For many months, I've promised the story of Happy Birthday, Robot! and its license to Sandstorm, but each time I think it's over, it takes another strange turn. So, here's an overview of the story so far: I licensed HBR to Sandstorm. I got an advance on royalties. Sandstorm fell silent for many months. I heard third-hand that they ceased business operations. Now, we're going through formal steps to get my license back. If you want more detail, read on!
Origin of Happy Birthday, Robot!
I made a fun, family-friendly little storytelling game that seemed to have broad appeal. Folks on the internet liked it and I ran a couple successful playtests at Dreamation 2010. I ran a Kickstarter in 2010 to publish it as my first commercial product. It was one of the very early Kickstarter successes out of the indie RPG community.
Evil Hat's Partnership
Before launching the Kickstarter, I consulted with more experienced people about self-publishing and the costs therein. One of those people was Fred Hicks from Evil Hat Productions. He was so encouraging of Happy Birthday, Robot! that he wanted to take on the publishing responsibilities off my hands. We came to an agreement and now Evil Hat sells HBR books through its website.
At some point, HBR caught the attention of Sandstorm. At the time, in late 2010, they were buying licenses to publish games in a variety of genres through several different studio imprints. I got legal counsel from Tim Koppang. After several months of email negotiations, we came to an agreement. Evil Hat would keep selling HBR books, but Sandstorm would use their license to create a boxed set. I got an advance on royalties and didn't hear much from them after that. I sent one email in late 2011 to the president of the company, but I got an auto-response stating that he had resigned and now the marketing director is the primary contact. Emails were still sporadic after that. Mainly, I was just curious about how successful they had been with pitching a boxed set at ToyFair and other shows. You can see the prototype above.
I caught a mention of Sandstorm's collapse in an article about Catalyst Labs' experience with them. I emailed Sandstorm for more information, but all emails to their domain got bounced back. Their website was no longer active. Tim Koppang found that they still had a business registration in Washington state. We sent a certified letter to their listed address notifying them that I would be taking back my license, per the terms of the contract. That letter was returned with a note from the post office stating "No Such Street."
Today, you can still get Happy Birthday, Robot! from Evil Hat Productions. Thankfully, that has never changed. As for getting in touch with Sandstorm, I have another address in my records, listed on an old sales sheet. The strange thing is that the sale sheet's address is exactly the same as their registered address, except in a different town and zip code. Same street and number, different town and zip code. Very strange. We're going to try to contact them at this alternate address, but we're assuming that this letter is just a formality. As far as I can tell, I have the license to Happy Birthday, Robot!
What happened to Sandstorm?
Questions still remain. I still don't know the circumstances of Sandstorm's collapse. No one willing to talk has the whole story. Did they buy too many licenses? Did they spend too much too fast? If you can find some information, I'd love to see it. I'm just curious at this point and it might be a cautionary tale for others.
All in all, I am very lucky if this is the worst burn story I get. Sandstorm offered a good advance with reasonable terms for me and for Evil Hat. I had wise counsel from Tim Koppang. Now, I get to keep my license and now I'm free to use the IP however I wish. That's a happy ending in my book.