Lovecraftesque second edition is available to pre-order

Lovecraftesque. The eldritch horror roleplaying game where you create the mystery at the table. Pre-orders now open. Image shows the Lovecraftesque box cover with a skull-like monster lurking behind a lone character in the woods. Alongside this are the new rulebook with a striking red-and-white cover, and a spread of cards from the new edition.

Lovecraftesque second edition successfully crowdfunded in late 2023. You can now pre-order it here, or if you’d like to know more, read on!

A Storytelling Card Game Of Eldritch Horror

Lovecraftesque is a storytelling card game of creeping cosmic horror, emulating the tone and pace of eldritch horror stories. The game will guide you to create the story of a lone individual who stumbles upon clues to a terrible evil. It creates slow-building, brooding horror that the main character at first dismisses, until all too suddenly it becomes impossible to deny. The ending will certainly be bleak, and the main character is likely to meet their doom.

A mock up of the cards used to play the game
Brand new cards help streamline gameplay and inspire your group

Lovecraftesque is an emergent mystery game, which crafts a story out of clues that you take turns to create. The game includes hundreds of creative prompts to help you generate your story and guide the main character towards a confrontation with cosmic evil. You take turns to drip weird events into the story, building up your mystery one clue at a time.  Each player creates a secret theory about the horror and the truth about the horror emerges from those theories. By the end you’ll reach a chilling climax that none of you could have predicted at the start.

Lovecraftesque is easy to learn and teach, simple and intuitive to play, with hundreds of prompts to fire your imagination. It can be played with 1-5 players in around 2 hours.

Lovecraftesque is created by Josh Fox and Becky Annison of Black Armada Games, the award-winning publishers who brought you Wreck This Deck, Last Fleet, Flotsam: Adrift Amongst The Stars and Bite Marks.

A mock up of the Lovecraftesque core box
A New Edition

We created the first edition of Lovecraftesque back in 2015. It was our first game design project and we were delighted with its success. It’s received critical acclaim, won awards and gained thousands of fans around the world. But we were new to publishing then, and the costs and risks meant we were unable to realise our full vision for the game. In this new edition we’ve created the game we always wanted to.

The second edition is fully card-driven. It gives your group more support for their creativity through prompt cards that help you get your story set up and populate it with interesting clues, characters and locations. The story will seem to write itself.

There are also brand new card-based scenarios to get your story off to a flying start. Check out the scenarios list to see the incredible range of fresh exciting settings for eldritch horror, written by a diverse slate of talent from across the industry. Like the rest of the game, these are written on cards, meaning you can easily mix and match to make up your own weird tales.

With the new card-driven approach the game is even easier to learn, teach and play. The rules and structure of the game are written into the cards and your progress is tracked on the board, so you always know what you’re meant to be doing. As always we include teaching text to make it easy for you to learn and teach the game at the table, and tools to avoid the stereotypes of Lovecraft’s own work.

We are also commissioning new art by Vincent Sammy and Paul Tomes to make the game look cooler than ever before.

Lovecraftesque second edition will be available as a boxed set with the rules and all the cards you need, and as a virtual tabletop for online play.

Lovecraftesque is crowdfunding from 10 October to 9 November 2023. Pre-order now and become one of the first to back the project!

Our experience with Backerkit advertising

We’ve been running TTRPG crowdfunding campaigns for almost a decade and we like to think we’re quite good at it. We’ve been gradually and organically growing our audience, but it gets harder and harder to connect with people as the TTRPG world fractures into zillions of little communities. We had dipped our toe in the water of advertising previously, but never had much success with it and viewed it as a waste of money. Enter Backerkit advertising – a service that proved very effective for us. In this article I’ll break down the experience and the outcomes we saw.

The TL;DR here is that we got a lot more money, both before and after taking out the cost of the ads. Wreck This Deck looks likely to have been unusually successful for a TTRPG zine even without the ads, but there’s clear evidence that the ads increased that.

I’m not affiliated with Backerkit, I’m not getting anything from them for doing it, I’m just sharing this because I think it might be helpful for fellow creators.

Backerkit’s advertising pitch is, they buy advertising on your behalf (mostly Facebook/Instagram ads) and improve the targeting using their presumably very impressive storehouse of data from all the millions of crowdfunding campaigns they’ve been involved with. You tell them a target return you want on your ads, and they then increase or decrease spend depending on how well they’re meeting that target. They charge you a commission on any resulting pledges. You don’t pay for anything until the campaign closes and you’ve received your pledge money.

By the way, this is in-campaign advertising. Backerkit (and others, probably) do pre-campaign advertising to build up followers on your launch page. We haven’t tried that, and it isn’t covered here.

We weren’t sure if this service was likely to work for us, but – spoiler alert – it absolutely did. We saw at least a 50% increase in our backers compared to our most optimistic expectations, and there’s very clear evidence to show that this was generated by the ads, as I’ll explain below.

Before going any further, let’s talk about the ick factor. If you’re like me, you probably don’t like the idea of advertising. It’s horrible, intrusive stuff that feels sort of spammy and slightly dirty. You just want to be left alone to enjoy the internet without this stuff, and you don’t want to be a part of it. You maybe feel like your product should be so good that it doesn’t need advertising.  There was a definite emotional barrier we had to push through to get started with this. But the truth is, well-targeted adverts for a quality product are a way of finding people who want something and helping them to find out about it. They’re gonna see some ads anyway, so it might as well be for a cool new game. Provided the things you promise in your pitch are accurate, and your game is good, you’re not hurting anyone by using it.

What we did

We were pretty wary of pouring a ton of money into something for no return. The Backerkit model – tell us a target return on your ad and we’ll spend like crazy as long as you’re meeting it – was kind of terrifying to us. We set up advertising early on in our campaign, saw some fairly middling results, and told them to switch the ads off.

Later on in the campaign, for no reason I can articulate, we decided to give them another go. We switched them on again, at a low level of spend, and saw an immediate increase in pledges. Bumping the spend up a bit, we saw even better results.

Throughout the periods where we were advertising, we set a target return on advertising spend (ROAS) of 3 – meaning the aim is for each £1 spent on adverts to yield £3 or more of pledges. This is the amount we’d worked out, after costs, should ensure we made extra money rather than a loss. Although the ROAS jumped around a lot over the course of the campaign, the final ROAS was 3.04.

The results

The graph below tracks our pledges each day of the campaign for Wreck This Deck.

The blue bit of the chart is pledges that Backerkit identify as not being ad driven. Orange is pledges that Backerkit identify as being ad driven. The tiny almost-invisible grey bit is pledges Backerkit identify as being driven by their newsletter.

You might ask: why should we trust Backerkit’s assessment of whether a pledge was ad-driven? They get a commission on the ad-driven pledges so it’s in their interests to round those up isn’t it? That is indeed an anxiety that we had. But in a way, the fact that we had a gap in the middle where we weren’t using ads was incredibly helpful, in that it clearly demonstrated that the ads were working. You can easily see the point that we turned the ads back on in the graph below, even without the big red arrows, and you could probably guess how much revenue was ad-driven even without the colour-coding.

Graph showing pledges each day for Wreck This Deck. On day 20 we restarted our ad spend and there's an immediate large increase in pledges, through to the end of the campaign on day 29.

The first few days of a crowdfunding campaign always see lots of pledges as existing fans and highly enthusiastic backers jump in. After day 3 or so, things naturally quieten down, and you see a trickle of pledges from folk who have only just heard about the campaign. During this mid-campaign period – days 4-20 on the graph – we saw about £200 of new pledges per day. Once we turned the advertising on this leapt up by a factor of 4, even excluding the last few days when, again, you always see a big increase in pledges.

Interestingly even the organic pledges increased by about 75% during the period we were advertising. Presumably some people were seeing the ads and then pledging on a different device or similar, hiding them from Backerkit’s tracking algorithm.

It’s a lot harder to feel confident about the impact of the ads during the last few days, because you’d expect a big spike anyway. Look at any successful crowdfunding campaign, there’s always a rush of pledges at the end. But it is possible to estimate the effect of advertising here. I looked at our previous campaigns and a few carefully-chosen third-party campaigns that I deemed to be similar to Wreck This Deck. The difference is fairly obvious.

Table showing the percentage share of revenue taken in the last 3 days of various crowdfunding campaigns. The figure ranges from 16-29%, except for Wreck This Deck where 66% of revenue came in the last 3 days.

We also asked our backers in the post-campaign survey whether they’d seen ads. Obviously the data here is subject to the caveat that people might not remember correctly, or might have thought something was an ad when it wasn’t, and so forth. With that said:

  • 35.2% said they didn’t see any ads
  • 13.2% said they saw an ad after they’d already backed
  • 5.7% said they saw an ad after they’d already heard about the campaign
  • 9.5% said they saw an ad but probably would have heard about the campaign anyway
  • 32.9% said they came to the campaign because they’d seen an ad

Backerkit’s marketing stats claim that 57% of our pledges came from advertising. That matches reasonably well to the 61% above who said they’d seen an ad, though just under half of these had already heard of the campaign or think they would have done so anyway.

Did it pay off?

The above analysis seems to pretty clearly indicate that we raised a large amount of revenue from advertising. But of course, that’s before costs.

Based on Backerkit’s own analysis, the fees we paid them for the advertising – covering the cost of the ads themselves and Backerkit’s commission – added up to 39.8% of what the pledges that they identified as being ad-generated. So we got to keep 60.2% of what we raised.

Once you take out our own costs, that number comes down, but because we’d already paid off a lot of our costs (art etc) from organic pledges alone, it still leaves a decent % of money left over for paying ourselves for the work on the project.

The possible fly in the ointment here is what I term “wasted ad spend”. This is essentially my attempt to work out how many ad-driven pledges would have happened anyway, and are therefore wasted money. This is really really hard to know.

The survey data above suggest that only about half of our advertising driven pledges were people who hadn’t already pledged, hadn’t yet heard of the campaign and wouldn’t have likely done so anyway. If all that is counted as “wasted ad spend” then we came in very close to break-even – probably making a small amount of extra money, but just possibly making a small loss once all costs have been counted.

However, if you’d heard about the campaign before but not backed, maybe the ad was what tipped the balance, reminding you about this cool game and getting you to pledge. Only those who already backed can be considered definitely as “wasted ad spend”. If you only count these as waste, that’s only a 21.5% rate of wasted ad spend. That might seem over-optimistic, but if you compare what we made in the late stages of the campaign with what we would have expected, based on comparison with other campaigns, you’d guess that only about 19% of the ad-driven pledges were “wasted ad spend”. At any rate, at a 21.5% rate of wasted spend, the ads would have driven a healthy amount of extra money – meaning we would have kept about 23.5% of the ad-driven revenue after costs.

So we can’t ever really know how effective the ads were taking into account wasted spend. Indeed, there are other unknowns: could it be that the ad-driven folks would eventually have bought the game after the campaign closed? Might we be robbing our future selves? Conversely, might ad-driven backers have reshared the campaign a generated more organic sales from people who would never have heard of it otherwise? It’s all pretty hard to estimate.

What we do know is that this was our most successful campaign, in terms of number of backers, ever. Even though it was a small zine project, it was the most revenue we’ve ever raised from a crowdfunding campaign. And even if we can’t quite prove it, the overall trend in the data suggests that the advertising was well worth it for us.

A small further addendum to the above is that obviously a % of our ad-driven backers will come back and support future projects. We can’t know what this is worth to us, but in the scenario where we actually had very high wasted ad spend, and made a small loss overall, this would be the silver lining to the cloud.

What about you?

Before closing out, I want to pile in some caveats to the above.

First off, this was just one example. Wreck This Deck appears to already have been fairly unusual as zine projects go, with nearly 600 backers before the ads kicked in. It had low overheads, and indeed once you’ve got 600 backers the extra cost of delivering additional copies of the game is very low. This makes it easier for ads to be cost-effective. This might not be a representative example.

Second, we’re a relatively mature gaming company. We’re still absolutely tiny in the scheme of things, but we knew we could afford to take some risks with a relatively small project and if we made a loss then it wouldn’t destroy us. It’s wonderful that Backerkit don’t charge you until after the campaign, but they do charge you, and the bill can be quite high. You have to decide your own appetite for risk.

Third, your costs are an absolutely vital part of the calculation here. Not just the cost of the ads, but the cost of providing your product to all those extra people, including shipping and all the other horrible costs that notoriously turn out to be higher than you expected. We made a spreadsheet to add all these costs up, and work out how high a % return on advertising spend we’d need to turn a profit. We looked at nightmare scenarios where that % turned out to be too low, and how much that would cost us. I strongly recommend you do that too, if you’re thinking about using ads.

Fourth, advertising can be a bit anxiety-inducing. You get real-time data about advertising spend, including how effective it’s been today, and sometimes the numbers can be quite alarming. Returns on spend zigzag around. If you’re in the UK like us, it’s doubly alarming as you can’t communicate with West Cost US-based Backerkit until they get to work in your late afternoon. This goes back to your risk appetite – are you comfortable watching your money being spent, and sometimes feeling unsure if it’s worth it?

Obviously I wouldn’t think to tell anyone “go and spend a pile of money on ads” – that has to be your decision, based on your particular circumstances. All I can say is: it worked well for us, and we will likely be doing more of it.

Wreck This Deck is LIVE on Backerkit!

Wreck This Deck is a dark urban fantasy game of solo journaling, demon summoning and deck crafting. Summon and bind demons into your Demon Deck, defacing the cards as you go. The game was first published during lockdown and saw a lot of play, and we’re now crowdfunding the print zine that it always deserved, using Backerkit’s new crowdfunding platform.

In Wreck This Deck you will:

  • Delve into dark knowledge and live life on the edge as a demon-summoning deck runner.
  • Bind demons into your haunted deck, wielding their strength for yourself.
  • Modify playing cards, creating a personalized deck spattered with paint, blood and sigils.
  • Unleash the power of your demon deck to fight corporations, right injustice and protect your community. 

Pledge now to help us get the strongest possible launch!

Why we’re using Backerkit for Wreck This Deck

We’ve done four TTRPG crowdfunding campaigns, starting with Lovecraftesque (first edition) in 2015, then Flotsam, Bite Marks and Last Fleet. All four were on Kickstarter. We’ve had some great success with Kickstarter. But for Wreck This Deck, we’ve decided to go with Backerkit, and I want to talk about why.

First a brief plug for Wreck This Deck. It’s a solo journaling game of demon summoning and deck crafting, where you trap demons in ordinary playing cards by defacing the cards: paint them, stitch them, burn them, scrawl on them. It had some great success when we first released it during lockdown and we’re now ready to give it a print edition. If you like the sound of that then you can pledge on our Backerkit crowdfunding page.

When we first started crowdfunding, Kickstarter was more-or-less the only game in town. Indiegogo was there, but it just didn’t look as attractive, and the campaigns on there didn’t seem to do as well. Kickstarter was an accessible, simple way to get into crowdfunding – and it rewarded its users with what seemed to be a pretty good throughput from people who were just browsing the site.

But Kickstarter has made some weird moves recently. From the resistance to recognising the union, to the flirtation with crypto, it’s simply not been presenting an attractive face to ethical publishers and backers. And for a long time, Kickstarter has seemed complacent: for years it wasn’t even possible to put alt text on images, despite us writing to them to complain about the accessibility implications. (This now appears to have been fixed, thankfully.)

Perhaps in response to the diminished reputation of Kickstarter, there has been a growing set of rivals. Projects using these rivals have seen mixed success. It’s always a risk to move from a popular marketplace into somewhere new. And so there’s a risk of a vicious cycle, with alternative platforms seeing poor outcomes, putting off creators from using them.

Enter Backerkit. This is a platform that already has a lot of understanding of the crowdfunding market. We’ve been using them since our first campaign to provide post-campaign support, tracking our backers, generating helpful post-campaign surveys, managing our digital rewards and so on. Their customer service is second to none: when I’ve had problems working out how to do something they will send me a custom-recorded video by one of their staff made just for me, showing me how to do the specific thing I wanted. Where our Kickstarter campaign pages have always been approved without ceremony, Backerkit actually sent us detailed feedback on the Wreck This Deck campaign page, enabling us to improve it. And their functionality is great.

Backerkit has launched a full-blown crowdfunding platform of its own and it’s shown some pretty good success stories. But much more important, they’ve shown that they know how to run a crowdfunding platform. Their setup is flexible, functional, and well integrated with the kind of tools you need to manage a campaign. And as previously remarked, they have great customer service – both for us as the publisher and you the customer.

It felt like a risky move. We are all too aware of the potential for our campaign to lose visibility because Backerkit is still a relatively small player, with less “passing traffic”. But we think it’s the right move at this time. And early results from the campaign suggest we’ve made a good call. Of course we’ll never know how it would have gone if we’d used Kickstarter, but for a zine campaign Wreck This Deck is doing incredibly well at nearly 350 backers after 1 week, and that’s included a fair bit of people coming from within Backerkit’s website.

Of course, we’re not saying Kickstarter is evil, and we may well use them in the future. So far the crypto flirtation hasn’t come to anything, and they’ve shown they can improve by (eventually) recognising the union and offering alt text on their images. This isn’t some kind of principle-driven rupture. But we do hope that we can be part of a greater move to diversify the crowdfunding market so we’re not all dependent on one big provider. Having that competition will likely be better for Kickstarter too, in the long run.

So anyway, that’s a little insight into why we’re doing this. We’ll be watching closely how well Wreck This Deck does with a view to deciding what to do with our next big project: Lovecraftesque second edition. Watch this space!

How long does it take to make an RPG?

Over the last couple of years I have been keeping a regular record of the time I spend on RPG design projects – especially the larger ones. During this time I’ve taken two big projects to conclusion: Flotsam – Adrift Amongst the Stars and Last Fleet.

I’ve combined the data from these two to make a rough chart of how I spend time on a big RPG project. Specifically, most of the post-Kickstarter campaign data (layout, art management, printing, shipping) comes from Flotsam while the rest comes from Last Fleet. This is because I only started keeping records partway through Flotsam’s lifecycle, while one impact of the current pandemic has been that my Last Fleet record keeping fell apart post-Kickstarter – though anecdotally it looks pretty similar to Flotsam so I feel comfortable combining the two.

The data isn’t perfect. Realistically I sometimes lost track of time and wrote down a best guess on how long I’d spent working on a given occasion. I also likely failed to catch some smaller bits of working time.

With the above caveats in mind, I estimate that one of these projects takes about 300 hours from start to finish. That’s just my time – not the wider project contributors (stretch goal writers, editors, artists etc). That’s how long it takes me; I would think every designer is different. Others may do more or less playtesting, take more or less time iterating their design ideas, or do more or less marketing work. So this is just one example, but hopefully it gives some sense of how long it might take you, dear reader.

Pie chart shows data as follows.
- Design 34.5%
- Playtest 17.2%
- Art 8.6%
Layout 3.4%
Editing 10.3%
Kickstarter 5.2%
Publicity 13.8%
Printing 1.7%
Shipping 1.7%
Admin 3.4%

As you can see from the chart (blue segments), I spend about half of my time on design (34.5%) and playtesting (17.2%) combined. That encompasses all the thinking and writing that goes into creating the draft game text, all the planning for the playtests and the actual time spent in playtest sessions. It’s likely more of an underestimate than the other segments, because who can really quantify time spent thinking – I do a good chunk of that in between formal design sessions.

The next biggest chunk, in red, is publicity (13.8%). That includes time spent on interviews and the like, but excludes time spent refreshing Twitter during the Kickstarter campaign. This is because I figure the latter is something I would have done anyway. I find Kickstarter campaigns very stressful. Perhaps in theory I should attempt to account for that stress and the time it eats up, I don’t know. However part of the reason for doing this accounting is to consider how much I might reasonably charge someone else to run their campaign, so it’s useful to know the actual hours spent working as opposed to time wasted because of the psychological impact of crowdfunding.

I’ve separately accounted for time spent setting up the Kickstarter page (in purple), doing Kickstarter updates and suchlike, which you could consider publicity but are often actually taken up with more admin type tasks. At any rate – quite a small category (5.2%), probably because it’s mostly writing down stuff I’ve already worked out elsewhere and communicating it to backers.

After that, in orange, you have editing (10.3%) and layout (3.4%). The editing time is huge! To some extent the figure is arbitrary, because design work itself includes a great deal of editing. I have counted the time I spent re-reading the text after I had notionally settled on a final ruleset, polishing it, and also time I spent reading my copy editor’s comments and implementing them. (Aside: that’s how long it took me as someone very close to the text: imagine how long it takes a copy editor who has never even read your text before. Pay your copy editors well, folks!) Layout was mostly done by my layout artist but there was a bit of review, comment and editing to make stuff fit within a particular page template.

Art (grey) also took up a surprisingly large amount of time (8.6%). This covers generating the ideas for the illustrations, liaising with the artist(s), and reviewing their work and providing comments. Given that Flotsam has about 25 pieces of art in it, that’s over an hour per piece, which seems like a lot – I guess quite a bit of it just thinking.

In the “surprisingly low” category, in green, is printing (1.7%) , shipping (1.7%) and admin (3.4%). This covers tasks like setting up all my products on Backerkit, liaising with the printer and warehouse, fixing errors, dealing with customs, etc. I think this excludes post-Backerkit admin, such as setting up the new product on itch, Drivethru and our website, and handling orders. So in that sense, it’s probably an underestimate over and above the caveats mentioned further up. And since neither project was my first rodeo, there’s an element of familiarity with the admin systems that might take a newbie publisher longer to get to grips with (not least because you can copy data over from previous projects in Backerkit).

One bit of “lessons learned” from this is that I need to create “how to” guides for some of the things that I do as part of a Kickstarter project. For example, I wasted a small but nonzero amount of time figuring out how to complete customs forms for Last Fleet that I had done for previous projects but forgotten. Now I have a customs template of my own to make the process easier. It’s well worth your time to systematise this stuff if you’re planning to do multiple projects, as there are all sorts of fiddly details that can be hard to remember (and indeed, if you forget them, can cause problems).

Anyway, I did this analysis for my own benefit but hopefully someone somewhere might find it helpful.

Lovecraftesque – a kickstarter retrospective (part 4)

This is part 4 in a multi-part series looking back on our RPG kickstarter, what went well, what we’d change, and so on. Part 1 is herePart 2 is here. Part 3 is here. This time, we’re talking about the quality of the product and the post-kickstarter phase.

Delivery phase – quality

Quality-wise, I couldn’t be prouder by what we achieved. The game has met with a very positive reception, including several award nominations. I continue to get a massive buzz every time I hear about people playing it. I believe it stands up in comparison to any other horror game out there.

The production values met our very high standards. The book is beautiful, filled with gorgeous art and an evocative yet readable layout, both of which mirror and reinforce the structure and themes of the game. The physical product looks and feels great.

Image of a library. A woman in a wheelchair looks over her shoulder, holding a gun at the ready. Behind her, a monstrous praying mantis lurks amongst the bookshelves.
One of the illustrations from Lovecraftesque

I also want to say here that our stretch goals massively enhanced the game. The finished stretch goal material was high quality, incredibly evocative, and provided a powerful set of diverse support materials for the game. We had one review whinge that the game itself was just a third of the book: but that really fails to recognise the benefits of these extra materials. The book has a massive 17 scenarios – you have so much choice, and they’re all so good; many people have commented that the quick-start scenarios are their favourite way to play. Plus the essays, which offer a really in-depth analysis of how to handle race and mental health in Lovecraftian games – issues which were a major focus of the campaign, and very dear to our heart. So the stretch goals were a major success for this project.

Post-kickstarter phase

Honestly, we didn’t really plan for what would happen after the kickstarter. That might seem funny given all the detailed planning described so far, but we really were focused on the campaign.

After the dust settled, we set ourselves up on Payhip, on DrivethruRPG, and (using Paypal buttons) on our own website to directly sell the game to customers. We reached out to Indie Press Revolution in the US and Esdevium in the UK, to get the books out to retailers.

All this basically worked ok. However, one thing new game designers should know is that retail distributors ask for a very hefty discount in the region of 50-55% on your product. This is because retailers ask for a 30-35% discount. I’m not being critical – retailers and distributors have costs to meet and presumably try to make a profit too. It can be pretty tricky to make any money on sales to retailers if you haven’t factored this into your planning – which we hadn’t. At one point we realised that we would make a loss on US retail sales, and had to make some changes to keep this viable. It would have been better if we’d planned that in advance – and it’s another reason why a print run would probably have been a better choice for us, since we’ve sold hundreds of books this way, many at a negligible profit margin. We’re glad to support retailers, and have the books out there, but next time we’ll do better out of it too.

I’ll also mention accounting. Once you make money, you’re going to have to report it to the authorities. In the UK that means submitting accounts and a self-assessment tax return to HM Revenue and Customs. This is a faff. Even if you pay someone to do it, in practice you will do a lot of work. If you pay someone, it will cost you, and probably more than you think. Just, you know. Think about that, and plan time and money around it.

Just for fun, here’s a graph of our sales during and after the kickstarter. It includes PDFs, but is I estimate over 80% physical copies. You can see that retailer sales are a large share of post-kickstarter sales, which makes my earlier remarks about planning for those even more salient.

Graph of our sales during and after the kickstarter

 

Lovecraftesque – a kickstarter retrospective (part 3)

This is part 3 in a multi-part series looking back on our RPG kickstarter, what went well, what we’d change, and so on. Part 1 is herePart 2 is here. Part 4 is here. This time, we’re talking about how we delivered the product, particularly how we managed the delivery timetable and our costs.

Delivery phase – time

We did ok with keeping to our timetable. We delivered it late, but only by about 1.5 months. In the end this came down to a single delayed workstream which we couldn’t have known in advance would hit problems, and which was too critical to the project to work around. Seen in that context, 1.5 months delay is not too bad – though we would aim to get that down to zero next time.

We did several things to keep the project on track, and they largely worked. First, we calculated that there might be delays, and included that in our project timetable. We’d seen so many Kickstarters delivering many months or even years late that we were trying very hard to be realistic or even pessimistic about our timetable. We actually doubled the time estimate we’d been given by one of our contributors, because we felt it was too optimistic.

Second, we ensured that everything that could be done early was. So we wrote the game in advance of kickstarter launch. We had planned all of the art and layout in advance, and initiated work on them as soon as it was apparent we were going to fund. We had the layout completed for everything we could, even while waiting for some material to come through. In short, we ensured that we could concentrate on delivering the difficult stuff, by getting the easier stuff out of the way fast.

Now before I mention the next factor, this is a good point to recognise that people – and you should include you, the designer, in this category – are a major risk factor for any project. Everyone has a real life that can distract and delay you or even take you out of commission. Health issues can spring up, family tragedies… these are realities in an industry where almost nobody does this as their day job, so we’re all trying to squeeze out work in our spare time. (In fact, our second child was born right in the middle of fulfilment – though we did at least get 9 months notice of that!) I hope it’s clear that I don’t regard this as something to blame or shame people over: it’s something that you as the project manager have to do your best to mitigate. It turned out to be a significant factor for Lovecraftesque.

So, third, we had said up front that we weren’t guaranteeing any of our stretch goals. We would drop a stretch goal or deliver it electronically rather than let its non-delivery delay the project as a whole. I think that was a good thing to do. We didn’t have to drop any, but because we’d said we might, we didn’t need to feel too bad about having to take on authorship of one stretch goal ourselves, supported by a couple of additional consultants that we took on at short notice. We didn’t get any complaints about this, and we think the resulting product was high quality and – crucially – didn’t delay publication.

Fourth, we were very active in managing our contributors. We set deadlines, we reminded people about them, we nagged them if they were late, we negotiated additional time for those who needed it. We worked with contributors to make sure their work meshed with the vision for Lovecraftesque, giving comments and drafting assistance. I hope and believe that this was done in a supportive way, to get the very best finished product.

There is a final thing to recognise in our delivery timetable. While the books were ready and delivered to many backers in October, some of them went missing for about 7 weeks. We don’t know exactly what happened. The records suggest that books destined for the US were shipped from Britain to continental Europe, and then – for some reason – send to Budapest, where they sat for a long time. They were eventually (most of them) sent on to their US recipients. But this caused us a lot of stress and worry, since for a long while we thought they’d simply vanished. And it meant that some of our customers received the product 3 months late rather than 1.5 months. My guess is that this could happen to any project (it certainly seems to be a common problem, watching other projects). In future we would consider paying out on more expensive shipping to allow us to have greater confidence about this.

We’d originally chosen Lightning Source as our printer because they had branches in the UK and US. We planned to ship our US backers from the US branch, which would probably not have been subject to delay in this way. It was a great plan – but one which we had to abandon because of cost. Fluctuating currency values, which we’ll return to later, made the US print branch unviable for us. Post-kickstarter, we’ve offered our US customers the option to pay a (small) premium to get the product printed in the US and therefore delivered faster. Perhaps we could offer that as an option in future kickstarters – though as against that, this strikes me as potentially confusing for customers.

Image of a sleeping person in bed. Behind their back we see luminous creepy-crawlies coming out of their phone and climbing into their ear.
One of the illustrations from Lovecraftesque

Delivery phase – cost

Next, let’s talk about cost. Our carefully costed project was almost exactly on-budget. Our costings – which all included error margins for inflation, currency conversion and suchlike – came in literally on the money, pretty much every time. And yes, that includes shipping: as mentioned earlier, we shipped directly from the printer at very reasonable cost. Runaway shipping costs were my biggest fear throughout the project, and we dodged that bullet thanks to a forensic examination of the costs in advance.

And yet, as I mentioned earlier, we spent our entire 10% contingency fund. Why? Well, the single biggest factor was: Brexit. The value of the pound dropped by a total of 20% between the launch of our project and delivery. 10% of that was pre-referendum, but in retrospect was probably reflecting uncertainty about the referendum result. The rest came after. Most of our stretch goal writers, plus both our artists, were paid in dollars. The resulting exchange costs came to about £600.

The other major factor was to do with the Special Cards. Basically, we underpriced them. Or to look at it another way, we underestimated demand for them. Let me unpack that. From examining previous RPG kickstarters, we thought about half of people who purchased the physical book would want cards as well. In reality, well over 80% did – and in response to backer demand we created a “PDF + cards” tier that we hadn’t planned on. Now, the cards had a very low profit margin on them, which we’d taken into account in our planning – but when we sold a lot more of them than we anticipated, that cost us a bit. Plus they were priced in dollars, so this came together with the Brexit factor in a bad way. After the kickstarter we raised the price of the cards from £5 to £8, because of this.

The cards also added complications to delivery. They were printed and shipped separately to the books (Drivethru Cards is a separate printer from DrivethruRPG). They were an extra bit of admin, an extra delivery risk, one more thing to track and worry about. So, with the above… I’d dearly like to avoid using cards in future. Or rather, I’d like to try and stick to one physical product: cards or a book, probably not both.

So with all this, plus a handful of much smaller things, our contingency fund was spent in full – plus £5 over, to be precise. Sigh. At least we had one. But despite this, we did not make a loss. We included payment for ourselves in our funding goal, and increased it with each stretch goal – something I would always urge you to do, if you’re planning to kickstart something – and so we actually made a very respectable amount of money from the kickstarter itself. And of course, we never had any money-related problems delivering the product.

By the way, I should also mention that we used Backerkit to do our customer survey. This allowed non-Kickstarter backers to purchase books after the campaign ended and enabled existing backers to upgrade their initial pledges. True to what Backerkit estimate, we sold a sizeable additional chunk of books through them. A good choice, which I’d recommend to others.

The next article in this series is here.

Lovecraftesque – a kickstarter retrospective (pt 2)

This is part 2 in a multi-part series looking back on our RPG kickstarter, what went well, what we’d change, and so on. Part 1 is here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here. This time, we’re talking about how we worked to support diversity and inclusion, and tackle Lovecraft’s bigotry; and how we ran the Kickstarter campaign itself.

Diversity and inclusion

One of our goals for Lovecraftesque was to be an exemplar on diversity and inclusion, in as many ways as we could. Aside from this aligning with our politics generally, we specifically wanted to punch Lovecraft’s bigotry in the face – to make the kind of game he would have thoroughly disapproved of.

We did this in a number of different ways:

  • We directly addressed Lovecraft’s racism and the attitudes towards mental illness that are embodied in his writing and (to a much greater extent) Lovecraftian roleplaying games. We had written some basic guidance on this ourselves, but included as stretch goals more detailed work on this, which (once funded) we included in the game book.
  • We included in the art specification a requirement that the art be diverse, showcasing characters who are female, ethnically diverse, LGBTQ and disabled. We specified ratios for these characters to deliberately put white dudes in a minority in the book’s art. We also asked our artist to avoid casting these characters as weak, submissive or sex objects – although the nature of the game meant none of the characters were kicking ass, as all were potentially going to be victims of something nasty.
  • When advertising for artists we specifically asked PoC and LGBTQ folks to put themselves forward. When approaching individual artists and writers, we aimed to draw on a diverse pool, again keeping white dudes in a minority. We weren’t sacrificing quality to do this – there is a great pool of diverse talent out there.
  • We paid all of our contributors the same highly competitive rates – well above what we understand to be the industry average – because we’d like roleplaying design and writing to be something people get properly rewarded for, especially for people who don’t have the privilege of a rockstar reputation (i.e. most of us).
  • Although we didn’t exactly set out to do this, the diverse team we’d recruited was probably directly responsible for the very diverse set of scenarios that came with the game – from those with a fairly traditional Lovecraft-ey setup to stuff HPL would never have dreamed of.

To judge by the enraged response of some less reconstructed gamers, and those who affect to be tired of political correctness, we succeeded in branding the product as diverse, inclusive and tackling bigotry. I believe we did more than that – we embedded those values in the game itself.

One of the illustrations for Lovecraftesque: a priest stands amongst the pews of a church, comforting a visibly stressed man, in whose lap is a notebook filled with drawings of a scary figure. In the background, the same scary figure is just visible pressed up against a stained glass window.
Did I mention I love our art?

The Kickstarter

Thanks to Kickstarter preserving everything in aspic, you can go and look at our campaign page now if you like. We tried to hit all the information someone might want to understand the product, get enthused and feel confident in us. So: a clear pitch that highlights what the game feels like to play, what makes it different, and what makes it fun; a clear explanation of what you’ll get if you back; a simplified version of the game for free download, to try-before-you-buy; samples of art and layout work; a detailed explanation of how we planned to spend the money; and an explanation of the risks including how we planned to mitigate them. Plus a video, because apparently that’s a good thing to have (I personally am not at all motivated by videos, but statistically I’m in a minority apparently). We got feedback from friends and more experienced people on the page prior to the launch and made changes in response. You know, this stuff isn’t really rocket science, but you do need to check these boxes to maximise chance of success, and we did.

We worked hard to publicise the game from a relatively weak starting position. We had established a presence in Indie G+ circles, over a period of 2-3 years, so we weren’t exactly invisible. Even so, as far as I can tell, we weren’t well known, nor did we have (much of) a following. So we wanted to counteract the newcomer disadvantage.

One way that we did that was by approaching people who were better known than us for stretch goals. This conflicted a bit with another goal of ours, which was to have a very diverse stretch goal team. Early on we deliberately went for an approximately 50/50 split between people with star power and other designers – all of whom, to be clear, we had chosen primarily for their talent and the fact we admired them. We also leaned towards people who seemed interested in horror gaming. I think the presence of both of these groups will probably have helped to generate interest from a broader community than we could have reached ourselves. The “star” writers will have reassured people who like reliable industry quantities. In addition to helping fulfill our mission to create a diverse and inclusive Lovecraft game (see above), the broader set of writers probably attracted backers who like to see a diverse team and who were fans of the somewhat more niche indie game design community.

Another thing we did was to approach a wide range of podcasts and blogs. In retrospect, I wonder if we actually undersold ourselves here. Having seen a friend’s recent media engagement plan, it was significantly more wide-ranging than ours. Possibly we didn’t reach as broad a roleplaying audience as we might have. But that’s not to underplay the level of activity – and quite frankly it’s hard to imagine how we could have done much more than we did, given the stage of life we were at (tiny children limited what we could realistically do). We are enormously grateful to people who hosted us on their shows or interviewed us for their blog, and I strongly suspect that this had an impact on our support – though I can’t prove it. Also, talking to people about our game was fun!

On top of that, we managed to attract interest from some big-name websites including the Mary Sue, Boing Boing and (after the campaign) Geek & Sundry. It’s still a bit of a mystery how we did this, other than having the bare-faced cheek to ask. I suspect the concept of a Lovecraft game that tackles diversity and inclusivity head-on helped. With that said, I saw precious little evidence in our referral data that these websites had an impact on our sales. We had google analytics set up on our kickstarter page, showing where people viewing the page had come from, together with kickstarter’s own analytics saying where our actual backers came from. So for example, Boing Boing got us a whopping 600 website referrals over the course of the campaign – but to judge from Kickstarter’s analytics, zero backers. On the other hand, the Mary Sue got us 160 views and 17 backers. These media splashes widened our reach beyond our wildest dreams, and probably did get us some backers (after all, some may have come back to the page later on, rather than being directly referred by an article). But it didn’t generate the deluge you might imagine, perhaps because they mainly extended our reach to people who weren’t that interested in roleplaying games – and so less likely to actually buy a copy.

While we’re on the subject of where backers came from… where did they come from, anyway? About 250 of our backers had got there from Kickstarter itself: the search page, the “discovery” pages, other campaigns, and so on. That’s nearly half our backers. We also got a lot from G+ and Facebook; some of these will have been friends, but not all. Again, not knowing if people were coming back having seen the campaign through a link but then looked it up later on, means we can’t be confident how they originally found out about the project.

We aimed for a steady flow of activity during the campaign, including stretch goal announcements, interviews and so on. We tried to strike a balance between regular updates, keeping things ticking over, and not overloading our backers (and social media feeds) with constant Lovecraftesque stuff. Again, this didn’t really have a visible impact on our stats, which conformed closely to the standard pattern, i.e. a big rush at the start, a lot of people jumping on at the end, and a pretty steady (low) rate of uptake in between. Again, we’re enormously grateful to everyone to shared our campaign and contributed to the buzz by talking about it, and I assume it had some impact. But nothing we did showed up in our stats particularly.

So… did any of this publicity work help? I mean, in a way it must have. Clearly, if you don’t talk about your game, nobody will know about it, so nobody will buy it. But despite collecting lots of data, there is very little evidence on which of this activity had an impact, and which didn’t. So I can’t say we really learned much, other than that the campaign obviously succeeded, so we got something right.

One thing we did not do is advertise. I’ve noticed recently some Kickstarters showing up as adverts in my Facebook feed. And I know at least one designer who has had some pretty good sales figures (not on Kickstarter) from advertising their RPG that way. We did consider doing this, but decided that spending a non-existent budget on advertising probably wasn’t the best plan. But I do wonder, having seen other people’s success, whether this was a mistake. It’s certainly something we’ll consider for the future.

One final interesting thing to ponder is the grabbiness of the game. People say that you can sell roleplayers anything with Cthulhu on it. We were in the weird position of effectively saying “Come and buy our Cthulhu game! Surprise, it doesn’t have Cthulhu in it, and it doesn’t work like a normal Cthulhu RPG, and we spend a big chunk of the text criticising and addressing HPL’s bigotry.” We know that at least a few people bought the game having not looked beyond the Lovecraftian brand (though we were excruciatingly clear on the campaign page what we were selling) and were then disappointed when they got the product. We could equally conjecture that some people were put off by the Lovecraftian brand, not having registered the ways that the game addressed the things that give Lovecraft a bad name. Still other people may have been drawn in by Cthulhu and not backed us when they saw what the game was really about.

In the end, we just don’t know how these things interacted. We had a very successful first Kickstarter, and we’re delighted by that.

In part 3, we’ll look at how we delivered our successfully funded kickstarter. Click here to read it.

Lovecraftesque – a kickstarter retrospective

Just over 2 years ago, we launched the Lovecraftesque kickstarter. If you didn’t follow it at the time, it was a success – we raised £15000, over triple our funding goal. As we’re slowly moving towards a position where we might kickstart some more games[*], it seems timely to talk a bit about what went well, and what went less well.

It turns out there’s quite a lot to say, so this is part one in a multi-part series. Part two is here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here. This part looks at the planning we did ahead of the kickstarter.

Design phase

We started writing the game a good year before the kickstarter. We had a clear concept, and clear design goals.

We were very fortunate to get a lot of interest from potential playtesters, many of whom actually playtested the game. We asked clear, focused playtest questions. As a result, we got great feedback which allowed us to refine and streamline the game. I think this is visible in the quality of the design.

We already had a completed draft ready when we launched the kickstarter. I suspect that knowing the game was written was a selling point, for a debut project. It also meant that we had one less thing to worry about in the delivery phase.

Planning phase – printing and shipping costs

We put a great deal of thought into planning the kickstarter.

We identified potential printers, and took quotes from a few.  We plumped for delivery through Drivethru‘s printer, Lightning Source aka Ingram Spark. (We went direct to the printer rather than through Drivethru because the prices were slightly lower.) We’ve been delighted by the quality of the books they produced, and the price was reasonable – albeit a lot higher than if we had done a print run. They ship directly to customers, which is keeps things simple for us logistically.

In retrospect, however, we may have got this wrong. We now know that we could have got a significantly lower price per unit than we actually got if we had gone with a print run instead of POD. The sample of non-POD printers we looked at didn’t appear competitive, but perhaps our sample was too small, or maybe we should have asked for recommendations. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea; for smaller numbers, which is what we had anticipated, Print On Demand makes a lot of sense. It reduced our exposure to the risks entailed by up-front expenditure. It allowed us to produce as many copies as we wanted after the Kickstarter, because we didn’t have to decide on a number of copies in advance. However, knowing what we know now, we probably could have saved £1000s with a print run. This would be particularly true if we had gone for a single format rather than offering both softcover and hardcover.

Specifically: we priced our initial funding goal for just over 100 physical copies. In practice, we funded at triple our goal, including 400 physical copies. But perhaps more importantly, we underestimated the number of copies we might sell after the campaign. As of now, we’ve sold 1100 copies, and are still selling a steady stream. That’s easily enough for a print run. This would have entailed an up-front cost. But the cost reduction per unit (excluding shipping) would have been huge, at around a £5 saving per unit. A print run of 1500 would not have been much more expensive than producing 400 copies by POD. This excludes shipping, so may overestimate the benefits of a print run: but the lesson is that you should think ahead and at least consider whether a print run might work out better for you.

On which subject: the huge plus of using Lightning Source was that their shipping costs were very, very low. We had done our research and got the message: shipping can be expensive, especially international shipping. Lightning Source delivered to anywhere in the world (with a very small number of exceptions) for about £2-3. If we had a comparably successful product in future, this would be the one factor that might decide in favour of POD over a print run.

Planning phase – art and layout costs

For both art and layout, we researched and selected a shortlist of 3-4 individuals to approach for a quote, based on work they’d done before. We actively solicited a diverse pool of artists to shortlist from – something I’ll cover in more detail later on. For layout artists, this was based on looking at games we owned; for illustrators, we looked at the artist’s online portfolio. We selected partly based on price, and partly based on how much we liked the artist’s work. They were all great, or we wouldn’t have looked at them. We are really happy with the work our artists did.

One of the illustrations for Lovecraftesque: three children and their dog swim in a deep blue waterhole. A massive alien eye lurks at the very bottom of the picture.
I love commissioning art SO MUCH.

We set specific goals for book length, and number of illustrations, for our basic funding goal and each of our stretch goals. took into account the extra printing costs that this would mean, and got specific quotes for each goal, including for extra illustrations, scenarios and so on, from our artists, so that we knew in advance exactly how much we would be paying, even for stretch goals that we hadn’t set at the start of the project.

Planning phase – other stuff

We had looked at a dozen other (completed) RPG kickstarters of a range of types, to get an idea of what the likely distribution of rewards chosen would be. We had a good idea of what percentage would be PDF-only, softcover, hardcover and so on: and these predictions were largely right. This helped us to ensure we were setting the correct funding goal, because the amount of money you keep varies by reward level (simply put, PDF has no print or shipping costs, so you keep 100% of the money, while physical copies vary in their costs).

We sought advice and views from lots of people in the run-up to the campaign. The biggest source of advice was Google Plus, where people generously gave their views on a wide range of issues we were worrying about – including many experienced people sharing their knowledge of how to run a kickstarter. We were super-grateful for all the advice we got, which hugely enhanced the research we ourselves had done.

We approached a handful of designers we knew and admired to write scenarios and essays for our stretch goals. We were gratified by the response – almost all said yes. We had set ourselves a goal to offer rates that would be significantly above the market rate for RPG writing, which may have been a factor in people accepting work from a couple of randos they’d never heard of. We set a word limit for our stretch goal materials, and stuck very closely to it, which meant that again, we knew in advance how much we would be paying for this work.

Finally, we had a contingency fund of 10% of our total funds raised, to cover stuff that might go wrong. This was a very good decision that we took early on, and – by fluke – we spent it almost exactly. (I’ll mention here that we’d planned to give an equal share of any remaining contingency money to ourselves and our artists. It didn’t happen, because there was nothing left, but we still think it was a pretty good idea, and will likely take the same approach in future campaigns.)

The next part covers how we ran the campaign itself – and how we supported diversity and inclusion. Click here to read it.

[*] Yes, plural.

Lovecraftesque – Behind the Scenes of a Kickstarter

We’ve been hard at work prepping to kickstart Lovecraftesque.  Exciting times!

Although we’ve both been gaming and designing for a long time we’ve never undertaken a project to make our games available to other people for cold hard cash.  It has been an incredible experience and one we are still living moment by moment.

It even included an instructive interlude last week when this modest website got hacked.

We are about a week or so off our Kickstarter launch so now seems like a good time to do a quick update about where we are, some news about our layout artist and artist and some behind the scenes bits.

Firstly I want to share our cover art by Robin Scott which is gorgeous and better in every way than we could have imagined.

cover

Robin is an amazingly talented person bringing an incredible level of detail to her pieces.  That firelight on snow effect in the cover, want to know how that happens, how the shadows are just right…

Robin built a model!

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Secondly I want to give a heartfelt thanks to our layout artist Nathan Paoletta.  Not only has he done a great job on our sample pages but he has been exceptionally generous in sharing his knowledge about kickstarting generally and various printing options.  We have learned a great deal just from him and I hope we get the chance to give back to newbie game designers in the same way. Here is a sneaky peak of his layout.

Layoutexample4

We are so excited that this is the level of detail and finesse going into the artwork for our game.  Also you have no idea how grown up it feels to commission art… serious proper adulting happening over here.

Next is a couple of photos we took at our video shoot. We are lucky enough to have a great video guy for a friend who helped us sort it out.  We cleared out our dining room for a morning to set everything up and had to hang a makeshift ‘autocue’ off the camera rig with a coat hanger.

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Lastly, if you’ve ever met me in real life, no doubt you will watch the video surprised at how tall I’ve grown.

Such is the trickery of video…

 

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Kickstarting has been a totally different experience to simply writing and playing games.  There are finances to work out (so many hidden costs and risks to factor in – Kickstarter fees, shipping, Kickstarter processing fees, international shipping, EU VAT, US Sales Tax and even currency fluctuations). There is a video to shoot, art direction to provide, layout proofs to review, stretch goal writers to approach (we have a total dream team lined up, I can’t wait to tell you about it!) project plans to create and enact and then the thorny problem of how to get the word out there and hope that enough kind people have it in their hearts to back us!

It has dawned on me that running a Kickstarter (even an unsuccessful one) requires you to get familiar with a whole load of new skills which go well beyond writing, playing and running games.  Obviously I really hope we fund, but even if we don’t I feel like our skills have taken this amazing leap forward.  Either way my respect for people who do crowd funding projects is immense, these people aren’t just game designers, they are totally multi-talented, and in ways I probably have yet to discover.

We’ll be announcing the Kickstarter launch really soon so check back on the blog or follow us on G+ to find out when.