Reflections on OblivAeon by Paul Bender
Greetings OblivAeon backers, this is Paul Bender, CEO of Greater Than Games. I want to share with you a series of thoughts on and lessons from the OblivAeon Kickstarter. This update has been quite challenging to write, and I’ve started and discarded my progress a number of times in search of the correct way to frame it. In the end, I opted for loquacity; we’ll see how it turned out!
Demographers often talk about how the post WWII Baby Boom generation forced institutions to change throughout the west due to its size. First childbirth and childcare, then schooling, then work and homeownership, and now, finally, retirement and senior care. At each life stage, social institutions were forced to expand and adapt in the face of this massive cohort. In this way, OblivAeon was Greater Than Games’ “ Baby Boom Generation”. It was so massive that, at every stage of the project, we were forced to change and adapt in ways we did not anticipate. Since you Kickstarter backers were the initiators of this whole enormous project, and since a number of these challenges impacted you negativity, either directly or indirectly, I wanted to share with you my reflections on the project now that it has drawn to a close.
The first major challenge we encountered was in art, playtesting, and design. We had developed a number of Sentinels expansions over the years, some quite complex in their own way, and we were confident that we had a handle on how long it would take us to develop OblivAeon. We were wrong. Not only did we inflate the volume of work by unlocking a huge number of stretch goals, but the design of the most complex mechanics we had ever attempted, coupled with the challenge of properly ending the multiverse storyline, was an undertaking like no other. Throughout the process, Christopher struggled with writing burnout and Adam suffered a repetitive motion injury in his drawing hand. Going forward, we have learned to be more judicious with our stretch goal unlocks during a Kickstarter campaign, and to better factor the time cost of complexity into our release projections.
We began to work on the production of the most complicated component for this Kickstarter, the Collector’s Case, in parallel with the design of the actual game. This was a fortunate decision, because that process was beset with production problems. Before launching the campaign, we had commissioned a prototype and gotten a quote for the Case from some factories in China. We would up going with a factory that has a lot of experience making fairly complex cardboard items, and we were happy with both the prototype and the quote that they sent us. Unfortunately, in their initial quote, the factory wildly underestimated the amount of labor it would require to build the case at scale. After months of back and forth to get the details correct, the unit price of the case was twice what we’d been quoted at the beginning of the campaign. After several more months of negotiation, we got the factory to drop the price slightly for this initial order since the initial quote was their error, but the price was still substantially higher than we’d budgeted. This compromise got us the case we wanted, but left us and the factory both in a situation where we lost money on every single case. Due to the number of problems we had with the Ultimate Collector’s Case, we learned that we cannot reasonably make a product of that type again, both for production reasons, and due to issues of shipping (which I’ll talk about more in a bit).
The size of the OblivAeon Kickstarter, in particular the volume of the Collector’s Case, caused several warehousing and shipping problems. We knew going into the fulfillment of the campaign that we would need more warehouse space than we had available to move all of the product. Fortunately, we were able to negotiate with the factory to send the OblivAeon items pre-packaged in shipping boxes for fast turnaround. Unfortunately, we ran into several problems with this otherwise excellent plan. The first was that, against our instructions, the factory sent us the mini-expansions first and separately rather than packing them in the pre-packed boxes. This along cost us hundreds of hours of labor and delays. Rather than labeling cartons as they came in and immediately shipping them out of our warehouse, we were forced to open every single carton, put the required mini-expansions inside, and reseal it, turning a 3-person task into a 6 person task. Second, the factory underestimated the effects of volume on their production process, meaning that the product arrived at our warehouse in staggered waves several weeks apart, stretching out fulfillment and resulting in delivery delays for a number of backers. Finally, the products in these waves were packed in a very efficient way, but as a result arrived at our warehouse in a different order than we were originally told. This lead to some confusion and frustration on the part of backers, as product arrived and was shipped in an unanticipated order. Once again, most of these problems were caused by the volume of the Collector’s Case and the factory’s understandable inexperience dealing with a product of that size. However, by far the biggest source of delay and expense for GTG was the erroneous early shipment of the mini-expansions.
The other shipping problem we encountered relates to how FedEx and other shipping companies bill parcel shipments. Back in 2016 when we ran the OblivAeon Kickstarter, there were several shipping services available that charged for parcel shipping based on the actual weight of the parcel. For example, if the Ultimate Collector’s Case weighs 6lb when packed in a box, they’d charge a shipping rate based on that 6lb weight. Unfortunately, in the intervening years, all of those services switched over to dimensional weight rating, which takes into account volume and charges based on the size of the box. As a consequence, that 6lb Case, due to its size, would now be rated as something like 32lbs. As you might imagine, this represents a significant increase in shipping charges. The other shipping issue related to the interpretation and enforcement of VAT in Europe. Since 2016, EU customs has clarified their interpretation of European customs law to state that customs charges must be paid on the actual purchase price of a good (and NOT the manufacturing or wholesale cost), PLUS any charged shipping. We are not happy with this ruling, but there is nothing we can do about it, and it cost us many thousands of additional dollars when fulfilling this campaign. Both of these issues were unforeseen corporate or governmental policy changes that dramatically increased the price of the campaign. We will now take them into account going forward, but they serve to illustrate the kind of problems that can crop up and severely damage a campaign’s budget.
Once we started fulfilling orders, we discovered another major problem; our customer service solution at Greater Than Games was woefully underprepared to deal with all of the problems that naturally arise when shipping over 12,000 parcels. As customer service issues started coming in, they built up much faster than our system and personnel at the time could handle. Compounding this problem was the fact that Gen Con pulled nearly everyone out of the office during the beginning of fulfillment, and then kept nearly everyone in the warehouse packing boxes. As a consequence, we did not learn the full extent of the customer service catastrophe until we were months into the problem. Since that time, we have managed to clean up our backlog, put several new policies in place, and dramatically reorganize that aspect of our business (including hiring Katie, who has been a tremendous help with this process!). However, from the perspective of any backer who had problems with their shipment, this was definitely the biggest problem with this campaign, it was definitely GTG’s fault, and we want to sincerely apologize for any stress or issues that it caused.
The final issue that OblivAeon caused is more subtle, but ultimately quite significant for GTG as a business. Due to the amount of time it took to design and fulfill all of the items from the OblivAeon campaign, our release schedule suffered a dramatic setback. You might notice that we released very few new products in 2018; this was due to a lack of development time in 2017, when nearly all of our resources were devoted to finishing and producing OblivAeon. A nearly complete lack of new releases in a calendar year is obviously problematic for a game publishing company, and is a situation we are only just now starting to rectify.
OblivAeon was an incredibly valuable project for our business from an educational standpoint, and we are very pleased and satisfied with the project we produced from a story and gameplay perspective. However, I think it is very important to state that, if we had been a smaller publisher with less other revenue, it would have bankrupted our company. Very small errors in estimating timelines, labor requirements, or shipping costs can have catastrophic consequences when a project reaches this scale, and this project suffered from all of them. Those errors and delays not only caused cash flow problems, but also a lot of delays, which negatively impacted you as backers. Those delays, combined with our customer service problems, ran the risk of severely damaging our company’s brand and reputation with you as consumers. Ultimately, the OblivAeon Kickstarter Campaign was an exciting but dangerous event in the history of Greater Than Games. Fortunately, I feel that it has made us a much stronger and more professional company as it moved through each department, and I hope that, for all of the frustrations, the final product was worth the wait.