I’ve had the opportunity of observing a fair few video game Kickstarter campaigns over the past few weeks from a close proximity. Some succeeded, others didn’t. Being in touch with many of the campaign starters has given me a bit of insight into why some Kickstarters fail and others succeed. It’s too often that you see a really great concept fail to build any kind of steam in their funding. Extremely talented developers will be baffled when they see their projects never make it past lift-off. And yet others seem to glide towards their funding target with the simplest of ease.
It’s not magic or voodoo. Having a really good idea just doesn’t cut it on Kickstarter. There are some clear-cut factors that should be taken into account from the start. Of course, it’s never completely in one’s hands and there are many outside factors that you just can’t control. But before anyone starts a Kickstarter campaign I’d advise them to sit down with their development team and figure out how they will avoid these 4 pitfalls.
1. Understand the Difference Between the “Developer-Publisher” Partnership and the “Developer-Community” Partnership
Very often developers think that all a Kickstarter means is that you work hard on a Kickstarter page and then if you succeed, you walk off with your money and create your game. But that isn’t true. The entire model of the relationship between you and your partner is different. Just like publishers get to have a say in the development of the game, the gamers also want to have a say. If you are to convince them to help you fund this project, you have to make sure they see clearly that this a relationship that includes them as an equal partner.
Now, everyone knows one part of the relationship: you give the fans gifts according to how much they back you. But that’s not where it ends.
First of all, you should create a section that talks about you and your team. The fans want be part of this relationship and that means they want to get to know you. So, show a picture of yourself or your team and talk a little bit about what you guys like and what appeals to you. Make yourselves seem human. When you have an interview with a publisher you want to show how professional you are. But your Kickstarter page is your interview with the fans. When you meet with gamers, you want to show them how you understand their mindset and how you’re a gamer just like them with specific things that appeal to you. Only, you happen to be a gamer with incredible expertise and experience in the development side of gaming. So show both of those. Show them your gamer side but also your expertise.
Secondly, you should find a way to include the fans in the development process. Meaning, there should be certain decisions where you provide a poll and let the community decide where to go and what to do. This is YOUR community now and they want to feel like you’re including them throughout the development. This sense of partnership makes the gamers excited to back your project. So, on the original Kickstarter page tell them where you have already planned for them to be involved.
Third: provide lots of updates. Nothing spells doom to your prospective community more than a campaign-leader who stops providing updates. You must treat your backers like your own personal fanbase and the more you interact with your community, the more others will be willing to join along. That means that even after the game is funded, you can’t stop with the updates. You don’t have to update every day, but there should be some sense of momentum.
Lastly, appeal to a specific community wherever it’s applicable. Go find forums or sites that already talk directly to this community and find a way to create a rapport. Sometimes you find yourself appealing to very broad audiences and see very little success, but if you strike a chord with a more niche community they can sometimes provide you with more support than the broader audiences. Don’t wait until the last few days of your campaign to capitalize on this. Plan ahead and strike the iron will it’s hot.
2. The Project Isn’t Far Enough Along
One of the biggest attitudes you have to have when making a Kickstarter campaign is: don’t expect to be like Double Fine. Double Fine succeeded in their Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter campaign because they were Double Fine. All Tim Schafer had to do was say he wanted to make another point-and-click adventure game and fans were already gathering in throngs to throw money at his feet. There didn’t have to be anything that remotely resembled a real game prepared for the campaign. But that is the exception to the rule. Only developers or franchises that have incredible persuasion among fans (usually due to nostalgia) can rely on that. Everyone else needs to have incredible content ready to show off.
Kickstarters are always found somewhere along a certain chronological line in the development process:
A) There are those who launch a Kickstarter with nothing but an idea or a “pitch” to the fans. The entire game is still an abstract idea and they must convince the backers that it’s a good one that deserves backing.
Pros and Cons: The advantage of this approach is that you will have the backing from the get-go and won’t have to cover any initial costs on your own if your target is high enough. The disadvantage is that there is a high risk of failing because no one believes in your project until there is something to see. (Of course, if your company is famous or has made many games in the past, then everything is different.)
B) Others wait until they have concept art prepared which will give their backers a mental image of the abstract game idea they had. These pieces of art are often all there is for backers to see for many weeks on end.
Pros and Cons: Again, this is similar to the previous stage, but only a bit more fleshed out. The problem here is that too many campaigns start this way. They assume they will find backers with just concept art. While it’s always possible to succeed, it’s a really crippling way to begin your campaign.
C) Some campaigns begin with a prototype video of their game. Their team has already begun to flesh out the game concept with their game engine. The video they show off is usually very early on in the development and can often be crude or very undeveloped. There aren’t many scenes of the game to demonstrate in the video yet. This too is meant to give backers a very early mental image of what the game will eventually look like.
Pros and Cons: This is where the majority of Kickstarter campaigns begin, and I find it to be flawed. Showing fans a crude idea of your game is a good way to put your worst foot forward. You want your first impressions to be really good. Too often developers hope fans will take a leap of faith forward in their mind and envision what the game will look like three months from now. They want the fans to see the vision that the developers have of the final product. But most often, they won’t. Some fans will buy into that vision, but many others will superficially walk away. They have to be sold on the game video, and there isn’t enough to sell them on it. The advantage of this approach is that the developers only have to fork over the cash for the initial stages of the project. The rest of the time they can ride home free on the support of their backers.
D) Then there are those teams that have advanced the game enough in development that their initial video is able to give a very good representation of the final vision. With a little more time and effort they would probably even be able to turn it into a demo for their fans to try. Some Kickstarters even decide to begin their campaign with a playable demo.
Pros and Cons: In my opinion, this is the place to begin your Kickstarter campaign if you want to ensure your success. My rule of thumb is: don’t start a Kickstarter campaign unless you’d be ready to let fans try a demo of your game already at this point. You might not have the time or money to actually work on releasing a demo, but the point is that if you’re still too embarrassed with your early prototype to let fans play a demo of your game then do you really think that a prototype video is going to sell them on it? Fans don’t have to actually play it to see how crude and premature the project is. If you feel confident enough in your project to allow fans to get a closer look then you can also feel confident that fans will be willing to buy into your vision.
E) Finally, there are campaigns that begin with a game that is mostly functional and could probably be released as is. But the developers want the funding to turn the game into something really special and fully realize their vision.
Pros and Cons: Sometimes these projects actually fail because the fans feel like you’re taking advantage of them. You already paid your way through most of the development and now you’re just using them in the last stretch. Fans want to feel like they were a part of the development process. They want to make decisions through polls and have a say. They want to come along for the ride with the weekly or monthly updates. Of course, many nearly-complete projects do succeed on Kickstarter but upon occasion you see those that fail.
So, in summary: don’t start a Kickstarter campaign unless you’d be ready to let fans try a demo of your game already at this point.
3. The Target Is Too High
This rule is simple. Sometime you see two very similar projects and one succeeds on Kickstarter and the other doesn’t. The difference? One aimed for $5,000 and the other aimed for $10,000. Or one aims for $10,000 and the other for $50,000. They both could end up raising $45,000 but the second one loses it all when they don’t reach their target by the end of the campaign.
I know this is easier said than done because at the end of the day, those numbers are real. The teams sits down and crunches numbers. They know that the project won’t get done without this kind of money. But the question they have to ask themselves is, what will happen if we fail the Kickstarter? Did we succeed in getting the money we needed because we set a high-enough price?
It’s better to aim a bit lower than what you hope for but make the target one that is easy to reach. There is no set formula for doing this because every game is different. So, you should take a look at recent Kickstarters that seem somewhat comparable to your own and make a proper estimation of what you can target and still succeed.
And remember: Kickstarter campaigns that succeed, almost always get funded considerably above their target. I just took the last 12 video game Kickstarter campaigns to get funded and calculated their average funding. The average between them was to reach 256% of their target funded. So, whether your success will end up being 110% of your target or 400% of your target, you should find a way to include that in your target plans. Drop your initial target by a little bit and assume that if you succeed you will get a that extra bit added on to the final funding.
4. Lack of PR
Oh boy. This is the golden rule in my opinion. This is where I have seen first-hand the majority of Kickstarters fail. Kickstarters are so often run by brilliant individuals: game developers. And that means that their expertise is in coding and expert game design. What they usually haven’t had much experience in is dealing with PR. Usually, the previous companies they worked for had PR representatives or out-sourced their PR responsibilities to a specific PR firm (the majority of big publishers outsource their PR to a firm and most smaller developers hire a few individuals internally to handle PR.)
Working on two video game websites means that a large part of my day is working in PR/marketing. Whether it’s paying attention to how one build’s awareness of their brand on the internet, how to increase exposure, or what makes something go viral, these all have been my bread and butter for the past year and a half. So, when I noticed the lack of exposure in many Kickstarter campaigns it wasn’t hard for me to realize why many of the most promising ones were failing.
Again, we return to Double Fine. Don’t expect to be like Double Fine. Tim Schafer has instant virality potential. He said, “Adventure!” and the internet said, “KaBOOM!” Don’t expect your campaign to go viral like that unless you are well-known in the gaming world. If you’re like everyone else, you’re going to have to launch a PR campaign to get anyone to notice your project.
Basically, you’re going to attempt to get as many gaming websites to talk about your campaign. This will help spread your message to millions of gamers instead of a few hundred that like to stalk Kickstarter’s website. The way to do this is to email those websites. The way not to do this is to send a press report to their email. Take it from me: most gaming websites get more press releases in their email than they can handle and unless you are one of the more significant stories, your press release will probably end up in their trash bin.
Instead of sending a press release, send an email that seems personal. It should sound like you’re talking directly to the editor and informing them about your project. There has to be some kind of hook. Something that draws them to your campaign. The editor will only want to report on your game if he can make some kind of headline that draws attention. He/she is looking how they will benefit from running this story. So, feed them that line and reel ‘em in. Tell them what makes your game special. And assume they will only read one paragraph of your email. For the really big sites offer them more. Maybe an interview or an exclusive set of screenshots.
So, what sites should you email? As many as you can (and us, of course: firstname.lastname@example.org.) But, these are the ones that report on Kickstarters, so they are more likely to publish your story:
A) Kickstarters are practically the life blood of these sites and they will almost definitely spread the word to the Kickstarter community:
If you want to really go thoroughly through all the decently-sized indie sites that would talk about your game this is a great list: http://www.pixelprospector.com/the-big-list-of-indie-game-sites/
B) These sites are massive but they are the ones that also report on Kickstarter campaigns pretty often. As long as a Kickstarter looks promising or has an interesting twist or innovation, they’re willing to report on it:
C) Finally, there are a ton of Youtube channels that cover indie games and Kickstarters. Youtube channels are a very powerful source of exposure on the internet. You can contact these “indie”-coverage Youtube channels on this list via your youtube channel: http://youtubers.pixelprospector.com/
Don’t give up after a week if you don’t see the campaign succeeding! Keep on doing relentless PR or look for another angle to get the engines started.
An Idea of How Kickstarter Can Become as Common a Funding Source as Publishers
The one big thing publishers have over Kickstarter is accountability. The conflict being that of accountability vs creativity. Let me explain.
When a developer makes a deal with a publisher and then fails to make a good game, a lot of employees may very well lose their jobs and the company as a whole will receive less of the final revenue, possibly putting them in the red. That means that there are tremendous consequences which cause a great deal of accountability on the part of the developer. But if you fail with the fans (using Kickstarter) there’s less accountability because you don’t have to refund the money you already received. There are very few consequences if the game doesn’t live up to its potential.
So, the developer-publisher model has more accountability but much less creativity because anything risky or out-of-the-box will be vetoed by the publisher. Games end up using tried-and-true ideas and can become very stale.
On the opposite spectrum, the developer-fan model has next-to-no accountability, but opens up the door for developers to try out innovative ideas and be as creative as possible, due to the lack of risks.
The question is whether there can be a happy medium to free up creativity but retain a measure of accountability. One solution would be to hold a vote among the backers every six months or so to see if backers are satisfied with the direction of the project. If more than half of the backers are dissatisfied, the money would be automatically refunded. This would ensure that developers make sure to keep the fans in the loop, provide a decent amount of updates, stick to a reasonable length of time in the development cycle, keep up the quality of their work, and take the community’s opinion into account on important decisions.
If developers would add such a clause into their own Kickstarter campaigns, it could be they’d reassure hesitant fans who were afraid to donate and then watch as the developer submerges and never shows their face again.