I’ve made a sort of protracted mistake in managing the Escape the Nightmare Kickstarter campaign, at least for the last month, arguably for longer. I’d like to use today’s game design column to go into that and think about exactly what went wrong to help myself and others avoid similar situations in the future.
Let’s start with the backer experience, that’s what really matters.
Imagine you find a Kickstarter project, you like it and decide to back it. As the campaign goes on it seems pretty good and there’s loads to see. The creator is responsive and helpful, typically within a few hours of anything happening. When the campaign hits its goal a new pledge level opens up, offering the creator’s previous library of games at a discount. Great! You upgrade your pledge, support the creator and get some nice things for yourself.
The months roll by, there are updates, the project seems to be coming along okay.
Then one day a backer comments that they’ve got their game. Exciting times! You’ve contributed to making something real and it’s out there, some projects fold but the game looks good and people are commenting about the fun they’re having. Feels good to pick a winner. Your game will be along soon.
The weeks roll by, more and more other backers get their games, but your postbox remains empty.
You message the creator. “Where’s my game?” The reply takes longer to come this time. When it does, it’s unhelpful. Amounts to not much more than “Come back later.” There’s an update, some of the games were delayed. Looks like it was the ones bundled with the past library. Great, backing at a higher level did this, is that the reward for generosity?
The weeks roll by, it’s now a month and a half since the first other backer got their game. Still no game.
More messages, some comments, what’s going on? Replies take even longer – almost a week! When they do, they’re unhelpful – amounting to not much more than “I dunno”. Why not send a new game then? It’s been a month and a half, the thing is clearly not showing up. What’s wrong with this project? Why did you have anything to do with this clown in the first place?
Now obviously that’s not a backer experience I wanted anyone to have, let alone several people. Certainly not everyone at the highest tier of a campaign, yet I’ve let it happen. What did I do wrong and how would it be avoided? Firstly, let’s look at the creator experience to see how it’s possible for this to happen:
Imagine you’re running a Kickstarter project. It funds! Hooray, cake and biscuits for everyone. You’ve got stock of your previous games and there are no stretch goals on this one so it’s not going to ruin the budget if you include them, why not add a level to let backers of this project get them too. You can even ship them all together, which means you save money, which means you can offer a discount. Backers get something, you lose nothing, good feeling.
The project ends, you start the manufacturing process and roll out updates to keep people up to speed with what’s going on. Give high level backers the option to get back catalog stuff you’ve got in stock quickly, the combined shipping saving isn’t too different to the storage fees till the end of the project anyway. Get that done.
More progress. More updates. Months roll by.
Good news everyone! Things are ahead of schedule. You planned a July delivery but people will actually get their games earlier, maybe even in May! Let everyone know, fanfares in the streets, “Kickstarter not late for once” on front page of every national newspaper. Well – not quite – but things are going well.
You’re also still delivering the Kickstarter before. It was a more complicated project with a longer delivery time so that’s not unusual – you’ve been good and kept the budgets entirely separate so you don’t end up with the fail-cascade serial Kickstarters can run into if they’re not careful.
Bad news everyone! Things are behind schedule. You planned an April delivery but it’s going to slip by a few months. It’s looking like it might be done in July. Make an update explaining exactly how it happened and what you’re doing about it. Backers are sympathetic, happy to be kept in the loop. Do what you can to make up for lost time, but never sacrifice quality for speed. It’s going to be okay.
The games for the second KS are here! Grab the simple file (everyone who just wants a game and has nothing complicated in their address or delivery requirements) print a hundred labels and start sending them out the moment they hit the floor. They might get delayed by a freighter or sit in a factory for a while but damned if you’ll be the source of any delay!
The complex file has a problem. Some backers are supposed to get a copy of your other games – but the one that was meant to be finished in April isn’t done yet and this one is early so it’s finished first! You budgeted based on combined shipping so can’t separate the orders. You did it before, but that was to save on storage fees, it won’t work again here. Make an update about the situation, give people the option to pay a bit of extra shipping to get their games separately. Some take it, most don’t. It’s only a couple of extra weeks.
Weeks pass. Stuff happens on project one, update project one backers about it. Stuff happens on project two, update project two backers about it. There are a few distractions in replacing damaged cases or misprinted components, but largely things go okay.
The first project is done! Finally! Back to wooshing the simple orders out of the door ASAP while processing the more complicated ones. You can finally fulfill those high level project two pledges. Get those out of the door. Then settle down to work on the tricky ones from this project, some of these need painting or custom orders. It’s 1000 games in big boxes in a room and buckets of spare parts. Chaos wishes to rule, but a flurry of paperwork and organisation keeps it in check.
All of the games are sent out. Just need to wait for them to arrive now. Post update, take a break.
Just kidding – no break for you – it’s time to move house. Lots of work, problems, near misses and minor disasters that have nothing to do with Kickstarter.
No internet for a few days.
Back online. Lots of messages from backers. LOTS. Start going through them troubleshooting. Looks like the manufacturers made some fairly major mistakes with some of them. Adopt a policy of replacing missing/damaged/misprinted bits. Start cataloging errors and sending replacements. There’s a lot, more than the other three projects put together.
As soon as someone posts that they’ve got their game there are fifty messages from people who want to know why theirs isn’t there yet. One day people will understand that literally hundreds of games arrive later than average because that’s what average means, but it is not this day. Don’t delay on replacing the missing parts to waste time playing a game of hunt the paperwork for messages 95% of which will be solved by waiting a week. Solve the maximum number of problems in the available time, lots of happy people, good job.
Moving house ruins everything. How many people need a new address? When is the hot water coming on? Why are there three washing machines in a tiny building with plumbing for one? When was the last time I checked my emails?
Things calm down a bit and the “holiday days” left quota starts to look thin. Back to work, the previous projects are pretty much wrapped up now. Time to work on the next game.
Wait a minute, why is the Kickstarter on fire?
On the surface those two experiences aren’t very similar. My instinctive response to the first complaint was along the lines of “This person’s out of line.” A few days isn’t long to wait for a message, the promised date for the project completion is in the future not the past and more and more backers are writing about how their things are arriving. Why should there be a fuss?
But then other people said the same thing and you know the saying “… but when three men call you an ass it’s time to buy yourself a saddle.”
So let’s go point by point through how choices that seemed reasonable at the time lead to this.
Bundling things to save shipping
I don’t think that anyone would’ve been put off by an extra few pounds of cost in the “back catalog” pledge level. For the trouble it’s caused, it’d have been wiser to have been able to ship things individually as they were available rather than needing to wait to consolidate.
Updating the wrong backers (or not updating the right backers)
I think this is the biggest one. The cardinal sin of Kickstarter is a failure to communicate – if you’re genuinely trying to do right by your backers then almost anything can go wrong as long as you talk about it openly and honestly. They’re sensible people who can recognise when something’s an accident or beyond your control.
I updated the Escape the Nightmare backers about Escape the Nightmare and the Wizard’s Academy backers about Wizard’s Academy. That doesn’t sound stupid, but some of the EtN backers weren’t going to get their orders until WA was done – they needed to be in the loop!
Because they only saw EtN updates what they saw was that people got their games and they had to wait weeks (and counting!) to see anything. If they’d seen WA updates too, they’d be seeing other people getting things that had shipped out along with their stuff much more recently.
Not broadcasting unavailability
A simple update along the lines of “I’m moving house, certainly for the next few days and generally for the next few weeks, replies are going to be slower and spottier.” would’ve made it more apparent that slower replies aren’t anything to do with the issues and aren’t the precursor to “Creator runs off and stops responding” as they have been so often in the past.
Responding in a hurry
After a few days without internet it’s easy to come back to a little over a three hundred emails and want to rush through them. Especially when some of them are problems that you can actually solve and are eager to fix.
Rushing is bad because it makes it harder to moderate tone. I care about the things I’m doing and tend to let that come across a lot, but there are times to be professional and nobody is professional in a hurry.
The thing is that doing things quickly makes it easy to miss things that are important. “It’s not the date by which you said you’d expect the game to be here yet and the game isn’t here yet” is a common message and easy to start giving a standard response to. This time some of them were hinting at the situation though, specifically that from the perspective of someone seeing one set of updates (rather than someone who’s writing both) it looks like the games are over a month after the ones they were meant to be with, rather than a couple of days.
When people take the time to write to you, it’s worth taking the time to write back carefully. That means not just understanding what was written, but why it was written. Sure it’d have made the “delay” problem worse, but waiting a bit longer for a helpful response first time is better than getting something that’s quick and useless.
There is a world of difference between “I don’t know” and “I won’t tell you” but if someone asks a question in the form “Can you tell me…?” then the answer “No” is ambiguous. It’s worth taking the time to write the situation out in full and say “I don’t know but I want to find out and this is how I’m approaching that”. If lots of people need that then it’s worth an update.
So I think it’s fair to say that I mismanaged that situation and there are a bunch of things that I could learn to do better in the future from it. It certainly could’ve been a *lot* worse, but that’s always the case and I think it’s good to aim for better. I hope this tour gives you some food for thought and helps you avoid similar things in the future.
There are also some things that I think are ambiguous. For instance I considered including “Not dealing with the WA+EtN pledges first” on the list of mistakes, but I’m not sure if it is. On the one hand they felt subjectively late, since EtN had been delivered earlier, so it makes sense to do them first. On the other hand the WA Kickstarter concluded first so those backers have been waiting longer and surely deserve to get their stuff before people who joined the WA train at a later station. I’m still a bit undecided on whether it’d have been better to have pushed getting them done first.
As it was they were done near to last, which exacerbated the situation. I wouldn’t have chosen for that to happen, but on the other hand I’m not sure if it’d have been fair on other backers to have tried to make a specific exception for them.
In any event, this post has gone on for a bit so I think I’m going to leave it there for now. Next 3DTotal update will be something about actually designing games again 😉