Ninja Division, the Garden City game publishing house that approached $5 million in sales last year, was born of plastic warriors skirmishing on tabletop battlefields in a Moscow mall.
Around 2000, Nampa native Deke Stella, who attended the University of Idaho, and friends and students John Cadice and Chris Birkehnagen met regularly at Hobby Town after classes to banter while spending hours building and painting the characters and terrain for Warhammer 40,000 — a game crossing science fiction and fantasy with a model builder’s fetish for detail.
When the store went out of business, the trio rented a studio apartment above a pharmacy on Main Street to serve as home to Da Momma’s Boyz game club, collecting membership dues to pay the rent and to keep the fridge stocked with drinks.
The game club still exists, though its founders have moved up in the game world. Today, the trio make up three-fifths of the ownership of Ninja Division, a Garden City-based publishing company that brought in nearly $5 million in game sales in 2015.
Ninja Division’s most successful titles draw from the same complex game play and creative flourishes that sucked its founders into fantasy worlds in that Moscow apartment. The trio’s first big success, Super Dungeon: Explore, and its subsequent editions sold more than 75,000 copies, supporting the company’s future games and purchases of third-party game properties, including those to the famous science fiction franchise “Alien vs. Predator.”
Though Stella credits Ninja Division’s success to the loving detail in its games — Relic Knights comes with a 200-page book full of art and back story for the game’s world, factions and characters — the speed of the company’s growth was funded by strangers backing Kickstarter campaigns, giving the company more than $3 million to fund development and production.
“A lot of Kickstarter is loyalty,” Stella said. “Most Kickstarters pull in a couple hundred backers. We pretty comfortably pull in 3,000 to 7,000 backers. It’s all people who are super invested into the stuff we do. They are passionate. They see our pride of ownership, and they’ve taken that for themselves.”
FREE MONEY (NOT REALLY)
Kickstarter.com serves as an online platform where people or businesses campaign to raise money. Kickstarter remains the largest crowdfunding platform, though Indiegogo, Gofundme and others work in similar fashion.
4 Successful Kickstarter campaigns launched by Ninja Division subsidiary Soda Pop Miniatures
$3.31 million Total raised in those campaigns
21,000 Campaign backers
Kickstarter campaign pages describe projects using synopsis, photos and videos. To sweeten the pot, the campaigner promises incentives for donors.
For example, when Boise Contemporary Theater launched a campaign in 2012 to fund its production of “Off of the Record,” donors were promised a range of incentives, starting with a personal note from director Lynn Allison at the lowest backer threshold, $5. At the highest threshold — $1,000 or more — a backer and a guest were promised attendance at a dinner party with the director and cast for “an intimate discussion of the play.”
The theater raised $12,880 from 151 backers, beating the campaign goal of $10,000.
Kickstarter campaigners receive no money if they don’t meet their goals. Two of Boise Contemporary Theater’s campaigns hit their targets.
Campaigns launched by Ninja Division subsidiary Soda Pop Miniatures dwarf all other Idaho-based Kickstarter efforts. The game-maker’s biggest campaign, for Super Dungeons: Legends, raised $1.29 million from 6,611 backers in 21 days in 2015.
Most backers paid at least $150 to receive the game and various packages of expansions adding to the game’s world and play. More than 1,200 backers pledged at the “completionist” level of $300 or more, guaranteeing them every piece of the game and future expansions.
Stella said many backers see Kickstarter not as a donor platform, but as a way to order games and receive them before games flow through distributors to retail outlets, such as Barnes & Noble. In Boise, ABU Games carries Ninja All-Stars, a game with miniatures featuring the “chibi” art style, with bright colors and characters with cartoonishly large heads on small bodies.
Game companies have to invest in developing game concepts in order to have something to show for Kickstarter campaigns, Stella said. But since backers are basically ordering games, a successful Kickstarter gives the company a number of units to produce and gives Ninja Division money to fund its production for retail outlets, he said.
“We take profit we would have made from the Kickstarter into the retail run, where we make our money,” Stella said. “That helps mitigate that risk. And that’s significant.”
Serial backer Gotz Kirchhauser, a 44-year-old police officer in Blieskastel, Germany, has spent around $1,000 on four Soda Pop Miniatures Kickstarter campaigns and one for Relic Knights, an earlier Soda Pop Miniatures game released by another publisher. Kirchhauser, a longtime Warhammer player who spends more time modeling and painting than playing the games, said he was drawn to Ninja Division’s blending of anime art styles with fantasy genre.
Kirchhauser said the additional back story content, or “fluff,” makes for a richer game-playing experience.
“Their art direction is different from anything I played before,” Kirchhauser said. “I like the over-the-top anime feel. All the games are fairly easy to learn but are sometimes astonishingly complex if you dig deeper.”
KICKSTARTER AS A MARKET TESTER
Huge companies such as Hasbro, which boast big sellers such as Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons, can afford to spend millions testing its game concepts, Stella said.
En lieu of testing or risk crippling the company by producing thousands of copies that never sell, Ninja Division uses its Kickstarters as a way to gauge customer interest, Stella said.
“Hasbro has panels and test committees. We don’t have resources for that,” he said. “Kickstarter can be that for us, for the 8 or 10 percent (fee) Kickstarter takes off of the top.”
The games industry isn’t the only sector using Kickstarter as a petri dish testing proof-of-concept. Collin Rudeen, founder of Downtown brewery Boise Brewing, raised nearly $31,000 from 223 backers in 2012.
That total was a fraction of the total Rudeen needed. He later raised more than $400,000 from investors before opening the brewery at 521 W. Broad St. But the Kickstarter success was “the first rung on the ladder” Rudeen said he needed to take the concept forward.
“It’s one thing for my mom and my friends to say the brewery thing was a good idea,” Rudeen said. “Kickstarter was a way to see if people I didn’t already know to prove it was a good idea, and to do so with their checkbooks.”
However Kickstarter success or failure doesn’t always predict a product’s future, Stella said. The irreverent party card game Cards Against Humanity — self-described as a party game for horrible people — became one of the most profitable games in the world, according to business magazine Bloomberg, after raising a relatively paltry $15,000 on Kickstarter.
LIKE PEAS AND CARROTS
Games may have benefited from Kickstarter more than any other industry, making up five of the top 20 grossing Kickstarter campaigns of all time. At No. 4 on that list, card game Exploding Kittens raised nearly $8.8 million from nearly 220,000 backers.
Five video games also land on Kickstarter’s top 20.
Chris Lee, of Garden City, is an avid tabletop game player who has worked with friends to design several games with small but successful Kickstarter campaigns. One, Last Stand, raised $11,206, beating its $1,500 goal. The other, horror role playing game Breakfast Cult, raised $15,000, topping its $2,500 goal.
Lee said Kickstarter makes a good fit for gaming because it puts his ideas in front of a global audience hungry for material.
“The tabletop game community as a whole is small, and it only gets smaller as you further subdivide it into collectible card games, miniature games, board games, role playing games, etc. ...” Lee said. “Kickstarter bridges that distance and connects me to people that are interested in what I’m making. Also, it gives me money.”
Stella updates Kickstarter pages weekly even after campaigns close, providing game development and shipping updates. Many backers use the page as a forum — Super Dungeon: Forgotten King’s page has 37,000 comments, for example — the kind of customer engagement Stella said bigger companies invest millions into marketing campaigns to achieve.
“Our backers want to talk to us, and we talk to them,” Stella said. “Kickstarter is all about community, and we’re really big on creating that.”
Games do well on Kickstarter because of that chance for fans to connect with game-makers, Lee said.
“(Creators) aren’t a faceless company anymore,” he said. “It’s that guy over there and his four friends and some artists that I follow on Twitter. I feel like the publishers might actually read the comments. If I tweet at them, or make a post on (role-playing game site) rpg.net, the person who made the thing stands a good chance of actually responding.”
Kickstarter campaigns have dropped from about half of Ninja Division’s sales to about 30 percent, Stella said. Although the crowdfunding platform has sped up company growth, Stella said Ninja Division wants to reduce its reliance on Kickstarter.
“Our goal is for Kickstarter to be additional money,” Stella said. “It’s a volatile way to operate your company. It’s relying on the mob, and we’re actively trying to change that.”
From Soda to Ninja
Deke Stella, John Cardice and Chris Birkenhagen founded Soda Pop Miniatures in 2009 and began treating the company as a full-time job three years ago. After designing the successful Relic Knights and Super Dungeon: Explore with backing by publisher CoolMiniOrNot, the Soda Pop crew struck out on their own and merged with another small publisher, Cipher, to create Ninja Division.
Cipher executives Kai Nesbit and David Freeman and the Soda Pop trio make up Ninja Division’s five owners, and core business and game developers. Soda Pop Miniatures still exists as a development arm within Ninja Division and is administrator to Ninja Division’s Kickstarter campaigns.