Why Your Boardgame Kickstarter Sucks #1: “Unanticipated” Delivery Delays

Dammit, my game got re-routed to Botswana again!

This is the first in a series of articles I may or may not write about why Kickstarter sucks, why your Kickstarter campaign in particular sucks, and why puppies are awesome.

There’s something to be said for immediate gratification. Two somethings, in fact. One, it’s immediate. It’s right now. It’s not tomorrow or next Tuesday, and it’s certainly not three Christmases from now. Two, it’s gratifying. It’s satisfying. It can even be a little bit pacifying. (Sorry for rhyming; I’ve been practicing for a rap battle. Word.)

Kickstarter is the antithesis of immediate gratification. Unlike walking into your local game store and seeing that shiny new copy of Morbid Death Horrificness: The Dice Game you’ve heard so much about (maybe even played before) sitting on a shelf, Kickstarter has no shelves. It has ideas. It has hopes and dreams and promises of better things to come. Someday. Not today. Not next Tuesday. In six month. Or maybe three Christmases from now. You pledge, you pay, you will get your fucking boardgame when it’s good and ready.

Horrendous Backer: A copy of Morbid Death Horrificness shipped free to the US in a tiny coffin. Canada, add 20 American dollars. Rest of the world, add one blood sacrifice.When you do spot a Kickstarter campaign at which you just desperately need to throw your money, while your gratification may not be immediate, you can at least take some consolation in the fact that you can estimate when you will feel gratified. For instance, if you were to back Morbid Death Horrificness: The Dice Game at the pledge level depicted on the right, you can safely assume you’ll be rolling in blood (that’s the game’s main mechanic, after all) in time for Halloween 2014. Should October 1, 2014 come and go without you receiving your game, there will be hell to pay. And I’m not talking about the expansion, Morbid Death Horrificness: Hell To Pay either.

Of course, September 2014 is just an estimated delivery date for this pledge level. In fact, you might get your copy of MDH:TDG even earlier! Wait… no… that would never happen. Far more likely, you will get your copy late. After Halloween. Maybe even after three Christmases. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nor are there consequences for the Kickstarter project creator.

Timely delivery is one of the biggest problems with boardgame Kickstarter campaigns. Looking just at my own personal history of backed Kickstarters (yes, I still back projects, despite my belief in Kickstarter’s suckiness), fewer than 30% of the projects I’ve backed have been delivered on time. One project, still delivering status updates (including a recent proof unboxing) is over a year late. No project I’ve backed has ever been delivered early.

Some Kickstarter worshippers may argue that this isn’t a problem, so long as you get your promised rewards eventually. Those few weeks or months of delay could be due to manufacturing or quality issues, and you’d rather have a good game late than a bad game now, right?

The problem with this argument is that Kickstarter requires estimated reward delivery dates for a reason: to keep project creators honest and realistic. When a project creator puts an estimated date of Janutember 20XX, it’s hopefully because they have a well-tuned development and delivery plan in place which takes into account the numerous risks associated with their project, establishes mitigation methods for those risks, and provides a road map to an on-time, high-quality product delivery. When a project is delayed, it means the project creator messed up somewhere. Art was delivered late. A potential production delay was not anticipated, and alternate plans were not put into place. Ease of shipping was overestimated. For whatever reason, someone screwed up, but the only person who pays for the mistake is the project backer. And here’s exactly how a backer suffers from these delays.

  • Loss of interest. It’s tough enough for Kickstarter projects to maintain their buzz between the time of successful funding and final delivery. Everyone who was super-excited when Morbid Death Horrificness was announced might not give a crap about it a year later when the much better Horrible Dying Morbidness is released by a different publisher. Congratulations, backer: nobody gives a crap about your shiny new game now.
  • Personal game schedule impacts. Some backers like to plan out their gaming schedules to ensure their shiny new Kickstarter game hits the table. A delay means a game might sit on the back burner when it bumps up against the release of other purchases.
  • Delays point to other issues. There are clear differences in the level of professionalism between one Kickstarter project creator and the next, and it usually shows from day one of the campaign. But when a project is delayed, it points to basic issues in a publisher’s development process. And when there’s one issue, there’s generally more. The game probably wasn’t playtested enough. There might be component consistency issues. Unfortunately, since delays come at the end of the project, it’s too late at this point for backers to pull back their support from a publisher who clearly has issues meeting its commitments.
  • Utter lack of accountability. As of today, there are zero consequences for a Kickstarter project delivered late. Because of that, there is nothing incentivizing a project creator to deliver on time. So why should they try? If a delay is likely but could be overcome with some extra effort on the part of the project creator, there’s nothing compelling them to put in that effort.

One need only look at the sparse “Risks and challenges” section of virtually every boardgame Kickstarter campaign to see how well-planned most campaign schedules are. Some projects make vague references to “unanticipated issues” and will later blame those same issues for any delays encountered. But because there have been hundreds of successful Kickstarter boardgame projects, this blanket excuse is now borderline unethical. A project creator need only go back and review all of the many, many “unanticipated issues” that previous projects have faced, and now they can anticipate them, mitigate them, and resolve them so that they do not impact timely product delivery.

Instead, project creators seem to generally ballpark their project delivery based on a handful of conversations with their printer, tacking on a month or two for delivery and fulfillment, and that’s that. A project creator certainly won’t pad that date much, because seeing an anticipated delivery date too far in the future might scare off potential backers. Why post a realistic delivery schedule when you’ll suffer no consequences at all for specifying a sooner date and missing it? If it takes you five minutes to fill in the “Estimated Delivery” box on your Kickstarter campaign, then your Kickstarter campaign sucks.

Another reason this issue is so frustrating is that it can be fixed right now by the combined efforts of project creators and Kickstarter itself. Here’s how:

How Project Creators Can Prevent Delays:

  1. Thoroughly research past Kickstarter fulfillment issues for projects similar to yours. If they happened to someone else, they can happen to your project too. No hiding behind the “unanticipated issues” disclaimer anymore.
  2. Plan for risks. If there’s a chance an issue could impact your project’s schedule, you need to plan for it. For instance, if your project’s artist is unable to work, have another artist lined up to complete the work according to your original schedule.
  3. Develop a detailed risk management plan and schedule. If you have two paragraphs in your Kickstarter’s “Risks and challenges” section, you do not have a risk management plan. This is a project, and all projects have risks that should be documented and managed. This page at The Project Management Hut can teach you how, and it even offers a useful template for your first risk management plan. Here’s a similar page with pretty pictures and fewer big words at WikiHow. Bonus: a risk management plan will also help you detect risks to your costs–something that definitely does impact the project creator.
  4. Share your plan. If your backers can see that you’ve anticipated risks, they’ll feel better about pledging their support. Even if they don’t read your whole plan, they’ll be impressed that you’ve done your homework and have contingency plans in place to help ensure your product ends up in their hands on time.
  5. Hold yourself accountable. Yes, you can currently get away with murder when it comes to delivering a Kickstarter boardgame project on time. But you shouldn’t. If there is something in your power as the project creator you can do to fix an issue and prevent it from impacting the timely delivery of your project, you should do it. If not, be prepared to offer compensation later. Let’s call them “delay incentives”–stretch goals for when your schedule stretches. For instance, if your project is just a week or two late, send individual and personalized (not mail-merged!) messages to your backers apologizing for the delay. At one or two months late, offer backers a free print-and-play expansion. At three months late, offer refunds, plain and simple.

How Kickstarter Can Prevent Delays:

  1. Mandate risk management “training” for project creators. Even if it’s just putting together some slides and templates, Kickstarter needs to actively provide the resources for project creators to enhance their risk management techniques.
  2. Track and publish delivery metrics. Presently, Kickstarter provides no mechanism for potential backers to determine a project creator’s on-time delivery rate. Yet creating one is dead simple. Here’s how to do it: When a project creator delivers their product, they push a button. Backers get an email asking if they received their rewards. If so, they do nothing. If not, they push their own button. (Presumably, the creator works with the backer to resolve any delivery issues.) Kickstarter tracks these button-pushes, intervenes if a large number of backers push the “no, it hasn’t been delivered” button, and publishes a report on each project and project creator’s page comparing when the project was estimated to be delivered and when most backers reported actually receiving their deliveries.
  3. Punish frequent late deliverers. Right now, one particular Kickstarter boardgame publisher has a string of delayed deliveries, and they seem to be learning nothing from it. If a creator becomes a frequent delinquent, mandate additional risk management training or more detailed risk management plans, pulling the plug on the creator altogether as a final resort.

How Backers Can Prevent Delays:

  1. Don’t back poor projects. This will probably become the first item on this list in every “Kickstarter sucks” article I ever write, but it needs to be said. If a project has no risk management plan, don’t back it. Demand quality and accountability from the projects you back, and project creators will be forced to hold themselves to a higher standard.
  2. Ensure you aren’t the cause of a delay. Hey, dummy. You moved three months ago. You wanna know why you didn’t get your copy of Morbid Death Horrificness? It’s because your old address did. Next time, keep your delivery information up to date, and notify the project creator immediately of any issues on your end that could impact their ability to fulfill a reward.
  3. Don’t just shrug off delays. Sick of getting project updates that amount to the creator passing the buck on why you don’t have your reward in hand on time? Let the creator know! Demand an explanation of why the delay occurred, what parts of the project’s risk management plan (they have one, right?) failed to take into account the risk which impacted the project, and how the creator will prevent similar issues in the future. Then publicize the exchange on the project’s running comments and/or BoardGameGeek so that other backers (and backers of the creator’s future projects) can be kept in the loop.

Project delays should all but go away in 2014 if everyone involved in Kickstarter boardgame projects works together to create a higher standard of integrity and accountability. Like it or not, Kickstarter is a store, at least as far as boardgames go, and we’re all shoppers. We forego our need for immediate gratification when we back a project, and we should expect to be treated with honesty and sincerity in return. And like any store, if the stock boy goes to the back room and returns with your requested product three months late, you probably shouldn’t go back to that store ever again.

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