Tell us a bit about yourself and Escape the Dark Castle.
Escape the Dark Castle is a simple, fantasy adventure game for 1-4 players, with a focus on atmosphere, storytelling, and player cooperation – perfect for newcomers to tabletop gaming. Players take the roles of prisoners and must work together using custom dice and item cards to overcome the castle’s many horrors, traps and challenges. The game is largely inspired by 1980s fantasy classics like the TV programme Knightmare, the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series, Dungeons & Dragons, and Heroquest – but you don’t need to know what those things are to enjoy this game.
I (Thomas Pike) worked in board game distribution for 10 years and was then a games writer and critic before founding Themeborne in 2016. I had been designing games with two friends (Alex Crispin and James Shelton – co-designers of Escape the Dark Castle) as a hobby for a few years and wanted a platform from which to publish them. I set up this little company and put every penny I had into the Kickstarter for Escape the Dark Castle.
What did you do to build up a following before Escape the Dark Castle?
Honestly, we didn’t have a large pre-existing following going in. As a new publisher and coming from a standing start that is a challenge. We did a few things on our very much fledgling social media channels, but outside of that our biggest outreach was our public playtesting. Testing gave us a nice little base of people who had at least played some early version the game. But really, while it must be great to have a huge fanbase before your Kickstarter goes live, I think we are proof it isn’t totally essential.
When did you launch and why did you choose that exact moment?
We planned the launch of our Kickstarter campaign to coincide with UK Games Expo 2017, partly because we didn’t have this huge existing following. We needed to expose the game to as many people as possible, fast. It went down well at the show, and the Escape the Dark Castle appeared on almost every shortlist of the best games at the show that year.
Did you expect getting so many backers?
Being both co-creator and publisher, this a difficult question to answer – there is a real duality to my feelings. On the one hand, as the publisher with a lot riding on our first game, I was stunned and delighted to see the backers flooding in. On the other hand, as co-creator, I always had huge belief in this game and in my heart I knew it would strike an emotional chord with other players – just like it did with us.
What was the biggest thing you learned from your first campaign?
The biggest lesson was just the overall amount of work required to run a good campaign. You don’t just throw your game up on Kickstarter and sit back as the money rolls in. It starts a year or so before you go live, and it continues for another year after your campaign ends. During the campaign itself, and no matter how much people warned me beforehand, I was not prepared for how demanding the process would be – just keeping on top of it all. If you think about it, you are going from zero to running a games publisher in the space of a month. Well, in the space of a day really – the moment that page goes live you are publicly responsible for your game, your brand, your company’s reputation. That stuff really matters and can make or break new companies. Behind the scenes, there was something urgent and important to do every single day – big decisions to make under pressure that ordinarily you would much rather take more time over. It all happens very quickly, and small mistakes can really blow up fast. We were not perfect by any means, but the feedback seems to be that we ran a good Kickstarter. I am especially proud of the amazing community that built up around this game, our backers really saw us through.
Did you get any feedback on that almost everything was black and white on your KS page?
This is one of the best and most unique features of Escape the Dark Castle. So many games look alike these days, and with Escape the Dark Castle we have made something truly distinct from anything else on the market. We’ve worked hard to create a stylish look evocative of the retro classics that inspired it, and the response to that has been phenomenal. As I’ve said, it strikes a chord with people on quite a deep level. It’s a big selling point. Of course, some people don’t ‘get it’ and there have been a handful of negative comments, but we now know it was a huge factor in making the campaign such a success. It was absolutely the right decision and is a key part of this brand.
I can see from your Kicktraq graph that you had a lot of comments in the middle of the campaign. What happened?
We were very fortunate, and the campaign was doing so well that by the mid-point we decided to bring forward the first expansion: Cult of the Death Knight. This is the first of our Adventure Packs, adding more depth and variety to the game. We were not planning to release it until late 2018, but it seemed like the community wanted it and we accelerated out plans! We also added some new stretch goals, so I think those two things caused a good bit of extra traffic around that time.
What is your best marketing tip during a campaign?
For us, word of mouth was everything. Organising events during your campaign and not relying purely on online marketing is my tip. Being present at UK Games Expo, we demoed the game to hundreds of players, and exposed it to thousands more. They walked away happy, and happy people talking about your product is the best marketing you can get. We did other, smaller events too – nothing beats the personal touch.
What is your main tip to handle the mid-campaign drop of new backers?
We didn’t have much of a plan for this, but we learned that you can structure certain things to help you in that department. A well-timed event can generate a lot of chatter at the right time, as can unveiling some new element to your campaign, such as new stretch goals or an expansion. We didn’t engineer it that way, but since we didn’t see a slump we have to conclude that those things did the trick – at least in our case.
How do you structure your days during the campaign?
It’s a mix of correspondence, promotion and on-going development. Engaging with our backers was hugely important to me, and first order of business every day was (and still is) to read and responded to every single comment and question personally. This takes time, but you really get to know your community and you learn a lot. They are the people we are making games for, after all, so nothing is more important. We listened to feedback, made changes accordingly and ultimately ended up with a better product thanks to input from our backers. Then you have promotion, and every day we dedicated some time to spreading the word beyond our existing community – with only a month to attract backers you simply have to devote some serious time to this. And lastly, as a game studio we are always developing games and that doesn’t stop for a Kickstarter campaign. And not just Escape the Dark Castle, I should add, but our second and third games. From concept, to design and testing – these games take years to properly develop, so even during a busy campaign we always have one eye on what we are going to release a year or two years later. It never stops!
What’s the best kickstarter advice you ever received?
“Don’t get the shipping wrong”. This one is absolutely huge. To give you an idea, the fulfilment of our Kickstarter cost around the same as manufacturing the goods themselves. You have to budget very carefully, I can’t stress that enough. All of the information you need is available, and you really need to crunch the numbers in minute detail if you want to come away from your campaign in good shape. You can’t just use a rule of thumb and say, “We’ll add on 20% for shipping”. Managing your finances on the whole is hard enough, but this one area along can ruin you if you don’t see it coming.
What´s your thoughts regarding stretch goals?
We designed our game to be as simple and elegant as possible, and that philosophy continued into our approach to the Kickstarter campaign too. We almost launched with no stretch goals at all! In the end we added a few, and then during the campaign added a few more after we exceed our goal. But honestly, it can get out of hand. I seen campaigns that are just baffling in scale, with so many pledge levels and stretch goals that it’s unmanaged from a backer point of view. I find that off-putting, so I think there is a balance to strike. We hit our final stretch goal on the penultimate day of the campaign, which was absolutely perfect – everything was unlocked, and it was exciting for backers to follow our progress right to the end.
What is your comment in the debate about paid vs unpayed reviews?
I have a policy on this – we don’t do paid coverage. I also don’t cross promote other publishers products, or do things like “I’ll back yours if you back mine.” We were a little bit bombarded with requests like that during our campaign. I just don’t believe it does you any good in the long run, but personally I just wanted to try and get a good read on what the demand for our product was ‘organically’, if you can call it that. I think if you pay for clicks, it can be hard to know how much of that is real – or at least, how much value you are getting there compared to what you could have got more naturally. I am not saying we will never pay for a review, but I am glad we haven’t so far because we’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, and how to operate on a tiny budget.
What do you think is the most important element of a Kickstarter page?
It’s still the video. I am very proud of ours – it was done in the style of a 1980s TV toy advert. However, we have been told our page content was also very good, so you mustn’t overlook that. One backer said our page was the best they had ever read. Another said they read all the way to the end for the first time in any of the campaigns they had backed. So, while a good video is still the most important single aspect in generating that initial interest, it’s really the text on your page that will turn that interest into backers.
Do you have any role models in the board gaming industry?
Christian Petersen (founder of Fantasy Flight) and Justin Ziran (President of Wizkids) come to mind. I am lucky enough to have spent a good amount of time hanging out with them at shows over the years, and now that I run my own publisher I find I model much of what I do on things I learned from them.
Where can people reach you?