Case Study – The Demise of Alien Dungeon (and All Quiet on the Martian Front)

All Quiet
Three Legged Stompy Fun

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.

My Martians

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.

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29 thoughts on “Case Study – The Demise of Alien Dungeon (and All Quiet on the Martian Front)

  1. Reblogged this on talesfromthemancave and commented:
    Interesting article regarding the demise of Alien Dungeon, the company behind the All Quiet on the Martian Front Kickstarter or “I Cant Believe Its Not War of the Worlds” as Hairy Gamer Tris and I called it.

    I honestly believe I dodged a bullet with this Kickstarter as it came at a bad time for me and I couldn’t invest. im now glad I didn’t as I’d be left with missing stuff and an unfulfilled pledge just like poor ol’ Tris.

  2. Even though I’m out about $600 of pledge and add-on products that I will likely never receive, not to mention free stretch goals that never made it to the finish line, I’m still happy I got into this Kickstarter for a number of reasons.

    1. The excitement that I felt for the product hasn’t gone away. While I may be missing some of my most desired pieces, like the Goliath, I still have a MASSIVE collection of various tanks and tripods which is what this game was all about.upfront. I personally haven’t had any issues with the rules yet. I wasn’t looking for a hardcore, tournament balanced wargame in AQMF. I wanted something lighter. If I want something crunchier, I’ve got a ton of rules systems I can use the minis in already.

    2. I enjoyed my time conversing with Alien Dungeon personnel, who were always friendly and helpful in my experience, and with the great AQMF community. I ran three, 8-player demos of AQMF at a small local con back in September and the buzz was overwhelming. The level of creativity expressed on the various forums is also exciting to behold and participate in.

    I am saddened by the way things have turned out, to be sure. I’d love to see the rest of my pledge fulfilled and to have an official forum to continue interacting with the community. Though there are some great community driven forums out there now too which helps to show that the game is only as dead as we allow.

    As for business practices, I (and pretty much anyone else making commentary) can only speculate as to why this business and project have apparently failed. I have my ideas to be sure.

    The one thing that does seem apparent to me, and the reason that I’m not joining the pitchfork and torches crowd, is that Alien Dungeon did really seem to care and were excited about their product and poured their heart, souls, time, energy, and money into the project to try to pull it out. (At least from my view from the sidelines.) I really just think that the initial release hit too many roadblocks and drug out too long for the handful of AD personnel to be able to work at KS funded product resolution, keep buzz going, and get new products + rules into the pipeline to sustain the business. But it looks like the efforts to do so took down not only the singular IP of AQMF, but the whole company along with it.

    That doesn’t sound like the actions of a small company looking to make it big on Kickstarter while thumbing their noses at the backers. There was probably a fiscal breaking point when the company could have made a legitimate, legal claim that the Kickstarter had failed on a monetary level, bailed on the AQMF property and Kickstarter obligations, and still maintained their business and other properties that existed before AQMF (like Fanticide and others). But it looks like trying everything to keep AQMF afloat took Robot Peanut Studios/Alien Dungeon/Architects of War down with it.

    But that is only speculation.

    In the aftermath I am still comforted in knowing that I have about 40 odd varieties of tripods, 50+ drones, 70+ tanks, and a ton of infantry to keep playing with for as long as I wish.

  3. Oh…and one additional bright side for my own situation…

    Even though I’m out $600 of products that I’ll never likely see, the pledged and free product I did receive would have cost me WELL more than that if I’d bought it retail…like four times or more than that $600, easy.

  4. Will Postell

    I used to work for Ernie Baker when he was the US VP for Games Workshop. Trust me, he has years of experience in the gaming industry. He was a fool, (and a dishonest fool at that) back then and from my experience, is going to be a fool for the rest of his miserable life.

    He was a petty tyrant, and bitter, just as you described in your encounter, but the thing I despised the most was his basic dishonesty. I think, unfortunately, you and your fellow enthusiasts are experiencing the consequences of that as well.

    I feel bad that there is another set of victims, but there are not enough bad things that can happen to him.

    I hope he burns in hell.

    Will Postell

  5. David Stanciu

    The only things I didn’t get were my British Landship and the Goliath.. Still feel pretty burned though. I foolishly opted to show faith and try to wait out for those models rather than take a gift certificate. I’m thinking about making some house rules and using it with Flames of War maybe, if the scale is close enough.

  6. Russell Higgins

    Good Game not a great game. I have no experience with the kickstarter or the personalities involved. I bought into the game retail, My son and I enjoyed and we played a few games at our FLGS. I have talked to my FLGS store owner and he seemed to think it was a one man operation, or at the very least a small team. His opinion was they kept switching priorities and well in short failed to meet any of them. I tend to agree with this in general, but I have a few points…

    a)The rules as written.. I bought the book and I see the premise for the game is much like OGRE. One super weapon on the field and a bunch of ash and trash units trying to stop them. That premise went out with the errata. And it became line your armies up and shoot at each other until the other was dead. My point is the rules were written and put in book form. This should not have been a priority.. Although low hanging fruit, in balancing the game should have come in readjusting the point costs but sticking to the original rules. There never need to be a hard bound book for rules in this game.. It was nice but It was an expense they didn’t need.

    b) The really cool thing about the game was the models.. in particular the Martians. The Soldiers were unique but the draw to the game was the models. Even guys my age can identify with the 50’s style “Martians” and that look. The priority should have been getting the kickstarter out, then releasing models to retailers. It seems to me there was an issue with shipping costs, as well on the kickstarter. I think they tried to eat these costs, but I think it is obvious that the plan didn’t go as planned and they under capitalized based on the kickstarter. Still a successful kickstarter should give you a foot hold to build upon even if it is a second kickstarter..

    Kickstarts sometimes don’t end up with starting anything. Its too bad. As I said good game not a great game with I think plenty of potential.

  7. Backing a Kickstarter is a risk, like any investment. thats why I usualy go small as I did here. I got some excellent trenches, played the game a few times and liked it (it wasn’t perfect but it was fun). Getting too big, too fast is one of those dangers that I think the KS system exposes a lot of unprepared buisness people too. They can’t turn it off when they see its growing beyond what they can do… I have an aquatence that got in to deep with what he wanted to be a small kickstarter to get him started and ran away on him with more orders than he coud ever fullfill and he had to cry uncle and issue refunds.

    1. Adam, I never view Kickstarters as “investment,” nor does the IRS. They view the money as income. I always see buying into a Kickstarter campaign as being nothing more than an early adopter.

      In the case of this company, we were promised that we would get product first – as Kickstarter participants. Instead Ernie took product to Gen Con, leaving a horrible taste in the mouths of those of us who felt betrayed. He further went into a mode of not communicating.

      It is eerily similar (if not in scale) to the Robotech debacle.

  8. by your own comments, there’s not a lot of facts here. I appreciate theory and such, but when it involves speculating on the motives – and morals – of people it quickly becomes gossip bordering on slander. So just saying – clearly there’s a failure here, but we don’t know what it is. Perhaps one of the employees ran off with $100K of funds? Perhaps there’s a drug / gambling problem? Perhaps they are even now working on how to make things right as quickly as possible. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and see if they can surmount whatever has happened to them whether through human error or just desserts or something else.

    But interesting post.

  9. I’m really sad to see this happen. I was a very big supporter of Fanticide which I feel is a great, mostly undiscovered game. I used to be quite vocal on the forums for Fanticide and often asked how we, the gamers could help spread the word because I also noticed there was 0% marketing and advertising. I also backed All Quiet and will miss not getting my Goliath. I’m happy that i atleast have some of my stuff and I still love Fanticide. I even interviewed them on Bols to try to generate some interest. I never got the feeling they were mean or anything.

  10. Aaron

    I got into the kickstarter very early on. It was a great setting and I liked the smaller scale (as most of my prior wargames are 28mm scale). It seemed that there was trouble from the very start. The kickstarter closed and the company went silent. After a while they did communicate again. Then silence. After wave one shipping it seemed that they went silent again. The company has changed names a few times or layered names. (Robot Peanut, Architects of War, and Alien Dungeon) Then the move occurred. Was he really moving for the business or moving somewhere with more relaxed bankruptcy rules. It seems that they kept breaking silence just enough so that backers were not suspicious.
    I did receive the biggest majority of the models backed, but the models that I did not receive are the biggest cost add-ons (Overseer, Dominator, Slaver, Scientist, the Gun Trench, the Flame Trench, and the alternate tanks like the Tesla, Tender, Clamps, and Munitions). I also never got the certificate that was promised for unreceived product. I lost more from the investment for these models than I actually received. With the exclusion of these models I might as well have just started playing Flames of War. They are the tanks that give it the flavor that attracted me initially.
    Someone stated that he had worked for GW. Seems he definitely learned his business model form them.

  11. Keith

    I also worked for Ernie at GW. He was a boss. So maybe that makes him a petty tyrant, I don’t know. I always found him fair, blunt, no nonsense, and to the point. He was always honest with me and my co-workers. I know he cleaned out a lot of corruption going on at GW US. That being said, I also know he didn’t like confrontations, and rubbed people the wrong way. He’s human, like the rest of us.

    1. Will Postell

      Keith wrote:
      “I know he cleaned out a lot of corruption going on at GW US”

      You mean like when Ernie designated the Chicago Bunker the “Center of Excellence” because they had the best sales numbers?
      The sales numbers drawn form a store:
      1. Where Ed S. put purchases on his company credit card to boost sales numbers. (I was there when he did it. We even talked about it.)
      2. And had the “Immersion Program” where 4 Regional and aspiring Regional Managers knocked themselves out to impress that VP for a whole month (each and every month), but their expense/payroll was still charged against their home base? (I participated)

      Great clean-up!

      Keith wrote:
      “I also know he didn’t like confrontations…”
      “…maybe that makes him a petty tyrant, I don’t know. ”

      LOL!!! Clearly, you don’t know. But I do, I was there.

      Here’s an example of typical Ernie,
      It was the Vegas yearly meeting…
      Room full of Managers and UK Execs. He announces a new rule that only employees of a certain store can wear white shirts.
      He tells two 15 year veteran employees (Regional Managers) to stand up. They happen to be wearing white shirts. In front of all those people, he shames these guys for violating a rule he JUST announced, and made them leave the meeting to change.

      This was Ernie EVERY time I saw him. I have a million of these examples.
      I even kept the fraudulently manipulated KPI’s he publicly hammered employees with.
      (I also kept the raw data to prove my case if it ever came to it)

      Does this sound like a guy who didn’t like confrontations?
      Does this sound more like a no-nonsense boss or a petty tyrant?
      Does this sound like a guy rooting out corruption or just installing his own?

  12. GregS

    I pledged “All Out War” – the largest pledge I ever made for a KS project. To be honest, I’ve only just started to assemble and paint the miniatures, but I am very happy with them. I haven’t gotten to the point where I am ready to play a game, so the rules issues are something I haven’t encountered yet.

    All I can say is that I love the theme and setting and I am happy with the product. True, there are some issues with assembly of, mostly, the metal miniatures, but nothing I can’t deal with. Perhaps I’ll put together a home-brew set of rules to suit my own fancy.

    As far as Architects of War is concerned, I’m very sad that they are bankrupt – I did a great deal of business with them via their Perry Miniatures and 4Ground offerings.

    I am VERY sorry for those who lost out on anything – been there, done that (can you say “Up Front”?). I hope that the product line gets picked up by someone and managed in a more professional way.

  13. Thomas J. Thomas

    As a Kickstarter supporter of All Quiet, I’m sorry to see them go but the reason is not cost, planning or Kickstarter but game design.

    Good concept, good miniatures (HO scale inspired idea), good support at conventions etc. Dull game. When I read the rules my heart broke for them. My son and his friends played and it didn’t interest them for 15 minutes. Pure You go I go, little variation in tactics, MGs more cost effective than cannons at killing Walkers – just bad (except for d10s).

    Compare to a great design like X-Wing: order chits, interacvtive sequence of play, troop quality well handled, no d6 (OK All Quiet got that right).

    Companies need to spend far less on glossy pictures and far more on design and play test. Not every company has the market muscle that GW does to push mediocre designs on us.

    Object lesson. But a sad one. Got lots of their stuff will probably do a version of my Combat Command game using this their miniatures. So all not lost.

    TomT

  14. Pingback: Meeples & Miniatures – Episode 164 – Lords & Lands / Wargames Illustrated | Meeples & Miniatures

  15. We’re a bunch of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community.
    Your site offered us with helpful information to work on. You have done an impressive activity and our entire neighborhood shall be thankful to you.

  16. To help with any who love the period/theme, First Command Wargames – began in Nov 2014 and still going strong has a rule set out called For Queen and Planet – The Imperial Wars of Earth and Mars. The core rules include a set of scenarios structured around the Mahdi Rebellion and there are two Scenario Books. These include The Boxer Rebellion – 1900 and the Mars Punitive Expedition – 1901.

    If you enjoy Steam Punk, Victorian Science Fiction, Colonial era or War of the Worlds theme – this rule set and scenario book will allow you to use your All Quiet miniatures with an company and set of rules that are actively being developed and that is financially sound.

    Check us out at: http://www.firstcommandwargames.com – we also have a face book page and the rules are available in digital copies on Wargame Vault.

    Thanks!

  17. andy

    Wiow this is weird. I worked on the graphic design of this project and had forgotten all about it. I was just going through old work when I saw the promo video I’d made, then thought I’d google AQ to see what it was doing. So sad 😦

  18. Mark H

    What killed this KS were the same two things that kills almost every failed gaming KS… Shipping and stretch goals… I’ve done over 175 kickstarters to date and with the exception of 1, the biggest headache with the problem ones were due to shipping packages that were way to heavy with stretch goals… The creators get overly excited with the success and add more and more stretch goals… Now, that 7 to 10 lbs game weighs 25-75 lbs… That’s why you see new kickstarters today do shipping later, once they figure out how much everything is going to weigh…

  19. Charles Christy

    Nice summation. As another long time gamer/shop owner/game author and more over still happy enthusiast I had the same feeling about AQMF. I have a nice collection; wasn’t a kickstarter person, just heard about it from a friend and built a mob of toys to play. Now, the new guys are showing some activity and making some limited presence at cons and doing some talking but nothing that you can really ‘take to the bank’. I’ll eventually take the original rules set, tweak out the junk that didn’t work for more efficient mechanics that suit me and my local gang and keep playing regardless of that the new owners do. And I’ll wish them best of luck, purchase new stuff that peaks my interest and offer feedback to their forums if it appears that they are listening.

    Nice article…will keep an eye on your blog in the future,
    best regards

    Charles Christy
    a gamer in Kentucky

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