Iron GM Games posted an actual update for their Kickstarter the other day, and I wanted to present it here as an update to my previous post about the project. (You can view the entire update on the Kickstarter page here.)
This following lengthy and detailed update covers three primary topics:
- Delivering Part 1 of Grimmerspace Setting & Adventures
- Addressing backers’ many questions and complaints
- Explaining why we’re so late, and what we’re doing about it
We’d also like to apologize to backers whose questions we may have missed. Questions and complaints arrive in at least six locations (Kickstarter comments, Kickstarter update comments, Kickstarter direct messages, emails, Facebook messenger, and Facebook posts), and sometimes we don’t see them. While we try to answer every question or concern, you’ll likely get the fastest response posting in the Grimmerspace Facebook Group.
SUMMARY OF PROGRESS
As you’ve heard us explain before, the Grimmerspace core book has expanded into three different sections, each of book length. These are: Player Options, Setting, and Adventures.
In the past we’ve shared our plan to release each of these as backer-only PDFs, as we finish them and before printing hardcovers. Normally, to avoid piracy and for a host of other valid reasons, publishers don’t do this. However, we feel the combination of being this late and our ethical obligation to backers trumps those standard publisher concerns. There’s not much we can do about being late except finish and deliver, but at least we can give you PDFs as soon as they’re locked for print.
To that end, we expect to have the full text of Grimmerspace Player Options in layout this month and in your hands by August.
UPDATED XENO FILES
Since we finished our Grimmerspace bestiary, Xeno Files, backers used these monsters in their games and let us know how it went. We’ve incorporated their feedback, updated the book, rejiggered the layout, and are about to lock the text for print. As soon as the last bits of layout are complete (hopefully this week), we'll send another update, letting you know you can download the updated Xeno Files from your Backerkit download area.
BACKER CONCERNS, QUESTIONS, AND REQUESTS
Backers have asked many questions about the Grimmerspace project and its status, as well as voiced any number of speculations and concerns. In the past, we’ve answered a number of these in the Kickstarter comments, but not everyone sees those. Also, some backers repeatedly told us that explanations we gave in the comments really belonged in an update; so, we’re repeating some of those comments and responses here.
Until now, we’ve declined to engage with speculation about our failings or other complaints for a few simple reasons. For one, it’s just an incredible statement of the obvious to acknowledge, yes, we are immensely late on this project. And when you’re late, but are still committed to delivering no matter what, there’s really little more to do than offer sincere mea culpas, course correct whatever is correctable, and get back to work.
For another, spending time and words on a postmortem before delivering just seemed like… whining and making excuses. Who wants to hear that when they’ve risked their money on something and are justifiably angry it's not yet in their hands?
However, enough backers are, with good reason, speculating, accusing, and expressing exasperation that it became clear explanations are clearly in order. We assume that for every one backer voicing a legitimate concern, complaint, or question, there are still more, silent backers who think or feel the same things. So, we decided to try and tackle every valid issue raised in this one update by writing a single, big fat FAQ.
Please know we consider nothing below as an excuse. There aren’t excuses for being this monumentally late, but we hope our answers clarify what happened. Of course, we don’t expect this explanation to make anyone happy; but hopefully, we can eliminate some uncertainty
But before we begin:
First and once more, our apologies. We deeply regret the lateness of rewards, and we share your deep and entirely legitimate frustration. For our part, we’d really hoped to build a thriving game company on the back of this project’s success, which clearly didn’t work out for us, but we remain committed to delivering what we promised.
- Lou and Rone
Q: You gave a rough date for Player Options, but what about dates for the rest of the books?
A: Lots of backers ask this. It’s a reasonable question, and we’re absolutely terrified of answering it with hard dates for fear of missing those dates--even by a little. So this is what we can say about the rest of the core book:
Setting Final development, final editing, and proofing of Setting will go faster than Player Options. The Setting final draft is more polished than was the draft for Options, and Setting is far, far less crunchy. Zero crunch, really; so, no playtesting required.
Adventures Of the 14 adventures, all are written and 12 are ready for playtesting. A while back, we broke off playtesting Adventures to get Options and Setting in your hand. Editing on Adventures should prove swifter than editing Options, but the availability of playtesters is unpredictable and could slow us down.
Q: Okay, but that’s still not a date. What about dates?
A: Again, we’re extremely leery about giving exact dates for fear of missing them. We already blew our predictions the first time, so giving an unreliable date feels, at best, like a horrific disservice to backers or, at worst, might read like a BS effort to get people off our backs.
It’s also hard to be real about dates, because until we hand the files to the printer and the printer tells us how long printing will take, we’re just guessing. And once books get from the printer to the fulfillment house, and the fulfillment house tells us where in the queue our project stands? Again we’re just guessing. Passing on those guesses feels like more BS driven by questionable motives.
Q: Enough excuses, just give me a @#%$!@ date already!
A: Despite what we said answering the prior two FAQs, we’re targeting getting the entire Grimmerspace project to the printer Q1 of next year. When we lock PDF files for the printer, we’ll also send them to backers. Could we miss that goal? Maybe. But it’s not an unreasonable target and, if we do miss, it shouldn’t be by much.
Q: What are the rest of the promised Grimmerspace deliverables and what’s their status?
A: Recently, backers have been asking this question with increasing frequency. Here’s an status update on every Grimmerspace deliverable:
- Grimmerspace Adventures Vol. 1 - Draft. ⅓ ready to print, ⅔ needs playtesting
- Grimmerspace Setting & Adventures - Being delivered to backers 1 PDF at a time
- Xeno Files - Ready to print, PDF delivered to backers
- Abattoir 8 PDF - Available on DriveThru RPG
- Immersive Battlemap - Book Shipped
- Battlemap Stickers - Shipped
- Players Guide - Layout task only; extracted when Options and Setting complete
- Starfinder Beginner Box - Shipped
- Starfinder Core Rulebook - Shipped
- Starfinder Quickstart - Ready to print
- ARCop’s Piece - Delayed until physical product closer to shipping
- Denizen Deck - Layout task only; extracted when Adventures complete
- Gaming Paper - Will ship this summer
- Hodrak Miniature - Done, waiting to ship
- Larry Elmore Zyrag - Art Shipped
- Numbered bookplates - Delayed Grimmerspace Setting & Adventures printed
- Posters (5 total) - Ready to print
- Slipcase - Designed, cannot be finalized until book sizes known
- Xeno Deck - Layout task only, extracted from Xeno Files
- Abattoir 8 - Available on Roll 20 and Fantasy Grounds
- Unfinished books - Not yet on VTTs for obvious reasons
- Xeno Files - Available on Roll 20 and Fantasy Grounds
Q: Why are you guys so freaking late? I mean so epically, outrageously, dumb-ass, gobsmackingly late?
A: This question will take the most words to answer in full detail and with full transparency. So here’s the TL;DR version: poor initial estimates (we were always going to be somewhat late), COVID and its effects, foolishly expanding all books on the project by roughly 30%, and a staff reduced to Lou, Rone, and handful of (very talented) freelancers.
Our original estimate for a delivery date was July 2020. Here’s the nuts and bolts of why we’re three years late and counting:
Poor Initial Estimate
Our initial estimate was a year to deliver 3 books. At the end of the campaign, those books totaled 396,800 words (give or take). Before the Kickstarter, we’d written development of about 10k words and had 15 professionals (including us), 5 playtesting teams, 3 proofreaders, and an editor lined up and ready to go. Plus about another 12 writers on the bench, each willing to pick up a few thousand words as their schedules allowed.
This was our original thinking on timeframe: 396,800 words divided by 15 people = 26k words each, a length we personally have written in a month as freelancers. Add in oversight and development with each designer… call it 3 months. Then editing and proofing 396k words at about 10k words a day, so 40 days, let’s call that 2 months elapsed, 3 with slack. Call playtesting, which can happen in parallel while we continue to edit, plus layout another 3 months, thereabouts. Artwork to be executed in parallel; so off to the printer, shipping to begin within 1 year.
Obviously, this was a garbage estimate. So what went wrong?
The short answer is almost everything took longer than expected.
For a start, we’ve needed close to 100k unplanned words of development to accurately communicate the full depth of content to our artists, freelancers, and playtesters- a major, unanticipated time sink. So, no, we did not (as some backers have suggested) “lie” about the level of development. This was always a brand new company’s first project, but we did seriously underestimate the amount of development needed, the amount of time it would take to bring other designers and artists up to speed, and the amount of oversight they would require.
We were also surprised by the number of artists, designers, developers, etc. who just couldn’t or wouldn’t grok Grimmersapce. The act of finding freelancers who did pick up what we were putting down turned out to be hellishly time consuming.
We added an open Beta for our classes, which was worth it but took time and effort to manage. On top of which, proofing has taken far longer than expected. Most of our proofreaders are volunteers. While some return documents with stunning rapidity, most have day jobs and their ability to get documents back swiftly varies greatly.
Finding additional artists who could execute on the Grimmerspace look and style also proved very challenging. The amount of time it took to field artists was startling. We finally found our set of amazing artists who got it and took our Grimmerspace visions to another level, but we grossly underestimated how long it would take to find our people. When we did, most were from other countries, with English as a second language, and we’d never built time for overcoming artist language barriers into our calculations. The number of art order rewrites was simply overwhelming.
In hindsight, if NOTHING else had gone wrong, plain biting off more than we could chew plus faulty estimating were always going to make us a year or so late. A lot of that’s on me, Lou, as I did the initial estimates. Again, I apologize.
COVID & Staffing Problems
But of course, something else did go wrong. COVID. I know many of us are tired of hearing it, and again this is not an excuse, but… Covid happened and we managed its impacts poorly. Other companies may have handled it better, retained their staff, or simply weren’t so new. We can’t speak to that, but we can speak to the full impact of Covid on a fledgling game company. Especially one relying almost entirely on freelancers for design and art.
When COVID hit, most but not every designer committed to the project pulled out, including professionals who had signed contracts. Nearly all professional RPG freelancers have day jobs and write RPGs for fun. As the reality of the pandemic sank in, fun projects went in the toilet. Of those few who did deliver, none were willing to take on more than their initial assignments.
From a practical perspective we went from a team of about 15 writers, designers, developers, and an editor, plus 8 artists, to about 4 designer-side staff total (including Lou and Rone) and 0 artists. We scrambled to add more freelancers, but it was difficult. Some stayed, some fell away. Some delivered half-finished work or stuff we simply couldn’t use.
We tried out a ton of folks, but at the end of the day, we still wound up with only 4 primary writer/designers (again including Lou and Rone), 1 developer, 1 editor, and 7 artists. Finding artists was unbelievably time consuming, and we eventually lost access to one of our favorites because he lives in Russia.
It consumes a huge amount of time to find freelancers, contract with them, and bring them up to speed on the IP, only to receive a turnover that doesn’t cut the mustard. So you educate, bring them up to speed once more, correct, and try again. And… still not there. At which point, do you continue trying to train less experienced designers or do you move on and try to find someone else? Either way, you’re flushing time down the drain and paying a huge opportunity cost to hunting and training artistic and writing talent. This was a problem we NEVER anticipated having.
In retrospect, we wasted a LOT of time trying to replace our vanished freelance team. It was a mistake. We would have been far better off simply accepting we’d have to deliver on the back of a much lighter bench and plow ahead on our own.
COVID also did a number on playtesting. For 2+ years playtesting became something we could no longer outsource. Previously, we sent copies to people who got their veteran groups together in their homes and ran playtests for us. During COVID, very few groups got together, and not all our playtesters switched to VTT. Overnight, the number of vetted playtest groups at our disposal dropped from 5 to 1. And what looked previously like giving 5 groups about 3 adventures each to run 1x week for 3 weeks (let’s call it a month to account for when a group couldn’t meet) suddenly became an impossible schedule to keep.
Instead, we had to invest time making our own impromptu VTT versions, and have Lou run the majority of playtests himself. That approach also came with a big opportunity cost. If Lou was spending days making VTT adventures and running playtests, he wasn’t writing, developing, or editing with Rone. We eventually put playtests and adventures on hold and shifted to Player Options and Setting, as feedback from backers indicated many would prefer to receive those first.
With COVID over, when we return to Adventures we also expect playtesting to be easier.
A Significantly Bigger Project
At the same time, as it grew more clear we’d be late, we decided to try and at least partially make it up to backers by adding to your books at no extra cost. For example, we grew Xeno Files from 90 to 128 pages. Player Options and Setting expanded, and we also added to Adventures. All of which also needed its own development write-ups, its own playtesting, development, editorial, art, etc. At the end of the day, from a word count perspective, Grimmerspace looks to come in about 30% larger. But that increased word count likely cost us 40-50% more time.
But here’s where we truly blew it: we added all this content and even as we lost our freelancers. That's like 2 cars smashing into each other. You have to add the velocity of *both* cars to correctly calculate the force of impact. We estimate these two factors alone added about a year to the project.
Was it the right decision? Only you can say when you finally receive the books. You’re getting more value for your dollar, and we’re eating the cost, but we definitely screwed up our work estimate, and big time. The effect was exponential, not linear. We’ll be eating crow for a long time over that. We out-and-out messed up.
In hopes of offering a complete explanation, and not a justification, life is… life. It throws curveballs at us all. During this time we’ve also faced multiple deaths, wrestled with personal medical issues, caught COVID, were both hospitalized, developed repetitive stress disorders, etc. etc. And now Owen has cancer. While such things always happen to people, and are no excuse for our poor estimates, none of it helped.
Q: Printing and shipping costs have increased since your 2019 estimates, so it’s hard to see how you’re going to finish/print/ship this. How could you afford it? Other KS in this position demand more money from backers before they’ll deliver. It seems likely you’ll do the same.
A: Backers like John R. Garzanich, Seer of Chaos, Ebonweaver, and others have raised this very reasonable question. It is of course true that costs have increased drastically, and the short answer to this question is “We’re going to deliver by taking out loans and expecting to lose a lot of money to deliver.”
The longer answer is we didn’t raise enough money from the initial Kickstarter to cover ballooning freight costs, inflated shipping costs, and accelerating print costs. Especially on a larger than anticipated book.
So, between us, Rone and I have sold cars, refinanced our homes, and secured a line of credit for Iron GM Games. As of right now, we have the money we need to finish, to print our larger books, to freight them to fulfillment houses, and to ship them to you.
Q: Why can’t we get a refund? Other companies give refunds, so you’re full of @#%@. I bet all the money's gone.
A: Backers Michael, Michael hack, the Smug Druggler, and Tom Miskey have asked about this in public comments. Others have asked privately. Some ask more politely than others. Regardless of how it’s asked, it’s a reasonable query.
For starters, the money is not all gone, it’s mostly gone. For good or for ill, the money raised was spent on art, designers, developers, writers, design, development, shipping backers their 3rd party books and products (Starfinder Roleplaying Core Rulebooks, Beginner Boxes, and Battlemap books), materials, layout, and keeping the lights on. What remains is earmarked for printing and final shipping to backers.
But the reason we’re not offering refunds is in the answer to the previous question. It’s precisely because we didn’t raise enough money from the initial Kickstarter to cover the now increased freight costs, inflated shipping costs, and ballooning print costs on even larger, heavier books.
We aren’t offering refunds because we have a fiduciary responsible to exert our best efforts to put rewards in your hands, and opening the door to refunds could damage our ability to deliver by burning through the remaining money earmarked for printing, freight, and shipping. We refuse to allow the angry and disappointed backers demanding refunds, however understandable their viewpoint, to put the project at risk at the expense of our patient and supportive backers. That would be unfair, not to mention a breach of our contract with Kickstarter.
At least one backer has called this a “weak excuse.” We understand their disgruntlement, but we respectfully disagree.
Q: You’re just going to hold our books hostage and demand more money for shipping, aren’t you? That’s what other KS have done!
A: A lot of backers are concerned about this possibility. It’s a relatable fear. Our answer is, no. We don’t plan to do that. We’ve specifically taken on personal financial burdens so as not to do that. And we would never hold your rewards hostage for financial reasons. Period. Full stop.
Is it possible that, despite all our efforts, we still won’t have enough money to ship everything exactly as originally planned?
Maybe. Lots of things are possible, but right now it doesn’t look that way. If it really came down to it we have options. For example, we might save money by printing and shipping books containing only exactly what we pledged in the Kickstarter, and then give you the 30% new content as free PDFs. But again, right now, the project is looking okay financially and Iron GM Games isn’t contemplating any extraordinary cost-cutting measures.
Q: You’re frauds! You stole our money! You scammed us! This project is dead. It took so long I moved on from Starfinder. I’ve written this off as a loss. You’re a pair of dirty thieves whose updates are nothing but lies and broken promises!
A: These are quotes. We hear multiple variations on this theme, daily, and we understand the feeling and we hate that we’ve made any of our backers feel this way. We own that it’s our fault and, again, apologize. However, we also believe our best rebuttal to such sentiments is to keep our noses to the grindstone and deliver; so, we’ve nothing more to say in response.
Q: What’s with this tracker spreadsheet? It’s confusing/a lot of nothing/meaningless/intentionally deceptive/doublespeak/doesn’t tell me how much progress was made. At the very least show me something concrete because this tracker makes it look like the project is years away!
A: Many backers, including Dylan Stayman, Hank McCoy, Kevin Melka, Fabio Elias Reis Ritter, Jb Brown, Dan Bond, Zion Productions and others have all expressed variations on this concern. We hope everyone found this update more concrete. In response, going forward we plan to make two changes to our updates:
1. We’ll start with a brief, written summary of progress as a way to clearly and concisely state what’s been accomplished since last time, and
2. While we didn’t get to it in time for this update, we’ll either add a button to the tracking sheet that lets you pop back and forth to the previous one, or try to pull out a little HTML and add a history with links to all the previous tracking sheets.
Q: What if there’s a Starfinder 2E or Starfinder Enhanced before this is out?
A: This question was on the mind of backers like Alexander Ren Eldritch, Tom Miskey, SuccessfulGeek, J Howerton, and Remi Fayomi. It’s a good question. We speak to folks at Paizo regularly, and we’ve heard nothing about a 2nd Edition of the Starfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook. As for Starfinder Enhanced, after we’ve delivered Grimmerspace we contemplate reviewing that book and, if it's needed, issuing a compatibility/conversion update as a free PDF.
SUMMARY & PERSONAL NOTE
That was a lot to read and emotionally tough for us to write (some of it for a second time). We hope it came across as politely as we intended. We’re trying our best to deliver as quickly as we can without sacrificing quality, but as we forge ahead our hearts are pretty broken, our aspirations shattered, and it’s all made worse because we catch rocks in the face every time we even think about customer service and responding to posts. That’s no excuse, it's on us to handle customer service appropriately, and we’re determined to be more responsive to backers’ questions going forward.
Every extra minute this project takes, we lose more money. We have a burn rate after all, on everything from web sites to warehousing, and you can only dim the lights so low without turning them off. And of course, every minute this project continues we trash our (until now, excellent) reputations in the industry.
As you can imagine, these are not the reasons we went into this Kickstarter. But it is the reality of where we’re at, and we get it. We’re not sitting here playing the tiny violin, begging for your sympathy. We are brutally late delivering rewards, and that is nowhere but on us. And yes, of course you should vent and discuss as you like, you’re entitled and that’s what comments and Facebook groups are for. And In fact, we again urge you to post your queries and opinions in the Grimmerspace Facebook group, as we see those posts more frequently in the normal course of a day.
We do ask one thing, though: if some of you could bring yourselves to vent, complain, and speculate but leave out counterproductive insults like turds, thieves, fools, frauds, scammers, and worse, it would at least reduce the soul-crushing weight of all this and make pressing on to the finish line just a little easier. Thank you for considering that, and a big thank you to all who have already exercised restraint and consideration.
As dispiriting as it felt to compose this update, it was important that we suck it up and present a full explanation to anyone who genuinely wanted to hear our answers. Now it's time to head back to work.
As poet laureate Bobby Frost once said, “The best way out is always through,” and through is where we’re going, bruised reputations, egos, and wallets notwithstanding.
Personally, I appreciate this level of update. We received an honest and fair response. While I was not aware of all the financial hardships that Iron GM Games was experiencing over this project, I am aware of the pitfalls that some campaigns have fallen into. While this project was estimated to be delivered around July 2020, I am still waiting for my physical rewards on 2 other campaigns that were meant to be delivered in March 2018 and February 2019. For what it's worth, these other campaigns have transitioned to a different party actually working to fulfill them.
I do hope that Iron GM Games experiences some good fortune soon. I have been looking forward to my physical rewards for this and am working to create space on my bookshelves for the books.