Corporia_full_front_cover_s-opt
I received an email advising of a new Kickstarter campaign on Thursday, something that happens from time to time. It’s only occasionally that one of these leads me to an actual article in support, for a number of reasons:

  • Often I don’t get the announcement until the Kickstarter campaign is underway, and there’s no time to do a proper, thorough job;
  • With only two articles a week happening at Campaign Mastery, a product has to be exceptionally promising to get the nod;
  • Frequently, I don’t have the publishing slot open, thanks to multipart series;
  • Sometimes the campaign has made mistakes in their kickstarter approach that I don’t want to reward, or the product doesn’t seem to offer sufficient value for money;
  • And, finally, the product itself might not intrigue or excite me enough.

It’s rare that any Kickstarter campaign is perfect and even rarer for the whole process to be executed perfectly from start to finish. Projects are too delicate and prone to bad luck and real-world complications for that. No-one with any sense backs a kickstarter project expecting smooth sailing from launch to final delivery. You have to use your experience to assess the contingency planning of those involved, evaluate their reputations (if any), look at what they are asking and what they are promising, and evaluate the project’s worth and likelyhood of success.

Corporia has ticked most of the boxes listed above (and some that I haven’t listed), done most things right, and has interested me enough to forgive the lapses that I perceive. I’m going to use this article to tell you about the Corporia campaign and about the things that I think the people behind it are doing right – and a couple of things I think they’ve gotten wrong. This isn’t going to be a definitive guide to success with Kickstarter – that should be left to someone who has actually run one – it’s more about the reasons why I have chosen not to back certain projects in the past, no matter how much they might have interested me. And, along the way, I’ll get to tell you about Corporia itself. Who knows? You may be sufficiently interested to invest.

Kickstarter Basics

I should start, for the benefit of anyone who hasn’t participated in one before, who’s been living under a rock or something for the last few years, by running through some of the basics of Kickstarter and how it works.

A producer of product sets up a campaign to raise the funds necessary to complete a project. Members of the public pledge funds to the project in return for rewards. If the product doesn’t attract enough pledged amounts to reach the funding goal specified by the producer, no money changes hands. If more money is pledged than necessary, additional rewards may come into play. Kickstarter keep some of the funds, I think it’s a percentage off the top, but it might be a flat fee.

That’s the basic outline, enough for us to be getting on with.

A caveat before I start: although I have been critical below about certain aspects of the product and the fundraising campaign, I want to be clear that I’m not trying to single Mark Plemmons or Corporia out. The product deserves to be appraised on its own merits, and I’ve tried to maintain the review below within three separate threads: Kickstarter campaigns in general, the Kickstarter campaign for Corporia, and evaluating the product itself. The goal is not to be negative, but to offer constructive feedback to Mark and anyone else using Kickstarter in the future, and I hope that the comments below are read in that light.

Organization

I got a contact email / press release for Corporia before the Kickstarter campaign launched, giving me plenty of time to write an article. This happens less frequently than you might think; several times I’ve had to refuse requests because there simply wasn’t enough lead time to prepare an adequate article.

The most successful campaign I’ve ever been involved with asked for something like $10K and got about $270K. I didn’t actually pay enough to get a reward for that one – it was just a cause that I thought worth backing. There have been others that I wanted to back but couldn’t afford that were even more successful, but that’s my yardstick.

But the people producing Corporia clearly had their act together. That gets a big tick, because that organization, and the attention to detail that the actual press release demonstrated, can be reasonably expected to flow through to every other aspect of the project. A big tick.

The Contact Email

So here’s what the email actually said (with a few redactions by me):

Mike and Johnn,

I’m a fan of your blog and I wanted to pass on some RPG news that you might be interested in, either personally or even as a news item you can mention to your readers. The Kickstarter page (linked below) has a video and more information on why Corporia is special.

I think the Corporia role-playing game would interest you for these reasons (at least!):

  • Urban Fantasy – Corporia is built around ‘knights in shining Armani’: heroes from the court of Camelot reincarnated in a near-future metropolis where corporations of Order and creatures of Chaos fight a shadow war for ultimate control of the human race.
  • Innovative Rules – Corporia’s rules are based on an intuitive 2d6 mechanic (aka the GRAIL system) that lets you combine your character’s abilities in different ways to fit whatever situation arises. Corporia also features wounding rules that avoid the too-common ‘death spiral’, hacking rules that let all players cooperate in an infinite variety of virtual worlds, and magic rules that allow spellcasters to easily create and modify their spells on the fly.
  • Gorgeous Design attractive to casual readers and gamers alike – Corporia features a modern design sense with dozens of beautiful full-color photos of realistic-looking heroes from both sexes and multiple races. Each chapter provides a look at a near-future world, with several chapter sections written and designed as in-game props like tourist guides, magazines, corporate marketing materials, and scientific researches.

If you’re interested, please let me know how I can make the writing process easy for you. You can download web ready preview photos from [the link] following my signature, and there’s a special 14-page preview link on the Kickstarter page.

Corporia launches Saturday November 2nd at 8 am CT. Thanks for taking the time to check it out!

Thanks,
Mark Plemmons
[email address]

Kickstarter [My link, replacing Mark's]: http://kck.st/1846sHT
[Press Release Images link]

Mark Plemmons is an ENnie and Origins award-winning author with over a decade of experience in the role-playing and hobby game industry, having previously served as: writer, editor, art director, project manager, and/or graphic designer for the HackMaster, Aces & Eights, Adventures Dark and Deep, and Dungeons & Dragons-branded Kingdoms of Kalamar RPGs, multiple Knights of the Dinner Table and Dungeons & Dragons comic book series, plus various card, miniature, and board games, among others.

This message also ticks a number of boxes.

Urban Fantasy

Urban Fantasy per se doesn’t excite me. But in this case, I’ll acknowledge an exception to that rule.

The association between the corporate world and “Order” (as opposed to Chaos) is the sort of thing that I might come up with, and is vaguely interesting in its own right. And I like the turn of phrase, ‘Knights In Shining Armani’. Still more interesting, there are concepts implied that I can easily add to my superhero campaign – things that should be there, but that I had not thought of.

Functionality and inspiration: two big ticks.

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Innovative Rules

I have heard of the Grail System before (I think(!)) but I’ll be darned if I could find a reference to it anywhere. Even a Google search came up empty. I’ve a similar game mechanic that I developed a while back. But the implication was that there wouldn’t be much in terms of the core rules that I could import into other games. And given that I have heard of the system before, I was put off a bit by the description of the rules as “Innovative” – that struck me as hyperbole, even misleading.

But then I got to the next sentences. A new thought in a wounding system? That’s of passing interest. Hacking rules that emphasize cooperation and coordinated activities by multiple people? These are a lot harder to do well than most people realize, and I’m always interested in new approaches to that particular problem. And a new approach to creating and customizing spells on an ad-hoc basis? That’s also harder to do than it sounds, and of definite interest.

Interesting game mechanics? Another big tick. But a different choice of adjective might have been better.

Gorgeous Design

Definitely. No, very definitely.

But this is rarely a selling point for me; on the contrary, it often / usually means you’re paying for fluff and not content. Sometimes, the fluff can even obscure the content. It’s very rare for the fluff to be of inherent value to me as a game aid, and even more infrequent for it to be a sufficient improvement over what I can find free on the internet to make it a selling point.

More importantly, the examples depicted show a clear design.

I’ll be revisiting this topic in a bit. The key at the moment is that the fancy art is not detracting from the content, so while it may not be worth a big tick, it avoids a serious hurdle that on it’s own has been enough to stop me from supporting products in the past.

Periphera

You can tell that Mark has done press releases before. The inclusion of an email address, the links to the campaign and the press kit (you’d be surprised how often these get left off), and a concise bio. All that adds up to experience and professionalism – and, like the level of organization indicated earlier, is something that can be expected to carry through to all other aspects of the product and campaign.

The Previews & Press Kit

So I was sufficiently intrigued to take a look at the 14-page preview. Oh dear. It actually came close to undoing all the good impressions the proposed product had made so far.

The preview launches straight into the game background right after the cover. This is written in a ‘handwritten’ font that is initially clear, but which extends for so many pages that my eyes were swimming by the end. And oh dear, all the vices of fancy graphics are fully manifested – blood spots obscure text here and there, producing words that appear to read “grall quest” instead of “grail quest” at one point.

But then I got to the Introduction, and it was as though a switch had been thrown. Clear, clean, stylish, legible. Ditto the rules – which is when I began cringing. One of the key combat skills is named “Getting Medieval”. Heck, I’ve read the term several times now, and I know it’s there, and I’m still cringing every time I see it. It’s cutesy, even a little patronizing, and completely out of place.

My final comment on the preview is simply this: I wish the producers had chosen to include the main graphic of page 13 in the press kit instead of the inset picture. The latter is cheap titillation in the form of a shower scene – fine in its place and in context, but inappropriate and not as useful as a resource as the main picture would have been. In terms of their use in the preview and (presumably) in the actual product, thumbs up; in terms of inclusion in the press kit, maybe not so much.

Press Kit release

And speaking of which, it might have been a good idea to include a specific release or terms and conditions with those press-kit pictures. Even something as simple as “These images are copyrighted and are released to the press and public for the explicit purpose of promoting Corporia and/or its authors. No other permissions may be assumed without written consent of the publishers of Corporia.” – just so that people like me know where we stand. I’ve used a handful of the images to illustrate this article, because I think that will fall under the heading of “fair use” even without an explicit permission, but even so, it made me slightly hesitant about actually promoting the product.

And, while including the 14-page preview might have been a bit excessive, including a generalized introductory letter in the press kit would not have been a bad idea, either. You can never put the basic facts in front of people too often.

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The target: Are they shooting for the moon?

And so, to the kickstarter campaign itself, starting with the target. Mark is seeking US$13,000. That’s a little higher than most kickstarter campaigns, though there have been many higher ones that have succeeded. A more typical value would have been something like $5,000 to $7500. At something close to double a value in the middle of that range, the target is not out of the question, but it represents an additional burden that the project has to overcome.

And it’s a fair bet that half of it relates to the color graphics and the high-quality paper and printing needed to execute them.

In other words, the fluff is making it less likely that there will be a product at the end of the campaign. While backers don’t pay if the product doesn’t reach its target, you have to wonder whether or not it would have been better to list the target as something more modest, with black and white line art only, and to make the fancy full-color stuff a stretch goal.

A lower target is a positive inducement to pledges of support. Not only can the base pledge amounts be made smaller, allowing more people to commit to the project, but once the basic goal has been achieved, it actually gets easier to persuade people to back the project because they know they will be getting a product at the end of it. What’s more, it adds stretch goals that are more easily achieved – and that has other benefits, as I’ll explain in a moment.

In this case, the goal is high enough to raise uncertainty that the product will reach its goal, and psychologically, that’s a disincentive to back it – which in turn makes that uncertainty more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. But this target is far from being unrealistic or unachievable. It’s not like the producers are asking for $100K or $250K – both of which I have seen before, on campaigns both successful and unsuccessful.

So it’s not enough for an outright down-check, but is enough for a moment’s hesitation.

Stretch goals

A Stretch Goal is one of those add-ons that get added to the base product if a specified amount over the base goal is achieved in fundraising. Getting these right is an art form in itself. Too small and they seem trivial; too large and they look designed for failure. You want them to be appealing, because that encourages backers to be vocally supportive of the project and offers an inducement to pledge bigger than the minimum level needed to actually receive the product.

Even more importantly, ticking stretch goals off at regular intervals builds momentum and word of mouth. If properly designed to function in harmony with the pledge levels, they can not only encourage larger pledges and more pledges, they can persuade people to come back and boost their pledges to a higher amount that gives them access to the goodies promised in the stretch goals.

On the other hand, you can also make a selling point of NOT restricting stretch goal goodies to “elite” backers, as is the case with Corporia, and if your backer levels are clear and affordable, that can serve as an inducement of equal strength.

The key, either way, is making sure that the stretch goals are actually desirable add-ons from the prospective customer’s perspective. That means knowing your target market, and knowing it well.

Probably the most enlightening Kikckstarter project that I’ve backed to the extent of recieving an actual product was Building An Elder God. The way they handled telling people about stretch goals achieved and what was next was nothing short of brilliant. Check out Update #26 and imagine the tentacle as it grew firstly towards the “fully funded” mark – and then beyond, and to the point where they had to tack on extra levels!

There are two ways of expressing a stretch goal, and they both have their virtues. The first is “goal plus $X” – this has the virtue of making the stretch goal seem closer and more achievable, encouraging people to push that little bit harder. The alternative is the “$X pledged”, and that has the virtue of making the stretch goal seem closer – the hard work has already been done, it only takes a little more to nudge things up to the next level.

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Corporia’s Stretch Goals

How do Corporia’s actual stretch goals stack up?

The first one doesn’t thrill me much – I’m not a fan of quick reference cards. The $15K future-proofing goal is more interesting – but I know from experience that this is more work that I think the producers are allowing for. The inclusion of a plain-text PDF version is a definite enticement, but seems a small reward for the increased funding. Then the goals become much more interesting – and the funding gaps to be crossed become much bigger to go with them. So the early goals are a little “soft” but the later goals are enticing – though a long way removed. So far removed, in fact, that you couldn’t count on them happening. With $5K leaps, the size of some full Kickstarter fundraising campaigns, they seem a little overpriced (except possibly the City Chronicle, which is estimated to be large enough to be worth the $5K) – but again, that’s probably the fluff talking. They are so far removed that they can probably be discounted in terms of actually materializing – an empty promise.

But the more of those stretch goals that got unlocked, the more easily persuaded I would be to become a backer. The problem is that if everyone thinks that way, the goal won’t be reached and neither will any of the stretch goals. This is a catch-22 that needs to be clearly understood.

So what’s the answer? In my opinion, it’s more stretch goals, at smaller intervals, and a more modest initial goal. Make the product that you really want to create one of the stretch goals and compromise versions at lower levels.

All told, these could be more attractive and/or more attainable than they are, and that’s true to such an extent that they do not sway me towards backing the product – though they will if any are actually achieved. Without that additional incentive, it’s all up to the basic package that you get for your pledge.

The Pledge Levels

Corporia actually does a better job of outlining the pledge levels than any kickstarter campaign I’ve seen before – and that’s saying something. About 1/3 of the way down the Kickstarter page there’s a graphic that explains the pledges far more clearly and succinctly than I can do, even simply replicating the text in a list:

  • $1 Drone – desktop wallpaper and updates
  • $15 Citizen – Drone + Corporia PDF
  • $25 Hacker – Citizen + dossier PDF, beta test, stretches
  • $35 Squire – Hacker + supplement PDF
  • $50 Knight – Squire + signed & numbered hardcover
     
  • $150 Architect – Knight + create a location in-game
  • $250 SR. Exec. – Knight + appear in game text
  • $500 C.E.O. – Knight + appear in text and art
  • $1500 Shadow Broker – CEO + convention game
  • $2500 World Leader – Broker + design hire
     
  • Retailer level ($110) also available

Note that levels above Knight have limited availability.

Getting the levels right

Administration of a kickstarter campaign can be a nightmare of convoluted complications. A successful campaign can be three times worse (or more). Multiple base levels, multiple add-ons incorporated into different variations of higher pledge levels building on those base levels, stretch goals that only apply to backers of certain pledge levels – you can drive yourself around the bend with administrative nightmares if you get it wrong.

There have also been horror stories of projects that have underestimated the costs involved, have reached their goals, but still sustained a loss. A lot of that falls into two categories: postage and admin. A third problem is often underestimating the production time involved.

The simpler you make your pledge levels, the more all of these burdens are eased. Part of this can also involve recalculating the targets for your stretch goals, if they are going to involve extra postage. If the add-ons and stretch extras are to be distributed electronically, the costs and complications are much reduced.

I’m pleased to say that Corporia actually stacks up fairly well in this respect, too – with one caveat that I’ll get to in a moment. The prices seem in-line with what you would expect to pay for the product if you came across it at RPGNow (the PDFs) or in a game store (the hardcover).

And some of the pledge levels are quite creative – in particular, the “World Leader” level, which includes 20 hours of work by Mark Plemmons (consultation, editorial, and/or graphic design) for your own personal publishing project via phone, in-person, or Skype depending on your location, starting in June 2014.

At the same time, there are a couple of missed opportunities. The Shadow Broker level has a limit of one, and includes Mark attending one of three conventions (your choice) to run a minimum 4-hour game session for your group (up to 5 players). Since it’s unlikely that all three conventions would be held on the same weekend, why not list each one as a separate level, limit of one each?

Some Minor Nit-picks

The higher level awards seem overpriced, however – the costs involved in satisfying the C.E.O. level don’t seem that much higher than those of Senior Executive, but this is a premium addition, so doubling the price tag is not completely out of line. But, given that, the cost of the next level up, which is $1000 more than the price of the C.E.O. level, and $1450 more than the basic Knight level seem too much. Air fairs and accommodation could cost $500, plausibly, so $500 more than the premium price-tag C.E.O. level should be closer to the mark of reasonable. The balance means either that Mark wants to be paid for running the demo game, or to be paid for prepping an adventure that will promote his product, or to have his accommodation covered for staying for the whole convention – or that he simply chose a value that seemed about right to him at the time! Regardless of how it got there, the price seems out-of-line. Of course, I could be underestimating the costs involved, in which case I owe an apology – but if the conventions cost that much to attend, I can’t see them as being as successful for very long.

Similarly, $2500 seems a premium price to pay for Mark’s services – something close to what you might have to pay him at full professional rates for a 20-hour consult. Nothing wrong with that per se, but this is supposed to be a reward for a major pledge toward the publication of his product. If a reasonable price for Shadow Broker is closer to $1000, $1500 or $2000 would be more reasonable for that plus the consult. But, again, that’s just my opinion.

What these show is that you need to consider and assess the pricing of your premium backer levels very carefully; overpricing them can lead to a perception, rightly or wrongly, that you are being taken advantage of – a disincentive for such levels of backing. Which may be the goal, of course – offering them at a price that makes it worth the inconvenience involved. The problem is that it can produce the impression that this inconvenience is valued more highly than the success of the project.

Since these backer levels are going to be out of the reach of most backers of the project, they shouldn’t make any difference to any decision concerning whether or not to back the project. The actual levels most backers will be interested in are reasonably priced, so that’s a qualified tick.

A more serious nit to pick

Of somewhat greater impact to some will be the restrictions on many of the pledge levels to US only. Canadians have a right to feel slighted.

But my real bone to pick with the pledge levels is in the fine print of the Knight level. This is the target for most backers – it delivers to them an actual physical copy of the product. But there are additional shipping costs for anyone outside the US (again including, apparently, Canada, and definitely including Australia). The jump from Squire to Knight levels for me is not a reasonable $15 – it’s a whopping US$45. The price more than doubles, and that’s before currency-conversion and related expenses.

I get a lot of things from the US, and the prices quoted for postage are high, but that’s because we’re talking about a 208-page hardcover – on premium paper because it’s all full-color.

There really should be a “Not available in the US” intermediate pledge level for overseas customers, offering a paperback alternative. And that gets back to the point that I made in the earlier section on shooting for the moon in the targets. Aiming for a paperback with limited color pages as the base target, with hardcover and full-color as stretch goals, would make the project far more enticing in a budget-oriented economy. Money’s tight these days :)

Having said all that, Corporia is far from the worst offender I’ve ever seen in this respect.

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The Bottom Line

Like most Kickstarter campaigns, Mark has done a lot of things right – but there are a number of areas that could have been better executed. I hope that he succeeds despite those areas of which I have been critical – he certainly has done no worse than others and better than many.

Corporia looks like an interesting product. It also looks like a premium product in a budget-tight real-world economy. Is it worth backing by anyone interested in the Cyberpunk genre, or modern fantasy, or fantasy in general? In PDF form, definitely – probably to Hacker level. For readers in the US, the Hardcover would seem to be an equally-reasonable purchase. But I would have to really want it to buy the hardcover, and that’s a shame.

I want to conclude this article by extending Mark an open invitation to reply to my criticisms. As I said at the top, none of them are intended to target him personally, and only one or two specific ones (“Getting Medieval”, cringe) are directed at the product itself.

Nor do I want to seem opposed to Kickstarter in general or in relation to any specific project, because I’m not. Kickstarter is a tool, and a brilliant resource; but it’s something we have to learn how to use to best effect.

Update 5 Nov 2013:

Mark sent me the reply below via email. I’ve responded in the comments.

Mike,

Thanks for sending the link! I appreciate you using Corporia as an example in your Kickstarter piece. I think it’s a very comprehensive article, and you’ve made some very good points. Since you offered me the chance to respond, though, I’m happy to comment on a couple of the items you mentioned.

The highest-level backer rewards are definitely higher dollar amounts, as you mention, but it’s important to keep in mind that all the funding goes towards producing the limited edition hardcover and PDF versions of Corporia. For instance, there’s no money set aside to pay my way for the convention trip at the Shadow Broker and World Leader levels, beyond possibly a little fuel for my Prius and an entry ticket to the convention. The extra rewards (in addition to the lower level rewards they receive) at these high levels are unique bonuses to thank the backers for being so generous with their funding. Of course, I know there are (at least) two schools of thought on this – some people think that high reward levels should provide an equal return on investment in the form of product, while other people use those levels to provide small but more personalized services for ‘angel’ investors. I’m obviously more of the latter mindset.

You also mention international shipping being too high. Unfortunately, while you’re right about that, my hands are pretty much tied by the US Postal Service rates. Taking a loss on shipping costs isn’t really feasible for me, though I know some Kickstarter projects do take that risk. I did make a few concessions to help as best I could, though. I split the international costs into two categories for Canada/Mexico and Other International, rather than using the default Kickstarter option which would have forced Canada/Mexico rates to the higher overseas rate. I’m also offering the $5 Add-On (a personalized note written in the book, to the person of the backer’s choice) as a free option for all international backers. I realize that $5 isn’t much, but I also didn’t want to slight the US backers by giving away international exclusive PDFs (even though I did consider it). A softcover option wasn’t possible with this project, since I’m producing this book at a high-quality full-service printer rather than Print-On-Demand, and a softcover book would have required an additional large minimum order.

I hope that helps explain some of the decisions. And again, thanks for mentioning Corporia on your blog! I hope all your readers will at least come check it out.

Best,
Mark

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