The Gift of Independence

Post by: Grant Rodiek

In the past week or so I’ve written about why I design (the Release Valve) and things I love as an armchair publisher. I have just received a wonderful gift, which will hopefully change things for me.

I work for a very large electronic game company. Because it’s a game company and a creative company, there are rules I need to follow regarding my own personal projects. I must get approval and I must be very careful to not infringe upon IP rights and things of that nature. Separation of work and home, as it were.

As a creative entrepreneurial guy, there’s always the desire to do things on my own. What if I could do it better? Or, more simply, what if I could do it on my terms. A month or so ago I submitted a formal request to my company’s HR, legal, and studio leadership asking to let me form an LLC to develop, publish, and sell board games. This morning, I received the approval email!

In the last year, people announcing that they are a publisher is not new. In fact, it’s a really frequent occurrence. I’m throwing my hat in. My biggest inspirations are companies like Plaid Hat Games that have slowly but surely become a creator of great games.

I have a lot of work to do, but I thought I’d state a few things so you know what Hyperbole Games is, or I should say, will be.

Publishing will be a very busy hobby. I will still have a day job that will pay the bills and finance my ability to be a publisher. By doing this, I can move slowly, take the time to learn things, and not worry about losing my shirt if I fail. It would be fun to do this for a living, but that’s not practical for me.

As a result, I can take my time. Which is good, because I have so much to learn.

I will focus on publishing small, highly accessible card games. As a player and developer I’m very fond of cards and it’s key I do what I know. Cards are also relatively cheap to manufacture, have a lower price point, and as a component have many benefits in my opinion. My hope is to publish games that are clever, appealing to a wide audience, and aren’t just another take-that (says the Farmageddon designer….). I’d be perfectly happy with reviews that described Hyperbole Games as “great fillers,” “good gateway,” or “light strategy.”

For the foreseeable future, my goal is to self-finance things. As I noted, cards are relatively cheap to manufacture. I cannot finance a print run of Empire Reborn, but I could have self-financed Farmageddon. To be explicit, this means it is my plan and hope to not use Kickstarter.

Kickstarter solves two problems for new companies: funding for operations (primarily manufacturing) and marketing (to a degree). If I stick to products with simple components, I can self-finance. I’ve saved my money over the years and I’ve been fortunate to have a good job. As for marketing, well, I’ll just have to solve that problem through other means.

I’ve backed many Kickstarter projects and I was an integral part of the Farmageddon project. From these two perspectives I’ve grown wary of the site. Kickstarter has a unique ecosystem, rules, and expectations. To thrive, you must work within this ecosystem, or fail. It is an awesome site and I am super glad to have it. I’ll just solve my funding issues in a different way. Please please please do not read into this. If you have specific questions about this, email me. I’m not taking some stand or trying to make a splash.

If at some point I want to publish a bigger game, well, I may use Kickstarter. I’ll never say never!

My goal is to be a publisher of other designs. It is likely that my first game will be one of my own design. This is to reduce risk and simplify the process. Furthermore, if I make a mistake with manufacturing or botch the distribution setup, I don’t want a designer to be hung out to dry. I shouldn’t risk the success of their creation until I’m ready for it. But, long term, I aim to primarily publish the works of others. I am not sure I’m going to create the next Ticket to Ride, but I’m perfectly happy publishing the man or woman who does.

Which game will be first? I don’t know yet. It could be Poor Abby or Alchemy or something else entirely. It could be somebody else’s design! I have no time frame. My only requirement is that I publish something excellent that will pay for itself and allow me to continue. Simple, right?

So, what’s next? I need to form the LLC. I need to set aside finances for future projects. I need to continue learning about manufacturing (I’ve been taking notes for a year now) and begin building relationships for distribution. I’ll need to update my website to allow direct sales and I’ll need to figure out a warehousing/fulfillment solution. I’ll need to design and test a game. I’ll need to determine when and how to launch the product and build a marketing plan.

I also need to finish Livestocked and Loaded for 5th Street Games. I need to find a publisher for Empire Reborn. And I need to keep writing for my site.

I’m excited and thrilled that my employer gave me this gift. And I’m thankful to the design and publishing community for supporting me, answering my questions, and generally being excellent. Hopefully next year I can publish something that you all think is great.

Questions? Thoughts? Hate mail?

21 thoughts on “The Gift of Independence

  1. Great news! Congratulations and best of luck! I have a LLC for my book publishing, and it wasn’t too onerous. Marketing is the tough part for me.

    • Thanks! I’m fortunate in that, the world being modern, Amazon and other sites are a great help to new businesses. I’m also fortunate in that people know me for Farmageddon and *hopefully* in six months that’s a good thing :)

  2. That’s really awesome Grant! I wish you the best of luck on this adventure!

    Will your current employer need to approve of each game or does this approval essentially give you the freedom to self-police?

  3. Congrats! If I can be of any help as a playtester or retweeter or facebook liker/sharer or convention demo’er, just let me know.

  4. That’s fantastic news, Grant. It’s great to hear that you’re focusing on quality over speed and I’m sure that will bring you great success. Let me know what I can do to support Hyperbole Games.

    • Thanks! You can help by providing me with honest feedback during development and, if you like what you see when it’s done, thumb it on BGG and tell folks. And if you’re interested down the road, maybe some submissions?

  5. Congrats on the move! It’s a big step, but I’m sure you’ll do great!

  6. That’s awesome, Grant … now I have one more thing I need to talk with you about at GenCon! ;-)

  7. This news pleases me. I may misremember, but I seem to recall when we met that you said you wouldn’t want to be a publisher. You’ve got the smarts, ideas, energy and drive to do this, so cheers for giving yourself permission to be awesome. But I am surprised at your resistance to using KS. The marketing benefits of KS seem strong, so I’m curious what your alternate promotion strategies might be. If you’ve written anything up about your philosophy on this subject that is shareable, please forward it to me!

    • Hi David,

      My views on KS are notoriously inconsistent. They change often, sometimes for good reason (others not). I think you can make an argument that I am at times hypocritical in regards to KS. Many months ago I wrote a mildly controversial post on my old blog that I can sum up again here. Basically, I said that KS has no barrier to entry and therefore a lot of bad games are put up. This is bad for consumers and in the long run it’s bad for publishers and independent creatives because the channel is being flooded with inferior games. I’ve backed A LOT of KS projects and I still largely agree with this statement. But, without KS I would have never received Alien Frontiers (etc), which would be a shame as I LOVE this game and it’s outstanding. Farmageddon wouldn’t exist.

      As for my views listed in this post, one of the primary reasons is one of pride. Here’s a rough analogy: You know how sometimes the young entrepreneur ignores his parents’ “loan” or help because he “wants to do it on his own?” Well, that’s somewhat how I feel. I look at Two Lanterns Games (Morels) and Plaid Hat Games (Summoner Wars, Dungeon Run, Mice & Mystics) and how they have made GREAT stuff and been HUGELY successful without Kickstarter. They took huge risks on great games and through great work and a little luck they have succeeded.

      But, pride is a bad reason to do something.

      Kickstarter is an outstanding source of early marketing and buzz. It’s impossible to ignore this. This is why very established, very successful publishers are using it. Does Gryphon, Queen Games, or even Indie Boards and Cards really need to use Kickstarter anymore? Probably not. But, it’s a good way to get early buzz and get REALLY enthusiastic, evangelist backers. Word of mouth is the best marketing.

      But, as I vaguely note above, Kickstarter has an established ecosystem. There are subtle and not so subtle rules to which one must adhere. Most notably, stretch goals are required. Time after time you’ll see a great, very thoroughly developed, beautiful game on KS. The third backer will ask in the comments “Sweet! What are the stretch goals!” when there is still $10,000 to raise! Daniel Solis posted information the other day about how the projects that over fund the most tend to be the most delayed. Why? Well, the obvious first reason is increased effort to fulfill those orders. My publisher took a lot longer to ship out everyone’s copy of Farmageddon than he would have liked because our campaign sold about 1500+ copies. The other reason for which I would argue is that stretch goals. Stretch goals increase your costs, increase the difficulty of fulfillment, increase manufacturing head aches.

      Stretch goals are the biggest reason I am leery of using KS as a publisher. In my ideal world, I would hold a KS campaign for a game that is 100% developed, final rules, final art, final graphic design. I would have everything but a final contract with a manufacturer. The ideal would be that the second money transfers to me I could send the files to a manufacturer. I would know shipping costs for everyone in the world b/c the product would be funded.

      Unfortunately, people want stretch goals. Do I make t-shirts? Probably not. They are bad for margins, cost a great deal to ship, and I’m not a t-shirt designer. Do I add in promo cards? I’d rather not. This means I need to change my quote, get new art, test them. This delays everything and means I may have miscalculated something. The margins in this business are terrible and I’d rather avoid this. Do I make exclusives? No. Art is very expensive and if I create GOOD content, I want to put it in all my products so that people can enjoy it. If it’s not good enough to share with anyone, then it shouldn’t exist. Do I make full expansions? Okay, well, now I have a lot of testing and a lot of new art to make. Do I delay this? Now I have many unfulfilled customers who are getting antsy about my promise. I suppose I could test and develop something and hold it back, but really, I want to ship the game as perfectly envisioned. Here are all the components, features, all at the highest quality. I am holding nothing back.

      I’m making this a bit black and white, which isn’t entirely fair to this discussion. But, I’m trying to be “brief” and to the point. Hopefully that’s the case.

      Risk is the enemy of business. Having a month of uncertainty for funding is a risk. Having to account for shipping 50 to 2000 copies of your game is a risk. Having to expand rapidly for stretch goals is a risk. Getting money is a solvable problem. I can use my savings or get a loan from the bank. Or, I’m fortunate enough that I can potentially get a less risky loan from my parents or my aunt (maybe, not sure they’d bite). I can solve the marketing problems much like Plaid Hat has done — with great product, friendly customer relations, and perseverance.

      The funny thing is, if I don’t get a publisher for Empire, which I think is on its way to being a great game (and many testers who are not my friends have agreed), I would want to self-publish it. Guess what? I can’t afford to publish it. Too many pieces. So,I would have to use Kickstarter. Do I put up this game and hope people just back it as is, well developed, 4 factions, and all that? Or do I plan for stretch goals? My word!

  8. Thanks for a very thorough and rigorous response! I can appreciate your perspective, but have a few comments you may internally already have considered.

    I don’t know much about the success factors for Plaid Hat or Two Lanterns Games. Having an excellent product always helps, but I don’t think that is sufficient in this industry — particularly for first-time publishers. You admit they took huge risks, but I wonder that it was perhaps more than a little luck that contributed to their success. How many other new publishers can you point to who have enjoyed a good measure of success in recent years without using KS? I suspect the number of successful new publishers that used KS is much larger. More to the point, in an endeavor where you’ll be taking huge risks, why not avail yourself of the tools available to dramatically lower your risk?

    Your main concern about KS seems to be the stretch goals, but that is territory you can define for yourself in advance and then project manage just the same as the rest of your game before going live on KS. Why isn’t this also a solvable problem, as you consider money to be? It should be possible to plan for stretch goals that don’t compromise your schedule. You could simply withhold some pre-designed goodies from your game (“bonus” cards, wooden components instead of cardboard, etc.) and then reveal them as stretch goals when appropriate, having already priced them out with your manufacturer. I think you could creatively plan your stretch goals ahead of time in a way that minimizes your risk. In my view, stretch goals are more of a solvable problem than either money or marketing. Risk is the enemy of success. But personally, I think the marketing challenges of generating demand and buzz for a game pose a greater risk than managing stretch goals. I think the marketing benefits of using KS can be great enough to justify its use even if you have the money to manufacture it out of your own pocket, though the fiscal benefits wouldn’t hurt either. Especially as a first-time publisher. One of my main goals starting out will be building a brand and an audience, and KS would play a key role in that strategy. Remember you aren’t just trying to publish a successful game, you’re trying also to lay the groundwork for future successful games. Expanding your reach as much as possible is critical for that, and KS seems to be awesome for this.

    You yourself lay out an exceedingly strong case for using KS in your fourth paragraph. As I understand it, your case for not using KS is nowhere near as compelling. I’m about to embark on the same journey as you, so I’m thinking this through pretty seriously as well. I want you to be successful, which is really why I’m challenging you here Grant. Frankly, I’d like to collaborate with you in some way down the road, so I want you kicking as much ass as possible. :-)

    • I’ll try to quickly respond.

      Luck and timing are definitely factors in a businesses’ success. This is true in video games, iOS apps/games, board games, even web sites. I think the common element to all is a great product, good price, and being a good company, but yes, luck and timing are huge factors. I didn’t cover this because I was trying to remain focused on the KS component, not discuss business as a whole. I can do that for hours.

      Not too many companies can say they were successful without KS because most companies aren’t successful, period. And the majority of new companies did so with the support of KS. I only have so many examples to point to.

      As for stretch goals, yes it can be solved. But, whereas obtaining money has been a fairly straightforward practice for thousands of years, properly understanding the emotions and desires of customers is not. People WANT stretch goals on KS. They expect stretch goals on KS. It’s a very fuzzy thing and it’s difficult to rein in.

      Your suggestion on how to mitigate this is, in my opinion, not the right path. Yes, I could ask for less money with cardboard and then upgrade to wood pieces. But, I’d rather say “I need $20k to do this properly with wood pieces.” Or whatever. I only want to sell the product as it SHOULD be sold. And if I did this, I am willing to wager money that people would still ask for a “better” version or more things in the stretch goals.

      For example, my ideal version of Empire has 4 factions, four thick reference boards, a nice double sided fold out board, wooden tokens, linen/matte finish on everything. This is the right way to sell it. So, yes, I could pitch it with 2 Factions. A single-sided board. Cardboard tokens. But, I don’t want to do that. Does that make me naive or silly? Maybe. But, it’s how I prefer to do things.

      I spend approximately 2 hours in my car every day, Mon-Fri. I have a very precise strategy for how I would pitch Empire if given the opportunity. I’m very confident it is the right way to do it. Right in how I want to run a business and right in how I would treat customers and early backers. But, is it right for how KS operates? I don’t know. And it’s a big risk to try and fail.

      • Fair point that you want to present a game to buyers already specified to the standard you think it merits. My examples of stretch goals were just tossed out, I admit, and are not necessarily how I’d want to do it myself either. But I still think it is a solvable problem to devise stretch goals that do not compromise your standards nor threaten timely execution. The challenge is something of a game, in a way, and I believe creative solutions are within your grasp. I haven’t been following the state of board game Kickstarters since the spring, so I can’t offer any examples that I think meet this criteria.

        And lastly, again admitting that I’m a bit behind in following the state of play, how bad is it if you don’t offer any stretch goals? Why not say upfront in your campaign that no stretch goals will be offered? Are publishers who don’t do stretch goals being punished?

        • I unfortunately don’t have any data on that point. I’ve seen that tactic used somewhat desperately, but not widely or consistently. I would love to say to people: I need $X to print Y copies at this quality level. My incentives are: Free shipping, reduced price from MSRP, get it first. Then, I have 2 or 3 little tactics I think are nifty. Some bolder than others. If I followed that with NO stretch goals, I think there are a few possibilities.

          1.) It has negligible effect. I still fund or I don’t.
          2.) I fund, but don’t go beyond that number much at all (no incentive to do so for backers). I’d be fine with this.
          3.) I maybe fund, but I lose many of the fervent, excited backers because my project will have no surprises and new rewards. It is what it is and that won’t change. People like excitement. People like the big reveals. So, by saying “hey, this is it!” people might go “huh, boring.”

          • Your assessment of the “no stretch goal” approach includes almost no downside, and the considerable upsides remain. The most fervent, excited backers are those who receive a quality product they love. You can still achieve that without stretches, and that’s more enduring than passing fervency over bonus trinkets. Also, through bold and nifty tactics, you could find alternate ways to offer backers some surprises and excitement.

            Thanks for a fruitful discussion! This has definitely advanced my thinking on this subject and changed how I might run a KS.

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