LET IT RIDE: Hebanon Games owner Caleb Stokes is upping the ante on his $12,000 crowdfunded game, Red Markets, with a $52,000 stretch goal.
Local game maker raises the stakes with third crowdfunded project
Galena High School English teacher Caleb Stokes is in an enviable position.
A game creator on the side, Stokes is finding success during his third visit to the crowdfunding table. His Kickstarter campaign for tabletop role-playing game Red Markets is still days away from ending, and it’s already been funded – four times over.
“I was expecting maybe $20,000 – best-case scenario – in 30 days,” said Stokes, who owns Hebanon Games. “If I didn’t get it funded in the first day or two, I was going to be really worried.”
He had little to worry about. Stokes’ tabletop gaming project blew by its initial goal of $12,000 in 2 hours and 19 minutes. As of midday June 8, still two weeks from the June 22 cutoff, 922 backers had pledged a total of $49,638.
The quick start was key. Most projects get the bulk of funding during a campaign’s first few days, according to Role Playing Public Radio podcast network owner and fellow game maker Ross Payton.
“There’s always that initial burst of activity because it is a new thing,” Payton said. “But then the newness wears off.”
Payton and Stokes said a technique for maintaining momentum is to establish stretch goals, tiered stages beyond the initial funding mark that add value to the product based on how much additional money is pledged.
Although fully backed, Stokes considers Red Markets to be in the funding doldrums, having dropped below $1,000 pledged per day. Eclipsing the penultimate tier of $48,000, he estimates if the campaign can maintain an average of $450 per day it will meet the final goal of $52,000. According to analytics website Kicktraq.com, if funding maintains its current pace, the project would clear $90,170 – of which Kickstarter takes its 5 percent cut.
Even for project creators with all of their money and then some essentially in hand, the next step sometimes is the hardest.
Netting more than the original goal is a situation many creators might like to find themselves in, but there’s a tipping point for managing funds and expectations.
Pixelscopic LLC, which received $150,745 toward a $75,000 goal in 2013, hasn’t yet delivered its video game project, “Delver’s Drop.” Pixelscopic co-owner Ryan Baker said the game is roughly 70 percent complete and he expects it to be finished within 12 months. A change to the game’s engine – software handling graphics, physics and control inputs – delayed the project, he said.
“Making a video game is very time consuming and technically demanding in the best of times,” said Payton, adding he worked as a freelancer for Pixelscopic for about a year designing game levels before the company ended his contract.
Declining to disclose the game’s expenses, Baker said the cost for multiple design contractors was more than anticipated. The company changed directions, and designers were phased out in favor of bringing on a programmer for less cost.
“We weren’t hiring and firing, we were contracting someone to work for a certain amount of time,” Baker said.
At the height of production, he said Pixelscopic worked with three or four regular contractors and five more as needed. Now, Baker and co-owner Coby Utter have scaled back to two contractors and a freelance audio engineer.
“We changed our approach pretty drastically, but the game is a lot better for it and we think backers will be happier even though it took a lot of time,” he said.
Payton, who’s been podcasting about gaming for nine years, said most Kickstarter projects, regardless of type, are delayed even when successfully funded.
“The vast majority finish and deliver, but it’s risky,” Payton said. “You have no guarantees. It’s not like you’re buying from Amazon.”
“Backer beware” might apply even to industry cornerstones. Payton and Stokes point to Chaosium Inc., a 40-year-old tabletop game producer that recently received over $750,000 on two campaigns and then edged close to bankruptcy last year due to a flawed pricing structure for preorders.
“Another company had to bail them out because they didn’t manage it well,” Payton said. “They thought they could ship an 8-pound box of books to Japan for $10 apiece.”
The crowdfunding game for Stokes has turned out to be relatively easy wins. In 2012, with Hebanon Games, his project earned $6,805 after an ask of $1,500 and again in 2014, as a freelance writer and campaign manager for Arc Dream Publishing, a campaign nearly doubled its $13,283 goal.
Still, the end version of Red Markets represents a departure from those projects. Despite his experience, Stokes knows it’s a bigger gamble going from downloadable PDFs and print-on-demand game manuals to an offset-print run of a full-color, 400-plus page volume – more akin to an encyclopedia masquerading as a coffee-table book – for distribution.
“When you plan a business budget, it’s atypical to think, ‘What if we made four times as much?’” Stokes said of the stretch goals. “If you go long and just start throwing stretch goals out there, you can get in real trouble.”
Payton’s Role Playing Public Radio podcast is a crowdfunding coup of its own.
With recurring costs for web hosting, equipment and paying his co-hosts, he turned to Patreon, where backers make monthly pledges toward projects by artists and creators. Currently, 366 listeners – out of the 3,000-5,000 that Payton estimates RPPR has built up over the years – contribute $2,162 per month and in return gain access to exclusive content.
“Crowdfunding isn’t a magic money bag,” he said. “You have to provide something people will pay for.”
Payton estimates the funds through Patreon cover roughly 30 percent of monthly expenses.
Stokes said a campaign is best positioned when the creator has proof-of-concept for the potential buyers. To build anticipation of Red Markets, he discussed the four-year development process on RPPR. Described as “a game of economic horror” Stokes said Red Markets functions as a poverty simulator, where players’ goals are to make enough money trading expertise in dealing with the zombies to bribe their way out of the quarantine zone into an unaffected area.
“In the horror genre, you start off by setting people away from their means,” Stokes said. “That’s what economic horror is – when the supernatural is just one more thing on your plate.”
Whether it’s a prototype of the end product or a pedigree of delivering funded projects, attracting dollars also can cost some upfront. Stokes estimated commissioning artwork and voice talent for the Kickstarter trailer cost around $5,000.
In addition to the significance of stretch goals, he said researching similar campaigns – successful and lackluster – as well as knowing the size of the potential audience is key to not foundering on funding.
“I still could have launched it and had 200 backers,” Stokes said. “But if I had committed to doing an offset at that point, I’d be living in a fort made out of all my leftover books.”
Marc Thornsberry, a Senior Engineer at CJW, says he joined the company after working in the public sphere. He says CJW had a ton of experience working with the community, and putting their customer's and clients.
Sandra Smart, a technology and commercialization specialist, shares helpful advice and cautionary tips about the importance of tracking cash flow for new or established businesses. Smart works with tech entrepreneurs and hosts training workshops through the Missouri SBDC at Missouri State University's efactory.
Michael Smith and Chris Sawyer, COO and CEO of Next Level Solutions respectively, discuss how they keep their remote teams and offices in and out of country on the same page. Next Level Solutions was ranked #1 in the Springfield Business Journal's 2021 Dynamic Dozen.
John Oke-Thomas, architect and co-founder of minorities in business, responds to the accusation that minority businesses are only successful because of the priority they have received in lending. He says that if a business uses a loan well, it shows their worth.
Sandra Smart, a technology and commercialization specialist, shares tips for entrepreneurs who are ready to seek funding. Some of her tips apply broadly; some target technology industry businesses. Smart works with tech entrepreneurs and startups, and hosts training workshops through the Missouri SBDC at Missouri State University's efactory.
Drawing on his own experience dynamically evolving his company and business model, Jim Meinsen discusses when and how you might need to draw on new technology. Jim and Debbie Meinsen are co-owners of TCI Graphics in Springfield.