Post Mortem: Solstice

I sent what I intend to be the final update for Solstice, today, and with that, the Kickstarter campaign is more or less finished. There may be a few customer service requests, which I shall address, and I have a handful of copies left I'll sell once those requests die down. But, I think it's over.

Personally, I think Solstice was a massive success, but I also botched quite a few things. It's a really interesting turning point for my little operation and it's a good moment to reflect on what Solstice taught and what it confirmed.

Confirmations: These are things I thought I knew, and felt were confirmed by the campaign.

Length of Campaign: As I did with Druids, I did a lightning fast campaign for Solstice. I think it was 12 or so days, start to finish. I made sure I hit two Fridays (aka pay days), but otherwise, I left no room for the campaign to drag. I had a solid first few days, nice consistent middle, and a really fantastic finish. For these types of games, I see no reason to not use this lightning quick timing.

Promotion: Also as I did with Druids, I conducted zero promotion outside of my newsletter or social media channels. I didn't reach out for a single review. I didn't participate in a single podcast. I didn't do a thing. Kickstarter at this point is a humming platform. If you have a decent reputation, a solid product, good value, and a good price, you'll do very well. If I continue to have 250 (Druids) to 550 (Solstice) backers for a 12 day campaign with zero promotion and atypical manufacturing practices? I'll be very happy.

Generally speaking, I don't think a lot of the reviews or previews really do much for games. I honestly don't think they drive people to go from indecision to decision. Even with his audience, unless, Tom Vasel absolutely gushes about a game (like he did with Cry Havoc)? It won't move the needle.

What reviewers DO aid with is reputation and looking "official." If you have this too good to be true Kickstarter campaign and you have nobody speaking on your behalf? It looks fishy. I'm fortunate that enough people have heard of and worked with me via Hocus, Farmageddon, Cry Havoc, or even just seen how dedicated I am to helping people with questions on BGG. Kickstarter brings 90% of my audience to me. I'm sure this will rub some folks wrong. Maybe it won't. I don't mean anything hurtful by it. I have just gone all out on promotion, I've done a little promotion, and I've done no promotion, and I've seen almost no change between those three variables.

Value: Value matters to people so much more than price. I think Solstice was too expensive, though I made almost nothing on each copy sold. I wasn't robbing folks! I'll talk about pricing more in a bit. BUT, far more people paid for the Deluxe version with wooden tokens than the standard version without tokens. Why? It had the perception of value. Just cards aren't exciting. But, unique wooden tokens really added value to the package and I think it moved hearts and minds. Value matters so much!

Customer Service: I was very honest during the Solstice campaign. In fact, I even wrote an update in which I told people they wouldn't like the game. This...seemed to backfire as it only drove more people towards my campaign. Why? People value honesty and transparency. People want to support folks who are trying to do the right thing. In some ways I'm actually worried, as I'm fairly confident a lot of my customers just won't get Solstice. Some will, and I think they'll love it. Others may be scratching their head. I'm curious if this will have negative consequences for my future projects. I'm wagering now my next project isn't as successful as Solstice due to folks not liking the game. 

But, in the comments and correspondence I've received, you can see the value of a commitment to customer service. People are relieved when they reach out about a misprinted card and I immediately fix it. They were really pleased when I promised to replace the 150 cards I messed up. They loved it when I said the graphics weren't good enough and upgraded them mid-campaign. They respected the clear communication. It's especialy rewarding to see an incredibly familiar cadre of backers who show up each campaign. I've begun memorizing the names of people with whom I've never spoken or met, but they keep supporting me. Be good to others, and they'll be there for you.

People don't read: I repeat this to myself every day. It is a crucial lesson if you're a designer, in business, or have to interact with humans in any way. People don't read. I write my updates very carefully to be as concise as possible and include all the information people need at the time. Many of my updates were just a few hundred words long, and yet people would still email me with questions clearly covered in the updates. 

People don't read. Use pictures where you can, try videos, but generally be prepared to answer the same question over and over again. There are a few things I'll be doing differently to address some of these things (see below), but by and large, if you run a business, take a deep breath, and copy/paste your answer again.

My KS Template Works: I've been using the same KS template, with refinement, since Hocus. I try to be incredibly concise and I seek to communicate:

  • What is the game
  • What will you receive
  • Provide access to detailed information (Rules, PNP, Rules Video)
  • Why
  • How I'm using your money
  • Why no Stretch Goals

I generally receive very few questions from folks, other than: 

  • Why no international shipping?
  • Why will the box not hold sleeved cards?

Seriously, those two questions cover about 95% of the ones I receive. In addition, people seem to be completely on board with my no stretch goal approach. Every project I have 1-2 folks ask for weird expansions or random ideas. I quickly and clearly tell them why I won't do that, and they accept this, or don't, and things move on. I think if you have more robust shipping options, more pledge levels, or stretch goals, your page needs to be denser. But, then you risk confusion. I'm fortunate with my simple campaigns.

Lessons: These are things I learned during the campaign. 

The (goddamn) box: The box was a real problem on Solstice. With Druids I used padded medium flat rate mailers. I wrapped every game in bubble wrap additionally. Unfortunately, I had a very high rate of broken boards and I spent a long time fixing things. I was very sensitive to the issue for Solstice. Furthermore, with Solstice I chose to use a 72 card tuck box. Tuck boxes, as we all know, are flimsy already. As a result of Druids, and worried about half my backers yelling at me about their smashed tucks, I shifted from a padded manila mailer to the small flat rate box. This had a few consequences:

  • The small flat rate box is free (as opposed to the mailers), but they cost about $6.80 for domestic shipping. This is twice the cost of the mailer.
  • The tuck box itself was about $2, which again increases the price by about $2.20 total. This also had cost consequences (minor) for shipping from the printer.
  • The additional shipping cost had to be factored into the price of the game AND the 8-10% Kickstarter takes. That mean an additional $.70 on every game.
  • The boxes required assembly during fulfillment. This drastically slowed the process of packing games. 

Solstice was about twice the price (at $18) I wanted it to be due to the tuck box. It had huge cascading consequences. To make things worse, this disappointed folks who sleeve (always, of course). So, it made things worse for the end consumer due to cost. It didn't work for all my customers. And it made my life way more difficult.

Never. Again.

Different fulfillment dates don't work: Remember, people don't read. I fulfilled my Standard Edition backers in May, as shown on the pledge level and multiple updates. I fulfillwed my Deluxe Edition backers by July (woo, early!) as shown on th pledge level and multiple updates. This was SO CONFUSING FOR PEOPLE. I had multiple people ask me why their game was missing. "Well, you ordered Deluxe." I had people note their disappointment in me giving the game to reviewers. "Uh, I didn't. Those people ordered Standard." I will never fulfill at different dates again. If the project points can fulfill at different points? I'll move them all to the latest date. Everyone at once. 

International backers are crafty: I don't ship internationally (aside from Canada on Solstice). But, many people want my game. After years of Kickstarter and questionable international shipping options, many international backers have turned to forwarders. That's fine...except when customer service comes into play. One of the reasons I DON'T ship internationally is that it's not only the initial cost and risk, but if I have to re-mail a package or ship replacement parts overseas it gets very expensive very quickly. I lost a lot of money on Hocus from folks in Denmark or Germany just not going and picking up their games from the post office. I lost $100 on one backer before I finally refunded her (at additional loss) and told her "bye, Felicia." Well, freight forwarding doesn't work, in some cases, for envelopes. As a result, I found myself shipping replacement cards to eastern Europe. This is frustrating! This means I have to pick up the tab because somebody circumvented my rules. I don't know how to fix this one. I could be a jerk and say "I'm not shipping your cards there," but I think customer service is really important. In this case, I had a frank conversation with folks, but I'm still mailing them their parts.

International isn't viable for my model: I opened up shipping to Canada for Solstice. Unfortunately, we messed a few things up in planning, which is on us. But, in a few other ways, shipping to Canada made life much more difficult. And, for only about a 8-10% increase in orders. Conversely, I offered a high resolution PNP for folks, intended for Europeans, for $5, which was very profitable (with 70 backers). Shipping internationally requires volume and networks. It requires partnerships and really benefits folks who are in it for the long haul, not tiny one-and-done projects like the ones I'm doing. Solstice confirmed for me that Canada just isn't the cards and Europe, and other overseas places, definitely aren't. At the risk of losing 50 backers in the future, I won't be supporting Canada in the future. If and when we create games that use traditional manufacturing again, we will absolutely invest the time and effort into affordable international shipping. For these niche projects? It just doesn't work.

One more eyes: Solstice was an incredibly difficult game to proof and create files for. Why? Well, there are four colors, each with the same six cards, but very tiny changes in point, strength, and favor values. I proofed the game a bazillion times, as I always do. All my personal proof copies were accurate. But, I introduced a tuning typo when updating the files with the improved graphic design and changed one of the cards. I grew complacent and missed this card when ordering the big order, which required I fix it and order a lot of replacement cards. 

I worked with a handful of blind test groups for Solstice, and even had Josh dip in a few times (and he provided some excellent insights regarding prisoners and such that were critical), but it was mostly me on the project. Josh was busy and I didn't want to bug him towards the end, aside from helping me with the shipping labels. But, I should have bugged him. In the end, the error only cost about $150. But it cost me a great deal in my pride, not to mention the wasted time of addressing the issue. Next time, I'm bugging Josh to give me one more final look. 

Minimalist Graphic Design won't cut it: Early on, I tried to convince myself that using Game-Icons.net icons and my own layout would be sufficient for the game. Honestly, it technically was. I had several hundred backers. But, it wasn't good enough. Plus, it didn't do the illustrations justice. I'm so thankful Jason Kingsley was able to jump in quickly to help me and fix my cards. He did great work and it turned a slight sore into a huge upside for the campaign. For future projects, I'm not going to pretend - I'm bringing in a graphics guy or gal from the start.

Revelations: These are the good insights.

People will accept cut corners with purpose: With Druids, I printed 250 copies of the rules at Kinkos. It wasn't cheap and the rules looked like trash. With Solstice, I had a few choices. The first was to use Kinkos again. It would cost a FORTUNE...and look like trash...and I'd have to drastically cut the content I wanted to include (like explanations for every card). Another option was to use a POD service like The Game Crafter. But, that would add many dollars to the box and have fulfillment box implications. I couldn't sell Solstice for over $20! It was already at $18! 

I took a gamble: No rules provided. A few notes on cards, but you have to print the rules. And...everyone was fine. Nobody complained at all. A few people asked where to get the rules and seemed confused (Remember: people don't read), but I was up front about it, crystal clear, and I worked hard to make the rules printer friendly and full of diagrams and examples. 

Armed with this information, I knew my next iteration of THE BOX.

DIY Box: I'm going to let people choose to solve the box themselves. If I make it standard on the Kickstarter, everyone's game gets more expensive. Boo. If I make it a separate backer level, I suddenly have a lot more complexity in my logistics chain. It just makes life far more difficult. 

What if I give people a good option and let them handle it themselves? Here is what I'm going to do: my next game will not ship with a box. This will let me DRASTICALLY reduce the price as it makes the cost of goods and the fulfillment much cheaper. But, for those who care, I'm going to make a nice box on The Game Crafter (Small Pro Box), which I will sell at cost. People who want it can buy it on their own - I'm not involved. People who don't? Can ignore it. PLUS, this box will work for sleevers. Hallelujah! 

Hell, maybe I'll give folks a rules booklet to buy as well?

A killer deal: At Kublacon this year I sold Hocus and Farmageddon for $5 apiece. It was such a good deal people would go "Wait, what?" and just buy both games. They felt like it was ridiculous not to. Although my margins were very slim, I made far more revenue/profit than at any con I've ever attended. Solstice really bothered me because I felt it was both too expensive and it had terrible margins. I felt like both me and the customer got screwed. With future games, I want to make sure that from start to finish every element allows me to create a killer deal, that looks too good to be true, but also makes money. I can do this, and I plan to. It'll require some cleverness on my part. More than ever, I think it's essential to my success. 

The Weird Games Model

I really love working with good publishers. But. I hate pitching games. I hate chasing publishers. I hate sitting for six months and begging them to finally give me a no so I can move on to the next person. Some combination of my personality, pitch style, and style of design just doesn't appeal to many publishers, which makes this even more fruitless. If you've read this blog, you know I'm also not super great at the traditional publishing model. I published Druids in a one-off whim fashion and was surprised it did so well. Solstice hitting 536 backers was bonkers to me. I don't think my next game will do as well, as a result of Solstice being as weird as it is, but I feel that as long as I make solid games and continue treating people well, I can use this model for some time. That's really exciting to me!

If and when I find opportunities to work with publishers, I'll absolutely do so. I love seeing my game in stores with beautiful art and brilliant sales due to someone who really knows how to do things. But, I'm 99% in this because I love to make games. I love to hire artists. And, I love to make stuff. It's really delightful to me that I can accomplish those goals with games like Druids, Solstice, and my next project. I'm excited to see where this all leads!