OGRE SIX and transferring publishing risk onto consumers: the other side of Kickstarter

I recently backed my first two projects in Kickstarter, both of which made their modest funding goals with ease. One was a return of a RPG from my younger days in a new media format of tablet and PC computing, another was a tablet based wargame by a very well known designer. As you might have picked up on if you’ve read this blog at all, I’m bullish on the idea of supporting wargames on the IoS platform.. or really any tablet. I donated ten bucks for both, I believe, and for that, I’ll be getting a copy of the games when they are available for the Ipad. You’ll note that ten bucks is a price point I would deem “pretty high” for getting an Ipad game. It is, by the standards of the marketplace. The highest price I’ve paid for an Ipad game was, I think 6.99 at first (since risen to 9.99).

Screen slice from upcoming Bulge game of interest

One could make a case that I’m paying for the opportunity of getting games produced that otherwise would never see the light of day. In essence, I’ve assumed a large portion of the producer’s financial risk by donating my funds instead of the producer’s. In the old days, producers took all the risks– in the case of games, the creator would approach them with a design, they would make a judgement call that it is or isn’t marketable, and they would decide whether to produce product. Traditionally, the publisher rolled the dice, funded the project himself and dealt with the myriad problems of distribution, inventory and sales himself. If a product tanked, he took a bath. If a product took off, he immediately started working on how to maximize his success. From start to finish, the producer was the entity involved in the management of risk.  In an nutshell, that’s free market capitalism for you.

Things started to change (as far as game publishing goes) with the advent of the P500 system, started by GMT games back in the 1990s, when they were facing extinction from taking too much risk, and were drowning in excess inventory from unsold games that got produced as a result of guessing wrong.  Sigh, how well I remember the great old GMT fire sales of those days!  Suddenly, consumers had a direct say in what they would or would not support financially– you could sign up to pay for product x, y and z but not a, b and c… and if enough people voted for x, y and z and provided a credit card number, x, y and z (or some variation of x, y, z, a, b and c) would get made. You’d buy what you want, productions runs are lower, costs are contained somewhat, no giant inventories languishing in warehouses, costing the producer money.  P500 works, more or less, as a gauge of what the customers in a niche group willing to pay for wargames will fund for publication. It is a flat fee arrangement, e.g., “this game is described thusly and will cost fifty bucks. Interested? We’ll charge you fifty bucks when it’s ready and ship it to you”.. there, I’ve just encapsulated the GMT method in one sentence. P500 has proven to be a good model, and many publishers of games have adopted it;  it’s solid, and it is directly related to crowd-sourced funding.

Crowd-sourced funding are projects that get made with small donations, usually handled with paypal and credit cards, as a financial guarantor that a project will proceed after a certain threshold is met. This is the genesis of the Kickstarter idea.  The basic threshold level is (reputedly) the amount of money to make the thing itself; to get it done. That would mean a copy of the thing, itself, one would think, but nooo…. There are levels of donations, and sometimes, you are encouraged to donate even if you’re not going to get the thing. You know, the publication being funded? Often, you can just donate because an idea is cool and you want someone to get ahead in this world, or maybe, be listed as a “friend” of the project… Wow, a block game of the War of the Triple Alliance? I’ll never play it, but dang it, here’s a buck! I’ll never understand the motivation behind that kind of donation– this is capitalism, folks, not charity. Don’t think that your donation means much more to a publisher than “a bundle of free money”.  I respect people who are willing to donate a minimal amount of money just to be listed as a “friend” somewhere, I really do, but that and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee at McDonald’s.. oh, that’s right, you won’t have your dollar, you just gave it to Kickstarter.

Kickstarter has proven to be a very decent entre into publishing for extremely small companies with great designs but no avenues for publishing them.  2010’s Alien Frontiers was the great Kickstarter success story, bringing a fantastic worker placement game with a hip retro look and feel to the market, and it was snapped up so fast it has gone through a major reprint already (or was it two reprints?).   There have been many boardgame proposals in the Kickstarter process since then, but none of them have repeated the success of Alien Frontiers.  Still, it was an example that opened the floodgates for many people with big ideas and very little money to push their pet projects.  Some are good, some are bad, and some just downright silly, but wow, I’d like to see it in print…  Around 2011, we started to see a new trend with the Kickstarter approach.  Now, larger, more established companies like Lock and Load Games and Collins Epic Wargames (and others) were transfering financial risk to Kickstarter and moving away from the P500 idea.  For a niche hobby like boardgames, and especially for the narrower niche of board wargaming, this has proved to be a pretty good idea, by and large.  Small projects get funded, at at least the minimal level needed to get product out on the street.

C’mon Distributors! Won’t you bite on my coffee table game?

About a year ago, Steve Jackson Games put out a feeler to distributors about their giant megalith sized version of OGRE that they had in the planning stages. The initial wording of the press announcement was definitely worded as a message from Steve Jackson to the principle hobby distributors (left). It’s going to be large, he said. It will be expensive. I’m not going to print many of them. Are you interested? And not much of this project was heard from for about a year, until recently. So I guess the distributors weren’t much interested in a boardgame that came in a box the size of a small coffee table, being essentially a reprint of a 2.95 ziploc from 1978 with giant cardboard constructable pieces. Don’t get me wrong. Then, as now, I’m very impressed with the graphic redesign of OGRE VERSION SIX. It’s huge, it’s impressive, it shows a real artistic touch. And it’s a hundred dollars. I’ve already made the decision about this. I won’t be pre-ordering it, because, frankly, it’s not at all different mechanically from that 6 dollar purchase of OGRE and GEV ziplocs I made all those years ago– it’s not going to play one whit differently. If I’m not going to get giant plastic OGRES, what the hell do I want to spend a hundred bucks on? A game that won’t fit anywhere on my bookshelf? No thanks. I’d love to see this one played, though. Wow, it’s just beautiful eye candy. As I said then, and results have verified (as we are about to discuss) the idea that there are plenty of people who will buy this thing, just not me. Really, this post isn’t about what I will or won’t buy, anyway. It’s about Kickstarter, and risk avoidance.

In the interregnum between last year’s announcement and now, Steve Jackson must have decided that he wouldn’t wait on hobby distributors (such as there are, any more) to make up his mind for him. He took his case for a giant sized OGRE SIX directly to the people, and made a Kickstarter pitch. And did it pay off for him in spades!  The initial funding level to make the thing happen was respectable. Steve Jackson Games announced that it would be accepting Kickstarter donations on 11 April. The initial funding level, you know, to actually make the big thing become physical reality? That happened in a few hours. Literally. So, suddenly Steve Jackson now has a very finite idea that a sizable chunk of the public wants a coffee table sized game of OGRE, are willing to pony up 100 bucks for it, and are generally wanting more, more, MORE! That’s where things get a little hinky. What do you do when you so clearly exceed your modest first day’s funding level? You kick yourself for not asking for more!

Now if you don’t know how donation tiers work on Kickstarter, but it’s not hard to figure out. You pay a certain something, you get a certain something. Here’s the kicker, though– with a game that is $100, you have all these tiers under a hundred bucks that entitle to you to, well, no game at all but an assortment of sincere thank you’s that will be posted on websites, lapel pins, PDFs of the OGRE BOOK and OGRE MINIATURES (these already exist btw), t-shirts and other paraphernalia. All the way up to a donation of 75 dollars. Now why would anyone donate 75 dollars for a stinkin’ t-shirt and not donate 100 dollars and get the game? And yet, people have! You can even donate a dollar and get your name listed on a website. Those are the “kickbacks”. The other issue you need to look at are “funding levels”. This is what happens when the funds come in– what the publisher will do with them. For the most part, these are modest, as in my two examples above. However, when your project faces runaway enthusiasm.. suddenly you have tons of donations, far exceeding the initial (modest) goals… and that is exactly what happened with OGRE SIX, or OGRE DESIGNER’S EDITION, as it is now called. Suddenly, this thing wasn’t looking like a limited print run.

What exactly do you do when you wanted a measly 20K and you get above 600K? You start making decisions about your company’s future, because suddenly, you’re going to be due a giant wad of cash in tiny paypal increments, and there’s no plan on what to spend it on. For Steve Jackson Games, part of that extra cash would be spent on making an already high quality production even higher quality (and, by the by, MUCH heavier). Additional counter sheets were discussed. Adding cool new units were also discussed. After a point however, the infusion starts to bleed over into other projects:

$550,000 – GOAL ACHIEVED! – We will start interviewing for a full-time Ogre line editor in the Austin office, because it looks like this game is back for the long haul.

$575,000 – GOAL ACHIEVED! – We will put Ogre Miniatures, 2nd Edition on the schedule for late 2013, as both hardcopy and PDF. It will incorporate the material in the “update” PDF now available, as well as whatever gets developed as we work on Ogre over the next year. There will be new photos and new graphics. Good thing we will have a Line Editor!

They are even discussing an OGRE computer game, something SJG has resisted for years.  I’d buy that, for IoS at least.

Later, on the same page:

$700,000 – Drive Offensively! We will launch a Kickstarter project for Car Wars! We *think* this will turn out to be a refinement of Car Wars Compendium 2.5, but you’ll tell us. Our supporters at the [new] $23 level and higher will be invited to join an exclusive Car Wars forum, where we’ll build the new edition from the ground up – issues like “which classic cover do we use?,” “10 phase, 5 phase, or 3 phase movement?,” and “do we include boats?” Once the project launches, surveys will be open to the public, but only supporters of the current project will get in on the preliminary planning. And we’ll take everything we have learned from our Ogre Kickstarter project to make the Car Wars project even better.

So, pretty much, the risk of creating a resurgence of the Car Wars line is now in the hands of kickstarter donations– and it won’t happen unless the Ogre project goes over 700K, which it just might do. Notice a trend? SJG is hiring a new employee, because of Kickstarter donations. Essentially the risk and gamble isn’t Steve Jackson’s any more, it’s ours. As in the consumers. Is this a good or bad trend? It certainly is democratic– and in the case of OGRE, probably justified. Maybe Steve Jackson didn’t know how much we oldsters (and some youngsters too) love that dusty old design of his. I’m sure he knew his target audience had some disposable income, but would they spend it on a 100 dollar OGRE? Turns out we would, who knew? Now, for the million dollar question: how many will be printed? After the initial rush and chest thumping and fist stabbing are done, will people play this thing? And I mean constantly, because I might feel inclined to do that with a 100 dollar wargame. My guess is, no. I think nostalgia is driving the demand for this thing and within the year we’re going to have a lot of aggravated people trying to find space for their OGRE coffee tables somewhere in their house. We’ll see. I can only hope it will spark a resurgence in OGRE/GEV, as well as popularizing wargames.

If the aforementioned blather sounds critical, I really am not. I doubt you will find many more enthusiastic OGRE players than your humble correspondent.  I want Steve Jackson to succeed, at the end of the day.  It’s a brave new world of fundraising Steve Jackson Games has entered into here, and I sincerely wish him well.


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One comment

  1. I came to the same conclusion as you about OGRE 6. While I like the game I just could not see spending $100 for a game which would end up in the closet in a month or so, if I ever got anyone to play to begin with. I have enough of those already.

    I love the idea of Kickstarter. I just can’t figure out how to see games that are in the initial phase. Everything displayed is either a staff pick, popular, or already funded. I want to see the new stuff. The projects that have yet to take off. I have yet to figure out how to do that for just a single subject.

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