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.
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 🙂