you want to pursue, you’re going to have to be able to make a budget and follow through with it. When you hear those horror stories about shipping costs, I sure hope the project creators have blamed themselves. It’s really important to build some buffer room into your costs to account for fluctuations in the open market, which is something they should have done in their original budget.

      Not everything is going to go 100% as planned with any business venture or Kickstarter project, but whichever route you take, I wish you the best of luck. I’m especially happy to see other project creators in St. Louis, and hopefully we’ll get to meet sometime.

  9. Been reading some of the blog lately but definitely not all of it yet so I may have missed you addressing this; but what are your reasons for not running a KS for a second printing? Alien Frontiers did a 4th edition printing KS recently making over 150K building an impressive promo pack that could be pledged for individually if a backer already had the game. Perhaps there is potential for something like that with Euphoria…just speculating here.

    1. Luc–That’s a good question, and I don’t have a definitive answer, just a personal opinion. I think if you’re reprinting a game from many years ago, that’s a great candidate for Kickstarter. But it wouldn’t feel right to me to put a second printing of one of my current games there. That seems strictly like a pre-order system to me–you’re not engaging backers in terms of the gameplay or art; you’re just straight-up asking them to buy a copy of a game that already exists. Now, did the Alien Frontiers campaign make more on Kickstarter than if they had accepted pre-orders on their website? Absolutely. So technically they’re engaging more people in the world of Alien Frontiers. I wonder how distributors felt about that.

    1. Stick Games–Sure, we use those forums to engage fans. But they only engage current fans. Kickstarter provides an ecosystem for engaging old and new fans alike, and the focus is on a specific product. Not all of our Facebook fans want to be engaged about all of our games, for example.

  10. It seems to me that having a serial product like Sentinels means that for its later expansions you have an established fan base and so won’t need to Kickstarter them as you’ll be able to directly gauge interest from them.

    But new IPs would be best suited to having a Kickstarter to gauge the interest. With stand alone boardgames it’s like a new IP every time and even if at some point you have a strong enough fan base as a company to fund the project outside of Ks, having a Ks project means that you can put the new IP somewhere where gamers who haven’t previously bought into a previous one may like this new one and so jump in right there.

  11. Nigel and Adam–Thanks for your thoughts. Nigel, you bring up a great point that there are SO many gamers out there who don’t use Kickstarter, either because they don’t like it or they’ve never heard about. Even a mega-project with $2 million raised and 7,000 backers is only touching a sliver of the potential market.

    I actually chipped in a few weeks ago to help out with Shut Up and Sit Down’s campaign (I love that site). It’s a clever way to go, but I wonder how much better they could have done on Kickstarter. Instead of using the campaign to expand their audience, they’re only tapping into their existing audience.

    Adam, I’m really intrigued by the buzz built on Kickstarter compared to buzz built around games that don’t use Kickstarter. I’m trying to learn more about how companies build buzz without Kickstarter, particularly for second printings of our games.

    You make a great point about the quality of games being a determining factor of whether or not you put it on Kickstarter. There are certainly people out there who lump all Kickstarter games into the same group even if they’re from different publishers.

    One thing I didn’t say much about in the blog entry is about stretch goals. I think stretch goals are a big part of a Kickstarted game–the most money and backers you have, the better you can make the game and the more people will be drawn to the game. Everyone wins. But not all games can have stretch goals. I’m working on a game right now that could have a few stretch goals, but it’s not like I can keep adding stuff on like in other campaigns. It wouldn’t be a complete game without that stuff. So I have to try to figure out if a campaign with very few and not so exciting stretch goals should go on Kickstarter at all.

    1. Maybe I missed it, or maybe the point is obvious, but why wouldn’t you run a Kickstarter for reprinting a popular game?

      I’m an illustrator and a designer, so I try to consider the business aspects. I agree that community is critical, and I love the potential Kickstarter has for facilitating those interactions. But I have a hard time seeing the financial incentive for stretch goals. Theoretically to me the math doesn’t add up because more sales doesn’t always mean more profit unless the profit margin on each product is big enough. Stretch goals make the game more expensive to produce thus reducing your profit margin right? So in the end aren’t you just making more work for yourself? Although I must concede that it’s always better to increase the size of your audience/sales as this leads to more buzz which leads to new people hearing about it.

  12. I don’t think there is any question: Absolutely use Kickstarter (for now).

    In the current state of the game industry, running a Kickstarter does not hurt your game. There are very few people that will avoid a game that was on Kickstarter. Running a Kickstarter will not result in fewer sales than you would have otherwise made.

    However, Kickstarter does help in a number of ways, many that you touched on above. It allows people to provide feedback. And not only feedback, but accountable feedback, since the people giving the feedback have a financial interest in the game being as awesome as possible.

    The buzz you can create around a Kickstarter campaign is much greater than what you can create around a standard release of a game. It makes sense that Kickstarter works in the game industry. It’s like a game itself. People pledge money to see the game funded, and then find out how many stretch goals you can achieve. They tell their friends about it. It’s fun. It’s way more fun than a boring pre-order on your website.

    And of course there are the financial benefits to a Kickstarter, which go without saying.

    That’s not to say that everybody should run one. Particularly, untested games, or games with questionable production quality should not be Kickstarted. There is a huge risk for the entire Kickstarter game community if too many bad games are funded on Kickstarter. The platform risks being perceived as the home of bad games.

    So until there is an actual reason NOT to run a Kickstarter for a game, you should absolutely run a Kickstarter for a game. Someday, it’s conceivable that the public will become disenchanted with Kickcstarter games and it will become an anchor. It’s not there currently.

  13. If you’re FFG, running a Kickstarter would just be extra work. Every new FFG game gets the level of exposure smaller publishers such as yourself would love to get. And with their preview posts on their website plus feedback from play-tests and monitoring the buzz, I’m sure FFG get a good grasp on how a new title will sell.

    Furthermore, I doubt FFG have any trouble getting a new title into distribution. So they’ll pretty much shift their initial production run and with it shift the ‘risk’ to the publishers and retailers. When you’re in such a position, going to Kickstarter is, surely, extra hastle?

    Now for a smaller publisher, you’ve got to be careful not to fall into the trap of believing the majority of gamers will be monitoring Kickstarter. I believe we are far, far from that right now. So Kickstarter is a fantastic launching pad but a publisher needs to reach far beyond Kickstarter. If you’ve got that reach already then you’re going to encompass the KS gamers as well. Maybe Greater Than Games have reached that level?

    But where Kickstarter excels is with the ability of gamers to directly correspond with designers and publishers and even influence a product in some way. This direct relationship is fantastic from both sides and no other platform quite delivers this right now. You could achieve this elsewhere – your own forum, or possibly on a site like BGG – but KS is drawing more and more backers to it and so giving your project greater exposure than could be achieved elsewhere.

    So there’s a definite argument for using KS no matter what – not as a means to fund your next project but as a means to engage a growing audience. There is a natural desire to contribute to something you like or love – KS empowers this want and as a publisher it shouldn’t be overlooked or ignored.

    So if your reach is long and you are engaging a growing audience then there would be no need to use Kickstarter. If you take a look at the ‘Shut Up & Sit Down’ review site they recently launched their own funding drive and have raised over $25,000 without using KS and won’t lose 10% of that to fees. So it is possible.

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