Bad Medicine Kickstarter postmortem

by Gil Hova

The dust has settled, and the Bad Medicine Kickstarter is done. The final result: 1,066 backers raised $30,130 of an $8,000 goal. That is well beyond what I ever expected when I started out.

I’ve seen other creators come up with these kinds of studies, and folks have asked me to write one up. Here’s a few observations I have.

It’s not enough to offer a good game. You must offer a good product.

I’ve spent the last 15 years intensely studying good game design. But publishing requires studying a game through a different lens: what makes a good product?

I caught a wave of backers from the medical and pharma industries. I feel that most of them didn’t back Bad Medicine because of its well-thought-out rules (although I worked hard on those). They backed it because it’s a funny game about a subject that’s near and dear to them, and there aren’t many of those out there. The price was right, and my campaign page explained the game thoroughly through graphics, text, and a clever video with good production values.

I think my study of successful (and unsuccessful) Kickstarter campaigns really paid off. I tried to make the campaign page easy on the eyes, and I spent a long time on the campaign video, as well as the two tutorial videos. All this made people confident in pledging their money.

It’s funny; I see new designers posting pictures of their prototype on its first test, asking what people think of the look of the game. Or they’ll ask about the look of their components before showing the rulebook for review. I think those new designers are looking at making a good product, but they don’t know yet how to make a good game. And yet for a Kickstarter, all you ever get to see is the product; you won’t be able to tell if it’s a good game until you actually play it!

I’m still getting used to wearing a publisher’s hat, but I hope I get better at looking at making a good game that is also a good product. It’s not impossible; Tasty Minstrel, Stonemaier, Dice Hate Me, and Minion do this on Kickstarter all the time. But it’s not a skill we can take for granted, and I want to get better at it.

Look past your national borders.

Going in, I wasn’t expecting Bad Medicine to get much traction from outside the US. I thought Big Pharma and its advertising was a uniquely American phenomenon. I considered not even shipping outside America.

I’m very glad I changed my mind and signed with Spiral Galaxy Games to fulfill Bad Medicine in the EU. Over 27% of my backers were from outside the US. I got a surprising number of backers from Australia, and I noticed a movement of Korean backers working together to get good deals on shipping.

Time will tell if I calculated shipping correctly, but I’m optimistic that I won’t regret my worldwide reach. I’m so happy that my game has gotten enthusiastic recognition from people around the world, from Scotland to Kuwait to Singapore. This is an amazing time to start a business; the world has gotten ridiculously small.

Kickstarter doesn’t have to be just a pre-order system.

This is one of the recurring complaints I hear about Kickstarter, that it’s a glorified pre-order system, and there’s no need for people to really back games when they’ll just appear on store shelves a year later (and likely forgotten the following year).

I’m really happy that I found a few opportunities to engage my backers. For example, I wanted to make most of Bad Medicine’s cards look like small prescription slips. I wasn’t sure what the best font was for the cards, so I posted a few samples of the different fonts, and asked my backers which one they preferred.

The conversation took an unexpected turn. My non-American backers pointed out that prescription slips look completely different outside America, and linked me to some examples. This was a bummer, but it was also an opportunity. I noticed that the example non-American prescription forms all had yellow backgrounds. So I ran another poll, asking two questions: do you prefer a blue or yellow background (with sample images for both), and do you consider yourself from the US, from outside the US, or a bit of both?

It turns out that both US and non-US backers preferred the yellow background. So instead of going with a blue background that didn’t mean anything to a quarter of my backers, I have a card front that reads like a prescription slip almost anywhere in the world. Plus, I gave my backers a chance to get involved in the game’s final look.

I also had backers making fantastic suggestions for the game, reminding me to make sure the box will fit all the cards if they’re sleeved, pledging extra money to customize some of the cards, and voting to make one of the stretch goal components capsule-shaped instead of pill-shaped. Pretty good for a so-called glorified pre-order system!

Have most of your art done, but not all of it.

I initially regretted not having my art completely done when the campaign launched, and a few would-be backers complained to me about the “prototype-y” look of the game. In retrospect, I should have had more art done before the campaign started.

But I learned how valuable it is to not have everything done at the start of the campaign. Backers want to be involved, and the opportunity to see the game evolve, especially with backer input, is one of the best things about Kickstarter. So in my next campaign, I will aim to have the art 80-90% done when the campaign launches. No less, but no more either.

Reach out to more reviewers earlier.

I sent review copies to about four reviewers, and advertised on a couple of podcasts. That wasn’t bad, but one of my reviewers was late, so the campaign should have had more reviews on the site. I should have sent out three times the number of review copies, and I should have sent them out two months in advance instead of one. Speaking for myself, if I see a Kickstarter campaign from a publisher and/or designer I’ve never heard of, I default to skepticism until I see a trusted name in the review section.

Of course, there’s a larger conversation to be had here about the trustworthiness of Kickstarter previews, since a lot of them are paid. But I know that a lot of reviewers won’t preview a game they didn’t like. It’s not worth the money if it means a lack of credibility. So at the very least, a Kickstarter preview shows that the game has at least passed a basic bar of competence, and is worth a more involved look.

Don’t be afraid of the alpha backer.

Before I launched, I was really worried about hypothetical “squeaky wheel” backers who would want me to bend over backwards to accommodate a whole host of unrealistic demands, from cheaper shipping to lower pledge levels to unrealistic components in the box.

Thankfully, I didn’t get anyone like this! I did have a lot of enthusiastic backers who shot all sorts of great suggestions my way, but none of them were rude or bossy about it. My backers didn’t want to dictate my game to me; they just wanted a voice in the conversation. Talking to them in the comments was excellent; I got to see where they were coming from, and I was grateful they had such a stake in the game.

I’ve learned a lot from reading Jamey Stegmaier, and one thing he suggests (and I wish I could find a link to this article!) is to never just outrightly deny your backers a suggestion. Instead, if a backer wants to see something in your game that can’t be done, it’s best to explain the obstacles to that suggestion, and ask the backer what they would do in your situation. They understand almost all the time, and because you gave them the opportunity to look at it from your point of view, they feel like they have a stake in the decision.

I can see how some creators find working with vocal backers difficult. But if you’re willing to give them your ear, you’ll emerge with your most enthusiastic supporters.

Pounding the pavement beats the Early Bird.

I’m not a fan of Early Bird reward levels. Sure, they may build critical early momentum, but you pay for that by disincentivizing backers from raising their pledges late in the game, as well as the obvious loss of goodwill you’ll encounter from people who stumble onto your campaign late.

Instead, I did a bunch of campaigns. My tour took me from Boston to Baltimore in the weekends leading up to my campaign launch. UnPub was an especially critical convention, with a bunch of early backers signing up for my mailing list there. By marketing my game (and making sure people signed up for my mailing list) well before my campaign launched, I built a lot of momentum at the start of my campaign without having to lock backers into an early-bird reward.

Mind the combinations.

One of my regrets was that while I offered a multi-game level (3 copies of the game) and two limited customization levels (name a bit of a drug, and name a side effect), I did not have an uber-level that combined all of them until the last day of the campaign. It wasn’t a bad late update, but it’s possible I could have gotten another high-level backer if I offered it earlier.

It’s not over when the campaign ends.

Of course, I expected this, but it bears repeating: even though the visible part of the campaign is done, the invisible stuff is in progress. I’m working with the artist and the printer now to get my game in my customers’ hands by September. I’m confident I can do it, but it’s not work that will do itself. My biggest nightmare is Bad Medicine becoming one of “those” campaigns that promised but never delivered. I want to be able to launch another Kickstarter later this year, but I won’t do that until I have this one signed, sealed, and delivered.

It’s been an amazing ride so far. I can’t wait to send the game off to the printer!