Hi Gergely Gombos. Last time we spoke together you were about to launch a new game after your big hit, Saltlands. The new game was Critters below. How did that go?

What a ride! We decided to, after Saltlands, produce a smaller game that is simpler to design and manufacture. But it turned out to be harder to market. A LOT harder. There are so many smaller games on the market and it’s hard to stand out from the crowd unless you have some very-very special idea.

So we did what worked with Saltlands: collected an audience, press coverage, a nice campaign page etc. but it turned out to be a flop. The launch itself was good, we collected more than 50% in 3 days, but somehow the whole thing just didn’t feel right for us. We felt we could do better and there was some neutral-to-negative feedback in Facebook groups and among the Kickstarter comments.

When did you decide to cancel it?

We didn’t put much effort into promotion from then on. When in a few days the campaign got into the slump phase, we decided to cancel it.
We saw from the stats that it could barely fund, but we wanted to have an option for more funding. Even if the relauch has finished at 120% only instead of, say 200%, we at least know that we did our best this time.

Why do you think it failed?

Well, there are reasons on the surface and reasons deep underneath. For the relaunch, we fixed the reasons on the surface, like the presentation on the campaign page, pledge levels, packaging etc. but you can’t ‘fix’ your game type or theme, the basic components of its marketing (i.e. the ways that you can bring your game to the market).

The most important reason for failing on the surface was a hard-to-understand pledge structure & presentation and relatively high pledge prices.

What feedback did you get from the backers?

The best thing about relaunching is that you already have a community of backers eager to help you and give feedback. From their viewpoint, helping to fund a relaunch is a thrilling experience, a level of involvement into the project that many people love. It’s actually one of the strong points of Kickstarter and I feel grateful towards these people.

We created a simple Google form to get feedback. If you are interested, you can take a look here.

We tried to get general feedback (why they had backed, what they liked etc.) and to measure connection with Saltlands (have they heard about it etc.).

Also, to make manufacturing more efficient and the pledges lower, we wanted to get some responses about extra components that we thought would be good but they simply didn’t want.

Do you think the theme had something to do with that so few Saltlands backers followed you over to Critters below?

Not only the theme. We actually asked whether they’d prefer a Saltlands theme. It was more about the game weight & category. Saltlands is a medium-weight adventure game for hobbyists and even hardcore gamers. (But some casual players have bought it due to the compelling theme and art.) Critters Below is more geared towards casual players because the gameplay is shorter and simpler, even if it still has high production quality and some nice mechanics.

We actually chose the ‘Critters’ theme instead of human survivors because there’s a rule that when someone dies, you put a can of poisonous food into the deck. We thought that could deter some players if this was played out with humans. With animals… nobody blinked an eye. 🙂

But the animals theme may look bad in the eyes of some more hardcore hobbyists.

After a while you relaunched Critters below. What did you do different this time?

1. We dropped the “2 cans” (2 cans for 1-4 players that could be mixed for a 1-8 player experience) concept and merged them into 1 can. The “2 cans” concept might have been better for retail but we cancelled the campaign, so why bother? This made the game more affordable (less packing & shipping cost), and brought more content in the same package.

Result: many backers didn’t even understand the original concept so doing this was a very good decision.

2. The 1 can can be played by 1-6 players instead of 1-4. This means that we dropped 7-8 players, due to three reasons:
– the game becoming too long for 7-8 players
– less cards needed, saving money and space
– in the backer feedback, 75% of backers stated that they ‘rarely’ play with more than 6 players.

Result: nobody requested the 7-8 players mode. We saved on manufacturing and could lower pledge levels.

3. New cover art. We have redrawn the old one due to the negative comments that it was “too furry”, “sexualizing”, “non-family-friendly”, “not connected to the game’s theme” etc.

Result: the new cover has received much positive feedback! Moreover, each pledge level could receive its own coloring.
Due to requests though we might release the old cover in a PDF so that fans of that could still print some stickers for themselves. 🙂

This is an important realization: a good cover won’t make you buy a game, but a bad cover can completely prevent you from even considering it. So, a cover art can be nice and all, but experimenting here with special things is a dangerous area.

4. We reworked and added more cards, characters & stretch goals while merging the cans. Also finished most 95% of the artwork. Important point!

5. Minor rules changes. We had 1-2 months to test and fine-tune the game – and write a better rulebook. This always rewards itself!

6. Better pledge level structure.
The feedback form showed that most backers want the KS special cards to have the best game experience but they don’t care about extra components.

We came up with this structure:
– €19 Regular Rdition (that could go to retail for MSRP €24.95), 11% of backers
– €25 Special Edition – ALL extra cards & stretch goals. 42% of backers.
– €40 Collector’s Edition – some more extra components. 38% of backers – way more than for the original campaign (~15%)!
– €90 Special Edition 4-pack for those who want to save on shipping.

Result: no negative feedback this time so far.
– We wanted the €25 pledge to be the main one – backers could see the €19 in comparison and most decided to go for the special stuff. That’s what Kickstarter is for, after all, and they could get all special cards this way. But the Collector’s was ‘only’ €15 away and many have bought into that.
– Do not make game-critical components (e.g. cards) exclusive to higher pledge levels! People don’t like that.
– Although you can ask for more for special, but not game-critical components. (e.g. tokens, metal stuff, player mats, box sleeve, whatever)

7.  More press reviews.

How did the relaunch go?

Started out really well (again, 50% in 3 days), then the slump came. We were scratching our heads again. Well, decreasing the pledges by about 30% meant we needed more backers for the same funding goal.

It was of course tough to accept that this wouldn’t be a, say, €30k/200% campaign. Later on, we realized that it would barely fund, if at all. But since the funding goal was real (i.e. enough to produce the minimum print run & ship all copies) and we thought that we had made this game the best it could be, a good product, we decided to persevere and push until the end, even if it would fail.

!Product photo 1

In your game you have a big tin can. How was the general respons to that?

Those who backed it liked it (60% expressed that it was a specific reason of backing), but we don’t know how many people have passed on due to the can. Gamers with a large collection could find the can to be inconvenient, but I don’t think that this could be such a big turn-off for most of the crowd out there.

Anyway, we wanted to try something new, and the can perfectly fits the bunker theme, since the food can is the item that you’re desperately searching for in the dark bunker. Moreover, it could stand out in retail stores – but that’s still the future.

You have a theory about the Kickstarter algorithm helping you to push your relaunch over the funding line. What is that theory?

In my frustration about funding, I’ve been a lot about whether campaigns could actually end over about 75%, but below 100%? (Without cancellation!) I’ve never seen such a thing before.

We all know that the last days have a big psychological impact but I have also realized that it’s also in Kickstarter’s best interest to push the campaign above 100% to get their commission.

KS has a huge amount of visitors. They could pour backer money into any project, but they have to choose how they control this flow. Their algorithm rotates the projects on category pages, of course putting those to top that bring in the most pledges (and profit).

Even if our campaign was small my theory is that after reaching about 75% funding during the last days, Kickstarter’s algorithm would give the project just enough exposure to get above the goal so that they won’t lose their commission.

But for most of the time, our project was dug deep in the category page and emerged only during the last days. I could see when it did for a short period, since we’d get a dozen backers in an hour, then not much for another day…

By the way, we received about two thirds of our backers from Kickstarter and one third was ‘brought by us’ (external sources). Compare this to, say, Sub Terra‘s numbers – it’s much the same distribution. Saltlands was the same, too. I wonder if this is a general rule of thumb: if you bring a backer to Kickstarter from the outside, it brings two more internally.

What is the main thing you have learned from all of this?

A lot of lessons have been learned, so let me share them all.

1. The biggest flaw was thinking that producing a light game takes less effort than creating a medium one (like Saltlands was) – it took almost the same time. Okay, finishing up the game, manufacturing and fulfillment will be way simpler and faster, but regardless, before the campaign, you’ll pour the same amount (at least 9 months) of work into any product.

It’s not the art that is expensive, but rather the total time for the project to develop with all the small chores that you have to do regardless of the game’s weight.

2. Marketing is much harder for light games, because it’s harder to stand out from the crowd. There are many more light games made than heavier ones. Even if your game is above average, it’s still harder to market, promote and sell it.

3. Also, we haven’t been able to move the Saltlands crowd, another failed point.

4. Maybe after all, Kickstarter backers in general are more into heavier games. They are more on the lookout for more expensive specialties and are less willing to consider spending on smaller, lighter games. Heavier games are often more economical and shipping is relatively cheaper, too.

5. We feel that Kickstarter is changing, there are more good games out there and as backers are becoming overwhelmed, they have higher expectations and are pickier than ever before. What worked one year ago may not work now.

I sincerely hope that Kickstarter will still allow good but maybe smaller projects to be, well, kickstarted instead of becoming a preorder tool, but guess where they get more profits from. I think that this direction of events favorizes larger publishers instead of small or emerging ones.

Anyhow, we decided not to spend our limited time and money on developing smaller games for some more time. But as I said earlier, Critters Below can still do nicely in retail, if casual gamers start buying it, but it’s a hard setup because there’s not much hype around the game.

Anything else you want to add?

Our upcoming game next year will be another medium-weight game, a stealth board game which would be a video game adaptation. I’m awfully excited, but I can’t tell more right now. 😀

Also, you can still preorder Critters Below, just head to the campaign page and click the big button.

Thanks for the opportunity to share our experience!