Why Did the Play With This Too Kickstarter Project Fail?
Well, for starters, “failure” is a very relative term when dealing with Kickstarter projects. Nothing is ever truly a failure if you learn from it. And while you might have spent some elbow grease in managing as far as dedicating your time and energy, not getting funded doesn’t necessarily mean everything you’ve already done is for naught. After all, it’s conceivably better to realize your project, as it stands, wasn’t going to be a success out of the gate without having to mortgage and lose your house for the lesson. It also gives you a chance to look at how your product was set up, why it wasn’t received and how it can be changed or improved. A non-funded Kickstarter is just that, a single Kickstarter. You can tweak and try again and each time learning more and more until eventually the stars align and the project is a success. Although, it should be stated that if you just repost your same project 3 or more times and are not getting the backers, it should definitely be time to go back to the drawing board and consider what you’re doing and why.
So let’s take a look at this project in a post mortem that will allow us to consider everything from two perspectives. First, we’ll look at the project itself. We’ll ask how it could be refined, how well was it presented, how far along it was in production before launch (As this can play a significant role in people’s interests). Second, we’ll dissect the Kickstarter campaign itself and determine what was done right and what could be improved upon in the next go round.
To clarify, Play With This Too (PWTT) is the name of the company producing this product. The company was founded by Rik Alverez and has Aaron Archer on board as well. Both are heavy hitters who worked very closely with the Transformers line for Hasbro. Archer was in charge of the brand for over a decade. The group also includes many freelancers who’ve been involved in one way or another in the Transformers brand, including Trent Troop. Troop has already had one successful Kickstarter of his own for his BMOG accessories – Transformable weapons that can be reconfigured to become different kinds of weapons or even robots and robotic animals. You can view the entire roster here.
The first project PWTT intended to launch was called The Lost Protectors. In essence, it’s designed as a companion line of toys, characters and accessories to allow them to be integrated into other popular mainstream lines such as Transformers and Masters of The Universe. This is similar to the so-called third party toys produced by overseas companies such as FansProject that skirt trademark and copyright of existing characters and designs by creating their own generically named themed characters and accessories meant to be displayed or played with alongside the official first party Transformers toys. The big difference here is that PWTT is an American based company as well as comprised of people who actually designed and engineered the first party Transformers toys.
This is a double edged sword. On the one hand you’ve got a group of designers who really know what they’re doing. They’ve been in this business and they know what works and what doesn’t. Knowing that they have been on the official design teams can lend credibility to their ability to pull this project off. On the other hand, there is fog of grey area involved that questions the legality and ethics of using your skills and trade secrets learned at one company and then using that knowledge to skirt the same trademark and copyright areas that the foreign third party producers have become well known for.
PWTT isn’t the first company of toy professionals to pull this off, however. Boss Fight Studios did a similar line last year of complimentary characters but did so without referring to other current toy lines — the Greek Mythology theme and characters are their own unique spin on these public domain stories. Boss Fight, comprised of toy professionals who worked on lines such as Transformers and GI Joe. In fact did quite ell with their own Kickstarter Vitruvian H.A.C.K.S. They received a massive $412,270 dollars. Well above their funding goal of $75,000 dollars.
PWTT was priming to duplicate Boss Fight’s success with a similar concept but taken in a completely different direction. Rather than focus on the interplayability of the core line, as Boss Fight did with their Greek Mythology series, they sought to expand that and created interplayability among all related science fiction and fantasy lines, particularly at the 6 inch scale. This would mean their toys would be able to be dropped into any play pattern and on any display by blending in while being distinct. This idea had a lot of following and a lot of enthusiasm early on. So what went wrong? I’ve been following this project since its announcement and this is what I’ve found.
One of the earliest indications of where the project was going is entwined with the original character samples we saw. The start of this project was promoting some designs and sketches that were very clearly homages to the 1980’s Pretender subline of the Transformers series. The names, the designs, the colors and functions are a little too spot-on-the-nose. This threw up some red flags with those following the projects. Certainly it’s okay to be inspired by other lines and other characters, but when the first three of four concepts released are almost completely identical, it starts to bring into question the ability to truly create and stand out with your own concepts and designs. The first character to be introduced was Astroblast. The comparison pics to the Astroblast character and Hasbro’s Cloudburst character are striking. Even the flagship character of the Kickstarter was based heavily on an existing Pretender design.
Again, it’s not as though there aren’t already plenty of toy lines out there with their own easter eggs or homages to things that have inspired the creators. But when it is the only kind of characters presented, this can definitely lead to questions as to how original the future offerings will be. In that vein, even the company name and logo are from something else. The name being a tribute to a local toy store called Play With This located in Willingboro, NJ. The company logo itself is actually the head of a character from the 1960’s through 1970’s toy line “Major Matt Mason” produced by Mattel. (Source).
One of the major selling points of the line is that its creators aren’t bound by a single editorial vision. Each creator, be they freelancer or employee, is free to create what they want and how they want free of interference from the “higher ups”. On paper, this sounds like a good idea and goes a long way to support creative ownership of ideas and designs (although it isn’t clear who actually owns these items once they are used and produced by PWTT). The problem here is that in practice this can be kind of a cluster**** nightmare with no single vision, guide or story bible to refer to. What you end up with when the dust settles is chaos. People started to notice this after the Kickstarter was launched. As one user from The Fwoosh forums pointed out:
‘All these walrus and other random animal cyborg people are doing absolutely nothing for me. And, random demon heads…this whole line has me so confused.’
In their attempt to appeal to everyone, they seem to have missed the mark and have ended up appealing to hardly anyone.
Product and Progress
Another indication that something was amiss came early on as well. There were a lot of hand drawn prototypes from various creators on the project. Many ideas for dozens of toys to be produced. That’s a good place to start, but as the Kickstarter drew nearer and nearer fans and followers were becoming concerned at the lack of actual prototypes. In the software industry, this phenomenon is referred to as vapor ware. Much in the same way Duke Nukem 4 was “in production” for decades, The Lost Protectors seemed to be hanging on the merits of the creators’ past accomplishments and lots and lots of ideas with little to show for it in terms of progress.
The first 3D printed prototype was only shown on February 5th, a mere 23 days before the Kickstarter launched. That’s not an encouraging timeline when the project is said to have been in development since 2013.
Despite all that, there was still room to succeed. The Kickstarter, after all, is where the most attention and excitement would be focused.
Having run a successful Kickstarter myself I know first-hand how difficult and stressful it can be. For every milestone you make in both completing your project and getting closer to your goal until finally being funded, the job is never done – it’s only ever just beginning. There were a lot of missteps in this campaign that will have to be addressed before PWTT should attempt another. Let’s look at each aspect of the campaign and see how they did.
· Social Media Presence and Pre-Campaign Hype: This actually was done pretty well. They announced the project in October of 2014 and built up to the Kickstarter in the coming months with regular submissions to news sites, interviews and weekly updates to their social media platforms called Play With This Toosday. This is an important step that so many creators drop the ball on.
· Funding Goal: This is always a tough one. If you set your goal too low you run a HUGE risk of not having enough money, even if funded, to complete the project and fulfill your backers. If you set it too high, you run the risk of not funding at all and/or potential backers questioning where all the money is going. In this case, the funding goal of $80,000 is a fairly reasonable mark. Tooling costs lots of money and shipping prices are ridiculous. To me, this was the appropriate amount because it took into account the production and fulfillment costs as well as kept the level reasonable enough to match.
· The Video: Having a video is a good start. It was mostly to the point and let people know what they’re looking at. It might not hurt to trim a few minutes off, as videos for these kinds of projects seem best at the 2-3 minute mark.
· Rewards Levels: Here’s where it gets messy. There are different schools of thought as to how many reward levels a project should have and what is offered at each reward level. In my experience, the “KISS” method (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is the golden rule of reward levels. Too few rewards and people have less incentive to support it if they don’t see something they want to get out of it. Too many and it becomes a confusing mess. Unfortunately, the PWTT project was the latter by a wide margin. This project had 37 reward levels! That’s Play With This Too Many. Many rewards were at similar dollar amounts, some rewards included previous reward levels, some didn’t – there was just too much to read, sift through and try to understand in order to get the point across. As a wise woman once said, “Ain’t nobody got time fo dat”. Even with a flow chart (Which, if you need a flow chart you should already rethink your direction) it was almost impossible to quickly assess what you’d be getting at what level.
· Actual Rewards: One of the big things I noticed being pushed heavily, especially mid-way through the campaign, was the introduction of the BMOG bonus items. They are a nice perk and as a project that has already succeeded it was a good idea to capitalize on that. But it seemed like the BMOG segments of the project were being promoted almost above and beyond the actual project being funded. Rewards need to be simple, cost effective to fulfill and relevant to the project itself. This did not seem to be the case.
· Stretch Goals: See above. I’ll be honest here, I don’t even think I had time to ever sit down and parse the data-dump that was the professed stretch goals. These need to be revealed casually, as each is unlocked and dangled before the backers. Like the Reward Levels and character concepts themselves, this was just too much chaos with little to no direction in how or why it was happening.
· Updates and Reveals: PWTT spent a long time updating us with hand drawn concepts. By launch, there was only a single unpainted prototype. The thing Kickstarter backers want to see above all else are updates. Early and often. To refer back to an earlier comparison, Boss Fight Studios showed a dozen different in-hand prototypes. Some painted, some not, but always something new. It wasn’t until 5 days before the project ended that the painted prototype of Desolator was revealed. The bulk of the updates in between those times were little more than calls to action and more concept work. It leads people to ask “What have they been doing all this time and why wasn’t any of this ready at launch?”
Achieving your life’s dream is no easy task. It can be very discouraging when you do as much as you can and it still isn’t enough to light that fire. Building fans is hard and keeping them can be even harder. I don’t think this is the end for Play With This Too or the guys behind it, but I do think they need to go back and think about how and why this project failed and what can be done to fix it for next time. Here are some of my ideas.
1) Consolidate the brand and develop some kind of editorial oversight. Freedom of expression from a creative standpoint is wonderful, but you’re not just creating for yourself. You’re building a line that is meant to have its own identity and still play with others. A lot of fat trimming needs to be done. All the heads, stands, random other body parts – that stuff needs to be streamlined into a fictional universe and make sense. If your line is confused within itself, how can it ever be integrated into other lines?
2) Stop it with the ‘homages’. You’re creators, so create! Come up with your own characters, worlds and fiction that are designed and built from the ground up by YOU. Paying a tribute to something that inspired you from time to time is okay, but when you base your entire legacy on it, it undermines your goals of striking out on your own and doing your own thing. You’ve got talented writers and creators in your pool – use them for something other than rehashes, homages and swipes of content that’s already out there.
3) Streamline the Kickstarter. Keep your reward levels to a reasonable number. 10 to 12 is really the top of what you should be looking at. Add-ons are fine, but make it clear in how it’s all organized. There are thousands of new projects on Kickstarter every day, and even the best only get about 30-45 seconds of a view before people move on to something else. Keep a list of stretch goals to the side as a list of things that you wish you could do but can’t afford right now. That’s what they’re for. You start out with a funding goal of $80,000 because you know that’s how much it will cost to manufacture and fulfill your project and the rewards. But man, if I had $100,000 I could add a bonus figure and if I had $120,000 I could add another paint mask. Keep that stuff in mind when generating your list of stretch goals.
4) Be ready. Have this stuff in the pipeline and ready to roll out while the project is live. You need more than a single unpainted (then 11th hour painted) prototype to let people know that you’re serious and capable about seeing this project through until the end. Ideally, an in-hand painted prototpye of each of the wave 1 figures in the line will go a long way to build confidence among the backers. If you aren’t ready, or if outside sources aren’t coming through it’s much better to delay the Kickstarter from the planned launch than it is to stumble through it with the appearance of little to show for the time and work you say you’ve put into it.
All in all, this has been a fun project to follow for so many months and I really do look forward to seeing what these guys do next. An unfunded Kickstarter, especially your first out of the gate, is never the end. It’s just the first step in the new beginning.
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