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The Misadventures of Redbeard

Read about the process of building a game company from the ground up.

Boston FIG Post Mortem

If you've been following this blog and the kickstarter, you'll know all the background stuff. Skip it.

Background

Moriarty's Machinations is a hidden roles tabletop game. I won't go into all the details, because you can find the full rules here. I developed the game because I felt the all the existing games in the hidden roles genre that I knew of had serious flaws. I wanted to take the best thing about all of them, and put them all into one streamlined game. Essentially, bottle the essence of what a hidden roles game is about: figuring out who has each role. Every game needs a theme, and after brainstorming through several ideas it occurred to me. This genre (if done right) is all about deduction and observation. Why isn't there a hidden roles game about Sherlock Holmes?! I polished the design over six months and set to work getting the art, layout, manufacturing all set up. That was last February. Fast forward several months of boring business stuff and small tweaks.

Boston FIG Submission

As I said in this post, the rules were done and the art was almost finalized (well I did make one change the 5 player game afterwards). Therefore, I was pretty confident of making the cut in the submission process. I was still really nervous though because despite the fact that all the organizers of BFIG are incredibly friendly, trying their hardest to be transparent, and 100% volunteers, the whole submission process is incredibly opaque and a bit disorganized. This year the organizer of the tabletop curation decided to withhold feedback on the games until 5 days before the festival! This actually was a conscious decision, not just ran-out-of-time. That leaves no time to adjust rules if anything was found to be amiss (much less print out new copies if needed), and the designers weren't told that it would be so close to submission. Needless to say I very much disagree with that decision, but I didn't volunteer all those hours to run a festival so it wasn't my call. I was shocked when I didn't get any negative feedback, as I generally expect (and paradoxically hope for) when I get people to play a new game. The feedback in its entirety is below, including typos.

  • "Could be a BFIG winner

  • We wanted to play again as soon as we were done. I want to play right now.

  • A werewolf/mafia clone but actually a game.

  • Very little [downtime[. You can get clues especially when you aren't involved.

  • Each round is about uncovering more info. Cuts down on predictability naturally.

  • Great appeal. Werewolf has great appeal and Sherlock Holmes is hot right now so very smart.

  • Consider a print and play version to build audience quickly.

  • Perfectly fair. Very well balanced.

  • Instructions take a bit to get through but as soon as you do they make perfect sense and you can explain it to new players just fine.

  • I love it. It's great. Get this game out there so we can start playing it now. We had very little to offer in terms of improvements or fixes. BSB seems complete and balanced."

 - Note that the game was called Baker Street Heists at the time (before I discovered a trademark issue), hence BSB (which really should be BSH).

So thankfully there weren't any major issues. I didn't think there were because I did excruciatingly thorough playtesting before even submitting to BFIG, with friends, strangers, and folks from the Game Maker's Guild. I know that other developers got quite different feedback, and they even sent a form apologizing for the harshness of some of the feedback they were giving, but I'm including the above for transparency, and I invite other indie devs to post their feedback as well.

Prototypes

Art finished up, and I ordered prototypes from The Game Crafter, which I actually highly recommend for prototypes, but would not endorse for a finished game. The prototypes I have are already starting to wear, and the same is true for games that other developers have made with them. My game is pretty much just cards, and they bend permanently quite easily. That being said, a two week turnaround time (at least at the time I ordered) for a professional (looking) copy of your own game? That's as good as it gets. The price is pretty decent too, but waaaaay too expensive for more than a handful of copies. Would buy again. :)

The Festival

Here's what I did for the festival, and frankly I think it stood out: Costumes, Shinys/Giveaways, Call to Action Signs, Satelite Tables, Business Cards, Speech, Call to Action Closer. I'll cover each in detail below.

Costumes

Gosia (who did all the art for the game) is a professional seamstress. She actually modeled Irene Adler off of a dress that she made. She helped me pick out all the pieces for a Professor Moriarty costume from The Garment District, including alterations. It's a discount clothing/costume shop, and in my opinion the best in Boston. I go there for all my costumes. The costumes really stood out, and only one other booth went all out with them like we did, and that was for Killer Croquet. Here's an image of us after the show.

Shinys/Giveaways

For the booth itself we got a HUGE pile of (plastic) gems to look fancy. It made a really nice touch and I got lots of compliments. It was really cheap from Michaels too. Throughout the day I gave away little clear "diamonds" to those who played the game. Most people appreciated it and thought it was neat. I don't have hard data, but I don't think that made any difference at all in terms of people backing the kickstarter. I was just going to throw them out after the festival, so why not? :) I got a clean red silk sheet from my bedroom in lieu of a tablecloth (which are surprisingly expensive) to complete the elegance. You can see the table below.

Call to Action Signs

I had signs made by my friend at Fedex Office TheJaakal. They looked super sweet, but I forgot to get a pic of them on the booth. You can see the sign below, but its only purpose was to get people to vote for the game. Well, and look snazzy.

I also had signs for the kickstarter.

Satelite Tables

This was actually pretty huge, and a last minute addition to the booth. Have you gone to a convention and had a tough time just trying to get a business card? The reason is because you have to crowd into a tiny table to find the one stack of cards that everyone else is trying to grab too. How about some small tables a little further out to allow people to grab something without having to fight their way in? I didn't come up with the idea myself, as I picked it up from another indie dev (the Henchmen booth). I stepped it up by having two though cause I like going all in. ;) It worked out amazingly well. Never do a convention without it. That leads to...

Business Cards

I had business cards to hand out. One side had a kickstarter mention (as well as contact info), and the other side had a link to the website. People grabbed a couple hundred, but the conversion rate is really small. That being said, it appears to be higher than email marketing (where I got a 1% conversion rate from so called "qualified leads"). I handed one to everyone who played the game, as well as a bunch of people who didn't get a chance.

Speech

The first part of the game involves a speech that is very audience catching. Not sure how reproducible it is for other games. The important bit is that every time I spoke to the players, either to teach the game or to read the speech, I spoke as loudly and clearly as I could without yelling. It drew a crowd almost every time. I want to apologize to my booth neighbors for that now. :(

Call to Action Closer

This is the most important thing I did. Every single game, I made sure to ask all my players to do two things: back the game on kickstarter and vote for Best Game at BFIG. My scouts tell me that no one else was doing this. I personally observe that the biggest weakness of indie devs is the failure to ask people to support you. I personally feel it's very awkward, as by day I do engineering, not sales. It's incredibly demotivating when people nod and say they will, and then don't. I can say from personal experience that if you ask a stranger to support you, they probably won't. But if you don't ask someone to support you, they definitely won't. It also has to be something specific and small, like voting for you at BFIG, or shelling out $19 for your game.

Data! (Including BFIG Kickstarters)

Here's a chart that shows how many backers each BFIG game on kickstarter got (3 tabletop and 4 digital). The date range is from September 1st to September 24th. Boston FIG was on September 13th. Keep in mind that these results are NOT statistically significant. There are nowhere near enough datapoints available.

A naive guess would predict that doing a big convention would give a huge boost in backers. As you can see, it does not. There is definitely a tiny boost for most games, as well as a very small trickle over the next week. The blue line launched a few days before, and thus what looks like a terrible drop is actually normal for the 3rd day. The one game that did get a big boost was Producer. That game has 84 backers at present, and got 14 of those on the day of BFIG. It is being marketed as Kickstarter ONLY, which I'm sure has helped. That proves it is possible to get a boost if you focus on it, but mere exposure does not mean tons more backers.

I've also included a table showing which days of the week have performed best for these kickstarters. Remember, it is NOT statistically significant data, so don't think this applies to all kickstarters. As shown, BFIG was pretty much a typical Saturday as far as backers go.

Results and Lessons Learned

So how successful was I? In my opinion: Mixed.

  • The Good: I won the Best Game Figgie. You can see it in the costumes picture above. Yay! That allows me to talk to press and have an authoritative review of the game for the kickstarter. This is a big deal. Getting the first authoritative review is REALLY HARD!
  • The Bad: Out of the approximately 150 who played the game, 90% seemed really excited. A significant percent (let's call it a third) said yes they were definitely going to back the game. There were probably a bit shy of a hundred more people who looked interested and picked up a card, but didn't get to play. I estimate that I got about 20 backers directly out of BFIG (based on when backers supported and where they are located). In terms of dollars spent on BFIG vs revenue generated, it's about break even. This was completely unexpected. I really thought that BFIG was going to be the biggest boost of the kickstarter campaign. It wasn't.

Winning the "Best Game" Figgie is by no mean the same thing as success. It just means that's who focused on it most. As far as tabletop games at BFIG, the most financially successful game in the showcase would be "Alchemy!". The game that won last year (Ore), hasn't been published yet.

Would I do anything differently if I could go back? I would talk to more press ahead of time and schedule some interviews. The players at the convention really aren't ideal customers for kickstarters. I'm sure a HUGE number of them would have wanted to buy the game right there (and lots asked), but that's not how kickstarter works. I don't think I would have focused so much attention on BFIG unless I had a physical product to sell right there.

Followup

Let me know if you have any questions about this, or if there was anything crucial that I left out. As always, you can reach me at redbeard@duadikos.com

-Redbeard