The Art of Commissioning Art

Commissioning art for games is no easy task. The visual appeal is an important aspect of the overall product. How do people react when they see the art? How does it tell the story of the game? Is the artwork consistent? Generic? Evocative? Does it properly convey the game’s theme? Here are 5 tips on Commissioning artwork.


For Polyversal, I’ve been extremely busy on the artwork side of things. I’ve commissioned over 35 pieces of science fiction artwork (and more to come) from 2 different artists- Bruno Werneck (Tron: Legacy concept artist) and James Masino (War. Co. Card Game, Student, and up-and-coming major talent). Commissioning is no easy task. When you’re creating a game that is set in the future like Polyversal, or any game for that matter, the visual appeal is an important aspect of the overall product. How do people react when they see the images you present? How does it tell the story of the game? Is the artwork consistent? Generic? Evocative? Does it properly convey the game’s theme?

In general, as a publisher or art director, you write narratives for each piece of commissioned work noting the specific size and details of the piece’s vision.

Here are a few tips and an example narrative for designers / publishers working with artists to create imagery for games. This post skips the contractual side of things, which is also important for you and the artist and assumes you have already come to terms for the particular work the artist will do. At the end of this post, you’ll read a Commissioning Narrative for 1 pieces of Polyversal artwork and see the actual final artwork from James Masino- along with his comments.

  • Tip 1: Be specific. When you write a narrative for a commissioned piece of art, the artist needs to know everything that you have in mind for the piece. If you don’t have a vision for the art, you cannot expect the artist to create their own for you- and if they do- what if it’s not what you had in mind? Be specific and write down every key aspect of the piece that’s important to you as the publisher / designer / art director. It’s helpful to brainstorm a list of points you want to convey in your narrative before you write it.
  • Tip 2: Be flexible. You’re hiring an artist for their skill in creating the image you want. Each artist will have a certain style and set of strengths that you’ve likely been drawn to when searching for an artist. Work to their strengths and let them shine through. Have some flexibility in the final image and confidence in the artist’s ability to fill in details for you if you don’t describe them. This can include things such as lighting, color, expressions of people, mood, or environmental details. In some narratives, I like to add “___ is up to you” (lighting, time of day, etc.) to specifically note a point of flexibility.
  • Tip 3: Be sure. Nothing will turn off the artists you pay- like changing something mid-course. Before you submit your narrative, read it over- three times- and submit it once. Make sure it makes sense and describes whatever vision you have in your head for the piece completely and that parts not described specifically will fall within the realm of your flexibility. If you aren’t sure you want the piece or aren’t sure on the details, or it isn’t complete, don’t send it. Most importantly, try not to add details or changes based on things not previously described once the piece is submitted for final review. For one, this can cost you money depending on the change policy of the artist, and two, it will cost you time.
  • Tip 4: Be prompt. This applies to answering the artist’s questions during the creation process, amending contracts as required if something is added or changes, reviewing anything submitted for feedback, and most importantly, paying the artist when it’s complete (within the terms and timeframe of the agreed upon contract).
  • Tip 5: Be appreciative. Support your artists. Pay them first. Share their work and your appreciation of it. If the art is for a game that is crowdfunded, share the completed pieces (or a selection of them) with backers. And always credit the artist. This helps show appreciation for the good work they’ve done to visually complete your game. It also helps keep them in business as an artist which helps you in the future and helps them now and in the future.

Each piece starts with a vision. Each vision is transcribed into a narrative. Each narrative becomes art.

Here is an example commissioning narrative sent to artist James Masino for one piece that will appear in the rules of Polyversal. This piece helps tell part of the story of the game and is not for an actual game piece. It is important to set a mood of mystery in the game, which I think James nailed here. I hope you’ll agree. Feel free to add your comments.

Narrative: ScanFab Facility, 8.5″x5″ landscape

This piece depicts a structure- the inner workings of a ScanFab facility- secretive and sterile. Mostly white with hints of UN Blue. Or even Orange highlighted stripes and features in the walls and floors similar to Tron: Legacy. It’s a fairly large facility inside with massive power requirements. It’s also fairly bright but there are no windows since it is likely underground. Think of a rather large Subway station with a utopian feel… but for a different kind of transportation…

Regular ‘selected’ citizens (i.e. strong, healthy, fairly young) are lined up and about to go through a ScanFab ‘sending unit’ which I picture as fairly large. Maybe just the entrance to the room is shown…. Again, think sterile. Perhaps all are all dressed the same in some sort of hospital gown like clothing. There are men and women in line, maybe a few are talking. But nothing is forced. They’re selected and eager to be here because of it. However, there are also armed guards similar to a checkpoint at the airport… but only a few. There is a mystery of what occurs on the other side. No one has any belongings with them. Citizens are lined up to be ‘scanned’ for evacuation. But what happens to their bodies here? We won’t reveal that in this piece. We may never reveal it…

The idea of scanfabbing in the storyline is that the UN controls all of the sending and receiving units built for the purpose of evacuation. The receivers are in distant colonies (set up by those pioneers). The scan portion is in the sending process. The person is scanned in full and ‘sent’ to the receiver- scan information transmitted at the speed of radio to the receivers (i.e. just under the speed of light). The receiver portion is the ‘fab’ portion where the scanned subject is ‘built’ or fabricated from the same raw materials found in all humans- 99% oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. About 0.85% is composed of another five elements: potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium. We may depict a receiving unit on a colony in another piece. An exact copy of the person is created on the receiving end- including the brain and all memories of the scanned subject from the sending unit. It’s like teleportation… but almost plausible?

This is Operation Polyversal- the mass evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people ‘selected’ to continue the human race off-world. They are evacuated only from UN-controlled countries and selected using some criteria that’s top secret. Not everyone can go- there isn’t time to set up enough space and life support off-world, we haven’t found a substitute for Earth yet- and there are just too many people on Earth. Plus… would the UN want them all?

And of course- there is mild protest to this whole process 😉

Here’s the final piece, which was accepted without any changes:

ScanFab Facility - Rulebook Image #3.png

(UN ScanFab facility for Polyversal. Art by James Masino)

James had these comments about the piece:

This one was the most challenging. It’s the first time I’ve tried to depict a crowd of people before! Nonetheless, creating this one was an interesting debate. There were a lot of elements to work with in the description, and for the story’s sake, I emphasized some elements more than others. On one hand, we have people who have been selected to transport- and they’re excited in a more hospital atmosphere built to deceive the ScanFab’s true purpose. On the other hand, this is the mass evacuation of the planet in a militarized society, and there is reasonable mystery behind what the ScanFab facility really is. I wanted the atmosphere to echo that sort of mystery that exists in works like Tron or Star Trek, where the viewer, and both the characters within the painting are questioning the world they’re in. The mystery of what is on the other side is truly the pinnacle of the end result. 

Whenever working with mystery in artwork, it always reminds me of the Ted Talk JJ Abrams did about this box of magic tricks his grandfather gave him when he was a kid- and still hasn’t opened since the mystery is more exciting than what’s actually within. Always something to strive for!

Hopefully you’ll find these tips useful- or at least see a bit of the process I go through when working with external artists for my games. Feel free to comment / share.


CEW Gen Con Report

A brief CEW report from exhibiting at Gen Con in August 2016. The show was excellent. Check out some photos and thoughts about attending as a vendor.

20160803_191500Gen Con 2016 Report

Gen Con was an incredible show with a massive audience of nearly 61,000 attendees. Collins Epic Wargames was there this year for the first time since starting publishing wargames back in 2008. Back then, I attended Gen Con with a single release, Frontline General: Italian Campaign Introduction, and had no clue what I was doing. Since then, I’ve released 4 other games and I’m in production with Polyversal, which is a complete departure from the WWII line of games thus far. With more to show, 2016 was the time to return to where it all started for me.

Gen Con is a hard show to attend logistically (I think)- For me, it requires a drive halfway across the country (Eastern Virginia to Indiana), a lot of planning to go smoothly, and is generally pretty expensive all around when you factor in booth costs, travel expenses, food, insurance for the booth (yes, you have to have it), booth furniture, and more. Luckily, the staff at Gen Con and Fern does an incredible job with making sure everything goes well, which I’m sure is a challenge considering the massive scale of the show. Load in / load out isn’t very fun, but I will say it’s well organized and seems to work even if you have to wait 10-15 minutes for a spot.

I’ve attended and exhibited at shows 1/10th the size of Gen Con and had nothing but trouble- either receiving a badge that should have been ready, logistics with loading / unloading, security, or otherwise- so Kudos to Gen Con for their organization, on-point staff, and for making things simple and enjoyable for attendees and vendors. While exhausting as a vendor, it’s worth it to attend if you can get in. That said, there is a lot of competition for attention. Many people who are there will never come by your booth and many more who do will simply pass by in a ‘zombie state’ because there’s just so much to see.

To draw people into your booth is always a challenge- they must be interested at a glance, curious, and inquiring enough to ask about whatever it is you’re showing. Make it easy for them. And one tip as a vendor- Anyone who stops by should walk away with something- not a lot of gimmicky freebies- but- a business card with your website or a flyer about your latest product. That stuff is useful. I love free pens as much as anyone, but really, when was the last time you bought a product because the name was on a free pen you received? Give people information and knowledge about your company and what you do- they can then choose to use it to explore more about you if interested- or not. Either way, it’s professional, useful, and inexpensive.

My line of Spearpoint 1943 games was shown, demonstrated, and sold, but I also focused heavily on Polyversal. Those who stopped by included backers of the recent Polyversal kickstarter, many people new to CEW, and some who had heard of Polyversal but missed the kickstarter. It was nice to meet all who stopped by in person and show you the prototype, take you through some command and control demos, and run you through a combat example or two. I also featured two newly 3D-printed skyscraper master molds from The Phalanx Consortium, who is currently running their Terrain Kickstarter for these, which made our demo table look amazing. Here are a few photos from the event including a mix of booth pics, Polyversal pics, and Spearpoint 1943 demos. The line actually got longer for those attendees picking up badges on Wednesday- it wrapped outside and around the corner of the building. Amazing. I’m just glad I didn’t have to stand in it ;).








Polyversal is Funded!

Our latest game, Polyversal, hit its funding goal this week on Kickstarter. This post is just a short reflection on that to summarize why I think the second time around- we were successful.

I’m really excited that my latest game, Polyversal, is now funded on Kickstarter with a week to go!


Polyversal has been a huge undertaking that designer Ken Whitehurst and I began working on together years ago. The premise is that it’s a universal miniatures system with an integrated design tool that lets you bring in any miniatures you want to use in the game. So any old miniatures from games of the past like Mechwarrior and others- get reborn in Polyversal. Kit-bashing, design, creativity… all encouraged.

And something else we’re doing that’s been really unique is creating boxed games of Polyversal for those new the miniatures scene- and to do so- we brought together 6 manufacturers. SIX. I have contracts with each of them to supply various aspects of the game- primarily miniatures. These companies are all small like mine and have been excellent to work with. The purpose of working with external companies instead of designing and casting miniatures on our own is fully described in my previous post The Concept of Polyversal.

Mercenary Battlegroup. One of five Battlegroups offered in the campaign made up of Miniatures from multiple partners.

Polyversal was a relaunched campaign. I cancelled the first campaign earlier this year and took a hard look at our strategy and presentation. I think some keys to being successful the second time around are:

If you’d like to check out Polyversal in its final week, head over to the project and let me know what you think!

Making a Kickstarter Project Video isn’t Easy…

In this post, I discuss some of the process I use and make a case with some current stats- to make those project videos very short. I also share some outtakes from making our latest Kickstarter video for Polyversal.

Kickstarter project videos are no easy task to create or edit.

I personally edit my own vids in Adobe’s Premiere Pro CS 5.5, which I find takes about 3-4 hours, sometimes more, to edit a single minute of good footage for a video. I make videos for everything- especially gameplay tutorials- some of which use Adobe’s After Effects to animate cards, dice, and so forth. This saves me time in the long run vs. explaining rules in forums and by e-mail. The rules already point to the videos which serve as examples.

For any video, it’s not easy on the front-end to capture good footage. For that, I personally use a Canon Vixia HF M30, which is a decent HD camcorder, and mount it on a tripod (please do that). There is definitely an art to video editing. As mentioned, I use Adobe’s products and I’m no pro at it by any means, but I have a general sense of what stuff to cut out. This post shares our latest Kickstarter Project Video, which is a follow-on blog to this previous post about improving length and content: Kickstarter Video Length and Content

The project video for Polyversal’s relaunch overall is 1:51 long. If features an intro by Ken and I and a flyover of the game in play while we continue to pitch the game. Even with that short of a video, current stats on our active kickstarter report that only 37% of over 1000 plays were actually completed! That’s not a terrible stat- but remember- 63% started to watch it and clicked away before the 1:51 was up. So remember, make it short. People generally do not have 2 minutes. Think about it- how many Kickstarter video plays have you completed?

Here is another reason to keep it short… Let’s say you spend 3-4 hours per final edited minute of film that ends up running 10 minutes overall… If 63% of people who click play stop watching less than 2 minutes into it– you’d have wasted about 48 hours of work editing film that no one is watching- because again, MOST people who click play will not finish watching the video. 2 minutes max.

“While fun to film, making a project video is never easy.”

So let’s have some fun. Here’s some of what was CUT out of my latest video. Join Ken and I (and yes, Benny in a cameo) in this collection of outtakes from our Project Video. We pre-planned the video, shot 30 minutes of film, and then I edited for about 12 hours to get less than 2 usable minutes! Watch our main video on the Kickstarter Page to see the final (good) edited version.

Here are the outtakes:

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 9.44.54 PM

Polyversal Relaunch – A critical look at the changes

Polyversal is back on Kickstarter for a relaunched campaign. Read this blog post for a critical look at what we did wrong in the initial campaign and how we addressed it for the relaunch.

photo-originalAfter a lot of hard work, I relaunched the Kickstarter project for Polyversal, a science fiction miniatures game I’m publishing from designer Ken Whitehurst. I’ve tried to implement my own advice and the advice of others for the relaunch, incorporating a ton of feedback from fans and other publishers. Jamey’s blog helped reshape the relaunch in particular, and I believe the second time around, Polyversal will be successful. After less than a week, we’re already in less than $9k away from funding a $30k goal, and we’re about to reveal the first stretch goal.

“I know we’ve got a great game, that’s not the issue- the issue boils down to how well we presented it.”

So why did Polyversal require cancellation when originally launched in January? I know we’ve got a great game, that’s not the issue- the issue boils down to how well we presented it. Here are some thoughts in hindsight that could have contributed to an unsuccessful initial campaign:

  • Issue 1: We needed a lower goal. $80k was the initial goal and was very kitchen-sink based. In other words, we put everything into the campaign we wanted to see for the game- that included a web-based design tool which is expensive to do, a set of terrain for which we were paying for the molds, and a production estimate of 1000 units minimum, which was too much to start.

  • Answer 1: We scaled back production estimates, broke the terrain out into its own Kickstarter, and for now, eliminated the web-based tool opting for templates instead which will accomplish the same thing. In addition, shipping is not included in the Kickstarter pledges, removing unpredictability, a buffer for that unpredictability, and allowing a lesser goal that would be the shipping portion of the campaign- which is ultimately a guess. This allowed the goal to be further reduced since it is all going to the product, not shipping and fulfilment. Notice the 4 shipping icons in the project image above.
  • Issue 2: The project video was too long. Even at 5 minutes, we included a story portion which was good and still useful, but, we never really pitched what the game is or does for players. It needed to be 2 minutes and include a pitch.

  • Answer 2: The project video was re-done completely, shortened to less than 2 minutes, and focused entirely on the pitch. The story video was embedded elsewhere in the page, but, the project video was not the place for it. Here’s a detailed blog post on the video changes.

  • Issue 3: The miniatures we presented in our boxed games are from 5 different manufacturers. We used their images to present those miniatures, which led to less cohesion in the overall presentation. Each company had their own photographic background and their own paint scheme for these miniatures, so, it looked like a hodgepodge.

  • Answer 3: Ken Whitehurst, the designer, painted all of the miniatures we needed in several distinct patterns for a much better presentation. I then photographed them very carefully to present them as “battlegroups” which better communicated their cohesion and purpose in the game. Here is an example of 1 of 4 battlegroup images:


  • Issue 4: The pledge levels were all over the place. Too many pledge levels were presented, they were unnecessarily confusing, adjusted after the project start, and provided too many options.

  • Answer 4: Less is more. Pledges in the new campaign were simplified to just a handful of the most important options for the game. Since shipping is handled externally from the pledges (post-KS invoicing for actual shipping costs), this allowed simple pledge options applicable to everyone regardless of location. Breaking out the terrain eliminated all of the terrain-based bundles.

  • Issue 5: We made a lot of adjustments and additions after the original campaign started. This is a problem because we should have had some of our embedded videos, explanations, and strategies for the game presented initially, not through updates mid-campaign. How many people were turned off at first glance due to too little information to never return for a second look after the information was added?

  • Answer 5: Gameplay videos, print-and-play demos, story elements, reviews, well-thought-out shipping strategies, all pledge options, and fully-explained game contents were all presented up front from day 1 in the new campaign. This ensures all of the information is there at the beginning, not added piecemeal throughout the campaign. It’s important. It’s all there. And it eliminates a lot of stressful work once the campaign is active- responding to questions, confusion, and adding content that should have been there to begin with.

I hope you’ll agree that our relaunch is much better than the cancelled original campaign. If you agree or disagree with any of these insights, please let me know!


Kickstarter Video Length and Content

When I first started using Kickstarter in 2012 to raise production funding for my games, I made a misstep on the all-important project video. Read some insights from experience on Project Video Length that applies to any #Crowdfunding project.

When I first started using Kickstarter in 2012 to raise production funding for my games, I made a misstep on the all-important project video. The initial video for Frontline General: Spearpoint 1943 Map Expansion was way too long. It was so long I can’t even remember how long exactly. Kickstarter’s insights showed that only a handful of people played it through (roughly 8-10% IIRC). I updated the video after launch and cut it down quite a bit, but, it really was still too long. What if the pitch or some really important point was ONLY provided at the end of that video? What if the main project page did not contain or reiterate that information? The result- missed backers or as a minimum, poor communication and lack of interest.

As my projects progressed, the videos became shorter and shorter, which is hard to do because you’re excited to finally present your project to the masses. My videos always had a story element or series of stock videos put to music to give a sense of setting. I’m now convinced that even that is too much. You just don’t have time. The first launch of Polyversal included a roughly 5-minute project video. Half of it was story information and the other half background from the designer with a fly-through of the game in our cityscape setting (Polyversal is a miniatures game). I received some good feedback after the project from Grant (@hyperboleGrant):

“the video is too long and you never pitched the game.” -Grant

He was right. Tip: Always ask for and trust blunt and honest feedback. That is what helps you the most as a designer / publisher / creator. Grant is good at providing that.

This is also discussed in the Stonemaier Games blog with a recommendation to “limit videos to about 2 minutes total.” Save detailed information like gameplay or product use, campaign details, etc., for supplemental videos embedded in the project page. That’s great advice and something I’ll be doing with the Polyversal re-launch. We had some embedded videos already, and those were well received, but, the project video was just too long for those still in ‘browsing mode’. Shorter videos appeal to our shorter attention spans as modern-day humans. And, it needs to pitch and pitch quickly by presenting the purpose of the project, why anyone should support you, what makes it unique, and when to pledge (now). It should also point them where to learn more, which should be written out in the project page.

You can watch the original Polyversal project video here on the cancelled project for reference (Don’t worry, I’m not pitching anything- the video lacks a pitch, really!, and the project is done).

Here are some changes I’m making to the Polyversal project video for re-launch:

  1. The story portion will be removed and remain in its own video.
  2. The pitch (what Polyversal is and why people should back it) will be given UP FRONT by Ken and I. This will present what the game is, why it’s unique, and why people should support it now.
  3. The designer’s commentary by Ken is still good and brief enough to be used. This also shows the game in action as Ken speaks and has interesting visuals.
  4. Everything else will be cut out. The buildings are now going to be their own project, so the end part with The Phalanx Consortium will not be necessary for this video.
  5. I will refer to other embedded videos for more detail on story, gameplay, and unit design.

I think with these changes, the new video will:

  1. Have a greater chance of full plays.
  2. Be brief and clear enough to grab people’s attention if they are the target audience.
  3. Force us to focus on the pitch and most important points to make about the project up front.
  4. Help us come across as more organized and focused on our message.
  5. Require less editing time. Editing 1 minute of video takes me approximately 2 hours in Premier Pro. If I only have to edit 2 minutes of final video, I should be able to wrap up that work in much less time.

In Summary:

  1. Cut project videos down to 2 minutes maximum. In those 2 minutes, be sure the project is actually pitched. If it’s longer than 2 minutes, you may think you need that extra time, but, you don’t. It’s not effective, so why include it? Make your main points and be done.
  2. Ask people to back the project NOW for one or two specific reasons.
  3. Don’t drag out the project video with information on rewards, stretch goals, shipping, gameplay, product use, or other details not related to a pitch or general overview. In other words, don’t present everything about the product in this single video.
  4. Point potential backers to supplemental videos embedded in the project page for additional information (Gameplay, Function, Reviews, and Storyline as appropriate).
  5. Remember, a very low percentage of people who actually click on the video will finish it if it’s more than a couple minutes. The longer it is, the lower the percentage of full plays. Pique backer’s interest in the first 15 seconds or you risk losing them.

Once the Polyversal re-launch is previewed, I’ll link to it here so you can see the updated video and how it differs from the original. Let me know if you agree with these points and as always, please comment with any feedback, and like, share, and follow the blog.

Kickstarter Reward Shipping

It is challenging to figure out how to ship your creation to your backers and a frequent source of mistakes and lost money and time. Read some insights and critical thinking regarding 3 different shipping strategies for crowdfunding project creators.


One of the biggest challenges facing any Kickstarter project creator is accurately estimating shipping costs before launching the project- especially for a physical product that’s not yet produced. I’ve always built shipping costs into pledge levels or had different levels depending on location (domestic vs. International). Kickstarter has made listing shipping out for different zones or countries easier, but, it’s still a flat rate based on that country or zone, which isn’t necessarily accurate. Historically I have been close on shipping cost estimates but almost always either above or below the exact shipping paid. Let’s look at the consequences of that, why it’s a problem, and talk about options for shipping with pros and cons of each. Ultimately, it’s up to you as a creator to choose a method to use. Hopefully this critical thinking about shipping will help you decide- or at least think about it hard before launching a project.

First, a few consequences from the creator estimating shipping incorrectly on the high end (i.e. your shipping estimate is wrong and it is too high):

  1. You may miss backers who otherwise want to support your project but are turned off by the high cost they must pay to receive it. Remember if international, they may also be charged by customs for importing whatever you’re sending. Sometimes this is cost prohibitive and they simply won’t back your project.
  2. You’re overcharging backers. This is obviously bad for backers, but, in addition, if you’re in the USA, you are considered “profiting” on the shipping. If you profit on shipping, and are paying sales tax for any backers within your state, you may be liable to base the sales tax on the full amount paid by the backer. If you don’t profit on shipping, generally, you don’t charge sales tax on the shipping. This is subtle, but important. Remember that state sales tax laws vary.
  3. You’re giving more money to Kickstarter (and Amazon) who both charge percentages based on the amount of the transaction (KS=5%, Amazon=3-5%). This isn’t so subtle and can be a lot of money.

Next, a few consequences from the creator estimating shipping incorrectly on the low end (i.e. your shipping estimate is wrong and it is too low):

  1. You must still ship the reward and as a creator, absorb the additional cost to you. More on this in 3, below.
  2. You may attract more international backers which could skew the amount of funding raised by shipping (that is not going toward creating your project) vs. the amount going toward creating your project. Example: A reward is $20 USD and costs you $5 to make it. To ship it overseas actually costs $45. $65 goes toward your goal by an overseas backer. You actually receive $58.50 after KS / Amazon fees. But you’re going to spend $45 when you ship it and remember it cost you $5 to make it. You have a margin of $8.50. Not terrible, but, what international backer will pay $45 extra plus import duties to receive your $20 reward? Maybe a few, but, it drives up your funding raised when it’s actually just barely covering you.
  3. You may lose money. Take the same example pledge. Now, what if you estimate the shipping overseas incorrectly as $25 and charge backers for that amount? The total pledge is $45 for an international backer ($20+$25). When you run these numbers, you’ve lost money on that backer pledging for your project ($45 *.90 = $40.5 after KS / Amazon worst case fees -$5 cost to make -$45 actual cost to ship = -$9.50. You just paid $9.50 for that backer to have your reward. You paid them! Again, you paid them! Multiply that by every international backer at that pledge level. Let’s say there was just 100 international backers at that level… you’ve lost $950.00!

Finally, here are a few consequences, of estimating shipping exactly right:

  1. Actual shipping costs may turn away some backers, especially internationally. Note: There are some strategies to mitigate this as will be discussed in Further Reading.
  2. Shipping rates change. Unless you fulfill the rewards soon after the project was started (not finished, because you can’t change rates once you start), you may find yourself short of funds required to actually fulfill your rewards because of rate increases later beyond your control. You estimated shipping at the time- exactly right- so there is not float.
  3. You’ve lost 8-10% of whatever you charged for the reward’s shipping portion to Kickstarter / Amazon fees.

Strategies for shipping

Let’s look at three ways (not all) you could approach shipping that are fair to you and to your backers and the pros and cons of each. For all strategies, you must accurately predict the weight of your reward and the size. Accuracy is based on this so spend some time on it. Remember to account for any stretch rewards you may add to this base reward if they’ll increase size or weight of what you have to ship.

  1. Limit fulfillment to certain zones or countries. Shipping in the USA is easy and fairly predictable. International shipping (as I define it, “from” the USA) is when things get tricky. You could choose to limit where you’ll fulfill your rewards (or certain rewards) to certain countries (or zones like the EU, through consolidation), see Further Reading. To do so, you can specify locations for each reward on Kickstarter and specify the flat rate to that location. It’s applied to a backer’s pledge when they checkout.Pros: Restricting shipping to limited zones or countries means you have to estimate costs for fewer areas. Compare this to shipping to any country- and it’s harder to predict. You’ll probably be pretty accurate with fewer flat rates. It’s also easy to do this through kickstarter’s existing reward creation tools.

    Cons: You’re excluding backers who aren’t in these limited countries or zones which could ultimately hurt your project regarding funding. You’re also still paying KS and Amazon fees on shipping costs. Some of the other consequences mentioned above also still apply.

  2. You could offer “Free” shipping and build the average cost into the reward. As Jamey Stegmaier mentions, no shipping is “free”, but, there are ways you can greatly reduce costs to yourself and backers, especially to key zones or countries where consolidators may work with you. This technique has worked well for Jamey and it’s linked in Further Reading.Pros: “Free” shipping could encourage more backers (even though the cost is built in).

    Cons: “Free” really means it’s built in to the reward. No shipping is free, so be careful with this one. If you build in the cost to the reward based on some average you calculate, you may be ‘making’ more money off of some backers who are close by. This isn’t really fair to those backers IMHO. It’s also harder to predict your bottom line. Plus, you still give more money to Kickstarter and Amazon- remember whatever you raise is subject to their fees.

  3. You could charge shipping outside of the Kickstarter campaign, after the campaign is complete. The way this would work is you’d still estimate the costs backers will pay based on their location and your reward size and weight, packaging, etc. and communicate that in the reward write-up and project page. Be very clear that each backer will be charged actual shipping based on their location once the rewards are ready to ship. In other words, you will either collect this as part of a pledgemanager / backerkit / crowdox survey, or, invoice each backer individually through PayPal or Square (PayPal for international because of fewer exchange issues, Square for domestic because it’s cheaper).Pros: This one is a list because there are many:
  • You bypass Kickstarter making 5% off of everything you charge for shipping (You still pay some amount for any invoicing/processing). This can be significant.
  • You invoice at the time of shipping (I’d say within 1 month) in order to charge based on the current shipping rates). This means you don’t need to worry about changing rates (other than potentially explaining it if shipping rates change significantly since you passed on your estimates to backers).
  • You can lower your Kickstarter project goal. Since shipping doesn’t count toward the goal, you don’t have to build in and account for those costs based on your best estimate (and you really have no idea).
  • Pledges are all pledges toward your project (not shipping it) and they cannot drive up funding in a false manner (i.e. the problem of having a lot of international backers at 65 per pledge, but, only 20 goes toward your project’s production is now not a problem).
  • You don’t have to be exactly correct with your estimate (But be close). Since you clearly state that “exact shipping will be charged upon survey”, you’re being fair to both yourself and backers. People understand that it’s not cheap to ship things, especially internationally, and I think generally, expect to not be over or undercharged shipping.
  • The tax implications of “profiting on shipping” are no longer a problem.
  • If for some reason you cannot deliver what you’ve stated you could deliver, the backer has not also lost money by paying to have a “phantom item” shipped to them (as long as you haven’t yet invoiced them). Note: Always deliver. Just always do whatever you can to deliver or you’re done with crowd-funding.Cons: Another list, because there are several:
  • You have to invoice everyone later (which takes time) or depend on a 3rd party pledge manager to collect shipping fees (which costs money, but probably less than the money you may lose if all of your estimates are wrong and they’re already collected through KS).
  • If your estimates are wrong on shipping costs to backers, this could put people off. I’d recommend doing your best and stating clearly that the estimate is not exact and may be higher or lower depending on their location.
  • If a backer doesn’t pay the shipping invoice, you must either bug them, refund their pledge (my recommendation, but you may lose 10% to fees and they lose some % because of receiving money via PayPal), or choose to ship anyway and take the loss (not recommended).
  • Paying a shipping invoice may be inconvenient for a backer at a later time. For example, they may have disposable income at the time of your project end, but, what if they don’t have it when you send them a shipping invoice?
  • It’s a bit different than how many kickstarter projects have been run so far- so you have to communicate well, try and ensure everyone understands what you’re doing so they’re not surprised later to receive an invoice, why you’re doing it, when they must pay shipping, and how much to expect to pay.

For my next project, a re-launch of Polyversal, I’ll be trying strategy 3. Chris Bennett of The Phalanx Consortium recently used this method when fulfilling a recent Kickstarter project and had good success with it. Personally I think the pros outweigh the cons because it takes some of the shipping unpredictability out of running a campaign. As long as you do your due diligence on estimating costs for backers up front, communicate what will happen (invoice later), and have a plan in case someone doesn’t pay the invoice, I think it’s the most fair and accurate method of shipping items to backers. Couple this with EU-Friendly, Canada-Friendly, AU/NZ-Friendly strategies and working with consolidators overseas (more on that in further reading), you can really save money for yourself as a creator and your backers.

When planning a Kickstarter project, you need to spend a lot of time planning how to cover shipping and how exactly you’ll fulfill any rewards you produce. Otherwise, you’re doing a disservice to yourself and your backers. So, spend time to think these things out for every physical product you’ll produce and ship.

As a backer, what do you prefer? As a creator, what other ideas do you use? Have I missed anything?

Further reading:

Check out the Stonemaier Games blog regarding shipping and fulfillment. Start from the first post and read through them all- because his strategy changes over time. Pay particular attention to the tips on EU / Canada / AU/NZ / USA friendly.

Check out this blog post related to Option 3 above.