The Balancing Act

As you probably know by now, the Corporate America Kickstarter will go down in history as a resounding success! Hurray!

That may be the case, but if you read my last post, you know that over the course of the campaign, that was far from a certainty. The campaign was full of ups and downs. Today, I want to tell you about the biggest shake up that occurred during the campaign, where I barely (and frankly without much grace) threaded the needle between opposing demands only to change the course of the campaign for the better.

You Can’t Please Everyone…

I know that Corporate America has some controversial stuff in it. In fact, I think that’s a selling point for it! It deals with some difficult political and moral issues in a humorous way. It makes light of the political ideologies that many people define themselves by. It points out how the drive for ever greater profits blinds many in our society to the questionable ethics they act out every day.

Schitibank: Possibly the most offensive thing to ever appear in a game. Ever.

But in no way was Corporate America more controversial than in its naughty language. See that card over there? Pure filth. No amount of humor could redeem a card like that, and believe me, there isn’t a shred of humor in that joke of a card.

(Actually, for those of you not in the know, the card is inspired by a South Park gag, something I’m sure wouldn’t impress the people who don’t appreciate it to begin with.)

From the very first playtest of Corporate America, I knew it wouldn’t be loved by everyone. That’s alright! It’s good to have a target audience in mind, and everyone else can go screw themselves, right?

That’s all well and good, but in the heart of a campaign, when nothing is happening and it appears like the project you have labored over and loved for a year isn’t going to make it, little things can get to you. Little things like people calling you “stupid, stupid” on the forum of your board game geek page because they aren’t your target audience, or a random internet goon tagging your game with “offensive_language”, “not_interested”, and “make_my_own” (keep dreaming, anonymous Board Game Geek troll). These little things add up. They’re all you see. You start to get it in your head that maybe some of the more edgy jokes you left in for 20-somethings who have senses of humor weren’t such a great idea. Maybe that vast untapped demographic doesn’t actually exist. Maybe the board game community really is filled with overweight, middle aged nerds with the sense of humor of an Intel processor, just like all the stereotypes would have you believe…

Note that two things could have fixed all of this. First, I should have taken control of my game’s board game geek page. I didn’t realize how important that page was for public appearances, and I didn’t realize I had a good amount of control over that. By leaving the page for the internet to fill, I shouldn’t have been surprised when trolls found it.

Second, I wouldn’t have been quite as sensitive to that kind of criticism if it was balanced by support from fans. I did get a lot of positive feedback over the course of the campaign, but there were dry spells, and during those dry spells my fragile little ego was at the mercy of whatever happened to be casually said by a faceless stranger.

Truthfully, there’s a little more to it than this. The language only started to become a real issue around the time that some of my supporters began to think that the campaign might not make it. We discussed why it wasn’t moving forward, and one of the issues that came up was the language in the game possibly turning people off. Some of my supporters even said that they would have preferred if the game’s language was toned down. I wouldn’t have seriously considered changing the game if it weren’t for those people who were already supporting me saying they wanted things different.

Appeasement Always Works, Right?

It was becoming apparent that the (very minor) swearing in the game was a problem, but what should I do about it? Ben, a good friend of mine, whose support made the Kickstarter a success (I just want to take the opportunity to again plug a couple of his masterpieces, the amazing web series Battleground and the genre defining social simulator game Prom Week), offered a suggestion: why not let supporters pay a little extra to help rename the offending businesses?

It was a brilliant suggestion. Not only would it fix the problem, it could raise extra money (since those reward tiers would cost more), and it would allow supporters to get emotionally involved with the project in a new way (which has worked exceptionally well for other Kickstarter projects, like Boss Monster). I quickly picked out a few businesses that had received specific complaints, came up with some new reward tiers (Moral Majority: they would help clean up the game), and posted an update to my supporters announcing the changes.

While the new reward tiers were gobbled up quickly, the backlash against the decision was also quick and fairly strong. Apparently, there were a lot of people that liked the attitude of the game as it was, but had just remained silent up to that point! People thought my watering down of the game was caving in to uptights. I lost a couple of sales because of it. I was left in a situation where I was disappointing people on both sides of the issue, which was a stressful and frustrating place to be.

A Matter of Perspective

And the fact of the matter is I DID feel like I had sold out a bit. Not that the names of a few businesses really mattered to me, or that I really wanted there to be curse words in the game. I just felt like I was letting some internet bullies decide what my game was going to be like, and once I realized that, I didn’t like what was happening. Plus, the thought that removing the curse words would magically make those whiners support the game was naive–they had already made up their minds, and weren’t about to change their opinion of the game.

So now I found myself in an even bigger mess. I’d upset people on both sides of the naughty word spectrum and I felt like I was giving up my game to appease people who I knew wouldn’t become supporters of the game. What was I to do?

The answer was to change the perspective on the new reward tiers. Ben’s idea was an excellent one, but it was my execution that soured it. I called the new reward tiers “Moral Majority”, which did fit in the game’s sense of humor, but also implied that I was letting other people dictate what was acceptable for the game. People like customization and I like getting my game funded, so renaming businesses is a great idea, but I don’t want to spin it as “I’m letting you fix the broken game”.

Instead, I made even MORE businesses available for people to rename, but changed the reward tiers to be called “Pundit”, making fun of how news commentators have a lot of power over society’s perspective on various things (in this case, businesses and protesters). Now, instead of letting people rename cards because outside pressure was forcing it, it was everyone getting a chance to leave their mark on the game. And making up silly names is fun! It let everyone get in on that aspect of the game.

By this point in the campaign, things weren’t looking good. I had a LONG way to go to reach my goal, and not a lot of time to do it. Already accepting that the project probably wouldn’t make it, I decided to take the opportunity to experiment with more reward tiers to see how people would react to them. I got into contact with my awesome artist Chrissy and asked her if she would be able to do some work before the holidays, assuming the project was a success. She said she would, so I posted some new reward tiers, “Political Activist”, which let people put a cartoon version of themselves on the protester cards. Fun!

A Happy Ending

The Pundit reward tiers let me share the fun (and work) of coming up with snarky names with supporters. Cool!

It turns out that these changes to the campaign improved things quite a bit. I no longer felt like I was conceding and supporters really liked the new reward tiers. Almost all of them were taken by the end of the campaign. Many of them were taken by friends and family who wanted to offer more money to support me, but now had a fun way of doing so (though I don’t think all of them realized they would have to do a little work for it…). But some people I didn’t know contributed at these levels as well, which was a great way to get to know some of my supporters!

While it took a roundabout and rocky path, the Pundit and Political Activist reward tiers were something missing from the Corporate America Kickstarter campaign from the very beginning. They offered a way for supporters to customize the game and connect to it emotionally, which is really important! After all, Kickstarter gives people more than just a product, it gives them an experience, a way to reach out and touch something bigger than any one person. I have no doubts that the final print version of Corporate America will be better for the input of these reward tiers, too!

Aside on Art

I wanted to mention that I actually did have an expensive and more personal reward tier from the very beginning, “Political Action Committee”, which came complete with a hand made prototype of an early version of Corporate America. While I’ve worn many hats as an indie game maker, at heart I’m a game designer, and this was my way of sharing the art of game design. To me, these prototypes were the equivalent of concept sketches you can get as rewards in other Kickstarters.

Unfortunately, I don’t think many people are able to appreciate game design as an art like that. While some supporters at that level understood what I was going for, many of them just wanted to see Corporate America become a reality and were willing to chip in more than their fair share. Some didn’t even really understand what the prototype was. For them, the Pundit or Political Activist reward tiers were probably more appropriate. Oh well. Maybe getting the prototype and having the chance to see it next to the final game will open some eyes about what game design really means.

Back to the Happy Ending

And that, my friends, was probably the most exciting and controversial event during the Corporate America Kickstarter campaign (other than the explosive beginning and the nail biting finale). While the controversy was stressful and uncertain at the time, I’m happy to say that it improved the campaign in the end. It was also a really good learning experience for me and a great way to grow, since I had to think on my feet in a very public way.

And Corporate America was printed happily ever after. The end.




…or is it?

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