How to not fail at Kickstarter in 8 more steps
Since 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 has grown. The time has come for another article, one with even more tips and tricks for funding your game.
Lest you think this follow-up article is unnecessary, a quick glance at Kickstarter’s stats page will correct you. As of today, there are nearly two failed game Kickstarters for every one that succeeds. The “games” category includes board games, which historically have higher rates of successful funding than video games do–if we were to look at video games alone, the ratio of failures-to-successes would likely be even worse! Suffice it to say, we still have a lot of room for improvement in terms of how we run our video game Kickstarter campaigns.
If you haven’t read the first article yet, now is the time! Don’t worry, I’ll wait. …all caught up? Good! Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I now present to you: How to not fail at Kickstarter in 8 more steps.
1. Make sure your game is a good fit for Kickstarter.
Before you actually commit to running a campaign in the first place, make sure that doing so is a good idea. As we discussed in Step 11 of the first article, a huge chunk of your funding on Kickstarter is going to depend upon enticing people who are already around and browsing Kickstarter.com to back your game. At the risk of stating the obvious, these are human beings with their own tastes–and if history is anything to go on, they simply prefer to fund certain types of games more than others.
For this reason, it makes sense to do some research on what games Kickstarter’s audience actually likes before leaping headlong into a campaign. Things to consider:
- Free-ness. If your game is free-to-play, then from what I’ve seen, the likelihood of it getting any significant amount of funding on Kickstarter is miniscule. “Why is that?” you ask. My guess is that it has to do with Step 3 below. If your game is free, then you cannot reasonably offer “the game” as a reward tier. “Free” means they’re going to get the game at no cost upon release, no matter what: asking them to give you money for a copy of a free game is like a car salesman offering to give you a car you already own in exchange for $15. It’s bizarre and sort of insulting. (And no, offering free in-app currency or IAP content is not an adequate substitute for a get-the-game tier–at least, not as far as the denizens of Kickstarter are concerned.)
- Genre. Single player RPGs and adventure games often do well on Kickstarter; there have been a number of successful Metroidvanias; and there’s a burgeoning set of successfully funded games that promise to teach people coding principles. However, there are also game genres that typically do not do so well: MMORPGs, arcade games, most puzzle games, and standard 2D platformers tend to struggle.
- Platform. Kickstarter backers are more enthusiastic about funding games for certain platforms than others. In general, mobile titles tend to have a harder time raising funds. If your game is going to come out for Windows, Mac, Linux, Playstation 4, 3DS, Android, and iOS, I would recommend emphasizing the non-phone platforms.
- Visual style. If your game’s graphics are cute and childish, then they’d better match the genre. Charming and/or stylized visuals are often a plus, depending on the genre. Cartoony can work.
But avoid bubbly, bright vector graphics. Really, anything that makes your game look like a Flash game or a mobile title marketed to children will seriously hurt its chances on Kickstarter.
Based on where your game falls, it may turn out that it’s just not worth running a campaign at all. If your game is a free-to-play match 3 puzzler coming out for the iPhone, then I’m afraid Kickstarter is not going to be very kind to you. Running a campaign for a game like this just means you’ll have wasted the time and money you spent putting together the campaign. On the other hand, if you have a PC Zelda-alike set in a compelling, mature universe with a beautiful, unique visual aesthetic, you’ll have a fighting chance of doing well. That’s a campaign most likely worth running.
In short, do your homework: it can save you a lot of trouble.
2. Concisely state up-front what your game is like and what makes it awesome, using concrete examples.
First impressions count, and there are few impressions more “first” on your Kickstarter page than the short, bolded, textual blurb at the top of the page. This is the very first thing that visitors will read after your game’s title. You need to make it count.
Your blurb should concisely convey exactly two things: (1) what game or games your title is most like, and (2) one or two things that make your game in particular awesome.
Using a game as a frame of reference gives the reader something concrete to hang her hat on. A visitor who is unclear on what your game is actually like is a visitor who is unlikely to become a backer. When you provide the reader a concrete frame of reference, however, if said reader enjoys games of this sort, it will grab her attention for a moment; she will be interested enough, at least, to read until the end of the sentence. So make sure you end that sentence with the things that do, in fact, make your game unique–this provides the would-be backer an incentive to then consider supporting your game in particular.
By way of illustration, let’s compare these two one-sentence descriptions of the same game–one of them a real description, the other a variation that I wrote myself. Which of these descriptions gives you a stronger sense of what the game is like?
- A unique Action-RPG with randomized storytelling and gameplay elements!
- A charming Zelda-style RPG with a capricious child-god who unpredictably alters the story and environment as you play.
The first description is incredibly vague. It starts off with the marketing weasel-word “unique,” then immediately compounds the error by juxtaposing “unique” with some of the most not-unique descriptors you can possibly ascribe to a game in today’s market: “Action-RPG with randomized storytelling and gameplay elements.” Um. Sooooo it’s like Diablo, maybe? That was unique! (In 1996.)
No. Don’t just say “unique”–give us concrete details that will lead us to conclude that it’s unique. The second description does this, right after telling us exactly what kind of game it is most mechanically similar to. “Zelda-style RPG” simply gives me a hell of a lot more information than “Action-RPG.” And once I hit “capricious child-god who randomly alters the story and environment as you play,” suddenly I have a concrete image of what unique things this game brings to the table. By contrast, “randomized storytelling and gameplay elements” could mean nearly anything at all, and my brain isn’t likely to spontaneously supply something ground-breaking and unfamiliar in lieu of the workaday examples of randomized content that it already knows.
It’s worth mentioning that some disagree about the value of comparing your game to other titles. However, the simple fact is that all games have influences. Unless you’re the creator of something really out-there like SoundSelf or The Stanley Parable, pretending that your title does not fit into the established genealogy of games in order to sell someone on its originality is just dishonest. More importantly, however, it’s also counterproductive–at least, in the context of creating a Kickstarter page. Remember, you’re looking to attract backers here, not to woo journalists jaded by the overgrown forests of unsolicited pitches that sprout up in their Inboxes day after day. Kickstarter backers are not yet bored of hearing “in the style of game X, but with Y.” By and large, they want interesting variations on experiences they’ve enjoyed in the past; to this end, concrete assurances are more valuable than an attempt at obfuscation and mystique. This is neither the time nor the venue for arthouse snobbery. (You can always submit to Indiecade later.)
3. Have a reward tier that gets people a digital download of the game.
As we all know, Kickstarter isn’t a pre-order system: it’s a platform for helping people fund creative projects that they otherwise couldn’t afford to make. At least, that’s the theory. In practice, however, you must offer people a copy of your game as one of the lower-level reward tiers if you want to succeed. Fail to do so, and you will be screwed.
This is so because the people that want your game to exist generally also want to play that game. For many (if not most) of those people, the prospect of eventually playing your game is their primary motivator for funding its development. By failing to offer the game as a reward tier, you strip your project of the biggest available carrot on the proverbial stick. Use the big carrot: offer a “get the game” reward tier.
4. Make your “get the game” tier $15 or less.
Merely offering a “get the game” tier isn’t enough–it needs to be priced to move.
While Kickstarter does have a share of people willing to splurge on high-profile games, the fact that you are reading this article in search of advice probably means that your game is not of the high-profile variety. As such, you are going to have to rely on attracting lots of people who haven’t heard about you or your game before. This, in turn, means that you need to keep the cost of your “get the game” tier in impulse-buy territory.
People tend to be price sensitive when dealing with unknown quantities. Unless you have a truly compelling / good-looking game, the vast majority of would-be backers are going to be hesitant to back your game for more than $10. Hell, even if your game is really compelling and good-looking, pricing your “get the game” tier higher than $15 is risky.
Consider: InXile priced Wasteland 2 at $15, and wasn’t willing to charge more than $20 for Torment: Tides of Numenera, spiritual sequel to one of the most widely loved RPGs of all time. That should tell you a little something about what people are likely willing to pay for your own, comparatively obscure RPG. And while it is true that Obsidian got away with charging $25 for Project Eternity, that was only after they sold out of the 25,000 copies in their $20 early bird tier. Plus, ya know, they are Obsidian. You’re not.
5. Do not put yourself in the pitch video unless you are going to do a really good job of it.
This is a corollary to Step 1 from the first article. Back then, I wrote: “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…” It was true then, and it remains true now: game footage is the key to a successful pitch video.
If you do insist on being a talking head in your own pitch video, however, make sure you’re using a good, high-resolution camera, that you have professional lighting and sound. A pitch video that shows you sitting on your couch and talking at your laptop’s crummy built-in webcam is going to convince people that you’re either a hopeless amateur, or that you simply don’t care that much about your project’s success.
Also, make sure that you are actually personable and engaging on-camera. If you don’t sound natural, or if you keep glancing off-camera to read your lines, then not only are you going to fail to make a personal connection, you might actually put off the viewer or make them doubt your genuineness.
Ultimately, the personal testimony part of a pitch video is optional. While there are some advantages to doing it if you can do it well, the disadvantages from a poor personal testimony section far outweigh them. Unless you know you can nail it, it’s much better not to do it at all.
6. MARKET. YOUR. CAMPAIGN. MORRRRE.
Consider this an extension of Step 8 from the first article. I talked about the importance of marketing your game to the gaming press, of engaging with people on social media, and of seeking out forums where people might be receptive to your game. I skipped over a few other things you can also do, however!
One thing I neglected to mention is the Reddit AMA (“Ask Me Anything”). These tend to be most effective if you’re already well-known (or notorious) for one reason or another. Whenever you do an AMA, you’ll need to market it, having people spread the link to the AMA page through social media. The AMA is not a very effective tool for driving lots of traffic to the Kickstarter page. However, it does do a few good things for you: it provides a way for you to educate people about yourself and your game, and it gives you an excuse to engage with your audience. Remember, this isn’t just about raw numbers: getting your existing backers good and enthusiastic about the game can be just as important as attracting new backers. After all, enthusiastic backers are much more likely to evangelize your game on the internet and up their donations to hit funding goals late in the campaign. Similarly, livestreaming and chatting with your backers on video is another good way to boost engagement and build enthusiasm.
Speaking of which: I also failed to mention the world of video in the first article. This was a pretty big oversight on my part. Ignore Youtube and Twitch.tv at your own peril! A single positive video from the right person can get your game a whole lot of attention–much more attention than you’re likely to get from even the most effusive print media coverage.
As with all marketing, make sure you’re barking up the right tree before you start spamming Youtubers willy-nilly. Not all video personalities will cover RPGs, for instance, either because RPGs tend to be slow-moving and text-heavy, or because said video personalities simply do not personally care for the genre. You can figure out pretty quickly who covers which sorts of games by browsing their past videos–or, in a pinch, by consulting The Big List of Youtubers.
I happen to know, for example, that TotalBiscuit likes strategy RPGs. How do I know that? Because I went through his videos one day and saw that he’d created a really high-quality, in-depth Let’s Play of Shining Force 3, complete with thorough analyses and strategies for beating the game’s various levels. That just isn’t something you do if you don’t like a game’s genre. (Note: those particular videos no longer exist due to some profoundly stupid copyright claims by Sega, but that’s a matter for a different discussion.)
Once you’ve got the right channels, please make sure you have a demo that is (a) actually good and (b) polished-looking before you conjure up the Youtube demon. If your game is still in pre-alpha, it’s very likely that you don’t have a build that meets this standard; and a widely-viewed video where your game looks terrible or plays poorly is not an easy thing to walk back.
Got it? Good. So let’s say you have a build that’s a good candidate for the Youtube treatment. Time to email your chosen Youtubers with a link to a recent, stable build of the demo! Many Youtube channels list a business contact email on their About page. Unless the page says otherwise, use that.
7. Avoid physical backer rewards, and double-avoid shirts.
This step is less about having your campaign “succeed” in the sense of meeting your funding goal, and more about having your campaign succeed in the sense of being able to actually make good use of your time and newly acquired funds once you’ve met the goal. Physical backer rewards are time-consuming to produce, and even more time-consuming to individually package and ship. Shirts are the worst of all, because they have to be individually sorted by size and mailed to exactly the right backers.
Even worse, you can end up being ambushed by the cost to produce and ship these things if you’re not paying careful attention. The cost to ship physical goods to backers who live outside the country is a particularly nasty trap–if you must make a physical goods reward tier, make certain that you ask international backers for an extra $15 to cover increased shipping costs.
8. Beware of taxes.
This step applies specifically to United States developers. Much like the step before it, it concerns success in a “post-meeting-your-goal” sense.
About three weeks after your campaign ends, Kickstarter will release your funds into an Amazon Payments account, then immediately deduct Kickstarter’s cut and Amazon’s cut. Once this happens, the clock starts ticking–you need to spend that money on deductible business expenses, stat. Once the new year rolls around, you will receive a Form 1099-K in the mail from Kickstarter listing the entire amount you raised (including the Kickstarter cut and Amazon cut, money that you effectively never actually received) as income. The other copy? That was sent to the IRS.
Because Kickstarter funds are taxed like income, every red cent you don’t spend on deductible expenses prior to December 31st is going to be taxed mercilessly. You’re likely to give yourself more breathing room if you run your Kickstarter campaign earlier in the year. If you opt for an October or November campaign, make sure you set aside 30% of what you’ve raised to pay for taxes on the rest. (And may the gods of Indie Game Dev have mercy on your immortal soul if you don’t.)
Speaking of which: if you don’t have an accountant yet, the moment that your Kickstarter succeeds would be a really good time to find one. By finding a good accountant, you’ll save way, way more money on taxes than you’ll spend. (Trust me, I speak from experience.)
Kickstarter is a fickle mistress at the best of times, and I can’t promise that your campaign will succeed if you follow all of these steps–but I can confidently state that you’ll end up in much better shape by following them than you will by ignoring them.
Good luck and godspeed, fellow indie devs! The next generation of indie classics depends on you.