This Stuff is Hard

Yesterday I posted about Stretch Goals and why we won't be using them for Hocus. The result was somewhat predictable and somewhat surprising.

Jamey Stegmaier, the guy who is publishing a book on Kickstarter, thinks we're making the wrong decision. Check his comments on the blog. He's not wrong! We will have a less successful Kickstarter. We will raise less money.

Some people don't like linen cards. Huh. I have people angry about tuck boxes. Not surprising. Some are quite angry there. That is surprising. I have suggestions to make art books or wooden boxes. All valid! Some we've looked into, some we'll research further.

I felt really good writing the post, and I felt good defending it, but I honestly feel pretty crummy right now at this moment. I don't know if it's work or life or publishing frustrations. Maybe all three?

The reality is that these are our first negative reviews. Every game will have its share of negative reviews. We have no brand loyalty, nobody with Hyperbole bicep tattoos, so we're going to have more negative reviews than an established company. We're going to get some 1s and some angry folks. This is just the first wave. It doesn't feel good, but we're entering a tough arena and it happens.

Everyone has an opinion. Some are right, some are wrong, but all will be offered. At some point you have to make a decision and deal with those consequences. But, we're stubborn, not (that) stupid. We're double checking the numbers. Making sure everything still aligns. We've been working on this for close to 15 months now -- decisions were made in different eras practically!

The reality is that we have to make decisions, with the information we have. Right now, that information is a scan of the competitive landscape, knowledge of our costs, a sobering appraisal of our status (it's low, we're first timers), and what we're willing to pay and lose out of our own pockets.

A part of our business plan is based around getting into distribution. That is very tough. Talk to a bunch of first time publishers and they'll tell you about a chicken and egg issue. You can only get in if you've sold enough, but how do you sell enough if you aren't in? How do we convince folks that our game is a quality game and no, no! We're not some idiots! If we don't enter distribution, quite frankly, Josh and I will lose a lot of money.

A few questions have come up, for which we have answers.

If your campaign fails, or is failing due to the tuck box, what will you do? We'll consider changing. Josh and I sincerely think it is the right move for us. But, if we utterly fall on our face because of a box, well, we'll need to think about it. We aren't inflexible. As I noted above, we're re-checking the numbers.

If your campaign fails due to a lack of stretch goals, what will you do? We'll figure out a different way to publish Hocus. We'll spend more out of pocket money and obtain a small business loan perhaps, or try to find a publishing partner, or just be sad about the thousands spent already and call it quits.

Let me step back briefly to talk about Stretch Goals philosophically.

I've worked in the digital game industry for 10 years now. A huge and tumultuous change has been the introduction of freemium games. Basically, games that are free to download, but are often lousy experiences whether you spend money or not. Ultimately, they are attached to the same psychology of slot machines. The goal, regardless of what anyone will tell you in Gamasutra or GDC speech, is to make more money from a very small percentage of people. If 2 or 3% spend thousands, it all pans out. At least for the business folks.

As a game designer, briefly, on freemium mobile games, I found myself constantly hurting the value and quality of the experience in favor of making more money. It felt dirty as a developer and it is a lousy experience as a customer. I've vowed to myself that I would rather work in another industry than make freemium games.

I look to Valve and Blizzard, who have offered great, polished games with honest business models. They may be dinosaurs according to the freemium folks, but I'm sure they are okay with that. I always liked dinosaurs. Tiffany said she'd love to draw them too!

At one point we were designing Hocus content specifically for Stretch Goals. It forced the question: do we think this isn't good enough to include for everyone? The answer was, no. It also felt strange to deliberately withhold something that made the game better in order to get more money from people. That's what we would have been doing: making the game less good to get more money from people.

Yes, we understand the psychology of Stretch Goals. Yes, we understand the ecosystem of Kickstarter. But, we'd rather say plainly, this is our offering. This is what we're selling and what we need help to create. It feels right and it feels honest. It's what we'd prefer as customers.

If your campaign makes less money due to a lack of stretch goals, what will you do? Our current goal is $6000. This is set deliberately low so that we fund quickly. Joshua and I are willing to spend money out of pocket to pay the rest, and it's not an insignificant rest.

If we hit this, it means about 400-500 people have backed us, which is also a decent indicator of demand. Based on other games on Kickstarter, I think we can raise $10,000 to $15,000 at the most. This is due to our reach as publishers and our lack of Stretch Goals. If we raise $15,000, I'll be dancing in the streets. That'll basically be a million dollars to me. If we raise $6000, I'll be nervous and it could lead to my first and last publishing effort.

I'll stop talking now

In the same way I've always tried to be transparent about my design efforts, I'm trying to do so with my publishing efforts. We've said many times that we're going to screw up. We don't know when, or where, but as this is our first time, I'm fairly certain it will happen. Maybe it'll be the Stretch Goals, or the tuck box, or there's a horrible strategy we've missed in our testing.

At the end of the day, we have to make decisions based around an approximately $15 product with the information we know. We're doing our best to reduce risk and make people as happy as we can for $15.

We appreciate your input and all of you sticking with us. This stuff is difficult, we're not sure we're very good at it, but we're doing our best.

Comments

Thanks for your notes. Regular versus deluxe doesn't work for a lot of reasons. There are steep print minimums, and doing that means I have 2 products in the market, that are mostly the same, and I have to pay for 2 print runs. I'm already worried about paying for ONE print run. Two is not really on the table.

A tuck box inside a bigger box. That's an interesting idea, but I don't think I've ever seen it in a game before. That also means I'm paying for two boxes, which just doesn't seem practical.

Core to this decision is: I think Hocus is about a $15 game. I think that's the value and the comparable experience to other games. Therefore, we are structuring our costs and approach to make the best thing we can for about $15.

Catan has the cards in a separate tuck box inside the game, but that's not quite the same, since there's a lot of extra stuff in the box. They also sell the cards as a separate item, so it might be more cost effective than packing them separately. Of course, it also seems to be overpriced for what you get. A lot of games do use box sleeves, which could be similar (notably the collectors' edition of Tuscany/Viticulture). Definitely agreed that it doesn't seem practical at your price point, but that's why it would be a stretch goal.
Anyway, not trying to convince you to change your mind. I'm sure you've looked at it six ways to Sunday. I just wanted to add more fuel to the discussion.
Make the game that makes you happy!

@Grant, A good product designer will find the right balance between game play, components, game length, complexity, and price to make the overall experience and the product what it needs to be for its target audience and the market. Your approach to stretch goals clearly shows that you understand this.

Nat's right that many backers want and expect stretch goals. TMG recently said that they are going to use Kickstarter less, and the only specific reason they cited was the demand for stretch goals. I think they understand what you do about being a good product designer. Maybe Hocus isn't a good fit for Kickstarter because it doesn't lend itself to stretch goals, I don't know. But I think it has a lot of other things going for it, and I'm looking forward to being a part of the campaign.

I appreciate it. This all really helps. It's forcing us to quadruple check everything. Partially why I wrote it!

I think there are 2 fundamental ways to look at stretch goals. The first, and what I believe to be the version you're cautious of, is releasing a full game, and the stretch goals are all net-new content, perhaps art, an extra player, variants, etc. I agree that this is sometimes detrimental to a game, as they add more work and thus push back the release date. Also, it can lead to virtually no margins or, worse, going into the red.

The 2nd version, one I'd urge you to think about, is figuring out what your minimum viable game is, or in other words, what's the cheapest way people can play your game. Maybe that is with non-linen cards, a tuck box, and non-unique card art. You could then add stretch goals to get the better card stock, better box, more art, etc. Then you're not trying to develop anything after the campaign, it's just tweaking the manufacturing order a bit.

I like the latter version because it allows you to have a lower goal for the minimum product, which helps you get it out there if there is less support than anticipated. However, if you game blows up, backers can get the higher-quality manufacturing by spreading the word and getting more backers for you. I think that's a win-win without too much overhead.

Personally I won't back a game that comes in a tuck box. That said, there are tons of people that will, and if I see I can possibly get up to the 2-piece box as a stretch goal, that will change my thinking. Food for thought. Thanks for documenting your process, I know it's super interesting to me!

Yeah, there are absolutely these two paths, which you've perfectly summarized. Danke! Though less so, I still feel that cosmetic stretches are similar to the gameplay ones. We're still withholding stuff in order to get more money. That feels wrong, to us at least.

You said: "You could then add stretch goals to get the better card stock, better box, more art, etc. Then you’re not trying to develop anything after the campaign, it’s just tweaking the manufacturing order a bit."

A new box IS new art. It's a completely different layout that we need to do again. More art is something you have to develop after the campaign. We have to sketch it, approve it, then have it incorporated with the graphic design. If we wait until after we fund, so we don't redo it, we're now adding months (probably) to our schedule. Our artists are both already booked up again. Also, and it's not your fault you aren't familiar with Hocus -- where would we add this art? As in, what component would take on new art? Right now we have 4 suits that need to share art. We have art for all of our Spells. Basically, we don't really have a vessel for "new art."

Right now, linen cards is the only thing you mentioned that wouldn't require additional development. Everything else costs more art, more time, and more development. Which moves us closer to the red and we're already quite close to it.

HOWEVER. I'm running the numbers again on the 2 piece box. The idea being that if we think it works out, we'll make the call now and do the layout work just once. It won't be a stretch goal, but a part of our initial offering. But, it isn't just a cost thing. For every tuck box that gets worn, Josh and I can think of times when our copies of Coloretto or No Thanks spilled everywhere in our bags. Which then hurts the cards, tokens... It's tough, man!

Totally understand that box art/layout is still work, but not like creating a whole new aspect to the game (expansion, etc.) and one you could get a jump on now if that stretch goal would be a thing for you.

Also, I don't consider stretch goals "withholding" anything. You're putting it up saying "this is what we can make at this level" and just being honest. The game still plays, it's all there. If you make more money, then you can throw in some niceties instead of just pocketing the money. I always love projects that look to do stuff like that.

That's the crux of the issue. It's a potato pohtahtoe situation. Your opinion isn't wrong, but then again, neither is mine.

Absolutely, and trying to figure out now what will be successful in your KS later is nigh impossible. Just take all the information you can, what your finances look like, and do the best you can. Worst case is the project doesn't fund, and you can come back at it again. I've seen that happen many times, not because the game wasn't good, but rather just how the project and finances were done.

I'm sure you'll do well, and I look forward to the KS!

I always chuckle when people talk about Kickstarter creators "pocketing the money." On my projects, I needed to reach about 250%-300% in order to recoup the money I borrowed from my savings account to invest in the project to get it ready for Kickstarter and print an appropriately-sized print run. What if it had reached 500%? Well, then I could put that money back in savings and use that extra money I raised from the campaign to go to conventions and market the game, as well as some money to start hiring artists for the next project.

You need money to make money, and it can take a few projects (especially for brand new creators) before you can start generating enough profit that it makes sense to extract any of it from the business to put it in your pocket.

I really respect that choice as a designer. It's a matter of pride to put out the game as the best product it can be. Best components, best mechanics, best game experience. But I think that's a very designer-centric way of viewing it.
When you sell a game to the public, the public becomes a part of the game. And the definition of "best it can be" changes depending on the customer. Best includes things like best price, best value, best purchasing experience.
As a backer, no stretch goals can hurt appearance. Because most projects start with no margin, stretch goals use up the margins created by scaling. Without stretch goals, it looks like you're taking that margin as profit, even though what you're really doing is starting at a loss by committing your own funds. Or it looks like you are simply using Kickstarter as a pre-order system, which can push backers away.
Of course you don't want a campaign that feels like you are holding parts of the experience back. Withholding completed content is definitely that. But, on the other hand, the entire Kickstarter experience is part of what you're selling. Skipping stretch goals is withholding that part of the experience for a lot of backers. You also said you wanted to show your honesty. Even though you already made the improvements behind the scenes, the stretch goals can be a way of demonstrating that honesty by showing backers exactly what their money goes to.
On a practical level, have you considered separate regular and deluxe versions? Or even including a tuck box inside a bigger box? Making that a stretch goal gives backers a choice without withholding any part of the game.
In the end, success depends on the goal you choose. Is the goal to simply produce the best game, or to sell the best game, or to sell the best game to the most people? The answer decides whether the message is "this is the best we can do," to "this is the cost for the best we can do," to "this is the best we can do right now, but you can help". then stick to the message and you'll be successful no matter what happens. Again, I really respect the idea of such a straightforward campaign, and I wish you luck.