I’ve made my fair share of mistakes while building this business. I don’t sweep them under the rug. In fact, I even pulled apart the broken bits of my failed Kickstarter campaign for my understanding and published them online for public benefit. Being able to analyze and move forward after failure is critical to your success and a big part of getting your game from Start to Finish. This is part two of four in the Failure Recovery series.
Today, I’m going to be covering six really common ways board game Kickstarter campaigns fall apart. This is based primarily on my observation of Kickstarter as a market in 2018, not necessarily how it was in the past. The market is shifting and maturing, moving inexorably toward large companies with established intellectual properties. That’s not a bad thing – it brings more people into the hobby board game world we enjoy! It definitely changes how you have to approach the business, though.
Mistake 1: Emphasizing passion instead of the game.
Kickstarter started in 2009 as a way for people to fund their passion projects. That may not have been the intention of the company from the get-go, but that’s how the site was interpreted by the general public. For a long time, emphasizing your passion for the project while simultaneously pitching it was a reliable way to appear human and receive funding.
I’m not so sure about that anymore. Don’t get me wrong: passion is a beautiful thing. Passion will see you through difficult times, make you more charismatic, and give you a compelling story that people can rally behind. However: passion isn’t a pitch.
When you make a board game today, you’re on the same platform as CMON and other very high-profile publishers who can reliably pull more than one million dollars per campaign. These companies are very rarely mom-and-pop shops like old-school Kickstarter. They make a lot of money because their products are carefully crafted for the audience, their pitches are extremely strong, and the games are good.
Your game’s fit for the market is more important than your passion. So many indie creators, myself included, emphasize passion to the detriment of the product itself. Passion needs to be at the root of your product. It’s not a selling point.
Mistake 2: The game lacks a hook.
Because Kickstarter is so crowded these days, you need to catch each backer’s attention in a few seconds. The only way your game can survive in this environment is to be a good game and a good product. Good games have clever themes and mechanics. Good products are made for audiences using hard data to figure out what people like. If people like sci-fi and fantasy, you give them sci-fi and fantasy. If people like worker placement, you give them worker placement.
That’s only the beginning of making a good product, though. Even something as ideal for Kickstarter as a $20 fantasy worker placement small box game needs something to catch people’s eyes. It could be great components, a unique rule, or really special art. Your hook can be lots of different things, but it needs to be both tested with your intended audience and strong enough for people to identify your game as “the one with…”
But seriously: you need to pay attention to people’s purchasing patterns. A poor price point doesn’t necessarily mean you’re making your game too expensive. You can make games with an awkward price point that people aren’t buying at the moment. At the time that I am writing this, the campaigns I’ve seen succeed the most are expensive games or light games that are at or under $25. Much of what is in the middle is struggling.
Kickstarter is a giant open data set. Use hard data to figure out what price point core rewards are going for on successful campaigns. Try to match that price point.
Mistake 4: Poor components.
Lackluster components won’t necessarily sink a board game Kickstarter, but they won’t do it any favors. Having custom meeples, miniatures, or something creative and eye-catching helps a lot. In a lot of ways, it functions as a hook.
For better or worse, board gamers sometimes equate components with value. Do some research on Facebook or Board Game Geek to see what components gamers find valuable. You’d be surprised how often manufacturing price and perceived value don’t match up. I did one poll where wooden cubes scored higher than cards on value, despite cards costing three times as much to print and requiring extensive art creation.
Mistake 5: Poor art.
You have a few seconds to catch people’s attention. Art needs to not just be good in traditional artistic terms, but also good for product design. While there are a number of ways you can ensure your art is well-made from a tactical and technical standpoint, the most important thing to remember here is: test your art with your audience.
It’s impossible to know what art will resonate with people without running it by an audience. If you have a Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram account, try using those sites to see what people think of your art. If your art receives far higher engagement than your typical posts, that’s a very good sign. Every single art piece should ignite passion and interest in others. Otherwise, you could run into a situation where your game isn’t eye-catching enough to stand out in a crowded market.
Mistake 6: No reviews.
Last but not least, there are still some Kickstarters out there that go live without reviews. I don’t believe reviewers are the gatekeepers that they used to be, but it’s still a gigantic red flag when a campaign has no reviews. (Product-market fit, I believe, is more relevant than reviews, but I spent basically five points on that already.) You need social proof and reviewers act as testimonials to the quality of your product.
You need to print a few copies of your game from a print-on-demand supplier to send to reviewers. Thankfully, it’s easier than it’s ever been to get started with the actual printing process. For that matter, you can reach out to the majority of small reviewers by Twitter DM. The cost is relatively low compared to the rest of your project and the consequences of not having any reviews are too severe.
Board game Kickstarters can be complicated to run. Hopefully by spelling these common pitfalls, you can avoid them and fund successfully. Recognizing pitfalls is a great way to avoid failure.
If you have any additions to what you see above, please let me know in the comments 🙂
When you take on big, risky creative endeavors – whether as a hobbyist or an entrepreneur – you take on a lot of risks. You will find yourself out of your comfort zone, over your head, and unable to satisfy every demand. This can be tremendous for your personal growth because it pushes you well past limits that you thought were unbreakable. It also exposes you to the risk – nay, inevitability – of eventual failure.
Not all failure comes in the form of unsuccessful Kickstarter campaigns. Failure can involve missed deadlines, lost clients, scrapped prototypes, controversial public statements, or no-show events. How you handle these failures will determine whether you will grow as a person and whether your business will survive in the long-run.
Whenever you fail at something big, you need to ask “why?” When you get an answer, ask “why” again. Repeat this until you finally reach a satisfying answer. This is called root cause analysis. I’ll show you how this works in a moment by showing you the same method I used to diagnose my own failed Kickstarter campaign.
So that we can have a productive discussion below, let’s define the major types of failure first. There are strategical, operational, and tactical failures.
Strategic failures represent a failure in a major part of your plan. With games, this involves the nature of the project itself. It is often hard or impossible to fix these without starting fresh.
Operational failures come from a problem in your plan’s implementation, but not necessarily the core concepts of your plan. This often includes major problems in your marketing, a badly thought-out pitch, or an insufficiently engaged audience.
Tactical failures come from minor breakdowns that can have outsized impacts. This can include things like your mailing list having a dead link and costing you precious first-hour pledges on Kickstarter.
I won’t bring these up again later in the article. Still, this is a useful framework I want you to keep in mind for when you start planning to recover from failure. Operational and tactical failures can be fixed. Major strategic failures can sometimes be fixed, but often it’s better to move on.
Defining Your Process
With a basic understanding of the types of failure out of the way, now you are free to start looking at the process you followed. It helps to sketch out the process of whatever it is you’re trying to do. We’ll use the game development process – from start to finish – as an example.
Creating a board game for Kickstarter is a process which involves the following sub-processes:
Concept Design: The creation of initial ideas based on what hobby board gamers are currently interested in. This involves outlining a new game’s requirements and preparing a tentative pitch for the next step.
Market Validation: Using online communities to gauge general audience interest. After the initial idea is validated, specific concepts are run by the audience to gauge audience interest. If the audience shows passion and interest, continue to game design. Otherwise, the concept is refined or scrapped entirely.
Game Design: The process of taking a game’s specifications and turning them into a functional game with mechanics, rules, and components.
Play-Testing: Playing the game and refining it until it’s fun. If a game fails to pass play-testing, it is pushed back to the game design stage.
Artwork: After a game is play-tested, artwork is commissioned. This involves hiring a freelance artist and providing them with detailed specifications on what to create.
Artwork Validation: Market validation specifically for artwork.
Sampling & Prototyping: Testing games for physical usability and printing copies for reviewers.
Promotional Marketing: In order to launch a successful Kickstarter campaign, each game must be promoted far in advance of the beginning of the campaign. This involves lead generation with the intention of converting leads as part of the Kickstarter campaign. (For me, the primary forms of lead generation include giveaway prizes and various Pangea Games online communities such as the Discord server, Facebook group, and other social media outlets.)
Outreach: This is separate from lead generation and encompasses reviews, blogs, podcasts, live streams, press releases, and retailer outreach.
Audience Validation: Checking the game one last time to see if people like how it turned out.
Campaigning: Responsibilities include publicizing the launch, drumming up attention for the launch, sending out launch day communications, managing the community, writing updates, and editing the campaign page as necessary.
Manufacturing: This involves the physical creation of large print runs of board games, usually 500 units or more. Related process include the submission of request-for-quotes, creating and validating specifications, selecting a printer, and following up with the printer.
Warehousing & Fulfillment: This involves the physical storage and fulfillment of the inventory after it is manufactured. Inventory is sent from the manufacturer to one or more warehouses where it is fulfilled and the excess is stored.
Online Sales: This involves the sale of any games in excess of what was sold after the campaign.
Working Backward with Your Process to Diagnose Failure
That’s a very long process, but as you can see, detailing it in this way makes it much easier to pinpoint where the breakdown is. Once you have your process mapped out in sequence, I recommend working backward to diagnose the failure. The later a breakdown comes in your overall process, the easier it is – generally speaking – to fix. For example, if your Kickstarter campaign fails to fund, the breakdown is in “Campaigning” but the roots might be deeper. Moving backwards, analyze each step.
Campaigning: Were there problems spreading the word? Did launch day communications breakdown? Was there a disaster in managing the community? Was the page itself unclear and unfocused?
Audience Validation: Was the audience size overall sufficient to support a campaign? Was there genuine passion and engagement?
Outreach: Did you spread the word through a variety of media including blogs, podcasts, live-streams, and press releases?
Promotional Marketing: Did you have a systematic way to bring in and process leads? Did you have a working sales funnel? Were you collecting email addresses?
Sampling & Prototyping: Were the review copies of sufficient quality to attract reviewers? Did you have enough copies to send for review? Were there physical issues that made the game difficult to play?
Artwork: Was the artwork complete and pleasing to your audience?
Play-Testing & Game Design: Was the game enjoyable, complete, and well-designed?
Concept Design & Market Validation: Did the core concept of the game resonate with customers? Were people passionate about playing it based on description alone? Did it have a “hook”?
As a general rule, you want to focus on the lowest / farthest-back problems and work your way forward from there. If you weren’t collecting emails, didn’t do enough outreach, and your campaign page looked bad, but everything else was fine; then you have fairly superficial issues. If the core concept of the game wasn’t resonating with players – as was the case with the ill-fated Highways & Byways – your best option might be to scrap it entirely or do extensive rework.
By working backward to identify the factors that led up to failure, you can develop an implementation plan to fix them. The specifics will ultimately be determined by the mistake you made that led to your failure. Once you’ve got an implementation plan for fixing the failure, you can estimate how long it will take and how much money it will take. From there, you can decide whether or not to continue on the project. In the Kickstarter campaign example, your options are – broadly speaking – to relaunch, make a different game, pivot into a related field that doesn’t involve game design, or quit game development entirely. Knowing where you went wrong helps you choose what’s best for you.
Failure isn’t the end of the world. It can provide tremendous learning experiences that will pave the way for your future success. Accept your failure and try to learn from it. It might make you stronger.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing similar articles about failure recovery, including one about common causes of failure, saving face, and avoiding despair. In the mean time, thank you so much for reading. For those of you brave souls out there, I enourage you to share your own failures in the comment section so that we can all learn from them.
I’ve talked about how board game developers can get big on Twitter and use Facebook to its fullest potential. Now it’s time to talk about the prettiest social network on the internet: Instagram. Many marketers pass over Instagram because it’s not as easy to understand as Facebook and Twitter.
Instagram is very particular about how you can use it. You can only post photos and you must use a mobile device. On top of that, it’s populated largely by young people who are resistant to advertising. For those reasons, many marketers don’t know how to approach Instagram. As it turns out, it’s not as hard as it looks.
I’ve broken this guide into five parts:
What is Instagram Good For?
Refining Your Approach
Using Instagram for More than Just Pictures
What is Instagram Good For?
Reasons to Use Instagram
As of 2017, Instagram had 800 million users. They skew heavily toward the age group 18-29, which makes it a decidedly younger audience than the one courted by its parent company, Facebook. This represents an enormous opportunity for board game developers like yourself. While an older audience may be more likely to back your Kickstarter campaign since they have more discretionary income, Instagram is really good for sewing the seeds for your future brand. In fact, this is my primary rationale for using the website: Instagram is really good for branding. I believe there is an intangible benefit to young people knowing who you are and what you’re all about.
If the potential to build a quality brand isn’t an attractive enough prospect on its own, perhaps this will win you over. It’s the easiest social media site when it comes to passively pulling people to your page. For better or worse, Facebook requires cash to bring in an audience. Twitter’s hashtag system is broken, so you have to actively reach out to get anywhere on there. With Instagram, if you can get your photos in the “Top Posts” for a given hashtag, people will follow you without you doing anything else. The Top Posts section places nine popular photos at the top that people will immediately see when they look up a hashtag such as #boardgame.
Because people on Instagram actually search for hashtags, if you can get an image into the Top 9 of a popular hashtag, your image can go viral. Instagram lets you add up to 30 hashtags on your images and it’s common to use 10-15 on each image. You get several chances to get into the Top 9. That means if you make it into the Top 9 on multiple popular hashtags, you can pull in a lot of people very quickly. Here is a good rule of thumb: post photos with a clear object in focus, contrasting colors, and lots of detail. Photos like that stop people from listlessly scrolling through their feeds, enticing them to click on your images.
That brings me to my penultimate point, and a very important one: Instagram is inexpensive to use. You don’t have to spend money on advertising like Facebook. You don’t have to spend lots of time on outreach like Twitter. Instagram is the last major social media network on which you can reliably break 1,000 followers within three months.
Lastly, Instagram has a much more global audience than any other social media site I’ve used. Twitter and Facebook are based on language, which tends to mean English speakers communicate with other English speakers almost exclusively. Instagram breaks down those barriers – you could end up getting fans in Los Angeles, Berlin, Tehran, Jakarta, Auckland, New York City, and Baghdad. Having a globally diverse audience can help you out if you decide to launch a campaign on Kickstarter. Global support may boost your visibility within Kickstarter’s search algorithm.
Reasons not to Use Instagram
For all the beautiful reasons to use Instagram, it has some really annoying qualities. It’s mobile-only, so you can’t easily use the full app on your desktop. You have to download the Windows app instead.
You can’t link directly to your site in the captions of your photos, making it really hard to have an effective call to action. The next best thing is to put a link in your bio and tell people to click your bio. Obviously, this is suboptimal. In addition to that, every single like, comment, and follow results in a notification on the app…and it caps you at seeing 100 at a time. There is no good reason why they can’t group likes and follows together for more meaningful notifications.
It also doesn’t help that the advertising system, despite being managed on Facebook’s website, doesn’t give you the same bang for your buck. I’ve tried a few experiments with advertising on Instagram and I’ve yet to have a campaign I’m satisfied with compared to its parent company. Facebook, on the other hand, can pull in potential customers with their extremely effective ad system.
Last but not least, for all the praise I’ve heaped on Instagram for being a place where you can still go viral, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Posting quality photos all the time can be difficult to maintain and I’ve had weeks where I haven’t had time to post decent photos. That can put you in the unenviable position of saying “do I post this mediocre photo and risk losing engagement?” or “do I post nothing and risk being forgotten?” I’ve yet to find the right answer to that.
Setting Up Your Account & Making it Look Good
Getting set up on Instagram is easier than most other social media websites. On the home page, enter your email or phone number, full name, username, and password. Click Sign Up and follow any further prompts. It is really that straightforward. My only caution is to be careful choosing a username because your username will become part of the URL people use to reach you. For example, my main Instagram account is http://instagram.com/brandongamedev.
Once you’re logged in, click Edit Profile. Upload a profile photo – I suggest one of your face since people respond more positively to faces than logos. Tweak your Name and Username to your satisfaction. Add a link to your website – remember, this is the only link you will have on Instagram. Then write a catchy and short bio like you would on Twitter. Click Submit.
If you need an example of a bio, here’s the one I use with @BrandonGameDev: “I’ll help you learn to make board games from scratch. I made War Co., and I’m making Highways & Byways. I own and run Pangea Games.”
As with Facebook and Twitter, before you do any serious outreach, you’ll want to post for two weeks first. Unlike with Facebook, you can’t backdate Instagram posts, so you’ll need to take a couple of weeks to post one picture per day to establish your account. You’ll want to have the right Content Mix to attract people to your account. On Instagram, I generally recommend that between 25-30% of your images be self-promotion and the others be sharing others’ work. No matter what, though, make your pictures gorgeous. Remember: clear object in focus, contrasting colors, lots of detail.
I have a little more advice about the images you post. Don’t go overboard with filters – usually, a slight bump in brightness, contrast, saturation, and/or structure can really bring out the pizzazz in your photo. I’ve also found the best results posting between 10 am and noon eastern time, but you should experiment with different times to see what works for your audience.
Methods of Gaining Followers
There are a number of techniques you can use to gain followers on Instagram. Some of them are legitimate methods I would recommend and others gain you followers in the worst way possible. I’m going to lay out all these methods and give you my opinions. The methods you choose to use to build your following are entirely up to you. I’m listing these methods from “cleanest” to “dirtiest.”
The most acceptable way to gain followers on Instagram, to nobody’s surprise, is to simply post great images. Facebook requires money and Twitter requires aggressive outreach. Instagram, however, rewards users for posting great images on the right hashtags. For example, let’s say you post a gorgeous photo of a game of Scythe in progress, and you tag it with the following: #boardgame #boardgames #tabletopgame #scythe #bgg #boardgamegeek. With a great photo and some luck, you could get into the Top Posts on those tags. If you do that, you’re likely to pick up a few followers every time you do it. You can even pick up followers if you don’t get in the Top Posts since hashtags are chronologically ordered.
Since Instagram is connected to Facebook, you can use advertising to gain followers too. I’ve yet to see hard data on how well this works. I’m not sure if there is a good return on your investment. It’s really hard to tell what an Instagram follower is worth. Yet advertising is a very, very clean method of gaining followers.
If you’re willing to put in some time, you can look up photos by hashtag, such as #boardgame, and start leaving comments on the photos. It’s time-consuming, but people are fairly likely to follow you if you leave comments. Do this enough times and you can slowly gain hundreds of followers. This is a pretty clean method of outreach, assuming you don’t automate it or lazily give the thumbs up emoji to every photo you see.
If you’re willing to do aggressive outreach, but you’re looking for something faster, you can always go down a popular hashtag and indiscriminately like every photo you see. This is a little dirty, but it’s fast and effective. If you do it too fast, Instagram might think you’re a bot and kick you off the site, though. Even if they don’t kick you off, it’s just a little…seedy. It’s engagement with engaging.
You can always follow people, leaving likes and comments on their photos to entice them into following you back. This can be shady if you don’t target your leads or if you try to follow the same people twice. If you very carefully create lists of people to follow, though, and you make sure to never follow anyone twice, this method can be acceptable. Still, you’re left with the mess of following a bunch of people and using some lousy free app on the App Store to unfollow people who don’t follow you back after a couple of weeks. Overall, this is a very fast and effective technique, it’s super common, and – if we’re being totally honest – is probably the nastiest acceptable behavior on social media.
If you want to get out of the moral gray area and go straight for the darkness, you can always use automation to mass like, mass comment, or mass follow. When you see one-word comments that don’t really apply to your photos on Instagram, that means somebody is leaving a generic mass comment on your photo. It’s basically the friendliest form of spam on the planet…but it is spam. There are very simple Python scripts that can auto-like, auto-comment, and auto-follow for you, but I strongly advise you don’t use them. It may gain a lot of followers, but your leads will probably be bad and the whole concept is deceptive.
Last but not least, you can always buy Instagram followers. This is shady and the vast majority of the followers you buy will be total crap. If you see someone who gains 20,000 followers in a day, that’s what happened. Check their profile two months later when all those followers are mysteriously gone.
You Must Experiment
As I discussed in How to Rise Above the Noise of the Internet & Get Noticed, when we use social media as business owners, we are at the mercy of the ever-changing algorithms that curate our experiences online. What works today may not work tomorrow. When I created @WarMachinesCo on Instagram, I was able to get nearly 34,000 followers at its peak because I could regularly get in the top 9 pictures for #scifi, which would bring in 50-60 new followers per day. Sometimes a picture would get massive amounts of likes, drawing in hundreds of people per day. If they had changed the way the top 9 pictures for any given hashtag were chosen, though, the account would go into a slow decline.
You always to keep an eye on what blows up on social media and what is ignored entirely. Pay attention to Instagram insights and challenge your assumptions. Never take anything for granted. Remember that your ultimate goal is to sell your game or other products/services, not to gain followers. Figure out what helps you achieve that goal.
Refining Your Approach
Automating Your Posts: Ongoing
You can upload your photos and write your captions to a scheduler such as Buffer. Then at a specific time of day, a time of your choice, you’ll get a push notification. You open the Buffer app, it saves the photo to your camera roll, copies the caption to your clipboard, and opens Instagram. You then add the photo and paste the caption.
Despite the annoyance, spending 30 seconds every day posting to Instagram that you had already prepared is a lot better than trying to cobble something together on the fly. Since Instagram is so visual, it’s really beneficial to prepare everything on your desktop or laptop computer, upload it to Buffer, and post a little throughout the week. It keeps your processes lean and your audience engaged.
Refining Your Account: Ongoing
Instagram, like Facebook, has a built-in analytics tool called Insights. Pay attention to which photos get the most likes and post more photos like them. Unlike Twitter where you need to factor in retweets, replies, and likes; Instagram is a lot simpler. Comments on Instagram tend to go hand-in-hand with likes, so if you focus on optimizing likes, that will help your pictures be seen by more people, get in the Top Posts of certain hashtags, and passively gain followers.
Using Instagram for More than Just Pictures
Videos and Stories
As a keen reader, you may have noticed that I’ve not yet mentioned Instagram’s ability to share video. Instagram allows users to share brief videos on their Instagram profiles, up to 60 seconds in length. These videos will stay there forever unless you take them down. You can also post Instagram stories up to 15 seconds in length – these are only shared with your followers and last up to 24 hours. Last but not least, you can do live videos that are up to 1 hour in length.
At the current time, it’s tough to tell how important videos will be to your overall Instagram strategy. I encourage you to experiment and see what works for you and your brand. I still recommend you post lots of pictures since those are likely to show up in the Top Posts of hashtags more easily than videos. That said, the three different video formats that Instagram allows you to use leave you with plenty of opportunities to engage your audience.
Like with Twitter and Facebook, Instagram can allow you to keep a finger on the pulse of the board game industry as a whole. Twitter can be difficult to navigate and parse. Facebook contains lots of great information, often through Facebook groups. Instagram, however, has a working hashtag system that you can easily and visually search. Just pulling up the #boardgame hashtag and scrolling through the photos can tell you what’s popular.
Testing Artwork with an Audience
Instagram also provides you with a tremendous opportunity to test artwork. You can post two versions of your artwork at the same time on different days with the same hashtags and see which one gets the most likes. You can use the more popular one in your final product. It’s not a perfect method, but it can be a very insightful one.
As with any social media site, the real purpose is to talk to people. Be genuine, make friends, help others out. The connections you make that way will be far more rewarding than ones you make by aggressive lead generation.
Instagram can be a wonderful way for a board game developer to create a global community and establish their brand. It takes relatively little time to maintain and can passively bring in people you’d never be able to reach on Facebook or Instagram. While Facebook is a much better backbone for your marketing, Instagram is definitely a site you should learn to use.
How have your experiences on Instagram been? Feel free to share thoughts and questions below 🙂