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Divine Space: how we got ready for Kickstarter
by Anti Danilevski on 11/11/12 06:33:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Birth of an idea

The idea arose not in itself but from circumstances. Initially, Divine Space was to have been a small, test version of a game for iPad. However we made a serious mistake in planning and assessing the complexity of the project. That is, a small game for a PC, it turns out, can be a huge game for iPad. That’s connected first of all with the technical limitations of the devices, which we knew about—but which we had not previously run into (before this project, we had no experience in programming for iPad). However, we were very interested in trying out the new platform, so we took risks—but underestimated them. As a result, we either had to cut the game down very seriously and shorten it into something intermediate between a game and a business, or agree that we were making a complex, large game and follow that path. We decided to go with the game.
 
But our budget was limited. In the remaining (totally unrealistic) available time we just couldn’t fit it in, and we had to think of something. Either agree with publishers’ offers and obtain additional financing, but lose control over development, or find some other way. Very incidentally, I happened across some brief little review of Kickstarter. Already by the end of 2011 I was interested in them, and here was a sign. (We’re talking, of course, of the successes of Double Fine Adventure and Wasteland 2.) The success of those projects inspired us to see what we could do ourselves with Kickstarter.

The beginning of preparations: research

We figured that preparation would take around a month, and we planned to go to KS in July, or August at the latest. It didn’t turn out that way. Reading articles, blogs, success stories, recommendations, talking with authors of successful projects and checking out their advice, supervision of the projects that we were putting together—just one of those took a month. It turned out that KS was not at all a freebie, but was just as serious work as the development itself.

During that process the following key factors appeared:

  • One needs to be a resident of the US to launch a project on KS;

  • One needs to have an excellent video where the team is presented. If you don’t have such a video, the chances of success for the campaign (according to KS statistics) drops to 20%;

  • In the case of game projects, if it isn’t a world name, a game video is essential;

  • One must have sufficient funds earmarked, enough for completion of the project on the one hand, and that will not scare off backers on the other;

  • For Russian developers, 30 days for the campaign is not enough;

  • One must have developed connections with journalists in the top thematic portals, so that one post there is roughly equal to a hundred posts on small blogs and on forums;

  • One must have an active community that supports the work and takes part in its life;

  • One must have at least a primitive game site; one little page and a forum are not enough;

  • One must not count on organic traffic; there simply may not be any. It’s necessary to create your traffic yourself or do so with the help of a PR agency.

Generally speaking, we didn’t have any of this. That is, not one of the above-listed items. The game was in the stage of being assembled; we weren’t stars; not residents of the US; we had no connections. But the main thing was the understanding that this is what was needed before launching.

Forming a community

My starting point was that I started to choose forums, portals, blogs, and contacts with journalists in the gaming area. When the total volume reached 1500, I stopped, figuring that if only 10% of those wrote about us, that would be enough for our minimal goal—$100,000. That sum would also be enough (though just squeaking by) for completing and launching the first version of the game.

Simultaneously with that, a game page was created on Facebook, where people who were interested in the game and its development should gather, and also where future backers or potential backers could come.

In addition, I invited the most active gamers (from my previous space game) and created a general Skype chatroom, enlisting a promise to help us spread information when we launch the campaign on KS, and also created a forum for gathering the future heart of the community.

I must honestly acknowledge that activity has not been high: first, it’s summer; second, gamers don’t yet have the opportunity to evaluate the game and the future gameplay. Nevertheless, things are moving forward, and for that, guys, thanks a million! We’ve already gotten some feedback and good wishes, many of which will be actualized in the game. We have not managed to attract an English-speaking audience for the forum—not enough time and materials.

Beyond that, we’ve begun to put together a small promo site, where it will be possible to see some materials, read a bit about the game, discuss all that, give a like on Facebook or contact lists, tweet, share, and so forth. How that will work—I don’t know yet, but I will certainly share my experience in a post-mortem to the campaign.

I can’t say that I’m satisfied with the preparatory work in forming the community. There isn’t enough time to do that in the normal and correct manner, and not enough time for it to be successfully formed. Indeed, I have no experience with such a thing. I think an experienced community manager would deal with it several times better. It would be best, besides the special person for building the community, to have at least several months and at least some budget. I consider the existence of an active community to be a very important component of success for any crowdfunding endeavor, significantly increasing the odds of success. If there is no community, then 30 days for a campaign for an ordinary project, not a super-brilliant one, will usually not be enough.

Scenario for the video

After the first steps had been taken, the time had come to start the scenario for the video. I studied around fifty videos of successful projects and about twenty that were rejected. In the majority of successful cases the video was professionally shot (although in many cases professional shooting was masked as amateur) and the scenarios were very correctly, competently, and professionally described. In nearly all of them the rule of thumb was humorous moments, up-to-date jokes, and light fun. The failed ones, on the other hand, abounded in stupid jokes or there were none at all; the developers were absent in the video or the actors were excessively arrogant, which also does not engender trust and emotional bonding with the person who is asking people to support his development materially.

Having made my decision, I wrote the scenario. In the video, as in most videos, I had to tell about myself, about the team and our mission, and, of course, about the game. To open USP, the strong sides, and so forth. On free-lance.ru I found a good operator whose functioning I liked a lot; we came to a preliminary agreement. Shooting would be at night, on the roof of some Moscow skyscraper. A roof was found on one of the skyscrapers of the City of Moscow. The lights of the nighttime city had to harmonize with the stars and the skybox in game installations.

Then, returning to the point of forming a community, I got in touch with one of the most active gamers on one of the projects where I’d worked earlier and where, as a developer, the gamers loved and respected me. I’d planned to ask him about informational support, since he continues to be deeply involved with many gamers and his portal has high visitation and activity; indeed earlier we’d been connected. The nickname of that gamer was Rezhissyor (“director”); we talked; we found common interests in Kickstarter; and suddenly everything immediately changed. Rezhissyor turned out to be a real movie director and offered to help me with shooting the film. The next day I went to the city where I was born, St. Petersburg, to discuss everything during a meeting.

Scenario for the video 2

I prefer to go to St. Pete by train: I can get some sleep, rest, and in the morning have all my wits about me. Besides, there’s time to think—and I needed to think about a lot, including about the new scenario, since the proposal was surprising: a film studio, a green background, normal lighting and cameras, props. All I needed was a new scenario—indeed, not to shoot an ordinary documentary with such resources that had fallen out of the sky. Two scenarios came up, both of them fairly complex. One of them I threw out myself for reasons of too much complexity; the second one—I described the idea and formed a vision of it in my head.

In the morning I was already in the office of Mikhail (the director) and we discussed the idea of the scenario. We decided that for a game, a game video is needed. I liked the idea and we agreed on what we’re working on. Along the way we figured out all the remaining features and put a work plan together for creating a video; and I was back in Moscow.

When I returned, we discussed a new scenario in the company and, although everything seemed unrealistically complicated and maybe even unrealizable, we decided to work on it. A week later we had a scenario ready—dialogs, storyboard, list of essential materials, costumes, and everything else.

 

Preparation for shooting

The list turned out to be large and terrifying; the most complex part of it turned out to be the costumes. Since Divine Space is a space game, both the video and the costumes must be appropriate. On the one hand, it would be good to find some sort of costumes of space pilots; on the other, all the similar costumes that we found turned out to be pathetic and more suited for a student party or Halloween in a cheap club. To make them ourselves would be too expensive and would take too long. Plus, with the genre of the game—hard science fiction—fairy-tale costumes would be out of place... and suddenly that cleared everything up. We understood what sorts of costumes would do for us more than anything. After a week of searching we found the appropriate store and bought there the costumes that we’d need for ourselves, “pilots” of a space ship. For our opponents the costumes were simpler and we sewed them up ourselves. It remained only to print chevrons onto our costumes—Mikhail arranged that in St. Petersburg and right in the studio, with the help of special fabric glue, he glued them accurately onto our costumes.

The second complicated aspect was text in English. It turns out that everybody on the team writes and speaks English, so they translated the dialogs, written first in Russian, into English. Mikhail mostly wrote the dialogs, and then in a few more days of joint work we corrected them and firmed them up. On the train we should have been studying our cues in English, and, during the shooting, their pronunciations. Then professional actors, knowing the language, should have overdubbed us, so that the film wouldn’t grate on the ears of an English-speaking audience (i.e., approximately 90% of the backers). On the train, however, hardly anyone started to study anything, certain that it would be enough to draw big prompts and read from them, or that maybe it would be possible to learn everything directly in the studio. That’s how I looked at it, learning mostly from the prompts... but that did not help.

Shooting

Shooting also took place in St. Pete, so the team went there. The studio, the actors, the operators, the make-up artists, and all the other necessary people—Mikhail had arranged all that. When we got to the studio, work was already in full swing: the lights, the cameras, the green background was being set up. Gradually the actors pulled themselves together and somewhere around one or two in the afternoon the shooting began. I have to give Mikhail his due—everything proceeded on a very high level; I never expected such a thing. The actors acted; it was amazing to watch how my scenario was turned into something more, as the actors brought our idea to life. To listen to what had earlier been written and to see the emotions, the life—that was all tremendous. Then it was our turn to bring out our acting talent. Dressing, make-up, lights, setting out the prompts—and we were on!

Well, it didn’t work that way. In the spotlights the text completely slipped my mind. It turned out that I could study it or not study it—it made no difference. Reading from a prompt is also not an alternative, since it’s obvious that a person is reading. Another complication—it was in English, when we didn’t even remember the Russian. In general, that was a complete failure. At some point I thought that we weren’t going to shoot this trailer. But Mikhail knows his stuff. The English text was tossed into the trash and we switched to Russian. In Russian it wasn’t easy—sentences, even the shortest ones, generally didn’t stick in the head. Here I appreciated the work of the actors and from that moment on my respect for that profession grew many times greater. We shot until late into the evening, relying on the editing for the sentences. Shooting our parts took more than a hundred takes. Only toward the end did we relax somewhat and we were able to speak more or less normally—but we had to give up the studio, because we’d rented it just for one day, and we’d bought our return tickets.

Looking back over that time, I advise everyone who’ll be shooting a movie for KS or the like: set aside two days minimum—maybe a day without cameras, for rehearsal. Text learned by heart will also help a great deal. Without rehearsals, unless you have an innate acting talent, or experience with shooting, most likely you’ll run into these sorts of problems.

Even so, we did it. Without Mikhail we wouldn’t have managed at all; a separate public thank-you to him for unbelievable patience—through all those hours of our disgrace, not once did he speak a single crude or sharp word, which certainly helped us a lot. I probably couldn’t have done that.

Editing and effects

The editing was also done in St. Petersburg, and that turned out to be one of the most important aspects of creating the film. Unfortunately we couldn’t turn up a specialist in composition, and we had to do it all ourselves. Therefore I consider the effects the weakest side of the film—with more resources, it would have looked a lot better. Nevertheless, for a “home” video—the result, it seems to me, is worthy.

Then came the soundtrack. Before it was recorded and our voices were replaced, the video was a pathetic sight. However, after adding the soundtrack, everything changed. Whether it had to do with the psychological perception of one’s own recorded voice, or because we were so clutched up during the shooting that we could not speak normally, the dubbing changed everything for the better. On the minus side, here and there it isn’t in sync with our lips, but mostly everyone got used to that. We tried for the best synchronization that we could, and I hope it won’t be too eye-catching.

We are not doing special showings of the game video, so as not to break the perception of opposition between us and our opponents. Instead, we made some thematic holograms, serving the goal of adding diversity to what was happening on the screen and to maintain interest. Another hook was the background beyond the window of the station, which slowly changes and generates a subconscious desire to see what will happen next, what’s floating outside the frame of the window? Besides, this video is a part of the game itself, and so on the second level it demonstrates the game.

We spent a month on editing and effects, in its general complexity, mainly because we didn’t have such functionality in the game yet and we had to write it. In this way we caught two birds with one stone: we added cutscenes to the game, and we made special effects for the video.

For completing the editing we had a site, a (small) core of a community, art, some videos (including an experimental gaming one shot with an iPod), a fairly lively forum, all texts in English for Kickstarter, some press-releases that we wrote ourselves, and a good many contacts with the press.

What we didn’t have, and also about the risks

We did not have a PR agency or our own PR agent. It was a rather unpleasant story: for a month we prepared a campaign with some Australian PR agents, and a week before the campaign was to be launched they suddenly backed off from our project. The reason for their quitting was that they felt that our goal ($100,000) was too high, and we refused to lower it (since any less would not make sense). In the event of failure they would not receive bonuses for their work, and therefore, instead, in order to increase the likelihood of our success (as a good PR company should do), they tried to minimize their risks and squeeze us into lowering our goal. I can understand that, but they took up a month of our time, during which we could have been working with someone more professional and reliable.

All the others were charging high rates with 100% prepayment and weren’t guaranteeing anything, which made their proposals senseless. At the time of writing this article, we still don’t have a PR agent, which increases our risks.

A second substantial risk is the ideology of our company to make all the games accessible, playable even by children, who have no opportunity to pay for them. That means the fremium or free-to-play purchase model. But we also know that a basic motivator for support of a project is “buying” a copy of the game at half price (or even cheaper). That is, the game will cost $50, but backers can get it for, let’s say, $20, if they support the project on KS. Therefore we’ve prepared more incentives and extras than for a fremium project. How they work, time will tell—on the whole, for gamers these prizes should be highly alluring.

The next risk is that we are not Americans, nor even Europeans. We’re Russians, who drink vodka, where bears roam the streets, where revelers are thrown in jail for political reasons (whether that’s so or not doesn’t matter; the main thing is that a large portion of backers see things that way) and in general here there’s fear and horror. It seems to me that the political history of PR could seriously spoil the impression starting with launch. We can only hope that the commotion in this regard will settle down by the time the company is launched.

And most importantly—we still don’t have a fighting video. That is the greatest risk, since the results of the feedback show that everyone is mostly interested in fighting. In spite of the fact that we already have a balance of objects, weaponry, shields, ships, and generally all of the equipment that it operates—artificial intelligence is still only in the process of development. In the ideal, we should first finish that and show how the ships fight, how battles take place, how they fly and respond to events—but deadlines are pressing and we have to launch the campaign with that very important part of the game. Of course, a miracle might happen and at the moment of launch everything will change (about two weeks now remain before launch). But if that does not happen, we’ll have to show a fighting video by means of an update. Without a doubt that is a good informational method for underpinning flagging interest by the audience; however, it would be better to have such a video right from the start.

The last of the basic risks is the “Kickstarter fatigue effect”. Briefly, the press has gotten bored with writing about Kickstarter, and bored of the constant requests to write about this or that project. On some forums it’s even forbidden already to start that sort of thread. That makes the life of indie-companies in the crowdfunding arena much more complicated; at the same time, people will write as much and as happily as they’d like about stars such as Bryan Fargo or Tim Shafer. In this way, Kickstarter and its analogs will become steadily more complicated for indie companies (for whom they position themselves) and more accessible—for the stars. At least, that’s the situation in the video games industry; probably in other areas it’s a little easier for indie companies.

Material rewards (an artbook and something else) are among the things that we still don’t have. We chose Amazon as producer of an artbook, because it’s possible to send them a template and they’ll print them off and send them to the indicated address themselves. The price is very reasonable, but we must recall that international shipping is somewhere around $10 – 15. That is, ideally the party manufacturing the rewards should be located in the US or China and should send them out themselves throughout the world, so that the cost price of the rewards won’t rise because of international shipping, maybe even doubling. We have not yet finally solved that problem, other than the artbook. We’re now looking for a reliable producer of souvenirs in China, who could take shipment to various addresses on themselves; we’re hoping that they exist.

A corporation and Amazon

A basic question that I get is how we’ve solved the problem of US residency. We’ve settled on the help of a trustworthy person, a Russian, who has already been living and working for a long time in the US. In Kickstarter they told me that such a person should be a part of the team (a collaborator). Since he also works in the IT arena, we’ve concluded an agreement with him and have become partners. In this way he is our representative in the US and does the interactions with Amazon through his company.

Other versions are to fly to the US myself, obtain all necessary documents, open a corporation and a bank account (a corporation so as not to pay the unreasonable taxes that a private person has to pay, or at least that’s what I was told in a law firm offering their services as intermediary with KS). In essence that is a third version—to find a respected incorporated company (not a flash in the pan and not young) and they, for a fixed price or a modest percentage, would become our representatives in the US

A fourth version is to find fellow Russians who have already been to KS and negotiate with them about representing our interests at KS.

Registration with Amazon took almost a month (Amazon is very slow in their approval of a bank account. Unless you phone them several times, you’ll hang in the “pending” status.) I think if I’d phoned them sooner things would have gotten done faster, but we did not have that kind of timing. But if you don’t phone, more than likely the account will hang.

Launch!

The most important moment after a company’s launch is to create a peak of interest and backers in the first three days. According to the statistics studied, the first three days are the most active, and then there’s a fall-off, a plateau, and the campaign is completed with three more days of growing interest (why—I explained in my previous article). Therefore it is very important on the first day to notify journalists, forums, gamers, and friends as much as possible—everyone who might be interested in this project. If you succeed in creating such a peak, the campaign will begin to live a life of its own. The first active backers appear, who help the developers spread information and who give moral support both to the team and to other backers. If on the other hand there is no such bright launch, then everything will be much slower and unfortunate. For example, again from statistics, if a project has gathered 30% of the total sum in the first third, then there’s a 90% chance that it will succeed. Thirty percent can be collected only if you manage to create that peak. Therefore the first days are fully dedicated to communications with journalists portals and to answering questions and dealing with backers.

Then—updates. You need to have them ready and know what you’ll be telling about, why and for what purpose. Updates support interest in the project and stimulate the sincere active backers to continue their mission, as well as showing the doubtful or passive backers that its life is at full steam, that the project is growing and developing, and the developers should not put down the gamers. It’s good to have updates once every 2 or 3 days. Less often could turn out to be not enough; more often, too bothersome. And, of course, updates should be interesting. We’ve prepared about 30 different updates; some of them we had to combine into one, so as not to overload the backers and the project. Basically those are sketches, outlines; I’ll write out each update in detail, starting from the circumstances. If the update is a video, then it’s better to prepare it ahead of time, since otherwise there usually will not be time.

The length of our project is 43 days. Although statistics show that the time limit for most successful projects is 30 days, the experience of Russian projects shows that that is insufficient to break into the foreign press. A two-week reserve is taken precisely so that we can get published and notify the mass media before the campaign ends, and not in the last days.

 

The campaign has been launched at 10 October 2012.

You can see how our campaign is going and whether the results are living up to expectations, whether the game is worth the candle, here: Divine Space at Kickstarter.com

Translated from my article at Habrahabr.ru


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