The Unnecessarily Huge Hocus Post Mortem

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Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

Grant: The Kickstarter campaign for Hocus, the first published game by Hyperbole Games, designed by Grant Rodiek and Joshua Buergel, is now over. The campaign was an immense success! In 30 days, we raised $31,403 from 1,639 backers. Our original funding goal was $6,000, so this final result far exceeded our expectations.

Although we do not have a precise number yet, we believe we’ve sold approximately 1800 copies, which is over half of our print run of 3,500. At the outset of the campaign, we intended to print 2,000 copies, which we then increased to 2,500, and ultimately settled at 3,500. This is wonderful, as it means we have a much greater opportunity to earn additional revenue through the retail channel with more copies.

Josh: And, the large number of backers greatly increases our ability to be successful with distributors, try and find international partners, and just generally get Hocus to as many possible places as we can.

Grant: Below is our post-mortem of Hocus: its design, development, and events concluding at the end of our Kickstarter campaign. We obviously cannot detail fulfillment, manufacturing, shipping, or pre-orders in a thoughtful way, as we haven’t experienced them yet. I’m sure we’ll write about them as well. Things went unexpectedly well for Hocus, so in lieu of a “What Went Wrong/What Went Right” format, we’re going to discuss a broad range of topics pertaining to the Hocus Kickstarter.

If there’s anything about which you’re curious that we don’t cover below, email me, or comment!

Long Public Development

Josh: Develop your games where people can see them! It gives you so much credibility from day one that your game is real and that you take it seriously. Early support translates into a successful project.

This one was fairly easy for us, for a couple of reasons. First, the fact that Grant and I started working on this design together as a result of him publicly looking for feedback was an instant validation of the approach. I wouldn’t have joined the project if Grant wasn’t working in public. Second, we don’t live in the same city, so we were already doing all of our communication electronically. That made it easier to open up some of that communication to the public as well. Third, we’re both voluble guys who like talking about our work, so it’s easy for us to get excited and just keep blabbing. But please, work in public. It just makes everything about your process easier.

I can’t emphasize enough how much our credibility helped our launch. We both have robust personal networks that got us plenty of backers, but we were also able to get a large number of fellow designers and other enthusiasts backing early because, in part, they knew we’d done our homework on the game. If you want any kind of virtuous cycle for your project, you need to really maximize your initial push, and public development is huge.

Grant: I’ve had several people ask me how we spread the word for Hocus. I took a deep breath and began explaining that it isn’t just Hocus, but the long process of becoming a part of our community and putting in my time. I’ve been an active member on the Twitter community for 5+ years. Josh has been active on Con Sim World for 10+ years. We’ve both been reading rules for publishers for a while, both AAA and tiny noobs like ourselves. We’ve tested for others, gone to conventions, had beers.

I’ve had folks say “I want to launch next month. How do I get people to check out my game?” And the reality is that you just cannot do that. Yes, sure, you might have a good enough product, enough ads, good enough art. But, you really want to launch out the gate strong. We had over 300 people support us in the first 30 hours and a lot of that is due to our social networks, developing in public, and building our relationships with countless testers, peers, and writers.

No Stretch Goals

Grant: Before we went live on Kickstarter we announced that we wouldn’t have Stretch Goals in this article. We followed that up with another article discussing the fallout from that announcement. Then, later, we announced we’d be upgrading our tuckbox to a two piece box in response to the fallout.

BoxinaBox

Josh: It was a bit of a gut-check, really. We faced what was our first uproar from the public, and we had to decide if we were going to eat the costs even for a small print run, or try and paper over people’s discontent with tuck boxes. In the end, we made the decision to try and give people the best product we could, and it was clear from the comments we were getting that most people thought that that best product had to include a two-piece box. We decided to stick to our principles of trying to make the base game as great as possible, and it seemed to pay off.

Grant: This approach to stretch goals led to a lot of terse conversations on social media and in email. You can still see the comments on our blog -- Stretch Goals are a very contentious topic from both sides! Before our campaign, I was fairly convinced that we’d hit $10,000, but we’d dwindle quickly with no reason to tell your friends. I really hoped we’d hit $15,000 due to our price and art and social media outreach, but that was a low hope. It was basically the price we were willing to pay in order to act in a manner we thought best for Hyperbole Games.

Well. We funded in 27 hours and in our update following this we laid out our No Stretch Goal plans for our backers. We mentioned it already on our page, but not in a super overt, hammer blow way. We never wanted, and still don’t want, this decision to be a crusade. If you want to do Stretch Goals? Sweet. It hasn’t stopped me from backing a project and I don’t expect it to. You can read this update here.

Josh: I was holding my breath. It was totally unclear to me how important the sharing efforts of our backers were to the campaign, and furthermore, if the lack of stretch goals would hamper that sharing. It was all terra incognita for us. Would our momentum slow down? Would people tune out? What was going to happen?

Grant: The response was largely silent. People didn’t really care. A few folks said “neat, sounds good.” Every now and then someone would pop up with a comment along the lines of: “We know you aren’t doing stretch goals, and that’s cool, but…” with an idea. Some were perfectly fine (art on the inside of the box?), some weren’t really feasible (unique art for every card in the deck?). But, people were cool with it and it largely didn’t come up.

Josh: Interestingly, our pattern of backing was very unusual. I’ve looked at a lot of Kickstarter campaigns, thanks to the handy graphs at Kicktraq. Virtually every normal campaign (that is, a campaign that is raising funds to print a game that fits into the mainstream of the hobby) has a common pattern: for the first handful of days, each day is worse than the previous. Things might jitter a bit for days 3-6, but really, you’re looking at falling backers for the first week. Well, Hocus followed it for a bit - day 1 was highest (as you’d expect), with a drop off to day 2 and to day 3. That’s all normal. But then something odd happened. Day 4 was bigger. And then day 5 was bigger than that. And then day 6 was even bigger. I’d never seen the pattern before, and I checked. If anything, our lack of stretch goals might have even helped our secondary sharing. It’s hard to tell causality, of course, but our funding pattern after hitting our goal was exceptionally strong.

Grant: What’s our takeaway? Mostly, it’s fine to not do Stretch Goals if you’re clear about it, don’t make a big deal about it, and develop a full product from the start. Potential backers really chafed when we said “our game is really nice on day 1,” yet we had a tuck box. People called bullshit, to be frank. When we had 8 Spell books, a two piece box, linen cards, and a nice rule sheet from day 1, well, we had a full product.

Josh: After we responded with the two-piece box, the community seemed to really get that this was the full deal. We were holding nothing back, but we didn’t have anything to increase, either. It was honest, and people seemed to not only accept that but appreciate it.

Grant: It really comes down to value. We also introduced bonuses throughout the campaign. We didn’t anticipate these, but we scrambled and met the challenge in a way that didn’t greatly affect costs and in no way affected our schedule. These bonuses included:

  • A high resolution PNP available to backers at the $5 and greater pledge level, available immediately. Interesting note: several backers warned me not to give it away during the campaign because people would just take it and leave. The evidence I have available doesn’t indicate this really happened.
  • A wooden first player token that fits in the box.
  • 2 Joker cards.
  • Variant rules, including a drafting format.
  • High resolution blank cards for players to create their own spells.

To be honest, people seemed relatively quiet about these as well. We had approximately 400 comments in our 30 day campaign and most of those were from 5 people, two of whom were me and Josh sharing announcements and responding to folks.

Josh: Again, it’s hard to read the tea leaves here and see if those bonuses were encouraging other people to share or not. It’s tough to untangle. But, I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed with the response to our bonuses. People seemed to think they were fine, they’re happy about them, but I just didn’t feel like we got an excited response. I’m still happy we did them, though.

Grant: Could we have raised more with Stretch Goals? I don’t know! Did we actually generate goodwill that will in turn pay dividends on future games? That’s impossible to know, at least for some time.

We believe in the future that, if we choose to use Kickstarter again, we have now established that Hyperbole Games doesn’t use Stretch Goals. I believe when backers receive their games, they’ll be very pleased with what their money bought them. I believe this precedent, and the hopeful success of the final version of Hocus, means we can now continue to act in this manner. For future pre-orders or Kickstarters, I imagine we’ll put more planning into bonuses to add, but any we do add will be fun trinkets, nothing core.

The Kickstarter revolution isn’t coming, but we are very comfortable with our decisions and really the lack of noticeable effect it had on our performance.

Josh: That unusual funding pattern makes me think that our lack of stretch goals didn’t really hurt us at all. It’s impossible to really prove, but comparing our campaign to comparable games (similar price points, component counts, etc) shows that we had a very strong performance during the periods in the campaign that you would have anticipated stretch goals helping out. I’m very content with the notion that this was the right strategy for us.

Page Layout

Josh: We sweated the details on the page before launch. And by we, I mostly mean Grant. He kept going over, and over, and over the copy. I contributed when I could, and we spent a long time working on it. And I’m really happy with where we ended up. There’s not much I would change. The placements of our quotes were great, the featuring of previews was great, it had clear information about what we wanted to have, and we didn’t have to answer too many backer questions about stuff covered on the page. I was especially pleased at how simple the offering is.

There are two things that I wish we had done differently. First, the text on the backer levels wasn’t perfect. And you can’t modify those after people use them! We should have spent more time thinking about them. Specifically, they absolutely should have listed add-on information right on the backer level, so that that information was right in front of the backer when they were putting in payment information.

Grant: For example:

Pledge $15 or More

1 Copy of Hocus. Backer pays shipping.

US backers can add additional copies for only $13 apiece and no increase in shipping.

Shipping Fees:

  • US: Free Shipping
  • Canada: $7
  • Rest of World: $12

Josh: Second, I wish we had done a few examples of costs in the main page, telling people how much different things would cost. I think it would have eased a bit of confusion and perhaps encouraged a few upgrades.

Grant: We did this on almost every update, but something in the Add Ons that said:

“If you are a US backer and want 3 copies of the game, back at the $15 level [with an image of that level] and pledge $41.” Basically, a guided walk through.

I had countless backers tell me “your page was so well laid out! All the information was there!” Yet, I had many other backers ask where they could find the PNP, or whether there were add ons they could support, and so forth. Ultimately, I think there are a few problems:

The Kickstarter layout is literally a single page with a scroll bar. It’s just a row of information. “Below the fold” basically allows for zero information, so backers must scroll if they want to learn anything.

The ecosystem of Kickstarter has formed such that a million pieces of information are required. I think this is largely good and it puts a burden on publishers who wish to be successful to do the legwork. But, most pages include written description, component listing, press information (previews/reviews/interviews), how to play videos, stretch goal information, how money will be spent information, the team, and more.

Extra clicks in games and web design and apps are generally a "no no." The fewer clicks a customer must use to reach their destination, the better. A Kickstarter page is just a scroll, so you don’t need to go through any menus. However, I’m very curious if the option to create tabs or pages within your page would improve things. Something like this:

Untitled drawing

Each of these “tabs” would have a title and image, set by us, the creator. We could do no tabs, 3 tabs, 50 tabs, whatever. Ultimately, it would give backers a very clear way to see what was going on in small chunks. I bet superior web designers could really do wonders here.

Josh: You know, as long as we’re spitballing stuff that Kickstarter should do (they won’t), it would be super cool if backers saw a different page than non-backers. Backers could see a simplified page with prominent links to PnP stuff, rules, backer-only content, all that groovy stuff. I dunno. Maybe I’m dumb.

Grant: That’s actually a fantastic idea! I’d also love a better way to send different backers different content.

The Price

Grant: Josh and I were of one mind for almost everything throughout development of the design and planning for Hocus. Discussion on the price is probably the biggest debate we had, and at times it really had me in knots. I’m not really a people pleaser, but I really cherish my relationship with Josh and I didn’t want anything to come between it. This was one of those cases where, unlike everything else we debated, it ultimately came down to my opinion versus his.

For a long time our plan was for Hocus to have an MSRP of $15 and be put on KS for about $12. We wanted to move a lot of copies and be a very easy decision for people who don’t know Hyperbole Games or Hocus. We aren’t established so we need to be an easy sell.

We put together some business models and everything seemed to check out. We went about our work. As I spoke to peers and publishers about our plans, all of them looked aghast when I told them our price. After a while, this really concerned me. We discussed it and felt that $12 was still right. But, it was driving me crazy and I poked around our business model. It turns out we had a few omissions and were missing some things. We also spent more on art than I think we originally intended, at least in our $15 MSRP mindset, and the numbers no longer lined up. At least, not according to my assumptions and concerns. We also needed to be far more successful, again, according to my model, in order to break even.

I tend to be a conservative, plan for the worst, hope for the best kinda guy when it comes to business planning. Josh still believed that we would move significantly more copies at a lower price point and the benefits of additional copies would pay greater dividends long term.

Ultimately, neither of us were able to convince each other and I made the decision to increase our KS price to $15. I’m glad it didn’t bite us -- we did fine. But, seeing how well we did at $15, would we have sold 1000 more copies at $12? I don’t know, and there’s no way to prove it. Decisions like this are terrifying when it’s your first go and you have nothing to base it on.

Josh: Essentially, this is another unknowable here. What does the demand curve look like for games? How can we explore it? What happens at different price levels? What about post-campaign stuff? There’s a lot of these things that are hard to plan for without knowing what level you’re going to end up at ahead of time, and there are a lot of ways to set pricing for different channels. I think that Grant and I had different internal projections, different pictures of what probabilities there were, and it led us to different conclusions about pricing strategy.

Ultimately, Grant seemed to feel more strongly about his position than I did about mine, and I didn’t think the price point we selected would be actively harmful, so I decided to give ground here. It’s impossible to really know who got it right, but I’m comfortable with the decision making process. And I think it was a good thing to have worked through, as a conflict we were able to sort out.

Grant: A few things will allow us to lower our prices in the future. Right now, Hocus is really our only revenue source, so it was tough to assign all costs to it. But, next year we will have a few revenue sources, including Hocus (KS and post-KS), hopefully my design signed with Portal, and a few other things I cannot yet discuss. This will give us some breathing room and we’ll hopefully better meet in the middle.

Thank You Notes

Grant: I’ve always made fun of the notes Kickstarter companies send to every backer. I’m cynical and grumpy and I always thought “pssh, just a copy and paste.” But, because it seemed like a good thing to do, I started writing notes to all of our backers, starting day one. I tried to type a personal note to people I knew, but if I didn’t know you, the gist of the message was:

Good <time of day> <first name of backer>!

Thank you so much for backing Hocus. We really appreciate it! Do you have any questions I can answer for you at this time?”

The overwhelming number of people didn’t say anything, but I did receive quite a few messages back, including:

  • No, everything looks great, thanks!
  • How do I add extra copies?
  • How do I get that wooden box?
  • Woah, do you email every backer? Wow!
  • Hi I cannot wait to play!

Ultimately, the thank you note was a handshake. It was a warm greeting. It told backers, “hey, we’re available and here for you. Ask away!” It got some people out of their shells and was the first way I was able to demonstrate that we care about our customers. If you keep up with these and do them daily? They aren’t that much of a hassle. Beyond your first and last days, and assuming you aren’t Reaper Minis, you should be able to keep up with 20-30 backers per day.

Do the thank you letters. They make a difference.

Josh: This might be the thing I’m most jealous about on the campaign. I wish I got to do these!

Grant: Every day a percentage of these customers would respond with the kindest things about how much they enjoyed the PNP or appreciated how we were doing things. It was really nice.

International Backers

Grant: If anything we did is a “what went wrong,” it was our assumptions regarding support from international customers. In short, we woefully underestimated the amount of support we’d have for international backers. I’ll comb through the numbers to provide something more accurate in the future once we release surveys, but if I had to guess, I’d say 20% of our backers are international, stemming primarily from Canada, the UK, and Australia. No surprise really that English speaking countries made up the majority! I was surprised at how many Norwegians backed us -- that was really cool.

After only a few days we recognized that our assumptions were off and began investigating solutions. The problem, quite frankly, is that many of the solutions are great for publishers with far greater scale in operations and more stable long term plans. Hocus is our only game. Landfall will not be a traditional title (spoilers) and Project Cow Tools won’t be ready until the end of 2016 IF we meet our very aggressive goals. Plus, me and Josh have personal, non-Hyperbole projects in the works.

In short, it’s difficult to invest in a proper international infrastructure with only Hocus, and really, only our Kicktarter backers to justify it.

Josh kept asking: even if we knew Hocus would do better with international backers, would it have changed our decisions? And the reality is...not really? We obtained quotes from many companies and did quite a bit of investigation, and many of them were just a lot more trouble than our scale could justify at this time.

Josh: Hindsight is only helpful to the extent that you can identify major decisions you would have done differently. And, I think, in the end, we would have gone with what we did. We got pretty far into investigating a different fulfillment method, one we thought would save both us and our backers money, until we got in touch with one of those international backers and were disabused of the notion, forcefully. I’m still investigating fulfillment options, but in the end, I think we’re going to end up back in the same place.

Grant: One thing occurred to me in the middle of our campaign: companies like Czech Games Edition and Portal Games have been around for 10+ years. They have many award winning, top selling games. They’ve done very well. However, up until very recently, both of them worked with publishers in other countries for international versions. Everything we’re doing with Hyperbole is focused on slow, reasonable, long term growth. Right now, we think we are good game designers and developers. We think we are good at art production. We hope to soon prove ourselves as competent sellers and businessmen. I don’t think we can really add international sellers to that just quite yet.

Our plan is to seek international partners to create domestic versions for other territories, with proper translation, packaging, you name it, to suit the territory. This is a long term plan, and one in which we have ZERO experience. But, we have some irons in the fire and we’ll see.

Were we EU friendly, we would have absolutely had more international support. We also would have had happier backers as they wouldn’t be paying $27 for a copy of Hocus (for which we’re eating about $6 per copy as is). But, and time may very well prove us wrong, though it might have been the right decision for Hocus, it would have been the wrong one for Hyperbole.

Josh: I’m not sure if we did it perfectly. But, I’m comfortable saying we didn’t do it wrong. This was the low risk option, and that’s a good thing for a first time project. I wish we could have offered our international backers a better deal, but this is not a terrible one, and it’s just a simple, honest way to go about things. They can go onto USPS and check the postage rates themselves, and can see we’re not ripping them off. It fits with our lack of stretch goals: we’re doing our best, we’re trying to do right by our backers, and we’ll just lay thing out forthrightly and honestly.

Logistics Preparation

Grant: We tried to "dot every I" and "cross every T" before beginning our campaign. Mostly, we didn’t want to lose our shirts from a really stupid oversight. We were able to do this because we gave ourselves about 8 months to balance our final mechanisms, prepare our press outreach, produce art, and work on our campaign. The obvious result is that we weren’t caught off guard by anything. The subtle result is that we had really good answers for questions that emerged.

That sounds smug and arrogant, but it's true. We were ready.

Josh: We’re both planners. And that’s good - we don’t need to balance that out with an impulsive person! I’ll occasionally go off the reservation on peripheral stuff, but on the core things, we have very matched approaches: list everything out and knock it all down. Early.

Grant: When folks had suggestions that weren’t feasible, we could succinctly and instantly state why. When people wanted to know why our fulfillment date was in February 2016, we had a clear answer. When we decided to investigate more international fulfillment options, we were able to dive in head first as we weren’t busy catching up on other things.

Often times, you’ll hear Kickstarter campaign runners note how busy they are and how exhausted they are. Truth is, I was exhausted during the campaign, but more from my day job and preparing for my wedding. I can honestly say the Hocus campaign didn’t keep me up any later at night. Now, time I’d normally spend on design was instead spent on Kickstarter, but that was 1-2 hours every night, maximum. Some days it was no time at all.

Josh: I had even less to do! Yes, I’ve been investigating fulfillment options, reading comments, fiddling with ads, and prepping files for production behind the scenes, but that’s not really any different from stuff I might be doing otherwise. I was sleeping soundly with how well Hocus did.

Grant: You owe it to yourself, your normal life, your project, and your sanity to be prepared and do your homework ahead of time. Create a very thorough checklist. Leave no stone unturned. Give yourself months to complete the checklist thoroughly and properly. It really pays off.

I’ve had many people email me for Kickstarter advice since we proved to be successful. They often ask the most basic day 1 questions, followed by “we’re hoping to launch our Kickstarter next month.” Don’t rush into things! Do your homework ahead of time. This is one of the few places where learning on the job is a terrible idea.

Final Art and Graphics

Josh: Maybe more than any one single factor, our professional presentation on the game drove our success. We spent a lot of time thinking about art direction, spent plenty of time finding a great illustrator in Tiffany, and made sure we reserved time with Adam, our preferred graphic designer. All in service of making sure our game was striking and looked great out of the gate. We were able to fund those costs out of pocket before the campaign, and it made a huge difference in our credibility. We’re new publishers. Everything we can do to reassure backers that we’re competent and going to make a great game was going to be worth it. Obviously, not everybody can afford to pay for their artwork up front. But having at least some final graphic assets right out of the gate makes just an enormous difference.

Grant: It helped that we only had a few illustrations for the game. Don't create a game with 65 unique illustrations for your first title!

We had some funny trials finding an artist before Tiffany. We found one whose work was strikingly distinct and just...edgy. Unfortunately, we had some communication snafus and we hit a wall in our progress. Eventually we had to cut the cord and renew our search.

I enquired for great artists with Brett Bean. Brett is one of my favorite illustrators alive and his work was so instrumental in Farmageddon’s success. He recommended two, one of whom was Tiffany, and we reached out to her. Fortunately, at the time we met her, Tiffany was contracting for Electronic Arts in the same building where I work. We were able to meet at Starbucks for a coffee to meet each other and discuss things.

I’ve written about art before, but there are some really key things and I think we did well at them.

  • Know what you want! We had a Pinterest Board full of imagery. We could speak clearly about every card. We had a very clear vision.
  • Know your components. Ours were locked. Size, number, everything.
  • Set parameters! We wanted Tiffany to work within our space, but as she saw fit. We wanted her to craft something unique, not just do a police sketch of what we had in mind. We gave her a world, a theater, an idea, and we gave her time to create.
  • Hire great people! Adam is an EXPERT at box design and print layout. Just look at our box! Look at it! He’s also an artist as well, which is how we made our card backs just explode with detail and life. He enhanced all of Tiffany’s illustrations.
  • Pay your people. Fairly. And on time.
  • Be responsive. When your artist comes to you, respond ASAP so they are not wasting time. Good artists are busy!

I think, overall, our art process went incredibly well. I think our output stands toe to toe with almost any game on the market. And I have no doubt that it benefitted us, being finished, for the campaign.

Now, one key thing to note is that Hocus actually has a very low number of illustrations. If we had a game with 54 unique illustrations? I’m not sure we would have done ALL of them ahead of time. That would have been a significant investment. But, maybe we would have? I’m not sure. This is one of those cases where having all art finished made sense for us, but it might not for games with more art than we have.

The Pre-Campaign Hotness

Grant: We weren’t sure when to try to hit the Hotness with a thumb drive. We decided to do it about 2 weeks before our campaign when our box cover was ready and we had examples of every card with final art. We uploaded our cover and for 2 days, over the course of about 5-6 Tweets, I asked people for their thumbs. Then, the quality of our art and momentum took over.

The result is about 100+ thumbs for our cover image, and a presence on the Hotness for a week. That was really awesome! Shortly after us, the Hotness was dominated by 1 or 2 game contests running and everyone else  was quickly trounced. Our timing was fortuitous, but obviously that’s not something anyone can plan for.

Being on the Hotness was really great for us. I wrote about it in depth here, but the gist is that we saw a huge uptick in PNP downloads, more social media followers on Facebook and Twitter, several newsletter signups, and a lot of chatter around Hocus. We had a very strong launch for our campaign: 347 backers in our first 48 hours! I think a lot of that has to do with our presence on the Hotness.

Conclusion? Try to hit the Hotness a little before your Kickstarter launch. Not too soon, and not during. The real benefit is to bolster your launch momentum, which is so insanely crucial. If you have a weak initial 48 hours, by the time you hit the doldrums on day 3, you won’t have anyone to spread the word organically.

Josh: I think of a campaign taking place in several stages. First, it’s up to your personal social network. Your friends, coworkers, family - the people who will just jump in right away. That sets up a crucial second wave, which is all those folks sharing your campaign on their social networks. The friends-of-friends. Those two waves make up the bulk of your day 1 and day 2 backers, and the size of those waves is huge. The biggest reason? It keeps you high in the Kickstarter search results, which drives a surprising amount of traffic. That leads to the big third wave, which is ripples of shares, organic discovery on KS, and other people wandering in.

So, a pre-campaign Hotness drive, or more broadly, awareness drive, is crucial in increasing the size of that first wave. The more you can make people aware of things and prime them to back on day one, the more you’ll see a positive feedback loop of activity and the more you’ll roll at the beginning.

Ads and Previews

Josh: Grant took point on previews, and I sort of took point on advertising. For my day job, I’m an exec at a company that gets a significant amount of revenue from ads, so I’m familiar with how these things work, I know the lingo, and I felt comfortable with the whole exercise. For the previews, our strategy was to identify a small number of folks that we thought would dig the game, reach out to them early, and try to get a few really high-quality previews we could feature on the page. We don’t really think having a giant pile of previews helps anybody, and it would just generate a bunch of work for us in lining them up. Having some on our KS page from third parties is important for credibility, so we tried to stay focused and concentrate on quality.

I think that part of our strategy worked great. The previews we got were fantastic, they really told potential backers what the game was about, and we were pleased to feature them on our page and really give some space to things. I’m pleased with how it worked out. We wanted to give people enough information that the price point and art would carry the day.

For the advertising side, we honestly didn’t put a ton of thought into where we’d put ads before the campaign rolled out. We knew BGG was the right place to put most of our ad spend, and so that’s what we did. I reached out to Chad Krizan to get the sell sheet in February, and we decided that we wanted to go for the front page takeover. That required a total ad spend of $700, which was close to what I’d mentally budgeted for promotion, so that was kind of that. For timing, we wanted that takeover to hit towards the end of the campaign, to reinforce the 48-hour reminder and try for a really big finish to the campaign. You get a lot of virtuous cycle effects from these sorts of things, so timing two of our biggest promotional things to go off at the same time seemed like a good idea. Because I reached out to Chad in February, we basically had our choice of days we could pick for a takeover, and the dates of our KS were set: avoiding Origins and Gen Con, nestling right into the middle, with a BGG takeover towards the end of the campaign. As with so many things, planning ahead and lining things up way ahead of time pays off.

As with the previews, I’m pleased with how things worked out. The ad spend on BGG was productive, with clicks to our Kickstarter page costing us about $.27 each. We had a conversion rate of about 8.5% across all visits to our page (which is fantastic!), so that $700 ad spend generated somewhere in the neighborhood of $4100 in extra revenue. Knowing that, we should have upped our ad spend! Now, of course, some of those people might have found us through another avenue without the ads, or they used the ads as a reminder, so the real profit there is likely lower. It’s still impressive.

Interestingly, the takeover banner was about the same cost per click as the other ads we bought on BGG - a higher clickthrough rate, but they’re also more expensive per impression. However, the takeover allowed us to concentrate ad impressions on that day, to try and maximize the closing finish. And it worked, as we nearly beat our day 1 numbers on the second to last day of the campaign.

I also experimented with Twitter ads during the campaign, just on a small scale, with a $100 ad spend. Those ads were timed to bolster a weekend, to try and not let our position on Kickstarter searches decay too much. Those ads, targeted at an audience with “board games” interests, cost about $1.50 per click, and probably converted only three folks (as best I can tell), so that wasn’t a great avenue for us. Was it the timing of the ads? The content? The platform? Hard to say, really, but it’s an area I’d like to explore more.

For regrets, the biggest single thing I regret not doing for this campaign was having a deeper ad strategy. I should have had more analytics hooked up, and I should have experimented with more types of ads on other platforms and I should have had better tracking of them. I don’t think our ad strategy was unsuccessful - we put the vast bulk of our ad dollars in a very sensible place - but I’m not sure we learned that much to fuel future efforts in this kind of area. But I do highly recommend BGG ads, and Chad is fantastic to work with.

Below, you can see what our referrer dashboard looks like. You can see the sources of a lot of our traffic, and how much of it is from parts of the Kickstarter platform (the things in green). There probably aren’t that many campaigns where Twitter is outdoing Facebook, but that’s where our social presence mostly is.

Dashboard

Grant: Uh, what Josh said. For previews, I chose a few sites and content creators whose work I really enjoyed and with whom I had a relationship. I reached out to them very early with the simple email of:

Hi, We're doing a KS for Hocus in June. I'd love to send you a copy in June and a final copy when it's ready. We'd love you to write a preview. Are you interested?

Due to the fact we reached out so early to most and had a solid game and a good relationship, almost all of them accepted. I heard many backers tell us that they heard us via On Board Games, or watched Jon Cox's amazing video preview on our page, and so forth. As Josh said, this content aided our credibility and just fleshed out our presentation. I'm so happy with the partners we chose.

Hustle - Mid-Campaign push to “go tell everyone go go go go go!”

Josh: We didn’t spend a lot of time during the campaign hustling for coverage, or prodding our backers into sharing. We both mentioned the campaign pretty often on Twitter, but that’s because we talk about most stuff on Twitter. I think we might have left some money on the table here, but cajoling your backers into becoming your salespeople comes at a relationship cost. We were more than happy to just have people as customers. If they want to help, great! But putting their money on the line to help us produce the game is fantastic.

Again, it’s hard to say how much this stance hurt us. But if we’re trying to build a real business here, we’ll be able to reach people post-campaign at retail, and we didn’t need to turn into hucksters to make this thing happen. And that made us both happy.

Now, we did stay in touch with our customers with updates. But we tried to make those interesting, with plenty of design notes and history of the game in them, along with some miscellaneous surprises for folks. We didn’t plan out a schedule of those ahead of time, and perhaps we could have planned things a bit better, but we only really got one complaint about them, so I think we did fine.

Grant: That complaint was about frequency as well, so take that as you will. We wrote 14 updates in 30 days. That's not too bad.

There are a lot of typical, obvious things we could have done to hustle more, including:

  • Thumb this photo
  • FB sharing goals
  • Twitter sharing goals
  • Generally just telling people to tell others

It’s not that doing these things is bad, but it sometimes feels exhausting as a consumer. I feel like promotion is our job, right? We tried to really have our PR elements lined up ahead of time, including several previews on Jon Gets Games, Geek Dad, and I Slay the Dragon. We have interviews with podcasts like Who, What, Why? and On Board Games Crowdfunding Edition. We also mailed copies to dozens of testers and some prominent folks. Some turned into coverage for us, some didn’t.

But, we wanted to reach out to our fans on a one-on-one basis and provide them with interesting development commentary using our updates. It doesn’t seem like our lack of hustling hurt us too much. Either Kickstarter sent sufficient people our way, or our extra copy deal led to friends talking to buddy up on a pledge, or folks just told others or shared the PNP.

I don’t think we’re natural salespeople. I’m a terrible networker. I sorta naively hope the work speaks for itself, which I realize is foolish, but we lucked out in this case. It’s something we should re-examine next time.

Wording and the Nitpickers

Josh: One thing about having a pretty big early set of backers is that we were able to get a fair number of eyeballs on our PnPs and our rules. That’s fantastic! We had many backers reach out to us to tell us they’d played the PnP and were backing the project as a consequence. There’s no possible message people could tell us that makes us happier by the way. One thing that all these backers did was look through what we’d put up. We didn’t get much in the way of balance suggestions, just a couple comments. But we got an absolute ton of wording suggestions and nitpicks.

It’s easy to get a bit annoyed by that type of feedback. You immediately get a bit defensive, thinking that your wording is fine. However, settling down, we could clearly see that there were ways to improve our wording, and we tried to take every bit of textual input we got. We couldn’t quite take all of it, but having those PnPs ready to go at the start of the campaign has materially improved the wording in our rules and cards.

Grant: Key piece of advice: If you use a verb, never use another verb. We found that we used “Play,” “Place,” and “Add” interchangeably. And, it’s fine. It doesn’t hurt player understanding and it didn’t really bring forth rules lawyers. But, making it all a single term means that it reduces friction by 1% more. We had a ton of nitpicks like this and it can be trying, but it’s important to do. I’m so thankful we had hundreds of eyes on our final final game and I hope we can get this on our next game even sooner. It was invaluable.

Something we REALLY hope results from our KS and relationship is more testers. That would be worth its weight in gold. Gold I tells ya.

Interesting Tactics of Note

Grant: A tactic we observed to be very successful for other campaigns is where you have a super low level entry price point, say $15. You then have a Deluxe Price Point, that is the entry level, plus a minor expansion, plus Stretch Goals, for, say, $25.

What seems to happen is that people get their foot in the door via ads, social media, or what have you with $15 in mind. They make the decision to buy at that point, but then see the $25 price point. In many cases, folks would back at the $25 level, as they already decided at the $15 point, but wanted the major offering.

Very fascinating! I’m not sure it’s something we’d do, but it seemed to work very well for the few we saw do this during our campaign.

Things People Liked

Grant: The idea for this section came from Steve Caires. It feels a little braggy, but it will also be useful, hopefully, in that you can see the things people appreciated. How should you look at this? These are the things people liked enough to comment on.

  • How to Play Video: Many backers told me they watched this and backed the game as a result. I only spent about 5 hours making it, so the level of effort was fully compensated by the support and appreciation.
  • Thank You Letters: Everyone who responded seemed to note that they appreciated these.
  • The Game: Many many people played our PNP and really liked it. That’s...good! And expected. We haven’t spent 18 months for nothing.
  • Page Layout: When asked if they had questions, people would often respond “Nope! Page was crystal clear.”
  • Responsiveness: We tried to respond to every comment, message, and email before going to sleep every night. Folks commented frequently on how responsive we were.

The Spam

Grant: One thing I was somewhat expecting before we launched was to receive messages from people. Holy billy. Basically the second you fund, or look like you’ll fund, you will receive daily messages from:

  • “Companies” offering their promotional services. These all had a mega scam vibe.
  • Manufacturing companies seeking your business. They will email you repeatedly until you actually respond and tell them no. This is maddening, by the way. Don't shout at people like they are a wall!
  • People seeking Kickstarter advice. This is fine, actually. I’ve asked so many people things in the past. I need to pay it forward.
  • People who want you to offer their mailing list a special deal so they recommend your project to their mailing list.
  • Other Kickstarter campaign runners seeking a co-promotion deal.

Let’s discuss this last one further. The intent, I think, is good and honest. Someone wants you to mention their campaign in an update. In exchange, they will mention your campaign. All parties benefit, more backers move around.

Right? I immediately developed a policy of rejecting all of them, because it was easier to do this uniformly instead of picking some versus others. This was actually a very easy decision in every case except for one. The reality is that I knew nothing about any of these games. I hadn’t played them or read their rules. I also didn’t know the publishers or project owners. Finally, it just felt odd. I see people complaining about Kickstarter projects promoting their new games months or even years later. I’ve received messages from people long after the initial project and as a consumer it’s like, okay, I get it. But, I’m not on your newsletter -- leave me alone!

In our updates, we felt it best to talk about Hocus. That’s why people were there, right?

Josh: We’re putting a lot of effort to build trust with our backers, our customers. Our entirely strategy is predicated on building a long-term relationship with folks, and having them recognize that Hyperbole Games stands for quality. Cross-promoting projects we don’t know can chip away at that trust, even if it’s small. We weren’t about to cross against our strategy for this, even if it might have boosted our campaign.

Grant: Now, we did promote Paradox in our 10th Update. They didn’t ask us to promote their game, though they promoted Hocus when announcing that Adam McIver was working with them. I’ve played Paradox a few times and really like it. I was a day 1 backer for their game. I know Brian, Paul, and Randy. I felt comfortable speaking on their behalf and that of the game’s. I wanted to share it regardless, but also, I wanted to reciprocate their kind deed.

I know some people have done this very successfully and it seems to work, honestly. Apotheca, which has 2,600 backers and raised $112,000 featured co-promotion with about 5 different games. Their backers didn’t seem to mind, and Andrew clearly picked his partners carefully.

I don’t see myself changing this policy. It seems simplest to simply decline, politely, invitations to do this. In some cases I have no doubt Hocus would have benefited, but I really wanted to ensure that my recommendations were backed by knowledge and I just wasn't able to do that, except with Paradox.

Josh: It’s a stance that’s easy for me to take as well. Our campaign is about Hocus, Hyperbole, and our customers. Anything that might disrupt that is something we’re going to put aside. Simple.

Grant: We’ll need to adhere to this even when we have another game. We shouldn’t bug previous backers with our next game. I’ve seen folks complain about it on Twitter and we’ll need to not abuse our Hocus backers’ trust.

Cancellations

Grant: At the start of the campaign I knew we’d have cancellations. I thought it would be 5-10 over the course of the campaign. In reality, we had 94 people cancel their pledge to Hocus, an average of 3 per day. With the exception of 2 people, nobody told me why they cancelled and I never followed up with any of them or asked why. It didn’t seem appropriate.

My mature brain thought: they have read more into the game and are no longer interested. Or, they want to spend their budget elsewhere. Or, they just changed their mind.

My lizard brain thought: OH MY GOD WHY ARE THEY CANCELLING WHAT DID I DO OR SAY WHY!!!???

I emailed some peers, checked in, and they all basically confirmed my mature brain’s sentiments. The two people who told me about their cancellation? Both had overspent for the month. It’s just one of those things that’s tough to bear, really. It feels like getting dumped, but more than anything, you want to know why.

Josh: I’m able to deal with this with more equanimity. I don’t see the cancellations, I just get to hear Grant’s gnashing of teeth. Me, I’ve only ever cancelled one KS that I can think of, but I can get why people might do it. I suspect most of them are just about budget. Seems reasonable to me.

Grant: I think that as Kickstarter grows in popularity and it becomes more common, you’ll see more people who just pop around projects. All of us are around for 30 days and they basically have tokens “in the arcade” that they can spend on anything.

This is one of those “problems” for which I don’t think there is a solution. We wouldn’t change our conduct, and there never seemed to be a correlation between any of our actions and a cancellation. We almost always received a cancellation following an update, probably because someone already considering doing so was reminded. But, otherwise, they just...happened.

My advice? Just prepare for it. Have a friend to whine to privately. I had Josh. Find your Josh?

Josh: Because it doesn’t bother me, I was able to just be philosophical about it. I recommend inventing ever more ludicrous reasons why people are cancelling.

The Video

Grant: We are not video makers. It just isn’t our skill set. When considering our budget spend on things like ads and preview copies and such, we felt like BGG ads were more important than paying someone for a really slick video. You only have so many bullets to spend and we hoped that a video preview, like the incredible one from Jonathan Cox, or our own how to play videos, would give people a little more meat.

Our video was very humble. It was a smidge over a minute in 4 cuts - intro screen, me talking, me talking some more after I forgot a line, and an exit screen. We simply laid out our pitch and price and let the rest of the page do the talking. We heard no complaints on our video, and I think our stats are pretty good!

We had 17,970 video plays, though you need to remember Kickstarter had AutoPlay for much of our campaign. The important stat is that we had 43.95% video completion. I’ll take it!

If you can make a video like Apotheca’s and it fits in your budget? By all means, do it. It’ll probably help you go viral and it really adds another layer of professionalism. But, if you’re like us, keep it simple, keep it low cost, and just let it do its job.

Do we use Kickstarter again?

Josh: Maybe? One of the biggest surprises to me is how many backers were driven directly by the Kickstarter platform. Obviously, we believed in its ability to get us more attention and folks on board with the project, but there were a lot more people finding us by browsing than I thought there would be. It’s been an impressive enough result that I think we’ll have to weigh using Kickstarter again pretty seriously. Obviously, we’d love to have a robust enough presence and strong enough mailing list to be able to support a pre-order system that works without giving up 10% of our revenue to Kickstarter.

Whether we use Kickstarter going forward will depend on a few things. It’ll depend on the performance of Hocus beyond the first shipment. It’ll depend on how much our presence in the market grows. It’ll depend on the size of our mailing list. And, most of all, it’ll depend on the specific game.

The next product of Hyperbole Games is probably Landfall, which is not going to go on Kickstarter, because it’s going to be a small printing where we need all the margin we can get. I think we’ll have no difficulty selling it out through non-Kickstarter methods. The game after that, though, might be several things. If it’s Project Cow Tools, which it might be, that’s a Kickstarter possibility. It’s a game we hope will have a fairly broad audience, and we’d like to take it to as many people as Hocus. That means we might really want to get the increased reach that Kickstarter provides, even though it costs us 10% of our revenue. The success with Hocus has been big enough that I think we would be foolish to ignore Kickstarter as at least a possible avenue going forward.

Grant: Josh really nailed my thoughts. We used Kickstarter for Hocus because we needed to prove demand in order to enter production. We were willing to pay them 10% to help us sell far more copies than we could have on our site and help us grow our reach beyond our social network.

In the past, Kickstarter didn’t drive much browsing traffic. Now, it absolutely does! Funny how things change. We really hope we have many people join our newsletter, as that is one of the most valuable tools for a publisher.

Landfall is going to be a small, boutique, weird printing and the 10% cut on KS would really affect our ability to make it. But, Cow Tools will be a bigger game than Hocus. It’ll be a bigger risk. If KS gets us 500-1000 more early customers than we can do just through our own site? It’s tough to ignore that.

We’ll really need to see where we are in a year from now. How will Hocus sell?

My biggest fear before Hocus launched was that our Stretch Goal plan would fail and we’d have to wrestle with very angry and frustrated customers on the platform. That didn’t happen and many of my Kickstarter fears have dissipated.

We’ll really have to see.

If you have any questions, comment below or email us!

Comments

If possible, I'd love to see what sort of numbers you see in conversion/interest generated from email lists. Speaking as a consumer, the only mailing list that I buy anything from is the Humble Bundle, and even then, only rarely. Most mailing lists I wind up on only get my spam-catcher email. I'm not convinced that using one is all that helpful, but I'm still investigating.

We're seeing a very high number of backers agree to joining our mailing list. I'd say around 60-75% if I had to estimate. As for mailing list to purchase conversion, I don't know. I'd have to tell you in the future for our next game!

setting aside 1 hour to read this today