(By guest author Mary Hamilton, who’s acting as producer on this project, and is smarter than both designers of Unbound put together)
1. Ask for what you need, not what you’d like…
When we put together the Kickstarter for Goblin Quest, Grant cut out everything that the game didn’t need in order to get the funding target as low as possible. We researched the cheapest possible printing options that would let us create a book, checked what format it should be to get us the lowest possible shipping rates, and went for a target just a hair’s breadth above meeting our costs. The stretch goals were everything we wanted but weren’t sure we could get: more art, rules hacks, big-name designers, even more art – things to make it beautiful and delightful, not just to make it exist.
This time round, with Unbound, we’ve got a much bigger game and a much more serious one. The book is already more than 40,000 words long, and Grant and Chris know they want Adrian Stone’s art all the way through – he brings incredible panache to the ideas and the characters behind the system. So we’re asking for a different setup: everything we need to make Unbound a truly gorgeous book right from the start, rather than building it up later in the process. We’re going for A4 design, which costs more in printing and shipping, because an A5 book would risk being too fat to use easily. And we want to pay everyone involved to do their best work for us.
2. … but don’t forget to actually ask for everything you need
When we put together the budget for Goblin Quest – a game Grant had already spent dozens of hours writing, playtesting and honing – I asked him what he wanted to be paid for his work. In the end, he settled on a sum that was 10% of the original Kickstarter asking price: £200.
Real talk: that’s not enough money.
Now I know why he did that: he wanted the game to fund. We’d cut costs literally everywhere – limiting the amount of art, avoiding hiring anyone ahead of time for stretch goals, finding the cheapest printing options. But if the game had just scraped under the wire, Grant would have earned £200 for 18 months’ work.
Kickstarter’s a hard place to negotiate if you’re an artist, especially if most of the work is already done, as it is with Unbound. There’s a fine balance between asking for enough to make a designer’s time valuable and asking for so much that it makes the project unfundable. Grant and Chris have already spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on this game, and fulfillment will mean hundreds more. I still don’t think they’ll make minimum wage if we fund at our target – but at least they’ll get something for that work.
For Unbound, our costs break down roughly like this:
That’s pretty similar to the final breakdown on Goblin Quest too. The main differences are that we have two designers now instead of one – and this time we have a big enough contingency budget to deal with it if we hit a massive snag.
3. Stretch goals are heavy
A lot of Goblin Quest’s stretch goals are rules hacks – fun reworkings of the game’s rules with new settings, new story possibilities or new ideas. They make the game far more replayable, and they all have gorgeous, specially-commissioned art.
They’re also all several pages long, and there are seven of them. When it comes to making a book – or shipping it – you get charged more for more pages. We weren’t expecting the wild success of GQ, so when it all arrived and we realised the book was almost twice as long as we’d originally thought, that was a bit of a surprise. Luckily, we’d planned enough contingency budget into the stretch goals to cover it.
That’s why for Unbound one of the stretch goals is getting the stretch goals into the book. This time we’re printing a larger format, and sticking to a single artist, both of which mean we can predict the additional costs more accurately – and we know at what point in the process our extra cash will mean we can afford to upgrade everyone’s books and still break even.
4. Beware of shipping
Shipping is a nightmare for several reasons. We ended up using three separate fulfillment companies in the UK, US and Australia to keep costs down – at one point a company was asking us to incorporate as a US business in order to send some parcels out – and though it was complex it was by far the best option. Even so, shipping costs vary wildly by country and, at that stage, we couldn’t charge separately through Kickstarter for different places. Eventually we did so through Backerkit, at a price that turned out to be a low estimate but at least meant we could absorb some of the international shipping costs.
These days, Kickstarter offers shipping options that let you charge people in different countries different prices. But all of those shipping costs count towards your total, so you also have to consider fees, taxes, and your overall profit margin on those funds. If you just charge the actual cost of shipping you actually make a loss overall, or you have to put up your pledge target to cover the extra overhead. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – but it is a complicated one, and it involves a lot of guesswork before you have a physical product in hand.
5. Don’t move continents twice during the fulfilment process
OK, I take full responsibility for this one. During the time when Goblin Quest should have been getting into people’s hands, I uprooted Grant and moved him around the world – from Sydney to New York, and then New York to London. Coupled with the massive number of rules hacks and the problems of getting permission as an E2 spouse to work in the US, that upheaval meant that even though the book was ready and written, the logistics and admin of getting it designed, proof-read, printed and delivered were far more complicated than we’d originally thought. This time, we’re planning on staying put in London till it’s all done and dusted.
6. Beware of taxes
Grant’s set up as self-employed, which means everything he earns can be taxed as income. That, it turns out, includes Kickstarter money – even if it’s going out of his account again in the month after the tax year ends. That’s why this Kickstarter ends shortly after the UK tax year starts – it gives us as much time as possible to get the money spent. We’re aiming for it to be delivered well before the end of the year – but just in case.
7. Be transparent
It took a lot longer than we were expecting to get GQ out into the world, and we know a lot more now about what order to do stuff in, and how to make a kick-ass system into a gorgeous thing that’s in people’s hands and exists in the world. At every turn, Grant made sure to keep backers informed, update people on the situation and give revised estimates for when he’d deliver. Sometimes that meant multiple setbacks – like when we discovered that our publisher didn’t do fulfillment after all and we’d need to sort that out separately – but it also meant that everyone knew what was happening and could decide for themselves what they wanted to do about it. We’re going to be following that approach again this time.
8. Get an organised person to help you
Grant and Chris are both delightful people with very, very good ideas and serious commitment to making games happen. However, they’re also bright enough to know that numbers and organisation aren’t their strong points. That’s why I’m involved in the Kickstarter, and why my role’s expanded this time: you need someone to do the work of creating astonishingly complex spreadsheets that tell you that the exact break-even point is £22,000, and to work out what things need to happen in which order and roughly how long that might take. That person should probably either really enjoy mucking with numbers and creating to-do lists, or you should be prepared to pay them what their skills are worth, and listen to them when they tell you what you need to do next.
For various reasons, I’m not taking a cut of the main Kickstarter funds. Instead, I get a cut of anything that’s left over when the Kickstarter is completely fulfilled. That gives me an incentive to make sure we come in on time and on budget, and means that I don’t get paid until my part of the project is done. But there’s no way I’d take this kind of arrangement if (a) I wasn’t married to one designer and best friends with the other, and (b) I didn’t believe that the game just deserves to be in the world, and want to facilitate its existence however I can.
9. Feel the fear, and do it anyway
Kickstarter is terrifying, and it takes a lot of planning and prep to put together a credible pitch. It is scary working out the numbers, trying to understand what the risks are, knowing that if a couple of estimates fall through or something goes wrong you’re likely to be out of pocket and facing a group of people far more angry than if you just failed to deliver on a pre-order.
But it’s worth it. When Goblin Quest funded – in less than a day! – it meant that Grant could take a brilliant game that dozens of people had enjoyed, and turn it into a real thing that exists in the world, bringing that to hundreds more people. When – if – Unbound funds, it’ll mean more months of work to bring it to fruition, and it’ll mean that a great game that I love playing will be in the hands of people who we could never otherwise hope to reach. That’s more than worth it.