Negative Emotional Contexts

I’ve been using the phrase “negative emotional context” in other posts for a bit now. Today, I’ll dive in more, using my friend Josh Roby as an example. Yesterday, he tweeted that he’s sent the PDF for his recent Kickstarter-funded project, the Coronets but Never Crowns expansion for Houses of the Blooded. He followed up by saying the PDF won’t be released until the physical books are shipped and expected to hit doorsteps.

(Full disclosure: I privately discussed this with him prior to this blog post, and about why I don’t want to do this for any of the projects we’re doing together. He told me I should post about this.)

His rationale is experiencial. From his Kickstarter project update:

Upon tweeting this, I got a lot of responses asking if that meant the PDF would be sent out to backers.  I’m shooting for getting the PDFs in your inbox at the same time your hardcopies get to your doorstep, so those folks who prefer a book in hand don’t have to read a PDF while they wait for their book.  It’s an experience thing.

Here was my reaction to reading that. (Understand that I’m speaking from a mental place, so the “you” is responding to Josh internally.)

  • I’m a better judge of how I like my experience than you are.
  • I kinda wish I could un-kickstarter now, due to annoyance.
  • I’ll think second about backing your future endeavors.

This is what I call a Negative Emotional Context. I’m now unhappy with this product. Prior to this, I was excited for the project. Seeing updates about Storn Cook’s art, for instance, increased my Positive Emotional Context.

Whatever your emotional context is, positive or negative, will color two important elements:

  • Your initial experience with the book
  • Your discussions about the book (online & in person)

Now when I get the book, that annoyance at Josh is going to color reading it. I’m going to be unconsciously more judgmental and unforgiving of issues. That’s why it’s an emotional context. We’re buyers. We buy games for subtle (and not so subtle) emotional reasons[1], lizard brain shit that colors how we see the text, the game, the experience.

The Negative Flip

It’s difficult to maintain a positive and negative emotional context simultaneously. Let’s attempt to make a visual diagram. The [P] indicates a “unit” of positive, and the [N] a “unit” of negative — this is about how passionate we are with this thing. We’ll see if this diagram flies.

  1. Josh is making a Houses expansion. That’s cool. I’ll buy in. [P]
  2. Ohh, that’s a neat reward. (I bought one that comes with the cards.) [P][P]
  3. That’s some kick-ass art he’s got from Storn! [P][P][P]
  4. The PDF won’t be sent until the books are. [N][N]

With each piece of news or neat discovery, my positive context increased. I found about about Josh’s project enough to want to buy in, so I went to the page. I saw the reward for the Peer Cards, and I love stuff like that, so my interest grew. Later, Josh sent an update with some of Storn’s art, and my interest grew further.

Then we get to this issue. When you hear about something that would change your context from positive to negative, there are one of two responses I see: disappointment (“meh”) and anger (“fuck you”). When you’re disappointed, your passion in a project decreases. It might also flop to negative, but it doesn’t always. When you’re angered, your passion in a project actually increases, but it definitely flops to negative. In an alternate universe, my #4 would have pushed me to [N][N][N][N][N].

The Positive Flop

This is a recoverable position, but you have to do something in order to cause the flop back. We see this all the time with good customer service. You’re angry about an issue, you write in, and…they’re polite and fix the problem. You were ready to unload, and instead you were listened to and your issue resolved.

For some people, that turns them from bitter folks into super fans. ([N][N] -> [P][P][P])

For others, it just makes them happy, usually in a defused rather than amped way. ([N][N] -> [P])

And for still others, they find reason to still complain and hate, though hopefully with less vitriol than before. ([N][N] -> [N])

You can’t please everyone, but your efforts still have an efffect. Good customer service — listening to people and responding — is emotional aikido.

Josh has done this buy releasing the first chapter to the backers. It’ll be interesting to see how that changes the context for people when they get the whole book.

Not Owning Your Message

This could have been different if I read Josh’s email to his backers before reading his short tweet about it. I don’t know in what way, but it’s possible, so that’s where I go back to how you don’t own your message — you don’t control the order in which people receive the things you say.


So when I talk about negative emotional context, this is what I’m talking about — things that cause people to engage your game (reading, playing, talking about) in a negative light, which will spread that negativity to others who have no context in the first place. If that’s something you’d like to mitigate[2], watch what you’re doing and how people respond.

– Ryan

[1] Which gets to a future post about what we’re actually paying for when we pony up for a book. It’s a lot more than you might think.

[2] And to some degree it isn’t. But that’s a messy topic.


20 Responses to Negative Emotional Contexts

  1. Zac in Virginia says:

    Well said, Ryan!
    I find that, in political debates, “aikido” is a very useful way of describing the better approaches to handling strong disagreement.
    Even if someone’s angrily accusing you of holding a stupid position, you can do things like ask them lots of questions (softball questions, that is), and before long, they’ve probably said something you can both agree on. The point isn’t necessarily to get them to think like you do; the point is to determine how different you really are.
    In terms of customer service, I suppose the point is to use lots of questions to answer the big question, “What do you want?” However, that’s coming from a place of being in the rank-and-file, not in leadership. If you’re in leadership, you have to both do fact-finding and defend the decisions you’ve made; if you’re not, you get to focus entirely on fact-finding, and deflect damning responsibility for the time being.

  2. Fred Hicks says:

    Josh referenced “those folks who prefer a book in hand don’t have to read a PDF while they wait for their book”

    I’m not sure who those people are. But I should, because I should be one of them; I’m someone who prefers a book in hand.

    Here’s the disconnect for me: I’m NEVER someone who “has to” read a PDF. I might get the PDF along with my preorder/kickstarter contribution, but I’m unlikely to read it until the book gets there. But if that PDF shows up in my box and I wanna leaf through it, great. There’s no obligation. There’s no Have To.

    On the flipside, though, I *know* there are people who want as instant gratification as they can possibly get. These are PDF-first folks, for whom the book is practically an archivable afterthought — or for whom the book is something they’ll be happy to read when it shows up, but they’re even gladder to be reading the PDF before the physical book shows up.

    I am not one of those people, but I know they exist, because I’ve been selling to them for 5 years now and making them pretty darn happy with a “PDF as soon as you buy” policy.

    It feels like Josh is trying to serve people I have no real confirmation of existing outside of theory (I’ve never had someone complain that they got the PDF before the book showed up and were therefore forced to read the book), but I know there are people (the PDF first-ers) who are getting something less than their ideal experience. If anyone “has to” do something here, it’d be waiting for content that could be theirs to read more immediately than Josh is delivering it.

    I think I understand what experience Josh is trying to craft, but I don’t think it’s an experience that’s highly valued in today’s marketplace. The one Ryan is advocating in this post seems a lot more common based on Evil Hat’s own sales history.

    • Elizabeth says:

      I’m with you, but here’s my shot in the dark about what Josh is talking about: if the PDF comes out long before the book and you want to be involved in all of the initial conversation about the product, you “have to” read toe PDF even if you prefer books.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      But is that’s worth the change in the emotional contexts of those conversations? That’s the question a publisher should be thinking with any such moves. And it’s one that we don’t really consider until we see someone else step in that quagmire. :)

      (Hence Josh’s rather cool willingness to be the subject of this post.)

      – Ryan

    • Elizabeth says:

      I don’t know if it is or not, which is why I didn’t engage the debate. I was just trying to provide more context, not make a value statement.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Sorry, was a genuine question. For some, the answer might be “yes.” But it should be intentional, not accidental — as with many moves a publisher makes.

      The backlash here is also, in my mind, a useful datapoint.

      – Ryan

    • Fred Hicks says:

      That’s a good point, Elizabeth. I’m *still* not sure that population outweighs the PDF-firsters, but it’s an angle I hadn’t considered. Thanks!

    • Matthew D. Gandy says:


      By that argument, if I want to be involved in the initial conversation about Portal 2, HBO’s Game of Thrones, or Marvel’s relaunch of Ultimate titles, I have to play/watch/read it *right now*. I think we now live in an age where that disconnect is not only likely, it’s necessary for our sanity – there is too much content, so we have to make choices. Which is to say, I think the argument is weak, not wrong.

      This is just my guess, but I suspect Josh was thinking as Josh-as-Customer and made the choice for us. The admirable part here is Think Like Your Customer, but the downfall is that sometimes you have to get outside feedback.

  3. Fred Hicks says:

    And actually, there’s also a solid word of mouth marketing thing to keep in mind with doing the PDF first, print as it shows up thing — if you lump those two events together, there’s only going to be one point in time where there’s a “surge” online of people talking about getting delivery of the game and talking about how excited they are about it. If you separate them — give folks PDF first, let them receive and talk and enthuse about it, then that subsides, you’re then primed for a second surge of conversation when the physical books show up. That overall extends the period of time that your alpha adopters (the people likely to be most excited about the game, and most likely to tell others about why they should have it) will spend doing their grass-roots free-advertising-for-you word-of-mouth marketing. So even beyond the potentially debatable experience thing, there are some pragmatic reasons for pursuing the PDF-first approach. (We saw this to our benefit with Spirit of the Century, the Dresden Files, and more.)

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      It should be of no surprise to you that I’m nodding in agreement.

      – Ryan

  4. Mike Olson says:

    Okay, so it’s not just me. That bit about not having to read the PDF while waiting for the hard-copy version struck me as odd, so odd I assumed I must’ve misread something. As Fred said, I can’t imagine there’s anyone out there who’d feel inconvenienced by having an option or resource they didn’t have before. It’s not “You have to read this PDF while you wait for the mail to be delivered” — it’s “You get to read this PDF right now while the slow-ass snail mail trucks the book to you.”

    However, that said, as perplexing as I found this development, it didn’t push me into negative-emotion territory. I don’t know when or if I’ll run a game of HotBlooded. I currently have no expectation to do so, like, ever, which means I have no expectation to use Coronets either, but that’s not why I pledged. I just wanted to support a quality project from someone I know. While I want my reward (because reward!), the delayed-PDF thing doesn’t take away from my enthusiasm for Josh’s work.

    From a marketing standpoint, delaying the PDF is weird; from a personal standpoint, it’s a shrug. That said, I completely understand the POV of those who are put off by the delay, or the thinking behind the delay.

  5. Matthew D. Gandy says:

    This hits two nails on their heads, for me: first, this was my reaction to Josh’s decision regarding PDF delivery, and second, I think the different possible reactions Ryan outlines are spot-on.

    Josh’s Kickstarter for Coronets made several solid steps, with only two missteps:

    1) Hey, I like political games, and this is a political supplement! [P]
    2) Josh likes The West Wing. So do I. This creates a similarity and makes me want him to succeed with Coronets. [P]
    3) I bought HotBlooded when it came out, but never read it (too dense). Maybe this will be my “in” for HotBlooded. [P]
    4) These rewards are pretty cool. I can get PDF, hardcopy, *and* cards for $20? Sold! [P]
    5) Why is a credit in the book worth more ($25) than peer cards ($20)? That doesn’t make sense. [N]
    6) Emailed Josh about reward levels. Josh is receptive to criticism. [P]
    7) Rock! It’s backed. Looking forward to my rewards. [P]
    8) Hey, Josh is commissioning art if pledges hit double. Cool! [P]
    9) Wait, PDF “delivered” with my physical copy? Why do I have to wait? I don’t care about the physical copy; I just want my PDF NAU! [N]
    10) Oh, hey, preview! [P]

    Solid steps, along with two missteps, in my estimation. A learning experience, and an object lesson in how to treat customer service as an opportunity rather than a personal.

    I think my experience was more additive and subtractive than polarizing, so [P]+[P]+[P]+[P]-[N]+[P]+[P]+[P]-[N]+[P] = [P][P][P][P][P][P].

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Totally. That’s another effect, more of a “wet blanket” (or the “meh” I refer to in the post in a different context) than a polarizer. Very much a YMMV thing.

      But I wonder if we also can think in terms of situations that are more powerful than others. Maybe the issue (your #9) is worth more than one [N] unit. But that’s drifting into where the math analogue gets a bit silly to use, maybe.

      – Ryan

  6. Josh Roby says:

    Thanks, Ryan and everybody else for the thoughtful consideration of what amounts to gut feelings. That’s hard to do without getting ranty, and I appreciate the measured restraint. :)

    Kickstarter is new to me, and I’m still figuring out how to best make it work. So there are certainly hiccups involved — and I’m eager to talk about those hiccups with others so we can all make it work for us for future projects. Here are two other factors that I haven’t seen in the discussion yet:

    First, one element of my backer rewards is that the backers get the book before they’re available to the general public. This quickly leads to a problem: if I send out a digital edition on (say) the 1st and the print copies on the 20th, when do I release the game to the public? My gut says I wait until after my backers have gotten to enjoy their print copies for a little while before I release anything — and that means there’s nearly a month of backers talking about the game without it being available for sale. Fred is absolutely right — early adopters talking about the product drive the second wave of sales. But if that buzz doesn’t get translated to sales pretty quickly, it’s gone forever. I could release the digital edition a week after the backers get files, and then release the print edition a week after the backers get their copies, but this seems messy and inelegant to me — and still opens a gap for all those folks who hear the buzz about the digital edition but want a print copy. The solution I settled on was a single pre-release date and subsequently a single release date. In all honesty, when I do another kickstarter, I might avoid “early access” premiums for exactly this reason.

    Secondly, though, I’d like to challenge the assumption that a game’s digital edition is nothing more than the PDF that gets sent to the printer. My backers gave me three grand to produce this game, and I think I’d be remiss if I just adjusted the export settings to a lower resolution and spit out the same thing with grainier pictures and a smaller file size. A good digital edition, in my rather crotchety opinion, takes advantage of its format — and that means hyperlinking and reflowing for screen reading at the least. I’m also looking to publish in ePub format, as well, because not everybody has a shiny iPad with a beautiful screen. And of course, setting these things up takes time — and I planned to invest time on the digital edition while the print edition was at the printer. That way, the two editions will cross the finish line closer to each other, and that dovetails with the release date solution I settled on.

    It is, however, common practice for the print PDF — or something very similar — to be released as the digital edition shortly after the files go the printer. That’s the expectation of my customer base and my backers, and it’s totally my fault for not addressing that expectation earlier. In hindsight, I should have been very explicit about what the digital edition would entail, and what still needed to be done since the print files went to the printer. That’s a lesson for next time.

    In any case, I am by no means saying that this is the best and final solution, but it’s the plan I’ve been following. I have had feedback from backers, both positive and negative, and I’m keeping my ears open for necessary course corrections. I’d love to discuss any and all of this further, here and elsewhere.

    Thanks again, everybody, for your feedback and support.
    — Josh

    • Matthew D. Gandy says:


      To address your first point, I’d say that backer access exclusivity is a mistake. Rewards as extras, sure, but rewards as access strikes me as exclusive in a “keeps others from participating” kind of way. I think it sacrifices too much – buzz, discussion, shared enthusiasm – for too little return. I also feel awkward that *my* reward is potentially at *someone else’s* expense. Keep everything positive.

      Your second point is much more difficult. One answer is to not send the file to the printer until you’re ready to distribute the digital edition, which may seem counterintuitive to you, since you’re working on it, but we don’t know where you are in the process unless you tell us. So just keeping it to yourself may work fine. Otherwise, maybe the solution is to release the bare-bones PDF when the file goes to the printer, with the expectation of the “deluxe digital edition” becoming available either at the same time as the print copy hits doorsteps and bookshelves, or maybe a few weeks after, to create a *third* wave of interest (PDF release, print release, deluxe digital release)?

      To sum up, I think your first point is a problem of your own creation, but your second point definitely warrants some solutions.

  7. JDCorley says:

    The entire Internet is and always will be a negative emotional context. One hundred percent* of people on the Internet hate you and everything you do.

    * Margin of error +/- .0001 percent.

  8. Burrowowl says:

    From the article and discussion that followed, I’m a bit unclear on exactly what is being critiqued here. Is the problem that the publisher chose not to release the PDF as soon as conceivably possible or the manner in which this decision was announced? Mr. Roby’s decision to send the book to the printers as soon as it was ready for that step, then working on a digital version he could be proud of sounds entirely defensible to me.

    Perhaps the negative emotional context could have been averted with a more artful presentation of the publisher’s intentions? Maybe something more along the lines of “Upon tweeting this, I got a lot of responses asking if that meant the PDF would be sent out to backers. I’m shooting for getting the PDFs in your inbox at the same time your hardcopies get to your doorstep, but it is not ready yet.” The original version was easy to read as “neener, neener, I’ve got your goodies but you can’t have them yet” when that really isn’t what was meant.

    Other than “give your customers exactly what they want NAO and no later,” is there anything to be learned here?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Other than “give your customers exactly what they want NAO and no later,” is there anything to be learned here?

      Understand your customer base? Know that your response has impact?

      Not exactly sure what’s unclear, to be honest. But then, I live this world fairly close, so it’s always right in front of me.

      – Ryan

  9. Phil says:

    Late to this post (only subscribed about a month ago). Part of this is building an audience, understanding that audience, and then serving that audience. Audience perception of your decisions is huge. In the case of delaying PDF delivery, it is perceived that Josh is taking away added value from the offering. Getting the PDF early only increases excitement for consumers in my experience. When Blizzard announced that Diablo 3 will require a persistent Internet connection to play even in single player they took a huge lashing from their community. The perception was that Blizzard just wanted to screw the fans. While you can’t control your message you have to stop and think about how decisions will impact consumers and how it will be perceived.