Kickass Kickstarter Projects

When I wrote Kickass Kickstarter Projects, Introduction the other day, I was thinking that I would have enough content for a series of articles. After outlining the material I realized that unless this one gets big enough to warrant splitting up, it could be entirely handled with a single post.  Let’s see what happens. I’ll try an informal treatment for now, listing things that I see in Kickstarter projects I think kick ass.  If there is interest after this, I may expand on them.

Keith’s Kickass Kickstarter Kom Components

Most of these should be determined well before the Kickstarter project starts.  Almost everything good, and almost everything bad, that can be done to or with a Kickstarter project can be dealt with by planning before the project and managing things after.

  • A Great Idea.  I want to be excited about the goal of the project.
  • Realistic Goals.  This includes both the project’s goal, and the Kickstarter financial goal.
  • Reasonable Rewards.  There should be a sweet spot that will provide the project’s goal to the backer at a reasonable cost.
  • Contingency Plans.  I don’t expect to see the plans themselves, but seeing the project owner reacting to situations in a surprised manner rather than a planned manner reduces my confidence in the project.
  • Timing and Estimates.  The timing and estimates should be reasonable.  Don’t tell me to expect delivery in a month if the product doesn’t exist, and don’t expect me to believe an inexperienced crew will develop, produce, and delivery a product in two months.  Tell me four months and eight months, and I’ll believe you have some idea what you’re doing, and some idea what you don’t know.
  • Communication.  Let me know what’s going on, including the bad parts.  I don’t mind seeing bad news if I can have confidence you are dealing with it.

I am nowhere near ready to publish Echelon, but I have considered how I would approach things if I were to use Kickstarter to get it published, and I will be using it as an example below.  Note that I don’t have answers for all points; this checklist identifies things I should think about some more.

A Great Idea

This should go almost without saying.  An idea for a product or service that appeals to its audience.  If nobody finds your goal interesting you are likely to find yourself disappointed.  There isn’t much I can do to help here.

Echelon is a roleplaying game framework based initially on the Revised System Reference Document, modeled around the of level being a bigger determinant of how impressive and awesome a character is than character class.  I have read “spell casting should be inherently fantastic, but ‘fantastic’ should not mean spell casting”.  Otherwise ‘mundane’ characters should have options as fun, useful, and impressive as spell casting characters.  Depending how it is configured and used, Echelon can be used to model several modes of Dungeons & Dragons play spanning multiple editions.

This is a high-level description of the product.  It does not include specifics of the goals yet, and I would tighten the text up for an actual project statement.

Realistic Goals

It is imperative that you know what you are trying to do with the Kickstarter project.  A great idea is important, but you need to know exactly what it is you want to do with it.  This means being able to accurately describe what the final result should be, to a point that it would be possible to determine whether or not it was successful.  At the same time, it is critical to know how much it will cost — or at least, how much to ask for via Kickstarter.  Remember that Kickstarter and Amazon each take a cut of the total amount, and that you are unlikely to be lucky enough to hit the sweet spot of backer rewards.

I want to publish Echelon as a box set similar to the old Mentzer Dungeons & Dragons box sets.  At this point I see myself publishing the six tiers (Basic, Expert, Heroic, Master, Champion, Legendary) in three sets (Basic/Expert, Heroic/Master, Champion/Legendary) that map roughly to ‘real-world grittiness’, ‘heroic, superhuman ability’, and ‘mythic adventures’.  My initial goal would be to get the first box set out.  Looking at my notes on an Echelon Intro Box (which I ended up deciding was probably way too big for what it was supposed to do) and the Echelon Quick Start Reformulation, I think I might describe the package as a 192-page product (64-page player’s handbook, 32-page GM’s guide, 64-page monster book, 32-page adventure), released as three black and white softcover volumes in a box set. I could probably fit the most important parts into 128 pages by folding an abridged monster book into the GM’s guide and dropping the adventure entirely, but I’d like to see them in.  Depending on projected costs I might have to do that, but at this point I think I’d like to have the breakdown described.

Back of the envelope time. Assuming that it would cost me $18 per box set to produce and I aim for 250 box sets, and that Kickstarter and Amazon take 10% of the provided funds, I would need $5,000 just to complete this project.  This does not include delivery (shipping charges), nor inefficient printing costs.  For instance, if that $18 is based on print runs of 50 copies, but goes up to $22 per copy if I have leftover stock, $5,000 is an overoptimistic minimum.  A more realistic target might be for me to look for $36 per copy of the game, which would mean I would want a goal of $10,000.  This would result in $1,000 to Kickstarter and Amazon, $4,500 optimistic production, perhaps $1,500-$2,000 (which is only $6-$8 per copy) for shipping, and about a $2,500 cushion for contingencies. Assuming I ate the entire cost of designing the game (and I assure you, the time I’ve spent on this so far would not be covered by $2,500), any costs for art, editing, and other development costs would have to be taken care of.  I would likely have to increase my Kickstarter goal to accommodate these costs.  I might want or need to change the project goals in order to get something I think could be successful. If I actually aimed to use this to get out of my current day job, I would need to make it big and rather more profitable than I see this being, in order to pay myself a living wage while rolling out new products.  At this point I think it wisest to keep it to the “pays for my hobby/habit” level. As may be evident, even for this simple case, establishing realistic goals is tricky.  Offering PDF version (which I almost certainly would, and they would be included with the hard copy rewards — the incremental costs make them very safe for me, as long as they don’t result in the project not making the Kickstarter goal) complicates things more.  Speciality rewards (high-end rewards and add-ins) complicate things even further, both for the project owner, and often for the backers.  I’ll expand on that topic under ‘Rewards’.

Reasonable Rewards

Rewards are related to goals, I should hope, but may be distinctly different. Kickstarter projects often have numerous rewards for backers at different backing levels.  Most projects have a sweet spot (usually around $40-60, for gaming materials) that should include a ‘full copy’ of the goal of the project. I think as a rule that the rewards should be pretty clearly inferior or superior to each others.  For instance, if the sweet spot is $50 for a soft cover copy of the game and a copy of the PDF, $10 might get just the PDF and $75 might get a hard cover copy of the game.  Rewards should generally be associated (more play materials are good, t-shirts and branded dice are likely of little interest to me, cool as they might be). Whatever you do with your rewards, make sure you can afford to produce and deliver them.  This may include dipping into your own pocket to pay for them, but know what you’re getting into.

For Echelon, I would probably aim for $40-$60 as my sweet spot, and likely constrain the content provided by production and delivery costs for those amounts.  If it turns out feasible, I might lower the entry cost to below these amounts (but more likely would want to increase the amount of content, and possibly production quality).  The PDF is likely a lesser reward (and included in the sweet spot).  At this point the only greater reward that come to mind is additional copies of the game.  I can see additional material being a possibility, but probably not initially.  I will want to think about this some more.

Contingency Plans

Consider what you will do if things don’t go as expected.  I would talk about planning for things going wrong, and that is important, but more probably the greater threat is things going too well. Not all risk is negative.  ‘Positive risk’ can be more dangerous, in fact. On top of the intended goals, it is worth considering a number of unplanned events.  I have seen project owners express happy shock at how much funding the project gained, and I have seen projects apparently scrambling for stretch goals and additional rewards. If the project owner is not prepared for such events it could be a very dangerous time.  A significant increase in the number of backers and rewards to deliver could cause a great deal of financial stress, especially if the initial goal didn’t really account for the costs of delivering rewards (either production or shipping).  I have heard of projects being damaged by unplanned rewards and stretch goals costing the project too much. Before starting the project, plan what to do if certain events come up.  Know ahead of time what your stretch goals will be, and how you will be able to satisfy the various rewards you will be committing to.  Make sure you have support agreements with any other providers you may be dealing with (if you offer something from another producer as a reward or add-in, make sure that producer is able and willing to supply the rewards in a timely manner).  Consider what to do if a very good or very bad mix of rewards is chosen — what do you do if a large number of people choose the least-profitable reward level you provide? It might be worth considering multiple paths.  Present the information that is the same between them, and be ready to add as you go.

Assuming the $10,000 goal for Echelon would let me produce 250 copies of the box set, and it turns out there were enough backers to require 500 copies of the game, it might be possible to reduce my unit cost.  I might be able to afford to produce additional content — another 32 pages of monsters, or an additional adventure.  It might become feasible to release one of the Quick Start packages I mentioned earlier as a free or nominal-backing get-now reward.  I might instead improve the production quality — get a better artist, or move to color.  I probably wouldn’t want to go with hard cover books because I like the idea of box sets.  Or it might become more cost-effective and I’d do it that way anyway, regardless of my nostalgia. If things go really crazy, it might be feasible to produce the second and/or third box set, so Heroic/Master and Champion/Legendary are available to backers (at higher reward levels), or it might be feasible to expand the game elements covered in a single set.  This might make the first package Basic, Expert, and Heroic, and I would revise my development plan so either Master, Champion, and Legendary are the second box, or make Master/Champion and Legendary/Epic boxes.

The exact approach taken would vary by circumstance, so I probably would have my contingency plans in place and present the effect as the circumstances supported. Note that as the backing increases, the risks also increase.  It is a good idea to increase the cushion as the backing level increases.  Don’t expect that the $2,500 cushion you had at 250 copies will be able to cover potential unplanned costs when you have to ship 1,000 or 10,000 units.

Timing and Estimates

There are two major elements to timing: Kickstarter timing, and project delivery timing.  There have been a number of articles elsewhere about Kickstarter timing, and I have no significant experience with it myself, so I won’t talk about it much. Project delivery timing, on the other hand, I do have experience with.  I would suggest that if you have experience with similar business projects, including delivery, production, and development (yes, listed in reverse order) that you may be able to estimate reasonably closely when the rewards can be delivered.  Allow additional time in case the project is backed to a higher degree than expected — even doubling the number of rewards delivered can adversely affect your ability to deliver them on time. For each element of the above you lack experience with, double your estimate for that element.  If you have never developed a project like this, produced (or had produced) a project like this, or dealt with shipping, assume your estimate is off by a factor of 6-8.  If this results in a number unacceptable to you, find ways to nail things down ahead of time (in which case you can reduce the relevant multipliers to 1.5). Seriously.  Kickstarter projects are by their nature an optimistic activity.  Experienced people tend to know enough to replace my multipliers with ones they have learned, or have established relationships that will let them come up with accurate estimates. Of course, if you have already developed the product and are just looking for production and shipping costs you are in a better position — and you don’t need to worry about failure in development, you just need to worry about production and order fulfilment.

I have put little thought into this with Echelon.  I have no idea at this point when it will be ready for publishing because my time is so constrained.  By the time it comes to a Kickstarter, though, that problem will be solved and I will just be left with production and delivery, unless I change the scope of the box content. I would think two months should be sufficient to produce the box sets, but between not having done this before and the unknown number of copies (and even size of content, depending on how the Kickstarter goes) I will plan for it to four months to six months to receive the boxes.  I will know more after I have done the specific research needed, at which point I might reduce that to three to four months… or I might not. I have some slight experience with shipping, I used to work in a warehouse shipping textbooks around the province.  A few hundred copies of a homogeneous product shouldn’t be too arduous, so I expect it could be done over the course of a month or so.  At this point I’d allow six to eight weeks because I don’t have a lot of experience with this. This means that from the end of the Kickstarter, when I went into it with a prototype package, I would expect it to be about four months (optimistic) to eight months (pessimistic) to produce and deliver the boxes.  I might predict six months for delivery, or I might say eight months and give myself some breathing room (especially if I end up with more than I expect).  I certainly wouldn’t say four months.

I have found people don’t like long estimates, but they really don’t like things being late.

Communication

I’ve talked about having a good idea, setting realistic goals, devising rewards, and planning and preparing for things that may or may not happen.  These are all important, and can themselves result in surviving a successful Kickstarter project.  They don’t result in a kickass Kickstarter project, though. Communication is another ‘most important’ component.  Remember that backers are providing funds, often well in advance of the ‘business project’ behind the Kickstarter project being done.  The product not only might not be in production, but still under development, not even existing on paper.  This represents a fair bit of trust on the part of the backers, and it must be supported. Keep your backers in the loop.  If I have learned anything from my day job (which includes elements of project management, program management, and operations management), it is that people are pretty reasonable about just about any situation as long as they know what is going on and can trust you are in control. When you meet milestones, tell your backers. When you fail to meet a milestone, tell your backers, identify why, and what you are doing about it (what steps you are taking to resolve the situation and any new estimates). When you hit major milestones (such as ‘off to the printer!’) make a big deal about it. In my day job I have had clients calmly accept system outages and other interruptions to their business because I was able to describe what was going on, why, what we were doing about it, workarounds in the meantime, how we plan to make things better in the short term and how we planned to prevent it in the future. When you are managing a project, make it clear to your stakeholders — which your backers are — that the project is being managed. I don’t really have much specific to say regarding Echelon here except that I expect to do as just described.  This is a basic management principle that I though worth reinforcing, because I see Kickstarter projects that do it well, and I see projects that don’t do it well.

Closing Comments

Somewhat longer than I had planned, and a lot longer to write, but these are critical components I expect to see in a well-run Kickstarter project.

  • A Great Idea.  I want to be excited about the goal of the project.
  • Realistic Goals.  This includes both the project’s goal, and the Kickstarter financial goal.
  • Reasonable Rewards.  There should be a sweet spot that will provide the project’s goal to the backer at a reasonable cost.
  • Contingency Plans.  I don’t expect to see the plans themselves, but seeing the project owner reacting to situations in a surprised manner rather than a planned manner reduces my confidence in the project.
  • Timing and Estimates.  The timing and estimates should be reasonable.  Don’t tell me to expect delivery in a month if the product doesn’t exist, and don’t expect me to believe an inexperienced crew will develop, produce, and delivery a product in two months.  Tell me four months and eight months, and I’ll believe you have some idea what you’re doing, and some idea what you don’t know.
  • Communication.  Let me know what’s going on, including the bad parts.  I don’t mind seeing bad news if I can have confidence you are dealing with it.

Get those six points, and I think you’re on the road to a kickass Kickstarter project.

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2 Comments to "Kickass Kickstarter Projects"

  1. Michael Tumey's Gravatar Michael Tumey
    September 17, 2012 - 9:43 am | Permalink

    Kaidan Kickstarter – great idea (check), realistic goals (check), reasonable rewards (this was more a pre-order, so you get what you paid for).

    Contigency plans – the fact that we got the larger GM’s guide before it was over was a surprise. Steve had a contigency plan of breaking the Player’s guide in 32 page increments. I hadn’t expected that (since I wasn’t in on the contigency) though it proved to be the perfect contigency in the hours that remained at the end of the project.

    Time/estimates – we expect 4 months of development time, but since the printed books are being done through Cubicle 7 Entertainment, we have to contend with their print publication schedule, which means the books won’t be released until October 2013 – we labeled the Kickstarter page to note this.

    Communication – aside from Kickstarter updates and comments, the real communications will happen at the start of development with all pledgers getting access to the Rite Forums and the Kaidan message board – this allows for current information directly accessable to all patrons. Development through the message board means everyone who wants to be involved will be greatly informed throughout the process.

    I think the Kaidan Kickstarter met with all your parameters.

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