Lessons learned from shipping Bad Medicine

by Gil Hova

I did it, everyone.

I shipped over 1,150 copies of Bad Medicine to backers all over the world. And I did it mostly on time (I promised a September delivery, but backers outside the US got their games in late October). So there’s room for improvement, but certainly not a worst-case scenario in terms of Kickstarter fulfillment.

So first off, I have to admit: I’m proud of this. So many campaigns don’t ever make it this far, and so many get delayed. I’m proud of the fact that I was able to put a project on Kickstarter, get it funded, and deliver it to almost 75% of my backers on time.

With that out of the way, I had my share of “teachable moments.” These are lessons for a new publisher, and they’re really weird and out-of-the-way, but very important.

1. If you have any amount complexity in the shipment of the game from the factory, ask for a confirmation of the shipping plan.

The plan was to ship a few cases of the games to SFC for Asia/Australia/New Zealand fulfillment, and put the rest on the boat to go directly to the Amazon Fulfillment Center (FC). Additionally, there were two cases of promotional cards (blank Drug Cards) that were supposed to have been sent directly to me.

I didn’t think this was a complex shipping plan. I now know it is. The plant put everything on the boat: games for US backers, games for Asian backers, and my two cases of blank Drug Cards. As a result, any game going to backers in Asia had to circle the planet; they had to go from Asia to the US, and then to the UK, and then back to Asia.

In the future, for any shipping plan more complex than “put it all on the boat,” I will request that the plant not ship anything until they confirm the shipping plan with me. That will hopefully prevent this sort of issue from recurring.

2. Never ship directly from the factory to an Amazon Fulfillment Center, Part I.

I had read up a lot on Amazon, and I thought I had everything down. There were so many issues that people had encountered when using Amazon FBA, from rebalance delays and costs from not properly configuring FBA to keep all products at one FC, to not being able to fulfill because their release date was too far in the future.

But then we had that issue where the plant put everything on the boat. I was worried about it, but I figured that I could enter a ticket and someone would resolve it.

I put one ticket in the moment I found out about the issue (because I had told Amazon to expect fewer cases than what they were actually receiving). I also asked if I could get the blank cards sent directly to me. The rep who answered the ticket assured me that everything would get figured out when the units arrived, but could not give me any more detail about the blank cards.

The big day arrived; my units were received and cataloged. After some delay (presumably for the Amazon FC to properly count the actual number of items sent to them), I saw on my Seller Central page that Amazon had the proper number of units in the warehouse, ready to be fulfilled. Huzzah! I immediately created my first fulfillment offer to myself, so I could make sure the system worked.

It did… except for a couple of things. First, every unit had one set of blank cards taped to it! Augh! I was supposed to be able to sell these at conventions!

Second, I had paid for a barcode to be printed on the box, and dutifully entered it into Amazon’s system. So imagine my surprise when I saw that Amazon had, just as dutifully, covered my barcodes with their own. So now the barcodes I’d given to retailers were incorrect. Double augh!

So, I put two more tickets into the system. I found out that there was no way I could have gotten the blank cards from Amazon; it was up to them to figure out what to do with them, and for some reason, they chose to attach the cards to the product. I also found out that I should have entered my UPC code into the FNSKU field as well as the UPC code field.

If “I should have entered my UPC code into the FNSKU field as well as the UPC code field” is a sentence you find intimidating, here’s a warning that Amazon FBA is not for you.

3. Never ship directly from the factory to an Amazon Fulfillment Center, Part II.

I’m using a distribution consolidator, which is common in the business. There are about a dozen or so distributors of varying sizes all across the US. It’s tough for a one-man company like me to stay on top of them all. A distribution consolidator (sometimes called a “distribution broker” or “sales agent”) acts as a distributor for distributors. They warehouse my product and sell the product to distributors. The distributors then sell the game to retail stores. I get a little less money for each game I sell, but I get a lot less headache.

So when I reached out to my distribution consolidator, they asked me how many units came to a case. It’s a common question; the distribution center will just send a case over to any distributors. Their job isn’t fulfillment; the case isn’t supposed to be cracked open until it arrives at the distributor.

Well… about that. The factory packed 18 units to a case. But, of course, I shipped everything directly to Amazon. And Amazon unpacks every single case. How many items in a case? As many or as few as you’d like, sir or madam.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If I were to ship from Amazon directly to a distributor, I could ask them how many copies they wanted, and send exactly that number to them.

But… if you’ll recall, all my units had promotional material taped to them, and an incorrect barcode stickered over the correct one. So this is where I have to rave about my buddies at Ad Magic again; they let me ship 700 units (about 20 cases) to their headquarters, where I spent a day un-Amazoning all copies that were to go to retail. Remove barcode, remove blank cards. (I’m really happy with everything Ad Magic has done for me so far!)

So we spent the day unpacking, un-Amazoning, and re-packing. We ended up with a bunch of cases, and sadly, we weren’t able to make a consistent case count. Some cases that I sent to the consolidator had 18 units; others had more or less. It’s not a show-stopping issue, but it’s something I’ve definitely learned from.

4. Amazon views FBA partners as associates, not customers.

I came into this arrangement thinking that, by using Amazon FBA, I was a customer of Amazon. I was buying a service from them, after all.

But Amazon doesn’t seem to see it that way. I feel like they saw me as an associate. Customer service was not such a priority. Instead, I got a huge control panel, a huge set of (sometimes confusing) documentation, and no real help, other than people who had been through it already.

Having worked at an Amazon subsidiary, I can tell you that this experience is uncannily like working there. You get these amazing tools, but you don’t really get much guidance in them, and I always felt a sense of disappointment when I reached out for help (“You mean you couldn’t figure this out on your own?”).

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Amazon FBA is really powerful, and in terms of cost-to-power ratio, nothing even comes close when it comes to US fulfillment. But it comes with a lot of gotchas, and not all of them are easily visible.

5. Retailers and distributors want street dates, and they want them early.

I didn’t think a street date was important for Bad Medicine. It comes out when it comes out, I suppose. But that turns out to not be a retailer-friendly attitude.

We all know that in this business, a product usually sells best when it’s new. That’s easy enough for a consumer, who just shows up at a game store and sees a shelf of games that just happened to have been recently released.

Of course, nothing just “happens.” Those games are all there because the publisher and distributor coordinated to provide a release date for the games, which let the store plan out its purchases. Stores like to know what’s coming out; they’re not as happy when they find out a game’s already out before they had a chance to stock it first. They’re not getting it when it’s fresh out of the oven. That makes an enormous difference.

So, we publishers must set street dates, and we must send them out pretty early on. Stores I’ve spoken to like street dates announced 90 days in advanced. The game may not even be printed at that point!

Once the street date is announced, the distributor takes pre-orders. They like this because it gives them an idea of how much demand there is for the game, and they know how many copies they need to have on hand for the game’s release.

By not having a proper street date, I missed out on having a proper launch for Bad Medicine. The retail release was more of a soft launch, and I know I could have done better. The Networks will have a proper release date that I will announce next month, which will give retailers and distributors plenty of time to make plans.

6. Communication between consolidators and distributors isn’t always smooth.

Especially for new publishers with products that don’t have an announced street date! I had a launch event in November through the Envoy program, and I got a lot of interested stores and gamers, which helped a lot. The event let us smoke out a few communication issues; for example, one very large distributor didn’t have a release date in their system for my game, even after my consolidator had announced one.

Even with all those issues sorted out, many stores weren’t able to get their games from their distributors in time. I’m hoping to help work this out in 2016 by making myself more visible in the retail/distribution scene; I want to attend more trade shows and meet more people in the retail side of the business.

I have to admit that it’s tempting to ditch the distribution model andjust sell direct. I know some folks who do that, and they seem happy with it. But you really need a hit game to pull that off, and even then I’m not so sure it’s guaranteed. Plus, it’s tough to do direct sales worldwide; you’re pretty much stuck to your home country.

I think my future is in distribution, and I would like to give it as full a chance as possible. That means some work on my end; I will have to do some traveling and build an entirely new audience for my games.

But in the end, I want Formal Ferret to grow. I could have put The Networks on Kickstarter as my first project back in February, but I opted to start with a smaller party game, to ensure that my mistakes would be smaller.

I’m very glad I did this; I’ve learned so much from Bad Medicine. I know I’ll learn plenty from The Networks too, but I’m hoping I’ll continue being able to build Formal Ferret into a well-known and trusted game company.