Friday, July 11, 2014

What I Have Learned About Producing Miniatures

One of the cool things about gaming that is bigger now than it ever has been before is the ability of just about anyone to get into the biz. This has its pros and cons and certainly not everyone is cut out for it and not everyone's stuff is polished to the same degree. That is not to say that the less polished is somehow bad stuff, it just means that often critical, useful and sometimes necessary editorial steps may been skipped. This is true for printed works, but also extends to other gaming media. In my case, this is miniatures.

When I first set out to be a sculptor, I really had no grand aspirations of having my own line of miniatures and even when I did, I decided to enter the commercial realm of miniatures using contracted sculpts that I felt better represented my ideas to a degree that was, in my opinion, beyond my ability at the time. I do not regret this initial decision though I have reflected on its effect on my dedication to learning the art. But what does this have to do with what I learned about the miniatures business? A lot really.

My original plan was to contract for two packs of 6 different poses, which would have allowed for the basic elements of any combat squads. This was a reasonable starting point, I thought. I found a sculptor that did good work for a price I could afford and worked out a deal with a caster that I knew. This was falling into place and I was well within a reasonable budget for my finances. It all looked like smooth sailing.

It turned out that I tapped my sculptor's talent right as he was about to make a serious shift in his personal life. This stuff happens and I could hardly fault a guy for trying to better himself and his family's situation. He's a person and still an amazing talent that I hope to some day tap into. I tried to give the sculpts some time but eventually I had to pull the plug on that work and find a new sculptor. Finding a new sculptor wasn't all that hard and I soon had the initial sculpts for the Chuhuac back on track but then I ran into another snag in my personal life that really set me back, so much so that I entertained, and finally went through with running a Kickstarter for the miniatures.

I feel the Kickstarter went well, overall, but I have to admit that my lack of experience in the industry really set it up for all the problems that came out of it. I was new to KS and felt that I needed to pad the campaign with all sorts of stretch goals and discounts to attract backers. While this worked, it escalated the scope of the project beyond my original agreement with my caster and taxed my sculptor. I could have, and likely should have stuck to the original plan, had faith in the quality of the idea to attract folks to it. This would have prevented it from growing in the monster it did and would have saved me a lot of stress and anguish.

Flash forward to after the campaign and into the production and fulfillment process. This period was a lot of wondering and stressing and having to adapt. We had issues with the sculpts when they went to molding. I had to modify master casts so they would work for production casting. Add to this that we had to change what type and how much metal was needed for the project. Heck, just getting the over 100 pounds of metal from the UK to me cost a good chunk of cash. This is where I really learned the most. 

During the process of actually getting the miniatures to production, I took in a ton new knowledge. In addition to technical details, I had to realize that none of this stuff went fast. Mold makers and casters are often piled under work and it can take time for your turn to come up. Then there is always the possibility that things might not go right in the mold. Many problems will only emerge once you have attempted to mold the sculpts. It really pays to have an expert look over your sculpts before you send them for production. A good caster will catch most issues before they go in.

So, moving on to after the Kickstarter is done and gone. What is there left to learn? Well, for one there is marketing and such. This is where it can be hard as an independent producer. I have ZERO advertising budget and so have to rely on low cost or free outlets. This can work, using blogs, Facebook and Google + as communications outlets. There are also a lot of hobby news outlets who will pick up on your material for free, but you have to keep the releases rolling for them to do so. This last part brings me to my biggest marketing realization.

Since the Chuhuac have gone into general release, sales have been less than I would have hoped. There was a bit of a push when they first came out but sales dwindled fast as the months went on. Part of this has to do with the lack of new releases. Now, I realize it seems odd to talk about new releases after having just dropped an entire range of troops, support and other elements into the market. The truth is that most of the immediate market was accessed by the Kkickstarter and with the Kickstarter having dropped everything into the hobby's lap all at once, there was an initial buzz and then...tumbleweeds.

The Kickstarter actually left me in debt. Despite having generated thousands of dollars and even getting a financial shot in the arm from family, I still could not cover the full cost of the Kickstarter which came out to something around $10,000. This meant that I wasn't in a position to invest in new projects to keep the ball rolling. Going back to the original plan for the Loud Ninja Games start up, if I had released the two packs and then rolled those sales into new development, I could have kept up a semi-regular series of releases that would have established a market for my figures and built the LNG name up. Instead I came into the world screaming and kicking with a mixed bag of emotions and then pretty much went silent. 

So, here I am. I have a full range of miniatures released that are barely selling and currently no way to get new items to market. Even if I could get the greens by sculpting my own, I cannot get them into production until I am square with my casters. This is where hobby craft might come into good use. Displaying my product in use by others and showing off my own paint jobs of my product. The problem here seems to be that, despite there being 125 people out there with my product, only about four have posted any images of their new toys to the internet. This is not a complaint, but it certainly doesn't help with exposure. I do not have a local outlet for 15mm science fiction gaming and so posting my own game pics is difficult if not impossible. 

Soooo... key points.

  1. Consider taking it slow and steady. Consider your release schedule and how it will build your brand. 
  2. Do not take a Kickstarter lightly. It is a lot of work and can go horribly wrong.
  3. Get as much info up front and make your move only when you have all the details you can get.
  4. Pick your vendors (sculptors, casters, etc) widely.
  5. Stay hands on. Inspect, ask, bother, bug and otherwise make a pain in the ass of yourself with all your vendors.
  6. Advertise, show off and otherwise figure out how to market your products. Give them away to some convention goers if you have to.
For those looking for information on Loud Ninja Games and its products -

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  1. I was very engaged reading your reflections on your entry into the biz. Thanks for posting your thoughts and advice.

  2. Great write-up and anyone looking to get into the minis business would be well to read it.

  3. Thanks for posting this.

    People forget that this business is, well, business. Customers demand more variety and more ranges and then only buy one pack (I'm a terrible example as I don't buy much myself). As posts on TMP etc. often remind me, lot of people really, really don't understand the expenses that go into even a single sculpt! To be fair little metal men are just about the first thing that gets dropped from many people's budgets when things are tight, and that doesn't help either...

    The problem here seems to be that, despite there being 125 people out there with my product, only about four have posted any images of their new toys to the internet.

    From the customer's perspective, we want to snap up something new and interesting, because clicking your mouse to spend a few bucks is easy if you can afford it. What isn't easy is, as the kind of adult that can afford to buy hobby stuff, having any free time to DO anything with it once it arrives. Simply put you can't rely on us bloggers to showcase your product, because we are mostly busy working and shoveling snow and taking our kids to soccer, so your product gets painted and played with for maybe an hour or two a week :( Believe me, we would love it to be otherwise.

    1. Allison, I very much understand the customer perspective. I am one of those too :)

      It's not so much that I was depending on people posting pictures, I was just surprised I didn't see more. Th individual alien character sculpts I did for have shown up more. It was just a bit surprising, is all.

    2. I wonder if a lot of the squads are just hastily painted for the table, and people don't care to showcase them as much as the RPG/painter types who buy quirky alien characters. A pity at any rate, since I love to ogle other people's work.

    3. That is possible. I'll be getting some more painted as time for projects allows. Also the garage is pretty warm. 87 degrees this morning at 7:30 AM.

  4. I notice that there is no link to where to buy your miniatures in this post. If I go to the Industry Work link at the top there is no mention of them. Perhaps you could link to them from somewhere visible on your site?

    1. This was intentional. I tried to keep the post as non-commercial as possible because selling my product was not its purpose.

  5. I remember when I first bought Garrison and decided that the only way I could do it was by casting my own. I made a comment about 'now I suppose I'll to learn how to cast the things' - sure enough, I came across a post elsewhere to the effect 'Oh, yeah, someone else in to make a quick buck and then run'. Fact is, as you - and other start ups I know about - know, sales start off slowly. It'll possibly be 2-3 years before you have a decent customer base - and that assumes that you go to Conventions to sell.

    Regarding bloggers posting your figures. Well, I've run Garrison for over 7 years now. There are perhaps 2 or 3 bloggers who regulary post Garrison figures, half a dozen others who sometimes do, and another few whose figures appear on the Garrison site. So, don't expect much from that. Better to post them on your own blog then post it into something like TMP or Frothers. You could also keep an eye on posts there and be ready to say 'I've something that might meet your needs' when you see something.

    And also... fine, you don't want to post links here because you don't want to commercialise the site.

    Commercialise it. Post pictures of your figures here. Post links. This blog could help to generate sales - and that is something that seems to be your main priority at the moment.


    1. Don' read me wrong. The mention of bloggers was intended as a statement of the realization that was not the way to go.

      It's not that I didn't want to commercialize the site so much as this post was not about selling my figs but communicating what I had learned. LNG has its own blog, Facebook and TMP ID.

  6. Oh, I think it is a way to go. Just that it is one way as part of a strategy that includes several different ways. Likewise, talking about your figures and what you've learned would be enhanced by giving people reading the blog direct access. Look on any sales generated as a useful side effect if you like, but the link is certainly a valid item to add.

  7. Good article Eli, I get totally about others posting pics of your figures (its the same for me too!) but as its been commented here, your probably better off doing it for yourself (if you get the time that is!). Also I don't think you should worry too much about commercializing stuff on your posts, as well as any place that you can on the net, you know what they say, every little helps, and besides the added link here and there would take nothing away from your original intention for the article!

  8. Judging by the comments here, my concern over self-promotion detracting from the message of the post was misplaced. As such I have added links to the end of the article to all valid sites for LNG news.

    Thanks for the comments and feedback.



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