No Stretching for Hocus

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and Joshua Buergel

A large part of our efforts the past year, beyond designing and developing Hocus, have been spent figuring out how we want to conduct business. For our first game, we’ve decided to use Kickstarter. The primary reason is that Kickstarter is a good platform by which to gauge demand and for many consumers it’s a known quantity. It’s worth the 10% cost and various efforts involved in a Kickstarter to use it versus building an online platform ourselves at this moment.

One of the most complicated elements of Kickstarter projects are Stretch Goals. As of now, when Hocus launches on Kickstarter in the latter half of June, we will feature no Stretch Goals. We have none planned at this time, and have no plans to add more.

This may be problematic for us, but we want to discuss the decision. We’ll surely be asked about it countless times during the campaign.

Fundamentally, the purpose of Stretch Goals is to increase revenue brought in via Kickstarter, ideally through additional backers. By that, I mean most backers don’t increase their pledges. Notice I said revenue! In many cases, it increases the money coming in, but most Stretch Goals also increase costs, so it isn't free money for the publisher. One can argue that it lets backers steer the course of the product and such, but fundamentally, I believe it’s about additional revenue.

The presence of Stretch Goals means a few things to backers:

  • “This project has funded and will succeed. It is a thing.” People want to back a winner and be a part of the winning team.
  • “The project will be more exciting. I can’t wait to see what else we get!” It’s fun to be a part of “But wait, there’s more!”
  • “This is a good deal!” More stuff, at the same price, definitely feels like a good deal.

I’m not made of stone. I’ll tell you honestly I have jumped in on a handful of Kickstarters because, well, look at that deal! Fief came with 5 full expansions I’d have to otherwise pay for. It was tough resisting Space Cadets: Away Missions with so much content there.

But, Stretch Goals are not appropriate for Hocus. Our goals for the publication of Hocus are to learn about publishing a card game in a way that builds on our reputation, does not incur an undue amount of risk, and leads to a positive relationship with a small pool of customers. Oh, and we want to make a good game!

These goals must steer our execution. We need to keep our costs low, reduce delays as much as possible, and really nail what we think we can nail. The more complications we add, the higher our chances of failure or missteps. We’re new at this -- it’s likely we’re going to botch something, so we need to keep it simple. The stupid is implied. That means remove anything else.

Before I go into some more philosophical points, I want to detail the things that will be included with a pledge for a copy of Hocus. Things that are often withheld as Stretch Goals will be included at the start for us.

  1. Linen Cards: We will have linen cards from the outset. We’ve paid a great deal of money for the art in Hocus and this will be a game that’s heavily shuffled. It’d be wrong to not go with linen.
  2. Fifth Player Support: Although the game was strictly 2-4 players for the longest time, we found a clever solution and five player is actually a phenomenal way to play. Five player does come at a cost - it requires 14 cards: 8 for the deck, 3 for the Spell Book, and 3 reference/tracking cards.
  3. 8 Spell Books: We could ship only the number of books to facilitate a game at our max player count, but we've included 3 extras. Many games add promo content, or micro-expansions. We’re including everything from the start.
  4. Rule Sheet: We have card budget to simply put the rules on cards and save a little money on the printing. But, we think the rule sheet is the best thing for the product.

Now, let’s discuss some of the specific reasons we think Stretch Goals are wrong for us and Hocus. Firstly, Hocus is a very small game with a very small price. The final game will be 99 cards, tuck box, rule sheet, and we believe it’ll have an MSRP of $15.99. The total cost for backers to receive a copy of the game will be, we believe, $13. We’re basically slashing the MSRP and backers will cover shipping. The margins are already low in a low margin business. Every dime we add in to the box hurts our ability to move towards a more fiscally responsible state. We aren't going to get rich on Hocus, but we would like to cover our operating costs as soon as possible.

Secondly, we want to have no delays...that we can control. We want to begin printing as soon as possible, which means all art and graphic design needs to be finished soon. Let’s say our 3 additional Spell Books were Stretch Goals. Do we pay for the art now, and hold onto them hoping we fund? Or do we wait until we hit the goal, hoping we can still schedule our artist? Our artists have quite a bit of lead time. That second option seems dangerous for the project.

Thirdly, it did not make sense to balance test content we weren't confident we would ship. We have spent months and hundreds of tests just spinning on a small subset of Spells. Why would we spend that time if we aren't sure we’re going to use it? It’s difficult to test against possibilities. It’s a pain to gain manufacturing quotes against 85 cards, 88 cards, 89 cards, and so forth. Yes, our manufacturing partners can do that, but it seems like a waste of their time, no?

You can see a few cases above where I mention the thought of paying for/developing a thing that we then don’t use if the goal isn't hit. There seems to be a game of chicken where you can say “we will do this if we meet this Stretch Goal.” But, if you’re below it at all, do you not do it? Even if it makes the game better, you've paid for it, and it doesn't fundamentally alter your costs, do you withhold it? If you don’t, then were you lying all along about needing the money? It’s a strange choice we didn't want to have to make. We thought the game needed linen cards, and 8 Spell Books, and 5 players, and we were willing to pay for that up front.

We think of this game as pre-Stretched for everybody, with everything we wanted for Stretch Goals already included at day one. It's a more honest approach to this game.

If we’re wildly successful, I’m sure we’ll hear about areas we could add things to improve the game. Such as shifting from a tuck box to a 2 piece box. Adding tokens for everyone. Or, promising or developing an expansion. But, all of these have been considered and set aside due to costs, cost and complexity, and risk, respectfully.

We will undoubtedly lose some momentum from this. Stretch Goals are an expectation and part of the ecosystem. But, we’re curious if we can succeed without them. Thanks for reading. If you have any thoughts, email us or share them below. We’re quite interested to see how this pans out!

Comments

I fully realize I'm swimming up stream and defying the ecosystem of Kickstarter. I have no misconceptions.

This may be a very sad Kickstarter campaign as a result. But, I feel removing those 3 Spells is dishonest. The game needs them to meet the value and promise I'm sharing with customers.

I decided against the 2 piece box and tokens because we felt, as a new publisher, a lower price was a better strategy. Lower risk for consumers, lower risk for us. Plus, the numbers don't quite work out. I cannot charge $13 then manufacturer a far more expensive product. Perhaps if everyone updated their pledges to $15, but...it doesn't work like that. I feel that this setup is what's right for the product. It's the right way to make the game.

If doing this is the breaking point for a successful Kickstarter, then I learn that lesson and find a different path. I have savings, I can get a small business loan.

I appreciate your insight. I was wondering when you'd emerge :)

Absolutely, I think the core starting point on Day 1 needs to be a fully realized product. So if the game isn't complete without those spell books, you shouldn't omit them. Can players have a fully satisfying experience with plenty of replay value without those spell books?

I'm sure you've gotten estimates and run the numbers, but one key point you don't talk about here is economies of scale. If your MSRP is around $15, the manufacturing cost of each game is probably around $3-$4. I'm not sure what your minimum print run, but for a card game it could go pretty low. I'll assume 1,000 copies. So your funding goal and your reward price is probably based on creating a minimum print run of 1,000 copies at a cost of around $3.50 each, right? And you've determined that price is $13. But say you sell 1500 copies on Kickstarter and those funds give you the potential to make a first print run of 3,000 units instead of 1,000. Economies of scale kick in, and suddenly your manufacturing price is around $3 per unit...but backers are still paying the same $13. Why not use that extra $0.50 per unit to make something more awesome for your backers?

Another factor to consider is something Brian Henk (Overworld Games) has discussed on my blog: A tuckbox is not good for retail sales. So if you're hoping to reach a broader audience beyond Kickstarter, why not use Kickstarter to enable the creation of a bigger box?

Futurewolfie, I hear your concerns about stretch goals, but all of those concerns apply to stretch goals that haven't been properly thought out. It's more of a criticism of poor planning and budgeting than the stretch goal system itself. In the long term, without a 2-piece box, this game is definitely not better off in retail, so why not at least create the potential to enable backers to help them make the box? Maybe they'll need 5,000 backers to get there, but why not plan for that possibility?

Regarding Spell books. Plaid Hat could ship Ashes with 2 Phoenixborn and have us pay for the rest. But the starter set comes with 6. Netrunner's starter box could have been 1 corp and 1 runner, but it came with one deck from each faction. Yes, we could ship the game with a single spell book per player, but we think it's a much better game with more. Therefore, that guided our decision. I want to emulate the companies I love the most as a customer.

I'm also totally aware of economics of scale. We've been researching quotes and numbers for a long time. We're thinking beyond the Kickstarter, in that I think Hocus is a $16 game on the market. I'm weighing that against similar products and what they offer. So, yes, if we brought in 5000 backers and a significant amount of funding, we could Kickstarter a bigger product. But, I think we would then suffer on the retail market as we'd have a more expensive game with more bells and whistles...that we don't think make it a better game. More cost, but not a higher value? Hmmm.

The notion of "more awesome" implies we're holding something back, which we aren't. We're making the game as it needs to be made. It's going to be a killer $16 MSRP game sold at a discount to backers. If there's an audience, we'll design additional content in the future.

As for the tuckbox, we think it's again the lower risk option. Star Realms did fine with a tuck box. Fantasy Flight and Plaid Hat and Portal sell expansions in tuck boxes. Pairs is a tuck box. We have fairly modest ambitions for Hocus. It's a more traditional card game, which is already fairly niche. This is my our offering as a publisher, which limits the market potential. We're not quitting our day jobs, so it doesn't need to pay the bills. We want to deliver a good game, at a good price, and not fall on our faces.

Furthermore as a side note, we just don't think the tuck box is right for an all cards game. 2 piece boxes open up, take up more space, and are just less ideal. That's our opinion, but it's the best we can run with.

About the box: our game is all cards. A two-piece box is a worse container for all cards than a tuck box. Tuck boxes stay closed when tossed in bags, they're more compact so they take less space, it's a better box for this game. I acknowledge that two-piece boxes are more visible, and more common for retail. I also think it's a worse experience for me as a gamer, and it's a worse experience for the person who wants to toss the game in a bag and go. I certainly wouldn't rule out converting to a two-piece box later if we do a second run to encourage retail sales. If we get to a point where we do an edition with tokens included, a two-piece box becomes a must. But out of the gate? It's a bad choice for this product, looking at it from the perspective of a gamer. Specifically, my perspective, what I would want as a gamer.

And it's not like tuck boxes are retail death. Star Realms seems to be doing just fine. Our product is very much in line with Star Realms: similar components, similar time frame, similar box, similar price. But ours takes 2-5 out of the gate. Take that, Star Realms! (I love Star Realms.) Also, I want to make sure that people know that I also love the good retailers out there, places like my local store Card Kingdom, and we'll do everything we can to support those stores.

There are no awesome things we can include in this game that don't incur delays to the product or require us to hold things hostage. If we wanted to do even more spell books, we'd have to go back to the artists to do that (big delay) and design and develop them (a risk, and a delay). A two-piece box makes the game worse, in my opinion. We've already upgraded to the best card stock we were looking at. Tokens for everybody are unnecessary, and would change the base price a lot more than any kind of unit savings we're going to see. And on and on. We had looked at a campaign structure that stretched out all this stuff over a big funding period, and we just decided that we weren't comfortable with it. We feel like it's a more honest approach to simply say: this is the best version of this game we can present, at the lowest price level we can do.

Finally, I'm a serial KS backer. I'm well north of 200 projects backed. Grant's pushing 100. We far too well understand how these things work. But we think it's the right thing for us and this game to do things differently, and we're going to give it a try, even acknowledging that we're not leveraging psychology the way we could be to maximize our high end potential.

Is it weird to reply to my own post? I hope not...but yeah. Just saw your KS Post Mortem Post and got my questions answered. Great summary by the way!

Excellent.

Hi Grant: Having just discovered this excellent thread, and now that the Hocus campaign is over, I'm wondering how you felt about your decision about the stretch goals. Clearly you raised enough without stretch goals (and then some) to do a good job with the game. Looking back, do you wish there were some more elements you would have offered during the campaign as stretch goals or achievements?

Grant: You've definitely thought this out and weighed the pros and cons, and I appreciate you discussing this topic on your blog. It's something that's been on my mind with Scythe lately too.

I think this game will successfully fund (and overfund) on Kickstarter. However, I think the lack of stretch goals will be a significant detriment. The points you mention here are both logical and responsible, but backers' passion and excitement supersede logic. Stretch goals are a huge part of the formula for creating and building that excitement.

There was a project last year that solidified my opinion on stretch goals. Search Kickstarter for "Skyway Robbery". It's a beautiful project with reasonable prices, an excellent pedigree, and great reviews. Yet it barely funded, and I largely attribute that to the lack of stretch goals. Their intentions were good, just like yours, but I think it hurt them quite a bit, and they almost didn't even fund.

Here's my suggestion: Turn those 3 spell books into stretch goals. Make them now (art and graphic design), and if for some reason you don't reach those goals, sell them as a promo item on the BGG store. The 2-piece box and the tokens are excellent stretch goals as well. Plan for them in advance--don't wait to see if you fund to start designing them.

That said, again, you've clearly thought about this a ton, and I'm not trying to change your mind. I'm just one person who wants to see you wildly succeed on Kickstarter. I hope that's the case regardless of what you choose!

Hi Jamey,

"The points you mention here are both logical and responsible, but backers’ passion and excitement supersede logic."

This right here is why I've long advocated against the emotionally manipulative tricks Kickstarter creators have been using from the very beginning.

Clearly, manipulating your audience beyond the bounds of logic and sound financial decision making is great for creators, but what does it say about your respect for them as customers?

Kickstarter backers have been conditioned over the last three or four years by unscrupulous, emotionally manipulative creators to keep hitting that button, hoping for one more dangling treat to fall. They've been turned into Skinner box rats, performing their click-duty for reward after empty reward.

A few creators have tried to buck this system and failed, faced with an angry pack of rats demanding more treats for their desperate clicks. I'm very happy to see Grant and Josh taking up the challenge of running an honest campaign that doesn't treat it's backers as click-monkeys.

I think Skyway Robbery is a completely different case. The goal was $32,000, and the pledge was $45. That is a very high goal. That is not impulse-buy pricing. That requires 711 US backers to reach the goal, which is quite challenging. It was connected with Game Salute but appeared to hide that fact, which turned a lot of people off.

If a game could fund extremely well on Kickstarter without stretch goals, it would be a small card game with eye-catching art and a reasonably low goal at an impulse-buy price. This project is exactly that.

Good luck, Grant. I'll be there backing on Day 1!

I applaud your careful, measured approach. Having not done this before it is wise to start small with a project you can handle, and when the bumps and roadblocks come, you have fewer elements in the air to juggle while you deal with the problems.

Since the Kickstarter Community has been conditioned for stretch goals, you probably will lose some potential backers. But in the long-term, you're still probably better off. You are much less likely to lose money on unexpected costs and have huge delays, which increases your ability to deliver a quality product on time and cover your costs (if not make a little $$), you'll gain experience, and be able to succeed on a bigger project next time around.

Stretch goals are flashy and bring attention, but which is better - a highly successful KS campaign that results in a crappy, delayed game that costs you thousands of extra dollars because you didn't realize the full cost of your additions, or slow and steady growth with a stable platform to build off of? I'd take the latter and it looks like you would too.

I'm not generally backing KS projects but I might back yours just on principle.

I appreciate it, and hope this all pans out. But, more important than principle is a quality experience. I want people to want and enjoy Hocus, feel that $13 was a great price, and that we as a company were awesome, honest, and fair. I see KS as an incubator, not a recurring solution. In a year, I don't think people will care about the campaign, but they will remember, or will have forgotten, Hocus. We have to make a good game if we want to be a real operation.

Mike -- Our Podcast interview is already linked on our in progress page. And if you want to have us on again, we'll most certainly show up!

It will be interesting to watch a fully formed idea tackle Kickstarter without those teaser elements used to drive up the backer count. You'll definitely need to find a way to keep the campaign fresh to make sure people don't move on from the game (a fun game in my opinion). I like stretch goals because it is fun to be part of the formulation of the end product, but if adding 3 more spells is a goal, it seems like a no-brainer to give those away from the beginning. It always irritates me when a stretch goal is "1 more event card" or seems to be adding things that belong to the base game but were removed to create Kickstarter buzz. This is only my opinion as a backer, not a creator. Mr. Stegmaier has far more experience in Kickstarter than I (and his company tends to run quality campaigns).

Given the nature of Kickstarter, I wonder if an approach like this would benefit from a shorter campaign time.

One thing that could help is posting our interview *winky face* (which a friend tells me has some audio issues) or finding something else to discuss when we get closer to the campaign and having you guys on again.

Definitely. Honestly, the breaking point for us was less about the component upgrades than the game upgrades. The idea of holding back 5th player, or extra Spell books felt lame. And when we examined costs, the other things, while they add up, weren't deal breakers.

It's also much easier to take this stance with such a low cost, small game. With a bigger game with more ways to tweak it, I can definitely see more of the appeal. Thankfully, I'm so far away from publishing large games that I don't need to worry about it!

Grant: Thank you for this post. As it has been said, it is very well thought out and it has been a thought process I have been mulling over a lot as well, even outside just the idea of Stretch Goals into the more general idea of delivering the real product.

The game I have been working on is somewhat similar to yours. At the heart, it is a card game. Slightly larger (~150 cards), but it is still a card game. The original goal was to develop a game that we could expand on, so we set out to create a solid core. We ended up realizing that we cared more for the game being "right" than for having these additional features. If the design idea was right for the game, why wouldn't we include it from the start? So I can fully understand your philosophy here.

I think it is important to note that there is a second way to view the Stretch Goals though. It allows you to say, "This is the game we want to give you, but it costs more than this other game that is just as good but not as shiny."

Your choice to streamline your campaign and the way you've laid it on the line in public have made me change my mind. I started reading this post as a "Maaaaaaybe, I'm burned out on Kickstarters," and ended as "Yes, I'm definitely backing this and signal boosting it."

Based on what I've seen, linen finish is a no-brainer for a small-box game that will hit the table a ton.

I'm sick of Kickstarters and Stretch Goals and hype and promos (especially the artificial scarcity element). It has never been about the fun of shopping, and always been about the fun of playing the finished product in my hands.

I wish you the absolute best of success with this and future games.

Thank you sir. We hope there are more folks like you, but mostly, we want you to love the game and play it hundreds of times like we have. We will be so thankful for any contribution you can make next month.