The rise of the decoder ring

November 10, 2015


I'm not a fan of Kickstarter exclusives. As a consumer, my attitude ranges from not caring about it at all (if the exclusive is cosmetic) to being completely confounded (if the exclusive alters how the game is played).

Right, so first of all, if your exclusives just include upgraded game components or something of that nature, you know, whatever. I'm far more interested in game play, so I really couldn't care less if I play with wooden bits or upgraded metal bits. If given a choice, I'll just take the cheaper option. If your exclusives change the way the game is played, though, then this just confuses me. When a game is being developed, there should be one official, designer-approved way to play the game. Maybe there are variants, but surely there is some definitive intention from the publisher on how the game should be played.

When you start adding game-altering components as Kickstarter exclusives, you're now blurring that line on what the right way to play is. Is the Kickstarter version the right way to play the game or is the retail version the right way? I need order in my life, dammit! Pick how you want me to play your game, and then give me all the pieces to play it that way!

As a board game publisher, Kickstarter exclusives don't make much sense to me, both from a perspective of being friendly to customers and also from a business-like perspective of making money. I mean, sure, exclusives are going to increase the sales of your game through Kickstarter, no doubt. If you are offering stuff that is only available through Kickstarter, then more people are going to use that sales platform to get your game. Except that Kickstarter sales as a primary business model is not really a very good idea. Kickstarter is a great way to get enough money together to pay for the development of a game. People without a large amount of up-front capital can take that large profit margin and use it to pay for art and graphic design and everything else that goes into making a game.

Kickstarter is a one-time sale, though, and so much effort and money goes into making a game, it would be a shame to only offer one opportunity to buy it and only have one opportunity to generate revenue from it. True profits from a board game will largely come from after-Kickstarter sales, and if you've hobbled your game by making a bunch of the good stuff exclusive, then that is going to have a significant negative impact on post-Kickstarter sales. I could talk about this for a while, but there's a good debate about this whole thing over at Stonemaier Games, so just go read that.

I'm really and truly hoping that Gloomhaven becomes a perennial board game - something that will climb the rankings on Board Game Geek and sell lots of copies for years to come. It's a bit of a pipe dream, but I really think it has that potential. So right off the bat, I knew that I didn't want any Kickstarter exclusives because I didn't want any barriers to purchase for somebody just finding out about the game two or three years from now. I want them to walk into a game store, put down some money and know they're getting the complete experience.

Still, I ran into a crisis of ideals during the Kickstarter for Gloomhaven because I do feel an obligation to my Kickstarter backers to make them feel like they are getting something substantial out of backing the game now as opposed to waiting until retail. Without them, the game wouldn't exist. That is not hyperbole. I did not have any more money to continue developing Gloomhaven, and I certainly didn't have the money to do a full print run of the game. Kickstarter is essential to my business model, and I am immensely grateful for every one of my Kickstarter backers and everyone else who has pre-ordered the game, knowing they won't receive it until well into next year.

So basically I wanted a way to show my appreciation to all these wonderful backers without ruining the experience for the guy buying Gloomhaven three years from now. It's a difficult line to walk. It led to a Dark Day during the Kickstarter, but ultimately generated one of the greatest ideas I've ever had.

So what happened first was I wrote this post. I can try to summarize the event, but really it's best if you just go read it, and then read the hundred plus comments that followed it. I thought it might be nice to include an extra mini in the Kickstarter box - something that wouldn't change the game play in any way - and people generally decided that that was a pretty stupid thing to do. It was not a good day.

I thought I had created an ideal solution to my problem, and then it turned out I had just made the whole situation worse. But the back of my mind latched onto something I had written in the post - the idea of a decoder ring. It was just a joke I had made - a silly metaphor for what the extra mini was: something to make backers feel good, like they were part of special club.

The idea of a mini was bad. No one actually wanted it, and it would have been expensive for me to produce. Essentially I would just be flushing money down a toilet in the name of my ideals. But the idea behind the mini - the idea of a decoder ring - was good. Why did the decoder ring have to be a joke, though? Why couldn't that be what it actually was? And so I wrote another post.

A possible alternate version of the cover art for the thank you postcard. Everyone loves Comic Sans!
A possible alternate version of the cover art for the thank you postcard. Everyone loves Comic Sans!

You should read that one too, but the basic idea is that backers would be given access to a symbol decoder so that they could read hidden messages within the game. It would actually add a fun extra layer to the game play and I could do crazy things with it. And best of all, it was really a non-exclusive exclusive because the decoding symbols would surely make their way to BGG or elsewhere so that people who buy the game later could still use it, but it still created that sense of being a part of something special.

Okay, so that was a good idea. I'm proud of it for sure, but here is why it is a great idea: it doesn't have to end with Gloomhaven. My policy moving forward with my company is to include an exclusive "decoder ring" in every Kickstarter project I do. Each one will decode secret, meaningful messages hidden within the game and also hidden messages within other games.

Think about that for a second. When you open your box of Gloomhaven, you're going to run across not only messages that you can decipher with the provided code, but there will be messages that you cannot hope to decode until a future game comes out. And you'll find messages in that game that you can only decipher using the Gloomhaven code.

I think this will add a sense of uniqueness to the Kickstarter copies of the game without actually making any content exclusive, since images of the codes will inevitably be dispersed on the internet. I am very, very excited about seeing how this plays out in the future. Every time I think about all the cool stuff that is going to be in Gloomhaven, it becomes very hard to wait for its release. I just want people to play the game and discover all its awesome secrets!

(Addendum: In transferring over to a new web site, a certain puzzle no longer works correctly. If you came here looking for a letter, the letter is "D".)

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