Affordable Success: Why I'm Postponing the Kickstarter for Utara Dice Game

Utara Dice 2
I've decided to postpone plans for kickstarting my dice game Utara. Here's why.

Utara's biggest problem is that it calls for so many custom dice. I thought I could manage it as a small outfit thanks to new tools like Kickstarter. That opened up opportunities for high engagement and distributed costs. Those would compensate for high up-front production expenses of custom dice. That expense was just from the relatively affordable option of laser-engraved dice. Each of those would cost $1.10 to make at a quantity of 2,000.

Pricey, but at least it followed the model of similar novelty products like Mathematician's Dice and Writer's Dice. We figured a goal of ~$4,000 would get us where we needed to be. The trick would be focusing on the novelty and flexibility of individual dice, rather than the game Utara. We'd need to develop more properties using one, two or three Utara dice, but at least it could be done.

As I sought feedback on the tier rewards, it became clear that if I was to focus solely on the dice, most people wanted something a little more refined. The ideal would be ivory dice with black inlay engravings, like old piratey artifacts. Unfortunately, the cost for that spec would be $2.50 per die for 2,000 dice. The rule of thumb for retail is mark up about 3x-to-5x your production costs. That means a single die would be a little under ten bucks! Even with bulk consumer deals, like a set of ten for $30, the price point would be much higher than a similar product from a larger company. (Martian Dice comes with more dice for a fraction of the retail cost, for example.)

So, the next viable alternative is to actually go for an injection molded run of dice, custom made just for Utara. There are international options for just this purpose, as I learned from Fred Hicks. Turns out those prices per die were something like pennies per die, but required much higher quantities in a single production run. The ballpark guesstimate was something like 30,000 dice for around $7,000. However, those would take months to produce, go through customs, and travel by freight ship across the ocean. Then I'd need to hire a warehouse to store, sort and fulfill individual orders (unless I wanted a mountain of dice sitting in my living room.)

Even then, assuming a single retail unit contained 30 dice, for all that trouble I'd only get 1,000 units to sell. To be truly feasible, I'd need to order far more than 30,000 dice. 50,000? 100,000? I had enough trouble carrying a box of 2,000 from my car to my doorstep. I shudder to think about how much more of a hassle a larger quantity would be.

It's clear that I'm in this transitional period between boutique designer and middle-sized producer. What I kickstart next has a strong chance of succeeding, based on whatever social capital I've accrued over the past three years. That being the case, I really need to keep affordable success in mind.

That means if the Kickstarter succeeds and I can't fulfill on what I promise, or if I have to compromise on quality, that social capital will be squandered. So, I can't pursue a Utara Kickstarter right now. Even if I set a Kickstarter sky-high and it succeeds, I just don't have the time or infrastructure necessary to make it a product without compromise. It'll just have to wait for a partner with deeper resources somewhere down the line.

Thanks for following the ups and downs of Utara. It'll come some day, just not right now. For now I'm going to pursue formats that are much more feasible for a small guy like me. Card and party games with minimal components that can be domestically manufactured and distributed in small runs. I have plenty of options in that space.

Superhero Audition, Belle of the Ball, Dead Weight, Dung & Dragons, Stupor Market, What's Your Excuse?!, and For The Fleet are all worthy candidates. Which interest you?

36 comments:

  1. Dead Weight, I found the SG thread a week ago and have been psyched about it ever since!

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  2. Great and revealing post, Daniel, thank you! FWIW, I'm most intrigued by Dead Weight and For The Fleet, lately, but all of these up-and-coming games have their appeal.

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  3. Seems like a popular choice!

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  4. I never gave For the Fleet proper attention. I should revisit and test it out a bit more.

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  5. Thank you for the post Daniel! The dice you have pictured look like the same kinds I would want made for my own custom game "Punch City Fighters". I realize the cost of multiple dice makes KS cost prohibitive.

    Have you considered creating the dice portion of the game as a downloadable app? I just came across the idea after reading your post. It would save on costs, reach a considerable number of players who own iDevices and you'd then be able to focus on the printing/manufacturing of the other components (that ultimately are cheaper).

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  6. Yup, an app is certainly a viable option. If a licensor comes around with a desire to implement Utara as such, I'd be very interested.

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  7. I agree, though I am interested in Dead Weight the AW Hack, to be clear.

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  8. Sounds like a tough choice, but the right one. Thanks for filling us in on the decision-making process. I'll be honest that I was not planning on funding Utara because the price point was too high for me. I'm spoiled by huge-run injection molding.

    I'd love to see Belle of the Ball come out. I've still been thinking about it ever since that first playtest so long ago. I just like the mechanics, 'cause it's a card game...but it's a board game...but it's a card game...

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  9. Yeah, I still have your notes from your playtest session. I need to revisit it a bit. I'm not sure if the board game elements still fit the theme as much as I hoped. A while back in Pitch Tag, I came up with this other concept...

    "It's a monster mash! All the neighborhood monsters are coming to your party, but how long will they stay? Invite ghoulish guests like vampires, zombies, ghosts, mutants and mummies. Each guest has their own preferences and will change the party in different ways, like making the music louder, eating more snacks, and making guests dance. Keep the guests you invited happy. If the party turns away from an existing guests' taste, they'll leave the party early. Your goal is to keep the party as lively (or deadly) as your guests prefer while making the other players' guests uncomfortable. The party ends at sunrise!"

    This seems a little more manageable to design. The process of inviting guests who affect current guests and wanting to maximize certain mix of guests.

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  10. That was definitely John Harper's baby. He's got a head for RPG design that I is unparalleled.

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  11. Thanks for your transparency on this. It's a very useful thought process for any game designer to work through.

    As for what's next? I'm always a fan of "Superhero" themed stuff.

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  12. That'll be a very art-intensive project, but otherwise easy to manufacture. Sounds like a good candidate for Kickstarting.

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  13. Mixing retail profit assumptions...

    "The rule of thumb for retail is mark up about 3x-to-5x your production costs"

    ...and Kickstarter do not necessarily follow in my opinion.

    Kickstarter's tag line is that it is a new way to fund and follow creativity. As everyone familiar with it is aware, a lot of people use Kickstarter just to realize the creation of an idea or design without a necessary condition for participation being profitability.

    Understanding that you are talented and your time is valuable, Daniel, is a realistic and pragmatic consideration, but having profitability as a guiding motive and central assumption is not a very compelling impetus to me for approaching a crowd-funding platform---it makes me think you're outgrowing the medium (especially given your penchance for crowd-sourcing ideas).

    In my opinion, the board game space in relation to Kickstarter is too concerned with starting companies and not concerned enough with creating experiences as a portfolio or proof-of-concept execution which can in turn get them recognized by professional publishers who specialize in production, distribution, and fulfillment.

    Why would any designer want to mess around in that muck of additional responsibilities? It's easy. The clear advantage to a designer aspiring to become a publisher is the potential for total editorial control. And what designer doesn't want that---so I understand the motivation to use Kickstarter as a way to jump start your business and professional aspirations. But in this case, with Utara, the business and branding considerations appear to me to have become more important to you than the gameplay and imagination of the design.

    This is just a perception, but it is an important evolution upon which to reflect if it rings true with regards to Kickstarter. While business and profession aspirations are valid, I prefer my Kickstarter projects to be fueled primarily by creative aspiration. I think there was an opportunity to do that for Utara and you turned away from it.

    Art and commerce can mix, they are not incompatible by any means; but I will always lean towards supporting the projects on Kickstarter that lead with the deed and not the dollar. Once you change your intent and assumptions, you have to assume unexpected changes to your designs, your outcomes, and your relationships.

    Kickstarter is about trust. I will always contend that charging Kickstarters full or near-full retail makes no sense to me. As long as all financial risk rests on the backer---as it clearly does with Kickstarter---how can profitability be such a central assumption?

    Meaningful rewards to your backers have always been a part of your projects, Daniel; suggesting they could name the islands of Utara, thoughtful thank you's in your acknowledgments, the asterix you put next to people's names if they find edits during proof-reading for you---those draw me into your projects and make want to become a backer. Your increasing transparency with the financial considerations behind your projects, however, has only distanced me from wanting to be a backer.

    Crowd-sourcing and retail assumptions just don't mix for me.

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  14. Thanks so much for this analysis, Chris. Obviously transparency is a double-edged sword in this case, but I hope I can clarify a few points.

    Your apprehension about the mixing of retail and crowdsourcing is very fair. As I noted, I'm going through a transitional period right now, but I think the whole notion of crowdsourcing vs. crowdfunding is going through a transitional period, too. Some creators are using it for art, some are using it as pre-order, some are doing a little bit of both.

    Still, you're quite right that Kickstarter may end up not really being the best channel for projects like Utara. That's why it's more likely that it'll only come to fruition when there is a commercial partner willing to take on the responsibilities (and risks) of retail.

    I only mentioned the retail markup because it addresses some of the costs inherent in this project that lie outside of pure production costs. See this post as an example of the extra hidden costs that can arise...

    http://danielsolisblog.blogspot.com/2012/01/follow-up-on-costs-of-writers-dice.html

    I made a rookie mistake in setting my Kickstarter goal so low and setting the lowest tier without pricing appropriately. (Each single-die order actually cost about $6-$7 to produce and ship.) It was only with the additional backers that I broke even. Fortunately, the economy of scale also let me order some extra dice that can sold off as long-tail direct sales to further defer the costs. In other words, I dodged a bullet. When I calculated markup for Utara, it was only so that I could account for those hidden costs.

    Anyhoo, so that's the whole schpiel. Thanks very much for your support of my past projects. I really do appreciate it very much. I hope I can offer some new projects down the line that are of value to you. :)

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  15. Daniel,

    I can address some of the key points you mention that prevent you from undertaking a project like Utara - but, as we've said before, we should definitely discuss this in person.

    As for Chris Schreiber's comments, he and I have had this same discussion before, and he's made clear his thoughts that KS should go beyond just a retail portal. Whereas I agree to some extent, I thought it was important to address his point about retail mark-up not applying (of which you made mention). Without going by the retail mark-up model, we could never have produced Carnival. Without the retail mark-up model, VivaJava would never have been possible. Without the retail mark-up model, we would have had to sell copies of our games for just above cost, which neither covers shipping, nor customs, nor taxes, nor fees. Without the retail mark-up model, we would have to resort to a much smaller print run of our games, which would equal inferior quality (by having to dance around competent manufacturer's print-run bases), and no money to help fund the resources for the next game (such as art, shipping playtest copies, making prototypes and getting spec samples). All the costs add up, and I don't think many out there realize how so very tiny any profit margin is for the board game industry.

    Anyway, this conversation has happened many times on BGG - and Chris and I have talked both on there and via email/comments several times. He's always been very supportive of Kickstarter and independent projects, and certainly kept an open mind, so even if we don't always see eye to eye on the particular mores, I think the discussion has continued to be a valuable one.

    Looking forward to gaming (and talking with you) soon!
    Cheers,
    Chris

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  16. Oh, and I think Belle of the Ball would do well on KS and be very easy to publish.

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  17. I think that Kickstarter will work for different companies in different ways. If KS or funders feel that this breaks with the "spirit" of KS, that will be up to them to either change policy or choose to not fund, respectively.

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  18. At the danger of getting your Chris' crossed (on several levels, eh?), I am more than comfortable with KS being a retail portal, but that point isn't salient here at all. (Even if it's a shame I don't work in Durham so that we could discuss the nuances at a local tavern)

    At a bear minimum, I am trying to add a distinction to the discussion of approaching crowd-funding as being along a continuum: at one end there is the ART PROJECT (just happy to be made, impetus is to not lose money) and at the other end is a RETAIL PRODUCT (pre-orders, using economies of scale to balance risk and achieve profitability). Knowing where you are at on the scale colors your assumptions and retail is not the only set of assumptions that works. Besides, when you're going through a transition and your goals are evolving, reflection is meant to be helpful.

    What I am offering isn't business advice, it's perspective from a supporter who has played Utara and has some interest in seeing it shared with a larger audience, if not produced professionally. As the showcase for Daniel's work grows--I just hope a more 'art project' approach at lower margins isn't always summarily dismissed.

    This approach and art project consideration also makes sense when crowd-sourcing of ideas/design is involved: http://bit.ly/zYsmkb

    Additionally, there is an interesting article published today in BoardGameGeek News by W Eric Martin that hits on some salient details to those of us in the hobby market. He has just attended the Toy and Game Fair in NYC and has made some interesting observations. I recommend it very much because the article discusses the exposure benefits of Kickstarter as well as presents an interesting take on the retail vs. hobby market that gamers often miss:

    HIGHLY RECOMMENDED -- http://bit.ly/x7u3Cl

    W Eric Martin (the sassy Walter Cronkite of the board game universe) argues convincingly that more of the big publishers should be using crowd-funding. Now that's provocative!

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  19. Well, I guess Eric Martin has let one of the items I don't talk about ALL the time out of the bag. The exposure gained via crowdfunding is essential when moving into distribution.

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  20. It sounds to me like you need the leverage associated with potential print run sizes approaching 5,000 with compression molded urea dice that you can get from a manufacturer like Grand Prix International.

    But that requires a large amount of prep...

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  21. I think it needs some refinement, but yeah it has potential as a more straight card game on a smaller board.

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  22. Ooh, thanks for that link. It is really intriguing. Also, the comments later in that thread shed a harsh light on one kind of structure tier structure. Some folks would place greater value on getting the game alone below retail price. Others would rather get the game at retail price, so long as they also got some exclusive value-adds. There are a lot of ways to approach it. Hmm...

    Well anyhow, that's for another time clearly. Looks like I'm in the story game PDF and small card game arena for the time being. It's a nice space. :)

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  23. Agreed, I find this stuff very interesting precisely because it is such a disruption to traditional business models. The whole reason I am commenting is that I have an academic interest in this subject and like to discuss it.

    I feel compelled to recommend another W Eric Martin article from BoardGameGeek News. His 'Sold Out at the Publisher Level – What Does That Mean for You?' is excellent:

    http://bit.ly/xFXr3U

    The article and enlightening discussion in the comments actually gets into interesting conundrums revolving around distribution issues that really expand the zone of disruption inherent within KS as an innovation, This was the first time Eric ever articulated that big-time publishers could also benefit from KS. It's almost a dare based on common sense. I love it.

    Also, please note I'm not arguing against a retail approach for all of KS, that's ridiculous and utterly simplistic. I'm arguing that it isn't the ONLY approach and set of assumptions that can move a game forward into the community. An 'art project' approach can as serve as an in-between stage that functions as a 'gamma-type' (to make up a term using your own terminology). A 'gamma-type' can push a publisher to act and adds a lot more voices behind your case.

    The marketing value of KS is hard to a dollar on. There may be many games on Kickstarter, but there are few professional quality projects and those stand out (especially because no one has come close to your project video skills). What your game talked about---put it on Kickstarter!

    Case in point, even though the exposure takes some effort and isn't automatic---I really think the platform's inherent goodwill and finite pledge period become a boon for anyone savvy with social media. The short window is crucial because when (if ever) has 'act now' in a commercial actually really meant 'act now' or you really will miss out? It creates an action moment. Commitment. It all becomes a dramatic personality-driven narrative consumer model. In short, it becomes an experience.

    The experience is as salient as the product and a frequent backer of projects sees this more poignantly than a seasoned retail-focused perspective might need to yet. I repeat, their view is valid---but there are new variables. Audiences that see KS merely as a way to distribute risk and accomplish funding aren't seeing why it works in the first place. Sure, how KS works solves a lot of traditional problems and it removes barriers to entry, but that doesn't explain why KS is working.

    I still contend a low-margin 'art project' intermediary approach could be a huge marketing and brand investment without being a a major financial payout immediately. Of course, we live in a monetize it first nation; good thing Amazon, Google, Facebook and the entire broadcast radio and television industry didn't strictly adhere to traditional retail assumptions alone.

    But that's silly long-term thinking that could lead to trying to predict games that could last over a thousand years. Who would attempt something that ridiculous?

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  24. So let's say I were to use KS simply to fund a prototype. (This wouldn't be the case, since I've already paid for a prototype out-of-pocket.)

    That prototype set of thirty dice cost me about $80. Let's say I set a KS goal for $100, to account for the percentages cut by KS and Amazon payments.

    That's a relatively modest goal, so I'd probably just set that for a three-day deadline.

    Any thoughts as to what's in it for backers? Granted, that might just be me working from past assumptions, but I just feel weird if I got paid to produce this prototype with no further commitment.

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  25. GPI was what Fred recommended too, just to make the per-die costs somewhat feasible. That's also what made it clear I'm not ready for that kind of time overhead. After all, my profile says "game designer by _night_" I do have a day job already. :P

    But somewhere down the line, I could find a publisher/partner to help with managing all that. I'm in no rush. :)

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  26. We really need to have the first big guild meeting so you and Eric can talk. Have you met Eric before?

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  27. I knew you weren't done with your point. ;)

    And without going too deeply into it, I agree with you that an "art project" approach to certain projects shouldn't be dismissed. It definitely depends on the expectations and long-term plans of the creator.

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  28. I don't *think* so.

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  29. Hmmm...I don't see how that is different, other than being reskinned with a new theme. Aren't the goals still the same? I confess, it's been a while...

    But, it seems like it could still work with a southern ball...Ah, except, Belle of the Ball implies a central force, the belle. You think it might be confusing to have each player acting in the role of rival belles, so there is no central force? Seems like that could work in the same way as with the monster party organizer. A fraternity/sorority party theme could work, too. Might be easier to come up with iconic "powers" for the fantastic theme, though.

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  30. Oh, sorry, I meant the theme would be the same but the mechanics would be more like a card game and less like a tile-laying game. For example...

    You and the other players have a hand of guest cards.

    Invite a guest by laying a card on the table in front of you. When you do so, that guests attributes will attract or repel any guests of your neighboring players.

    When your guest attracts, any neighboring player's affected guests comes to you.

    When your guest repels, any of your affected guests go to the neighboring player of your choice.

    Suuuuper simple.

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  31. Ah, okay. I think I get it. That could be just as fun. Though, one of my favorite parts was the tile-laying aspect. Like playing Sequence, but with added challenge and player interaction.

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  32. Hm... Perhaps. I gotta look over your last set of notes before I make a decision.

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  33. Ha! Don't change things on my account. I can definitely see it working without the tile-laying bit. I thought that added a bit of uniqueness to the game, but it's not working, you gotta scrap it, right?

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  34. Still willing to test out future iterations?

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  35. Definitely. My bi-weekly gaming crew likes to playtest things occasionally, and they did seem to like Belle. Plus, if you could get up to a Spielbany, you'd do well. (Oh, man. just checked the drive time you'd have. Much further than I imagined. Bummer. My geography skills are abyssmal.)

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  36. cool, whatever you end up coming up with, I'd be interested in checking out. I really appreciate how you share your design process on this site!

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Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.