I’ve been writing to a lot of reviewers over the past few weeks, to try to make sure that there are some live reviews of Shenanigans when it launches. I’m a big fan of informed choice. As I’m sure you’re already aware, some reviews won’t touch prototypes for games on Kickstarter. I don’t write to reviewers who explicitly state on their sites that they don’t do KS – that’s rude – but I always end up talking to a few who don’t by accident or because the policy change is recent. This time I’ve been asking people why they don’t do Kickstarter, partly out of curiosity but also to improve my own practices so that I don’t contribute to other reviewer’s negative experiences of the platform. I thought that it might be interesting to share some of my results.
Problem: Kickstarter games suck.
There have been some truly exceptional games launched on Kickstarter, the platform is growing year on year. Last year $50 million were raised for board games, up from $26 million the year before. I don’t think we’d be seeing growth like that if people weren’t satisfied with what they’ve been getting out of the platform so far.
However, by far and away the most common comment from reviewers about why they don’t preview KS games is that the experience tends to be sucky. The games tend to have badly written rules, be horribly unbalanced and be no fun to play. That’s a double whammy for a lot of reviewers because not only do they not enjoy having a shitty games night but they also don’t enjoy publicly telling someone that their hopes and dreams aren’t worth investing in. Reviewers tend towards being decent people which makes it painful to write honest reviews about bad games.
To unify these facts, you need to bear in mind that Kickstarter’s success rate is a fraction of its activity rate. When I first started launching on the platform a whopping 70% of UK based games failed utterly to generate enough money to be made. I don’t know the rate for the traditional games industry, but I’d bet folding money that more than 30% of games that get published cover their costs – it’s hard to imagine the industry surviving without that. Put this together and it explains how you have a platform that’s generating great works, but that also has enough dross on it to make reviewer’s lives miserable if they have to wade through it.
Best Practice: Test your game.
This is a no-brainer. Reviews shouldn’t be a surprise to the developer, you should already have put your game in front of enough players to have a fair idea of what pros and cons reviewers are going to pick up on. If more people were thoroughly testing their games before sending them to reviewers, then fewer reviewers would be getting bad KS prototypes and that’s good news for everyone.
Problem: Deadline Hypocrisy
Someone launching a Kickstarter tends to have a very definite idea of when they want a review to be live. It helps to have it during the campaign, especially in the first day or two. A lot of reviewers have had bad experiences of creators pushing for unreasonable review dates, based on what suits their Kickstarter. To make things worse these same creators may change their launch dates due to some other factor and will them expect the reviewer to change their review date to match.
That’s pretty miserable. A moved date leaves a reviewer with a hole in their schedule that either means rushing out some sub-par work or missing an update, neither of which is great. Working to a tight time pressure is never fun and some creators make it very tight indeed. Some even contact reviewers after their campaign is already live and are looking for things to happen in a week or two!
Best Practice: Plan ahead & be flexible.
Don’t send a reviewer anything if there’s less than a month until you need a review. If you’ve left it so late then be respectful and push your launch date back a bit rather than trying to force people to rush – to be honest if you’re only sending out review copies with a few weeks to go your campaign is almost certainly not ready on some other level anyway.
If you need to move a campaign date – and it happens – be flexible. Let reviewers know that you’ve moved the date, but also be willing to have their review come out on the originally planned date. If this means you’re building a fanbase earlier than planned or getting supporters after the campaign is over then so be it. It was your scheduling error and you should pick up the pieces. If a reviewer wants to be nice and accomodate the new date then that’s really nice of them, but it shouldn’t be something that is expected or pressured.
Problem: Uninterested Audience
Just as designers are always trying to do right by their players and are continuously looking for ways to make their games more awesome, reviewers are always trying to do right by their readers and are continuously looking for ways to make their reviews more awesome. So when readers say “We don’t want to read about things that’ll be on Kickstarter” it’s only natural for reviewers to stop reviewing them.
Best Practice: Be more awesome (seriously!)
There’s no direct response to be made here. All game designers could do everything right, making great games and treating reviewers time and effort with respect and still fall foul of this problem. Really this is a second order problem: Why do some people not want to hear about KS? What can be done to change that?
Here, we find a multitude of answers. There are people who want a game now, not months later. There are people put off by failed campaigns. There are people put off by successful campaigns that failed to deliver. There are people put off by successful campaigns that did deliver, but that turned out not to match up to expectations. There are people put off by prices that are lower for last minute supporters than for backers. There are…
The reasons are endless and while we should address them, we’ll never stop all of them. Kickstarter will always be a place of delayed gratification and even doing everything right there will always be risks (though we can minimise them). If we want people to be electrically excited by the prospect of our campaigns then we need to find ways to make them something special – something that justifies the downside inherent to the system.
There’s not a one size fits all way to do this, a lot of things that are awesome once don’t work again (look at the failed copycat projects that litter the platform). It’s more a state of mind, if we ask “How can we make being a backer of this project fantastic” often enough then that’ll lead us to a place that people want to hear about what we’re doing.
Problem: The Game Changes
Nobody likes seeing their hard work go to waste. The problem is that sometimes a game hits Kickstarter and is so changed by the process that the game that arrives at the end has only the faintest resemblance to the prototype that existed at the beginning. So there are going to be times that a reviewer puts a lot of effort into playing a prototype, thinking deeply about how all of it’s parts interact and slaving over finding the perfect set of words to delight the readers mind as the review is read – only to find that when the game is published their review is now irrelevant and it was all for nothing.
The wasted time is bad enough, but it gets worse if fans of the game become hostile to the reviewer over it. Even worse if people involved with the game decide that’s acceptable – especially given that they created the situation.
Best Practice: Predict the Future
Change is also a wonderfully positive thing about the platform. I loved working with backers to generate new content during the Wizard’s Academy Kickstarter. It’s delightful as a backer to get to be involved in the process of sculpting a game into its final form. I wouldn’t want to recommend “never change” but it’s clear that the potential for change can make reviewing a KS game a negative experience. So what can we do?
We can predict where the changes will come and what form they will take. The game has seen plenty of testing (You have been playtesting it, right?) so you’ve already heard a lot of the sorts of suggestions that people are going to make. Yes there’s a one in a million chance that a backer will have a moment of glory and spot the perfect alteration that would never have occurred to you otherwise, but for the most part you can see what might change during the campaign.
You can let reviewers know where the changes are likely to be before they write their reviews. If a reviewer knows what’s likely to change then they can acknowledge that while still giving an honest opinion (e.g. Backers will get to design extra event cards during the campaign, but in this version it’s clear that there’s nowhere near enough variety and that made the game feel stale quickly). That way things stay relevant and the changes don’t wrong foot anyone.
I admit that I’ve not been doing that, it didn’t occur to me that changing the game represents a problem for previewers until I’d had these conversations, but I’m glad that I did since it’s such a simple thing to improve my practice in a way that makes things a little bit easier for everyone.
So what about you? Are you a reviewer, do you have a KS bugbear that I didn’t cover? A creator who has a better idea about how to tackle some of these issues? A gamer with a strong opinion on how to make KS more interesting?
I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic, I’d love to learn more.