Post Kickstarter: What success means, and what it doesn’t
I’ve been trying to figure out how best to phrase this blog, because I think that there’s an important perspective that prospective creators need to be aware of when planning their first campaign that really isn’t available from the pre-Kickstarter position. At the same time, I’m well aware that I’m not exactly in the position to tell people how to turn a successful Kickstarter into a full mortgage paying business, for that please see Jamey Stegmaier.
The point of this blog is that I hear many pre-Kickstarter creators talking about how once they’ve got a successfully produced print run they can then get into retail and distribution and be “in the industry” and how everything will be easier from that side of things. The point is, that’s not really how it works from this side of things, a successful Kickstarter is really only the start of the hard work, and not just for fulfillment, but for a long time after that.
This is the first issue that early creators will probably have to adjust their expectations on, and I say that because I certainly did. There’s a vague idea that once you have a warehouse (garage, loft, attic, spare room) full of games that you roll up to a distributor, whose job is to buy produced games and sell them on and they’ll buy them and sell them on. This is, by and large, not how it actually works. Distributors have limited warehouse space and they need to sell your game once they buy it from you, so you’re effectively selling your game to them, you’ll need to pitch it the way you might well pitch to a publisher, only its tougher in many ways because the publisher knows that they can change things if they need to. For the distributor they’re buying the game as is. For the most part they’ll pretty much be expecting you to do a lot of the selling end of things, in that you will be the one creating demand for your game, not them. If they go to a retailer with your unknown game, they’re not that many steps off from you going to a stranger with that unknown game. As such they’ll want to see evidence of the game’s popularity, and a funded Kickstarter really doesn’t mean a lot in that way. For an example, we’ve now got three successful Kickstarters, one of them has had 100 units sold into distribution and that’s despite being listed as a preferred supplier for one of the biggest distributors in the industry (you know the one).
So, if you’re thinking that once you get your Kickstarter funded distribution is a given, sadly that’s not realistic. Also remember that distribution expects the game to come at 30-35% of retail (that's a 70-65% discount), so if you’re not making some sort of profit at that percentage it won’t even be worth the effort. Selling direct to retail is a bit of a pipe dream, you might get a few copies sent out if you really hustle your local FLGS or push it at a convention, but realistically retailers don’t generally buy direct from publishers, and certainly not for a relatively unknown Kickstarter.
So, how do you get your game out there? Well, once you’ve got a print run completed, you’ll just send out copies to lots of lovely reviewers and they’ll review it and you’re sorted right? Sadly, again, not really. Reviewers get free copies of games from all sorts of big-name companies, reviews of games from big name companies push traffic to their channels and they only have a set amount of time to review games. Much like distributors you might think that their job is to review games, and you’ve got a game so the work is already done, but again that’s not necessarily the case. You’ll need to make connections and if they’ve really not heard of your game at all you’ll probably have to start with reviewers that won’t be driving a lot of traffic anyway.
You’ve got a backed Kickstarter that means you’re a published designer so now you’ve got a bit of pull to get your next game noticed by publishers, that’s sure to be a foot in the door when pitching, right? Well, not really, for one thing there are a lot of game designers with just about funded Kickstarters out there in the same position. In fact, if you’ve self-published you’ve not shown that you work well with others, far from it, you’ve shown that you like to be your own master and that you put out designs exactly how you want them put out, so having a successfully Kickstarted game really doesn’t get you through the door there.
Now I’m sad
So, what does having a successfully Kickstarted game get you and why would you bother Kickstarting if it gets you nothing? Well, the main thing it should be getting you is game stock. Its extremely tough to make a profit from a Kickstarter in and of itself, that’s starting to change as creators who have been through this process are pushing prices up so that they can actually make a profit by the end of the Kickstarter, but it’s a slow process and backers are unsurprisingly not welcoming price rises. The point is that it doesn’t magically get you “into the industry” and it doesn’t guarantee the sales of your game, taking a significant loss at Kickstarter because it will mean that you’re on the inside really isn’t worth the price. You need to be aiming to break even on printing and fulfillment on Kickstarter and if you can’t reach a goal that allows you to do that, don’t fill in the gap yourself, its just not worth the price.
Stock and sales
The number one thing your Kickstarter should get you is stock. It’s a Kickstarter to your business, not your career. You should be printing with a manufacturer that has a set print run and you’re unlikely to hit exactly that run, so you’ll probably have a game with a good few units left to sell. If you’ve broken even on production the job of those units is to cover pre-production and eventually hit some profit, so you’ll need a method of post Kickstarter sales. These aren’t free and you’ll need to drive those sales yourself, on the happy end of the news, once you’ve got stock to sell every future Kickstarter will drive sales of those other games as they get traffic to wherever you’re selling. How successful at driving such sales you are is something you’ll need to figure out for yourself, from our perspective as a tiny producer with pretty much zero advertising budget we shift a couple of hundred units of each game a year, although a lot of that relies on a busy convention schedule (2020 has made us very happy that this is not how we pay our rent).
The doors it does open
A successful Kickstarter doesn’t get you in the door with publishers, but it will get you in the door at conventions (when they happen again), where you’ll be in before the crowds with the stall that you’re selling from, covering your attendance costs and making a bit of money from the process. Its not all of the job, but it means that you’re not paying to pitch and you get a chance to pitch when the crowds aren’t about. It also means that you’ve got advice to hand out, on blogs (hi) and podcasts which is giving back to the community and building your profile, which is a good thing.
In short, please, don’t plan for a loss on your Kickstarter for intangible benefits like getting through the door, because it won’t do that for you. Also, have a plan for selling those units that relies on nothing other than you selling every single unit yourself in one way or another. Use Kickstarter to build your business, create a range and build a brand, not to put yourself in a position where someone else will do any of those things for you because sadly, they really won’t. It’s a crowded field out there and completing a Kickstarter just doesn’t make you stand out significantly in and of itself. Completing a Kickstarter and then turning that into a sustainable business, that’s what will make you stand out.