Recently I tuned into an episode of the Covenant Cast featuring a pre-launch chat with one of the creators of a game unknown to me, Earthborne Rangers. Within a few minutes of listening, I was hooked by Andrew’s vision of region-specific manufacturing, the diversity among the main characters, the focus on including everything awesome in the game instead of making backers stretch for that content, and that players aren’t fighting against the game itself. I declared myself a day one backer, sight unseen.
Earthborne Rangers is now live on Kickstarter, and it actually just eclipsed $250k in funding as I write this post. I asked Andrew if I could pick his brain about the methods he is trying to use to manufacturer the game, and he graciously agreed. Here’s a summary of those methods as shown on the project page:
It is our goal to manufacture Earthborne Rangers as close to the majority of its backers as possible, and if our regional stretch goals are met, we will manufacture at multiple factories around the world. Regardless of where Earthborne Rangers is manufactured, it will be distributed from regional distribution hubs. Regional manufacturing coupled with regional distribution will minimize the distance that the game will travel from the factory floor to your doorstep, thereby reducing carbon emissions.
Regional manufacturing means that the production of the game helps support the economy of your region. It also means next to no overseas shipping, and less shipping overall, which reduces carbon emissions, and reduces the risks and uncertainty that often come part and parcel with Kickstarter project fulfillment.
The following questions are from me (Jamey), the answers are from Andrew, and I might add some thoughts as well:
Could you briefly describe some of the environmental benefits of producing locally? Doesn’t any type of mass manufacturing have an environmental impact?
Manufacturing locally (especially in countries with strict regulations or government incentives for green manufacturing) is far better for the environment than manufacturing in China, where environmental restrictions are lax, and shipping products all over the world. While most of the discussion around “buying local” surrounds produce, the same truths apply. The closer the thing you purchased is to where it was made, the less it needs to travel, which cuts down on carbon emissions. Ideally, the materials for the production will be sourced regionally as well. So far, that’s only a challenge for U.S. manufacturing, though I’m confident we can get there. Right now, the U.K. quote is the most sustainable, with every component sourced in the U.K. from a great set of suppliers.
[JAMEY] I’m hesitant to cast such a broad net about manufacturing in China, as I think it depends heavily on the company. Panda, for example, has fairly high standards for selecting environmentally friendly materials and methods. They’re working to reduce shrink wrap, and they’re now only using corn-based biodegradable plastic bags for our games. We’re also exploring the possibility of only using FSC-certified materials for our games.
What’s the impact on manufacturing costs in the quotes you’re getting from manufacturers in the US, UK, and EU?
It’s expensive! The PPUs (price per units) of Earthborne Rangers card-based products are magnitudes higher than what I was used to at FFG, even at higher quantities. Unsurprisingly, the most expensive material is the card stock. It’s about half of the total cost for the core set in all of the quotes that I have. The labor cost is also higher, as it should be. I’m happy to spend that money! I don’t want to speculate too much on the final price of the core set because so much depends on the size of the run, but I will say that at anything less than a print run of 5,000 copies, my margins are exceptionally lean. Definitely not the standard 5x – 6x multiplier, even selling direct.
[JAMEY] The result is that the core reward level is $80. For comparison, printing 500 high-quality cards in China costs around $7. So when Andrew means its expensive to print elsewhere, he really means it!
Shipping speed seems like a huge benefit of region-specific manufacturing, as you don’t need to wait weeks/months for an ocean freight shipment. Though that’s only true if manufacturing itself is pretty fast, so I’m curious about the lead times for these printers.
The lead times vary a lot from factory to factory. They range from a month to three months prior to assembly, depending. Since we’re not shipping in any additional components from Asia, that helps a lot though. Those need to arrive very early in the time lines that I’ve seen. After that, the time from the printer to the game showing up on your doorstep will be significantly less. In years past, you needed to account for at least four weeks of shipping if your product came from overseas, but these days that number is incredibly volatile and unpredictable. Product is sitting on ships or at dock for months on end, as you’re well aware. I have not heard anything positive about the state of ocean freight shipping from anyone in the industry for a long time.
[JAMEY] Indeed, freight shipping is incredibly slow at every level right now–our newly announced Rolling Realms waited 2 months to get on a boat!
One of the main reasons I haven’t worked with manufacturers in Europe or the US is that my attempts and experiences with them are of superbly poor responsiveness, whereas it’s been excellent with Panda. Have you had better experiences with the region-specific manufacturers you’ve talked with?
So far, I do not have any complaints about the level or promptness of communication with the manufacturers I’m speaking with. They’ve each been helpful and forthcoming. The U.K. manufacturer exceptionally so. If anything, I’ve been so busy with the KS that I feel like *I’m* not communicating enough. We’re a ways off from being ready for production, though. Everything will need to be reworked and re-quoted as we continue to work on the game and the date of manufacturing draws near.
You mentioned the Covenant podcast that you need to reach certain MOQs (minimum order quantities) within each region to be able to print in each area. What are those thresholds?
I’ll be setting those at 2,000 backers per region. It will absolutely eat into my volume savings by doing that, but I feel that the mission is more important than the short-term revenue we’d earn. With at least 2,000 backers assigned to each of the three factories, I feel like I’ll be able to get all of those numbers up by the time we print, so while my volume discount won’t be as good as it would be at 6K (or more) if all the product was being made at one facility, I think I should be able to assume at least a run of 3K at each facility, given the interest that’s been expressed in the game by people who simply don’t Kickstart games on principle. The margins aren’t great at those quantities, but I’m reasonably sure that I can live with them.
Are there certain components you’ve found that regional manufacturers can or can’t make (i.e., cards versus minis, wooden tokens, etc)?
Since I’m limiting the components to cards and paperboard, they can all do it. The non-card product add-ons, however, will be more of a challenge. A lot will depend on how many get ordered, but the playmats and books are usually low-run items. I think I’ll be able to make those regionally regardless of the quantity. We’ll see. The deluxe, bio-plastic tokens will likely be manufactured in one place and shipped, however. Again, if we can get those numbers up, it might be possible to do that regionally too. We’d just need to find the injection facilities to do the job.
Cardstock and ink consistency is probably my #1 concern with using different manufacturers, wherever they may be. I’m curious how you’re testing and addressing this potential issue, as it could be brand-ruining if different print runs of your game don’t match each other.
Since regional manufacturing *is* the brand, I’m not worried about this. If you live in the U.S., for example, and all of your EBR products come from the U.S., it won’t matter to you if they’re not *exactly* like the ones in the U.K. or E.U. At least it shouldn’t!
From experience I know that even if you manufacture at the same facility over and over again, there can be significant inconsistencies from one printing to the next, or between core games and expansions.
Since Earthborne Rangers is designed as an expandable card game, card stock and color consistency are extremely important. We’ll do our best to make the products consistent from region to region (even if those cards never mix), but we’ll do even more to ensure that the cards are consistent *within* a region from printing to printing, expansion to expansion.
To me, that starts with choosing a card stock that we feel confident will be available year over year, and being very hands-on in the proofing and printing process for every printing. So much of a printing’s success depends on the attention to detail paid by those reviewing the proofs and test prints, the pre-press staff who prepare the files for print, and on the press operators working while the cards are being printed.
One of the great benefits of printing domestically is that it more easily allows for me to be “on press” during the production, so that I can review test prints and their color balance before the printing really gets rolling. If I can do that virtually with any potential printers in Europe, I will do that as well.
[JAMEY] I agree with Andrew that color inconsistences can happen even if you use the same printer over and over. The card stock was my biggest concern, as people don’t always stay in the same place, but it sounds like he has a plan!
As the Covenant guys mentioned, it seems like a great bonus that the printing will be supporting several different local economies instead of just one. Would you agree?
Absolutely. As I noted above, printing at multiple factories around the world is not only better for the environment, but it supports local economies in a way that printing in China simply doesn’t. I love the idea of the production being able to help provide income to the very people who may ultimately play it on their table at home.
[JAMEY] This makes sense to me. While Andrew isn’t saying anything to the contrary, I always think it’s worth pointing out that the people who make our games in China are just like us–people with families, friends, hobbies, responsibilities, bills to pay, etc. That said, there’s very little balance in terms of worldwide manufacturing right now, so anything to adjust the scales even a little bit is great. One option we’re exploring is local assembly of components produced elsewhere.
Do backers care? I know that’s a tough question to consider given your mission, and it isn’t a reason to doubt your mission. It’s more about marketing: Do you focus the marketing more on the game itself or the environmental side of things? My guess is that backers/consumers are generally driven by a desire for an awesome product at a reasonable price, and other elements mostly just help to reinforce their decision to support the product.
From what has been expressed to me both before the launch and during the campaign, backers do care about the mission. Some people are backing solely because of the mission. Ultimately, however, I find the question of whether or not customers care about sustainability meaningless. When we pander to what we perceive as the desires of the customer we only stand in the way of innovation. It matters to me, and if no one else cared, it would still matter to me. Moving toward sustainable manufacturing is not optional. The opposite leads to a dead end, and it’s one that we can see is fast approaching.
For the marketing, I have tried to both speak to the mission and the game equally. That has been relatively easy to do since the themes of the game and the setting tie so closely to the goals of the mission. There’s a lot for people to get behind. If you’re not gung-ho about sustainability, you can still appreciate the beauty of an imagined future where the Earth is healthy and the human race has become the best version of itself. If you’re not terribly moved by either of those things, the game is still filled with amazing visuals and inventive ideas that easily stand alongside anything other game in the genre. There’s a lot to love, even if you don’t love all of it equally.
I’m not particularly interested in making something that consumers are looking for. In my experience, until they see it, they had no idea they wanted it…. I rather make something that I’m passionate about, and stay true to that passion, than make anything for the sake of making a profit.
[JAMEY] I’m impressed and inspired by Andrew’s passion! While I think most indie game publishers are driven by a long list of motivations other than profit, I love his point about how consumers typically don’t really realize what they want until they see it (it’s why we don’t design by committee). In the same way, a company’s ethics and morals start within. I don’t have customers filling my inbox with requests for us to pursue environmental sustainability or active inclusion for those who are underrepresented or marginalized in the gaming community–we just know that those are worthwhile pursuits to us, so we pursue them.
Last, do you have a backup plan? If you encounter major hurdles/issues and need to produce everything at fewer than 3 manufacturers (or even in China), is there a way you can do that and still stay true to your mission?
That’s a great question. If we can’t manufacture in three separate facilities, we can absolutely stay true to the mission. Earthborne Games products will be manufactured in Europe, the U.K., or the U.S., and I can foresee no circumstance that would change that, outside of some great calamity or natural disaster.
Printing in China is an option, but only for a localized, retail edition made specifically for the Chinese market. If I can find the right, eco-friendly printer in China, I would love to make that happen.
[JAMEY] I always like having at least one backup plan, and I appreciate that Andrew’s backup plans remain within his mission. Andrew, thank you so much for sharing your insights and answers, and I look forward to learning more through project updates on Earthborne Rangers!
If you gain value from the 100 articles Jamey publishes on this blog each year, please consider championing this content!