Non-Kickstarter: Going Back to the Drawing Board

Person at Drawing Board

We’re back online after a respite from the intensity of Kickstarter (and the whole family getting sick in the middle of it). The Kickstarter didn’t go very far, but I was warned by fellow game designers that if the Kickstarter doesn’t go well in the first few days, it is hard to get it back on track. The Kickstarter wasn’t a bad experience: I learned more about marketing Tox in a month than I would have in half a year (or more), as well as generating a lot of great materials, including:

So it’s been a very productive time, even if it didn’t result in funding professional illustration for a full-length RPG book.

What Didn’t Work

Going into the Kickstarter, we had two major assets: 5,000 Facebook likes and a local gaming convention at the start of the Kickstart. We had hoped that, between a large audience interested in Tox and the opportunity to do lots of local word of mouth, we’d get enough early momentum. As it turns out, there’s a pretty big gulf between someone liking your product and getting them to take the next step… and it was a much slower year for roleplayers at the Pacificon, so that momentum didn’t materialize.

Feedback for Round 2

Most of our backers didn’t actually come from the Google+ communities that we participate in or Facebook followers… they browsed into the RPG site via Kickstarter. So it turns out that focusing on the Kickstarter content would have been more successful than our many efforts to drive large volumes of people to the page. Specifically, the advice I received was:

  • Have a high-quality intro video before launch.
  • Don’t worry about the details so much. Most people want the general impression of the game more than specific rules or examples around how it works.
  • Replace copy with images or diagrams. Again, people just don’t want to read a lot.

The Future of Tox

The playtesting feedback for Tox has been very positive so far: it has a unique take on powers, allows for very unique/customized characters, and makes easier for GMs and players alike to tell an exciting, character-driven story. We don’t believe the non-Kickstarter was a failure of the product, but it’s clear our marketing skills are lagging behind our product development skills. We plan on improving our marketing in both the short term and the long term.

Short-Term Plans

  • We’ve set up a schedule for high-quality content: releasing settings, storylines, and characters for Tox.
  • Be more conscientious about how we build connections within the RPG community. We have FB groups, we belong to several Google communities, but we need to think more strategically about how to make Tox more visible.

Medium-Term Plans

  • We’re going to pair-down the Demo (currently, we’re offering most of our Gifts + Tox types, with all 5 levels). The future demo will be smaller, with few Gifts and Tox types, and only include descriptions of powers up to level 3.
  • Simultaneously, we’ll go ahead and create a version 1 of Tox RPG. Since the Kickstarter didn’t get funded, art will be limited to the 9 characters already commissioned and the volume will be slimmer. The first edition will be light on examples, equipment, pre-made stories/settings, GM advice, alternate rules, and guidelines for how to create custom settings… however, it will have all the stats & rules needed to play the game and enough examples to get you started. You’ll be able to check the blog for example characters, settings, and resources.

Long-Term Plans

  • At some point, when we go for an illustrated 2nd edition, we will run another Kickstarter campaign. We’ll wait until we see a lot more engagement on our blog or communities, and we’ll do a lot more video planning. We’ll also do a lot more visual planning of the page itself: fewer words, more pictures.
  • As a backup or alternative, we might look into other ways to fund the art for the Kickstarter. Because the art is by far the most expensive piece of creating an RPG book, and because we have a lot of the writing, layout, and copy-editing skills in-house, finding another method to acquire or commission art would allow us to skip the Kickstarter completely. However, the Kickstarter was such a helpful learning experience that I see Varza kickstarting games in the future.

Onwards and upwards!

Other Nerd Hobbies Have Exploded, Why Not RPGs?

Roleplayers around a table.

I recently read an article by the Angry DM criticizing the roleplaying game companies (and specifically Wizards of the Coast, publishers of D&D) for not being good at selling games.  Specifically how the RPG community has grown steadily, although there have been huge explosions in other nerd hobbies.  We live in the most nerd-friendly time in recent history, and yet the tabletop roleplaying community remains almost as small as ever.  Even with episodes dedicated to them in popular shows (Community, Futuruma, The IT Crowd, Freaks and Geeks, The Big Bang Theory), RPGs haven’t acquiring the mobs of nerds that video games and YA fantasy books have, for example.

The Angry DM mentions how the actual sales model for RPGs is called the ‘older cousin’ model. In this model there is an experienced roleplayer who finds others (younger cousins, class mates, colleagues, etc) to pain-stakingly initiate them into the world of tabletop roleplaying. Regardless of how hard it is to create characters or plan stories, they take it upon themselves to 1) find new roleplayers, 2) train them despite obtuse/dense RPG products 3) Put in the effort to create a game world and story so that newcomers (or even existing players) can play the game at all. The limitation of this model is obvious: it’s slow.  No matter how much good press and potential interest RPGs have from the larger nerd market, initiation of new players is limited by the number of GMs from the older, smaller generation of nerds.

The inaccessibility of RPGs bothers me on two levels. One, a much broader group of people could be benefiting from the creativity and friendships you develop from RPGs. Two, because this slow initiation into the hobby is driven by friendship, there’s also a tendancy towards homogeneity. People of similar tastes and experiences tend to form friendships, so when a DM is teaching a friend to play, that friend is very likely to be similar to the DM.  This means the RPG community is missing out on a diversity of stories, characters, and game play styles that would come from from a community with a greater diversity in player backgrounds.

The question is: how do we make it easier for nerds and would-be roleplayers to dive into the game? Especially, how would we help first-time roleplayers run a game with their friends.  Just creating your first character can take hours, coming up with a game world and figuring out how to deal with multiple player characters is an enormous task.

One solution mentioned by the Angry DM is user-friendly starter packs: some premade characters, a short story with scene-by-scene instructions for the new GM on how to run a game.  Varza Games plans to do this with Legendary RPG.  However, instead of using books and pamphlets,  we’re designing our starter pack with apps that can do calculations and provide information without first page flipping, making character creation and story telling even easier and faster.

Another solution is to market products in such a way that we attract a larger (and hopefully more diverse) crowd into the game.  This last point, I think, looks like a bit of a vicious circle. It’s a small hobby, so it doesn’t generate much revenue, and budgets are small.  Marketing to broad audiences is expensive and difficult, most RPG money likely goes to keeping RPGs publishing afloat, and whatever marketing budget exists targets veteran players because they are the most likely audience to buy. The industry needs more publishers willing to invest in growing the market rather than selling to the tried-and-true audience. It’s a risk, but one that will change the RPG community for ever (and be lucrative) if successful. There are glimmers of the industry moving towards embracing new players, such as how-to-play videos, but I have yet to see a company investing heavily in reaching out to non-RPGers.

Until then, the burden of expanding the RPG community falls to the fans, invite new players to the game—or even better, training new game masters.

Kickstarter / RPG Design + Development Advice from Pacificon 2015

A low stakes Kickstarter campaign.

For those of you interested in the business side of the RPG world, I thought I’d share out my learnings on crowd-funding a roleplaying game.

What I knew about Kickstarter and the business side of RPG design

Going into the Pacificon, I had researched a few things a few things:

  • There are a lot of costs that go into making an RPG, especially a print version rather than only a PDF.  For example: copy writing, editing, print layout, art, color vs. black-and-white, paper quality, quantity of books, and shipping costs!
  • A lot of game designers get an unpleasant surprise if they haven’t factored in costs like shipping (and whether they have to ship multiple packages to each client!)
  • Most Kickstarters that get 20% funding, make it all the way to 100%.
  • Most successful Kickstarter campaigns already have the product designed.  The campaign typically covers the costs of production.

What I learned from the wise folks at Pacificon

At Pacificon, I had the chance to hear from or talk to a number of people in the gaming industry, Richard Bliss who is the Kickstarter/social media guru for board games, and Nicole Lindroos of Green Ronin Publishing.  I walked away with a lot of great info:

  • A lot of games get as much as 30% of their Kickstarter funding from overseas backers, making international shipping a big item to plan for in a Kickstarter campaign.  Apparently, Australians are especially likely to buy games directly over the internet.
  • The recommended timeline from a couple of recent, first-time successfully kickstarters is: finish the game, then get support for a year (or two!) before running the campaign.  Don’t jump right into a Kickstarter once you’re finished with the game.  This is a little longer than I’m planning for—but not out of the ballpark.
  • A repeated theme: if you’re a first time game designer / publisher, find someone experienced to partner with!  If you’re a designer, find a publisher, or if you do RPGs, find an established RPG printing service, like DriveThruRPGs publisher tools.
  • Join RPG designer / developer communities on Google Plus or Facebook to get advice from people with experience in the industry; generally, they’re happy to offer advice.
  • On structuring stretch goals for RPGs: don’t go overboard with special prints or other extras (that will create a lot of extra incidental costs).  Just have the base goal be the simplest possible version of the product you want to build, and the stretch goals lead up to the ideal version (i.e. more illustrations, color, high quality paper, hardback, etc).
  • No surprises!  Calculate all the costs.  If there’s a hazy area in the production process, research it until it’s clear and every item has a price tag.

Some of the above were completely new to me: like the percentage of international Kickstarter backers. Others were nice reinforcements of the research I had done—I had seen DriveThruRPGs publishing tools, but it was nice to hear people in the industry confirm that it is a viable option.

If you have an insights of your own—or questions you’d like me to research as I continue to work out the details of preparing for Kickstarter, leave a comment!

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