Planning to Plan

Today, June 1st, marks the final month of planning for the Hocus Kickstarter. Hocus, Hyperbole Games' first published game, goes live on Kickstarter on June 25th and will run for 30 days. The project seeks $6000 and a single copy of the game can be obtained for $15. Press Release jargon out of the way, I want to get to the topic of hand -- planning.

I'm a producer for a living in the video game industry on a very large team, though I've worked on quite a few small teams. A goal of mine for the Hocus project, out of what is to me a necessity, as well as personal pride, was to have things run smoothly. All too often, businesses of every stripe and experience level rush too quickly towards milestones without adequate preparation. I'm scared enough by the notion of publishing a game to begin with. The thought of stumbling about things at the last minute gives me heartburn.

Then again, this is my nature. I was the kid in college who had his paper written weeks before the deadline. I was panicking that my printed, neatly stapled paper would disappear, not that I'd finish it in time. I hate all nighters, so Josh and I worked to plan ahead for a smooth KS launch. Now, we haven't launched yet. The proverbial poo might hit the fan. But, we've tried to polish off loose ends and I wanted to share our methodology in the hopes it aids you as well.

We knew in November that we had the version of Hocus we wanted to publish, assuming final polish and development. We had several blind testers give us a thumbs up, plus, my mom really liked it. Around November we started to look for an artist and shift things into a very serious gear.

Pick a Date. You need a final date by which you expect everything to be ready. For us, that was our Kickstarter start date combined with the final fulfillment date. Those two are tied together, and there are critical months, like Christmas, and Chinese New Year, that we wanted to consider. We chose late June and decided to run for 30 days. We didn't want to launch in the middle of either Origins or Gen Con (due to the noise), and feel like November is too late (Christmas shopping, BLACK FRIDAY), so that narrowed our choices. Once we had our date, we began to work backwards.

We felt that 8 or so months would be sufficient time to finish development (just barely!), art and graphic development, final tasks, and any unexpected things.

If you're curious about the things we've done in these 8 months, a quick summary of significant and insignificant tasks includes:

  • Balance testing, content editing, rules editing
  • Maintaining PNP files, finding testers, and shipping them to testers
  • Collecting and acting on feedback
  • Manufacturing planning
  • International shipping planning
  • Fulfillment planning
  • Business model planning
  • Add on planning, design, testing
  • Creating a KS page and all that entails
  • Debating with each other
  • Building a plan for press for the campaign, reaching out to press, arranging for copies and so forth. This includes previews, podcast appearances, interviews, etc.
  • Business things, like getting UPC codes, dealing with taxes, yadda yadda

In addition to these are "non-essential" things like working on new designs, blogging, playing games, and some days, staring at the wall and doing nothing. And my real job, fiance, dog. What I'm trying to convey is that you'll have a lot of things to do. Some big, some small. Some with very long lead times. You will also have real life calling you, whether it's kids, a job, or just a game day with friends. Deadlines are fantastic for forcing decisions and moving forward, but you need sufficient time to tend to a lot of things. Especially if you've never done it before.

Identify external dependencies early. What are things outside your control that you need to nail down? Who do you need help from? Seek those people out, talk to them, and make those the first things you plug into your schedule. For us, this included things like:

  1. Hiring and scheduling our illustrator. We needed our style and all illustrations before we could schedule our graphic designer.
  2. Hiring and scheduling our graphic designer. Adam needed to know what he was working with, which meant illustrations needed to be finished.
  3. Before we could fully move with our graphic designer, we needed specs for our box, rules sheet, and cards, which meant we needed templates from our manufacturer.
  4. For some of our add-ons, we needed some early icons to start that process.
  5. We needed to prioritize a portion of the game (namely cards, spells) so that we could create decks using DTC (whose schedule we cannot control) and mail them to press soon enough to have them play the game.
  6. We needed to identify willing press partners who had time in their schedule to check out the game.

There are things outside your control, other people who have independent schedules, and more unknowns. Identify these things and slot them into your schedule first. If they don't work? Revise your dates and try again.

Be Decisive. You have lots of decisions to make. One thing I think we've done well is just deciding. We have frequently gone back and changed things, including #tuckboxgate, but we are always moving forward. Being decisive pairs well with giving yourself a nice long lead time. If you don't rush things, you can afford to be wrong. You can make a decision, then think about it. The worst thing you can do is to choose nothing. Deciding actually changes things and forces you to examine a problem or task from the other side of the fence, so to speak. If you just wait, nothing changes, and before long you'll be stuck with a decision. Sometimes that's okay, sometimes you'll enjoy a sub-optimal outcome.

A while ago we were discussing whether to initially put rules on cards, then put them on a rule sheet if we met a stretch goal. We had to book Adam (our graphic designer) and didn't want to do the work twice. So, we decided to hope for the rule sheet and wait. We signed our first contract with him without this. Later, we decided that was the wrong choice -- the rule sheet made the most sense from a cost and product standpoint. Thankfully, we had time to adjust.

Be ready and willing to adjust. I'm continuing the previous point, but be decisive, and continue to question and challenge your assertions. We frequently made assumptions about costs and worked against incorrect assumptions for a very long time. You'll do this often with manufacturing. Do 90 cards cost less than 99 cards? Nah! Well, actually yes. Sometimes it's a matter of pennies, other times it can be significant.

Create a detailed to do list with everything. Assign due dates that are reasonable but set when they are needed and stick to these dates. Take it seriously and you'll receive serious output. Assign owners for every task. Who owns what, and what does that task entail? What is the deliverable you expect to find? This is often just a sentence or so, not a novel.

Our to do list is broken into sections, like Illustrations, Graphic Design, KS Page Prep, and Press Support. We would over list things, some of which were nearly checked off the second we wrote them, or discarded later because they weren't tasks. But, by completing this slightly tedious task, we were able to really take a step back, examine the project, and appreciate everything we needed to do.

Partnership. I cannot stress enough how fantastic it has been having a partner through all of this. You may not have a co-designer, or a publishing partner, but you need one. To some degree. Find a dedicated sounding board for your ideas and your process. You'll be surprised at how well most people grasp some business basics. Surround yourself with people who care, or pay attention, and frequently run things past them. Sanity checks, you might say.

Furthermore, develop your relationships with the publishing community at large. There are so many friendly people who were in your shoes just weeks, months, or years ago. I am constantly firing off emails and DMs to people who know more than I do. Find these people, scratch their back, and seek their advice.

Plan for Promotion early. A lot of Kickstarters fail here. It takes time to print a prototype, mail it, and for the person on the other end to play it several times. All too often, people mid-campaign hit up journalists and hope for immediate coverage.

First, we identified our press partners. We did this by considering sites we enjoy ourselves and/or have a relationship with. Getting a preview is often a favor. We evaluated them based on the cost. Some previews cost money, which is fine. They are essentially providing you with an outside presentation of your game. It's far closer to an ad than a review. I wouldn't pay for a review -- these aren't one. We also decided based on people we thought would enjoy our game based on their play preferences and habits. We might be off here -- the jury is still out!

Once we had our list, we contacted folks months in advance. We told them about the game, provided our timeline, made it clear we would provide them with a game, and asked about their concerns and questions. We received some positive responses, some nos, and we moved forward. The key is to identify this early and plan for it. Don't just hope it works out.

Conclusion: Originally I hoped this post would be a little less philosophical, but in many cases, it didn't seem useful to list out the things we've worked on. Hopefully by the end it came to a nice compromise. I hope this is useful to you in your efforts. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask!