Over at Tasty Minstrel Games publisher Michael Mindes and game designer Seth Jaffee are in the middle of an experiment. They are using the Kickstarter website to try to pre-fund their new game Eminent Domain, and are 10 days or so into a month-long bid to raise a lofty $20,000.
Will they succeed? Only time will tell, but Kickstarter is as unforgiving an arena as the Dragons’ Den: fail to reach the full amount in pledges by the end of the period and you receive nothing and any goodwill already pledged evaporates. So far those pledges total an impressive $9,021, which is ahead of the run-rate needed to make the total. If you're interested or haven’t yet heard about the game, head on over to the Kickstarter project page for details, or check-out the rules Seth has posted.
Using Kickstarter is an interesting choice, and one that may seem curious for an established company. Dave Dobson over at Plankton Games voiced the same concern, but he is correct that the hobby game industry is hardly a rich one. And Tasty Minstrel are still a relatively young company, so the risk involved in each new publication must be significant.
Which is exactly where Kickstarter comes in. Essentially it is an elaborate pre-order platform: get enough punters to commit to buy your game before it’s published (and then pay up!) and the financial risk is mitigated, allowing the game to go forward and reach a hopefully wider audience while guaranteeing that the venture at least breaks even. All good. Nothing wrong with that.
The trick for the product creators behind each Kickstarter project is to realise that the balance is one of cost vs value. The creators need to, at a minimum, cover their costs; the punters are interested in something else: what value, over and above simply owning the product, does my commitment provide? The more you can incentivise customers to take part, by adding value in a way that does not add commensurately to your costs, the more likely you are to raise the necessary capital. And the manner in which your customers will make the psychological distinction between making a purchase, an investment and a donation is key; indeed, it seems likely that many of the pledges are really a mixture of all three.
In the case of Eminent Domain, the basic level is pitched at $35 for a single copy of the game, which is fair value for customers when the RRP is probably $40, especially for US customers where shipping is included. This price works for the publisher too, since normally they never get to sell a game at anything close to the RRP. Here, then, the ‘cost vs value’ equation is in both party's favour.
But to raise $20,000, you’d need 570 individual pre-orders, and that’s a lot. To counter this, Eminent Domain also has $60, $90 and $150 pledge levels for bundles of 2, 3 or 6 copies of the game, but my feeling is that these represent diminishing returns for both the customer and the publisher. Yes, the customer is getting progressively more games at a lower per-game cost, but does an individual want multiple copies? Or do groups of gamers who probably already play together, and therefore have a shared collection of games from which they can pick, necessarily want multiple copies within that collection? As for the publisher, they are receiving an increasingly lower return on each game sold, although this may well be completely offset by the reduced per-game shipping costs. But how is that ‘cost vs value’ equation looking now? I can hardly be certain, but as I say, I fear that it’s one of diminishing returns for both.
However, the ace in the hole for Eminent Domain is the $200 pledge level, of which there were only 15, and which is already sold out. That’s $3000 right there: a provision for the publisher of 15% of the necessary capital by just 15 customers. Each pledge of this size gives the customer, in addition to four copies of the game, the privilege of naming one of the game’s technology cards.
Seth has already mentioned on his blog that the success of this pledge level has surprised him, and wondered aloud whether it would have been just as successful if the number of games included had been lowered, or the price had been higher.
My guesses are “Very probably” and “Yes, absolutely!”. The reason, I think, that this pledge level has been so successful is because suddenly the value to the customer, or at least to an enthusiastic minority of them, has sky-rocketed. Not everyone wants to pick the name of a card in a hobby game about building a space empire, but for people who do the opportunity has tremendous value — and Tasty Minstrel’s enthusiasm for publishing the game in the first place must be based on a belief that precisely that sort of constituency already exists. The real beauty of this offer is that it is essentially cost-neutral to the publisher; the ‘cost vs value’ equation is suddenly very much back in both party’s favour!
If the price of this pledge level had been modestly increased to, say, $250 — and the fact that it is already sold out suggests that would have been possible — then Seth would only have needed 80 customers to buy-in to raise all the capital he needs. This assumes, of course, that the game components could be scaled to allow for 80 naming ‘slots’, but if so then perhaps this might have been a better bet.
Am I suggesting that Seth should somehow have worked this out beforehand? No. Am I suggesting I would have been any better a prognosticator? Absolutely not! I'm just looking at the evidence collected thus far and teasing out a likely reading of it. That’s the beauty of hindsight: it’s 20/20.
In any case, this entire argument is itself predicated on the game being half-decent (which I think it probably is) and Tasty Minstrel doing a good job producing it (which I think they probably will). Kickstarter creators need to demonstrate both a good product and the professionalism to see it through before any argument about how best to engage prospective customers can even begin.
Tasty Minstrel have taken a bold step by asking that question, putting their reputation on the line and inviting that argument to take place. The clock is ticking, the game is afoot, and — win, lose or draw — the results will be fascinating!