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.