Why the Highways & Byways Kickstarter Campaign Crashed & Burned

Posted on Posted in Dev Diary

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.

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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 🙂

48 thoughts on “Why the Highways & Byways Kickstarter Campaign Crashed & Burned

  1. Posts like this are 100x more valuable then success stories. Thank you so much for taking an honest and frank look at what happened with H&B. I’m glad that you have a solid business plan going forward and I’m excited to see what you do next. You’re a good person. I’ll gladly help you succeed where I can.

    1. Hey Mike, thank you for the kind words! I agree with you that people should be reading both failure and success stories. They give you a much more complete picture of what goes into the process. Here’s hoping for a bright future and something for you to play-test soon!

    1. Hey, Andrew, thank you! I’m thinking this particular campaign is going to be a big formative lesson simply because it taught me a *critical* part of business I never learned with War Co.

      I feel good about the future 🙂

  2. Wow!
    Your “post-mortem” analysis of this process sounds like it would’ve made an excellent MBA thesis. As a total outsider when it comes to this type of process, it’s a fascinating insight into what all goes into a game from initial concept to finished product.

    1. Hey, Patrick, thank you! It’s funny you say that about the MBA thesis, because I actually earned an MBA a little over three years ago. This is a pretty common exercise in educational programs like that, and a critical one.

      This industry goes really deep, and I’m hoping that even in failure I can lay bare all the processes that go into building a complete product.

  3. Hey man. It is a shame Highways and byways did not succeed.
    I did not get to play it, but count me in if you do a limited print run.

    And as always, thank you for your great contributions to the Gamedev community.

    1. Thanks, Emilio! I’m still running some numbers on a limited run of Byways, and I’d love to be able to print even 50 copies if for my friends, family, and the most enthusiastic backers.

      I’m glad to be able to contribute to the game dev community. It’s so lively and creative. It’s very exciting to be a part of!

  4. Looking at your Kickstarter, I think you missed a lot of KS best practices. I don’t see a physical product on there- unless the design and artwork make it look digital. Also, I don’t see a first image of the game with all components. Not focusing on Facebook was another major issue. A lot of indie designers find a majority of their backers come from Facebook. Don’t rely on your subscribers here. You need subscribers specifically for Highways and Byways only. Lastly, the game looks like a lot of other “train” type games out there and I think that may have made it miss it’s mark.

    Good luck on future products.

  5. This is one of the best written pieces on game design I’ve read. Your insight is both enlightening and well reasoned. I’ve reexamined some of my past business struggles in light of it. Thank you.

  6. Brandon, thank you so much for writing this. It’s incredibly valuable for us newbies that are aiming to go through the same endeavors as yourself. It’s because of people like you this community is so amazing.

    I am curious: have you ever considered (or gone through) the process of pitching H&B to publishers?

    1. Thank you! I hope this post helps – sometimes diagnosing failure can be more useful than reverse engineering success.

      I haven’t considered pitching H&B to publishers. That’s mainly because I enjoy the publishing aspects of game development more than the design aspects.

  7. Thanks for the insights. Have you thought of a popular/interesting (to the public) theme to re-theme Highways & Byways with? If not are you going to try to think of 1?

    Something similar happened to me before. Now I only start a game after I have polled the theme online and on the streets (at board game places). I think of 2 themes that could work for my game idea and count all the votes. Kill the loser. I also note which theme people get really excited about. If the results are very close then the 1 people are passionate about wins. If people are not passionate about either 1, I kill both of them 🙂

    1. Hi, Gerald! I’ve thought about retheming Byways, but for now, I’m aiming more for making a different game entirely with collaborators.

      I love your method for validating ideas. It’s smart A/B testing and saves a lot of time and effort by getting rid of ideas that simply won’t work. This has become a part of my new process and will continue to be in the future 🙂

  8. If I might take a more direct route with my comments, it seems there were many hazards with the campaign. Much of it wasn’t nearly as scenic as maybe it could have been with this theme. But those problems should have been no more than a speed bump on your way to a green light.

    But in my opinion the single the biggest roadblock to your campaign is the price point. I think it was far more damaging than your game’s detour away from what Kickstarter backers want (or think they want).

    I assume the cost quotes to make the game were driving the astronomical price. I’d advise more haggling or at least shopping around. I assume your quote came from Print Ninja (who you used for War Co) who can be excellent for card games, but I’d really slam on the brakes before using them for larger games.

    Hopefully with this experience in the rear view, you’ll be primed for success in the future. You appear to be a talented game designer – and I believe you’ll be able to successfully shift gears. Just watch the price… you’ve got a great road map already to follow.

    1. Hey, Bryn, love the car-themed feedback! I agree with you on price being a pretty big problem. Though I wasn’t basing my prices on Print Ninja (which is astronomical for board games), the component costs were definitely driving the $49 asking price, which was too high.

  9. Bravely said, Brandon. Thanks for the honest evaluation. I have been thinking I don’t need to read this blog anymore, but this is genuinely new and compelling content. I will stay.

    1. Hi Carlie, thank you very much! Glad you like this post. I’m working hard to document the whole process – both the pretty and the ugly parts. I think failure recovery is a big part of long-term success 🙂

  10. Really great post, I was directed here from a Stonemaier blog post. As people have said in earlier comments, its important to read about project that have had success and project that have failed. This is in no way a failure though, you’ve turned it into a positive learning experience for not only yourself, but for many others. There is no doubt in my mind that we will see more games from you. Great post.

    1. Hi, Matthew, thank you for visiting! I was really, really excited to see Jamey’s blog link this post. That was unreal 🙂

      You’re right that it’s important to read about failure and success. I feel like there is a great need for people to document their whole journey in business / game development from the very beginning – ups and downs. I’m trying to fill that need!

      I’m hoping something good will come out of it. I’m actually working on a new game called Yesterday’s War now with a friend of mine who’s a very talented designer. Thank you!

  11. Hi Brandon, I mentioned this on Facebook but thought it was worth including here too:

    “I have a ton of games that were passed on, rejected. You’re always going to make games that you like but that people are passing on. It’s always going to be a sales business. For every game I get to market, I probably have two that don’t get to market because no one wants it or it wasn’t a good idea. So, it’s not easy, and don’t get discouraged. You know, if you’re like ‘Wow, no one bought this,’ it’s like, yeah, no one bought it. Yeah, that happens.”

    — Rob Daviau. Rob is my favorite designer in the industry, including titles like Pandemic Legacy, Heroscape, and Star Wars Epic Duels. I interviewed him in February 2018 about SWED, and considering the game has been out of print for 15 years, he’s a kind and generous person as well.


    1. Hi Kevin!

      I’ve thought about that, and to be honest, I could see some variant of Byways as it is now working for, say, an educational or a tourist gift shop kind of crowd. The basic mechanics work and people enjoy them.

      As for retooling the game’s theme and mechanics, I may do that someday. Just comes down to how it works in relation to other projects 🙂

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