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My Kickstarter Diary – Day 36: Thank you everyone! We’re going in…

More than 1 year after we began touring, almost 2 years after I decided to self-publish and more than EIGHT YEARS after I made the very first version of the game, Magnate: The First City goes live on Kickstarter.

This is one of the most exciting moments of my life and probably one of the most nerve-racking. Not in the way giving a performance does; it’s a very different kind of nerves. Not like butterflies in the stomach or a rush of adrenaline, but a constant dull sensation: a sudden dawning that – holy crap – so much has been building to this moment and the weight of that is only beginning to dawn on me.

Is it because I feel unprepared? No.

There are SO MANY THINGS I would want to do better if we had the time again. Maybe I’ll even detail them in the blog someday (I’ve still yet to post that one about backer prediction! It will have to wait for later now). But I am proud of the preparation we have done. We have listened to the experts, put in the hours, tested what works, and dropped what didn’t: both the game and how its marketed (spoilers KS creators: they’re both really important!). It it, as they say, in the hands of the gods now. Indeed, along with these dull nerves, I have a strange sense of relief building. Right up until the last minute there are things you can do in advance to achieve different results – things you could be better at: “Maybe there’s still time to try X? Should we contact Y? What if we changed this to Z?” After a certain point the very impossibility of changing those things frees you from the weight of expectation. Sure, the campaign itself is yet to be managed and I can still fiddle with graphics till launch. But the reality is the vast majority of what could get us to funding (and beyond!) has already been decided: The vast hours of product development, the endless playtesting, the gradual building up of real grassroots interest and outreach. The campaign is critical but its also only the last few % of the actual work required to get to funding. The die – to use a rare historical reference and game analogy – is cast.

Uncertainty is stressful and constricting. This strange feeling – that I can no longer really change anything much – is quite counter-intuitively the most liberating thing of all. So with less than 24 hours to go, I approach this moment content and excited for what tomorrow will bring. And it makes me full of thanks for everyone who’s been a part of this journey. Because as much as this is my baby, my vision; it really did take village to get this far. Such a complex project only affirms my view that it requires a vast number of people collaborating and supporting such a thing to make it successful: both directly and indirectly.

Thanking you!

I am terrified of thanking everyone individually for the fear I will miss someone out. So for now, I will only name those people by group, and hopefully avert the full blown outpouring of the Oscar acceptance speech (I’m British, after all).

First there is family who have supported the dream throughout the many years of design. Then there are the particular close friends, confidants and co-workers who suffered through less than ideal versions of the game, even with its euphemistically titled “runtime problem” (“you know 8 hours is not a marketable tabletop experience, James”) which took me too many attempts to solve. They’ve been there through thick and thin to make this happen and some have been beyond instrumental. Next are all the new friends I’ve made along the way as I began the journey into the world of tabletop publishing. Many were readers or professional contacts at first, but my experience so far is that (aside from the odd rotten apple) most of the people in the hobby games industry are lovely people and great company, even when the conversation is – shock horror – not about games. Then there’s my wider professional network (and I am sure many friends in waiting!), the importance of which cannot be overstated. Critical to what we’ve done so far are all the reliable individuals who share the same professional high standards as me; and are dedicated to helping their customers and peers succeed. They know that a rising tide floats all boats! Last, but no means least, all the fans that we have been so very , very lucky to attract already. Those awesome people who believe in the game and are anxious to get their hands on it before we’ve launched – in the end, only they will help us hit that target.

Thank you all.

A final request

I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog series. I do hope you continue along, as I plan to continue creating it. Magnate is not the end for me, but – I hope – just the beginning if the fates will permit it.

If you are also keen to support the game, it would be wonderful if you can back it tomorrow. The truth is that momentum is critical to Kickstarter. Every backer counts. But a day 1 back, makes it much more likely we will hit our goal, and maybe, fly beyond it! Just hit that notify me button here and you’ll get that notification the moment we go live.

Now for some only semi-ironically enjoyed music to get me there. See you on the other side of that launch button.

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My Kickstarter Diary – Day 29: Naylor Games… of Wyoming

First an apology: Inevitably this diary has become a lot less frequent than I would like! The sheer amount of work of involved in launching a Kickstarter, as day 3 explored, is vast. And, much as I would like to blog more, its absolutely not the most pressing task in long list. It doesn’t compete, for example, with officially announcing on our launch on the 21st and putting up a shiny new site! No promises, but let’s hope I have more time to share thoughts because SO MUCH IS HAPPENING. Anyway…on with the main event!

Those of you know me well will be pretty sure I did not grow-up among the majestic mountains of the ‘cowboy state’. Those of you who do not know me well yet would confidently take that bet.

Well, from a few weeks ago, Wyoming suddenly became more important to me, Naylor Games and the Magnate Kickstarter with the formation of a new US entity called NaylorGames LLC. 

Why have you set-up Naylor Games LLC?

Some of you may have heard that the UK has some very minor kerfuffle at the moment with something called Brexit. If you want to know more about that, feel free to read that wiki page (it’s actually pretty good!) or better yet don’t because it’s frankly a bit of a mess.

One way its a bit of a mess that matters here is that its causing the pound to fluctuate quite a bit. While fears of a highly disruptive no-deal Brexit have subsided a bit now, nothing in the process is certain. Crucially, nine weeks ago when I needed to start making a decision about what to do about it, it looked a lot more immediately uncertain than it does today. That uncertainty can quickly turn into a huge problem for people manufacturing things like me. Because if the pound suddenly drops in value against the dollar, my costs – which are billed in dollars – go way up even if the product has not changed at all. For a game like Magnate where I am trying to bring in a lot of quality components at a really good price, that’s a big problem. It could mean (if the drop is real bad) the difference between a successful or unsuccessful project.

Lots of creators have faced this recently and dealt with it in different ways (although you are unlikely to have heard about it). Massively sandbagging your budget is one way. But that generally means compromising either price or quality. Another way is to just hope for the best. That’s not my style and, again, in Magnate’s case just too much of a risk.

The way I’ve picked is to set-up a US company to manage the process. So the Kickstarter will run in the US, rather than the UK, and be raised in dollars. This means if the worst happens, UK backers would be subjected to an effective price hike – which is really crap – but the overall project is still looking strong for a nicely delivered product. If the pound magically goes back to pre June 2016 levels, UK backers clean-up, no one else gets hit and the finances still look good. The only loser there is me paying back sunk costs over time. That is fine by me though, because I still get to make Magnate. Lastly, if things are stable, then everything remains the same as previous. 

Having a properly registered US entity, could useful for Naylor Games’ expansion anyway in the future if we choose to take it further. But what matters now is that after spending a lot of time researching it and securing legal and financial opinions, it turns out for me that this legal structure and location was the overall best for us for now.

In general creators are loathed to talk about this stuff because they fear the potential negative publicity around it or raising thorny commercial and legal questions. That’s understandable and logical and totally sensible – it is no critique of them and it requires a fair bit of research to be sure what you are saying and doing is correct. But as you will know if you’ve read this blog before, you know that I love transparency of process. The way I see it is this: if you’re going to trust me with your money as a backer, I sure as hell need to earn that trust. One way to earn that trust by being as transparent with you as I can so you know what’s going on.

Setting up a US  company is not one of your holiday games

The path I’ve taken looks to me like the most complete answer to the problem. But the work involved is very, very substantial. A big chunk (though by no means most!) of that admin I complained about last time has been flowing from this.  From picking a state, to picking a type of entity, from forming a new company which is owned by a UK company to applying for a US bank account, there is a huge amount involved.

Every state has different laws, reporting requirements and tax systems and, above them all, federal law has its own requirements. Even simple forms require notaries to confirm your identity – in person – that are simply submitted for processing in the UK. Until recently it was very hard to even open a bank account without physically travelling there to sign the necessary forms. After going through this process it’s no surprise to me that, despite its reputation for massive international technical innovation, the US actually ranks quite poorly in terms of red tape; worse than “socialist” Finland. But now its done, I have to say, it’s pretty cool being able to say I have a properly registered US company!

Why am I a glutton for this admin punishment? I think its worth for it for the project and actually, I found this quite interesting compared to the other admin I have done. The challenge of tackling a new system! Knowing how to spin-up a multinational firm (which is what Naylor Games now is, madly enough) is some pretty useful knowledge to have in business.

Meet Dave!

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Luckily, I am not alone in this. US Tabletop miniatures man and all round trooper Dave Taylor is helping me out with the campaign. Dave is not an employee of Naylor Games (we don’t have any yet!) but is working on the campaign with me, providing advice and specific administrative assistance to make sure all the boxes are ticked and we end the process with a well fulfilled project! Because Dave is helping out, you’ll see his name on our Kickstarter page alongside mine and naturally, Naylor Games.

Dave works over the tabletop industry in different roles, but most recently has launched his own terrain creation manual, which raised a whopping $269,000! You can see why I’d want his help. Luckily for me, he is not only highly competent, but a lovely chap to boot.

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My Kickstarter Diary – Day 13: ARRGGGH SO. MUCH. ADMIN. Why does my game generate so much of it?!

Thinking about running a Kickstarter? Well, 19 months after I decided to self publish my game, Magnate: The First City, I am entering the final build-up of mine. This is the inside story of the challenges, joys, thrills and spills of running a Kickstarter campaign and the nerve-racking final weeks before launch…

…Today: How admin is getting me down and why publishing a game might be an especially admin hungry business. 

Exactly how wrong I was

As I alluded to in Day 3’s post, I significantly underestimated the time that would be involved in publishing Magnate. I knew it would be investment of time, but I thought it would be somewhere in the same region as running my newspaper project: 1-2 days per week) for 12 or so months, from the day I started to the day manufacturing began. Given the fact that the game was already pretty good before I hit the self-publish button, that didn’t seem like a hopelessly optimistic estimate. As someone with long experience of running something as complex as the Croydon Citizen alongside a full-time job, that felt like a careful, even pessimistic assessment, premised on experience. 

I was, as you now know, very wrong. But exactly how wrong?

It will actually be two years between those two points in time if everything goes to plan from this point. What’s more, the total time commitment involved has been way more than 2 days per week. When you add-up everything involved, my original estimate has to be out by a factor of 3x at the very least.

Day 3 already touched on the many reasons this is the case and why people should never, ever underestimate the time involved in making a game into a fully marketed game product. One could write an entire series exploring the many economic and practical reasons why this is, exploring the minutiae of work involved. But today – feeling a little battered, but also rather reflective – I want to write about how the work feels. If you ever want to get into this, you hopefully know it’s going to be a ton of work by now. But if you have the time and financial budget to do it, the days involved themselves don’t matter. It’s the fun (or lack thereof) you have living them.

So. much. typing.

Fundamentally, administration is what’s got me a bit down today. And so much of my job as a publisher is administration. Not game development, marketing strategy, building relationships, financial planning (even that, I legitimately enjoy – honest!), conceptualising with artists or even writing this blog, but good ol’ fashioned business admin: following-up emails, setting up meetings and events, organising materials, populating databases, assigning tasks and creating agendas.

Why is this? Because as fun and interesting as all these activities are they each generate a ton of their own, for me, characterless busywork. They’re all basically the same.

Take playtesting. The exercise itself is wonderful even when it goes horribly wrong. On a basic level, its just tremendously enjoyable to see another person engaging with your game. There’s huge joy in them finding things you couldn’t see, even when those things are gaping holes in your design. There are pleasures too: the exhilarating flashes of inspiration as you spot ways to make it better or the chuckles of shared laughter when it falls over or does something entirely unexpected. Most rewarding of all, there are the fixed, unconscious smiles and brows furrowed in deep thought as your creation clicks with your player-victims: fun has been found.

But every time we do a playtest, there’s a venue to secure, people to invite and a timeslot to find. Afterwards there’s notes to take, notes to organise and rulebooks to modify (even if your rulebook is in ugly, internal shorthand at this point). Once you have your changes and a new playest to organise, the cycle starts afresh. The event itself is as fun for me as playing a game. Excited discussions between myself and my developer aside, the work either side of it is no fun at all; at least for me.

Marketing is much the same, but arguably worse. What do you want to say? How do you want to reach people? What do you need to know about a market? All these are all questions I thoroughly enjoy. But once I’ve settled on a marketing strategy, most of those questions are done for. Now begins the busywork: collecting facts (copying pasting URLs, checking stats, googling around the world of boardgames, making lists of events, totting up the costs) and actioning them (filling forms, making more lists of the things you’ll need for a convention, emailing contacts, organising staff rotas). Those tasks account for 99% of the time actually spent on marketing. Playtesting, by percentage of fun, including its attendant admin, is an absolute laugh riot by comparison.

If only it were made of bytes… rather than cardboard

Is boardgame publishing worse than any other business in this regard? Certainly worse than some. The problem with game publishing is that you have to do so many, many jobs even when you’re starting-up. You have to manage manufacturing requirements, organise events, network, plan budgets, develop products, direct art, provide customer service, produce flyers, banners, websites and social media images, make sales calls and find every opportunity you can to promote yourself and your product without feeling like I’m my own shameless shill (…whether one actually is or is not is… another question).

If I were running a pure software start-up, there’s several items on that list that wouldn’t exist. They’d be no physical product to translate into, so all the concerns and management of manufacturing disappear in an instant. For the same reasons making changes to the product would be easier, faster and wouldn’t have to slot into a few physical prototype versions with long lead times and complicated set-up requirements. I could reasonably chose to promote my product entirely through online channels, skipping out the whole business of events altogether. After all getting people to test it would be as complicated as sending someone a link, not a meeting. And it would be a long time until art and graphic design became so critical that it would occupy much of my time. I’ve said before that the game itself is wonderfully easy to change when compared against an equivalent piece of game software. But so far, I’ve found with the publishing side of it the inverse is true.

Does that mean I’d spend less time on it overall? Probably not – I’d want to give it my awl, just as much as Magnate. But I think I’d be spending less of that time on admin. Why? Because admin isn’t really proportional to the amount of work you are doing, its proportional to the number of different things you need to do. Anything that has to be arranged that can’t be completely automated creates admin no matter how much time that thing takes up. Take events: one enormous event that lasted three weeks would be hugely less time consuming, admin wise, than ten smaller ones. That’s because each of them needs its own directions, rota, materials, timetable, booking form, accomodation plans, travel etc.  The single monster event requires only one of each of those things. And remember, everything creates admin, even delegating this kind of work to other people – something which has been a necessity even to maintain this timeline.

“Err then don’t DO it?”

I always fear writing more personal posts like this for fear it might make me seem terribly entitled (maybe I am!). After all, admin is what people do everyday to support their life. Otherwise I am privileged enough that I don’t have to do too much of it in the career that currently pays the bills. A fair question emerges: Why do I do all this if I’m so bored of the so much of its many everyday responsibilities?

Two things account for that. First is my sheer bloody mindedness. I don’t care how frustrating some of this has been because its all worth it for the end goal; making a dream come true that – might – turn into life sustaining business. As long as I remain fixed on that I will happily put up with what is, when put into real world perspective, more of nuisance than anything else. Having come this far, how foolish would it be not to power on through now?

Second, because I am improving. Already, the second time round is easier. This goes for almost everything I am doing. The speed development of my other game projects are coming along an order of magnitude faster than Magnate because of everything I have learned. The databases, processes and systems I have designed, populated and configured are, right now, making doing things on Magnate itself much faster then before. And while forging connections with people in the world of games felt incredibly awkward at first – like attending a singles event on your own with a million people – I am lucky enough to have actual friends all over the world, online and off through it. It doesn’t feel awkward anymore, I’m just hanging out with lots of lovely people that I like and like me – it’s straight up just life. 

Would I do it all over again? Of course! Am I going to do it all again? Not like this. Not only because I know so much or have done much of the groundwork already so I don’t need to. But because I am sure as hell going to pay people to do more of this admin for me! As much as I can possibly afford.

Maybe this blogpost just became a jobpost…

Image: paperwork by Camilo Rueda López

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My Kickstarter Diary: Day 8 – How many backers am I going to get? (1/2)

Thinking about running a Kickstarter? Well, 19 months after I decided to self publish my game, Magnate: The First City, I am entering the final build-up of mine. This is the inside story of the challenges, joys, thrills and spills of running a Kickstarter campaign and the nerve-racking final weeks before launch… read on if you dare. 

NOBODY KNOWS!

Good! If you’re here just for the KS tips, you’re done with this blogpost already. In the chaotic world of the Kickstarter campaign, no one knows anything and its presumptuous to try to even work it out. You can get on with the rest of your day. Bye!

*James sobs quietly in the corner, filled with existential dread facing next month…*

Except… that’s not really good enough is it?

Kickstarter is a fundraising/sales platform in which you convince a people who believe in you (and your product!) to part with their hard earned cash on the promise of something awesome. I can’t think of any such commercial endeavour where it would make any sense to settle for that answer; no matter how terribly humble it makes you sound. How do you financially plan for that? How would you know what a reasonable manufacturing budget is? Most crucially, how would you begin to estimate you’ll achieve sufficient marketing reach to actually fund the project?

Of course you don’t know the number – it’s the future – you literally can’t. But it is your job as a business person (that’s what you are now!) to solve this problem and estimate it.  As such a person, I am not actually sobbing (so don’t worry!). Instead, today’s post is inspired by the fact I have been working this very day on this problem, and have been updating my predictive model to solve just this problem.

But I am going to make you wait for the model itself. Today’s post is about the thing you can and should do early on. It’s widely accepted practice that I’ve summarised here and not just a piece of educated guesswork that is yet to be actually proved by the launch of my game. It’ll be critical for sanity checking your model if you choose to follow me down this path.

First and foremost: Look at similar projects to get a ‘ballpark’

A very straightforward way to work out a solid ballpark is what almost anyone will tell you to do: look at previous projects. It will only give you a very basic guide. But a basic estimate is always better than a shot in the dark.

Before I go further, it’s worth addressing that the number of backers and money raised are very different things. They are obviously intrinsically connected. But the relationship is complex and somewhat weak between game unit price and success: Both Kingdom Death Monster ($200 core pledge) and Exploding kittens ($20 core pledge) were monumentally successful raising $12.3m and $8.7m respectively. Their product, intended audience and price point couldn’t be more different. While basic economics will tell you that cheaper products will sell more units… perception of value is critical and too easily overlooked. I can tell you now with my product hat on (which is easily observed in the games world specifically) that an expensive product with a high core pledge that feels like great value will garner more backers than a much cheaper product that is perceived as expensive for what it is. 

Crucially, if you have an approximately fair price for your core rewards you can use existing data to guide to guesstimate how many people you need to convert from a funding amount.  You’ll see why backer number is really  important for the second part of this post.

Getting a funding amount should start with data

Datasets like this 2018 data set from ICO Partners can be a useful overview. You can see right away that the vast number of tabletop game projects are not raising many millions but less than $50,000. Out of 2,336 projects, only 68 raised more than $500,000 – ICO’s top tier category. Whenever I’ve closely examine those (just have a look at the top KS overall projects overall) it’s clear to me that they are doing so for basically three reasons (or a combination thereof):

  1. The companies involved have a long track record of making games (see CMON)
  2. The game is associated to an existing intellectual property or IP for short (A comic, a film or computer game franchise)
  3. A reprint of another more moderately successful initial KS or otherwise published game

So unless any of these is true of your project, I would personally disregard this tier entirely or the purposes of your project.

018_KS_tabletop_projects_funded_per_tier

Below the very top, there’s a solid and surprisingly evenly distributed minority group of projects (400, approx 17% of all the successful ones) that raised between $50,000 and $500,000. If you bring your A-game, have a great product, a big marketing budget and are willing to put in a massive amount of work, this should be the top end of your reasonable expectations.

That’s still a huge range though and includes quite a few projects by big companies that were – for them – relative flops or only average performers. So they’re more limited success may still have been rooted in methods that only encumbents or companies armed with (often very expensive IPs) can exploit. So if you want to avoid disappointment, it’s probably best to think of the lower end of this broad range as your maximum bar.

Deciding any more exactly where your project is likely to land, is dependent – from my observations – on three more factors that, I think, are equally important:

  • What similar genre games have raised
  • How much budget/time you are prepared to spend marketing it
  • Your optimism/pessimism bias

Similar games

The first is obvious but also I think the easiest to overstate. To have the best chance of success you absolutely need to research similar games to make your campaign as good a it can be anyway. If you’re making the dry euro I alluded to in the last post, these games are your competitor set. If you’re making a light, take that card game with a silly theme, it’s those kind of titles.

If this is your first RPG where you’re selling only a book your funding amount will be lower. Miniatures games can easily raise more money because of price point and KS’s reputation for miniatures games. But the problem is, from what I can see, that these two are among the most extreme examples and almost every other kind of game will fall between these. More importantly, what separates out the very successful from the less successful projects in any genre, isn’t the genre: its how well executed they are.

Budget

Marketing budget is a critical factor but also a fickle one. Projects that spend a lot of money on marketing will nearly always do better than those that spend very small amounts. But how much better is a matter of how good the marketing is, how well it is speaking to the game’s potential audience and a random luck factor no one can control (oh boy, if you don’t like the random outcomes of dice, you are not going to like this marketing business!). But if we assume you get it right, then you can only expect to get to those bigger numbers (the many tens of thousands of dollars) in one of two ways: pounding the pavements to kingdom come which is a personal time/opportunity cost (Joseph Chen of Fantastic Factories signed up 800 people to a mailing list from playtesting his game at small cons almost entirely alone) or by putting aside thousands of dollars for paid marketing in different forms (trade shows, ads, previews etc.).

Bias

If it’s easy to overstate comparison to other projects, it’s really easy to overlook the important of your own bias. Because this is all about estimation whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist will have a huge bearing on this. When I talk to pessimisst creators, they usually assume they’ll be in the bottom funding level (below $10k) despite the fact that a lot of these projects in this bracket have not actually executed that well (which can happen easily because this stuff is really, really hard – so no disrespect to them). When I talk to optimists, they tend more towards believing they will be the one in a 1,000 whose 1st time project will raise half a million dollars. They can do this with the same data or even their assessment of the same project.  This is a problem because this affects every part of your estimation process: you will compare more or less favourably to others, believe your marketing efforts are more or less successful (there are limited objective metrics available on this) and simply back yourself more or less to smash the goal.

Whats to be done? Nothing much but make yourself aware of it. Entrepreneurs (which is what self publishers are) need to be optimists to keep going when the odds are massively stacked against them. Why? Because what they’re learning and the hard work they are doing as they go are, over time, actually shortening those odds. But financial planning is best done with a more pessimistic mindset because doing better than you thought is ,nearly always, much better than doing worse than you expect: generally only one of those costs you money you may or may not have to spend. Paradoxically, utilising both mindsets is important to success. Its up to the individual creator to to use them both to pick a figure they are comfortable with.

It can’t be overstated that this ultimately comes down to comfort. Whatever you decide will be a subjective melange of all of these factors. That’s not a bad thing – it’s still much better than nothing and I don’t personally believe it can be improved at this stage. Though please let me know in the comments if you have a reliable, proven method for this!

Calculating backer numbers

Let’s imagine you’ve decided the amount of funding you think you could raise, not your funding goal – which should only ever be your absolute minimum bar. You’ve pegged it at $30,000 and your core pledge will cost $60, working from an assumption that your manufacturing budget is really low and that your project can be profitable at this level. This assumption needs to be carefully examined in a budgeting process, but this can be a simple exercise as long as you have no especially expensive to make components (…unlike me). If you assume everyone goes in for the core pledge (which is pessimistic assumption if you have a deluxe one), then you will get 500 backers.

Is that it?

Yes! For now, it is. Remember what I said about price. As long as $60 is fair you can assume you will get some customers. If you had a cheaper product with an equally good product-market fit, you would get more backers because more people could afford it. But you would also raise less money per backer. So in my view, this relationship is a kind of constant. And where there is variation, its hidden – you can’t know how much more or less. As a result, simple division of your funding goal by pledge level is actually pretty legitimate approach to get this number.

Why is this number really important? Because now you have the number of customers you need to buy into what you are trying to do. That’s, in advertising language, the number of converters you must secure and immediately gives you a real sense of the difficulty (or ease!) of the marketing exercise involved.

In part 2, you’ll see why I think that’s also a really important number for my method of prediction.

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My Kickstarter Diary – Day 3: How much time is this going to cost me?

Thinking about running a Kickstarter? Well, 19 months after I decided to self publish my game, Magnate: The First City, I am entering the final build-up of mine. This is the inside story of the challenges, joys, thrills and spills of running a Kickstarter campaign and the nerve-racking final weeks before launch… read on if you dare. 

Am I burying the lede? I’ll leave it up to you to decide!

For the last couple of days I’ve been spending lots of time and effort preparing for and attending critical meetings for the job that actually pays the bills: my work as a contractor consulting on the product & engineering strategy of software businesses. The company I’m working with today is pretty interesting: it uses distributed ledger technology, to promote transparency and trust in advertising. Working for them is really interesting and if they succeed, they will actually make online advertising a better place! So for me, there’s actually a great mission there too.

But as good as that all is (not just because it gives me the resources that I need to, you know – continue to live), it doesn’t come at the best possible time for Magnate. There’s still so much to do. So very many things I want to do to make the project as successful as it can be, even in this last month when the game itself is substantively done. As I said before, this is 19 months after I decided to self publish. I really didn’t plan to still be doing things with this degree of intensity at this point, but – lo and behold, here we are.

Why so loooooooong James?

I will say now, I don’t think its because I am absolutely terrible at this publishing thing. It is true to say that I am doing many things for the first time, which means I am learning a lot and taking 3x longer to do those things as a result. But it is also true to say that I started this journey with a few advantages: I know a lot about product management, I’ve run a couple of businesses before and I’ve played a lot of games (though this is likely the least important of those three!).

It’s because boardgames are expensive to make in a different way than you might think – and certainly different to what I expected.

In pure financial expenditure terms, boardgames have an incredibly low barrier to entry. It’s very possible to run a Kickstarter campaign for a few hundred pounds. If you use only free social media to market your game, attend only the most affordable conventions in the most affordable way and do your own art, there aren’t really any other substantial costs you absolutely need to pay for. Successful indie publishers like Bez have proven that it’s not only 100% possible to make a game on a very small budget but that much bigger things can follow. This is great because it puts publishing games within the financial reach of most people.

I knew before I started that launching a game would be way less expensive than a typical software product. But I was still very surprised just how cheap it could be talking to other creators.

But in time terms, boardgames are normally mammoth commitments. The minimum time involved in even relatively simple games is substantial. And, as you would expect to be, the less money you spend, the worse that generally gets because you can’t afford to just pay people to solve problems for you.

To take even a simple project from initial idea to finished project being shipped to backers or sold to customers requires considerable investment of labour and intellectual capital. The initial design process alone can easily take a first time game creator years of creative pondering, note-taking, informal playtesting with friends and colleagues. And this is before a game is ready to be “tested to destruction” by an army of punters and publisher appointed developers, themselves each sometimes playing entire long games several times. The publishing process (any development time aside) requires even more time, as art is carefully briefed, developed and the impact of changes to gameplay subtly interplay with graphic design. There’s financial planning, working closely with manufacturers to create a finely tuned budget. There is marketing to be done – the publisher’s biggest responsibility of all. For a small company, that means lots of attending conventions, events, building relationships and repping your game to the point people are almost sick of you. Lastly, all of this has to be project managed. And I can tell you now there are a million more tiny tasks that grow-up around these major responsibilities that will need to be seen to. Things you cannot even begin to imagine before you start.

I speculate that if the upfront investment of all of this time to all be priced even at minimum wage, it would blow the other line items in a low-cost project’s budget out of the water. Use some kind of potential earnings as your pricing method instead and… many people will not want to know what number actually is.

The implications of this invisible unpaid work for the whole games industry are way too complex to unpick in this post. But I will speculate that it really represents a hidden barrier to entry that monetary cost is not. If you have a very simple card game to take to market, you might be able to find time to launch it around all of life’s other commitments without major sacrifices if you’re really organised. But if you plan to take a mechanically innovative heavy euro to market, I can’t see how it could be done without taking a lot of hits, access to absolutely mad stacks of capital or having a lever like mine: The fact I don’t want work a regular job and can control my hours. Maybe Jamey Stegmaier can do it. But the man is a living legend.

To be fair, this is exactly why publishers exist. I think this is why many people sensibly and rationally choose this route to getting their game made, even if it means a lot of meetings, disappointments and pounding the pavement. Even with all of that to put up with, its a fraction of the work.

Does that mean you shouldn’t try self-publish your mechanically innovative, physically ambitious, down-right ‘offputtingly’ themed heavy euro? No! If you choose this reckless path, I will positively welcome you to the club of unhinged self publishers with wide open arms. Just be hinged enough to think seriously about how you’re going to find the time to do it justice.

Header image: “Time is Money” by Tax Credits

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My Kickstarter Diary – Day 1: The business of launch dates

Thinking about running a Kickstarter? Well, 19 months after I decided to self publish my game, Magnate: The First City, I am entering the final build-up of mine. This is the inside story of the challenges, joys, thrills and spills of running a Kickstarter campaign and the nerve-racking final weeks before launch… read on if you dare. 

“So smart guy, if you’re building up to launch why does this blog count UP rather than count DOWN?”

I can think of no better symbol of the sometimes messy reality of running a Kickstarter campaign than the answer to this question. Because of course, a Countdown would be WAY more sexy.

We recently announced that we’re launching Magnate in November, but not what date we’re launching on. Why? Because, like most creators we don’t really 100% know our exact launch date until relatively close to launch… and you can’t countdown to an estimate.

Why can’t you be a specific about a date too early?

Because your actual launch day (rather than month) is dependent on factors which, early on in your project are beyond your control. But to succeed in today’s ever more competitive Kickstarter environment, you need to have have adequately managed those factors.

First there are strategy questions. Is your marketing build-up sufficient, including reviews, any advertising or events and general awareness of your game? Are you launching on an optimal day of the week? What other similar seeming games are going to launch at the same time? Are you really, genuinely confident in your product? That means, are you confident that your game works, is blind-tested (if you’re doing it right!) and meets the needs of the market segment you are going for? The product ones should be easy to answer by this point but the marketing ones can still be tough to gauge and – because of what competitors might do – the ground might suddenly shift.

Second there are the more immediate practical issues. Your project needs to be approved by Kickstarter before it can launch. You can do some of this early (we began writing text months ago for instance) but if you make too many changes to your page, I understand it can occasionally need to be re-approved. It doesn’t matter that you’re otherwise ready to go – you can’t hit that big ‘ol button until Kickstarter says so.

Even if you’ve been approved there may be some last minute changes you need to make because something you expected to be done for your page still isn’t done. As someone with a fair amount of experience of complex projects I can tell you now that *something* like that will go wrong. Worse – it may be some small thing you didn’t think about at all. The more complex and ambitious a project and the fewer similar projects you’ve done before… the more chance these things will happen. Strong preparation generally prevents these issues become too serious. But it’s never possible to eliminate uncertainty.

Your attitude to the quality of execution of all of this is also critical here. If you’re like me and the bar you intend to meet or exceed is pretty high – the best work of the best retail publishers – then you have to work harder to mitigate risk and be more prepared to be flexible to meet your goals: you simply have less room for error because you want everything to be really great. It’s why I’ve had to reset the official launch from September once and why my informal plans of when it would go live have shifted a couple more times before this. If you’re more relaxed about the final state of your campaign (e.g. you’re using it as a low cost learning exercise first and foremost) then you can afford to accommodate more things going wrong.

Does that mean I don’t have a clear target launch date? No – I have an exact target. Of that target I am relatively confident: I have a game I know some people love and have good reasons for thinking many others will really enjoy. It looks good  (at least I think so!), has a blind tested rulebook and 1 player/AI mode that is (in the very least) my favourite one player game. My review copies are just about to shipped all over the world, I have a draft KS page and a simple but clear marketing plan. Most importantly, I am confident we have achieved a fair bit of awareness and there are quite a few people who will back right away (even if I don’t know how many or can afford to assume anything about success).

But I am sure not going to tell you that target launch date just yet… for that you’ll have to wait for another instalment of my Kickstarter diary.

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Why I’m giving up regular blogging

 

Thou shalt blog each week is the mantra of the SEO age. Does it make sense?

Infinite Content

I stare at the queue of articles I have saved to Pocket. As push my thumb up the page I begin to realise there are more than a thousand articles sitting there, waiting for me to read. I resist the next thought: There are a thousand articles sitting here I will *never* read.

I’m not the first person to notice we’re drowning in content. The over abundance of information is perhaps one of the great cliches of our age. I’m not even the first person to notice that read-it-later tools like Pocket or Instapaper have just moved the problem of losing track of interesting articles along one link in the chain: to the more unavoidable reality we never had time to read the things we were losing in the first place. But I am somewhat shamefully, given this foreknowledge, one of many people who have done nothing about the problem. Instead, I am part of it: relentlessly churning out content without fail every week. Not solely because I love it (the one and only good non-commercial reason) but because I feel I ought to.

But writing is fun…right?

The truth is that I do really enjoy writing – sometimes. Sometimes it gives me incredible moments of elation. There are subjects I am passionate about that I want to share with the world. There are ideas, thoughts and feelings I deeply want to communicate. There is a nuance and power in the written word that no medium can match. But the pleasure of the craft of writing is for me has always been a more muted joy.

For me writing has always been a pastime in the truest, original sense of the word. Most of the time it’s a more fun way to spend a few hours than slumped in-front of the TV. Like a good swim it can come with a wonderful endorphin rush at the end. But I don’t live for swimming; I would never describe myself as a swimmer. I was never a newspaper editor because I loved journalism. I was a newspaper editor because I love the town I live it and believe in what a newspaper could do to make it better. I never started this blog because I wanted to be a boardgame critic, but because I had specific ideas, analysis, reflections on experience I wanted to share. The actual content of the content is what I live for, not its craft.

So when the well of content I am actually passionate to share runs dry – when it has to be forced – it turns from a pastime into a slog. Very soon, writing for me becomes a battle to constantly think-up new ideas are easy to execute; rather than full me with joy. As time has gone by I find myself asking more and more: Is that battle to fulfil a blogging schedule because “that’s what you’re supposed to do” worth it?

Some might think this is just typical writers block. The constant fight to apply to seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. Perhaps this is just the whinging of someone in a very privileged situation; the educated man’s first world problem par excellence. All of this is about me, it ignores what I am giving to readers entirely.

Maybe all of that is fair enough. Every writer goes through some of this after all. The difference is that I am not sure there is a good reason why I am putting myself through it; however more or less comfortable a problem it is in the grand scheme of things.

The hard facts

I am not a professional writer. I don’t need to earn a living from it and I don’t love the craft itself. If there were another medium I felt I could communicate in just as effectively, I would change to it in a heart beat. In general, as far as intellectual buzz goes, I get my greatest bang-for-buck when I talk about these topics in person; not in in their written form, essay or discussion.

What I write here takes a lot of time to create. I am something of a perfectionist and I can’t help myself when it comes to diving deep into topics. This has it’s positives. I have been complimented on my forensic and detailed approach. I think it’s genuinely different and seems to be useful. It’s also the only form of writing I do that really rewards me personally.

But it cannot be rushed. While I have improved my speed since I launched this site last year, it still takes a total of approx. 5-7 hours to create an average analysis piece; outside of specific research like playing some of these titles a few times. That’s closing on an equivalent of a working day per blog post and some pieces taken even longer. I’ve tried just going faster, but that only really works when the format itself leads to quick execution – like a newsletter. For articles that don’t fit that mould, going faster usually means dropping the quality. I just can’t bring myself to do that.

Looking to more mercenary subjects, regular blogging is not likely to be a huge commercial driver of success for Naylor Games either; at least for now.  Diverting time to it becomes something harder to justify each day.

Blogging is widely touted as a panacea for building businesses online. Ever since the SEO goldrush of the 00s, creating endless amounts of content to build-up their web presence is something nearly everyone is doing in the hopes it will translate directly into sales. It became a mantra that you needed to constantly put out new content. Without it you would become lost and irrelevant. But what was probably an innovative and effective strategy back in the day, is now seriously attenuated by the fact that everyone is doing it. Very simply: it doesn’t differentiate you at all to have content if everyone has content. For e-commerce sites battling to the death for the top three spaces on Google organic search, the additional technical values of higher value links-in may be a small but critical edge. For companies where business is not directly generated from search results, such technical value is small beer.

That’s not to say it hasn’t led to some solid traffic. I – a total industry newbie with no published game yet and no real credentials, who writes ludicrously specific posts that are typically three thousand words in length – am averaging well in excess of a thousand visitors a month well before the site’s first anniversary. It’s not a huge number, but I am still immensely flattered by it: the mere thought people want to read what I have to say about these topics is genuinely heartwarming. A lot of the previewers who come to pitch to me for trade are in similar brackets. But ultimately, Naylor Games doesn’t have anything to sell direct and won’t for a while. Analysed on solely commercial grounds as a sales channel, that traffic would still need to be greater: to make its impact outweigh the opportunity cost of putting my time into something else.

Infinite_Content

But for me the ultimate problem is this: Even if the practical obstacles with creating such content on a regular schedule were vanished away with the flick of a wand, I am not convinced it would be desirable to keep creating it – even in that scenario.

When I write pieces that I am not inspired by I can see the difference between them. Even more importantly, the site’s greatest hits are nearly always the ones *I* was most inspired to create: My article on Dominion’s VPs or the distillation of much of my experience designed thinking in this piece from December. That’s not to say the others weren’t also good. I refuse to let anything be published on this site that isn’t up to a high minimum bar. But I just can’t fake that spark. The articles without it are just not as good.

The thing is though, things that are exceptionally good is what the world actually needs. There is too much content. We almost certainly don’t have time to read all the things that are very good indeed. We absolutely do not have time to read anything less good than that. The wider malaise about “too many games” being released in the board-game community is just a subset of a wider problem. There is simply too much stuff to consume in general. Yet, everyday we create more, taking shot after random shot in the hope we will beat the market or beat the algorithm and get ourselves noticed.

I don’t want to add to that gigantic heap of stuff born out of what amounts to a kind of arms race. The merely quite good merely risks obscuring the really good stuff: the things I don’t want to miss out on.

I want to read critics like Charlie Theel, Matt Thrower or Dan Thurot because they are doing a fantastic job of capturing the experience of games. I want to read Jamey Stegmaier because he’s done the whole business of publishing a game from scratch himself without the help of someone like Jamey Stegmaier to see him through. I want to read MeepleLikeUs because they are actually making gaming more accessible for everyone. I want to read all of these people because they are at the top of their respective journalistic fields. I don’t honestly think I have much time for everything else.

That’s my philosophy in general. Take Magnate: endlessly refining it has been a joy; I love development, down to the tiniest detail of game experience. But it’s also been a commitment to values. In a world full of games and so little time to play them in, I’d rather have just one that was really, really good and never make a game again than a ton that are pretty good. I’d rather have one title with enduring appeal that could be enjoyed by a wide audience outside of a gaming hardcore for years to come. I firmly believe Magnate can be that kind of success and it’s my job to do everything I can to make it that.

Of course, it’s nowhere remotely close to a certain bet it will be: I understand the logic of why designers and publishers cautiously diversify for fear that the majority of their games will not sell. No one can make a hit on demand. But, from what I have seen, it definitely won’t be if I follow the approach of throwing many games at the wall and hoping for one. And after all, if every publisher only produced a couple of exceptional titles a year, the great glut of games we complain of so much would instead be a steady stream of gold.

Why shouldn’t my aims for this blog be any different?

Where now?

I don’t think I will ever stop writing. This isn’t me swearing off the keyboard forever and I see no reason not to publish regular news at it happens. But I don’t think the regularity of the weekly blogging schedule is for me. Instead, I would much rather share a fraction of articles with you and every single one be right from the heart, head and soul.