How to Diagnose Failure & Move Forward as a Board Game Developer

Posted on Posted in Start to Finish

This is part one of four in the Failure Recovery series in Start to Finish: Publish and Sell Your First Board Game. I didn’t intend to create a series on failure recovery when I created Start to Finish, but after the failure of my Highways & Byways Kickstarter campaign in April, I believe it to be necessary. Let’s be real: life doesn’t go from point A to point B like you think it will. Understanding that and moving forward are critical to your success.

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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.

Categorizing Failure

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:

Game Development 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. If not, scrap or refine your ideas.

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. Usually, this involves hiring a freelance artist and providing them with detailed specifications on what to create.

Marketing & Logistics Sub-Processes

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.

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”?

Where to Start…?

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. Likewise, 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. 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.

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