The Orange Nebula office is dark and empty. 4:45am is like that. A gentle glow is pouring in off the wet street and the world is wonderfully still.
It’s the perfect moment to reflect on the recently concluded Kickstarter campaign for Unsettled®; how we feel it went and what we’re observing about the platform moving into the future.
Briefest of Backgrounds
We are a creative agency branching out from client service work to pursue our own creations and meaningful community with people who want to think bigger and celebrate creative living.
One space we are exploring is the world of tabletop board games. We have completed three Kickstarter campaigns: two for our debut game, Vindication®, and one for Unsettled. The Unsettled Kickstarter ran through the holiday season (Dec 16 – Jan 8). It did not feature traditional stretch goals. Instead, the community worked together to conceive and design a full planet box (version/variant/whatever) that backers will receive free for supporting the project and for being awesome. There was a medley of other little activities like scavenger hunts as well. The campaign successfully funded for 1.2m. Friendships were made, weird science was lauded, fun was had and sleep was not.
TL;DR We loved it. 10/10 would campaign again.
Our hearts overfloweth – this was precisely the campaign we wanted. The first lines of reflection for us are always, “Did this campaign accurately portray who this community is? Did it create opportunity for people to align with something meaningful and embrace pieces themselves that perhaps go under-expressed in daily life?” To that end, the campaign was everything we hoped for and more. The tone and atmosphere was very much community-driven, family-feeling, and creativity-sparking. Engagement was off the charts. Truly. The charts are broken now, sorry chart lovers. This alone makes this campaign a roaring success in our view.
From a more traditional perspective on “success”, there were a lot of unknowns going into this one. Kickstarter is in a bit of a weird place (more on this later), we were live over the holidays, and this game introduces a brand new IP. Our expectations were very conservative and we’re pleased with how things went.
Nothing is ever perfect. There are always things to improve. Overall though, this was the campaign we were hoping for. Here are a few of the bigger observations for us as we look back.
BEING LIVE OVER THE HOLIDAYS
The widely held prevailing wisdom about holiday-season Kickstarters is that there aren’t any. The ones that are, are wrong to be. The thinking is that people are too busy and their budgets too busted; that it’s better to wait for the excitement of the new year, for tax return season, and for everyone to be settled back into normal living.
These things make mild sense. Also, they totally don’t, but to us that’s all neither here nor there. The thing that excited us about a holiday campaign was the alignment it offered with the type of community-focused campaigns we like to run.
Here’s how we put it during the campaign:
A lot of time and effort goes into running a Kickstarter. For us, the guiding force behind all the decisions is the quest to find genuine community. We’re not interested in these campaigns feeling like product dispensers, we’re interested in them feeling like a group of people connecting. Being live during a holiday season was a conscious choice that we are very excited about. If engaging with people is the goal, what better moment to run a campaign than when many are already in a mindset focused on community & family or are feeling a notable absence of such things in their life? It’s important for us all to remember that THIS, right here, is a community, and if we lean into each other we can be more to each other than just a bunch of nameless people interested in spending money in the same way. This can, and should, mean so much more than that.
So consider this holiday Kickstarter to be our holiday message to you. We’re not concerned with whether December was or wasn’t a financially aggressive time to launch. What matters to us is that you know our heart, and that you know your place in it. We are grateful for you and our lives are touched by you ever day. Thank you for being who you are, for your willingness to pour into this special gathering of people, and for making it what it is.
We are proud of the decision to launch in December and the result was precisely what we were hoping for: a genuinely engaging campaign full of heart and passion and warmth and imaginative weirdness.
We lost count of the number of industry peers who lovingly sent us messages advising us that we were crazy to launch in December, that it was basically guaranteed to fail. We were deeply grateful for the underlying affection in those messages, but in the end we have to go our own way.
The lesson here is to be cognizant of established norms (they are usually established for a reason), and factor them into your decisions, but put faith in your own perceptions, observations, and goals as well. Know who your community is, what you stand for, and have the conviction to be you.
I LOVE YOU OATMEAL DRAGON
When it came to the main Unsettled Kickstarter video, we wanted to do something different and, if we could do it artistically, something a little weird. Rarely are we comfortable putting out the same old standard thing. Any time you see us doing the standard thing (which totally happens) go ahead and just know: we’re uncomfortable about it.
Enter Christian Kang, the man responsible for everything you like about the Unsettled video. He is exactly our kind of people; he appreciates deep creative and a mindful willingness to reach for something different. He’s also offensively talented and has a sophisticatedly silly sense of humor. We positively adore him. If there’s justice in the world we’ll never be able to afford him again.
We loosely outlined some of the things we’d been thinking about, Christian sent us a few (better) twists on those, we collaborated to find the right voice, and then Christian brought it to life. All the best lines and flourishes are him. He turned our office into a movie studio for a day and it was easily one of the most fun parts of the campaign.
Are we having internal discussions about concepts for Oatmeal Dragon spinoffs?
Of course we are.
Wouldn’t you be?
The response to the video was effusively positive.
“Best I’ve ever seen,” people claimed.
“Thanks Mom,” we said.
And now, we are forever committed to doing beautifully peculiar videos for all our campaigns. We couldn’t be happier.
The biggest standout to us was the number of people who told us they “actually watched the whole thing,” which was exactly the feedback we were hoping for. Once again, the meta is the meta for a reason, it’s important to ask why those standard conventions exist, but it’s also important to present your true voice. Your community and your project are special, let them distinguish themselves with unique content.
BUILDING CONTENT TOGETHER INSTEAD OF STRETCH GOALS
Oh this was satisfying. This is what these campaigns are about for us. For context, here’s (an abridged version of) what we shared on the We’re Not Wizards podcast about our perspective on stretch goals and what campaigns should be about:
Stretch goals, whether intended or not, train people to commoditize their gaming experience to being “how much cardboard and plastic did I get.” That becomes the value of the game. And that’s not the value of a game. The value of Star Wars isn’t how much it cost them to print the disc you’re watching. This perspective harms your experience. The value is intangible and should be perceived that way.
One of the appeals of Kickstarter is getting to be part of an experience. We all want to be part of a community, and getting more stuff slowly piled at your feet isn’t the most satisfying fulfillment of that desire. We would rather you just get all the stuff on day one, there’s no “making your pledge worth what you paid for it” experience; instead the experience you have as a community is making something, being creative together, engaging with each other in a fun and happy and fulfilling way. Not just standing there salivating for more stuff. Just have all the stuff. The stuff’s coming anyway, why not just get it right at the start and then let’s have a fun time together.
We could come up with endless reasons this makes sense. It is a more satisfying backer experience during AND after the campaign. Playing a game you helped shape provides a wholly different sense of satisfaction and value.
This approach to campaigns goes beyond common sense community thinking though. This is the heart and purpose behind Orange Nebula. The “mission,” if we may, is to unlock the creativity in all of us, for us all to inspire each other to bigger thinking, to be more mindful in our pop-culture consumption and to demand more from our experiences and each other. That is lofty cheesiness, we know. We hecka embrace the that. Because the world needs more bold positivity and shameless warmth.
The way the community rose to the occasion was stunning. We’ve always aimed for high creativity and engagement on our campaigns but this was next-level nonsense. The actual content being created was remarkably good and the tone of discourse was heartening. People came alive.
From a behind-the-scenes perspective this is an onerous undertaking. Running the community content element of these campaigns is easily a full-time job. It’s also easily worth it.
GENERAL COMMUNITY RESPONSE
This Unsettled Kickstarter had wonderful momentum right out the gate. The community was electric and gleefully loud about it. Those returning from the Vindication campaigns spread excitement for another family-feeling campaign and were in a celebratory mood even before launch. We received dozens, perhaps hundreds, of messages of encouragement and thanks before the campaign was even live. Emotions were had about that. This community is special.
All of this was exciting but not overtly surprising. The experience was similar (on slightly smaller scale) with Vindication: Leaders & Alliances. What was different this time was the level of engagement from industry peeps; content creators, Facebook group owners, bloggers, podcasters, other publishers and designers. In the past these folks have been fairly subdued or non-existent in regard to what we’re doing here. That was not at all the case this time, which we are incredibly excited about as it indicates a desire in the industry for the same things we’re after.
The fact that 90% of the enthusiasm expressed during this campaign had to do with the community, the family feel, the group projects, and the hang-out vibe was hugely gratifying. It was validation that people are connecting with the goal. They want something meaningful.
And, while we’re at it, there’s really no reason not to also have amazingly cool stuff; so let’s do that too.
THE STRUGGLE IS REAL
The biggest issue that plagued the campaign was the lack of full-length third-party play through videos on day one. This is key to the decision making process for a segment of backers and was something we very much intended to have. Unexpected circumstances prevented that from happening and forced us to swerve. This was definitely not what we intended but sometimes things just go against you. In the future we will definitely aim to have contingencies in place to prevent a repeat of this.
THE STATE OF KICKSTARTER AND THE FUTURE
All of this sets up a discussion about Kickstarter and its role in the board game industry right now. Kickstarter is in a weird place. Growth has continued: tabletop campaigns in 2019 showed a 7% increase over 2018 (1). Increasingly, many of the games filling the major Top Ten lists are Kickstarter releases. There’s no doubt these campaigns have come to hold a powerful and important role in the industry. Yet despite this growth there’s a sort of malaise that has settled in. A sense of stagnation rests upon the whole endeavor. Where things go from here is very interesting.
Number of Successful Game Kickstarters by year through 2019
The second part of this reflection dives headlong into this. Keep an eye out for this soon.
In the meantime, if you’re new to the Orange Nebula community we encourage you to dive in. Join the Outpost on Facebook and keep hanging out. Share your creative endeavors, talk about the creations you’re enjoying and riff on gifs!
Keep being awesome. (We’re super into that.)