[TRANSCRIPT] Talking Tinkerbots #16 – We’ve got chemistry with John Coveyou!
In episode 16 of our podcast we had a great discussion with game designer John Coveyou about how he successfully funded his 3rd Kickstarter campaign in under 24 hours. We were contacted by someone who was interested in knowing what John had to say but couldn’t hear the podcast because they were deaf. Thankfully a friend of ours Terrance Edwards kindly volunteered his time to transcribe the whole thing to make it accessible for others.
A big thank-you goes to Terrance for his generosity. The full transcript can be found below.
TALKING TINKERBOTS #16 – WE’VE GOT CHEMISTRY WITH JOHN COVEYOU!
GINO: Hello and welcome to Episode 16 of Talking Tinkerbots by us, Tinkerbot Games. I’m Gino, your host, and in a moment you’ll hear from my co-hosts, Bevan and Tony, as well as our featured guest, John Coveyou. John is a successful board game designer and Kickstarter campaign runner. He shares with us some excellent insights into running a crowdfunding campaign as well as design tips, so if you’re one day hoping to have your game on a shelf in your friendly local gaming shop, keep listening.
Now, talking of friendly local gaming shops, the hosting for this very podcast is generously provided by our friendly local gaming shop, Rules Of Play. We love their friendly welcoming shop and, not only do they help us continue to bring this podcast to your ears, but they also offer free post and packaging for orders in the UK. So, if you want to buy board games online but feel like you also want to support friendly local gaming shops, now you can. Head on over to www.rulesofplay.co.uk and get your next board game delivered straight to your door for no extra cost and you get to feel good by supporting your local friendly gaming shop at the same time. It’s win-win, unless you order Arkham Horror in which case, well… you don’t want to know. Anyway, onto the interview.
GINO: We now have with us as a special guest someone who has got a live Kickstarter campaign this very second so we’re going to talk to him about it now. We’ve play-tested the game and we’re very excited. So, say hello to John Coveyou. John, say hello.
JOHN: Hi, everybody! Thanks for having me on.
GINO: Hello. Thank you for joining us. Now, we’ve brought you on because you sent us a review copy of your game called Ion: The Compound Game. Right?
JOHN: Yes. That’s correct.
GINO: And we had a chance to play test it. But before we get onto the game, let’s learn a little bit about you first. So your name is John Coveyou. Spelled… surname is spelled C-O-V-E-Y-O-U?
JOHN: That’s absolutely right. That’s correct.
GINO: It does help I’m looking at it on the screen. I did ask you beforehand how you pronounce it and it’s ‘cuv-you’ like ‘love you’, right?
JOHN: That’s right. It’s like ‘love you’ but with a Cuh instead of an L.
GINO: Now I’m so glad you told me it was like that ‘cause that was much easier for me to understand. I was trying to figure it out, like was it ‘cove-you’ or is it ‘cove-yow’ or… I dunno, I just guessed…
GINO: I had none of them right. And we eventually got it. In the end. So… your Kickstarter campaign is live right now?
GINO: Tell us a bit more about the game itself. So, give us your elevator pitch. How would you describe this game to someone who’s never heard of it before?
JOHN: Yeah. So… um, I’m trying to accomplish a couple things simultaneously with this game. So, I’ve been a gamer my whole life. I love playing board games but I came to the point where, um, I… I was just kind of tired of the same sci-fi theme, over and over again. And so I thought to myself ‘you know what, why not design a game that is accurately themed around some hard science concept?’ Because I think a lot of us gamers really geek out on… on some of these sciencey engineering type concepts and I… I thought maybe this might be a good place to go with the game theme. And what I noticed was, when I designed my first game, my first couple of games, I brought… and I’m also a teacher, right now part-time, but previously full-time, and I brought some into my classroom and my students loved it and their parents loved it and so I thought ‘hey, you know what? I should try and publish some of these games.’ So that’s how the whole thing started and Ion is actually my third game that we’ve launched on Kickstarter and successfully published.
GINO: Cool. Now that’s going to bring me on to one of my next subjects. So, this isn’t your first game. So, you’ve had two before. Do you want to just tell us a little bit more about those as well?
JOHN: Yeah. So the first one was called Linkage. A DNA card game. And you were basically playing through the process of DNA to RNA transcription. So, in our bodies, we’ve got this genetic code- it’s like the blueprint for building a house, it’s inside of all of our cells- and you don’t want to take the original copy of that blueprint out to the construction site cause it might get, you know, tore up, so in our cells, what happens is that original blueprint copy… or the original blueprint, they make a copy of it and that copy of the DNA is called RNA and that process is called DNA to RNA transcription.
So this game is themed around that process. You have a hand of RNA cards and there’s a DNA template that’s growing and you’re trying to match, or make a copy of that DNA template as the game goes on, so you can build on your strand or you can fix your strand if it’s broken or messed up, or you can mutate someone else’s strand or you can mutate the actual DNA template and mess up all the opposing players simultaneously. So… it’s a really light fun little card game. We’ve sold two and a half thousand copies of that on Amazon. It’s got great reviews and had a decent Kickstarter campaign.
The second game is a follow-up game to that, so it… it’s the biological follow-up to that. So now that we have these RNA strands, Peptide shows you how to build protein strands, or a polypeptide chain, from this RNA strand. So you’ve got a few different organelles in there, you know, a ribosome and mitochondria for energy, and a nucleus to get the RNA from… from the transcription process and you put all these things together and you code with your… with your three RNA codon for each amino acid and you build an amino acid chain. So… I hope everyone understood what I just said. That’s… that’s me geeking out over these hardcore science games but, yeah, those were the first two games.
GINO: I don’t know about our listeners but, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this before you sent us this review copy, but did you know that… um… so Bevan trained as a biology teacher. Right, Bevan?
BEVAN: I did, yeah.
GINO: I trained as a physics teacher and, Tony, you had some training in biology to a certain degree in your degree as well? So you’re already talking to a few people who already have a background in science and some in science education as well. Did you know that before you sent us the copy?
JOHN: No. I… I actually did not know that. You told me afterwards and I thought ‘oh, great! So, that’s good’ cause I figured you’d be able to appreciate the accuracy of the game.
GINO: Well, the funny thing is… so I married a chemist, of all people, and I said to her ‘OK, you’re a chemistry nerd, take a look at this and tell me if I’m missing anything?’ and she said ‘no, no, it’s spot on.’ So I went out there looking for any mistakes, see if I could find them ‘cause… we don’t know you personally so I thought ‘if there’s a mistake, I need to know about it’.
JOHN: Right, right…
GINO: It’s all spot on, it’s all above board. My wife, who is very particular about these sorts of things, she went through it and she went ‘no, that’s fine. It’s all good. It’s all above board.’ So it got the seal of approval from my wife, which is more than enough, as a chemist. So, well done.
GINO: Nice work.
JOHN: That’s good news, thank you.
GINO: So, yeah… you told us you picked the science theme because you were sort of sick of other themes and you went from biology to chemistry. Do you have any follow-up games coming now with physics in the future, do you think?
JOHN: You know… um… I… I… had some ideas.
JOHN: I think I’ve run into a few roadblocks just in the design process because… um… with biology, a lot of the processes are really, kind of, start to finish mechanized processes. You know, with DNA transcription, there’s a beginning and there’s an end and I figured out how to game-ify that. Um… and the same thing with RNA translation, making proteins, so it… it’s really right now it’s a matter of me trying to figure out how to game-ify some concept and it’s a little bit tougher…
So I teach sixth-graders physics right now and I’ve been trying to think of… maybe like a rollercoaster game or some game that involves the equations for force, energy and work or something like that but I just can’t figure out a good idea yet. So if you guys come up with one, e-mail me and that’s actually… I’m glad you brought that up… because I’ve been looking for other game designers who are willing to design games and I would take them on as a game designer and publish so… ‘cause I don’t want to do it all myself, right? I also wanna get some more games out by other designers.
GINO: Screw this podcast, let’s just end this call and get on with it. OK, John, we’re on it. Let’s do physics, come on!
JOHN: Alright, let’s do it. Let’s do it.
BEVAN: OK, pressing cancel now…
GINO: It’s called ending the Skype call. I mean, obviously, physics is the greatest of the three sciences, the three primary sciences.
GINO: And that’s why you’re saving it for last because you want to make sure you get it spot on and you want to… it’s the best one of the bunch. Right, guys?
TONY: Alright, Mr. Physicist… calm it down.
BEVAN: No, no, no, no, no. Biology all the way.
JOHN: This is your podcast. You can say whatever you want.
GINO: And the great thing is, John, I do all the editing so I can cut out what I like. One quick thing, John, for our British audience, when you said grade six or sixth-graders, what age group is that for… for the students?
JOHN: Yeah, so… um… with Ion and with Linkage it was 10 and up and with Peptide it was 13 and up. Now, I get a lot of comments from adult gaming groups who say ‘yeah, we really like your games, really like the mechanics, we think it’s fun’. My goal though is to make it accessible to a ten-year-old or an eleven-year-old who’s sitting in a chemistry class and they can actually read the rules and understand how to play the game.
So I want to simultaneously make it simple enough and light enough to learn how to play in a few minutes and have fun in under 20 or 30 minutes but also have enough strategy so a gaming group can really enjoy the game. And that’s tough, you know? I’ve had a lot of students and teachers saying ‘hey, these are too complicated’ and I’ve had a lot of gamers who say ‘you know what, it’s not enough meat for me’. So it’s… you know… I try and do it, I get a lot of success but, you know, I can’t please everybody.
GINO: It’s a tough balance.
JOHN: It really is.
GINO: I mean, you’re looking at two very different target audiences so I’m impressed that you’ve managed to make it work because when we looked at it… we’ve written our review, it’s on your Kickstarter campaign in fact, you’ve got a link to it and it’s on our website and we’ll put a link in the show notes… but we liked it, you know, all three of us played it and we brought a few friends in as well and… what’s that, Bevan?
BEVAN: Definitely. Just agreeing with you there.
GINO: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We really enjoyed it. And as we were playing it, I was certainly looking at it as ‘if I was teaching right now, would I bring this to the classroom with me, would I take it in to, like, the school-based sort of games club?’ And I would, definitely, I’m pretty sure I said that in my review, it’s something I could see myself playing with the right age group and it’s also something I would play with friends of my age group and with older people and with anybody, it’s got enough meat to it to make it interesting and yet it’s got the right amount of education to be able to take it into a classroom. So, I was really impressed by that. We all sort of saw that for what it was, which was a great thing to have. So, well done.
JOHN: Yeah, thank you. Thank you. And since the Kickstarter’s been going, we’ve actually added a few more things to the game, which is… which is great. We’ve added some transition metals and those give you an option. Each card can be one of two oxidation states, so you can choose to go for a +2 or a +3 charge and then we also added polyatomic ions. I think we have carbonate, sulphate and nitrate and those allow you, when you play them, they score less points but they allow you to reuse one of your action tiles. So, it just, you know, change it up a little bit, add some more strategy.
GINO: I’m standing here with a really big grin on my face. It’s just really exciting.
JOHN: Isn’t it great to talk about game stuff and also use these really technical words that most people, their eyes just glaze over? When you’re a scientist or a biologist or a physicist or a chemist, you’re like ‘oh I love these words, I can’t believe they’re in a game!’
GINO: I still tutor some students in the evenings, sort of… um, 16 to 18 year olds in what we call A-Level Physics, and every now and then we come across terms and I say to them ‘OK, listen, listen, we’re about to study something called the wave particle duality of light. Write it down, memorise it and impress your friends and family. You know, as long as you understand that word and you can repeat it confidently, you’ll sound impressive.’ You know, that’s what I tell them.
GINO: There are these individual terms, I say ‘right, this is one of those ones, guys, memorise this one, impress everyone, get the job interview, just throw it out there, you know, you can be at the pub, doesn’t matter, just say it and people will go “wow, he really knows what he’s talking about”’. You know, it’s just one of those things.
JOHN: Oh yeah, absolutely.
GINO: So I’m totally on board. Isn’t that why we all took science, generally? Biologists, because they want to learn Latin. Chemists because they like long words and physicists because they’re kind of OK at maths. I generally got that impression, right?
JOHN: There you go, that’s right.
BEVAN: It’s also nice to be able to use your knowledge outside of a game of Trivial Pursuit, which is brilliant.
GINO: That’s a very good point, Bevan. It’s nice to be able to use science when you’re playing a game. That’s a very good point indeed. Um… just go back to the Kickstarter. So we’ve all said we all enjoyed the game, we all really enjoyed the way it worked and the way it played and we went into much more depth on the review but your Kickstarter funded fairly early on, didn’t it, John?
JOHN: It did. We funded in 22 hours.
GINO: Yeah, I saw that happen and I just went ‘yeah, bravo! I’m impressed’. That was a little round of applause from me when I saw it happen and go past and went ‘well, it’s not even 24 hours and you’ve made it’ and the first thing I said to you when it happened was ‘nice work, got stretch goals planned?’ That was the next thing because it’s like when you’ve got another so many days, I’m really hoping you’ve got some stretch goals, so that was really cool to see.
JOHN: And what was funny was, you know, I really didn’t think it was going to do as well as it did. I was really hoping we would do well on the first day but then it just… it kept going.
We raised the same amount of money the next couple of days and the next couple of days we tripled it and the next couple of days we quadrupled it so I was like ‘oh man, is this thing ever going to slow down?’ and it ended up… it ended up slowing down a lot after five or six days but, boy, those first few days, it just kept going and going and going and I got a little worried because we hit all of our fund… all of our stretch goals that I had planned within I think four or five days and we literally had to go back to the drawing board and go ‘OK, now what do we add to the game?’
I had an expansion idea that we had played through but we didn’t have any of the cards or anything designed yet, it was just pure prototype stuff, so I called the artist and designer and I said ‘hey, can we get these out by the time the campaign ends?’ They were like ‘yeah, you know, if we can get enough money, we can get it out’ So, I said ‘OK, so here’s our next stretch goal’! So we got them up there.
GINO: I’m glad you did, to be honest. Now, because a lot of our listeners are people who are aspiring game designers and game publishers, we’re just going to ask you a few questions about the Kickstarter campaign itself. Now, this is your third Kickstarter campaign, right?
GINO: So, has this campaign differed from the last two in any way? Have you changed the way you’ve done it, in the way that you’ve sort of developed the campaign or the way you’ve sort of got interest? Have you made any significant changes, sort of lessons learned from the last two? Or is it sort of you’ve had a working formula in the past and you’ve sort of stuck to it?
JOHN: Um… I have made a lot of changes. So, um, yeah, I guess my philosophy with this is ‘if you just build it, they will not come’. Right? That’s the common knowledge, the common talk around Kickstarter: ‘if you build it, they will come’. Which is nonsense. A lot of people will just throw a Kickstarter project up there and hope backers will come and find it and think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.
But what I have done is try and build an audience before launching a campaign by getting reviews, like I did with you and a bunch of other reviewers, building buzz on Facebook and on Twitter, on Reddit, and even LinkedIn forums and LinkedIn groups and getting people talking about this.
And then also one of the things I did with Ion that I didn’t do with the previous campaigns is I focused a lot on the launch day. I focused a lot of attention on just the Day 1. And the reason why was because, and that’s why we hit our funding goal in 22 hours, because I focused so much marketing and attention on that first day, and the reason why I did that was because I wanted to be able to pitch the game and the Kickstarter campaign into larger media channels and I knew I would have something really newsworthy and noteworthy if we could hit our funding goal within 24 hours.
So we actually needed- this is kind of a behind-the-curtains look- we needed about twice as much money as I set that funding goal for. So if we would have just raised $8,000, I would have been in some deep water. I’d have had the funds to manufacture the game and ship it out had we just hit $8,000 but the whole point, the whole strategy behind that was to hit that funding goal as quickly as possible and then pitch to other media outlets with the pitch ‘hey, we hit our funding goal in 22 hours. We got covered by this media outlet and that media outlet and here’s what the reviewers are saying’. And we had a pretty substantial increase in the amount of people willing to write about the game after that, and that’s why the funding kept moving forward at such a high rate was because we got so much media attention after hitting that funding goal so quickly.
The other thing I did is that I focused less on gaming channels and more on education and the science channels. Before, on the first games, I focused purely on gaming channels and that is probably about a third of my market. But now I focused more specifically on that larger target market that really does have a propensity to spend money on products like this because they can use them in their classroom or use them at home as a more constructive alternative with their kids or with the family and things like that.
GINO: So… it’s funny to hear you say that, John, because just before we started recording, the three of us were discussing- while we were getting our technology set up- that this is something we’re thinking about ourselves, we’ve got a game we’re sort of working towards getting onto Kickstarter at the moment, and something we’re discussing is the fact that there seems to be a lot of Kickstarter sort of… what’s the word I’m looking for… apathy, I think is the word?
So, there’s so many games on Kickstarter, like there are, I think there were four or five launched in the last week alone, not including yours because yours launched a few weeks ago, and there’s just so many games at once that board game… typical board game players, people who use things like BoardGameGeek, there’s just sort of an overload of board games on Kickstarter or card games or RPG games. So it’s interesting to sort of think of, ‘OK, who else is going to buy my game other than the board gamers?’ Not to ignore them but, if you focus too heavily on them, are you missing out on the opportunity to go elsewhere?
So we were talking about the particular type of crowds and the sort of target market that might also suit our game other than the, sort of, the standard board gamers, if that makes sense? And you’ve just sort of backed that up by saying that you went out for the teaching and the education field as well and the science field which is a great thing and obviously worked for you fantastically. So it’s very good to hear you say that, because it’s something we were discussing literally minutes ago.
JOHN: Yeah, and if I could jump in there and maybe make another comment about that, so… right now there’s actually about 630 active game projects on Kickstarter. Right? So you have to stand out in some way. And I think the beauty of these sorts of games is that they straddle that line between gamer and something constructive and even edifying. It has value in multiple arenas.
And I think that’s one of the reasons why our pitch was so strong and when you’re pitching- if you have a product like this- I would say be really sensitive to the pitch itself, because a teacher is going to respond to a different phrase or set of words than, say, a gamer. And the same thing for a parent.
And we spent a lot of time, a lot of time, just writing that e-mail. That one e-mail, the three sentences we were going to send out through a media outlet to ask them to write about the game. We spent a ton of time crafting that pitch specific to blogs that cater to science content, blogs that cater to education content, and blogs that cater to gamers. And so, and I think a lot of times, what people will do is they will blast out the same pitch and they’ll get really low conversion rates and really low response rates and one thing that we spent a lot of time doing is thinking about what people respond to and how to properly word that and craft that and market and PR so we can have such a successful campaign and I think it’s really paid off and I think that shows.
GINO: So it’s an example of saying that… people say you need to nail your elevator pitch, but one elevator pitch won’t fit all groups. So you need to sort of adjust your pitch to suit the crowd, essentially?
JOHN: Absolutely. Oh yeah, absolutely.
GINO: And you were saying earlier you were spending a lot of time and effort building up the right crowd. Because without the crowd, you don’t get the funding and… that’s what I call the Richard Bliss school of crowdsourcing. So, Richard Bliss who does the Funding The Dream podcast? The thing he says a lot which resonates very strongly with us is ‘people who go for crowdsourcing forget about the crowd element of it’. If you don’t have a crowd behind you, those people who are going to back you will back you but if there’s only a handful of them, family and friends, it’s not going to help you reach your goal. You need to work at the crowd more than anything else.
GINO: And you have obviously done that extremely successfully. I know one of the things you did was you had Facebook events on the launch day. So it was an event specifically about the fact that the game was being launched. Can you tell us a little bit more about the sort of decisions you made behind that and how it worked?
JOHN: Yeah I would love to. So, I think this is a beautiful strategy especially for a first-time project creator. So what… and I did something a little but similar with Linkage and I’ll explain that and why it was so effective and why we did it differently with Ion.
So, with Linkage, which was my first game, I wrote a blog post on my website and I essentially asked people for $1 on Day 1, and my hope- my goal- was to get as many people on Day 1 to just pledge $1 so it would look like we had a large backer count, and you’re going to have a few people come in with pretty high pledges and you’re going to have a few that’ll come in with normal pledges and a whole bunch that come in at the $1 pledge. But nobody’s actually paying attention to what every one of those people pledge, because no-one can see that information anyway. So it just looks like you have a hundred backers and a decent amount of money and your campaign looks really really credible.
But the beauty of it… when we launched, we had about a hundred people… a little less, closer to 60 or 70 people who had agreed to back that project for $1 on Day 1 and of those 60 or 70 people who pledged to donate $1, about 50 of them came in at a full pledge, so once they were already there, they decided to just get a copy of the game, it was only like $14 for Linkage so why not? So essentially what we did was we just funneled a bunch of people under the campaign, made it look super-credible when other people come in, and I was a little astonished because we actually had a lot more people give a full pledge compared to just $1.
So what I wanted to do with the Ion campaign was, instead of doing a blog post and collecting people via e-mail, I wanted to do a Facebook event because Facebook works really well with Kickstarter. When someone puts a post out, it’s easy to share, it’s easy to like. It’s a lot harder to do that kind of stuff via e-mail and some other outlets, so I think Facebook caters really well to advertising and to marketing on or for a Kickstarter campaign.
So we did the Facebook event and it was a lot easier for people to opt-in and respond. It was also easier for them to post out messages and it was a lot easier for them to share and comment and spread the word, ‘cause you can easily link someone to a Facebook event or something else. So we decided to go with that the second time round and I think it was very successful.
A majority of those people were notified because of the Facebook event and again we had… I think we had 300 or 350 backers on that first day and a majority of those were all full pledges or more, which is why we hit our funding goal in 22 hours. And that just set us up… it set us up with a lot of momentum and the next few days, the goal was to keep the momentum moving. Contact other outlets with the pitch- ‘hey, look how quickly we funded’. So, yeah, that was the idea behind the Facebook event and the Pledge $1.
GINO: I guess the idea of saying to people that you only need to pledge $1, if you can pledge $1 that’d be great, it’s kind of removing a barrier, isn’t it?
Because instead of saying to people ‘look, if you could just come in and pledge for the full game’, that’s a barrier, that’s a big chunk of money. But saying ‘you can just pledge $1’ that’s removing a barrier and then once they’re already past it, they might think ‘actually, that barrier’s not as big as I thought it was, I’ll go the whole hog, I’ll back the whole thing’.
So it’s a good way of getting people to check out the project at the very least. You’re saying ‘have a look, you only need to back $1 and, while you’re there, you might as well look at the project’. Then once they’ve looked at it, it’s too late, they’ve seen it, they’ve already started thinking ‘actually this game is good’. Yeah, Tony, you were saying…?
TONY: They’re hooked.
GINO: Hooked. Yeah, exactly that. It’s an interesting way of doing it. Very interesting way of building that crowd.
JOHN: Yeah, thank you. It was effective, so I would definitely advise that for other creators, especially first time creators, right? Because you don’t really have a big e-mail list or a big audience when you’re a first time creator so this is a nice organic way to create that.
GINO: Definitely, definitely.
BEVAN: It sounds like it was a very brave and clever decision to go for a lower funding goal. I think you mentioned as well that you had funds in place already to sort of make sure that, even if you only hit the low end of the funding goal, you’d be able to successfully fulfil your pledges and get the printing and everything done. Would you say that’s something else you think first time backers have to realise, that it’s not a case of Kickstarter will fund everything?
JOHN: Yeah, I think so. I think backers want to see that you’ve already put some skin in the game. Right? They want to see that, if this was to fail, that in some way you would be affected and if it was to succeed you’re not going to run with the money.
I think that’s what people… I think that’s the impression that people get when they see you have already invested so much, and we had so much artwork done and a lot of… prototypes sent out so it was obvious how much money we’d already invested, in very professional videos and a nice layout on the campaign and this all took a lot of time and money to do, and so I think when backers see that they know that ‘oh, this guy already has a lot of money invested in this campaign’.
Now, the other piece of that puzzle for me was because I had already had these other two games and we were just about sold out of the first game, so we manufactured about two and a half thousand copies of Linkage and we sold roughly 2000 copies in the last eight months on Amazon because of the media attention we got. So I was pretty confident that, even if we only raised seven-and-a-half or eight or nine thousand and I had to fork up some money to finish the manufacturing and shipping, that I would be able to make that up on the back-end selling the games on Amazon and everywhere else.
GINO: Ah, right…
JOHN: But I will say that is still highly risky and you’ll have a lot of project creators that will say ‘don’t do that; that was such a stupid move’. You know, I would say that… you know, Richard Bliss, he’d probably say that was a dumb move and James Mathe, another pretty avid Kickstarter adviser around, he’d probably say that was a dumb move.
But again, I knew my market really well. I’d been researching this market and understanding this market and, in speaking with this market for quite a while, so I knew what was there and I knew what they’d pay for, so I was willing to take on that risk. And for me, this is not… this isn’t just a hobby, or something fun for me, like I’m really trying to build a company and start producing high, high quality science-themed games of all sorts and topics and subjects, so for me it was very much a business decision.
BEVAN: It’s commendable. It’s fantastic.
JOHN: Yeah, thanks. Thanks.
GINO: That leads me on to another question, John. Something we tend to ask people who are doing Kickstarter campaigns. Now, you’ve already described you’re working part-time as a teacher at the moment, so…
GINO: So are you planning on making board game publishing and designing a full-time thing? Is that, sort of, the dream?
JOHN: Yeah, so… um… I actually started doing that about a year ago and then, this last year, I took on this part time teaching job because I needed more money. I have a 14-month-old daughter and a wife and so because we have a small family, we, you know, we have a decent amount of bills and the games sales from Linkage weren’t cutting it… so I took on this part-time job.
But I have been doing this fairly full-time for quite a while now and I rent a co-working space that I work out of full-time and I have an intern that works with me and have had other interns in the past. So, everything… I spent quite a bit of… I used to be an engineer, I worked for a consulting company for a while and I saved up a pretty large nest-egg of money. I was also in the US Military for a number of years and was overseas, in tax-free combat zone areas which was difficult at the time but I was able to save up a lot of money during that time. So this last year, my wife and family and I have been living off of that money while we’ve been building this company.
So it’s a passion project but I feel like I also have a very credible business plan to back it up and that’s why I’ve been willing to invest so much time and energy and also quite a bit of money and risk in making this happen. And if it doesn’t happen, then having an engineering degree is a pretty safe thing, I feel like, especially where I’m located here in the States. So if it turns out we’ve spent all of our savings and I had to go get another job, I think with successful Kickstarter campaigns and the work I’ve been doing and some of the things I’ve been learning- I have an engineering degree- I think I could get a job pretty quickly as a back-up. So, yeah, that was the philosophy and sort of the plan.
GINO: A couple of times, you’ve said ‘we’ as you’re doing this. You mentioned you have a few interns as well. So is it pretty much a one-man show plus a few interns or are there other people you’re working with doing this?
JOHN: I do say ‘we’. I don’t know why I say ‘we’ all the time. I guess I say ‘we’ to make it sound like we’re bigger than we actually are, right? By ‘we’… I’ve had a couple of interns kind of in and out. I’ve got another one that’s really stable, her name’s Shelley Spence, and she helped develop Ion and she’s been helping with a lot of things and she’s pretty committed, so I’m hoping that she turns into more of a full-time position if the company really takes off.
So I say ‘we’ but I kinda mean all the people I’m working with. I’ve got an artist in Michigan, Matt Franklin, who does incredible work, and a graphic designer in Poland who did the artwork for Linkage and helped out on some other projects I’ve done, and he’s the main graphic designer for Ion and he’s just a phenomenal graphic designer. Phenomenal guy. So when I say ‘we’, I guess I kinda mean all of these people that… they don’t necessarily run Genius Games, they’re not like employees, but they’re major partners and participants in what’s been happening.
GINO: OK. Cool. Good to know. This is something that’s very interesting to us ‘cause obviously there’s three of us working together, so it’s interesting to find out how other people work in teams or in groups, and we’re all sort of on equal pegging so occasionally we’ll disagree and we have to find a way that, if all three of us have a different opinion, how do we make the decision about which way to go forward? Luckily, it hasn’t really happened yet but it’s something we’re interested in as we’re talking to other people who are working towards the same things that we’re all working towards.
JOHN: Right, right.
GINO: So, a little bit more about your campaign, John. So, you sent out review copies as well- so we got a copy of the game which we then reviewed- how many demo copies did you make then for the reviews? Did you make a few or were you quite selective in your targeting?
JOHN: Yeah, I made… I had 18 copies made, and of those I think I sent out 15 copies. What I essentially did is I looked at reviewers and- I hate to admit this but this is how business works- I essentially pitched to the reviewers of the largest channels first and then kind of filtered my way down. It may not necessarily just be the largest channels but the most professional-looking channels, the ones that had nice-looking websites and things like that. That way, when potential backers go to their websites to see the review and read the review, it looks professional, right? It doesn’t look like it was just thrown together last minute. Reviewers that used quality grammar, that understand the science behind it, but then also just reviewers that had large networks.
So I created an Excel spreadsheet and I, for a number of months now and probably about a year now actually, I’ve just been collecting contact information from all the game reviewers and game bloggers that are out there in the industry and I put them all in a spreadsheet and I keep up to date with their Facebook page and their likes and their Twitter followers and the traffic they get to their websites and things like that, and I just pitched to the people at the top of that list first then, as I have more games available or as people have declined, I just keep moving through and asking the rest of them.
But with that, you know, I noticed reviewers really want about four weeks’ advance notice or four weeks with a copy in hand before doing a review and writing a review and posting it before the Kickstarter campaign launches and I think with that, just to remember that, these reviewers, a lot of the time, are doing this for free, they’re doing it because they enjoy it. So be appreciative and also respectful of the time and the effort they’re putting into this, and also realise that of the reviewers who agreed to do it, you might want to make sure you have back-ups ‘cause I think we had 15 copies sent out and we had maybe eight or nine reviewers actually post the review on the day we launched, although all 15 of them said they would. You know, again, they’re doing it for free so I have no complaints there.
GINO: It’s interesting to note, though, that people have done that, that people have sort of like agreed to it and then not done it. I mean, obviously, there are reasons why people don’t. Things can get in the way, real life gets in the way of a lot of things, but I mean…
GINO: It’s quite interesting to note that you might have to prepare for the fact that people may agree to it and then let… not let you down, but maybe not be able to do it and it’s good to have back-ups and sort of approach a lot of people to make sure you get those reviews in and those have a big impact on the final part of the game. The other part would be the campaign. I mean, you know, we weren’t fishing for compliments there when we were asking you that question but when you were going through that list of you know good exposure and professional looking websites, we were obviously ticking all those boxes. It was good to hear. Thanks, John. We really appreciate that.
BEVAN: Ego boost!
JOHN: And I will say too if there are reviewers that you really want to have cover your game, then I think just some social media equity is a good thing to invest in, and by that I mean, commenting on their Facebook posts, commenting on their blogs, you know, helping them out as well. That’s one thing I’ve tried to do a lot when people post stuff on my behalf, I go and find content they’ve created and I comment on it and I like it and I post it out so we’ve got a bit of social media love exchange happening, instead of just using and abusing reviewers or rather internet channels for their network.
I think that’s definitely something that happens and in our networks, you know, I scratch your back, you scratch my back. So, a lot of the reviewers who reviewed the game, I’m sending free manufactured copies of the game to, and just try and repost things that they’re doing, you know, just to say thanks ‘cause again they’re doing it for free ‘cause they love it and I’m making money hopefully off of it and so the least I can do is to try and spread their content
GINO: Cool. Thank you. That was a good answer. Another question I’ve got for you John about the campaign is on advertising. So, did you choose to do any kind of advertising on things like BoardGameGeek or on Reddit or on any other sort of avenues? Did you do any paid advertising, or did you decide to go down the route of approaching people directly to get their content and their review on their websites? How did you feel about that?
JOHN: Yeah, I did a… just a little bit of paid advertising. Not too much. I think… I’ve done a lot of research on it and I think you’ll hear a lot of different opinions on it but I think you get out of it what you pay for but I don’t think in any way that doing a lot of advertising is going to really help your campaign to blow up or even to be successful.
But… I think it’s one thing to do, one part of the puzzle, one piece of the puzzle that could help your campaign grow but I definitely wouldn’t put all of my stock in just advertisements. And what I’ve noticed is from advertisements, you’ll get a small trickle, a fairly constant small trickle from advertisements, but the real… the real traffic I feel like comes from blog posts and articles written by third parties about your product or about your game. That’s where like the real traffic hits your Kickstarter campaign. So getting some of the larger channels and some of the YouTubers and some of the bloggers to write about your campaign, those are the things that- according to my analytics- have shown to be highly successful. So, yeah, and they’re free too. It takes time and effort to pursue those channels, of course, but you’re not paying for them most of the time.
GINO: And that echoes a lot of what people have said in terms of advertising that you get what you pay for, so you can spend a lot of money on it but when you realise how much you get back, it may not necessarily be worth it in terms of… you can spend a lot of time and effort approaching other people you won’t have to pay any cash for but you’ll get as much or better exposure. So that’s good to hear you’re having similar experiences across the board.
If you… when you do your next campaign, sorry, not if, when you do your next Kickstarter campaign, do you already know something you’d change for the next campaign or are you still thinking about… you’re going to wait for the end and then sort of have a review and think about what you’ll do next time?
JOHN: Yeah, there are a couple of things I would change.
So, um… number one: I will review and edit all of my reward levels, three, four, five, ten, one hundred times, I don’t care how many times, because this last campaign, I launched with a reward level that had the correct international shipping written in the reward but, when the international backers selected that reward, it had the incorrect amount of shipping. It looked silly, it looked unprofessional and I had to lock that reward out, so it just makes the page look clunky. So if you review nothing else before you launch, and edit nothing else before you launch, look at those rewards because once someone backs one of those rewards, you cannot change it. And this is like… it’s so silly, this is my third time doing it, you think I would know better, and I made that mistake and I’m paying for it now. So that’s the first thing.
But maybe on a lighter note, I think that I would like to have some of the final artwork on the prototypes before I send it out to reviewers next time, because reviewers and a lot of the bloggers and especially the YouTubers who are doing the videos spend a lot of time doing those reviews and those are going to stay… those are going to exist for, you know, who knows how long, a long time, and when people go there and read about the game and see the game, they’re going to see the prototype artwork and I just hope they don’t conclude that that is the final artwork because, a lot of times, someone will just look at a blog and skim it really quick and they’re not going to see that phrase that says ‘this is prototype artwork’. So I think the next time around, I’m going to have some final art on the prototypes before I send them out to the reviewers.
So those are definitely two things that I would want to have done. I think I would also want to focus more attention on having a nice rule-book ready to go from Day 1 instead of a prototype rule-book. It just makes the game look more professional and someone can download that and… and… what else? I think to save stress on the back-end, because what usually happens is right when the campaign closes, is there’s a scramble to get all the files finished and out to the manufacturer. So I think just having all that stuff done sooner, and having those stretch goals ready to go, just being more prepared. I think I’d definitely want to do that the second time… the fourth time around.
GINO: Yeah, the fourth time around. You’re doing pretty well so far, John.
JOHN: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s more… it’s not necessarily the level of success that I could gain from the Kickstarter itself as much as it is the level of stress that I can relieve from myself had I been a little bit more prepared.
GINO: OK, so streamlining and efficiency, essentially, is it?
GINO: That’s a good thing. It’s a good position to be in, not having to worry about the success element of it, just making it easier for yourself. That’s a nice place to be.
JOHN: Right. Right. Agreed.
GINO: You’re not only a publisher but also you’re a game designer, so you designed these games yourself. So we’ve got quite a lot of listeners to our podcast who are aspiring game designers or they’re just board game players but as everybody knows, every board game player has an idea for a board game in their head somewhere. So if you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring designer, someone who’s got an idea for a game but hasn’t quite put it down yet, what kind of advice would you give them? What’s the one thing that you think is a key piece of advice for board game designers who are just getting into it?
JOHN: Oh… um… can I give a couple of pieces of advice instead of just one?
GINO: Absolutely. Go for it.
JOHN: This is something I’ve thought a lot about. So, first thing I would tell them is, play as many games as you can. Just go berserk, play all kind of new games, learn all kinds of new mechanics, all kinds of ways that other designers are doing it. I think it will hone and help build your skills in a way that nothing else can, just seeing all the different ways that mechanics can play out.
Second to that, this is one thing that I started doing and I think that it’s helped me immensely, I started designing really small micro-games first. I would give myself a challenge, like design a game with 12 cards. Now design a game with 24 cards. Now design a game with 24 cards and some tokens, and would make all kinds of games back to back to back to back, would make like a game a day and then toss it in the back of the closet, and another game and toss it in the closet and make tons and tons of little games and try to maximize the amount of game out of those minimal components.
Because, here’s what I see a lot of new designers doing. They have an idea, they really like it, they want this one mechanic to work exactly the way they have it in their mind and it won’t work and in order to fix it, they add more stuff to the game and then that more stuff that they add needs to get balanced and fit into the game, and it doesn’t. So in order to fix it they add some more stuff to the game to fix the other stuff they added to fix the first thing, and what you get is you just get this big spaghetti mess of game that doesn’t really make sense and doesn’t flow very well, so I would say… building these small games back to back to back to really hone your skills is a great way to learn how to get the most game, the most meat, out of the minimum amount of components.
So those are probably the first two things that I would say, and then I have a lot more kind of game theory things to really try and implement, and games that are helpful, but if I could say two really important things, that’s it.
Play as many games as you can play and then just design as many small games as you can design back to back, and try and get the most that you can get out of the components. And don’t ever feel afraid to toss it in front of friends and family and other game designers and just allow them to give you feedback and eat it alive because you’d be amazed at how much you can learn when you’re struggling with how to fix a mechanic or fix a game or make it better and you just can’t see outside of your own box and someone else can look at it and go ‘oh yeah, that’s really easy, you just do this’ and you’re like ‘why didn’t I just think of that?’
So that’s the advice I would give to a new designer.
GINO: Clearly it sounds like you’ve got more advice to give, John, so we’re going to have to get you back on the podcast another time, I think, and have a proper good discussion about design rather than the Kickstarter campaign, cause there’s more to come by the sounds of it.
JOHN: Oh, beautiful.
JOHN: Yeah, that’d be great.
GINO: One last question for you, John, and this is a question we ask all of our guests.
GINO: Now, you’ve seen the film Jumanji, right?
JOHN: Sorry, what film?
GINO: OK, so… if you could Jumanji into any board game, any board game in the world, which would you pick and why? And we had a previous guest ask us to clarify this, so what we mean by that is… to Jumanji into a board game, if the board game were to come to life- just like the film- it’s not being shrunk to the size of a Meeple on a physical board game like Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. So if you could… if you could Jumanji into a board game, have that board game come to life and you had to live it to finish the game, which game would you pick and why?
JOHN: Oh, that is so tough.
GINO: We love this question.
JOHN: Um… I’m looking at all my games right now and trying to figure out which one I’d want to jump into… it’s definitely not going to be any of the games about bacteria, parasites, viruses, things like that…
GINO: Good call, that’s a very good idea.
JOHN: I would say either Stone Age or Viticulture. I’m not sure… Stone Age… Stone Age because I love it and I’ve always thought how cool it would be to be one of the first people building a civilization, especially if you had modern knowledge, that would just be amazing. But maybe a better answer would be Viticulture because you’re just making wine and being intoxicated and drinking and eating cheese if you have the expansion. So, yeah, I would say that’s probably the game I would want to jump into.
GINO: Nice answer. No-one’s said Viticulture before. That’s a Jamey Stegmaier game as well, so thumbs up to Jamey Stegmaier ‘cause we’re a big fan of his. So, Viticulture with the expansion so you could eat cheese. I think that’s an excellent answer. Good one, we like it.
Well, I think we’re going to end it there, John. So thank you very much for joining us. Now, we’re recording this… I think there’s about seven days left on the Kickstarter campaign for now for Ion. When this goes out, there’ll still be a few days left so anybody who hasn’t had a look at this, I’m going to put a link in the show notes so you can go there and see Ion: The Compound Building Game. I’ll put the link in the show notes, anybody can go and have a look. It’s Ion: The Compound Building Game. Check it out, we really enjoyed it. We’ll put a link to our blog review on there as well, and you can see what we thought of it and go and check out what an excellent campaign looks like. So, yeah, brilliant.
John, thank you so much for joining us and we’re looking forward to seeing Kickstarter campaign number four, which will obviously be something physics and something amazing.
JOHN: Actually, I think it might be a game about covalent bonding. So, there’s a hint. It’s already in development but I won’t say any more.
GINO: OK, so that makes… I’ll forgive you. So we’ll do two biology games, two chemistry games and then two super physics games.
JOHN: There we go.
JOHN: Designed by Gino.
GINO: Yes. This is going to be amazing. Awesome, brilliant, OK.
JOHN: I had a great time, gentlemen, thank you so much.
GINO: Thank you for joining us. It was very insightful and it was very good to hear all the different information you have, so thank you very much for joining us. Brilliant. Thanks very much, John, cheers for that.
JOHN: Alright. OK, bye now.
TONY/BEVAN/GINO: Cheers, bye!
GINO: There we are, see? Didn’t I tell you that was a good interview? Now, if you have any questions for us or for John, you can contact us in the usual places. Find us at our website at www.tinkerbotgames.com or you can e-mail us directly at email@example.com
You can also find me on Twitter: @ginobrancazio. If you want something easy to spell, you can get Bevan on Twitter @bluecatgames (all one word), or you can get Tony on Twitter who represents all three of us @tinkerbotgames. You can also find John directly on Twitter: @johncoveyou
All the relevant links are in the show notes, including our review of Ion and go check out the campaign now, you’ve only got a few days left and you won’t want to miss out on this chance. We hope you enjoyed that interview with John about his Kickstarter campaign. We’ve spoke to him already, we’re going to bring him back to do another interview about board game design, so if you’ve got any questions for him, please let us know now and we’ll have them ready prepared for the next time we have him on the show.
Cheers, and we’ll speak to you on the next episode. Bye bye!