SPQF Post Mortem

The SPQF campaign is now over, so I want to dive into why it was successful, but also identify opportunities for improvement. While this post focuses on SPQF as a case study, I’ll also be using historical data from my previous campaigns to outline changes I made to reach this point in the first place. I’ll also be providing advice that can be applied generally to your own work.

Basically, this should be useful.

Let’s look at the numbers of previous projects first, as this provides data and context.

Hocus had 1639 backers and raised $31,403. Key details for this campaign was that it had full takeover ads on BoardGameGeek.com and as it was printed in China, we were able to sell it for the incredibly accessible price of $15. We also shipped internationally.

Farmageddon wasn’t on Kickstarter, but I had only about 150 pre-orders. I again had full takeover ads for BoardGameGeek.com, but they did not perform well. And again, I had a very low price like Hocus. But, without the Kickstarter framework, and perhaps due to some of the history of Farmageddon, it did not perform well at all.

Druids was my first lightning fast (about 12 days), Kickstarter only offering. It had 231 backers and raised $11,544. This game had zero previews, zero ads, and was a minimalist wooden abstract game. I expected to sell 50, so this was an overwhelming success in my opinion.

Solstice had 536 backers and raised $14,184. This was a massive surprise for a few reasons. One, I literally told people the game wasn’t for them. It is probably my most indulgent design with very nuanced, subtle, and difficult to grasp gameplay. I’ll get into Solstice a bit in the post mortem below.

Five Ravens had 330 backers and raised $6,715. Perhaps more than anything else, the failure of Five Ravens drove the changes that led to SPQF. In business you learn from failures or you repeat them, and I decided to not do that.

SPQF had 710 backers and raised $28,911. This makes it my most successful “pop up” campaign, in that it is very short, POD manufacturing, and no retail presence. It also almost eclipsed Hocus with revenue, and in terms of profit, is potentially my single most profitable project to date.

To understand success, we need to understand failure. Let’s examine what went wrong with Five Ravens.

I can only speculate, piece together qualitative feedback, and look at the data I do have to understand Five Ravens. When I share my conclusions with others, they nod and seem to agree that they are solid ones. That doesn’t make it scientific, but I used them to evolve my process and my analysis seems to have been correct.

Firstly, the black and white aesthetic was a real turn off for many people with Five Ravens. While I intentionally chose it as I thought it was distinct and striking, I think the lack of color for some makes the game look cheap, or eery, or for some, even sacrilegious. The reasoning doesn’t matter. I’m used to getting significant praise and attention for the art in my games, and Five Ravens didn’t draw this.

Secondly, the game lacked table presence. I’ll get into this a bit more, but the game was only cards. Hocus and Solstice at least had token add-ons, but not for Five Ravens. This further made the price of $23 a bit tough to swallow. I’ll get into pricing as well. Five Ravens failed to wow or provide a great sense of value.
Thirdly, the game lacked clear mechanisms for players to frame their minds around. It sorta had a deck-building component, but not really. It somewhat did things with tableau building. It had mult-use cards. I listen to a lot of political podcasts, news, and analysis and something frequently leveraged against the Democrats is that they fail to present to voters a clear, concise message. I think Five Ravens did that as well.

Fourthly, after two projects of succeeding with minimal product investment, my fans and followers finally said enough. What do I mean by this? I hired John Ariosa to illustrate Druids, Solstice, and Five Ravens, and he did an incredible job. On Druids, I put the card layout together. They were bare bones, so nobody really minded. With Solstice, Jason Kingsley took pity on my at the 11th hour and I paid him to do some quick graphic design work. But again, I got what I paid for. While I hired Fredrik Skarstedt to improve the Five Ravens layout, I didn’t allocate much budget and I insisted that the cards were fine. Well, they weren’t. The cards needed icons, the rules needed proper layout, the box cover needed more than a repurposed image. Customers hate getting something cheap. My products looked cheap.

Fifthly, my apathy towards promotion had reached rock bottom and it bit me hard. I did not have a BoardGameGeek.com entry for Five Ravens until the middle of the campaign. I didn't have a rules video until after the game was fulfilled, and its quality is lousy. I assumed and thought my Twitter and Newsletter would carry the day. I assumed a few hundred backers would be enough. The reality is that I was lazy and the market responded accordingly.

Five Ravens was a failure. The people who have played it have responded well. They recognize it as a unique, fast, fresh game. The game has been signed by a major publisher for a limited release, so in the end it’ll get its just due. But, Five Ravens was a failure, and it was self-inflicted. I lost money creating it and my ego took a bruising. I pride myself on hard work, but I didn’t put in the effort here.

Here were my key takeaways from Five Ravens: My products need to look professional. I need to hustle. I need to promote. I need to provide value.

Before we continue, it’s key for me to explain my thoughts regarding Kickstarter customers. Ultimately, one must take the lessons of Five Ravens, the aspirations for SPQF, and push them through the specific ecosystem that is Kickstarter. You must triangulate the data  to achieve success.

I believe people use Kickstarter for a mixture of three reasons.

Deal: Kickstarter customers want a deal. By this, I mean a rock bottom price that is exclusive, or superior to what it will be after Kickstarter. The price is knee-jerk and satisfying. The best example is the Tiny Epic series. I believe they’re typically sold for under $20 with fun components, tons of Stretch Goals, and a steep discount off MSRP.

Value: Kickstarter customers want a value. By this, I mean they’re willing to spend a lot to get a lot. The best example are CMON projects, most notably Rising Sun, or Batman: Gotham City Chronicles. Yes,  you’re going to spend $100 plus $45 in shipping. But, you will receive a truck-load of high quality, absurdly produced miniatures. The sheer spectacle of value received is jaw dropping. There is no way you can get at a store, so you come to KS for something wild.

Special: Kickstarter customers want something special. By this, I mean they want something they aren’t likely to see from a traditional brick and mortar publisher. They want exclusive items, weird mechanisms, or upgraded components. With my copy of Brass I’m receiving clay chips. I also have magnetized wooden component storage trays from another Kickstarter. A few months ago there was a co-op game that used magnets and a compass as a mechanism.

I produce games using a variety of domestic manufacturers. The economies of scale don’t factor in for me, no does the traditional long-tail notion of reprints and expansions. Therefore, I cannot offer a deal for folks. I am a student of economics, so I’ve always been very price sensitive with my games. I made decisions on Solstice to make it as low cost as possible, but this meant a tuck-box and printing your own rules. Plus, at $18 that isn’t a good deal. I sat in the worst possible Venn Diagram.

It’s also difficult for me to present great value. Adding significant tokens and components just increases the price and I cannot compete with the expectations set by CMON and others. I also don’t use Stretch Goals, which means I’d be losing the primary tool by which to drive excitement here.

I rely almost exclusively on the Special axis. Most big, successful Kickstarters pick and choose. I’d argue Batman and Rising Sun leverage Value + Special. For the longest time, I thought the Kickstarter exclusivity of my game, and my reputation, would be sufficient to qualify for the special category. Nah. It isn’t. To be special, you need to truly be special. It needs to look and feel unique, exciting, and special.

SPQF needed to be special to truly succeed. I really needed to embrace my category.

Now, we know why Five Ravens failed and what SPQF needed to do. Now, we can talk about what specific changes I made to SPQF to realize success.

For SPQF I targeted a few things from the beginning to push for a more successful product. Firstly, I chose deckbuilding as my mechanism. This is one of the most popular mechanisms in the hobby right now, but also, it’s one that is ripe for differentiation. I won’t cover how I differentiated SPQF from other deckbuilders as I’ve written about that already on BoardGameGeek.com. SPQF had a clear message for my backers: it’s a deck-builder.

Secondly, I swung for the fences with visual production. Unlike Five Ravens, Druids, and Solstice, I set aside a significant amount of budget for illustrations and graphic design. This included dedicated box cover art, budget for rules layout and aesthetics, and more unique illustrations. I also spent more money to improve things unaccounted for. In the end, I spent more money on SPQF visuals than any other project of mine to date, which includes the previous king, Hocus. Also, distinct from both Solstice and Five Ravens, I shifted away from the dreary, dark art, which I love personally, towards more bright, and colorful art. You get more flies with honey, as they say.

Thirdly, I made table presence a key aspect of the game from the very beginning. Instead of focusing exclusively on cards, I knew that I would need a tableau, cubes, tokens, and more. The game needed to look striking on the table. If you look at the photos posted by Eric Yurko on BoardGameGeek.com, I think you’ll agree that it does. This both aided in providing more Value and making it look and feel special. Furthermore, whereas the tokens looked more like an out-of-place after thought in Solstice, here, they were fundamental to the design, experience, and aesthetics. The product is more cohesive.

These three items are all product related. But, improvement went beyond that.

The low-price, or more accurate, “low-price” strategy of Solstice and Five Ravens clearly weren’t paying off. Customers on KS are not as price sensitive as I assumed as long as your game is a great Deal, a great Value, or Special. I deliberately targeted a higher price point for SPQF with the knowledge it would alienate some. But, by doing so, it gave me budget to improve the visuals and graphic design. It gave me budget to add fun, tactile components. It also gave me a much greater margin, which meant I would be able to break even or be profitable without fleecing my customers. On Solstice and Five Ravens I only earned a few dollars per copy sold, which made it impossible to break even. I tripled this amount on SPQF, but did so with the knowledge my backers would receive a great product for their money, shipped safely.

I invested in promotion, both external and internal. Before the campaign launched, I wrote eight in depth designer diaries covering different aspects of the game on BoardGameGeek.com. Long before the campaign launched I shared a full, high quality print and play. I shared the full rules with diagrams and layout.

Two weeks before the launch of the campaign I created a nine minute How to Play video. I invested a great deal of time into writing, shooting, editing, and producing this. Far beyond me mumbling in front of a shelf of games, I sought to create a high value video to drive interest. About a month after launch it’s at almost 2000 views, which is really good for me.

I sent the game to three previewers before the campaign. This led to two high quality written reviews, dozens of photographs from one of the reviewers posted to BoardGameGeek.com, and Twitter advocacy from both. There was a mixup so that the third preview wasn’t posted, but it’s not a big deal. Ultimately, I sent out preview copies, which I haven’t done since Farmageddon.

I shared the finalized, prepared campaign publicly for weeks before the campaign launched. I sought feedback, yes, but I began prepping people with my price, my offering, and the final product.

Once the campaign launched, I continued promoting the game. I sent out a newsletter to my 2000+ subscribers. I filmed and shared a 20 minute video featuring a full two player game. A fan of the game created a Tabletop Simulator mod and I made sure to provide him the final art assets. While this isn’t something you can bank on, I acted with energy to make sure to promote it and capitalize it as much as possible.

I believe the net effect of all this promotion is as follows. Firstly, customers love seeing hustle, passion, and advocacy. If I don't publicly seem to be in love with this product, why should they care? Five Ravens looked smug at best and apathetic at worst. Not SPQF. Previews and a robust BGG page lend authenticity and respectability to a product. Without it, you almost look fake. In an age of scams or sloppy creators, not having a BGG page sticks out like a sore thumb. You’re failing the litmus test.

Finally, all of the designer diaries help create word of mouth, passionate fans, and interested people. It helps elevate your game past being a product and towards being a story and facilitating a community of advocates. It helps convince people that you thought of this or that already and it’s incorporated into the product. It gives you legitimacy.

I always bust my ass developing my games. They are exhaustively tested and fine tuned. With SPQF I devoted that same effort and hustle to promoting and sharing the game. It is slow going. You will go months with silence, apathy, and indifference. Most of my BGG posts have very few thumbs, yet over and over again I heard from people thanking me for writing them. Over and over people tell me how they heard about the game thanks to something I wrote.

Furthermore, those quiet weeks turned into an explosive first day. You can see the Kicktraq chart here. One day one I received more backers than the entire campaign for Five Ravens. This is the visual evidence of my preparation paying off. I also set a legitimate funding goal for SPQF, which was $10,000. For previous products I set it incredibly low, around $2000. By passing $10,000 in just a few hours I demonstrated to those on the fence, or window shoppers, that SPQF was a legitimate project. That initial investment is what helped the game reach over 280% of this initial funding goal.

My conclusions here are simple. Your product, business, and financial goals must be intertwined. You cannot segregate design from art, or budget from design. They must be cohesive and lock-step. Secondly, you need to hustle. Never take your audience, reputation, or anything for granted. Always work harder than the other guy. Promote, hustle, shout from the rooftops, and be your biggest advocate. There are no shortcuts. Get it done.

With success out of the way, let’s discuss challenges and opportunities. One should always seek continuous improvement and now that I’ve once again reached a stable platform of success, I want to take the next step.

My primary concern is maintaining momentum and enthusiasm. With my games, the initial backer explosion is key, and will always be key. That’s true for most Kickstarter games, but as I do not use Stretch Goals, if my initial offering isn’t enticing, the next week will be very slow. However, I want to figure out how to keep backers commenting, engaged, and spreading word of mouth. How can I gain the benefits of Stretch Goals without leveraging them?

I have a few ideas, but I don’t think they are very good. One is purely a stunt, which is that the art isn’t revealed at the beginning, but over the course of the game. Or, even wilder, backers do not see the art until they receive the game. They get a big surprise when it shows up. While I think that’s enticing for some, it will be a much more polarizing turn off for more. I could allow backers to vote on assets, but this means I either need to pay for multiple assets up front, or delay fulfillment as we couldn’t have all the art finished before the campaign. This would mean my fulfillment would go from 1-3 months to 3-6 months. I’m not sure that’s a good trade.

I’m once again concerned by price. While this is my most successful campaign, even at $49, price was one of the recurring pieces of feedback from folks. Some of this I cannot change as long as I’m producing the way I’m producing (and I don’t intend to alter that). But, I makes me think that I should try to target the $39 range instead of the $49 range. This means fewer goodies, but perhaps that’s more palatable for more people?

I’m considering various add-ons, which confuses and muddies things, but is ultimately one of the benefits of producing things the way I do. For example, I intend to use a neoprene mat for the game board for my co-op game, but that will add to the price. I can also let people print that on their own if they want to save money? That feels odd, though.

Ultimately, I’m very pleased with the conduct and results of the SPQF Kickstarter. It seems the page layout was clear, the content provided was used and informative, and backers were relatively pleased with the offering. I’ll write a follow up post regarding my plans for my co-op game, which is still a ways out, but is beginning to enter the “product planning” phase beyond the initial design.