Jamey Stegmaier over at Stonemaier games has been great at sharing his insight on Kickstarter, having successfully funded several games with more to come.
“While exclusives might help a single campaign and create a fun experience for the backers, if you’re trying to build a company and a lasting brand from that campaign, they end up doing more harm than good. They alienate anyone who discovers the game after that very slim window the game was on Kickstarter.”
Before I get to the meat of the issue, I should elaborate on my personal view on Kickstarter rewards and the costs involved with being a backer.
1. Delivery risk
Let’s start off by assuming you’ve done your due diligence, and you are backing projects from people or companies with some kind of track record and a reasonable chance of success. If you don’t, sometimes this is what happens – Doom that Came to Atlantic City.
On the scale between a pre-order and a donation, Kickstarter projects from reputable folks fall closer to the end of pre-order, but not quite. Risk of non-delivery is not zero – the game might be halted or changed due to 3rd party infringement claims, for example.
2. Opportunity cost
If you put your money down on a project, you’re not going to see anything for it for 6 months or more. This can be a huge opportunity cost if you do not have an inexhaustible supply of lucre or own every game available at retail. You could walk into your local game store with that money and buy some other game, and play it immediately.
3. Product quality risk / Buyer’s remorse
Most Kickstarter games are new, and no matter how stellar the production values, reputation of the game designer etc, you might still back a turkey, or at least something not to your tastes.
In order to balance these costs out, Kickstarter projects try to give you some upside, usually with a combination of these below:
1. Warm fuzzy
Feel great about supporting a company or product you like, when they asked you for it. This is actually a very good motivator for new project creators with very cool products.
Con: It’s not a charity. This only works if you perceive the company as an underdog and who can legitimately make the claim, look if we don’t get the money, this cool game won’t get made.
2. First owners club
Be among the first to get the game, way before retail availability.
Con: Bragging rights disappear when the game is widely available.
Fix: It never makes it to retail. Uhhh…. maybe not such a great idea.
Get the game at a steep discount.
Con: Get it at a steep discount from online discounters after retail release, without having to take any risk.
Fix: The discount is so huge that it’s impossible for discounters to match, e.g. Reaper Bones Kickstarters. This creates its own problem though down the line, when distributors and traditional retailers become reluctant to carry the product. Not every project creator can afford to do this.
Fix2: This was suggested by Jamey, what about a satisfaction guaranteed pledge in addition to the discount? If you don’t like it when you get it, we’ll take it back. This is an interesting idea and removes the product quality risk from the equation, although it still doesn’t address opportunity cost.
4. Exclusive items
Get items you can’t get anywhere else except the Kickstarter.
Con: If done incorrectly, will neuter the retail release with content and gameplay that is unobtainable. Some Kickstarter projects have been accused of this, with insufficient components in the retail release to play a complete game as presented in the retail box.
Fix: Exclusives have to be largely cosmetic in nature. For example, in the videogame industry it is common to give out preorder bonuses such as alternate weapons for characters, mounts, or skins. This doesn’t affect gameplay adversely for those who don’t have it, and is a good bonus for those invested enough in the game beforehand to appreciate some extra sparkle.
This is what we do at CoolMiniOrNot. Games are completely designed, tested and balanced to be complete products. Only after that do we create exclusive character figures that are mashups of existing abilities or skills or alternative sculpts of miniatures. Not having these does not detract from gameplay, and doesn’t affect the intended design and balance of the game. We even put up the rules for exclusives characters for free download to play – i.e. the only thing not available (and even then there is some availability, see below) are the “official” figures.
But exclusives alienate those that come after the Kickstarter!
In videogames there is no expectation that an exclusive, time limited item in League of Legends or World of Warcraft be made widely available. Sure, some LoL or WoW players might be so upset they missed out on a convention special skin or mount and /ragequit, but these are a tiny minority.
I do understand however, the disappointment a fan might feel from not getting all the goodies, even though from a gameplay standpoint it makes no difference, especially as the exclusive items have rules readily available for download.
To that end, while balancing the needs of the Kickstarter backers, we’ve tried to accommodate the true die-hards by making our exclusives available at conventions we attend – if you’re committed enough, you can still get these items, either by attending yourself, asking a friend who is attending to get them for you, or waiting for them to percolate into the secondary market.
Let’s look at what the market is telling us
I’ll use Zombicide as an example:
The Zombicide Kickstarter pulled in 5000 backers and had many exclusive hero miniatures. To reiterate, the cards and rules are freely available online. We’re talking cosmetic/thematic additions only.
If these exclusives alienated retail customers, they’d presumably have voted with their wallets. To date we have sold over 100,000 copies of Zombicide Season 1 worldwide. That’s in an industry where selling 3000 of anything is considered a hit. We’ll never know for sure if we’d have sold more or less than that without exclusives. However, I believe that we’d have far less than 5,000 backers, and less buzz for the Zombicide Season 2 Kickstarter which had 9,000 backers, or Zombicide Season 3 Kickstarter which had 12,000 backers. And less buzz almost always equals lower sales, both on Kickstarter and in retail.
Also, it is compelling evidence that the game isn’t “incomplete” without exclusive items, if the exclusives were done the right way. If the game was “incomplete”, would it consistently get 4 to 5 star reviews by actual retail customers? This is a list of reviews from Amazon on Zombicide, newest first.
But is it right? The ethics of it all
There is an argument to be made that forcing pre-ordering to get exclusives is an unfair sales tactic to use on customers and should not be encouraged. This is presupposing, once again, that there is no cost to being a backer, which I have already shown is not true.
My own personal philosophy is, you have to give something of value in return for value received – Kickstarter backers take a leap of faith with us, that our games will be delivered, and that they will be fun and good. This faith takes the form of money, given to us months in advance of the expectation of receiving anything. It is very big value indeed, and so backers should be rewarded in a tangible, meaningful way.
It is easy on hindsight, to say I should have bought Apple shares when they were only $80, because look at what price they are at now. What if I had put that $80 on Enron instead?
Similarly, just because the game is demonstrated to be good now, after a retail release and delivery is completed, doesn’t mean the backers in the past didn’t take a leap of faith. We don’t hit home runs all the time and it’s not as easy as it might look!
I sincerely do not believe that discounts, early delivery and a warm fuzzy are sufficiently valuable alone as a reward for keeping the faith.
A continuous experiment
It’s a fine balancing act between rewarding and incentivizing Kickstarter backers, and not jeopardizing future sales to the world at large. Kickstarter backers are a rare breed – prepared to put down quite a lot of their income, many months in advance, for something they might not like. Most consumers do not behave this way where instant gratification is the norm.
It’s tricky determining whether or not a complaint or concern is genuinely representative of the majority, but my suspicion is that most people vote with their wallets rather than their keyboards. For every person who would not buy a product if they could not get the Kickstarter exclusives, how many more would? I think, in the case of Zombicide at least, the answer is clear.