2020 has been a year for the history books. This year has been brutal for many small businesses across the nation, yet we keep moving forward! That is exactly what John D'Angelo from Red Djinn Productions has done.
John is preparing to launch his game, The Runelords, on Kickstarter, but is in a very interesting position. With a launch planned for earlier this year, due to the global pandemic, they were forced to postpone the launch date. John took this in stride and used this time to polish up this game.
John goes in-depth on what it takes to make a board game, what it is like to prepare to launch during this time, as well as walking us through what the game is all about. Curious to learn more about John or The Runelords? Check out the show, or take a look at the transcript!
Want to check out The Runelords? Take a look at the site here
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Pierson: What's up, everybody? This is Pierson with the Marketing is the Product podcast. I'm here with Brandon Rollins.
Brandon: Hello, everyone.
Pierson: And today, we have John D'Angelo from Runelords.
John: Hello, hello!
Pierson: How's it going, John?
John: Good, how are you guys doing?
Brandon: Oh, pretty well.
Brandon: The second podcast of the day, so we're gonna get real tangential real fast, pour your money back.
John: Yeah, I'm pulling an all-nighter here, so I'm just... I got caffeinated. I'm gonna try and get sleep an hour or two after this is over.
Brandon: Oh, this is gonna be good.
Pierson: We might get into some crazy stuff then.
John: You can just keep me awake, for the longest one on purpose.
Brandon: I'm gonna give our listeners a little background. So John, you've been working for the company, Red Djinn Productions, and you've been creating much of the upcoming Runelords Board Game, which at the time we release this podcast, may very well be on Kickstarter. If so, link in the show notes. Is it fair to say that you have been pulling an all-nighter on that?
John: If you mean this last, the night that I'm currently pulling, it actually wasn't game-related, and it was a nice departure. It was filmmaking for last night, but yes, there's been a ton of all-nighters for the board game.
Brandon: Yeah, I'm glad you're actually getting a break from that because I know that it's a very tight schedule right now. So you said you were actually pulling an all-nighter for filming, right?
John: Yeah, there's an artist here locally and they needed access to some legitimate filmmaking gear, and due to the pandemic and everything that's going on, that wasn't being... The rig that I have here wasn't being utilized. And I remember very clearly what it's like to not have access to gear to make what you see in your head come to life, so you have this great vision, but then you only have access to a shooter cam or something like that, and you just... You don't have a slider and you don't have jibs and you don't have all the stuff to make great cinema, but you want to and you can't. And I know how that feels. I just told them that if they schedule it on a time that I'm free, then they have access to everything that I own. And filled the vehicle up and met them on their location, and it was a 8:00 PM call time, and I walked in the door about an hour and 45 minutes ago.
Brandon: And what was that like being on a film set in the middle of this pandemic?
John: That's an awesome question 'cause it was nothing like a normal film set at all. It was just very, very few people, everybody wearing masks, everybody is social distancing, and it was like a... It was actually a little difficult to get the set mojo going, this set life... I'm doing air quotes over here. It's when you get on set, there's this certain level of just natural synergy that happens, especially if you're getting along with everybody on set like I get along with these guys, but you can't really get that to fire off much because when there's downtime, you're just off in your own little space, you're on your phone. If somebody's getting a shot done and I'm not needed, then I'm just sitting in my car. So there's really no back and forth, and so it created a very unique sort of isolated vibe, even though you're around a couple of people.
Brandon: That's really weird 'cause I've always heard that on movie sets, it's hard work, these are long days, and it's difficult, and there's a lot of money and a lot of staff, and you have to get things right. And of course, you've got these grueling conditions. So people become naturally friends, they talk to each other, they come to know one another under these strenuous circumstances. And I would bet that if you have a culture like that and then all of a sudden, everybody is six feet apart and hanging out on their own during downtime, that it's just bizarre. It's just not at all like what you would come to expect.
John: No, I get some stories about some game stores and stuff. You hear the stories of people that are trying to have some kind of gatherings in their establishments in times like now. And they're only allowed to have certain people together in a certain section, and then it's on... Usually, it's people who know each other 'cause they're not trying to mingle with strangers. And it's sort of like you could have just done that at home. But people wanna patronize, give to the struggling community, so I totally respect that, but it's not a store environment at that point. And the same thing is the thing here with the film set and stuff. Pandemic, it affects the underlying thread of a lot of normal systems, it just does.
Brandon: You can't seemingly do the most ordinary thing without it being interrupted in some way. I went to Walmart the other day, and this was a big deal 'cause I'm not hardly leaving my house anymore. And I noticed, I'm like, "Alright, alright," one entrance is closed, they're clicking in how many people go in and how many go out. So they're only letting 125 people in a giant Walmart, a pretty standard-sized Walmart, and that's just... That's the most basic experience I can think of, is just going to a big-box store buying stuff. You don't have... It's not crowded, there aren't lines, just normal things, just normal elements of American life, or I guess just regular life, in general, are completely disrupted.
John: It is, yeah. And I'm with you on that whole not leaving the... Me and my fiancee, Heidi, we have been pretty much locked. I think we've left our home for... Man! We've still gotta be under 30 times to go out for just normal things. So it was a thing that I had to really discuss and go over with her before I actually even committed to going out with these guys to do this. We wanted to make sure it was safe. And I don't know for sure whether or not I am or not, but I have this asthma that follows me around my whole life. And my lungs are pretty much always filled with some amount of fluid of some kind, causing this lingering cough. And usually, being active helps me mitigate it and stuff like playing basketball and things like that, but... And since nothing to do, so I don't know what would happen if I did get this. And I don't know if I'm immune-compromised or what that might mean, so we've been taking it really, really serious. So I'm with you on the whole not leaving.
Brandon: Yeah, like why find out if you're at risk? You don't have to figure that out. You can live your entire life without knowing. I think Pierson's gone. I can't... Where'd he go?
Pierson: I'm trying... I was just listening to the movie set stuff. I wrote an article about that two days ago, hearing first-hand about the stuff that I just spent a day researching and trying to write a thousand-word post on. It's cool hearing it first-hand just 'cause it... You see it not only with the film industry, but you see it through every different industry that people are in. We just got off a call with a guy who has a clothing line, and he talks about how that's affected his industry and what he's doing. And we interviewed tattoo artists a couple of weeks ago, and it plays into everybody's dynamic of how they're working, how they're living their day-to-day life. And you see it affecting everybody.
John: Yeah, there's a lot of talk, and rightfully so, about generating income that obviously, should be the number one topic about getting the economy up and running in the best, safest way possible. However, it isn't the only discussion to have. There's things that this affects within your business that it doesn't... Like with a tattoo artist. They're artists. I know many, many tattoo artists in my history of music, and they're passionate about tattooing, and they love doing it. And it's not something that they can just go home and break a canvas out and just make a great tattoo in their room. Sure, they could paint something that could potentially be a tattoo, but it's a very different experience to have somebody walk away, whether they get paid or not, walk away with a piece of art on their body.
John: And that's something they can't do right now, and that's... So that's gotta, it's gotta kill the muse a little bit, and that's unfortunate, too.
Brandon: Yeah, they have the ability to continue. It's just really strict and specific how they're allowed to do that, and it can make things very difficult to proceed.
Pierson: English and Christopher are the tattoo artists that we interviewed. And this is funny, we've talked about them in back-to-back episodes 'cause it's been relevant, but they're good friends of mine. And above all else, like what you're saying, they're artists and they use that as a medium for them to... Like how many people do with music or with whatever that muse might be for you. They use that 'cause they are artists, first and foremost, but it changes the dynamic, like you're saying about how you go about getting it. I've been tattooed several times during the pandemic, and the process of giving a tattoo by itself is so different than what it's like any other time. First of all, I've got a face mask on when someone's blasting my knee cap, and that's not fun. I don't wanna have to think about being claustrophobic when I'm spreading and thinking about how much pain I'm in. But it's just, it affects every little walk of how people do their job like on a film set and I'm sure with the music industry and with every other thing, it plays a part in it.
Brandon: Oh, yeah.
John: Certainly affected the game industry.
Brandon: Oh, yeah. Actually have had conventions... A lot of people don't know this, but publishers basically plan around conventions to release big games. You take away the conventions, how do the publishers release the games?
John: Everything just leans so heavily on social marketing now, social media marketing. And to be honest with you, it's not... I'm not sure when you guys wanna jump into the game topic, but I'll just follow this because this is a very true thing to what I experienced when I entered into this whole situation for the first time, being completely green to what really goes into getting a Kickstarter off the ground, not to mention the game design aspect, even though I did give a couple of game designs before I jumped into The Runelords, but I never actually tried to release anything. So when I first got into this, though, the way you go about pushing these games and bringing awareness to your product, and trying to bring awareness to the Kickstarter campaign before it happens, it's just so different now, and that's only three years and some change from when I started 'til now. And that has everything to do with the approach of how people are generating leads now.
John: And it seems so logical when I first entered into it that you would just dump a ton of money into Facebook and Instagram, and you would just make an amazing prototype, and spend all your money on Sculpts, get your Kickstarter page to look like your game is ready, doesn't even need to be on Kickstarter. And then you just blast it up on Kickstarter, and then you dump a whole bunch of money into social media marketing. That just seemed to be the common sense path. But that actually wasn't the way that was generating leads; it was interactions at conventions, it was meeting with other publishers, and it was gaining traction with reviewers. And it was a very different... The culture was very different on how they went about deciding which campaign was going to be 300,000 or more. The community just stuck with that method for quite a while. Now, especially with the pandemic, I think, it's pretty much all social media marketing now. So looking back, had I known the trend was going to change so drastically and so quickly, I would have repurposed a lot of my funds to go directly just into a more common sense business model of generating leads. But the pandemic is going to most certainly solidify that now because conventions are just not even an option.
Brandon: There is so much conventional wisdom in the gaming community about how exactly you raise money for Kickstarters, and a lot of it does have to do with conventions that you could certainly question it before the pandemic, and I think there's definitely a lot of room to question that wisdom. But now that this pandemic has happened, you have to because the advice is literally not something you can act on anymore. You can't go to game stores, you can't go to conventions. You have to reach people online, almost exclusively online. Some of it's social media, some of it's going through reviewers. Some of it could even be livestreaming, podcasts and guest blogging, all that stuff, but it just... It's a huge sea change and it's going to take probably years for the folks in charge there to... In the board game world, to catch up 'cause it's weird to them.
John: Yes, that is absolutely true 'cause they're only gonna be able to base it off the current market, that's all you can base it off of, that's all the data that matters. So getting into this sort of thing, you just have to dissect, "What are my best possible tools that I have at my disposal right now to do to have the most impact?" And those tools have just been removed. Just gone. Not to mention communications with China when this thing first hit too. Like myself and other kickstarters at the time, if you wanted to get any last minute adjustments, for new stretch goal came up that you wanted to really get an understanding of how much it might cost, you couldn't communicate with China because Chinese New Year's hit, and then... And which shuts them down for about two weeks, and then you've got... Then it poured right into the pandemic and everything was shutting down over there before it did here, so... Yeah, it was then a lot of things got changed and quickly and shut down fast that were behind the scenes that weren't even... Didn't even affect us at the time when it launched.
Brandon: Yeah, and here it is, late August, and I can tell you that some quotes that I've still got out there for big name manufacturers in the industry, they're just straight up not responding, I'm just not hearing back, period. And that's weird, 'cause it used to be like 48 hour turnaround.
John: Just to throw out there, how we handle that, we're working with an amazing manufacturer that we think very highly of, we're dealing with Eastar Games. And in our initial talks or whatever, like over... 'cause I met them at conventions, and then they saw me at another convention, and another convention, and they started to realize that I was actually... I'm not just going away, I'm a serious contender in this thing, and means a lot to me, and I really want this to work. So when we started our talks, of course, I couldn't give them some crazy deposit that is reflective of some successful kickstarter, 'cause I didn't know if I was going to fund. But there is a nominal amount of money that can be spent, very small percentage, a deposit of something, that just allows the manufacturer to feel comfortable and knowing that you're serious, and once I paid that small little deposit, I have never had a problem hearing back. I hear back in moments that they got my request, and then I hear back from them within two days with a full spreadsheet. And that wasn't the case in the early days, but once they saw me at multiple conventions and then they got that little bit of money, so they know that we're gonna work with them, it changed everything, and it created like a level of trust. So a lot of people say... They'd snarl at that kind of stuff, 'cause they go, "Why would I spend any money? I don't know if it's gonna fund." But there is a logic the other direction too.
Brandon: Well, honestly, if you can't get a response in a fast enough time, you cannot make a campaign that has a good chance of being manufactured. So if you have to spend a couple hundred dollars making a manufacturer feel comfortable that you're not just gonna eat up their time with little requests, then maybe that's just a cost of doing business.
John: I agree, I agree. And maybe that is just an Eastar thing too, right? Maybe one of the other companies might not have even required that of me and maybe a smaller manufacturer would have answered me just as fast, and there's a lot of what ifs.
Brandon: Well, at that stage, at the stage that your campaign is in, at the time that we're having this conversation, it makes sense to just mitigate risk wherever you can. It would be very difficult to find a new manufacturer in the... However many weeks run up to the launch date.
John: Yes, yes, yes. Especially creating a new relationship and then expecting you get a fast turnaround on a quote, for sure.
Brandon: So with this in mind, I think we should probably talk about what the Runelords Board Game actually is. Can you give us a sense of what you're creating?
John: Oh sure. So from a game playing experience standpoint, it's a game for one to four players, and it is a fantasy Skirmish hybrid of CCG, card management, and hex-based Skirmish combat. So essentially, the gist of it is, is you'll draw from a sovereignty deck of cards that has all sorts of great things in there, from recruits themselves, to equipment, to tactics, that allow you to change up what's available to you from your hand, and then you have your recruits that go out on the battlefield, and you place your standee, and then you can support those cards with the cards that are hidden in your hand, and then you have your skirmish. And there's a lot of... We didn't re-invent the wheel on too many things, but there are several really unique aspects, but generally speaking, adjacency rules, line of sight, hexes, flanking, all of that stuff is in there. It's a proper Skirmish experience, but we did take some liberties to sort of try and maybe fix, if that's even the right word, some of the more arduous, very rulesy-type aspects of Skirmish, but that's the gist of it, yeah.
Brandon: And so for a non-gaming audience, having played it myself, I would describe it as, it's one of those games where you have essentially like... Well, standees, so basically like little statues on a map, and you use those to combat your opponents, this is the essential gist of the game, when you strip out a lot of the board game specific jargon, but it's cleverly designed, it's got a lot of different play modes, it's got a lot of different rule sets that are relatively easy to pick up, especially for this genre of game, and that can change the game in dramatic ways, to keep it feeling fresh for a while. And I think that's actually one of the things that you're doing differently and better than others I've seen is, you are stripping down a really complex and frankly just difficult to describe genre, into something that you could potentially teach your casual gaming family to play if you really sat them down and walked them through it.
John: That's a great point from the optics standpoint as well. And as a game designer, you know that you can make some really great mechanics, and you can have a lot of really wonderful components, and you can do a lot of things right, and then when you take all of those things that you did right and you put them on the table, it's like, "Whoa, okay, this is a lot."
John: And you have to remember that, no matter how easy each one of those mechanics are for someone to learn, you just go, "Oh, it's simple", it's just that. But if you add it with 20 or 30 other simple things, then all of a sudden you just lose your casual gamer and you start to just look like a more heavy game. And when you get into the heavy game, you're getting into elite, specific gamers that are looking for, obviously, there are some war gamers out there that are looking for real numbers, right? And then you start playing in that field. So you gotta just ratchet it back, and the optics of the game with us ended up being affected a little bit by that is because the game was always easier than it looked. And that was an issue that we had to fix in this relaunch.
Brandon: Yeah. And I feel like this is one of those things that's hard for people outside of the industry to get, but you are walking a super thin line when you try, when you're talking about matching this up to different gamers. If you make it look too complex, you're gonna get those folks who spend $150 to get a game with statuettes and enough tiles to fill an entire dining room table. Like a big one. And that's what they want, that's what they love, that's what they're interested in, that's their passion. And that's a perfectly fine audience to pursue. But on the other end, you've got light games that you can play with basically any of your slightly nerdy friends, they take 45 minutes. You're going for something deeper than that without going all the way to the dudes filling up their entire dining room table extent of it.
John: Yeah. Well, it's crazy, because when you're trying to be in the middle, you're hearing voices from both sides. And when you try and listen to the voices from both sides, what is your game? What is it? Because if you can't answer the question to a specific audience, then many would argue that that in and of itself is an issue. If your target audience is only 1,000 people that exist on the planet Earth, then target those thousand people all the way, 100%. And then try and sell 1,000 copies. That should be your goal. That's how specific your target audience is. But then the other side of it is, is you want things to be accessible. You want to introduce people, you want to create. People say a lot about a game like The Runelords, they say, "This is not a gateway game". And I love that because it's true. I don't think this is the kind of game you bring somebody that doesn't normally play board games, and you go, "Hey, what are you doing Saturday? Come over here". Because there's gonna be a lot of terminology like line of sight. You shouldn't have to explain that to most people.
John: You do, right? However, I even look at another level of it. I think The Runelords is a gateway game for skirmish. I kinda look at it in a way where it's like, if you wanna get into skirmish and a little bit more of the heavier difficulty games, where there's a lot to, not necessarily a lot to track, but a lot to experience and have... Learn an entire faction and the way they function, but you don't have to have rulebooks off to the side. Every stat is right there on the card in front of you. You're not looking elsewhere for how something behaves. If you wanna have really easy to look at fantasy art, that's a little bit more whimsical and not so dark maybe, and so serious, which I personally love by the way. My favorite art style is dark fantasy, but that isn't what our game is. Then I feel like you would experience sort of a gateway skirmish game, and I think that's what we're kind of providing.
Pierson: I'll jump in and I'll say, before I get started on this, I'm not a gamer. And we did the table top sim with, was it Jordan, Brandon?
Brandon: No, it was also John.
Pierson: Dude, I'm so sorry. I couldn't remember if it was you or if it was somebody else. But when we did the table top sim and starting off, I knew very little about the game. But within the last 20 minutes of being on the call with you, I started to get to a place where I'm like, "Okay, do I understand everything that I need to to play the game at the level that you guys would? No, but could I figure it out along the way? And it not be where I'm just completely in the dark the whole time? Yeah, absolutely". And I definitely see that.
John: That's good to hear, because I feel like the best kind of strategy games, and this is a saying that's been used a million times, and Hearthstone, which I love, they coined this quite often for themselves, which is "Easy to learn, hard to master". That's a thing you hear a lot. And I think pretty much all skirmish games are difficult to learn, really hard to master. And then they get easier to learn the more skirmish games you play. So if you can create some kind of a game that actually falls more towards the easy to learn, hard to master, but it's still in a difficult genre, then I feel like maybe you're providing a new type of experience to the gaming community. So hopefully that's where we're headed.
Brandon: Hearthstone is a good comparison, 'cause I remember that coming out in college. And I never got into it myself, but it caught on with a lot of my friends, because it was a complex game that wasn't so unapproachable and it did reach a new market for that reason. These were not hard core strategy gamers. They were just smart nerdy people, and then this game came along and it managed to pick them up because they already had a natural inclination for that kind of thing.
John: Yes, and I feel like, on a mechanical game design, I'm gonna kind of nerd out just for a second on the design aspect. What I think is so brilliant about Hearthstone is, and I'm sure a lot of your listeners and other people could very easily come up with several examples of games that do this, but Hearthstone was the first to be explosively successful with a accumulative mana resource, or purchasing resource that progressively got better for you as the game. You and I weren't basing the success or failure of our gaming experience based on how much of a resource we were able to cultivate. Now, that's not to say Hearthstone doesn't mess with how mana and how you get your currency to be able to play cards. Of course they play with that through cards all the time. But the baseline is I get one, you get one, I get two, you get two. And so forth, up until you reach your max that you have, and then you finish the game out at max.
John: And what that does is it levels the playing field of RNG. With Magic: The Gathering, another game that I would argue is easy to learn, hard to master, if you didn't draw land, it doesn't matter how good you are. You could be the best pro tour player that has ever played the game ever, and I could literally open up a blister pack and just show up, or a starter deck, and just show the basic rules. And if you don't draw any land, I'm gonna smash your face.
Brandon: Yeah. It's true. But Hearthstone, on the other hand, ratchets up that tension slowly and in a controlled way.
Brandon: Now, there is a case to be made for the luck driven mechanics, or for the somewhat more luck driven mechanics of Magic. But if you want like a consistent experience that gradually ups that tension, Hearthstone is a better way of going about it.
John: Yeah, if you just want to look at a card and say, "Oh, this cost this much. I know I'm gonna have that much If I just wait two turns," that's great. Just shelf it. And then as the game, you know, you might change your mind and be like, "I need a board clear Instead, I really wanted to play this guy but I got to clear the board." So it changes. But I feel like though with our game, I think what the Runelords kind of provides in that same place, is that the way we handle our reinforcements and our special cards and everything, all just being in a card draw format, that allows you to draw up to your max hand size, and then at the end of the round, anything you didn't play, you can choose to discard, and then draw up in the new round to a new hand of strategy based off of your card draw.
John: And yes, there are card draw mechanics in the game that allow you to draw more cards and stuff. But generally speaking, this is the case. And what's nice about this is, by the time a recruit on the battlefield of yours has died, it's not even, I can't even think of maybe a handful of games in all of the hundreds of games that we've played tested, have we not drawn a replacement recruit, at least one replacement recruit before somebody of yours dies, because you have that time, and you have that option to just dump your whole hand and draw another whole hand so to make sure that you draw into a recruit.
John: So you're not like wondering whether or not you're going to be able to have a battlefield presence. And in a skirmish game, I feel like that's important. You know, when something dies can you replace it? Are you allowed to replace it? And I feel like it's a little bit more of that, it removes a little bit of that wonder, am I gonna draw a land?
Brandon: You increase decision making without rapidly increasing complexity when you do this. And that's what... That's a very sweet spot to land in when you're making a game of this nature.
John: 'Cause it is card-driven, right, and CCGs need to be that way. You know, I guess it could be argued that we could spend a month and remove the battlefield entirely, remove all hex-based combat and skirmish and just find a way to make these cards fight each other. And we could have a game. Like that could feasibly be a thing. But then you lose out on so much of that great skirmish, epic battle, and the ability to implement amazing, beautiful miniatures if the audience wants it. And to be able to just endlessly create scenarios with terrain and just, you know, you lose all of that when you just do a basic card battle, which is why we went in this direction that we did.
Brandon: And that's smart because that's a lot more aligned with what I think the audience is going to want. Now I do have a somewhat related question about Runelords. So the Runelords board game is based off the Runelords book series. So this is a pretty popular fantasy series written by David Farland, I believe actually best selling fantasy series, correct me if I'm wrong?
John: It is.
Brandon: Yeah, this is like a big deal. I didn't realize how big of a deal it was until I had looked it up myself. So what's that been like? What's it been like to work with an IP that big?
John: You know, that conversation I just had about the manufacturers, and you have to prove yourself to be something that is not going to go away and something that is worth the attention that you're asking for. And when you first start a relationship, it's going to take a little bit of sacrifice for you to be able to get there. And when I first started working with David Farland, I was just this guy that came out of nowhere, we both shared an entertainment attorney, my music entertainment attorney was his entertainment attorney, he connected us. And I knew I wanted to make a game. And I thought, well, this might be an opportunity to attach a well-known IP to a game that I can otherwise skin to be anything, it could be Shadowrun, it could be Mechs, it could be Dungeons and Dragons.
John: It's really, the sovereignty game system that we've created can be skinned to anything. But we we've had this opportunity before us to maybe do something with this series that at one point was really, really in the forefront of the fantasy genre in novels. And when we started working with Dave, all of my conversations with Dave were very professional. He's such a sweet and considerate and thoughtful man. So he was very easy to approach and talk to.
John: In fact, our first convention that we ever did, was at a FanX, which anybody that does board games, I'm telling you now if you're going to do a convention, don't do a Comic-Con unless you're really really big, because you're not getting a really isolated hyper-focused gaming audience when you do that. So when we were there, we got to spend time with Dave, get to know him a little bit more, and he got to see that we were way more serious than that initial concept that called him and sent him those emails and had, you know, he was making time for somebody early on.
John: But where that kind of affected the outcome of the game was in those early days, the rules of what we were allowed to do with the licensing was limited. We were allowed to create things in his world, as long as we ran it past him and didn't do anything that would break his lore or anything, right, we couldn't just bring aliens in or whatever. And I always shared everything with him as it grew. But then, throughout the course of it, though, the limitation was he didn't want to... He's got a lot of movie rights and stuff and a lot of irons in the fire. And he didn't want to risk having hit the characters from his books, represented poorly, in a game somewhere from somebody that he had really no way of knowing whether or not I was going to put together quality art, I was going to do his characters justice, that kind of thing.
John: So he said, use my world, don't use my characters. That was the initial conversation. Fast forward all this time later, we're doing a relaunch, I just spoke with him on the phone two days ago. And we're in a totally different place in a our relationship now. And he easily would have given me the rights to use Gabon and Raj and all of those things, in a heartbeat, he would have given it to me had he known. So it really gives us that great momentum. If we can just get past this first hump, get this game out onto the market, get it into people's hands so they can see just how fun it really is. And then when they experience the books for the first time, we can go in first expansion and just feel like boom, here's the characters, and we can just hit the ground running. So that's been the relationship with Dave, it's been a little bit of a proving grounds but we're in a really great place right now.
Brandon: And it's understandable 'cause you know a guy like him has had to have worked like really, really incredibly hard to create a universe that complex. I mean world-building is no joke, especially when you're talking what the 1990s or something, there weren't nearly as many resources for it. If you wanted to world-build in the '90s, you you've read yourself some Lord of the Rings, you read some Dune. And then you kind of put the pieces together yourself. I mean, there were other resources out there. But it's not like you have the internet in its modern form to help you. So yeah, it makes sense that you'd have to prove yourself. It takes a long time to win over somebody like him 'cause it's his baby, you know?
John: Yes, yeah. And he's been working on that last book for years now. And every time I speak with him, he's just that much closer to getting it finished. And obviously, he has to make a living elsewhere. So he's a very sought after mentor to up and coming authors and known authors. Right? He's got great relationship with Brandon Sanderson, so he's just at the top of the food chain, you know?
Brandon: Yeah. I'll tell you like one of my clients actually follows his newsletter. He's a well-known guy.
John: Yeah, he's top of the food chain author, no question about it.
Pierson: It must bring some interesting perspective to you, John, to be able to work hand in hand with somebody like that throughout building a game and what that must be like for you.
John: Yes, I will say that it made you in a situation like that... It makes you very timid, it makes you not want to step on your dance partner's toes, right, 'cause you want to look like you know how to dance before you know how to dance, right? That's kind of the vibe. And you show up and you just kind of want to make sure that everything is in place. So the characters that I was creating, and their backstories. And with the timeline in which it was happening, and where on the map it was happening, all of those kinds of things was always sort of like, I created it, I think it's really good. And then I expect him to shoot it down.
John: And then I hear back a little bit in a couple of days, and he says it looks good. And I was like, "Okay, I guess that's good," right. And then you do it again, and you do it again. And then before you know it, you don't have to check in every time because you've already created the infrastructure and you know now like how to not step on the toes, and you can kind of get your move, get your groove and get into the rhythm. And you can start to properly execute without feeling that pressure.
Pierson: Well, on the flip side of not wanting to step on your dance partner's toes, I think that it also works for you in terms of a creator to really trust what you're doing on a core level, and that you're creating a quality product that you believe in. And it's like gaining that confidence of, "Okay, well, I don't want to get this shot down. But I think this is a really good idea." And then seeing it get passed through that must be reassuring to you as a creator as well.
John: Yes, yeah. And to further your point as well, you get to sort of like lean a little bit in take a step back and lean on the fact that this IP exists, right, like you're working within an IP that has a track record. That you know that there's a fan base there, whether they're an old fan base, a hidden fan base, wherever they are, there are millions and millions of copies of this book has been sold. And over the course of the last two decades, the fans have grown apart, they've just... The book's just I think 2008 was the last release of Chaos Bound, right, which is the last book in the series up to this point.
John: So some considerable amount of time, maybe 2012, I'd have to look. But a considerable amount time has passed, right. But you can lean on the fact that you do have an IP. And that is framing, as opposed to creating an entire world like Gloomhaven did, for example, where everything about Gloomhaven was just unique and brand new, the characters no one had ever heard of, you know, obviously kudos and hats off to that behemoth of a game.
Brandon: Yeah, that was impressive.
John: Yeah, but that's the... But it also was a very accepting fan base too. And I think that has... I'm not going to say luck, because nothing about the Gloomhaven success was luck. I mean, that was beautiful execution on a brilliant game at the right time and all of that stuff, right. But the fact that you were able to reach an audience that was so open to not caring that it wasn't Dungeons and Dragons, or it wasn't, you know, a large IP that played into their favor, and that's not necessarily going to be the case for a lot of people, even if their lore is even better than Gloomhaven's.
John: So it's not always necessarily how good your content is. It's whether or not it resonates. And who knows what the formula for that is? [chuckle] Who knows?
Pierson: I'm sure it also probably brings you a sense of fulfillment to be able to be a part of something that's bigger than what you thought... Or I'm trying to figure the best way to word this. Like, what you're saying you're not having to be responsible for creating the world, but you can bring your own set of creative properties to the table and expand upon that. So that must bring you a sense of fulfillment in a different way.
John: It does, especially if it becomes part of the... Like Vera, for example, one of the Runelords that we have in the game. Like, who knows if the game takes off and it does really well it would be really funny if fans started reaching out to Dave and saying, "Hey, what's going on with Vera?" That would be really interesting to see how he would respond to that. He'd be like, "She's got... Who are you talking about Vera?" [chuckle] That would be really interesting.
Brandon: And who knows? Maybe it'll become a part of the lore eventually.
Pierson: But as a fan of like gaming, I'm sure it's incredibly satisfying to get to contribute to a game and or to a series that you can bring to life and in a means that you enjoy it. I'm trying to think about the ways to word this 'cause I'm so not into... It's just not my world. And I struggle to communicate what I'm thinking as an outsider to you guys who know tons about it.
John: No, no, but you still makes sense though. It does.
Pierson: Yeah, I mean, that was pretty much the gist of what I was saying...
John: It's not a normal scenario that somebody gets to create a board game for Star Wars, but then we're like, "Go ahead and make your own planet."
Brandon: Yeah, that's a pretty unique set up.
John: Yeah. For sure, it is.
Brandon: You can shoot me down if you don't wanna go in this direction, by the way. So you guys had already launched earlier this year, somewhere around February, is that right?
John: Yes. February 3rd was our launch date, yes.
Brandon: So obviously, the timing on that was not ideal.
John: No, we would have like to have relaunched with... We sent out surveys right away, we gave some options, and we had the surveys reply and say what the choice turnaround would be. And we, unfortunately... Obviously, due to the pandemic, it's gonna look like we took however many months to relaunch when that's actually not true. We just... Massive [0:40:05] ____ and we couldn't, just couldn't do anything.
Brandon: I think you're actually gonna get some leniency on PR there. Because there was about a three-month period where nobody knew what was going on.
John: Yeah, like what promises do you really wanna make somebody. Come March 3rd, what were you gonna promise somebody in the middle of March?
Brandon: Yeah. Honestly, your cancellation came at probably the perfect time to have to cancel a campaign early because it's the time where people would not question that too much when they see it.
John: Yeah, who would have known that the best giveaway in March 2020 for a board game would have been hand sanitizer? Who would have known that?
Brandon: Or toilet paper, either one.
Pierson: I was at Walmart the other day and I got a thing of Germex, name brand Germex. And I'm like, "What the hell is this? I haven't seen this in ages."
John: I know, yeah. We were just on the set and they had to do a fake blood for a fight scene and they didn't have an applicator, but they had those small, the little like... They look like key chain-sized little squirt bottles of hand sanitizer. And they were like, "Oh, we'll just empty one of these in fill it with the fake blood." And as they were spilling it out, I'm thinking to myself like three months ago, you would get... You would have been in a horrible person just pouring that down the drain.
Brandon: Now, with all this in mind, what do you think you're gonna do differently this time because of the pandemic?
John: The big thing that Red Djinn Productions as a company, as an identity and a connection to the audience of games, in general, that we want to express is that the game we are relaunching is going to have significant changes to it, but the core of what the game is, is exactly the same. So when Sean Angle, which is the co-designer of the game, he's involved in pretty much anything that is like stat or math-related like, what's this guy's range, how does knockback work, like all that stuff, that is all just hours and hours and hours of time between him and I just designing the mechanics of the game. So as I was talking to Sean about the relaunch, we knew we needed to make some significant changes to the way the game looks, to the optics of the experience. And in fact, the Geek & Sundry videos was our biggest wake-up call to that. And how we wanted to handle the changes though is we made a promise to ourselves up front and we said, "Okay, we have this voice-over that we paid money for and got a talent that we were super lucky to get.
John: Dave Pettitt is like an amazing... I hope I'm pronouncing his last name right, but he's an amazing voice-over talent that's done movie trailers and commercials, and very familiar with his work. And when I just shot him an email and I was like, "Maybe you can work on the game's Kickstarter video." And he got back to me and said, "Yes." And I was like, "Oh, great. So this is gonna be good." And we sent him over the script that we worked really hard on to make sure it encompassed the game in a very short two-minute script, and we sat with that and we said to ourselves right up front. We said, "Alright, it doesn't matter what changes the community wants in our game. If it doesn't fit, if we say this script out loud, we can't change it. So it has to be in the encompassing description of exactly what we launched the first time because we don't wanna relaunch a different game.
John: We're still 100% positive that people would have enjoyed the first one, but we want... Because we believe in this game, we believe in how it plays and what it provides. But we also understand that nothing, nothing is going to be completed without listening to the proper feedback of the voices. And we were very fortunate with all the conventions and the surveys that we had filled out at the conventions. And then of course, the comments during the reviews and the comments to the advertisements and the Kickstarter campaign directly. You have to listen to that stuff. And a lot of games that fund the first time around don't get the opportunity to really address as much as maybe they should have. But we didn't wanna create a new game so that's the one thing that... To answer the question and is the first thing is that we wanted to make changes to the game in the way it plays in the optics, but not change the game. So that's gonna be different moving forward.
Brandon: Yeah. And from what I had seen in my own analysis of it, the people who are landing on your page were definitely buying. There wasn't an actual problem with the game itself, there is something going on with the lead generation. So it makes sense that you wanna keep it basically what it was, but if you've got all this extra time to replan, it makes sense to take people's feedback and incorporate it into the game. See if you can't make the basic game better.
John: Especially if the feedback is something that just makes logical sense. It's something that maybe you just didn't see. For example, with our core combat system, we ran with a d20 system, and the d20 system where you get bonuses to your attack and you get bonuses to your defense. This is as old as 1970 what. This is not something new. This is not something that fans of games should have been like, "What's all of this math?"
John: That shouldn't have been the reaction, from gamers, to a d20 system, but it was. But then, if you really think about it, and you go and you get off your high horse for a second and you go like... You stop saying, "Well, it works for Pathfinder," if you just get out of your own head for a second, and you really look at that, the system isn't really the best, you're gonna give me a... I'm gonna get a plus two on my attack, and then you're gonna get a plus two on your defense, so I just did math for what? It's like... Of course, it doesn't always fall that way, but there's a considerable amount of bookkeeping, that is pointless in those systems, just by the nature of how things level up and how it works out. So if you can just say, "Well, screw it."
John: Everybody hits all the time. It's just a matter of how much damage you're dealing, and find other ways of mitigating damage, then you really have something great, and that's what our system does now, it's the exact same attack progression system of the d20, where if you roll to this threshold, this effect happens, if you roll even better, this effect happens in addition, that still exists, but we're doing it now on D6's, and we're telling you what the damage is, right on the dice, and that takes all of the bookkeeping of, "Alright, let me look over here. The weapon does this damage, it's got a plus. What's your defense?" We just took three values and put it in one spot. So those are the kind of changes we made, but the combat system's identical. If you look at a d20, for example, and you say, "A 16 or better, you're gonna do this." Is it really that much different, if I say, "If you roll a six, this happens."
Brandon: And so, to put this in non-gamer terms, again, I think the change basically boils down to, increases consistency, reduces complexity, and this is like a good game design principle in general, and you've got a chance to actually do that and improve upon these very old systems, like Pathfinders, where the bookkeeping doesn't make sense.
John: A lot of it has to do too, with that same mentality we just talked about, a moment ago, about leaning on the IP. That happens a lot with game design too, "I'm gonna lean on this mechanic because I know it works." I can name 40, 50 games in my genre, that do... Handle card management exactly the same way. I don't have to think about that mechanic anymore, my game is gonna function, I'm just gonna plug and play all of my cool unique aspects, and you don't have to really think about it. And when you have something as massive as all of the older Dungeons and Dragons, and original Forgotten realms, and Dark Sun, and you name it it, anything table top d20 back in the day, current Pathfinder, and anything that rolls a d20, you just lean on it and you just get complacent. But then, when you watch people play it, and you realize how much bookkeeping they're doing, you're going, "There has to be a better way."
Brandon: And you're like, "No wonder, the gateway gamers don't wanna play."
John: No wonder. It's so easy for me, because I grew up playing... I played my first game of Dungeons and Dragons, at 9, it was like... Forget it, I was hooked. I played DND, I can't even tell you how many hours. So... But I just got so used to the system, that I didn't even realize how much book-keeping it really was.
Brandon: That's a good thing to realize. Now, Pierson, do you have any questions?
Pierson: No, I don't, I'm just kinda listening, 'cause like I've said, this is kinda out of the realm of what I know about. So I'm just trying to listen and jump in when I can. But no, I don't.
Brandon: Okay, I'm gonna hit you with the general one that we like to give everybody, because it's a very insightful question. If you could go back to when you were starting this project, what would you tell yourself to do differently?
John: I would say, listen to my gut, more than other publisher's advice. And I don't say that in a way that I don't appreciate all of the advice that I got, because people that advised me, that gave me their time and their attention, they didn't have to do that, and it meant the world to me, at the time that I was getting the advice, and it means a world to me now, looking back that they took the time to give it to me. But listening to everybody's advice on how it worked for them and trying to implement it into your system, when your gut is telling you that something is wrong, you really need to analyze why your gut is telling you something is wrong, you have to.
John: And I wish I would have listened a little more to my gut, and hit the brakes, before I just blanketly did the norm, because the thing in my gut that was turning, every time I was doing something, was my... Something about me experiencing the industry, I was noticing the red flags of the changes in the industry, I was noticing them happen right before me, but I was still moving forward, as if the changes weren't happening, and I think the gut is... That feeling in your gut of, "Is this the right decision?" It's because you're seeing something you're not seeing. I don't know if that's the right way to say that. And you need to figure out a way to clarify what it is, that's causing you to have that hesitation, before you just discard it and say, "Well, I must be wrong," because that's not how this guy did it. I would definitely tell myself to listen to my gut more.
Brandon: So it's sort of like a learn when it is proper to analyze your anxiety and hesitation, something like that?
John: Yeah. And know when to execute on a known... What's the right word to use here? Tactic. What's known strategy in a given situation? Know when to do that. For example, I fought off paying any substantial money for my booth to look beautiful at a convention, for the first five conventions that I went to. My gut told me all the way through, that that's not where I should be cutting my corners, if I'm gonna commit to the convention, I need to commit to the convention, don't show up at a convention with just a banner, and a table, and a table cloth, because if your gut is telling you that maybe that's part of the problem, it's probably true. But you listen to other vendors, and you listen to other produce... Publishers, and they go, "Well, everybody starts somewhere. Don't worry, you'll gain a couple of little... People will show up at first and then it'll grow and snowball." The second that I just bit the bullet, and committed to investing in a really beautiful booth, forget it, it was like night and day, it was constant people at the table. So that's a good example of publishers saying, "Don't dump your money into that," and my gut saying that I should. So when do you execute on a strategy.
Brandon: Yeah. And that's just... That's really interesting, because I... One of the things I like to do is just do what you see others doing unless you have a pretty solid reason not to. And this rule is... It sounds so contrary to what you hear people say about forge your own path, but it works more often than not, but if you have that sense of hesitation and anxiety, if you have that sense of something is wrong here, that is actually a good reason to stop and think about your actions. You're right, it doesn't make sense to show up to a con and halfway do things. Either don't go to the con and save yourself money entirely, or you go there and you make a fantastic show out of it.
John: Yeah, for sure. I think that's the way you handle it.
Brandon: Yeah, and I would say maybe the exception is if you're just getting started, just go and figure out what's going on, go to a couple and get a sense of what people do, don't try and guess it all in your head. But after you get that baseline level of experience, commit to either going to a bunch and doing it right, or commit to not going to them unless you really need to.
John: I will say last little bit on the cons... On conventions here for anybody that might be considering doing conventions. Just from my experience, apply this as you will, another thing that I learned very quickly was the first few that we went to, we stayed off the beaten path to save money, it was an Uber drive or a 15-block walk, because there was a really cheap spot that was way away from the convention, but it made sense economically. And of course, that's the same mentality that brings you to the dance with no tie, it's the same thing that brings you to the convention with a banner and not a booth. But when you get there, you realize very quickly that the whole point of getting the most out of these conventions isn't entirely the hours that the booths are open, it's the hours after the booths close that you're out in the gaming area meeting gamers, talking to publishers, playing their games, sitting down and playing RolePlayer with just a random group of people that two of them had played your game earlier that day, and now there's this personal connection where you spend two hours sitting with somebody that took the time that they didn't have to take to try your game out.
John: Why I'm saying that, is when you're staying five blocks, six blocks, seven blocks, an Uber ride away, these conventions most of the time have their gaming areas open either 24 hours or they close really late, and you have to be back to the booth very early. And economically, it starts to... You start to realize that what would normally be considered a rookie move, to spend too much on a hotel that's unnecessary, you realize that this is yet another thing that is unique to the board game culture, a thing that a normal convention goer wouldn't have to worry about. When you do normal conventions, you set your booth up, you go from X time to X time, and then you go back to your room five blocks away and you have dinner and you talk about the next day, and that's the end of it. At a board game convention, if you're doing it right, you're working the entire time. So staying close and staying there is worth the extra money if you're gonna do the convention.
Brandon: Yeah, and I feel like maybe people need to understand that the real value add of these conventions is networking and building industry goodwill, it's not necessarily lead generation. Maybe you won't get customers for your Kickstarter campaign there, but you can build industry connections that can come in very handy later on. These are two entirely different goals, and they may even seem diametrically opposed, but if you actually go in there and you're like, "We are doing this to network and see what's going to happen as a result," then I think you'll have a much better time of it because you're not expecting to make X amount of dollars for your time.
John: A 100%, dude. I couldn't say it better. That's absolutely true. And I like how you said it could be opposed, right? Because you think about it. Why do I need to create these connections if my Kickstarter is not gonna fund? Because that's the mentality of somebody that if their Kickstarter fails, they're gonna bail, and that's... I hope, I mean, if I were to get anything across on this relaunch, I just hope that us coming back and trying this again shows an audience that we're not going anywhere, and if we're willing to put in the years that we put in to put a game together that we've put together, launch it, live through a pandemic, still come out the other end, launch again, make changes listening to the community, and still have the gusto and the passion to provide something to an industry that we love, to a community that we love, then I don't know what else would prove that we're capable of getting a Kickstarter out. I promise we'll be able to fulfill the Kickstarter if we're able to do all of this.
Brandon: Yeah. I have no concerns about your ability to actually get the things shipped. You've got your supply chain figured out, we've talked about it. Even if you creep over that line, even if you just barely creep over that goal, you get one successful product and people take you more seriously, they start wondering about that second thing, they start saying, "This published creator." It's a huge shift, it makes a difference.
John: Yeah. I don't know what that feels like yet. I know what it looks like.
Brandon: I'll tell you, the difference... Even with the marketing agency, I've done board game stuff too, we got one client, and then it was like, "Okay, now we can actually prove that we're doing what we say we've been able to do," and then we were able to tell a second client, "We got one client," then we were able to tell a third client, "We we got two clients." It makes a big difference. Every single con creates example of success that you can show and makes people take you a little more seriously. It builds on it.
John: Right? Are you battle-tested? Is there... How does your company, the integrity of your company... How does the integrity of your company stand up to setbacks?
Brandon: I feel like every truly successful person in business needs to have... They need to have a win, and they need to have a really hard loss at some point, and they need to have both of these happen. And once you've gotten a couple of wins, and you prove that you're not just some fluke, and once you've had a really hard loss, that is like the perfect mix of experience, 'cause you need to know how low the lows go and how high the highs go.
John: Yeah, and then not successfully launching our Kickstarter would be after everything we've put into it, the money, the time, commitment and everything, yes, that would... Thinking about it not functioning 'cause you can't do this forever, right? And I just can't sustain this 65 plus hour a week lifestyle for the rest of my life, right? I have other things in my life that I need to prioritize at some point.
John: I gotta give it everything that I... I have to go until life tells you you have no choice, right? Like the quarterback that gets that one sack and the doctor's like, "You can't play football anymore." Like that's... That happens. And until you know... I hope that doesn't happen, of course. But we're not thinking of failure right now. We're doing everything we can to succeed. And hopefully we got the win ahead of us.
Brandon: I don't think it's healthy to focus too much on failure. But I will tell you like losing 8,000 on a board game that had no audience taught me some of the most important stuff I ever needed to know. And then because of that, I literally made tens of thousands of dollars over the next couple of years, because I got my butt completely and thoroughly kicked.
John: You learned the system, right? And that's why I reached out to you in the first place. You're one of the best consistent sources of learning how to do a Kickstarter that's available on the internet. So it's so amazing that you're taking this full on into the marketing direction that you're taking it, because... But if you show up with this fancy gadget that opens 15 jars of pickles at the same time and they go, "Oh, well, everyone needs to open 15 jars of pickles at the same time." And then they go, "Well, we can create a marketing system behind that." And then you're this the latest gadget craze, of course you can get behind that. But any marketing company can get that to happen. A game though, oh man, you got to worry about a culture.
Brandon: And I know that even the best design Kickstarters has got like an 80-20 chance of making it. Like you don't know what's gonna happen before you go in. It's no more sure that a Kickstarter will fund than Biden will get elected. Yeah, it's more likely than not if it's done properly. But you don't know. You never know. People by the time they hear this might know. [chuckle] Yeah, anyway. Yeah. Kickstarters are scary for marketing firms, 'cause no marketing firm wants to take on a project that doesn't have a good chance of success.
Brandon: But we will actually we will take on a project that doesn't have a certain chance of success because well, partly because we're paid you know, by billable hour, but also partly because we want to see creative projects taken to their full potential. This is what we see in marketing. We don't just see AI DEA robots advertisements all that crap. No, we see human beings coming up with interesting ideas, and we want to take them and see how far they can go.
John: Well, and to be fair to what you're saying though, I understand why it is kind of like tongue in cheek funny when you say about the billing hourly thing, right? But you can only have that mentality for so long. If you keep betting on losing horses, like your reputation is going to be... Like why on earth would I invest a bankroll, a poker player that just doesn't win? You can only take on so many losers. So you obviously it's almost like a... It's like kind of a partial humor with that comment that you made there, I see it, right. It's not entirely true because your reputation is at some point going to be represented by how many things you've done so far.
Brandon: And you can leave stuff off your portfolio but what we'll usually do if we are really truly concerned about somebody not having a chance, we will have the most honest conversation that we think that we can get away with and we will give them the most open, decent information we can, and not charge sometimes, just so that people get a proper sense of how hard it is to do what they want to do. Because sometimes, yes, sometimes you really just need to like bring somebody down to reality because if you do get into that project, even if you do your work well, you still depend on them to execute well. And the last thing you want is to take a whole bunch of money and for them to not go anywhere.
John: Yeah, because then even if it is or isn't your problem, or your fault, right, it's going to come across as it is. You'll be like, "Well what did I pay you for?" And it's like, "Well, you paid me for exactly what I gave you." Sorry people didn't need to open 15 jars of pickles. Sorry.
Brandon: Yeah, it's like not really a product market fit market-fit there.
John: Yeah, exactly.
Brandon: All right. So if nobody has anything else to say, I can hit everybody with a call to action. You have been listening to the Marketing Is The Product podcast, you can read our blog articles on marketingistheproduct.com. This podcast is sponsored by the Pangea marketing agency, and we do take consults, links in the show notes. If you liked this podcast, take a moment to leave a five star review on Apple podcasts, it makes more of a difference than you might think.
Brandon: If you want to subscribe to this show, you can find us again on Apple podcasts, as well as Spotify, TuneIn, Stitcher, probably a whole bunch of other places I don't know the names of but it's on all of them. Thank you very much for listening, and we really appreciate it and we'll see you in a couple of weeks.
Pierson: See you guys.