Thursday, November 12, 2015

Roleplaying Kickstarter Coverage

Here is a change in policy for the blog. Effective immediately, this blog will no longer promote Kickstarters. I hope that you'll read the reasoning behind this post, but I will understand if you don't.

Now that a lot of people have gone, I'm going to discuss the whys of this decision. This is something that has been peculating in my head for a while, and I think that I've reached the point where it is time to make a change.

To be honest, this blog doesn't really lean on Kickstarters in the way that a lot of blogs do. The two reasons for that are:

1. Honestly, most of the projects don't need the help. Any coverage that's going to come out of this segment is pretty much just icing on the cake for the Kickstarter runners.

2. When there are requests for Kickstarter coverage, it typically comes a week or two into the campaign and it isn't doing so well because no one knows about it. This is because people haven't bothered to seed talk about their project outside of their immediate social circles online, and they are surprised that things aren't just "going viral" in the way that they think that they should. I tell a lot of people that if they're already two weeks into their Kickstarter and they're just now contacting is too late.

Whether I comment on them or not, I watch a lot of Kickstarter projects for tabletop gaming. I'm going to give an honest truth that comes out of my observations of Kickstarters. Gaming related Kickstarters, particularly for role-playing games seem to be plateauing. Projects are still funding, but they aren't always hitting much above those goals, and a lot of role-playing Kickstarters are really struggling to hit those goals. Yes, there are still the blockbuster successes, but those are becoming more and more of outliers to the process.

Why do I think this is happening? Obviously, this is all just conjecture, but it is based on watching the funding of Kickstarters and people talking about their spending habits regarding Kickstarters.

I'm sure that there are a lot of outside forces as well. The economy still isn't great. Geeks tend to be bad in general with their finances, and you don't see as many of them with credit cards as you may have years ago. People have families as they get older, and that can limit the amount of money that they can spend on Kickstarters. Particularly when these Kickstarters are funding high price items.

Consumers are citing Kickstarter fatigue more often nowadays. Those companies who are launching Kickstarter after Kickstarter for each product are often cited in these discussions. There are a lot of small companies in the RPG "business," and launching new books and keeping up the support for game lines can be time and money consuming. This isn't a knock on the "Kickstarter as pre-order" business model in any way. I get why companies can have to do that. It is nice to have the money in advance when it comes to doing things. I know that Battlefield Press has used this model successfully more than once.

Also, tabletop role-playing on Kickstarter has had some speed bumps. We all know of the Ken Whitmans and the Mike Nystuls who have burned through a lot of money and good will on Kickstarter. We know of the Far Wests and the Metamorphosis Alphas. A lot of people have been burned on these Kickstarters and won't use the platform for other projects because of that.

Regardless, there are a lot of Kickstarters out there for role-playing games. New games. New Supplements. New prints of existing games. There is also a finite amount of money to go around with all of these Kickstarters.

This leads to another problem...many of these Kickstarters are pointed squarely at a company's, or a game's, existing fanbase. Without growing that fanbase, a saturation point is going to be reached, sooner or later, where companies struggle with getting support for their new projects through Kickstarter. But, let's face it, marketing is not the strongest suit of many tabletop RPG publishers.

The business of tabletop RPGs is so much smaller than it used to be, and there are just as many (if not more) people looking to take a slice of that pie, and because of that Kickstarters are faltering.

I'm sure that some people would say that this should mean that a blog like this should throw more support behind RPG Kickstarters, rather than less. But, in a way, that is just propping up a broken system rather than fixing it.

As I said earlier, there are a lot of factors that can figure into things with Kickstarters, and many of them are beyond what can be addressed in a single post, or even a series of posts. One of the things that can be solved is that many publishers aren't very good at marketing their products, or getting out the word of their Kickstarters. You can't just throw a Kickstarter out into the world and assume that it will find an audience. We're seeing that with canceled (sometimes later redone) projects from publishers.

Last summer I pitched a series of "working with the media" panels when I applied (unsuccessfully) to be one of the Industry Insiders. Because the media attention given RPGs has always waxed and waned, not a lot of people in the business know how to fully utilize bloggers and the larger media. Also, because most bloggers tend to be excited fans, it isn't unusual for them to burn out potential contact in the industry through some unprofessional choices.

This post isn't going to address what bloggers can do better, but that might make for a good future topic. But what can publishers do better with media relations?

1. Don't "Fire And Forget." The best thing for publishers and bloggers to do is build relationships. I've pieced together news stories by reaching out to friendly contacts that I have cultivated over the years. I managed to get an early break on the Savage Worlds version of Rifts by reaching out to various of my contacts and going through a process of elimination on who would be involved. But this happened because I have worked with publishers and publishers have worked with me.

This means that you don't just go "Hey, I've got a new Kickstarter...want to talk about it?" It can be as simple as a publisher having a "favorite media" list and giving them an early heads up on announcements so that they can have pieces filed in conjunction with announcements or press releases. Of course this means that the bloggers have to build a trust that they won't release this information too early, or ruin a publisher's plans. It is a give and take.

It can also mean giving previews and early looks at upcoming books to bloggers. Take a look at comic book websites. You'll see a lot of the "news" are previews of upcoming things that the comic publishers are putting out. Stores order their inventory months in advance of when it is released. Getting good "buzz" from blogs and sites encourages stores to order things. And for the love of Pete, include art assets in with your previews. Little known SEO fact: Google gives higher rankings to pages with graphics on them than walls of text. Plus, art can be a great selling point. When talking about Kickstarters, this can be rough since the art isn't already completed all of the time.

Giving print books isn't always possible, I know (even though it is greatly appreciated by those of us who's eyes aren't what they once were), but offering up PDFs is always appreciated. I won't sign an NDA for a playtest, but I will be happy to agree to one for an upcoming book if it gives me the time to get prepared (and actually read your game) in advance of the release dates. Comic publishers deal with embargo dates all the time, it shouldn't be any harder for gaming publishers to do the same thing. I get PDFs from comic publishers all the time saying "don't share this until X date." This is also where the trust and relationship building between publishers and bloggers comes into play.

In this last point keep in mind one important thing: I can't talk about games that I don't know about. This isn't begging for free stuff, but keep in mind that I, like many bloggers, have spent a lot of time building an audience, both on a blog and in social media, and maintaining credibility with it. Think of it like the cover blurbs on books. A little positive talk from the people with the right positioning can go a long way.

But basically, all of this boils down to don't just keep up the relationship only during those times that it is helpful for you. Giving bloggers things to talk about on a steady basis, and putting out talk about a publisher's stuff on a regular basis helps both sides of the equation.

2. A Kickstarter isn't a success if you only sell it to your existing audience. Well, it succeeds but the long term is that you aren't giving yourself wiggle room for future projects. What if you decide to branch out from fantasy into other genres? What happens when you decide to adapt your funded game into a new system? If your Kickstarter isn't growing your audience, then making these leaps are going to become more troublesome. We're already seeing this with publishers with past successes having fewer backers for new projects where they branch out, or even having to cancel and rethink their approach to a project to get more support.

Running a Kickstarter is a full time job, but while you're planning your project it helps to think about how your project might reach people with similar interests, but who might not know of you, or your game. If your business model is to use Kickstarter to fund what you want to do, and economic realities mean that this is what many publishers will have to do, then you have to always be thinking in terms of not just funding each project but also growing your audience with each as well.

This can mean reaching out, in advance, to websites and blogs that might not be gaming related, but cover similar ground as your next project, or the project after that. Reach out through their contact forms and offer to send some books to a writer, Whether these are physical books or PDFs is up to your strategy, but say "Hey, look, we just funded this new game and we've got some stuff planned for down the road that your readers might be interested in giving a try. Would you be interested in introducing us to your audience?" Follow some of the other things mentioned above, too. Art assets. Ask if you can do guest posts, or if they would be interested in an interview where you talk about the things that their site covers, and work in some talk of your game line.

Even if you only get 5 new sales out it, this means that you have five new potential backers to a future Kickstarter that has to do with something they are more directly interested in. That can mean more coverage from that site going into your next project, and even more potential people that will back your next project.

This is mostly fairly common sense stuff.

3. Don't ignore the tastemakers. I'm really not a fan of the terms "tastemaker" or "alpha geek," but it is demonstrable that there are people whose saying "I like this game/book/movie/song/comic" will mean a bump in sales. This doesn't automatically mean critics/reviewers, but it means people who have cultivated a reputation for being interested in certain things, and who have developed a synergy of followers (no, I don't mean Jem and the Holograms).

What I mean are people who talk knowledgeably about different topics and have shown that they can introduce cross pollination. This doesn't mean that you ignore people who talk just about gaming, but if (for example) someone talks regularly with a musician or a comic person on a place like Twitter and they talk about your game and then their talk is reshared by those who may not directly be a gamer, you can get a lot more penetration. And coming out as a gamer seems to suddenly be a cool thing for actors and comic people.

4. For God's sake finish a project and get it completely out the door before you launch your next Kickstarter. I think this is self-explanatory but nothing is going to make potential backer leery as much as launching Kickstarters when old ones aren't yet finished. It makes the people who backed your previous projects feel as if they aren't as important as your current project. This can lead to both fewer repeat backers and a difficulty in finding new backers as well.

There's a lot of Ifs in all of this. Honestly, there's no "magic bullet" to get your game a thriving following, or to get your Kickstarter project to reach $100,000. If there were, a post like this wouldn't be necessary. There is always a component of luck involved in getting your project to go "viral," or have it mentioned on Twitter by a celebrity. But it can be easier to capture that luck if you are proactive about making your own luck.

I hope that this starts a conversation among RPG publishers. Geeky things are more popular than ever, but so many role-playing game companies aren't able to grab on to that zeitgeist. With a bit of work, and planning, hopefully this can change. Kickstarter isn't an evil that's going to kill RPGs, although it may beat them up a bit when publishers aren't savvy in its use.

Don't stop using Kickstarter, just start being smarter in its use.

One last point. While I won't be blogging about your Kickstarter project (unless you manage to heinously fuck things up), that doesn't mean that I won't talk about your project on the various social media platforms. Honestly, I think that those sorts of conversations can have better reach a lot of the time. We all know that Kickstarter is the future for so many tabletop publishers. Hopefully we can get over this plateau and go on to bigger and better things.