Back in May of 2013 Alien Dungeon launched a Kickstarter to fund a new miniatures game, All Quiet on the Martian Front – aka AQotMF. This was a miniatures game of the Martian invasion of the world, ala H. G. Wells, with a hint of steampunk. Taking place prior to WWI in the mundane world, the Kickstarter was a big success, receiving over $300,000.00 of the $50k target goal. The rules for the game were written by Rick Priestley, a seasoned game writer. There was a lot of promise here. Prototypes of the miniatures appeared in the Kickstarter leading us to all believe that the company had laid out all of the groundwork to be successful.
They delivered product too, albeit many months late. Some of the products, like some the big land battleships were not delivered, and other product was cancelled outright – with offers of gift certificates for replacement products. These were issued two months prior to the company’s ultimate demise.
And now, Alien Dungeon is off-line, apparently out of business.
So what happened?
In reality, I don’t know. I can surmise what happened though, based on my decades of experience in the gaming industry. The company has become a case study in how business models can fail. First and foremost the game itself was relatively good. There was strong evidence that it had not been fully thought through however. Some of the game mechanics didn’t work well. New units were introduced but not included in the initial game rules, indicating that they had not considered the future growth of the product. There were a lot of pages of addendum on the company’s now defunct web site just to try and prop up the product line.
There was a lack of organized play. I know a few companies out there that survive without organized play, but it helps sustain a product. At GenCon there were a few games of AQotMF, but darned few. I couldn’t find any games at local hobby shops. This was usually a sign that the game was not being supported well in the hobby shops – which was the case. Even their presence at GenCon was sketchy at best.
The company struggled with the production of the miniatures, which led to months of delay in getting the product out. Even when we did get them, they had flaws that should have been caught in the production process. Assembling the minis often required finding a PDF of the vague instructions online and even then they didn’t got together well.
There were hints early on of problems as well. We were promised a PDF of the rules, along with the hardcover rules sets. Getting these out is useful because it allows gaming groups to pull in new players. Ernie told me, “You have no idea how hard it is to create a PDF.” Seriously. It’s actually pretty simple. I started to get the impression that this was a one-man operation. Two and a half years later and we still don’t have the PDF of the rules – and likely never will.
There was no advertising for the game that I ever saw either. Advertising gets your product out there for new gamers. Word of mouth alone rarely works. Alien Dungeon didn’t seem interested in promoting its game line strongly.
I spoke with the owner of the company, Ernie, at GenCon. His frustrations, as expressed to me, were with the ungrateful gamers. When I pointed out how late the product was, and some of the flaws, he reacted with, “I communicate more than most companies do.” So we, as the gamers, were the problem? I came away thinking, “It’s just a matter of time.” Ernie seemed downright agitated when I spoke with him. Shouldn’t he be interested in what someone with decades in the business has to say? I’ve been involved with eight different gaming systems, from GDW to FASA etc. I know a little bit about the industry. I tried to explain to him some of the work that needed to be done to the rules, tweaks really, and got, “The rules stand as is.” The face of the company was an angry man, never a good sign.
Ernie assured me that he had experience in the toy business, which was what he was concentrating on, i.e. the miniature kits. At the time that didn’t resonate with me, but now it does. The toy business isn’t the game industry.
When some of the big miniatures were released, Alien Dungeon admitted they had dramatically underestimated the cost of them. This is Business 101 stuff, and they failed at it. Combined with the delays on the other miniatures and you got the sense that this was a small operation with little experience in gaming.
When Alien Dungeon started handing out gift certificates for late products, it was a sign that the products were never coming. The company kicked off another new Kickstarter for a fantasy game which failed horribly. A few weeks later, they closed their doors.
I’ve come to see Kickstarters as great ways to get gamers into a new game system, but they can’t be your sole means of funding a game system or building your player-base. You have to be prepared to produce the game with your own funding. The Kickstarter should be the means of getting your game into player’s hands to generate some good buzz. The age of relying on Kickstarter alone to fund your company start-up for gaming is fading and fading fast.
Kickstarters are great for getting a core group of people into your game but you have to view it as a starting point. It’s not enough to run demo games at conventions to spur interest. You need a mix of game related fiction, sourcebooks, miniatures, and support it with in-store gaming. In other words, you have to have a pipeline of products. Alien Dungeon got caught in a vicious cycle of trying to get their products out that were promised in the Kickstarter. They had an erratic growth pattern.
The sad part of this is that AQotMF is actually a pretty good game system at its core. It needs some work with the rules, but it has great potential. Now, however, the remaining fan base has been left with no communication, no product info, no pipeline, and no hope. Hopefully someone will pick this product line up and dust it off, but it may already be too late as fans are beginning to shed their inventory. What is interesting is that a number of individuals have begun to reproduce knock-off products on Shapeways.com (a 3D printing website), allowing players to continue to expand their armies, albeit at a cost.
When players start a new game system, they are investing. You have to treat them like investors. You have to establish a solid product line, a pipeline of exciting stuff, and encourage them to play the game (and in turn, suck in new players in the process.)
Who knows, maybe Alien Dungeon will reopen its doors. Anything is possible…but in reality, they have already done a lot of damage to the IP and to the fan base.