Well slap my ass and call me Bulma, three quarters of a year hasn’t passed that quickly since I discovered Japanese malt whiskey.
At the beginning of this year, like many of us do, I made a list of resolutions for the coming twelve months. Some were ambitious: write my second novel, redesign the AJC site, get an A on Rhythm and Police. Others less so: lose 10lbs, start collecting old NES games on eBay again (Somehow I’m still missing Mega Man 2…), and move out of Beau’s house. Among those at which I failed most spectacularly was a plan to update this blog at least once a week all year. Yeeeaaahh… that went well for all of a month and a half…
But! I might still be able manage for the rest of the year, so let’s not waste any time, and start catching up a bit on the last nine months!
Part 1: Domain and The Lords of Crowdfunding
This spring I learned many important business lessons. I learned that tabletop gamers on Kickstarter reeeeaaaally like their miniature figurines – almost as much as they hate poker chips. I learned that BoardGameGeek doesn’t fuck around and you betta reckanize. I also learned that you should test your card game more than fifteen or twenty times before you consider it ready to launch a campaign. Lastly, I learned not to overlap a first game launch, a first Kickstarter campaign, a first major convention, and development of a first physical card game and expect everything to go smoothly.
Yes, in the continuing How Not To series I seem to be writing, this was The Spring of How Not to Run a Company, in which I attempt to do lots of complicated things I’ve never done before all at the same time.
Plus small business taxes.
Considering the earth-rending cataclysm that probably should have occurred, things went fairly well. The hard lessons Wyv and Keep has taught me over three years could fill a book, and you can bet there’s a postmortem article series coming that’ll fully encompass its mediocre launch (Is the whole “How Not to do X” style trite yet? Because I do seem to have a lot of those…).
Overall though it’s a game I’m extremely proud of, and has already seen great success in its alpha stage – just not as much in final release. We’re currently looking at other publishing options to try and get it out to a much wider audience.
Denver Comic Con was a blast, and went amazingly well for a first convention. Our booth was packed the entire weekend, and with only a few hundred dollars worth of merchandise damage to the neighboring booth and just one minor count of tax evasion (don’t worry, I refunded the guy’s Kickstarter donation) it was a great success.
Yes, taking the brunt of my failure for the first half of 2013 was a little card game called Domain and its accompanying crowdfunding campaign. The promotion was successful in many respects, but by the traditional definition it was a bigger June bomb than Man of Steel.
Wait, what? That movie made money? …what the ffffffffffff—-
From minor mistakes like including cheap-looking chess pawns in the video to more major ones like not ultimately really having a good playthrough video but only several poor ones, our problems were rivaled in their quantity only by their severity. But none of them were so devastating that they couldn’t have been overcome by great marketing. The real problem was, surprisingly, not that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but simply that Domain was just not ready.
Let’s look at a timeline: Baby Domain was conceived in November of last year, born in December, prototyped in February, printed in April, and Kickstarted at the end of May. Six months. That might have been enough had it been dedicated solely to making the most kick-ass card game ever, but there was that whole convention and finishing another major game thing. And most of the time it did get was for the art and design for 100+ cards.
In short, the whole thing was rushed from the start. We were more concerned with timing all the promotions together perfectly than letting things happen when they were ready, and trying to get people excited about a game you still don’t fully understand yourself is a perfect way to lose confidence in it. While I expected rule nuances and card details to continue changing and in fact attempted to sell the whole beta process as a positive (another thing tabletop gamers didn’t quite seem to go for), what I didn’t understand was that I really didn’t have a grasp of the best and worst parts of the game. The campaign clock ticked away and I found through continued testing not that we needed minor card edits but that major revisions and changes to fundamental design elements were necessary. It became nigh impossible for me to promote the game that was presented in the campaign videos, even with the awesome sweater.
A quick rundown of some of the major issues discovered during the campaign (and some we found before it started, but didn’t solve):
- Turtle up!: The fact that the world grew forever and soul wells appeared at a fairly steady rate combined with the necessity to guard your home wells, leaving little ether for summoning an attack force, meant players rarely felt it was worth taking the risk to mount a siege. Usually it was safer to just sit in a defensive position and wait to draw a well, placing it behind your own walls. We needed to either make attacking appealing or necessary or limit the size of the world and number of wells. Or both.
- Too much chance: The random nature of not knowing what sorts of monsters your opponent has guarding a particular well, or whether he might just be bluffing with some apparitions, is one of the best parts of Domain and a huge pro. But combined with random conjure draws, random world draws, random movement rolls, and numerous random rolls in monster, hex, and Lord powers, experienced gamers found there to just be way too much chance in general. You could set up your defenses brilliantly only to be screwed over completely by a series of bad rolls. This trap exists in lots of other games, so I thought it was fine initially. But ours just has way too many consequences.
- Simplicity: The use of dice for movement, simple +s and -s on the game board, single power number for monsters, and smaller hand number were all concessions made in an attempt to appeal to a broader audience. But Beau and I aren’t known for having a great grasp on what casual players want, and what I soon found out was that the game was still way too complicated for it to be accessible in the way we’d wanted. Combat would need to be drastically simplified. Say, 3 domains rather than 5, and a rock, paper, scissors style victory system instead of every monster having different powers. But this isn’t what we really wanted for Domain – in which case what it really needed was to have additional complexity. More strategy on the overworld, more variety in monster and hex, more depth to Ether Lords. More interaction between the domains, especially.
- Ether Lords: People loved the prospect of taking control of a mighty Lord of Ether, using unique abilities, and exploring the affinities each Lord had for a particular domain. They were underwhelmed, however, when they played the game and found their abilities to rarely be useful, if ever (except for a few drastically overpowered characters). We knew that balancing all the Lords would be an ongoing process, but didn’t realize how much of a missed opportunity we were creating. Going along with the above simplicity problems, there just wasn’t enough depth to the Ether Lord system – a system we were trying to sell the game on.
- Physical problems: Domain was originally developed to be sold as decks of cards only, with base world and conjure sets, and then expansions being sold as single decks. But people routinely remarked on how the standard cards were too lightweight and small to use for the overworld. They moved around all the time, got covered up by monster cards, and were too small to read from across the table. Ether was originally kept track of by pencil and paper, or with spare change. It was only during testing we found the tokens to be pretty necessary. Even then we figured players could just use a set of poker chips and whatever chess pieces they had lying around. Well they hated that idea. And after trying the game with some random minifigs even I couldn’t deny the appeal of walking around a little dragon instead of a crappy chess pawn.
People seemed to identify these issues right away, in many cases even before we did ourselves, and they quickly piled up on us. We could only address so much in comments and updates before it was clear that considerable changes were necessary. This was directly reflected in the funding, which achieved 30% with no problem in the first few days, then totally flatlined for the remaining four weeks of the campaign. There were certainly things we could have done better with the campaign, but the product was what created most of the problems. Had it been as awesome as it should have I think it would have sold itself.
So we’ll change a bunch of stuff and be back with another try! Some of the changes we’re working on now:
- Lord Levels: Ether Lords will now gain levels whenever they take part in combat. Gaining levels will grant access to additional powers and will allow collecting of additional ether, to which there’s now a level-based cap. This should add depth to the Lords while also encouraging combat and making defensive play risky.
- Pay to Move/Draw: Movement will no longer be handled by dice rolls, but will be paid for with ether, adding more strategy and reducing random elements that effect the game negatively. Additional drawing will also be possible for a minor ether cost. We’re giving each Lord and soul well additional ether to help balance this new cost.
- Additional World Tiles: We’re looking at adding new elements to the overworld such as portals or airship docks, conquerable towns, and holy grounds or abyssal storms. Portals would provide instant transportation across the map for a cost. Towns will now give a special per-domain bonus whenever conquered by an Ether Lord. Storms may allow extraction of temporary ether for one turn.
- More Monsters! And hexes and traps, of course. We found there’s just not quite enough variety to conjures yet, and slightly too high a saturation of hexes, so we’re planning 20 new cards, 15 of which are new monsters.
It might take a little while, since by its nature Domain costs money to develop. And we don’t have a lot of that. But it’s a pretty cool game with a lot of potential, and the best parts of it are things we never expected. People loved building the map, except that there was nothing for them to do on it. Likewise, we thought the combat would be the main draw, but casual players found it confusing, and experienced players limiting. We made the mistake of trying to aim for both types of player, when it really needed to be for one or the other. So there’s another “ways not to” article series about launching a card game now for me to write, but overall Domain will end up a better game for it. Had it succeeded we would have been subject to a tight time frame and budget, and probably would have ended up with an inferior game. Ironically, in my rush to prepare all the promotions, campaigns, events and releases, the one job that got left behind was the only really important one – making an awesome game.
Watch for Dunce Dunce Revelation Part 2: Percy Jackson and the Vagina Goblins, coming hopefully before next August.