Exclusive: Trials and Tribulations with the Z. Kickstarter

By David Radd

Posted July 10, 2012

If there's things that nerds like, it's zombies and card games. While there are a few physical products that combine zombies in some way with cards, Z. is a unique project in that it hopes to combine the two in a mobile app. Downward Viral is looking to get the funding for the project on Kickstarter and the project is entering its final stretch; it's even gotten the backing from Robert Bowling of Call of Duty fame, who publicly endorsed Z. backed it with $10,000 and will be a producer on the game. We got a chance to talk to Sebastian Haley, Culture Editor at GamesBeat, who is working with Downward Spiral on Z. and get a feel for both the game itself and what it's been like trying to ride the crowd-funding wave.

[a]list: Has the fact that you can actually play the side of the zombies gotten you some extra attention?

Sebastian Haley: It's provided a sort of Alliance-versus-Horde mentality with some of the backers. When we released our Survivors and Zombies 101 updates explaining the differences between how each played, we immediately got a couple "Oh, I'm definitely a zombie player!" comments or vice versa, so that was cool. That's what we were hoping for. We didn't want to make one side the good guys and one side the bad guys; that's why even the Zombie Hero cards are still called "heroes."

Playing as the zombies was one of the things people remembered most about my first iPhone game from way back in 2009. So while zombies are in almost every game now, we're always trying to make sure we do something fresh with them, and I really feel Z. lets us just go wild in that direction.

[a]list: Has it benefited the reach of the kickstarter that you're offering both a digital and physical card edition? 

Sebastian Haley: I would say it might have actually complicated things. We're making a cross-platform digital card game, and the boxed edition was only ever intended to be a Kickstarter-exclusive reward. But we've heard a very vocal group of backers and potential backers who are seeking just the physical edition. We weren't really prepared for that, and it puts us in a difficult situation. With the digital rewards, those don't cost us anything to produce, and we've really padded the all-digital bundle with as much content as we could imagine. But each physical reward begins to cut into the budget of actually making the game, and card games are not cheap. A 265-card booster box of Magic will set you back $100, and we're offering a boxed set with 360 quality cards, so to get that and still help fund the game it's not going to be cheap. Double Fine ended up spending roughly their entire original funding goal on physical reward fulfillment alone, and that doesn't even include Kickstarter's 5 percent, Amazon's cut, and then almost 10 percent in taxes to the state of California.

But that's the other thing that I've had to realize and commit to, because as much as I want to please every backer request -- and I really do -- we're trying to make a game, not sell pre-orders for a finished board game or watch. After crunching the numbers, I honestly don't know how Sedition Wars and Pebble can offer what they did at those prices. Unless I'm just talking to all the wrong people, they had to lose money with their Kickstarters, but they essentially bought all that publicity and future brand recognition. That's not really in line with the spirit of Kickstarter, and it worries me that the Kickstarter community will start to have unrealistic expectations of what they're really doing when they back a project like Z. 

[a]list: Viral attention is vital to any Kickstarter's success, but do you feel that game enthusiast press attention has cooled a bit to crowdfunding since a few months ago?

Sebastian Haley: I would say they haven't cooled so much as they've frozen solid. Everyone's got a Kickstarter these days, and it's hard to grab the media's attention in a room full of noise. Being a game journalist myself, I know what we're up against as I get approximately 10-20 Kickstarter-related emails a week, and half of them have zombies in them.

So that wasn't something we really planned for. We kind of thought that with all of our guest cards like Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert, that we'd have at least a few "automatic headlines," and then continue to make waves every other day. But instead it's been like trying to make a sales pitch to a brick wall, with a few exceptions. I greatly appreciate them taking the time to look at Z. and see exactly why it's worth talking about and seeing made a reality.

[a]list: Many collectible card games have a somewhat high bar for entry, given the amount of rules you have to learn.  Have you purposefully tried to give Z. a more mainstream appeal from it's rules?

Sebastian Haley: Absolutely, but without dumbing it down at all. Z. is designed for anyone to be able to pick it up and play in minutes, not after reading a 100-page rulebook. The familiar zombie horror themes and settings that we play up in our mechanics and cards help with that, because people automatically have a sense of what a shotgun should do, for instance.

But while anyone can hop into a game of Z. instantly, we don't want it to be a shallow experience. It's meant to be as deep as you want it to be, and so beyond just our own efforts in balancing, we've also brought pro-gamer Justin Wong on board to help ensure a solid design. Wong is best known for dominating the fighting game tournament scene for the last decade (along with a few elite others), and so his intricate knowledge of games like Marvel vs. Capcom and all of the Street Fighters will help us create an always-fast and always-fun experience for players of any skill level.

We're really hoping that Z. will become a sort of gateway drug for traditional tabletop purists getting into the digital formats, and also for non-tabletop players or people intimidated by games like Magic to finally give CCGs a go.

[a]list: Given the game's online asynchronous multiplayer, are you hoping the game will hit a larger audience?

Sebastian Haley: Ha, isn't every product-maker hoping they'll hit a larger audience with what they're doing? We want Z. to be available to as many people as possible, and in as many ways. Whether you're on your mobile device or personal computer, we want to hit all the platforms that make sense for us as a small indie developer. And then having cross-platform turn-based play is what makes sense for our game and our players. We want to ensure that no one ever has to struggle with any aspect of Z. So just like with Words With Friends, you can take your turn whenever you want, and then your friend or ranked opponent can take their turn minutes, hours, or a day later. You can play at your pace, which is one of the biggest barriers to entry with classic tabletop games -- you have to sit down and commit to a 2-6-hour long game of D&D, and most people just can't do that on a regular basis.  

[a]list: Has your pledge to give an update every day about more details to the game convinced some people to help fund you? 

Sebastian Haley: I can't say one way or another, but I know that people definitely appreciate seeing content and having an open dialogue with the people running the Kickstarter. I've seen a few campaigns where there are little to no updates at all, and they usually don't go well. People feel like there is no commitment from the people asking for money, so why should anyone back them?

At the same time, I worry now about spamming people too much (even though I try to keep the updates interesting and relevant), and wonder if maybe some potential backers are holding out until the last few days just to avoid the email notifications. Heh... You guys can opt out of them if you want, I promise!

[a]list: Which one of the swag items has gotten the most attention from what you are offering?

Sebastian Haley: People are most vocal about the deluxe boxed set, but the $100 all-digital bundle is by far our most popular reward level. It was a last-minute addition too, where I was looking at all of our rewards and thinking that they were too expensive and we weren't offering enough, so the night before the Kickstarter went live I snuck that one in there as a limited reward and filled it with as much cool in-game content as I possibly could.

[a]list: What have you learned about crowdfunding since you started the Z. kickstarter campaign?

Sebastian Haley: Too much to say here, but it's been an extremely eye-opening experience for me and the team. I'll eventually write down and share some of my thoughts and lessons learned with everyone once the dust clears, but one of the positive aspects of my time on Kickstarter has been the Kickstarter community. And I don't just mean backers, I mean people who have run campaigns, are running one now, or are about to launch one soon, we're all like this tight-knit secret society now. Almost everyone helps each other out however they can, so that's just been a very welcome experience compared to being a game journalist where everyone is always judging each other and at each other's throats. There's a definite indie spirit going around that I'm glad to have become a part of.

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