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What is going on with the Monsdrawsity Kickstarter?

Geschreven door Yorom

Gepubliceerd op april 26, 2024
Cover foto van de oorspronkelijke Monsdrawsity Kickstarter

Omslagfoto van de Monsdrawity Kickstarter | foto: Friendly Skeleton

It has been a few years since I first gave my money to a company on Kickstarter, mostly to good results. Sure, the games were occasionalyl middling at best, but at least I always received my games (even if some others didn’t). Except for one – the Shut Up & Sit Down version of Monsdrawsity. What seemed a pretty simple campaign at first has turned into a multi-year spanning morass of delays. I felt it high time to figure out what was going on with this campaign, so I sat down and talked to the current publisher.

Delays aren’t unique to this Kickstarter campaign. Many Kickstarter project are led by first-time creators who are in over their heads, struggling to trace their first footsteps in an industry that tends to be more complicated than they had assumed at first. This campaign also ran at the tail-end of the pandemic – a period where most anything related to logistics found the things they thought to be true fully up-ended. So then why are we still talking about this? For that to make sense we first need to take a look at the actual project.

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Banner on the Monsdrawsity Kickstarter page | photo: Friendly Skeleton

What was the Monsdrawsity Kickstarter as a project?

Monsdrawsity, published by Friendly Skeleton (formerly Deep Water Games) is a party game where you’re trying to draw monsters. One of the players gets a brief look at a monster, and then has to relay what they saw to the other players. They then try to draw what is being described by the other player. After everyone’s done, you all show your work, laugh at how terribly everyone did, vote on who’s work you think most accurately fits what was described and then take a look at the actual monster. It’s not necessarily groundbreaking, but it is really funny. There’s not much that’s funnier than watching your friends struggle to draw a monster, or to find out that you misspoke and now everyone drew an arm coming out of an armpit. I know this, because Monsdrawsity already exists. In fact, there’s two different versions you can get at retail right now. The thing that’s special about this version is that it was made in cooperation with Shut Up & Sit Down.

Shut Up & Sit Down are arguably the biggest name in the online content space when it comes to board games. You can find research that tries to quantify the effect one of their reviews has on both popularity and sales of a game, which turns out to be pretty significant. A positive review from them could lead to a game being sold out everywhere for the immediate period following the review’s release – that’s a pretty significant name to link to your game. In fact, I would argue that, for a large chunk of the audience attracted to this Kickstarter, the Shut Up & Sit Down connection was their primary reason for supporting the project. All the more reason then to figure out what was going on. It’s time for us to meet Jacob Way, the person who is currently in charge of fulfilling this project. Strap in, because we’re going to get into the nitty-gritty.

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Promotional video by Shut Up & Sit Down announcing the Kickstarter project

Who is Jacob Way?

Jacob Way is the current owner of Friendly Skeleton, formerly known as Deep Water Games. After approaching him with the request to disuss what was going on with the Kickstarter, Jacob and I sat down for an extended period of time to discuss how things ended up happening the way they did. Considering that he is the man currently in charge of the project, I felt it would be most beneficial to talk to him. He’s also the person who, as far as the outside world can see, has been involved with the project for most of its lifespan. It is important to keep in mind that the project has traded hands multiple times since its inception and now: it was first run by a company called Ox Eye Media (where it traded hands internally) before being taken on by Friendly Skeleton (where it currently resides). So what was Jacob’s role up to now?

“I was initally a business developer at Ox Eye Media, where I worked to establish business relationships.” This is also how Jacob first got involved with the Monsdrawsity Kickstarter project; he was the person who worked with Shut Up & Sit Down on behalf of Ox Eye Media. That work was then handed over to another person within Ox Eye before being given back to Jacob when we has made head of games within Ox Eye Media. This transition to head of games also marks the moment where Jacob starts communicating under his own name on the Kickstarter page. He’s also one of the people (along with a rotating cast of people posting through the Deep Water Games account) who would provide info to backers on the Kickstarter page – info that would later on turn out to not be accurate. “I would give information [in those updates] that I hadn’t first verified myself, which meant that I also did not have accurate information. This was a pattern within Ox Eye Media”. Okay? So what’s up with Ox Eye Media then?

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Jacob Way, as seen on the Friendly Skeleton website | photo: Friendly Skeleton

Taking a look at Ox Eye Media

Ox Eye Media is a (former?) media company that previously housed a number of other companies: Rip Rap Toys, Source Point Press, N3 Art and Deep Water Games (the latter of which is now owned by Jacob Way). It’s striking to me that half of these companies seemingly disappeared without any notice, and the other half is now either under new management or absorbed into other companies. Finding any recent information about Ox Eye Media is close to impossible. Their social media channels are deserted, their LinkedIn page has not been updated for years, and LARA shows that they haven’t submitted any new filings since 2022. This, to me, indicates that the company is either insolvent or simply no longer operates as a business.

Jacob was reluctant to discuss his departure from Ox Eye Media, but did state that the communication within Ox Eye played a role in his decisicion: “if a company communicates poorly, it does so at all levels”. This matches what I’ve found of the public-facing communication that Ox Eye does. Their most recent message on Facebook is a post celebrating the purchase of an (allegedly) million dollar building while their company was (apparently) already hemmoraging both people and money. The fact that I’m not even entirely sure if the company still exists should say enough about their communication to the outside world.

The picture this paints to me is of a dysfunctional company that had too many moving parts – moving parts that apparently also did not work together effectively. I’ve also found mentions of the fact that there were many restructurings within leadership of the company (as is also exemplified by Jacob switching positions multiple times within Ox Eye) while they were simultaneously trying to break into multiple markets at once. I’m not suprised to find that your company then reaches a breaking point. The only project I could find that Ox Eye seems to still be actively involved in is a Kickstarter project for a game called Rat Queens, which seems to be facing almost the exact same issues as the Monsdrawsity Kickstarter campaign. With that all in mind, I feel we now have sufficient context to take a deeper look at the Monsdrawsity Kickstarter.

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Banner image as found on the Ox Eye Media Facebook page. | photo: Ox Eye Media

So what happened to the Monsdrawsity Kickstarter campaign?

On October 1st, 2022, Jacob posts an update in which he states that Deep Water Games (known currently as Friendly Skeleton) is no longer part of Ox Eye Media. He also states that the production was not even close to where he was told it was. An update posted on July 1st, 2022, for example, states that they were “proofing all the files”, which is normally one of the last steps done before the files are handed off for production. When Jacob acquired Deep Water games, he acquired a few things along with it: its games, its stock, and its liabilities. Note how that does not include the funds it collected through means such as Kickstarter; those were still housed in Ox Eye Media. This is a problem – Jacob was now responsible for delivering a project without any of the money necessary to do so. What do you do then?

I was admittedly able to figure out quite little about the time period between October 2022 and the summer of 2023, except that (apparently) a lot of work was done to get the project back on track. The Kickstarter page does show a recurring pattersn; production timelines are projected, deadlines aren’t met, and the people over on Kickstarter aren’t informed until much later. When I question Jacob about this, he states that “Kickstarter is bizarre. I wouldn’t normally give this much insight into a project that’s still in development, but [giving backers this oversight] is just a part of how Kickstarter works”. It’s a point that I can’t really dispute, but it nevertheless is something that comes along with using Kickstarter. Having said that, timelines are still being missed. What was happening internally that causes this?

Reading the Kickstarter updates paints the picture that Jacob (and the other people working at Friendly Skeleton) kept running into unexpected roadblocks. Jacob is emphatic in stating that production started in June 2023, but were delayed when it became apparent that there were still missing files. Considering that Jacob was mostly alone doing jobs he would have previously delegated to a team (see the Kickstarter comment below in which he explains that he was the only employee working at Friendly Skeleton at the time), it makes sense that unexpected issues keep arising. These issues were exascerbated by the company also undergoing a re-branding, necessitating re-doing a bunch of work. “Our timelines were ambitious”, said Jacob, and I understand wanting to be bold under these circumstanes. It’s just difficult if you’re also actively learning all parts of independently publishing a board game at the same time.

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So what is the current status of Monsdrawsity?

“The files are at the factory, parts are being manufactured and our fulfillment partners are ready to ship out product. Everything is currently still in China”. The Sodalis fulfillment had already taught me that producing the game is not the same as delivering a game, so I also asked about how they’re going to fulfill the game after it’s produced. Jacob described that all parts of this Kickstarter are currently being financed with revenue from other projects and “between 20 and 40.000 dollars of our own money. The money has to come from somewhere, we need to operate as a business.”

And so this is how the production ended up having these delays, even if Monsdrawsity (on the surface) looks like it would be easy to produce. The combination of having to phase out production (in order to ensure enough revenue to stay afloat as a company), having to re-do work and (in my view) underestimating the work that needed to be done. “Production has started in June 2023, but we then discovered that there were still missing files”. It seems Friendly Skeleton kept running into this particular production issue, even after the project had been in their custody for close to a year.

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The logo for Friendly Skeleton, formerly known as Deep Water Games. | Photo: Friendly Skeleton

Talking business

It is still prudent to discuss the state in which Ox Eye Media left the project before handing it over to Jacob as part of his acquistition of Deep Water Games. “I was not accurately informed about the actual status of the project while I was Head of Games at Ox Eye Media”, which lead to him discovering that “only about 18% of the artwork was done” after he had acquired fulfillment of the Kickstarter as one of the liabilities that came with ownership of Deep Water Games. Jacob was also not personally involved with the production side of this project, seeing that “Ox Eye Studio had a production department that would oversee production for the whole company.” That would place responsibility for accurately informing other departments within Ox Eye with them. It also means that early updates discussing progress (like in this update) were abject nonsense.

“Everything about this Kickstarter is frustrating. This whole process throws a pale shadow over a product that I feel is truly excellent. Nobody has a time machine, but I would have done a lot of things differently if I had the opportunity. […] If I had known what I know now, I would have made a different deal [when I left Ox Eye Media”. A point that Jacob returned to multiple times during our conversation is his intent to bring this project to a good end. “I would not have taken on this liability if I had not intended to bring it to a good end.” And, when all is said and done, I do believe Jacob when he says this, if only because this Kickstarter is arguably the biggest hurdle standing in the way of Friendly Skeleton’s future success.

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Ah! well a-day! what evil looks had I from old and young! Instead of the cross, the Albatross about my neck was hung. | Foto: Unsplash

So where does that leave us?

I feel it’s important to stress that I don’t expect this article to magically make the game apparate in all of our hands, but I do appreciate being given a glimpse behind the curtain. I genuinely do not feel that Jacob is taking us for a ride, especially not after our conversation. It’s theoretically possible that the Kickstarter hasn’t delivered a year from now, and that would mostly just make me sad, but I don’t expect that to be the case. Jacob is hard at work to try and make Friendly Skeleton something sustainable, and I understand that starting a new company (even one that already has a catalogue) takes time. It’s equally hard to make $40.000,- appear from thin air so that you can complete a project you thought was close to the finish line when you took it on. If Jacob was telling the truth, that would mean his company was (to use a soccer metaphor) 3-0 behind at its inception and he’s been trying hard to score that equalizer. That takes time.

However, I cannot escape the feeling that Jacob has been naive for at least part of this project. I understand putting trust in the sources you have access to when you work at a company, but there has to be a point where you check the projects you have custody over – especially when you’re about to take them on as a liability. I also get the distinct impression that Jacob has never been this involved with the actual publication of a board game, so the expectation that all of it would go according to plan (both from Jacob and from backers on Kickstarter) is entirely unrealistic. I feel that there’s a healthy dose of… let’s say inexperience, which was then magnified by the way Ox Eye Media initially handled and then transferred the project to Jacob.

Adding to that is the fact that Jacob is a good communicator… when you’re talking to him one-on-one. He’s just not a PR guy. That’s fine, but you do run into expectations when you’re the face of a company. People want to be informed, on multiple fronts. Unfortunately that’s the Faustian bargain you sign when you crowdfund your project; you get the money up front, and a group of financially involved followers who will hound you to the end of the Earth. This is then exascerbated when promises are made, and then not kept. I understand the desire to only broadcast solutions rather than present problems, but that’s simply not a feasible approach when your audience is aware that you’re in heavy weather. Bad news is at least a sign of life – demonstrate that the heart is still beating. Your audience is involved, and they want you to show that you’re as well.

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Production status as described in the most recent update, written in December

The long and short

So, the TL;DR – parent company messes up, Jacob has to clean up their mess, doesn’t get the funds to do so and seems misinformed all along the way. Raw deal if you ask me. I do have faith in his desire to bring this project to a good end, even if we still run into delays. Jacob said that “fourth quarter is very important to us, and we’re hoping to be able to sell Monsdrawsity by then.” They’ve missed a number of deadlines, but Christmas seems highly feasible if Jacob’s description of the current status of production is true. I’m willing to bet that I will have this game in my hands before the end of this year, and I’m hoping I won’t come to regret that statement. And in the meantime, maybe we ought to give Jacob some breathing room to actually land this plane.

Other notes

I did a bunch of research into Ox Eye Media that I wasn’t able to include here, because I was trying to figure out how things could have escalated so rapidly. I found old websites, Kickstarter projects that were put into scaffoldings and then abandoned, and a large collection of social media ghost towns. It still feels very uncanny that a company that apparently had revenue in the millions and dozens of employees just seems to have disappeared off the face of the Earth without having left all that much of an impressions. It seems that this is what happens when a tree falls in the forest while there’s no-one around to hear the sound.

I also found out that the (former?) owner of Ox Eye Media now runs a fulfillment company called Whalebacker. Taking a look at the LARA registry for Whalebacker and Ox Eye Media gives me the strong impression that they’re owned by the same owner, and the timelines would match considering Whalebacker was founded right around the time that Ox Eye Media stopped filing reports. I have no personal experience with Whalebacker, but research online yielded mostly negative reports about their business. I have little experience with this side of the industry, so I will withhold personal judgment, although I will say that I was able to find a lot more discourse about this company than I had ever expected to come from this side of the industry.

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Bovenbouw docent in het dagelijks leven, maar in mijn vrije tijd zit ik het liefst tussen de bordspellen. Ik hecht veel waarde aan interactie en het spel wat zich boven tafel afspeelt. Qua genre speel ik graag social deduction spellen, trick-takers, eurogames met veel interactie en party spellen met regels voor op de zijkant van een bierviltje. Weloverwogen maar lang van stof.

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