Sunday, December 04, 2011

My campaign against Exclusive Game Content

Kickstarter has been around for a while now, and it's use as a platform for funding board game projects has grown in popularity and exposure, leading to record levels of funding. Last year, Tasty Minstrel Games raised over $48,000 on Kickstarter to publish my game Eminent Domain. About a month ago, Richard Bliss (who follow this stuff closely and reports on it in his Game Whisperer podcast and on reported that Kickstarter had raised $1.1 million for board and card game projects so far this year, and that amount has only increased from there. A project called D-Day Dice (a cooperative dice game) has raised over $114,000 all by itself.

Chris Shreiber has started a series of LESSONS LEARNED threads in the Kickstarter guild at BGG. Each thread intends to cover some aspect of running a Kickstarter project, with the goal to be an overall improvement in how the KS process benefits the gaming community as a whole, so that everyone (project authors and backers) get more out of it.

In one of those threads Chris requested suggestions for Card & Board Game relevant reward levels. In that thread I posted a request to future authors of Kickstarter game projects. My request is that authors avoid using exclusive game content to entice people to back the project. I then cross posted that request into a thread specifically about exclusive offers and stretch goals, and it generated some response and discussion.

Here is the request, copied verbatim from those threads:

There is a very strong incentive that has thus far worked well in soliciting pledges that I would like to address: Exclusive game content. I implore all publishers (established, first-timers, and self-publishers alike) to please consider NOT including exclusive game content as an incentive to pledge support for a game! Because I feel this is a very important point, I'll say it again, succinctly and in bold type:

Please do not use exclusive game content to solicit pledges.

Here are some reasons why, as well as some alternatives that I think ought to work just as well:

* First and foremost, everyone who buys the game is a supporter, not just the Kickstarters. That is super important, so here it is again...

Everyone who buys the game is a supporter, not just the Kickstarters.

Unless you are only going to produce just enough copies of the game to satisfy kickstarter orders and no more (this is not common), then the number of Kickstater supporters is very small compared to the total number of supporters the game will see over it's lifetime. For the thousands of people who find out about the game AFTER the Kickstarter campaign, it totally sucks that they cannot have the entire game experience, or that they have to scour eBay and pay extra for the right to do so. Some players are so turned off by not being allowed access to the entire game they won't bother to play it in the first place.

* When there exist different versions of a game, it creates confusion in the marketplace. Right now there is the possibility of a game store stocking 2 copies of Eminent Domain side by side, one from the initial print run with Bonus Planets included and one from the 2nd run without them. This is very unfortunate, and I wish it were not the case. With any exclusive content, buying or trading for any game on the used market is suddenly complicated. Does it have the exclusive content? Is it therefore worth more?

* When 1 group has content that another group does not, then the 2 groups aren't even playing the same game! It becomes difficult or impossible for players to compare game experiences from 2 separate sessions (for those that care to do so), and it can be very disappointing when a player is in a new area and sits down to play a familiar game only to find it's not the same game he expects because there's exclusive content.

In my opinion, exclusive game content is bad for hobby gaming as a whole. While offering it as an incentive to pledge will excite a handful of people, it will disappoint a far larger (and ever growing) number of fans of the game.

Alternatives to exclusive game content:
* Exclusive game pieces are something that people can get excited about, but that do not change the game itself. I personally think that any such upgraded component should probably just be made part of the print run rather than an exclusive, but this is at least an acceptable alternative to exclusive game content.

* Provide widely available (or to-be widely available) content for free to Kickstarters, while it will cost extra down the road. For example, if you have a mini expansion (or a full expansion) prepared, include it for free with Kickstarter orders, but make it available via BGG store, distribution, website sales, or whatever for a cost to those who do not kickstart the project.

* Provide increased production value for the entire print run, rather than only for the Kickstarters. I think this is a good use of Overfunding or Stretch Goals. Kickstarter orders will be upgraded, but so will all future copies of the game which will be on game store shelves. This is effectively just restating the whole purpose of using Kickstarter in the first place. Nobody says "if we reach our funding goal, we will ONLY provide games to our Kickstarter supporters" - instead it's "If we reach our funding goal we'll print X,000 copies of the game" - so obviously there's no exclusivity there. I believe the stretch goals should work the same way: "If we reach X additional funding, we will print X,000 copies of the upgraded version of the game."

* Guarantee early delivery. This can be tricky because of the vagaries of production and shipping timelines, but if you can manage it then it allows Kickstarter supporters the opportunity to both be the first on the block to play the new hotness, as well as trade or sell it if they find it's not to their liking (or if they got multiple copies) before the game hits the shelves. Some Kickstarter supporters are in it to speculate, and this gives them the opportunity to do so without having to disappoint all future fans of the game.

* Offer significant discounts to Kickstarters (akin to large pre-order discounts you would normally see from publishers who have pre-order promotions). Kickstarter is essentially a pre-order system, so it should work like one. This in combination with the previous bullet point increases the value of speculation for those supporters for whom that's important.

I hope that future Kickstarter publishers will consider this. I know it's a hard sell considering how well exclusive game content seems to work as an incentive to pledge. However, I suspect that the main reason most people pledge is NOT just to get exclusive game content. I think most of the supporters will still support without exclusive game content, provided there are attractive reward levels - and my list above is NOT exhaustive, I'm sure there are more ways to entice support!


Jay Cormier said...

I fully agree with what you're saying Seth. For sure supporters should be rewarded for supporting - but it shouldn't impact the game play. Expansions and whatnot are cool - but not if they're exclusive. What if 2 years after it's released, someone stumbles upon the game and really likes it - and then finds out there's all these other expansions out there - but they can never see or play them? Kind of frustrating. But better components or packaging, exclusive art or earlier delivery are all cool things for rewards, IMO.

Jeff said...

I don't know Seth, I don't think exclusive content is really anything new -- companies have been releasing promotional items, limited editions, special mini-expansions, etc, for quite a while (cf the Hill Giant, the Carriage, the Vatican, etc, etc, etc). Do you think it's a problem that's fundamental or just one that becomes problematic when used with a KS campaign?

I guess I'm not enough of a "completist" to really be sufficiently aware of this, or maybe it's that I'm content to settle for the base game and not worry that much about bells and whistles. I ordered the (free) Vatican expansion for Web of Power, and didn't order the Carriage for Mr. Jack and never really felt like I missed out.

One possibly satisfactory solution might be to have exclusive content be easily mock-able by players; eg if it's just a pawn and some special rules, you can make your own version of the expansion and play with it even if you don't have the "official" version of the promo item.

Seth Jaffee said...

@Jeff: I think the fact that Kickstarter projects seem to be proliferating Exclusive Game Content, the "problem" I see with it is amplified. That EGC seems to attract a lot of funding will only amplify that.