Genegrafter Kickstarter Case Study

Our first Kickstarter project was launched in November of 2011. This is the tale of how it launched a company and simultaneously failed as a successful Kickstarter.

Project Duration: November 21st 2011 – January 20th 2012 (60 days)

Genegrafter was the first project I launched on Kickstarter. On the surface it would appear to be a success because it funded AND delivered. In reality however, I would consider it to be our biggest failure.

That’s okay, I think we get a free pass on this one since it was our first project and we’ve learned a lot since then.

Lessons Learned

There are quite a few mistakes we made on this project that are detailed below:

  • Delivery Date Estimation
  • Shipping/Distribution
  • Production (Development)
  • Pricing
  • Design
  • Pledge Levels
  • Duration of Project

Delivery Date Estimation

This first one seems obvious in hindsight, but keep in mind that I was in the process of transitioning from an IT career to a new company that required physical production and distribution. In many ways, you can see where coming from a digital background hampered my thought processes about production and distribution. In application development, most of the work is done upfront in the production phase. Once it’s completed, releasing a finished digital product to the world is fairly trivial. There aren’t any shipping costs, distribution is handled through another service like iTunes, and customer support requests are fairly limited.

Having no experience in producing physical goods, I reached out to a game manufacturer that was recommended by another Kickstarter creator. I was then given a quote stating that production time would be four to eight weeks. My Kickstarter was scheduled to end in January and we expected to be done with most of the assets before then so we could start production early, so I set a delivery date of February 2012.

Think about that for a minute. We set a delivery date a month after we funded expecting we would be done. That’s how naive I was to the entire process. Now days, if you did that, it would either be because it was a pre-order or because you have no idea what you are doing.

We’ve since learned to add two to three months to our internal delivery estimate to give ourselves some padding just in case something goes wrong, because it very often does.

Our final delivery date ended up being a year later in February 2013. Some of the reasons for that are listed below in the Production section.

Production (Development)

There were a couple of things we did wrong during this process that slowed things down. The first mistake I made was to redo a lot of the artwork for the game. Below is the artwork that we started with and how it transitioned to the final.

genegrafter

This may seem like a much better version, but all the best artwork in the world can’t save a weak game (see Design section below). This was a mistake because we ended up redoing about 95% of the artwork for the game. This not only increased our production time, but also the cost for artwork fees. You should really only do this if it’s going to add to the overall experience of the game.

The second mistake wasn’t so much a mistake as much as a misunderstanding about production timelines. When I was quoted for production time, there were several factors I wasn’t aware of: pre-press, sample approvals, etc.

A typical lifecycle for a game product goes like this:

  • Production/Playtesting (designing a game and working out the kinks)
  • Pre-press (ready files for printing)
  • Digital Proofs (sign off on digital copies of what will be printed)
  • Hard Proofs (sign off on printed copies)
  • Production
  • Shipping (usually ocean liner freight)

The majority of the time lost was spent in pre-press. Most of the reason for this was because I hired an artist that didn’t have the skills to properly format the files for production. There can sometimes be a huge gap in skill sets between graphic designers and illustrators, so you’ll want a solid graphic designer in your corner to make this part of the process go more smoothly.

Pro Tip: Recruit a great graphic designer

During this time I also learned about something that stops production in its tracks: Chinese New Year. Basically, don’t expect to get anything accomplished in China during the month of February. Schedule accordingly.

Shipping / Distribution

Distribution wasn’t a big deal for this one since we printed a limited number of copies and there was zero demand for it afterwards (see Design section below).  Shipping however, was and has been, the bane of most Kickstarter creators.

There are two things to keep in mind when shipping:

  • Are there any scheduled price increases?
  • What is your actual cost to ship?

Most packages will be sent via USPS. They will announce any price increases about six months in advance, so make sure your delivery date does not cross this threshold. If it does, they also tell you how much prices will increase so you can plan accordingly.

KNOW your cost to ship. Don’t estimate it, guess, or use a Ouija board.  Figure out what’s going into each reward level, put it in a package, weigh it and see how much that all costs. Account for your boxes, packaging materials, labels, etc. Be especially cognizant of international costs.

ouija board

I didn’t do this and some of my packages (okay, a lot of them) cost me more to ship than what I had actually collected. If you are independently wealthy and want to pay people to play your games, that’s awesome! But for the rest of us, make sure you do your due diligence.

Pricing

Most of this goes back to production costs and shipping. If you adequately price both of these into your overall goal, you should be fine.

A good rule of thumb is that you should be charging five times your landed cost. Landed cost means the total amount it costs you to manufacture the product and have it shipped to your distribution center (or wherever you are shipping your rewards from).

Don’t do like I did and charge $15 with free shipping for a game that costs $10 to make.

Design

You can put this one up there with expectations. I was excited about the game that I had made, it seemed fun and had some elements that I liked.

And then I cut a bunch of it out.

When I originally started the project, I saw it as a CCG. A collectible card game that would have a lot of cards and moving parts to create interesting decks and strategies. This was mostly because the games I had played to this point centered around other CCGs like Decipher’s Star Wars CCG and Magic: The Gathering. I quickly learned that CCGs were not a popular archetype any longer outside of the established games already using that model (M:TG) and changed the gameplay. Some of the design decisions are discussed in this Design Diary that was posted on BGG.

Ultimately, I stripped much of the functionality thinking that it would be a good thing to add it back in with expansions. The funny thing is, you can’t sell expansions if you can’t sell the base game. So make sure your core game is solid.

The bottom line with this lesson is that I didn’t have enough industry knowledge. I hadn’t played Catan, Rex, Rebellion, Eclipes or any of the other hundreds of great games out there. It’s tough to design a game with such a limited context.

Pro Tip: Play a f*** ton of games before you try to design one.

The game also fell flat thematically. There was so much lost opportunity with what could have been a really cool game engine. The idea of knocking out enemies with super powers only to graft them onto your own character would have been really cool if handled correctly. I later found a game with similar mechanics called GUBS. Even though there were some familiar elements gameplay-wise, it had a much nicer flow and the lighter theme really made it seem like a much different game.

The big takeaway here is to know your market. Kickstarter allowed me to enter the space without any industry knowledge, and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Fortunately we learned, and hopefully these case studies will help others to not make the same mistakes.

A side note to this: hardly anybody actually reads the rulebook that you post. Many of them won’t look at it until it shows up with the game, then you’ll get tons of feedback.

Pledge Levels

There were some weird pledge levels that I created. One was a game without a box. Then at a higher level, you would get the box.

I’m not sure why I thought it would be any less expensive to manufacture and ship the same components without the “fancy packaging”. In the end, it was easier just to mail the complete game to these backers as well.

Pledge levels that are easy to read and convey the rewards are good. An image on the page that outlines them is even better.

Duration of Project

This is a short lesson, 60 days is entirely too grueling to maintain any Kickstarter. We normally cap ours around the 21-25 day mark. Any more and it really drags on. There are merits to running a shorter, tighter campaign that has an increased sense of urgency and momentum.

Conclusion

The final project cost approximately $34,000 to create and ship. The original Kickstarter brought in $14,618. So I put about $20,000 of my own money in to make this first project happen.

A costly lesson to be sure, but it prevented us from making many of these errors on bigger projects later that would have been much more expensive.

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