Why the Highways & Byways Kickstarter Campaign Crashed & Burned

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Highways & Byways failed, but all is not lost.
I’ve started working on a new game called Yesterday’s War.

 

After a year of documenting the Highways & Byways development process through the Dev Diary, this is not the post I wanted to write. I would have much preferred to write a post about how Highways & Byways funded on day 1. Yet today I must write a post on why I canceled the Highways & Byways campaign after two weeks at less than one-third funded.

When I created this blog, I created it to help see creators through the entire game development process. That means the highs and the lows. I will not sweep failure under the rug. That wouldn’t do you any good. It wouldn’t do me any good. Let’s dissect this Kickstarter campaign failure in detail so we can all walk away smarter.

Let’s get something straight first: I make no excuses. I failed. There are reasons for that. It was preventable. I will do better next time.

 

 

Why Highways & Byways Failed on Kickstarter

 

The Highways & Byways Kickstarter campaign failure is the result of poor product-market fit. That basically means that Highways & Byways, intrinsically as a game itself, does not match up well with the desires of the greater Kickstarter board gaming community. I’ve done a lot of hemming and hawing over this, asking “is this really the reason? What other factors could be at play?” There are some smaller factors that contributed to the Kickstarter failure, but this is the big one and I will present my arguments for that a few paragraphs from now. Long story short is that I made Highways & Byways without once asking “what do people want?” I simply pursued a passion project.

A successful Kickstarter campaign, or broadly speaking, a successful product launch hinges upon two big things: product-market fit and audience. If you have a beautiful, perfect product that’s hand-made for a very specific audience, but you have nobody’s attention – you will fail. It’s one of those “tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it” situations. Likewise, if you have a healthy audience, such as the one I’ve grown online, but a product that nobody asked for, you’ll have a few buyers, but ultimately people will ignore you and move on with their day. People are too busy to care about things that only “sort of” interest them.

 

 

Imagine the relationship between product-market fit and audience size as a seesaw. The product-market fit is the base of the seesaw and the audience size is the length of the seesaw. If you have a good product-market fit and a small audience, you can put a rock on one end, drop a bowling ball on the other, and the rock will fly (but not very far). It might go high enough to launch. This is how War Co. worked for me. The game ignited strong passion in people, but my marketing techniques were sloppy and disorganized.

On the flip side, if you have a poor product-market fit and a sizable audience, as I did with Highways & Byways, you get the seesaw on the right. Put a rock on one end, drop a bowling ball on the other, and the rock won’t go very far either. I had an efficient marketing system with a big mailing list, a lot of Twitter followers, and even a little love on the Board Game Geek page. Yet the game itself was only appealing to a very specific group of people, most of whom didn’t hang out on Kickstarter.

Perhaps in 2012, Highways & Byways could have worked. I think it could have even worked in 2016 when I started seriously making board games. Yet at this current moment, Kickstarter has become a buffet. If you put food on the buffet line, it has to be one of the most attractive things out there or else it won’t get eaten. Then you have to take all your soup back home from the work potluck…not that this happened to me.

I’m being a bit silly here, but stop and think about what’s gotten big on Kickstarter lately. It’s a lot of light games near or under $20 USD in price. It’s a lot of heavy games with miniatures. There isn’t very much in between. Highways & Byways falls very much in between, targeted family gamers (who use Kickstarter less) for $49 USD (which isn’t a great price point right now) with no standout components. I never once took Kickstarter data before making this game and its stagnation on Kickstarter shows.

 

Why I Believe Product-Market Fit is the Root Problem

 

The reason I believe product-market fit is the root problem is mostly because of the process of elimination. I looked at the elements that led up to the Kickstarter based on my own personal “game development process map” from creation to Kickstarter. I’m going to go through them in reverse chronological order so you can see how I arrived at this grim diagnosis.

Was it the Kickstarter campaign itself? I don’t think so. The campaign itself has a conversion rate of 3%, an average pledge rate that matches with the core reward, lots of comments relative to the funds raised, and a staggering 51% completion rate on the video. I’ve received nothing but compliments on the way the page was laid out. I initiated the launch sequence with no problems.

Was it the audience size? I doubt it. I had, at the start of this campaign, over 500 emails for Highways & Byways alone, 137 for War Co., and – get this – nearly 1,200 for this blog. On top of that, I have tons of Twitter and Instagram followers across multiple accounts. Even after giving Facebook relatively little attention, the blog and Byways Facebook pages have over or nearly 400 likes each – most of whom are unique individuals.

Was it lack of outreach in terms of streams, blogs, podcasts, etc.? You can always do more outreach, but I wound up working with the super cool people behind Board Game Design Lab and We’re Not Wizards. They have fairly large audiences and are only two of dozens of people I’ve worked within the last three months. I don’t think this was the problem.

Was it a result of bad reviews or poor gameplay? No, they were about as positive as War Co. In fact, they were arguably better. Those who played Highways & Byways showed real desire and passion to play it again. I wouldn’t have gone further if they didn’t.

Was it the artwork? I doubt it. I have received lots of praise for it from reviewers and gamers alike. Ads containing the artwork performed well on Facebook. I would have sent them back to James Masino to be reworked if they did.

Was it the basic concept? Yes. I never asked anybody what they wanted to see. I never used market data to validate this game. I’ve never found an adequate game to make a comparison to. I’ve not seen another campaign like it succeed. I just wasn’t there mentally when I started this game. It was another passion project, much like War Co. I handled the operations much better this time, but the core concept didn’t work.

 

What Led to Poor Product-Market Fit?

 

I’ve said it before and it bears repeating. Highways & Byways was a passion project. War Co. was, too, but it was also a sci-fi game with tons of lore and crunchy calculations. Kickstarter really likes sci-fi, lore-heavy games, and crunchy calculations. That was my saving grace despite a marketing plan that was dodgy at best. Highways & Byways is a better game than War Co., but it’s not a better product. It was purely based on my interests, which the board gaming community as a whole does not happen to share.

 

You can follow your passions and make money. But you can’t blindly follow your passions and make money.

 

Decide right now whether you’re in it for creativity, money, or both. If you’re in it for creativity, don’t worry about the larger trends. If you’re in it for money, become a sellout, make a fantasy worker placement / area control game for $19. If you’re in it for both, figure out where your interests and the market’s interests line up. That’s where you want to be. That’s where I’m moving.

My sellout comment above is a joke, but it hints at some truth. Kickstarter is a big, beautiful data set. You can rip 100 board game campaigns off there and get a pretty good idea at which price points, mechanics, themes, and art styles make money. Use that data! I didn’t use that data because I was pursuing a passion project.

With all this spelled out, there is one more major problem: I worked alone. If I didn’t work alone, there is a very good chance someone would have stopped me. Even if they didn’t, it wouldn’t have taken as long as it did. I may have even had some games in the backlog for after Highways & Byways, which would have also softened the fall.

All of this – poor product-market fit caused by the blind pursuit of passion, a lack of data, and refusal to delegate – is what I believe broke Byways. I think this is far more important than posting on the perfect, magical Facebook groups, getting upvotes on Reddit, or having WIP thread on Board Game Geek. Those things are valuable and I will look into them more in the future, but they’re not the roots.

 

 

What am I Going to Do?

 

By the evening of Day 1, Highways & Byways was funding slower than War Co. It had a higher funding goal and better marketing operations. I knew something was off immediately, so in my spare moments, I started devising a plan B. Thankfully, I have a beautiful place to crash land. I have an incredibly polite and intelligent Discord server of over 1,100 game developers. I have a blog that, ironically, is more popular right now than it was when I started the campaign. I have an online platform. I make plenty of money. I’ve got a lot of friends and family. The world is not in ruins.

I’ve assembled a group of close associates. We are going to start coordinating our efforts, dividing up tasks, and being really open and honest with each other. Being alone was a major factor in my failure, and this is going to help.

Next thing I’m going to do is cut back all the crap. I’m going to stop running so many social media accounts. I’m going to eliminate processes that aren’t effective. Moreover, I’m going to stop doing what I’m not great at. I’m good at a lot of the game development process, but it’s time to delegate some things – such as game design and play-testing – to others who have more intrinsic talent than I do. I’m still going to make games, I’m just going to make sure my contributions really count next time.

This last one is huge. I am never going to create a product without validating the market first. Never, never, never, never, never, never, never again. I’m going to find out what people like, compare that to what I like, and make something that makes us all very happy. This is the first filter in my new game development process and I will use it aggressively.

As for Highways & Byways itself: I may do a small print run. I’m still investigating that.

 


 

Writing this post was like performing an exorcism. I’d prefer to not have to have written it, but here we are. I’ve learned a ton. I’m not going to quit. I have a plan for the future and more optimism than I had even a few weeks ago in the run-up to this campaign.

I hope you can learn from my mistakes. Helping you is what this blog is all about 🙂

The Most Underrated Rule in Business: Have a Backup Plan

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Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & BywaysJust here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here.

 


 

In 1519, Hernán Cortés and his 600 man crew washed up on the shores of Mexico. He had colonization on his mind, and he wanted to take over the Yucatan Peninsula. He was outgunned and outmanned, so he did the sensible thing: he ordered his troops to burn the boats.

 

 

This story may or may not be true, but the myth persists. It’s often used as an allegory in business seminars about the importance of commitment to your strategy. After all, if you have no ability to turn back, your only two options are to fight for victory or die. The people who run these seminars say Cortés is a leadership genius.

That’s stupid.

Commitment and persistence are absolutely critical elements to succeeding in anything, especially trying to create a business. I could bring up dozens of stories of famous people who failed over and over again until they were finally successful. This is beyond cliche, though.

The most underrated rule in business is “have a backup plan in mind.” If you do something risky, there is a chance of failure. Don’t set your sights on one particular outcome, set your sights on a particular direction you want to go in. It’s so important to be flexible in the face of failure.

Pursuing your creative passions, building a business, or even generally just trying to be your best self requires a series of course corrections. If you have no backup plan in mind when you do something risky, you make it that much harder to get up when you fall. And you will fall. If you’re pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, you will fall at some point.

 

 

What brings this up? Running a Kickstarter campaign has put me in touch with a lot of others doing the same thing. I’ve met people who have quit their jobs to run campaigns. I’ve met people who have their heart set on one particular game. I’ve met people who have sunk tens of thousands of dollars into games instead of putting money into their retirement accounts.

For those of you who read my blog looking for a place to get started, I have some advice for you. This will help you to have a backup plan in case things don’t go how you want them to:

  • Never spend more money than you’re willing to lose.
  • Never get your heart set on one game. (I was guilty of this in 2016.)
  • Always have another design.
  • Keep your day job. (Jamey Stegmaier said it too.)

 

Let me tell you some things about my personal situation that might help you understand how I’m approaching the board game industry.

I work a full-time job. I will not quit that until board games make more cash than that job. That’s going to take some serious cash, because I work in IT and I have an MBA. I require the ability to pay bills, save aggressively for retirement, and keep a healthcare plan. This is just straight-up reality of living.

I don’t write this blog to promise you a million dollars or whatever. That’s just nonsense. I write this blog to capture the moment. I feel like a lot of people just need someone two years ahead of them in what they’re trying to do. That’s what I’m trying to with the board game industry. That’s why most of my tutorials are for really specific subjects too.

I have multiple designs in mind if Highways & Byways bombs on Kickstarter. On top of that, I’ve got a pretty extensive network behind the scenes through my Discord server. I can collaborate with others far, far more easily than I could at the start of the Highways & Byways development process.

The amount of money I spend on my retirement account outpaces the amount of money I spend on board games by a factor of 3 to 1. This will not change until Pangea Games starts making returns that exceed the returns I get from a Vanguard index fund.

 

Don’t fall for the cutesy crap online that tells you all you need is passion and commitment. You need to be smart about your approach to your projects, too. You need to have a Plan B.

I believe whole-heartedly that you can make a living making board games. I believe whole-heartedly that you can do creative things, have fun, and make a life out of it. I believe it’s a repeatable process, too. I believe you don’t have to be some incredibly rare sort of person. I believe that most people who try for long enough can make it work. It just takes a lot of time, a lot of dedication, and the ability to change as needed.

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

 

The Raw Emotional Reality of a Kickstarter Launch

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Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & BywaysJust here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here.

 


 

Launching a board game on Kickstarter is an extremely nerve-wracking experience. So much so that a working title for this post was “Kickstarter Launches are Decadent and Depraved” – I was going to write it in gonzo style. However, I think it’s better to write openly and directly about what is one of the scariest thing creators can encounter: Kickstarter launches.

 

 

When you launch a campaign on Kickstarter, the specter of failure hangs over the whole thing from the beginning. It is very possible to fail, especially when you’re new. It is very possible to fail, especially if your game doesn’t fit into the small box game or heavy-with-minis molds. It is very possible to fail no matter how big your audience is. Things happen and you, being an intelligent, thoughtful person, know that when your finger is hovering over the button. You know that when you’re trying to sleep the night before (or the month before). It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.

Immediately after your launch, you’ll need to do a bunch of things in rapid succession. I talked about that last week. What I didn’t mention is that you’ll be exhausted, afraid, frightened, excited, and ecstatic all at once while doing 20 different things in rapid succession. Odds are, you’ll get a ton of attention. (If you don’t, that’s a pretty big warning sign.) This is an exhilarating, terrifying rush.

All of this so far makes Kickstarter launches sound like hell. That’s not far from the truth, but that’s not quite right. Kickstarter is a lot of fun. Even if you don’t meet your goal, it’s fairly likely that with a good marketing system, you’ll surge to 10% or 20% early on. It’s a massive ego boost to raise hundreds or thousands so quickly. You get to feel like a rockstar, and that’s an amazing feeling.

From my observations, the most successful Kickstarters tend to raise around half their funds on the first day. There’s a lot of variance, but this is a fairly reliable heuristic. It’s easy to get caught up in the exciting emotionalism of the launch day. The reality is that the most important lessons for you to learn will come between day 2 and day 7. That’s when you know if your conversion rate is low or high. That’s when you know if your pitch is good or bad. That’s when you know if your game idea has been validated by the market or rejected wholesale.

What does all this mean for the game dev? It means you wait. You wait and wait and wait. There are limits to the number of subreddits you can post to, late press releases to send, Facebook groups to post to, and so on. You’ll have to respond to messages throughout the day, but there is a new question for you to answer: “watch the campaign or do something else?” Neither is the wrong answer as long as you check in every hour or so.* You have to do what’s healthy for you.

*All bets are off if you are tracking for a $100,000+ campaign. At that point, you need to either watch it off and on all day or find someone to help you.

 

 

That’s the key word: healthy. You will have to get your work done for sure, but there will be limits to how much you can push. What comes next is a very personal question: “do I want to watch it every moment or let it passively continue with some consistent upkeep?” After I launched the Highways & Byways campaign, initiated the launch sequence, and posted to some Facebook groups and parts of BGG, I got up to mow the grass. I checked my phone every few minutes and the campaign was chugging along nicely without my constant vigilance. It was a relief, but to many others, it would be a nightmare to be away from the campaign for so long.

Kickstarter launches are pleasure and pain rolled into one. They come with a massive amount of life experiences crammed into a very short period of time. It can be a lot of fun! It’s also okay if you find it miserable, frustrating, frightening, disappointing, discouraging, infuriating, or depressing. We all react differently to this level of visibility and many among us are big-time dreamers working on passion projects, myself included. No emotional response is wrong. No emotional response is bad unless it causes you to harm yourself or others.

To all my creative souls out there, all the dreamers and doers, this is what I say to you in the heat of a big, scary moment like a Kickstarter launch:

  • I hope you make it. I really do.
  • It’s okay if you don’t.
  • It’s okay to feel bad on your big day.
  • It’s definitely okay to feel good on your big day.
  • Win or lose, you’re one step closer to success.
  • If you win, that is amazing! But don’t get complacent.
  • If you lose, you can always pivot.

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates