How to not fail at Kickstarter in 12 easy steps

KS Successes
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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!

Radio the Universe
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3.  Lead with gameplay footage
.

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.

Forum Posting Done Right
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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.

KS versus External
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11.  Use Kickstarter
.

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.

Conclusion

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!

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14 Comments »

 
  • FedoraG4mer says:

    All very good advice.

    Only other tip i can give you is Youtubers. though thats part of “gaming press” really. But do not ignore youtubers they have a large influence in the gaming industry these days.

    I am a small youtuber myself and do a series on just kickstarter games. This plays back to having something playable though. If there isn’t something playable then there is nothing for us to make a video on.

  • Anonymous says:

    Sadly we did all of the above and only ended up with 4% of a very modest goal (our goal was ten times less than what Telepath Tactics asked for). In all, we raised less than $100 and it was probably the worst decision I’ve ever made as a developer; I put gobs of time into it, and it set development of our game back by weeks with nothing to show for it at the end.

    I’m not here to rag on the article; all of the advice makes perfect intuitive sense. I will say, however, that whether people ever notice your Kickstarter seems to be a complete random dice throw, and it’s possible that the real reason why only 1 in 4 Kickstarters succeed is because the “little little” guys will always be eclipsed by the “bigger little” guys who start out with an advantage however small that advantage might seem to those who have it.

    Despite the name “Kickstarter” which implies that someone can succeed from humble beginnings by simply showing off hard work, I still firmly believe this isn’t really possible. Not on Kickstarter, anyways. You have to already have some kind of built-in advantage, be it wealth, popularity, random chance, or a combination of these things.

    Every outlet we contacted refused to write an article, many were rude and didn’t acknowledge us one way or the other, and a handful instead offered to let us *buy* advertisement space on their site. Imagine, a gaming journalism site (let alone half a dozen of them) refusing to do their job and cover the happenings of the video game world and instead trying to sell advertising space when we have no money, as clearly evidenced by the fact that we were running a $2,000 Kickstarter.

    Developers beware, you could indeed succeed at Kickstarter, but you could also come out scuffed up, bitter, and at a loss for something you’ll never get back, that being time (depending on how long your campaign is).

    Anyways, congratulations to Telepath Tactics on the successful run and I hope you have continued success.

    • Craig Stern says:

      The fact that I had 6 games under my belt and an existing fan base accrued over 7 years as an indie developer definitely helped me out.

      I don’t know if you’re looking for individualized feedback, but taking a look at your KS page, I can definitely see things you can do to have a better go of it.

  • Matthew says:

    It is incredible how Telepath Tactics went from 18k to 41k!

    But yeah, I agree with this advice and I wish it was mandatory reading for indie game developers. There are so many Kickstarters that I wouldn’t touch even though the features and gameplay style are right up my alley. As this is just because they have nothing to show for themselves!

  • erdraug says:

    Thank you for a very comprehensive write-up!

  • […] I hinted in our last Back to Back that I would have some thoughts about what caused these campaigns to fail. Most of these fell afoul of one or more of my “12 easy steps”: […]

  • […] learned a lot from running this campaign, and have enshrined a lot of what I learned in an article over on IndieRPGs.com. Head on over there if you’re curious to hear some of my strategic […]

  • frnknstn says:

    A couple more hints, gathered from around the web

    1. Don’t do the campaign close to when your local tax season ends or half your money will instantly disappear.

    2. Don’t have too low a goal or you will get stuck making a shitty version of your game, or failing to complete at all.

  • Bendik Stang says:

    Thank you for a great write up!
    :-)

  • […] there is relatively little oxygen for indie game announcements (to say nothing of new releases). As I’ve advised, most indie devs have hunkered down and now wait quietly for the madness to end, leaving the […]

  • Vex says:

    You’re missing an incredibly important point regarding timing – step 12 hints at it but doesn’t get close enough.

    In most countries, people will have money at the very last day of a month and in the first week of a month. That’s when the majority of people get paid. The majority of people willing to spend money on your game.

    As you pointed out, there are basically two big targets to generate speed: The first days, and the last days.

    Make sure that your customers and backers have money to spend during those important days.

  • […] wrote a blog post full of advice on how to prepare for a Kickstarter—it’s worth a read if you’re considering a […]

  • […] I posted How to Not Fail at Kickstarter in 12 Easy Steps last April, a lot more people have come to me seeking advice–and as a direct result, my list […]

 

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