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Subject: 2012 In Review and 2013. The Role Kickstarter Played and Will Play. rss

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j clowdus
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2012 was a great year for us, thanks in large part, to Kickstarter. There’s no denying the impact, opinions, and controversy surrounding this newest force in board game publishing. Love it or loathe it, Kickstarter is here. Will Kickstarter continue to be a driving force for the hobby game industry in 2013? I honestly don’t know how it will be for other companies, but I do know what it has done for SBG, and I continue to see Kickstarter in our future.

There have been a lot of board game publishing companies to use Kickstarter in the past year or so; some to much success, others to much chagrin, and often times both. I’ve tried to keep myself out of the great debates surrounding this new platform for game purchasing and publishing, but now, as 2013 looms, I’d like to interject, because Kickstarter will continue to play a huge part of Small Box Games in the upcoming year.

It’s no secret that we’re a small company, evidenced by the fact that you probably haven’t ever heard of us before. I’ll go as far as to say we try our best to stay a small company. To some, this may make absolutely no sense. To others who have been our customers for years, I think it will make perfect sense. I don’t try to paint ourselves into some sort of ivory tower, but I feel we use Kickstarter slightly differently than most other game companies do. When we post something on Kickstarter, it’s a finished game. It isn’t vaporware, it isn’t an idea, and it isn’t an unfinished prototype that’s still in development. Basically, at its core, we’re offering preorders for one of our games in exchange for helping us cover the printing costs. This isn’t that different or different at all really, from any other preordering system used outside of Kickstarter.

I think it is, however, still well within the scope of what Kickstarter exists for: helping an individual or company to procure the funds needed for an idea that otherwise wouldn’t be created. Without Kickstarter, we wouldn’t be able to produce games like we do now. We just wouldn’t be able to, and weren’t able to prior to Kickstarter.

Much like the larger companies who offer preorders for games not yet in print, the games we offer on Kickstarter are fully fleshed games, with completed art, playtesting, a clear production plan, and a reasonable delivery date. We’re not offering up an idea that we need help developing that may never see the light of day. We’ve already paid for the art out of our own pocket, and spent our own time with game design, graphic design, and playtesting. When we click that launch button, all we’re looking for is the funds to have the game manufactured, the fees for Kickstarter, and the cost of shipping to get our games to backers without going into the hole. It’s just like hobby game company X: we design a game, we develop a game, and we manufacture a game. Instead of having 5K copies manufactured overseas and pumped into the distribution system, we take a different approach.

Just because we use Kickstarter doesn’t make our games any less “good” or our company any less “successful” than the company that doesn’t use Kickstarter. We’re quite happy with the ratings and reviews our games receive, and we’re still in business, and we’re not hungry, so that’s success enough for us. The boardgaming world is much smaller than many of us care to realize, and one or two stinkers is often enough to keep smaller companies, like us, from ever publishing another successful title ever again. That alone is quality control enough for Small Box Games to strive to produce quality games.

So you may be asking yourself, why do you want to use Kickstarter? Well, the answer is pretty simple: it works very well for us and matches up perfectly with our goals as a company and our preferred model of production. Kickstarter offers us tools and a reach that we didn’t have before, regardless of the fact that the way we fund print runs for games now isn’t that much different than the way we’ve always done it, it’s just on a much larger (for us at least) scale. Sure, we could have invested in better systems for our site, or more on advertising, but Kickstarter does all of that for us, for much, much less, and probably more efficiently than we could have ever done. Also, it offers us a social networking platform, which we absolutely love.

We spent the better part of the final months of 2012 exploring our options for 2013, including seeking input from fellow gamers and potential customers, because we felt we were at a juncture where we were primed to expand into more “standard” forms of manufacture and distribution. At the end of the search, we found that we didn’t really want to go that route, for a lot of different reasons. It’s a route we’ve explored many times before, and much to our dismay, its end result is the same as it ever was. Regardless of how we attempted to bend and shape our numbers around a preconceived notion of success, the result was the same: we had to have thousands of copies of a game manufactured in order to hit the manufacturing costs that would allow us to enter distribution in order to sell enough to pay for the print run. Along with this, other changes would have to be made.

We don’t want to make a box that’s 5x too big for its contents, just to have more shelf presence and a bigger impact at the FLGS. We’ve done just fine not selling air up until this point. We don’t want to move our production overseas, just so we can sell a thousand more units to people who will only buy our games at 35% off of retail from OLGS. We’ve done just fine not over-inflating our print runs just to cater to one corner of consumers. We’re Small Box Games: we make games that come in small boxes and we have them manufactured in the United States. I don’t see either of those things ever changing.

Kickstarter is merely a platform. It alone doesn’t build success or foster failure. Success or failure of a project or product is determined by a myriad of factors, included by not limited to the initial presentation of the product being offered, to the time it takes to receive said product, and ultimately, the end happiness of the backer(s) when said product has been received and played. In normal channels, such as a game store, a gamer sees a game on the shelf, and is either turned on or turned off by its initial presentation and impact, and then chooses to either buy that game or leave it there on the shelves based on a multitude of variables, including, but not limited to: the game’s publisher, designer, theme, price, reviews and ratings, number of players, among tons of other things that vary from gamer to gamer, but ultimately, whether his group will actually play the game or if he feels it has a place in his collection.

The offerings on Kickstarter are really no different, with one general exception: you’re forced to form your own opinion on the product presented, because chances are, your favorite reviewer hasn’t given you the rundown on it. But, with that being said, how many of us have read the reviews of a game, looked at the ratings, glanced over the rules and got excited for it, saw it on our store’s shelves, and eventually brought it home only to be disappointed?

Just because a game gets rave reviews, or previews, or ratings, does not necessarily mean that a game is a game that is a good fit for you. Not every game is for every gamer. Regardless of Kickstarter, this is something that happens with games that go through normal channels as well. I don’t think that assuming that this is something that is only relegated to Kickstarter games is accurate. Just like every game is not for every gamer, not every project on Kickstarter is the right fit for every potential backer.

Jumping back to Small Box Games, obviously, due to the way we run our company, our games aren’t readily available on your FLGS’s shelves, or OLGS’s pages. However, in the last few months, we’ve made a tremendous effort to reach out to FLGSs across the country. Chances are, your FLGS has opted not to carry our games on their shelves, regardless of the games’ ratings and reviews, or the incentives we’ve offered them. For the most part, they’ve opted to not take the time to order our games because it would require them to venture outside of their normal ordering channel: their distributor. That makes us very sad, but we totally get it.

However, without distribution, Small Box Games will likely not make it onto your store’s shelves. Without having more units manufactured than we feel we really need to have manufactured, we’ll never be able to hit the numbers need to be in distribution, so the cycle sort of feeds on itself. That is why we’ve opted to not be part of that cycle at all, and instead have opted to continue to do business the way we always have. Only now, we’re using Kickstarter to handle the process and to gauge the popularity of any single title.

We can either sell 500-1000 of a game through a preorder style system and direct sells, or we can make 2,000+ of game and take it through the normal distribution channels blindly. For us as a company, it makes a lot more sense, and is a lot safer, to make less money off of a set number of guaranteed sales to early customers who are excited about a game, than it is to offer 2,000+ of a game through normal channels and hope it eventually makes its way onto 2,000+ people’s radars. This is something that we’ve weighed and measured countless times.

Will there be gamers who never own our games because they aren’t on their FLGS’s shelves? Yep, we know this. But we’ve made the effort to have them there. Will there be gamers who don’t own our games because they can’t use them to hit the $100.00 mark to fill out their free shipping requirement from their favorite OLGS? Yes, it looks like there’s a good chance those guys probably won’t ever own our games either, and that’s not something we’ll ever be able to remedy under our current business model.

I guess, at the end of this, if we were to go the “normal" route, we would just be masquerading as a larger company, when we really have no desire to do so. We value the connections we have with our customers, and that’s something we would lose if we went larger scale. It’s also one of the main reasons we like Kickstarter; it grants us another channel for that connectivity. It’s something I’ve said before, but it’s something I mean. I don’t know if the larger companies still experience this, but it’s still an overwhelming feeling of happiness and accomplishment that people buy *our* games. We’re competing in a crowded field every year, but ever year, we make it out to compete in the next year. A lot of this rests on the games we publish, but I feel a lot of this also rests on the relationships we’ve built with our customer base.

I doubt this has swayed anyone’s opinion on why we do business the way we do, or the merits, or lack thereof, of Kickstarter. However, if you’re not already one of our customers, I do hope you check out our games the next time you see a thread or an ad, regardless if the game is available exclusively through Kickstarter or not.

Thank you to everyone who spent their hard-earned gamer dollars on Small Box Games in 2012. There were enough of you to land one of our games on the ballot for a Golden Geek. Thank you for a great 2012. We look forward to your business and the opportunity to offer you the finest in card gaming in 2013.

Edited for content, structure, and clarity.
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Greg
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Great post John. I totally get why you do things the way you do and it's cool. No sense in pretending you're something that you're not if that doesn't work.

Last night I just taught another person (5th I've taught) Tooth & Nail and lost barely, with my opponent only having 1 card left. I can't wait to get Shadow of the Sun and Stone & Relics within the next couple weeks to share with my game group.

Keep up the good work!
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Ricky Cantrell
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Thanks for the insight John, interesting read. Keep up the great work!
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Stefano Castelli
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Just a prece: please, maintain the new box format. It is nice.
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fightcitymayor
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justjohn wrote:
...Basically, we’re offering preorders for one of our games in exchange for helping us cover the printing costs.
This is interesting given how Kickstarter's founders have gone out of their way since September to declare that Kickstarter is specifically not a preorder system. Even though the folks that fund KS projects as well as the people/companies whose projects are being funded don't seem bothered at all by using it in that way. It's as if their creation has taken on a life of its own, and now they (KS founders) are struggling to re-calibrate how Kickstarter is used.



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I've been a long time fan of SBGs and to me what sets them apart for me are two things.

1. The quality of the games (both in game play and components). I.e., GOOD GAMES! (even if I never win *grumble*grumble*)

and

2. "I guess, at the end of this, if we were to go the “normal" route, we would just be masquerading as a larger company, when we really have no desire to do so. We value the connections we have with our customers, and that’s something we would lose if we went larger scale. It’s something I’ve said before, but it’s something I mean. I don’t know if the larger companies still experience this, but it’s still an overwhelming feeling of happiness and accomplishment that people buy *our* games. We’re competing in a crowded field every year, but ever year, we make it out to compete in the next year. A lot of this rests on the games we publish, but I feel a lot of this also rests on the relationships we’ve built with our customer base."

There really is a mutual feeling of helping a small publisher make games they are passionate about. It is a great feedback loop (or something along those lines). So shine on you crazy diamonds, shine on.

I am looking forward to 2013 and more great things from SBGs.
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Dan Conley
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While I have backed several game projects on KS, I certainly have mixed emotions about doing so. Some of the companies really excel at waving some cheesy card or some other add-on at you if you'll "only" increase your pledge by another $40 or so. The delays in production and some of the sub-par games produced has left me questioning my sanity in continuing to back KS game projects.

And then there's Small Box Games! Not only are the games outstanding, but their communication and transparency are unparalleled in the game world. This article is a great example. They are doing KS the right way just like everything ELSE they do!

Thanks, John for a terrific read. And many thanks for the consistently wonderful games. Looking forward to what you have in mind for 2013!
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Daniel Danzer
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It's great to hear that KS is used and working that way. This is exactly the way we want to go with my first own game here in Germany, and the very reasons.
I do like your approach since I ordered "Elemental Rift" long before KS existed and do think, that KS is perfect for real small publishers, who want to stay small. This way, you don't ruin yourself by going the typical "western economics" way, which is always looking for more, bigger, faster, whatever.
To me, it is also the sweet spot between "pre-order" and "donation". It is NOT a pure "pre-order", because the games would NOT be printed anyway, not to talk about availability.
So, in the end, just kudos to you and your concept, and good luck with everything coming!
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Mike Watne
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I picked up quite a few titles through KS in 2011/2012, and even used it to successfully fund a project of my own. In general, I think it is a very good platform that does indeed provide certain creators a chance to realize a project that would otherwise be impossible. That said, lately I've been a lot more cautious and selective when it comes to KS. I've had a few bad experiences with projects that I've backed that extend beyond the realm of forgivable "growing pains" issues. Between that and the general changes in the KS dynamic in the wake of massively overfunded campaigns like those from CMON Limited, my desire to participate in KS backing has dropped quite a bit.

On the other hand, SBG has consistently blown me away with their exceptional games, quality components, and absolutely top notch customer service. When I see a new SBG KS campaign go live, I will back it without hesitation.
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