How to not fail at Kickstarter in 12 easy steps
I’ve been seeing a lot of failed indie RPG crowdfunding campaigns lately. It’s hardly a new phenomenon, though, and it’s not unique to RPGs: last September, Kickstarter reported that less than 1 in 4 video game campaigns were funded successfully over the preceding months.
Personally, I think that stinks–so I’m writing this article in an attempt to combat the problem.
For those of you who don’t know, I develop games under the name Sinister Design. My current project is a strategy RPG called Telepath Tactics. Over the past month, I ran a Telepath Tactics Kickstarter campaign–that campaign ended early on the morning of April 16, 2013, 275% funded.
That wasn’t my first attempt at Kickstarting Telepath Tactics, though. I ran an earlier, unsuccessful attempt at Kickstarting the same game back in December 2012. That first campaign ended with the game only 73% funded.
I mention this only to establish that I have a little bit of perspective on what makes a Kickstarter campaign work versus what doesn’t. What follows are twelve pieces of advice for indie developers looking to crowdfund their games.
1. Don’t do it until you have your game playable, feeling good, and looking nice.
If you aren’t someone with a serious reputation (read: Tim Schafer, Brian Fargo, Obsidian Software, etc.), this advice is for you. You are not going to convince anyone to back your game simply by filming yourself talking at the camera; your game is going to have to sell itself. What’s more, although your game isn’t done, the parts you show to the public have to be polished to a shine.
This is a three-part tip:
- You must have basic systems (combat, dialog, exploration) coded.
- The game must feel good to play.
- You must have professional-looking art and animations for those portions of the game you intend to show.
If your game isn’t at that point yet, then you can stop reading: your game isn’t ready for crowdfunding. Get those things in-game, then come back when it’s ready.
That will probably mean spending money. The First Law of Kickstarter is that you have to spend money to make the game to have a successful campaign to get money to make the game. It’s stupid, yet inescapable.
2. Have a short demo–or at the bare minimum, gameplay footage.
This is a corollary to the first tip. The more you can do to assure backers that you actually have the chops to pull off your game, the more likely they will be to contribute. A playable demo will help, especially if you don’t have any widely-known prior titles you can point to.
Whether you have a demo or not, though, gameplay footage is mandatory!
Did you listen to step 1? Do you have tight gameplay and really solid visuals? Good! Lead with that in your pitch video. That’s the centerpiece of your campaign.
Just look at Radio the Universe. It succeeded wildly on the strength of its pitch video, and its pitch video was just great-looking footage of the game.
4. Keep the pitch video short.
Between 1 and 2 minutes is good; it’s enough to show people the game, but not so long that they lose interest. If your pitch video is longer than 5 minutes, it’s way too long. Save video content for your campaign updates if needed. Again, look at Radio the Universe.
5. Don’t just appeal to nostalgia.
“Games like this just aren’t made anymore.” That phrase; please don’t say it in your campaign. People aren’t stupid. After months of old-school jRPGs, dungeon crawlers, wRPGs and other once-extinct subgenres quite publicly returning from the dead, people have caught on to the fact that these games are, in fact, being made. If you deny their existence, you’ll look like a liar–and that’s a pretty bad thing to look like when you’re trying to earn the trust of thousands of perfect strangers.
Instead of pretending that no one is making games in your chosen subgenre, highlight the things that make your game awesome. (The things I mentioned in Tip 1 above are a good start.)
6. Explain why you need the money.
Backers appreciate it if you give them a general sense of why you’ve chosen the funding goal you’ve chosen. The more money you’re asking for, the more important it is that you explain why you need it. Just saying “that’s where you come in” doesn’t cut it these days.
Oh, and pro tip: if you ask for thousands of dollars in funding and I see that you’re using RPG Maker, I’m definitely going to want a breakdown of your anticipated expenses before I throw money at you–and I want to see the majority of that money going toward commissioning unique art assets.
7. Set the lowest possible funding goal that will get the game made.
If you look at that link I posted at the start of this article, you’ll notice that board games had both a lower funding amount and a higher success rate than video games. Correlation is not causation, but common sense dictates that a lower funding goal is going to be easier to hit, and thus will be hit more often. Simply put, it is to your advantage to have a lower funding goal.
When thinking about your base funding goal, determine the absolute bare minimum you need to complete the game in an unambitious way. That is your base funding goal.
During this process, you might start fantasizing about NiceToHaves. “It would be nice to have this,” you’ll say, or “It would be nice to have that.” If you catch yourself doing that, stop it. NiceToHaves are stretch goals, not part of the base funding goal. (I had to learn that lesson the hard way!)
8. MARKET. YOUR. CAMPAIGN.
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD. Why would you spend all of this time creating a campaign and then spend no time marketing it? This is like painstakingly building a vintage car, then leaving it sitting on the side of a hill, facing a cliff, without setting the parking brake.
Market your campaign. E-mail the press (having a playable demo really helps here); post on Facebook; tweet on Twitter. Post updates with art, videos, passages detailing your game’s systems–and then use those to update the press, Facebook and Twitter.
Twitter, especially, is really good for getting the word out about your campaign–retweets by people with lots of followers will almost invariably attract you new fans.
Find every forum you can with relevance to your game’s genre and engage with the communities there (don’t just spam the place with some copy-paste text and vanish–it’s rude). Tailor your thread to the community, answer questions, address concerns, encourage sharing of ideas, and just generally interact with forum members in a friendly way. I did this on a few strategy RPG fan forums, and it worked out really well for Telepath Tactics.
Did you email me? If not, why not? I run a website devoted specifically to indie RPGs, for Christ’s sake! You have no excuse! Did you email Jay Barnson? If not, do that too! Email RPGWatch, GameBanshee and the RPG Codex. Email every site that is relevant to your game.
What I’m saying is, you have to market your campaign, and you have to do it for the entire length of your campaign. You’ll have all the time in the world to develop the game once the campaign is done–but you only have one chance to make the campaign succeed.
Market. Your. Campaign.
9. Be responsive.
Aside from marketing, your main job during the campaign is to watch your inbox like a hawk. Respond quickly and courteously to backers and potential backers. Thank people who back the game. Address concerns you see being raised by people who visit the campaign page.
And if possible, do it quickly. You know how we like responsive controls in games? You know how it feels good to have the game react promptly to button presses? Think of yourself as the controls for your campaign: it will feel good to backers if you respond promptly to them when they message you. Accessibility is one of the few big advantages we have as indie developers–make sure you use it.
10. Don’t give up.
All campaigns have a big slump in the middle: it starts roughly 4-8 days in, and lasts until about midway through the last week. It’s fine; don’t worry about it. Keep posting updates, keep offering interviews to the press, keep interacting with fans and forum-goers. Even if you don’t see the money pouring in, trust that you’re still helping yourself by doing this. The worst case scenario is that you’ll end the campaign unsuccessfully with more backers than you would have had otherwise.
And here’s the thing: this “worst-case scenario” is actually good for you. I was lying when I said that “you only have one chance.” There’s no limit to how many times you can try to crowdfund a game. And on Kickstarter, at least, you can still email all of your backers after the end of a “failed” campaign by posting an update. Want to know how Telepath Tactics hit its base funding goal so quickly on the second attempt? That’s how.
I have some pretty strong “root for the underdog” sensibilities, so it pains me a little to tell everyone to use the biggest site. But I’m going to tell you to use Kickstarter anyway.
“Why Kickstarter” you ask? It’s the community. That’s it. That’s the whole reason; but as it turns out, it’s one hell of a reason.
I don’t think people realize what a huge deal Kickstarter’s community is, so allow me to use my own campaign by way of explanation. I worked my butt off marketing Telepath Tactics around the internet during both campaigns–but by the end of the second campaign, fully 54% of the game’s funding still came from people who randomly found it by browsing Kickstarter.com. That is huge.
In truth, I think the real figure is probably closer to 40% when you account for people who heard of the game elsewhere and then came back to Kickstarter to look for it on their own later. But still, that’s a massive chunk of the game’s backers being supplied by the Kickstarter website itself. No other single site even comes close: not Twitter, not RockPaperShotgun, not Destructoid, not the RPG Codex. Kickstarter is a big honkin’ deal. Use Kickstarter.
(I realize that many developers live in countries where Kickstarter is not an option. I wish I knew of an international alternative with a comparable community, but I really don’t.)
12. Don’t run your crowdfunding campaign in December.
Just trust me: you really don’t want to run a December Kickstarter campaign.
For one thing, the gaming press takes December off, their sites mostly just auto-posting Top 20 lists that vacationing games journalists wrote back in November. If you launch in December, you will starve for coverage even if you market your campaign flawlessly.
For another thing, people are broke in December. Between Christmas presents and the price of airfare for visiting family, the bulk of your supporters are going to be strapped. Those excited and economically stable enough to throw money at your campaign despite these factors will have less money available to throw, and your more budget-constrained would-be backers will have to take a pass entirely. During my first campaign, I got more than one guilty message from people who wanted to support the game but couldn’t find the money at that time of year. Don’t do what I did: if you find yourself getting close to December with your Kickstarter launch, just take a pass and wait until February. You’ll be much better off.
There’s more I could say about succeeding on Kickstarter, but I think these 12 tips are the most important ones. Please follow them closely, fellow devs–I want to start seeing that ratio of successful-to-failed campaigns rise!
UPDATE: this post now has a Part 2!