65% of campaigns on Kickstarter fail. That means that only 1 in 3 projects on Kickstarter succeed. It is only fitting then that it took Sky Kingdom Games three tries to finally find success. Misjudged funding goals, unclear branding, and poor component quality had sunk their first two attempts. Not easily dissuaded, the SKG team regrouped and tried again. Through determination, community engagement, malleability, and careful pivoting, the SKG team was able to hit and surpass their crowd funding goals.
SKG’s tenacity and community engagement has led to a well designed final product, one that we were happy to back. This blog, however, is going to focus less on that final product (you can see a review here), and more on the journey the team took. That is because the evolution of the game over three separate campaigns is filled with lessons for any crowdfunder or game designer.
Therefore, we are going to delve into how the game, the branding, and the marketing changed over the three campaigns to finally meet success. This will allow us to see that having a great idea is not enough. Instead, it comes down to how one combines that great idea with hard work, tenacity, and growth to execute and succeed in the crowd funding world.
The First Chapter: The Erosion of Trust in Crowdfunders
The Stonebound Saga began its crowdfunding life as the Land of Zion. In this initial form it was marketed as a collectible card/board game. Instead of receiving a complete game, backers would get a base game plus randomized packs of character cards. Then, after the campaign, backers would be able to purchase additional booster packs to augment their game (similar to card games like Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering).
Unfortunately, this format was widely unappealing to backers, whose trust in campaigns has dwindled since the dawn of crowdfunding platforms. After the collapse of several high profile campaigns, backers are now more discerning in where they put their backer dollars than ever. This shift towards backer caution resulted in SKG only managing to raise $4,082 of their $111,000 goal. It was clear that randomized booster packs and an incomplete game were non-starters for backers. A review of the comments on the project page drives it home, with backers hesitating because of a lack of knowledge about the game’s future beyond the campaign and the unknown possibility of continued support for access to cards.
A couple of other missteps also compounded the booster pack error. First, the funding goal was unreasonably high. It is usually a stronger play to set the funding goal lower so you can hit it and benefit from additional marketing, buzz, and placement on the Kickstarter homepage. While not always the correct decision, for a small, startup board game company from Illinois it surely would have been.
Also missing were reviews, play through videos, and other media material from trusted sources in the board game community. While the team provided images of play testing, this pales in comparison to independent playthroughs and reviews in video and written formats.
This all led to the campaign being quickly cancelled, which could have easily been the end of the of story. However, the team responded to adversity by listening to comments and engaging with backers. In an open letter, they declared that they would be back, with no randomization and with a more reasonable funding goal.
The Second Chapter: All in a Name
The second rendition of the game did away with booster packs altogether, opting for a living, expandable card game (ECG) format like Netrunner. In taking away the randomization the team moved toward solving a critical issue: backer trust. Furthermore, they came back with video reviews, previews, and a live stream, which is exactly what any board game crowdfund campaign must have to stand a chance. Unfortunately, the project still failed, with a total raise of only $35,707 out of a $55,000 goal. While it was a huge improvement, it wasn’t enough. So what went wrong this time?
First, while the ECG format did away with randomization it still contained a fatal flaw: the game was still marketed as an incomplete product that would require further purchases from backers to complete. Of course, what was actually being sold was a complete game that backers could improve and expand with later releases. Unfortunately, backers are already a suspicious bunch, and marketing the game as an ECG raised concerns of over promising and planted seeds of doubt over future support. With most backers concerned with even getting a finished product, the idea of continuous releases to complete the card collection kept enough backers away for the campaign to fail. Thus, even though one can perceive an ECG as a long term commitment to a project, and even though the base game was completely playable, the new format still created doubt for potential backers.
But they didn’t stop at just fixing past mistakes, they improved the offering completely. From a marketing perspective the SKG team increased the quality of their campaign page’s design and content. The circular layout and iconography of the game particularly stand out, which is part of a clean and crisp presentation of the game rather than the previous images that looked sloppy and felt rushed. For many campaigns, including the Stonebound Saga, the quality of marketing materials is the line that separates failure from success.
What took this campaign from just being successful to blowing past their goal was the drastic improvement in marketing materials and game component quality. While the game didn’t mechanically change, the team used new images, GIFs, and videos to show off the game in its best light. The master stroke, however, was the change from character sheets to character dashboards. The move from a pen and paper system to a permanent board and tracker system created better visuals and marketability, increased the perceived value of the game, and gave the game an air of seriousness and permanence, which all helped convince backers that the game is worth the price tag and crowdfunding risk.
The Take Aways
In order to be successful in crowdfunding you have to inspire backers to trust in your brand and believe in the product. This means you have to build a community, show your backers that the product is valuable, and convince your backers that the risk is worth it. This often means providing something that is either novel or of high perceived value (or both). For the SKG team, the quality of the game was always there, but it took three attempts to perfect the messaging and finer details of their campaign just right.
What we can take away from this tale is not only the lessons of how to engage one’s backers, build a clear brand, and build backer trust. We can also learn that failure is not the end, but rather a stop (or a few stops) along the road to success.