My Kickstarter Experience

So I think it’s somewhat traditional to do an update after your kickstarter ends reflecting on the experience, so here’s mine. Be warned, this is mostly stream of consciousness rambling. In my case I technically ran 2 kickstarter campaigns in quick succession. I have a bit of a unique experience, I think, as I ended up funding my game from private sources (loans and investments) during the time frame of the KS campaign, but still went on to complete a KS campaign.

How it all went down

I’ve been working on my game, Star Eater, for a while now (Since May). Due to personal circumstances that I won’t go into I ended up deciding to spend at least 4 months of my time to work solely on Star Eater starting September/October 2020. By this point I had invested a substantial amount of my personal savings and art + exposure were becoming important to the projects future. I determined that funding the remainder of the project from an external source such as kickstarter was necessary to proceed.

Kickstarters usually fail, and I was aware that the community which was building around the project was still far too niche to significantly sway my odds of success on the platform. I decided to pursue funding simultaneously from both Kickstarter and private sources (mostly people from my personal life interested in the venture, as well as planning out the variety and volume of loans I was comfortable with taking out to secure the project’s future). To cut a long story short, the kickstarter didn’t come even close to its $20’000 goal, but still proved that people have a serious interest in the product which (I think) allowed me to secure private funding. I then ran a second $1-goal kickstarter(btw, don’t do that, KS does not like low-goal projects which made things very stressful for me) to ensure that everyone who had backed the first KS before it failed could still get the promised pledge rewards.

The First Campaign

I was prepared for the Kickstarter to consume all of my time like the hungry hungry hippos world champion. In fact the whole experience from start to finish was basically exactly as difficult and time consuming as my research online had lead me to believe. Even with that knowledge in hand going in, my experience of having an active Kickstarter campaign was that it is confusing and stressful.

For those who haven’t read up: while your kickstarter campaign is live, you can kiss goodbye to the notion of doing any development on your actual project(unless you’re a company with like…a significant marketing budget and stuff). The general premise works something like this: You need the kickstarter to succeed in order for your project to succeed, so if you have time to work on something extra, it should be funnelled back into working on ensuring the highest rate of success for your kickstarter.

This means that during the kickstarter portion of your project plan, you should be prepared to pivot literally every resource at your disposal to becoming an online marketing machine. In the case of Star Eater, every resource at my disposal is effectively just me.

Every waking moment not occupied by real life obligations was dedicated to interacting with fans and supporters, generating marketing materials, researching marketing techniques, ad space, etc. Negotiating advertising with various blogs and websites, pursuing reviewers to take a look at the game, organising events with local board game stores, etc, and any time left over was spent personally chasing down every friend and family member I had in order to convince them to back my project. Literally every single one of these activities is well outside of my comfort zone, so I basically spent 2 months of my life doing a bunch of stuff that I basically don’t understand at all. All in all I think I learned a lot, but I messed up a lot, too.

What I wasn’t prepared for, and was pleasantly surprised by, was how seriously everyone seems to take you the second your kickstarter is live. Prior to kickstarter, I was very used to people being extremely sceptical of Star Eater whenever it came up. I understand this impulse; to people outside of the industry it may seem like every man, woman and dog has a ‘brilliant idea for a game’, and of those people who muse about one-day making it into a reality, the truth is that very few genuinely pursue it with the gusto required to actually achieve that goal. The second my kickstarter went up, peoples perception of Star Eater seemed to instantly shift. My friends took the product seriously. I had several people who had known about the project for a long time finally spontaneously check it out and start messaging me with their thoughts. I have walked into board game stores, prototype in hand and kickstarter page loaded up on my phone and the store owners have enthusiastically agreed to run preview events and promise to put the game on their shelves when it’s published.

From my perspective, nothing about the project really ‘changed’ when kickstarter went live, but the way people saw the project definitely took a dramatic turn. Anecdotally, Star Eater seem to have gone from being perceived ‘weird little hobby’ to ‘potential start-up business’ in the blink of an eye.

Unfortunately I faltered when it came to capitalising on this perception shift. For instance, I only started going to board game stores several weeks into my first campaign. If I had to do it again, I’d be pursuing those leads on the third day (after the big online advertising push is winding down).

I thought Christmas time would be a good time to run a KS campaign(while everyone is on break), but the problem with that is that all your potential professional contacts are ALSO on break. This made organising advertising harder, it made talking to board game stores harder, and above all it made putting aside my own time to pursue such things around my family obligations harder. I’m not sure if it was a valuable trade-off, in the end. I think perhaps the timing is less important than people give it credit for, I feel as though a February campaign would have been equally successful, and also easier to manage.

Even though my kickstarter failed, we managed to attract 100 backers even with a very minimal marketing budget and tiny community. Anecdotally I’ve heard it said that you can expect approximately 1% of your online community to back your KS. We must have hit something closer to 20-30%. I know the sample size is too small to say anything about the project’s quality, but I think the implication is still clear: not many people saw our KS campaign, but those who did liked what they saw. I believe that this helped demonstrate to my potential investors that the game is a serious product with at least a chance of survival on the open market, which is why I was able to convince them to put money in.

Once I had the funding necessary to proceed, I posted an update informing my backers of the situation and cancelled the kickstarter campaign about 4 days before it’s scheduled conclusion.

The Second Campaign

So I had private funding. But I also had 100 supporters who liked this project and wanted it enough to pledge their hard-earned money before it was even made. Those 100 people were promised a copy of Star Eater for $68. This is not a price that I could afford to sell the game at retail (The $68 price tag relied on us shipping a bunch of games at once to get the bulk rates afforded by a dedicated fulfilment shipping solution. A running theme of selling a niche physical product internationally from Australia is that shipping costs dominate all of your spreadsheets). Some of them were also promised signed copies and other KS exclusive benefits which just wouldn’t make sense in a retail plan. Beyond that, they were willing to take a chance on me and my game, which is something I’m deeply appreciative of and want to demonstrate my gratitude for. I made what I think might be an unorthodox decision here; I elected to run a second campaign with no funding goal almost purely so that these people can get what I promised them in the first campaign. Even though my shipping rates would be much higher with this low volume, I could still afford to do this without *losing* money, even though the amount of budgetary benefit from this second campaign would be minimal at best(I was projecting about a $200-$500 budget increase after shipping was accounted for, assuming that 30-50% of the original backers re-pledged on the new campaign).

Mostly I just felt that if I had gone away with my private funding and returned months later with an $85 retail product it would be akin to pulling the rug out from under the people who had supported the project from the beginning, and that’s not the kind of business I am looking to run.
The second campaign ran for 1 week with effectively zero marketing behind it beyond posting updates on the failed campaign and the other Star Eater community spots (Facebook page, discord, etc).

During that time almost 100% of the backers from the original campaign transferred over to the new one. The 1 week long ‘re-launched’ campaign got more funding than the original 5 week campaign ($7.4k on the new campaign, the old campaign had $7.2k in pledges when I pulled the plug) even though it had 2 fewer backers. This was a better result than I was expecting, and after accounting for shipping and processing fees translates to a budget increase of about $2500, a significant amount to be sure(for reference the entire project budget including art+manufacturing, but excluding my own living expenses while I work full time on it is approximately $15’000).

I want to add a note here that did NOT like me doing this. They tried to pull the campaign down for having no funding goal, but I managed to cling on just long enough for the campaign to finish. If you’re curious about all that, check out the update on the campaign here.

Overall the campaign was, in fact, a success, and I think that Star Eater would be in a less good place if it hadn’t happened. That being said, I’m glad it’s over and I can finally get back to doing the part of this project that I truly love: Making the game.

I hope you found my experience enlightening in some way. I tried to edit my writing very minimally in this post to keep it as authentic a representation of my experiences as I can, but this may lead to some confusing turns of phrase or a scattered sense of progression in the topics I’m discussing.

We’re in “Beta”

After several months and over a hundred hours of playtests with dozens of people, Star Eater is moving to Beta. So I thought I’d use this time to discuss the differences between Alpha and Beta, and what that means for Star Eater.

First of all both Alpha and Beta are pretty subjective terms, and you’ll hear different people from different companies using them in different ways. At some companies where I’ve worked there wasn’t even a consistent understanding of what constituted a ‘Beta’ from person to person on the same team. For me, Alpha is the stage at which the game isn’t functionally complete. In Alpha, you’re still considering the fundamental mechanics of the game and they’re subject to change at a moment’s notice. A game in Alpha may not at all represent the product that will be released at the end of the development cycle.

Beta is the point in time where you become comfortable with the basic design of the game and move to a more iterative development method. For Star Eater this means we feel confident that the rules of the game are solid and more or less ready to go. Basically we think the turn structure and the Command cards are solid and need only minor work to get in a state we think is good to release, if any at all. For the Beta period, we will be focussing on ‘smaller’ issues, such as UI, graphic design, art and content in the form of additional components, warships, scenarios, squadrons etc.

If you’re following on, here’s what’s coming in the Beta Phase:

  • 3 player free for all
  • 2v2 team battles
  • Faction 3
  • Additional capital ships and special abilities for each faction
  • Additional components for each faction
  • More fighter squadrons
  • General UI/UX improvements
  • Improved graphic design
  • Production quality art

Reworking Fighters (and some other things)

For the first iteration of star eater, we were aiming to prove our concept. I’d say mission accomplished. We’ve had close to 20 playtests at this point and the feedback has been excellent.

In general I feel as though the premise is well worth further exploration, and the mechanics in place seem to be effectively selling the fantasy that we’re looking for. The game is tense and fun.

That said it’s far from being perfect, or even complete. To that end we’ve spent the last week or so re-working various parts of the game thanks to the wonderful feedback that we’ve been able to get from our playtesters.

First and foremost is the nature of fighter squadrons. The squadrons, I feel, are extremely important to not only the fantasy, but they’re also a sort of lubricant for the gameplay. As a part of the fantasy, the player’s warship needs to feel large. Its actions need to feel above all else to be the most consequential aspect of gameplay. This is a game about giant warships duking it out in deep space, but if it were just two ships on a board flinging pot-shots at one another alone, you’d really lose that sense of scale. In order to feel like your warship is a lumbering titan of death, there needs to be tiny nimble ants to flee under its reverberating footsteps, so to speak.

As a gameplay element, fighters provide a sense of immediacy by being directly controlled. In doing so they provide a needed contrast to the heavy-lifting prediction and planning needed to effectively operate your warship. They’re also a sort of ticking clock on the game; Fighters are designed to provide a low but reliable source of damage for both players to keep the engagements flowing, and to ensure no game can be extended indefinitely by overly defensive play.

I think our orignal fighters were a mixed bag in terms of success. They certainly provided the ticking clock element, as they were infinite-ammo swarms which would constantly harass your opponent unless they sacrificed precious turns dealing with the threat. Where I think we failed was in 2 main categories: 1. The fighters were incredibly over stated, and it felt like games were being won or lost based on the fighters alone and 2. Exacerbating this fact, fighters were far too simple to use. There was not enough room for strategy or decision making. When using the fighters, the gameplay boiled down to: if your squadron is in range, shoot the enemy. If not, move closer so you can shoot the enemy next turn.

As an ancillary matter, a lot of playtesters would be too distracted by the fighter phase and seemed to lose track of their strategy when dealing with the fighters. and we found that it was a little too unintuitive to balance using your fighters with using the main damage dealing weapons on the main ship, or to balance your own offensive actions with defending yourself from enemy squadrons.

So here’s what we’ve changed:

  1. instead of picking the type of all squadrons on your warship, 3 individual squadrons are brought into battle – this allows a lot more decision making in the fighter selection process and makes optimising your squadron loadout less trivial. Synergies between different types of squadron are also now possible, increasing the tactical depth of your squadrons.
  2. Squadrons now use ammunition. – This helps address a few things. firstly it’s an important limiting factor on the power of a squadron, and allows them to be balanced along the axis of ammunition capacity. It also provides a meaningful consequence for firing your squadron’s weapons, and therefore an interesting decision in how you use your squadrons. As a good example, imagine your squadron has 2 units of ammo remaining, and you’re not in range of the enemy warship. you ARE however, in range of an incoming torpedo. You now have a decision to make: do you use one of your shots to destroy the incoming torpedo, or do you let it go by and damage your warship, but conserve that ammo for dealing damage to the enemy in a few turns.
  3. destroyed squadrons can be repaired. – This uses the same action card as supplying squadrons, so provides another interesting decision when you lose one: Do you resupply the squadrons who survive and try to make-do, or do you want to spend a turn repairing your lost squadron.
  4. The fighter phase has been moved closer to the end of the turn, between the action and weapons phases. – This means all the little decisions made during the fighter phase are the last decisions made each turn, so you won’t lose track of your strategy as easily.

You may notice that there are a lot of new things you can do to fighters. They can be restocked, they can be recalled, they can be launched or repaired etc. Most of these actions are tied to action cards which brings us to the next big change: Players now play 2 action cards each turn rather than just one. This prevents the new fighter related cards from being overwhelming and we think the game flows a lot better this way.

There are some other changes as well, including ship-specific special abilities. Check out the latest rulebook for details.

Trying to make Torpedoes work in a Board Game.

Torpedos track their targets. It’s one of the most quintesential things about them. Torpedos are homing weapons.

Space battles involve torpedos. This, too, is an immutable fact of space battles. In fact, if a space battle does not involve torpedos, or at least the potential for torpedos, can it even be said to have occurred?

I mean… obviously it didn’t occur. Space battles are, for now, still in the realm of pure fiction, but fictionally speaking, what is a space battle without torpedos?

See it would be quite easy to say to the players of your game “the torpedo moves towards its target”, but that is likely to lead to very unrepeatable results. Different players will interperet that very differently. The rules must be formalised. They need to be an algorithm. Moreso they need to be an algorithm that is both swift and easy to perform for a human player, with very little in the way of thought or room for interpretation.

This presents a challange, for a board game designer. Cardboard chits do not support target tracking and, on the face of it, it seems that tracking targets is maybe dauntingly complex to add to the rule set as a function of the rules themselves.

The first few iterations of the “torpedo tracking algorithm” were abysmal in this respect. My instincts as a programmer led me down all the wrong paths. I’ll tell you now that the correct way to do something like this is not to attempt to find the minimal set of rules which results in emergent target tracking. I thought I had found that like so: “for each step in the torpedos movement, if the target is left, turn left. If the target is right, turn right. Otherwise, go straight.”

Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? In practice it’s horribly tedious to perform, and after a torpedo has passed by it’s likely that the hands guiding it have accidentally knocked every nearby token askew. Not to mention the caveats that you need to add if you aim to have repeatable rules. What happens when the target is directly behind the torpedo, for example? What PART of the target constitutes its location?

I scrapped that method early on. So far the new torpedo algorithm has gone over pretty well with playtesters. The only people who had any trouble with it were those who had already played a considerably number of games with the old algorithm, and everyone else picked it up just fine. But nevertheless, how torpedos home in remains my biggest concern out of everything in the design.

Overview video and rulebook

Victoria, has been experiencing a second covid outbreak over the last couple of weeks and our plans to start some limited playtests have been waylaid as we shelter in place. As such I thought it was prudent to get something out about the game itself to show how it works.

Over the past several days I’ve been working on an overview video explaining the broad strokes of how to play star eater. The video, which can be seen on the home page, goes through the basic rules and key mechanics of star eater. Additionally I’ve released a draft version of the rules as well as the core set of cards (the ones which I have internally playtested and believe to be mostly balanced). This rulebook hasn’t been thoroughly tested though, and it’s not the most polished it could be, but it should cover any features and edge-cases which aren’t covered in the video.

Video Showcases

Given the recent covid-19 pandemic across the world, sitting down for in-person playtests with members of the public is borderline impossible for the time being.

I’ve thought for a while about the best way to overcome this hurdle, and still be able to demonstrate star eater to the general public as much as possible, and I’ve settled on the fact that a video showcase is probably the second best option.

With that in mind I’ve started working on a series of videos demonstrating how the game works and explaining the rules. The first few videos will be mostly no-nonsense informational things, explaining how the game works and how to play, as well as commentary on strategies and the philosophy of my design/game balance. Later on I’m thinking of adding in some more casual stuff showcasing the few playtests I have been able to conduct(mostly with friends and family).

I’m currently working on the first of these videos: an instructional overview of how to play a full round of star-eater, including most of the important rules, without being bogged down by too much minutiae.

If you’re interested, the script can be found here:

edit: the overview video is now up and can be found on the main page

How I decided to make Star Eater

Star Eater is a concept I’ve been working on for a while. In its infantile stage, star eater was envisioned as a video game.

I was interested in making a game which obeyed hard-scifi rules of space combat over the cinematic approach which I kept seeing in most space-combat games I’ve played.

I was mainly enamoured with the idea of an inertial movement system as I thought this was the key to strategic play. I imagined a system where a player would constantly need to think about the trade-offs between getting to their destination fast and the possibility of over-shooting their target location, presenting an ever-present tension that infused every action with a sense of consequence. As I thought more about the limitations which would be required to make such a thing manageable to a player without being overwhelming, I ended up introducing a turn structure, thinking to divide time into a few seconds at a time and allowing the player to operate their ships between time-slices. Before long it became clear to me that I was designing, in-effect, a digital board game.

I’m a big fan of this kind of thing, when it comes to games like X-Com or Civilisation. Where the sheer complexity of the rules and all the bits and pieces which need to be tracked thoroughly prohibits attempting to play them as a traditional table-top game. However I’ve always been of the opinion that if a game CAN be a table top game, it SHOULD be a table top game.

In my experience, digital board games can never quite beat the visceral sensation of manipulating tokens on a board in a battle of wits against a competent opponent sitting right in front of you. This is the same reason I love chess when played on a physical chess set, but can never really get into any of those online chess apps I’ve installed on my phone.

On top of that, the capabilities of modern computers seem to me like a potential trap for game design. When there are no limits on how complex and inscrutable you can make the rules, it seems to me that you’d always be tempted to make your rules overly complex. The restriction of needing to keep your rules simple enough for a person to handle, and the number of moving parts small enough to be reasonably set-up or put away for a single play session are an excellent scaffolding to keep your game design disciplined and focused.

And so back in May 2020, with those realisations in mind, I decided to switch mediums and make a board game.