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ep#5 BattleTech, raising $6m for the greatest SciFi universe you've never heard of

Welcome to episode 5 of our podcast. Today's guest is Randall Bills, who is the managing developer at Catalyst Game Labs. Their current Kickstarter project is raising over $6 million! We talked about his strategy in raising such a huge amount and how to create a strong community with people that love your game. When we talked to Randall, they were inching closer to $5 million, but in the short time afterwards they managed to raise an additional $1 million. Pretty impressive!

Randall: [00:00:00] it's been so successful and it's been around so long while it started out as a tabletop miniature game, there's well over a hundred novels that have been published and dozens of computer games that have been published and comics and toys and plushies and like just everything under the sun can be found here.

Randall: For those that are like, how can it be this big? And I've never heard of it. I was just listening to a video that I have found from a fan, who called it the greatest science fiction universe You've never heard of.

George: Our guest today is Randall Bills. He is the managing developer at Catalyst Game Labs. They are currently live on Kickstarter, [00:01:00] inching closer to $5 million, raised with their project BattleTech mercenaries.

George: Randall is a celebrated game designer who works primarily on role playing games and is the author of countless and I mean countless BattleTech books. Welcome Randall. Before we dive into your million dollar campaign.

George: Can you give us a quick introduction on yourself and your background?

Randall: Well, I've been doing this a long, long time. Like most kids in the eighties that were geeks, we ran into a anime called Robotech early on, which was based on a whole series of, uh, Macross and super dimensional fortress, amazing anime out of Japan.

Randall: And I'm 14 or 15 when I first discovered that, could not get enough of it, recorded it on the VCR, you know, re-watched it all the time, I had already been playing D&D for a couple years and. Happened to see the cover. Actually the first cover I saw was Fox's Teeth, which is a scenario pack.

Randall: And then I went to another game store and actually saw the [00:02:00] original BattleTech second edition box set. Being 15 at the time, I had to you know, took a while to decide if I was gonna spend all my paper money on, buying that box set. And I did. And of course just fell in love with it instantly and it's still very much pinch me moments where I think that I've been engaged in loving this universe for nearly 40 years. And I still love it and I still get to be a part of it.

Randall: And then for getting in the industry, this is, that moment where I get to give a wonderful shout out to Brian Nicetel. Again. Brian Nicetal was the BattleTech line developer at FASA Corporation, which was the creator and publisher of the game.

Randall: And he had come out from Chicago to a local game convention, called Hexa con.

Randall: Hexa Con in Arizona where I was living, and. I had made a variant of the succession wars board game, which was a kind of a grand [00:03:00] strategy board game set, metic universe. And I jokingly asked, of course, I'm totally geeking out cuz here's the line developer of this game that I've been loving for 10 years.

Randall: And I jokingly asked, Hey, do you want to play my game? And he said yes for some weird reason. And so he stayed up all night. Playing this game with us at this convention and it was terrible, right? Like it's, it's just a terrible, I still have it somewhere buried cuz I have to keep it cuz it's the very first thing I did.

Randall: But somehow he saw something in there that then, you know, the next year when they were looking for somebody to bring in as, as an assistant, To the various game designers, the shattering game designer, earth on game designer, and then Valtech game designer. Um, he said, Hey, we should give Randall a chance.

Randall: And then another great moment of shout out to my wife, because then suddenly I'm 24. And about to move, you know, almost 2000 miles away from family and [00:04:00] friends to a city I'd never been in. And moving from Arizona to Chicago in January, uh, you know, was quite the shock. And so for almost a moment I was kind of like, do, do I really wanna do this?

Randall: And Tara was basically, you have to do this, right? Like, this is all you've ever wanted. And so, I took the leap and then. You know, I've just kind of followed BattleTech through all the various companies that it's been at because I've loved it to death, and I just love the community and love being a part of it.

George: So you have never not been a game designer.

Randall: I, I've been a, yeah, for a very long time. I, like I said, I did the game design well. I was writing fan fiction stuff when I was in high school. I started tinkering with game design when I was in high school. And then, just, before I turned 25 is when I got hired in at the tabletop industry.

Randall: Had an amazing ability to work with just so many fantastic people, [00:05:00] cuz designing a game is never all by yourself, right? It's, it's a collaborative effort. Uh, you may start the ball rolling, but to get it finalized and out the door is a huge team of wonderfully creative people. And it's one of the, one of the things I love most about.

Randall: This industry and most about what I get to do is working with just passionate, wonderfully creative people to, you know, as I like to say, make crap up and put it out there and, and find an audience for it. And you're just so grateful and thankful when you find an audience for this thing that you just made up ,

George: And what an audience you found with BattleTech in your last, uh, two kickstarters actually. For those unfamiliar with Battle Tech, what is the basic premise of, of this game in this universe?

Randall: I like to, uh, say that BattleTech is kind of the original Game of Thrones. Um, think. Giant walking tanks set in a far future science fiction landscape. Um, and it's kind of [00:06:00] a fall of the Roman Empire

Randall: It's the 31st century now, but several centuries before there was this Grand star league that unified all of humanity and then it collapsed into war. And so then you have. Succession war states, there's great noble lineage, star empires that then fight each other to hopefully try and reestablish that starling again. And so it's been so successful and it's been around so long that it's, you know, while it started out as a tabletop miniature game, there's well over a hundred novels that have been published and dozens of computer games that have been published and comics and toys and plushies and like just everything under the sun can be found here.

Randall: I was actually just for those that are. like How can it be this big? And I've never heard of it. Right. Uh, I was just listening to a video that I have found from a fan, um, who called it the [00:07:00] greatest science fiction universe You've never heard of.

George: Just saw that video.

Randall: YouTube. Right, right. That and the first couple of minutes are so funny.

Randall: Like he just, yeah. It, it's, he kind of captures a Galaxy quest vibe where he is totally poking fun at it. In a way that we all poke fun at the thing that we love and, and still, you know, so yeah, big shout out to whoever put that together. And anyone that's thinking about, just type that in. The greatest science fiction universe you've never heard of.

Randall: And he does a fabulous couple of minutes before he then goes into the computer game side of it, which again, it's all interconnected, right? You read a novel, you play the computer game, you play the board game. They're all just aspects of experiencing what it's like to be in this universe,

George: And this universe is currently owned by Catalyst Game Labs or like, how does this work? Because you knew this game when you were a teenager. You're currently [00:08:00] the managing developer on, on this game, so how does that whole structure work?

Randall: It's a lot more complicated than that because, Any, any property that's been around for a long time and been really successful gets chopped up. It's just the nature of IPs, uh, intellectual properties.

Randall: So back in the late nineties, so FASA Corporation originally published the BattleTech game in. Themselves board game, and it blew up, right? It just became massive. So then they started publishing novels and more product and source books and just fleshed it out into a whole, uh, what we call a lifestyle game.

Randall: Most board games are not lifestyle games. You play it, you love it, you're done. You put it back on the shelf. A lifestyle game is where you can experience it in a lot of different ways, and you're like, you know, as you can see right now, I'm wearing, I'm wearing a Klan Wolf t-shirt. So like, star Wars is a, is a lifestyle IP, right?

Randall: If you love Star Wars, you love Star Wars, you love watching it, you'll love reading it. You play the computer games, you wear the [00:09:00] stuff. And so that's what it was turning into. And then, They did the virtual reality pods, so the very first.

Randall: Internet connected entertainment of being able to sit inside something and play a game was done by Battle Tech. It was a virtual world entertainment, and that was in the early nineties. And then that blossomed up to a point that they did FASA Interactive. So FASA created a computer game division, that's to publish games.

Randall: And then as happens, Microsoft came along and bought the computer game side. Any electronic game for the BattleTech universe is owned by Microsoft and has been for 20 plus years. And it's Microsoft, right? So they're never gonna give it up. So it's always over there. So when you see all the computer games that have happened in the last 20 years, that's always been either Microsoft directly [00:10:00] or is a license from Microsoft.

Randall: Then in 2001, FASA Corporation closed its doors. As many game companies do it. Its time had come a new company came along called Wizkids, created by the same Jordan Wiseman, who had created FASA and Battle Tech. And they took on the license for BattleTech and they started doing BattleTech stuff as well.

Randall: And then in the late two thousands, they were then bought by Tops. Literally Tops the baseball company, right? So Catalyst came along in 2007, and that's a whole interesting story under itself about how Catalyst was formed. Catalyst arrived on the scene in 2007, made up of a lot of the people. Like me who'd been working on for decades, right?

Randall: Like it just, it came about that it was time to form a new company to be able to start publishing this game we love. [00:11:00] So then we licensed the rights from Tops. So Catalyst does not own BattleTech. Okay. Okay. We just licensed the rights to produce the board game novels, fiction source books, and so on, and then Tops was just recently purchased.

Randall: Uh, last year by Fanatics, uh, which is, you know, a multi-billion dollar sports paraphernalia company. Yeah. Yeah. Um, and so technically now we are a licensed or, or we are a licensee of Fanatics. And then, The movie rights and the film rights are all off at a totally other company called Tornante.

Randall: So it's, it's a big long mess, right? Like I can, we can still talk about the nuances of it for several hours, just that part.

George: So it switches ownership or it gets split off but you're the consistency throughout this whole process, right?

Randall: So the game came out in, uh, 85, the biotech second edition [00:12:00] box that was published in 85. Um, and for those listening for the BattleTech that, want me to say it, it actually was published as BattleDroids.

Randall: In 1984, and Lucas immediately sent a cease and desist over the use of the words droid because he owns it. And so they had to change that. So then it became BattleTech in 85. So I've been playing since the end of 1986 as a fan. And then in 1996, I was hired to work on it. And then, yeah, I've. I'm probably the single strongest through thread of it all.

Randall: Uh, again, there's many authors, freelance authors that have been working on it, uh, almost as long, if not longer than I have in a freelance capacity. But being on the inside and then traveling from company to company, I, I have been that person that has been able to keep that momentum going. The in institutional knowledge, if you will.

George: Yeah. The steward of the universe. Yeah. [00:13:00] Um, so then moving into this latest Kickstarter campaign, um, first of all, why did you decide to do a Kickstarter? You've done one previously, you did super well, also about 2.5 million I believe. Why do you with such a legacy still decide to do a Kickstarter?

Randall: The adventure gaming industry, the tabletop games industry, one of its biggest problems is marketing and marketing penetration. Being able to let people know what it is that you're doing. And that's always been some all the way back at the very beginning from D&D when it was first made in the late seventies where Gary and his family and friends are literally selling the game out of their trunk.

Randall: Right. Um, all the way up to today. It's still hard to [00:14:00] get people to know what it is cuz we just don't have good channels for marketing. And then add to that, that gaming has actually exploded in popularity over the last 20 years. To levels that I still have a hard time wrapping my head around. Right?

Randall: Like I, uh, I just went to see the D&D movie last weekend that I loved, great fun time. And I'm sitting there thinking to myself that even. 15 years ago, I could not have imagined that I'd be sitting in a theater watching. Full on, you know, giant Hollywood blockbuster movie of Dungeons and Dragons, right?

Randall: Yeah. Um, so now we then have kind of the flip side of that, which is not only do we still struggle to market, but now there are so many games going to market that it's hard to get past the noise, right? I think last year or maybe it. Year before there was something like 4,000 board games, not even miniature games, just [00:15:00] board games released last year.

Randall: Now again, I don't mean that as a bad thing. Uh, I see that as a wonderful, fantastic thing, particularly when I can walk out and still find most people on the street that have no idea what it is that we do for fun. That means, you know, we still have such a giant audience that we can go find, but it means finding that audience is really hard.

Randall: So for us and for a lot of companies that I talk to, the Kickstarter is very rarely about the money. Sometimes it can be absolutely, but it's almost always about marketing. Hence right now, me having this interview with you, this would never have happened except you saw a big, giant successful Kickstarter and you're like, Hey, I wanna know what's going on there.

Randall: Right? Yeah. So it it's about the exposure and then this comes back to what we were talking earlier, the greatest science fiction universe you've never heard of we're trying to change that, and Kickstarter is helping us change that, helping get the word out. Hey, this is an [00:16:00] amazing universe and you should totally come and check it out.

George: Yeah, so I guess in that sense, one of Kickstarter's unique properties is that it publicly shows how much you're raising, right? If you just have like an online store, no one sees the amount of orders you have with a Kickstarter. People like myself are looking at this and going, Have I missed something really big in the world?

Randall: That's success breeds success, right? Yeah. Like it's, we, we were just talking, you know, we, we've broken into the top 50 Kickstarters of all time right now. Um, you know, can we get into the top 20? Can we get into the top 15? Could we get into the top 10 and Sure. The money is great. Don't get me wrong. But to me it's about what would that say about this property that we love?

Randall: How many new eyes for years to come? Would be finding this game because every time they go and search, Hey, what's the top 20 Kickstarters, which everyone loves to do and ours is in there every [00:17:00] time, right? Yeah. Uh, so, so to us, that's the magic that we're trying to find is to get more eyes and more people sitting at tables, tossing, dice, or reading one of her books and Kickstarter is helping us do that.

George: Amazing. Can you speak a little bit to what your marketing strategy has been for this specific campaign and how it got so big?

Randall: It's really complicated. And what I mean by that is it's not big because we did any one specific thing.

Randall: It's big because of a lot of factors that have played out across several years, some of which we've been hard at work at. Others are just pure serendipity and we're able to tap into that. Any giant IP waxes and wanes, right? It, it grows big. Everybody loves it. It kind of goes down and only the hardcore guys are staying on and then it comes back again.

Randall: It's just the nature of how this goes. And so BattleTech has always been there. [00:18:00] It has published some new thing every single year for coming on 40 years. You know, six or seven years ago, it absolutely was in the bottom. It was at the trough of how many people were playing and people paying attention to it.

Randall: And one of the key things that we decided to do, was to do new plastic miniatures. BattleTech has had metal miniatures. Most of tabletop miniature play has been metal through almost all of its existence. About 15 years ago, plastic started coming on the scene pretty good. We tried our hand at plastic about 10 years ago, and it was terrible.

Randall: They did not work out very well at all. And so we're like, you know what? Let's try it again, but we're gonna do it differently this time. And then the other really key magic thing that we did was to reimagine the BattleMechs. So for those that don't know what a BattleMech is, BattleMechs [00:19:00] are the stars.

Randall: They're, like I said, giant walking tanks anywhere from, you know, seven to 16 meters tall. So like 30, 35 feet tall. These giant cool gargantuan robots. But instead of being robots, they have a pilot. Like Top Gun, for example, running around in it. And that's very much the vibe. It's like, you know, top Gun meets a knight that gets on his metal steed of a giant robot and goes, blows, blows stuff up on an alien world.

Randall: Right.

George: What, what did that guy in that YouTube video say about this? He said it was, it's like a cat truck meets a transformer.

Randall: It was, if the Caterpillar company had bought Gundam, Which is another style of mech. Right. So, and that's very much true, right? It's, it's, uh, anime, which again, I watch plenty of, I love it all.

Randall: Uh, but they're very, um, fast and super agile and they're almost human-like, even if they're giant, whereas these are big [00:20:00] lumbering tanks, right? They, they have a heft and a weight to 'em that just feels really cool.

Randall: And so, and then we followed through and actually came out with good quality plastics. And so in uh, 2018, we published the beginner box set. And a game of armored combat, which were the two newest ways that you would get into the universe.

Randall: Jordan, who was the original creator of BattleTech, who had founded FASSA and founded Wiz Kids, had then gone off to do Harebrained Schemes .

Randall: They did a wonderful shattering game, uh, which is our cyber punk meets Lord of the Rings role-playing game that we publish as well. They did Harebrained Schemes , BattleTech, computer game. They ran incredibly successful Kickstarter. They released it in 2018.

Randall: This critically acclaimed, wonderfully received computer game coming out at the exact same time that we were coming out with our brand new plastics and a new way [00:21:00] in. And then in 2019, Is when we launched the Klan Invasion Kickstarter and the Klan Invasion Kickstarter, that one was much more about the money, right?

Randall: Making molds for minis is expensive. Really, really expensive. How expensive? Uh, so a given mold, like one of our bottle tech molds is about $3,500. For, for one miniature, it's about $3,500. Do you have how many? Uh, and we, well, the kickstart, well, so we were gonna do like 15 mechs and we told the Kickstarter, we're gonna do 15 mechs, and if you fund we're 15 and we're good.

Randall: Right? But then we allowed them to go, Hey, you're gonna tell us how many you want to unlock, right? There's hundreds and hundreds of mechs that have been made over 40 years. We will go as far as you guys want us. And we eventually had to cut them off because they unlocked almost a hundred.

Randall: So a hundred [00:22:00] times, three and a half thousand. And you could quickly understand how monstrously expensive just the mold costs for that were. Yeah. But it did exceptionally well. It exploded. It got players coming back in.

Randall: And so then that leads us up to now, which is part of what has made BattleTech so amazing is it has a persistent dynamic universe, uh, which means that it actually progresses.

Randall: So the universe changes and progressions, characters live and they die, and new characters are born and they come along. So the game covers like a thousand years, and of course it's been 40 years and we have hundreds of source books and novels, so you can play anywhere you want along that time frame..

Randall: But at the same time, the game when it was originally published started in 3025 in what was called the succession wars. a new faction invaded, called the Clans, uh, that were like these huge technologically advanced factions that came sweeping in. We then progressed through several [00:23:00] eras. Well, uh, two years ago we just wrapped up an era that had been around for quite some time called the Dark Age, and we've just opened up a new era. Called the Ilklan era with new fiction, new storylines, new campaigns.

Randall: So it's also a perfectly good onboarding moment as well, right? You, well, obviously you can dive in and you know, BattleTech is so deep and wide that you can swim as far and as deep as you want. But you can also just grab, for example, our new Tamar Rising Source book and a box set and feel like you're getting in on the ground floor.

Randall: And we have this ourselves with some other board games that we've done. You run a Kickstarter, you get that material out, awesome. You made it, it's great. And then you try and put it into distribution, actually get it outta retail stores and nothing happens. Right? And there's plenty of games or plenty of companies that make it perfectly good living just doing Kickstarter [00:24:00] games.

Randall: So the question was always what's gonna happen when it gets into the market? And apparently all of that work did amazing because we've sold four and five times through distribution. What we have. Uh, through the Kickstarter and as of the start of this year, we had put into the market like around 7 million plastic minis, uh, in the last three years.

Randall: So there's just this huge interest. Another thing that we did that was kind of an accident, which is we originally coming out of GenCon, which is the biggest tabletop gaming convention in the world.

Randall: Last August, we had said, we're gonna be launching this at the end of the year. Well, we weren't able to launch it at the end of the year. Right? Like we wanted to get further along in production and all the assets that we needed. And so we weren't able to launch it until just this last March 23rd. But what we [00:25:00] did start doing is starting in December, every two weeks for four months, we released a preview PDF that actually showed you a behind the scenes.

Randall: Here's one of the old designs. Here's an image of it when it was published in, you know, 1987. And then here's the process that we took it to redesign it all, and, and then tied that into new fiction that was being released into new t-shirts that we released. Uh, so every two weeks for four months was this cool big experience of I get to look behind the scenes at this game at this Kickstarter that's coming. And so by the time we got here, not to diminish the normal backer kit or social media posts and marketing and all those ads that we do, those are absolutely helpful and we've done 'em. Yeah, but I think it was far more. This other momentum that we had built [00:26:00] up of players actually playing our game.

Randall: And then that four months of just every two weeks, they got a cool look behind the scenes of what we were doing. That I think is what really went over the top. And then, and then we did the whole live stream um, at AdeptiCon. So that not only could they launch it, but then for almost 40 hours worth across four days, I, along with the other biggest people involved, the artists to the authors, the line developers.

Randall: Either we were playing games, which is what this is all about, right? And people could watch us playing games or we would sit and have discussions. Fiction or art and answer questions. And so that type of connectivity, that type of giving them access to us, I think was also a huge help in why there was such a crazy acceleration right out of the gate.

George: So a few years ago, you modernized the franchise, you gave it, a modern [00:27:00] facelift, so to say, and that got people sort of reexcited. Then you're taking people along this journey. Leading up to this campaign where you're giving them behind the scenes looks into how you guys are thinking about the art and the design, and they're becoming part of the process that they're already really bought into this campaign before it's even started.

George: And then to top it all off, you have direct access to the, the main people behind the game, being yourself and your colleagues live streaming, answering questions. So really you've, you've drawn people into the process rather than just, you know, staying in the shadows and then saying to now here's a new thing, please buy.

Randall: I completely agree with all of that. One last element I forgot. Just cuz there's so much to talk about, uh, some other crazy idea that we had, which is we actually put out a call to game stores all over the world to say we're gonna run eight to 10 launch parties that we will take. Some [00:28:00] 30 models from this Kickstarter, and we will get advanced samples in from the printer and then we're gonna mail 'em to you, and then you're gonna be able to run games in your store.

Randall: You're gonna be able to give out these brand new models that have never been seen before. And then during our livestream we're gonna touch base with you so all of your guys can sit there and talk with us. So that was a whole other. Big emotional connection that we were able to create, you know, and it was like four or five here in the US but we had, you know, one in Ireland, one in UK, one in Germany, uh, just really all over the world because we have this wonderful worldwide community.

Randall: Many of which have been playing this game absolutely every bit as long as I have. And others just finding the game for the first time. And so I think that connection and that availability and that the immediacy of all of that, really created something special that I don't believe I've ever really seen done with a Kickstarter launch.[00:29:00]

George: It seems very unique and I, I saw, you know, the launch parties and the live stream and Twitch, and it just, it feels like such a momentous event, and I'm sure it is to a lot of people who are into this Game. But the way you guys set it up, it just, it feels like bigger than Steve Jobs launching the iPod, you know?

Randall: Well, that's, that's, well, that's what we're trying to do. Like, you know, anyone who loves a thing loves when that thing is doing well. Right. It's just, it's the nature of what we love. Yeah. And you know, when you love a band and the band starts doing really good, and suddenly everyone starts in, not only you're like, Hey, I, I was there before it was cool, but then you're like, but now they're cool and that's awesome. Yeah. And so if you've loved BattleTech for all this time, seeing it back at the top of its game, seeing it where people are, almost running towards it to wanna be a part of it and play it. That's just such an [00:30:00] amazing feeling. And for the vast majority of the community, it's open arms, right?

Randall: Like, please c