I decided a year ago to largely avoid games on Kickstarter. I had three terrible Kickstarter experiences in a row (read about those here) and, with a 0% strike rate on Kickstarter versus a 100% hit rate in terms of games from shops, I went with the sensible odds.
Now I’m not here to rain on Kickstarter (again); I’m sure at least one in 10 Kickstarter games is pretty good and if you fancy a gamble, knock yourself out. And if my best avenue to get a game of mine published was through a Kickstarter company, I wouldn’t hesitate.
What I want to talk about is the fact traditional board game publishers seem woefully off the pace in terms of getting their message out and if they don’t get with the program, they could be a few years away from trouble.
Living in a board game boom time
While non-high street board and card games are still a drop in the ocean compared to most corners of popular culture in terms of sales, this is as good as it has ever been for the hobby in many countries. The US in particular has seen a strong rise in interest, while countries such as the UK and other parts of Europe are also experiencing a growing acceptance of games.
This is most obvious in high street stores, with the likes of Target and Walmart in the US and Waterstones and WHSmiths in the UK deigning to stock the occasional game that doesn’t suck. This means everyone publishing games should be seeing some sort of rise in sales and it’s easy to see that as a sign to ‘keep on keeping on’. But when this growth curve flatlines, which it probably will, traditional board game publishers may get a shock.
Because while many traditional publishers keep doing what they’ve always done in terms of marketing, a new generation of start-ups is Kickstarting its way into the industry. And these people are tech savvy, learning as they go, and recovering from their mistakes as they move forward. So where are the new consumer battle lines being drawn?
It’s all gone quiet over there
Every time I listen to a podcast, I am bombarded with Kickstarter adverts. And, once the ads finish, I’m oft bombarded with a Kickstarter ‘preview’ or five telling me how I can go and back these games RIGHT NOW! Yup, free ads following the paid ads.
And then they bring out this episode’s ‘special’ guest – who could it be?! Reiner Knizia? Stefan Feld? Mac Gerdts? Zev from Z-Man? Eric Hautemont from Days of Wonder?! No? Oh. It’s Billy Nochops from Our First Games speaking reverently about how he used to play D&D and how he made up a game and now he wants me to back it because, you know, what else am I going to spend my money on?
When I go to BoardGameGeek, the spiritual home of most hobby gamers, the majority of the banner ads and competitions are for Kickstarter games – and the videos section is going that way too. Twitter is awash with them, while ‘going viral’ is pretty much the Holy Grail of any Kickstarter board game project. And so it should it be – we live in the age of social networking, where one free Tweet could end up doing you more good than a $2,000 convention stand.
Kickstarter project leaders also realise their games need to be played and their voices need to be heard – especially with so many Kickstarter disasters having muddied the waters for some buyers. So again, they’re innovating – getting paid previews done, sending free games to the top video reviewers, and now increasingly putting out free print and play versions of some (or all) of their new game for anyone who wants to give it a go.
And they’re also using the spaces between the traditional June/October release windows to snap up that gamer dollar in the 10 months a year we’re largely left pining for new games to spend our hard earned cash on. And then there’s apps…
Board game publishers: bring your reputation to the party
Traditional publishers, and by association designers, seem to think it’s OK to largely ignore the new media. They tend to have a website (although good luck finding one that’s well maintained), a Facebook page (some even post on them!) and maybe a Twitter account. I can only presume they think that Spielbox, Essen, GenCon and a press release will do them just fine, thank you very much. And for now, in the boom, it probably will.
You only need to look at, say, ANY INDUSTRY to see that ignoring the internet is going to bite you in the ass long-term. Publishing was a classic, and music too, then retail – while I’m sure there are examples across the board of companies being last online and the first onto the scrap heap.
Of course some publishers are getting it right. Once the traditional release windows start coming around you won’t be able to get Stronghold Games’ Stephen Buonocore out of your headphones (and very entertaining he is too), Plaid Hat has its own podcast, while Queen Games has taken to Kickstarter like a duck to water. But they tend to be the exceptions, rather than the rule – and few get it right in all avenues.
So this is a plea to traditional publishers – start taking the internet seriously before you fall so far behind the young Kickstarter companies that you risk becoming irrelevant. Most of the best people in the industry work and design for the big publishers but you need to wake up and see that the world is moving on around you.
Get on with it already!
You are in a great position. Board game consumers, unlike many traditional retail areas, LOVE most designers and publishers. People and firms in the industry tend to have good reputations, again knocking the general retail/business trend, so there is not a popularity hump to get over – just a technological/forward thinking one.
And more importantly, board gamers want well tested, well designed, well laid out and graphically outstanding games. They want solid release schedules, games that don’t need an expansion to make them work, and that they can pop online and buy today rather than hoping to get it in 2015 in the two-day window it’s in stock. We want arbiters of quality, taking the best games they find and producing them, sending others back to the drawing board where they can be improved upon BEFORE they come out.
So what do you say, traditional publishers and designers? Is it too much to ask to bring your website up to date and get one of your employees to regularly tweet and run Facebook competitions? To get your designers on the phone with The Dice Tower, On Board Games and the rest for interviews? To get your games to the video reviewers to coincide with pre-order campaigns as Plaid Hat does? I don’t think so.