Thursday, April 20, 2017

Steve Jackson Games - Part 2

Steve Jackson Games recently put out their annual report to stakeholders and I saw some things I think are problems. Yesterday I talked about the problems I see with GURPS. Today let's talk about Kickstarters. From the report:

The 2012 Ogre Kickstarter project is still not completed. We made big steps forward on all of the various commitments, but we're coming up on five years after the project closed, and we are still sinking time into the project. The good news, though, is that we're seeing real progress; several outstanding pieces of the project are finally coming to a close. Whew.

Wait, what? Five years on and they still haven't finished this thing? Damn! This is the kind of mistake that hurts a company's reputation, especially when they plan to keep doing other kickstarters! Clearly that project was beyond their capabilities to handle. I would add "at that time" but they are still struggling to get it done from what I see there. I'm glad they didn't just walk away like some other problematic Kickstarters have seen but this is still not a good situation.

Their KS profile shows 5 projects (oldest to newest):

  • Ogre
  • Car Wars Arenas
  • GURPS Dungeon Fantasy
  • Ogre Miniatures - Set One
  • Munchkin Shakespeare

(note: I did not back any of these)

From the GDF "Risks" section:

Risks and challenges

The greatest risk of all is completing the artwork, layout, and manufacturing of the game. The text for the box set is 100% complete, and artwork and layout have started, but there are always opportunities for things to go sideways during a creative project.

None of the stretch goal PDFs have been written yet, because whether we even get to do them depends on you! However, we've produced high-quality PDFs every month for years, and we feel confident in our ability to deliver on our stretch-goal promises in a timely manner.

We believe we have taken all of the steps necessary to bring the game to completion and ship on schedule. Our last Kickstarter project -- Car Wars Arenas in 2015 -- delivered on schedule, and we think this game will also ship on time. As always, we will update backers throughout the entire process and deliver as close to on time as possible.

First paragraph, fine.

Second paragraph - that was a red flag to me because the KS projects that seem to do the best are the ones where the material is written and basically what it needs is editing and art. Once you make those stretch goals that stuff becomes a commitment  just like the core stuff and stretch goals are where a lot of KS efforts hit the rocks.

Third paragraph - I think there's a fine line between "Marketing" and "Deception" when you mention that your last project went great even as you're still trying to finish the one from before that - three years before that! I don't like that at all.

Now from the report:

Ogre Miniatures Set One - This expansion to the new Ogre Sixth Edition game was another Kickstarter project last year, and we've again caused delays that have pushed the release back later than we had planned. The problems here are less disruptive to our schedule than Dungeon Fantasy's ongoing "Destroy all deadlines" crawl to the finish line, but the lateness of the project is a source of frustration and many sleepless nights. Lesson learned: Finish all CAD work and miniatures tooling before launching any more Kickstarter projects involving minis. This is risky -- what if a project fails to fund? -- but it is worth taking the risk.

Really? There's more:

Dungeon Fantasy - Our Kickstarter project to create a GURPS introductory box set has run into more troubles and derailments than we would like. A game that was meant to go to the printer before the end of 2016 is still clogging our pipeline and causing constant distractions. The project was not as far along in the process as it should have been, and miscommunication regarding the game components ballooned our costs. At the moment, barring a miracle, what would have been a profitable project is rapidly turning into a loss. This is becoming an ongoing problem for GURPS projects (see Discworld and Mars Attacks, below, under Failures).

Sheesh. I like these guys. I've bought a lot of games from them. Besides all of my Car Wars, Ogre, and GURPS stuff there are at least 7 different Munchkin games floating around the house. That said this is not a great place to be. Out of your first 4 Kickstarter projects (over a span of 4 years) three of them have had problems and you are still working to complete them! How is that smart? Why do you keep doing it? Why are you making these same mistakes? How much is this impacting your non-crowdfunded projects? And what about that "the core text is 100% complete" yet somehow "the project was not as far along in the process as it should have been". That's not good.

They keep talking about doing a Kickstarter for the new edition of Car Wars when it's ready and I would normally be an hour one backer on that but now after looking thru all of this ... I don't know if I can. I think my first question will be "are you done with the Ogre Kickstarter from 2012 yet?" and the answer will have a big impact on what I do.

I've been worried about other companies biting off more than they could chew with multiple open Kickstarters, mainly Pinnacle. They like to run several Kickstarters a year but they haven't fallen behind on any that I've been a part of or that I have heard of and they seem to have the whole thing figured out.  That said I think it is a huge risk for a small company to have multiple simultaneous unfinished Kickstarters in play. The failure of one could cascade into the others as your talent is exhausted and it could impact cash flow severely, not to mention your reputation.

Business-wise a Kickstarter is an unusual situation in that you're getting paid for the product before creating, printing, and shipping it. That helps with cash flow but it does mean you have a fixed pile of money associated with the project. If costs go up, you're eating into the margins and you have zero recourse like you would with a more traditional project - say, raising the price or just cancelling it altogether because it's not economically viable given the costs. No, once you've funded, you have committed and you have to produce it or else face the lovely scenario of refunding 100% of what people paid with only 90% of the funding - KS keeps their cut regardless of your ability to produce.

So I am worried about one of my favorite game companies. One reason they might keep doing the KS thing is that their structure has become dependent on it. I hope that's not the case but I wonder about it. That would be bad, because if they keep overloading themselves and running into delays and ongoing problems then at some point people are going to stop spending money on them and the whole thing will fail. I hope that doesn't happen. I also hope they don't start any more KS efforts until the ones they have are complete.

They do end the report on what I think is an appropriately somber note:

  A Brutal Year

We expect 2017 to be a difficult time for our team. We must complete our Kickstarter commitments; every day that the Dungeon Fantasy and Ogre projects run late is another day of stress for all of us in the office. (Fortunately, our team has the Munchkin Shakespeare project humming along wonderfully, and there's a strong chance that the project will deliver on schedule.) We will get through the year, we will complete the projects that are weighing us down, and we will do all we can to close 2017 on a high note and set everything up to make 2018 a year that makes us proud.

I hope they do, I hope 2017 is the year this sh*t stops, they clean things up, and set the company up for a solid 2018. We don't want to lose you, and we don't want to see your name tarnished! Please set things in order and lets move on.

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