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Is Kickstarter Even Worth It for Indie Game Developers?
by Fredrik Wester on 09/04/13 10:36:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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.


We all know how Kickstarter is supposed to work: a company or group in need of funding presents an idea to the Internet at large, and based on the strength of the pitch (and some incentives for donors), crowdfunding ensues. 

When it comes to game development, though, is this really the best model for raising money – and are gamers really willing to put their money up for a game they don’t they don’t know much about? 

Crowdfunding seemingly came out of nowhere for us in the gaming industry and took us by storm. We've experienced the first generation of super projects and the mixed results they delivered (and still aren't delivering). Now that we're looking at a 2nd (or maybe 3rd) generation of crowdfunding and we see that something completely different is happening. 

For the purposes of being useful to most readers let's just assume your studio isn't Double Fine, Obsidian or inXile - let's say you haven't made cult classics and have been induced in several halls of fame. Let's assume - for the sake of argument - you're a regular developer with a great idea. Let's start there and see what crowdfunding actually means for you - the vast majority who are in need of crowdfunding

The gaming community takes a big risk when it participates in these kinds of projects, though. While they may be helping in the creation of a great game, they have no way of knowing what the finished product might be – or if they will even want to play it. These would be crowdfunders can avoid the risk altogether by sticking with the game companies they know and love – and they often do.

Whether they are playing into their own nostalgia for established series and graphics engines, or just avoiding the risk of donating their money for a game they eventually won’t want is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: it leaves many of the indie developers to fend for themselves.

This begs the question, of course, is Kickstarter even worthwhile for the little guys?

At a glance, it seems like a good idea – indie developers gain some much-needed funding, connect with their audience, and establish some loyalty before their game even drops.

There are two serious problems with this assumption, however:

First, it takes no small amount of effort to make a splash with Kickstarter. There is a lot of PR legwork in getting a message to the masses, especially if that message is asking for money. It means polishing and distributing any and all “preview” material to show what the game-in-progress is all about, developing prize packages and incentives for donors, constant promotion, and a ton of time spent in areas other than actual game development.

The other problem is cost. Raising money through Kickstarter isn’t quite as lucrative as it might seem – as the team at War Balloon discovered last year. After taxes, the cuts taken by the site owners, paying for all of the incentive packages, and the money spent promoting the Kickstarter campaign in the first place, many indie companies may not come out very far ahead of where they started!

So what are the independent developers to do? They need gamer support to get their ideas off the ground, but don’t want to lose a significant portion of those dollars to printing posters and paying out middlemen.

On the other side of the coin, gamers don’t necessarily want to shell out their hard earned money for the promise of a game they know nothing about, or worse, to a developer they know nothing about. 

If linking up with a major publisher (or angel investor) isn’t really an option, indie developers are only left with the less-than-perfect crowdfunding model.

So where is the middle ground? How can the model change for the benefit of the developers and the gamers? 

Would game companies be willing to keep their funders in the loop during the development process? Maybe a certain level of contribution would earn a donor a spot as a beta tester, or donors would have a way to provide feedback about preview content only available to them.

It will take some mutual trust between gamers and developers to find a crowdfunding option that satisfies both

For the developers, their commitment to donors needs to be relatively low cost, or they will be spending all of the donated funding on giving back to the donors (instead of the game).

For donors, they will need some assurance that their money is being put to good use, and that the game they are funding is going to meet (and hopefully exceed) their expectations.

Perhaps it will require that games are almost ready for the shelves by the time they get to crowdfunding sites, and the raised funds will go toward distribution and marketing. Maybe it will take some rallying by the gaming community to help determine which projects are worthy of their resources, instead of developers spending their time and effort finding the funders in the first place. 

However unlikely, the unheard of indie developer may need to appeal to more established and successful independents for help getting the word out.

This model will definitely take some trial and error, but there has to be an alternative to the current scenario, where donated dollars are spent largely on swag and fees, and the donors get posters and t-shirts, but no sense of the game they are paying for.

Something’s got to give, or gamer-supported development won’t be around for much longer.

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E Zachary Knight
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Can reward fulfillment be cost prohibitive to any developer? Yes. If said costs are not accounted for before starting the Kickstarter. This has been covered many times before.

If you are setting a base cost for the game at $15, you are saying that the cost to complete the game is $15 x The number of backers. That is your cost to make the game.

If you are putting a physical reward at $25, yes that will certainly eat into your development budget. What you need to do instead is to price the physical rewards at $15 + cost of the reward + shipping materials + shipping + cost for time spent. If you actually price all that out, you will get a cost closer to what you really need to charge.

This is one reason why physical rewards are moving up in the reward tiers to closer to the $100 range.

The fact is, you cannot start a Kickstarter campaign without figuring in all those costs. Any indie developer that does not will have a very hard time indeed and would have been better off not doing the campaign in the first place.

Ben Sly
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I would say that Kickstarter is not worthwhile to any developer without an already established following and a prior game or two. You can get around that with a playable prototype (like FTL did with its award-winning indie show presentations), but even then it's hard to drum up support.

And, yes, the issue with physical rewards is not that they're bad ideas, it's that their costs to the developers are underestimated. It is the greatest pitfall of successful Kickstarters and lottery winners alike: focusing on the lump sum and not on how easily even a massive amount of money can be squandered without careful budgeting. The effort required for budgeting, for running a good Kickstarter, for *preparing* to run a good Kickstarter, and for regularly communicating with fans gets thrown right on top of the effort needed to make a good game in the first place; that massive commitment is almost always much more than a small indie team is prepared to accomplish. And, frankly, I just don't see it being worth it unless you already have a significant reputation, no matter how good the pitch is.

Alfa Etizado
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I think Kickstarter projects are past the time when we could name only FTL and nostalgia games. A lot of stuff has been kickstarted already, not all of them from established names, not all of them with a well known prior game.

Katy Smith
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If you look at Kickstarter as a traditional "publisher - developer" relationship, it makes more sense. Just like pitching your game to a publisher, you need to sell your game to the investors. Why should they support you? Developers need to come up with a good reason for gamers to invest in their product. The less "risky" the game, the more likely a publisher is to invest in it. This is the same for backers. Risk can be mitigated in many ways. If you have a history of delivering games, that's a strong plus. If you are serving a highly engaged market, that's another one. If you are already at alpha, or have a playable prototype, that's also a good thing. I am weary of backing some indies if they have nothing to show that would offset these risks. I think the question indies should be asking is: If you are an unproven developer, how can you sell me on investing in your game? Physical rewards are nice, but I'm not going to back you for a t-shirt (although if it's an awesome t-shirt, I might go for a higher tier).

Other things to take from the Pub-Dev relationship: updates and milestones. While I don't expect playable milestone builds, I do want to know how the project is going and what risks / awesome stuff happened during that development cycle. Just like with publishers, if they give you money to make a game, it launches with minimal issues, and there's good communication with them, they will be more likely to invest in your next game as well.

Harry Fields
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One observation. Backers are leery of projects that consist of nothing but concept art or a hastily constructed Unity scene or render out of Max or Blender. I've noticed that the games that get funded that are not projects of experienced veterans are usually very good in conveying what the gameplay will be like. They can have fairly rudimentary graphics in place but a prototype highlighting compelling gameplay is a surefire way to get attention. If you're selling a JRPG and have nothing to offer but a story and art, then yeah... you're probably going to fail unless you have a reputation. If you can show your idea and elaborate on why it's fun... and your goal is reasonable (if you're unknown and a two man team and don't have *extensive* demos to show, don't ask for a half mil), you have a shot. And don't get too wrapped up in physical rewards. Game-based rewards are easier and cheaper to implement. I will cough up a little more for earlier access, and i'm sure others do too. Similarly, collectibles form the process of creating your game (artwork) make for great rewards.

At the end of the day, people can sniff out crap. Stuff worth making will work. Stuff that shouldn't be, probably won't.

Phil Maxey
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To help answer the question "So what are the independent developers to do?" I'm going to be setting up a crowdfunding site solely focused on indie game developers, called

James Yee
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Hey Phil can you contact me through the Kickstarter Conversations blog when you get started? I'd like to learn more/share the story. :)

Phil Maxey
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Will do :)

Kevin Fishburne
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Will you be setting up a Kickstarter for it? j/k

Phil Maxey
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No :)

TC Weidner
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I agree the whole taxation thing and so forth is a downer, but lets look at Kick-starter and crowd funding from a different perspective. Not only are these people your investors, they can also, and should also be seen as your social marketing people. They are jazzed up about your game, so much so they are giving you money to make it.
So once KS is done, keep them involved. Things like streaming on Twitch on a friday night taking questions and updating them cost next to nothing and keeps people actively involved and engaged. If you do give out Kickstarter rewards be imaginative and do things that put people in the game. Name npcs after them, put their names in the default top 10 leader board, allowing to to participate in silly things we dont care that much about , but people who play games may think is really cool since they have never gotten to participate in such behind the scene decisions. Example, is there a bathroom in your game? put people names on the walls, allow a few to put in funny poems. There is kinds of incredibly cheap yet very cool rewards possible.

Also if you give physical rewards, give out ones that will give you the most marketing bang for the buck.

Kickstarter is as much about building a community as it is about getting some money. Your gonna need both.

James Yee
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Lots of good comments here, let me add something from my Kickstarter commentator point of view.

I did a count the other day and I have about 150 interviews with various Kickstarter projects from across the spectrum, but a majority of them are game projects of one kind or another. (Probably about 40% I haven't done the math, maybe I should not sure if folks care about stats like that) Beyond the interviews I've also been observing and commenting on various projects and talking to the creators informally.

That all said this article is spot on in a lot of ways for one simple fact, many indie devs from non-established groups (and even some established ones) really don't approach a Kickstarter project correctly. Which honestly I don't blame most of them because most indie devs I've spoken too have no marketing/business background and are in fact DEVS. So they hire PR firms, or "go it alone" and mess up by wasting money or just not preparing their ground game ahead of time. Which are honestly classic mistakes for any Kickstarter.

As some commentators state there's a certain "threshold of probability" essentially required for most backers now-a-days to back a project. We have to believe you're really going to come through on the project to even consider backing it. That requires far more than concept art, story concepts, game concepts, etc. You have to be much farther down the dev pipeline to get the funding, plus a biggie of mine is the budget breakdown if you don't show that you've thought of the costs more of the wary backers are going to skip your project.

I can, and have, gone on and on about what it takes to run a successful Kickstarter but I think the bigger point the article is making is what should qualify AS a successful Kickstarter. Reaching the funding goal and getting money is all well and good, but if your goal is too low or you didn't budget properly, or what you it'll all be for naught or heck, be for a loss!

Dane MacMahon
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I view kickstarter as a way to get games I otherwise could not. The ones I have backed, and it seems like a lot of the successful ones, are fulfilling desires that publishers and not. A lot of people confuse this with nostalgia, but honestly it's more that no one was making games like the ones I grew up with any ore, and I still wanted to play more like that. The only way to get them was kickstarter.

When I see projects that are offering more of what we already get a ton of I just shrug and move on. Great example if Tricia Helper's new project... A cinematic 3D story focused action RPG? Those come out all the time, why take a risk to get another?

So from my perspective, offer me something I can't get elsewhere and I'll be glad to take a risk as long as things look right. If you're just another in a sea of fishes though I don't see why I would risk my money to fund you.

Tasley Porter
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Valuable points by all thus far, yet when I read the article title I felt the answer to the question was obvious before the beginning of the first statement: Of course it's worth it. I can't conceive of a circumstance when it's not.

The current state of publishing in the industry is atrocious. It's a complete insider's club. Not to mention that labor standards are still incredibly low. I'd like to see MORE devs staking out on their own and dealing a much needed blow to the current status quo.

Of course crowd-funding presents it's own set of problems; any alternative will. For example, there's been good but limited discussion going around about extra-veteran developers using it raise multi-millions and other abusive scenarios. There are also the points about flat out scams. But the question posed in the article is basically is it a risk worth taking? Absolutely, for gamers and developers alike. At the end of the day you can donate as little as you like to mitigate the risks; like buying a milkshake it turned out you didn't like. The greatest detriment of crowd-funding right now is that there isn't much advice and education being put out that beginners can benefit from which can help them to create better, more successful campaigns. People who have worked inside the industry could help this newer generation by being much more vocal and outspoken teachers on how it works and why independent development presents the best great hope for the future of games. As long as publishers have the monopoly on things, alternative entries into the industry must be supported and not because some of us believe it's better, but because the status quo sucks and is detrimental.

Justin Cuff
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It all depends on your appreciation for the 'hidden gifts' that lay in every one of our own life events. If you run a Kickstarter campaign that does not meet the funding criteria, does this mean that your endeavor failed? Not exactly. There are likely more people who after seeing your campaign, now know about your project and more importantly, you. So 'is it worth it?' is an inherently subjective question to begin with. A lot of the indie projects that I now know of and support are only on my my little radar because I happened to find them on Kickstarter. Although most of them did not raise the capitol they were looking for, I now am happy to tweet, post and take part in their success going forward. It's also important to think of your first Kickstarter campaign as a learning tool to better succeed at the next attempt. What? You mean you thought you failed and could not attempt it again? Nonsense! You can run as many campaigns as you like (provided you can spare the time) until your project succeeds. What is most important? A good video and basic gameplay representation. Remember that not everyone has an imagination just like you or anyone else. People need to usually see something in order to believe in it. I'm not sure if my Kickstarter campaign will succeed, but I do know that I've worked very hard and have learned invaluable lessons along the way. If it flops, I'll just use all of that great knowledge and keep promoting until it works.