Analyzing Our Failed Kickstarter
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
I knew when putting together the Kickstarter project for our steampunk arena shooter "Dukes and Dirigibles" that we may not come even particularly close to our (realistic and necessary) funding goal. However, I wasn't prepared for numbers so low that we may actually hold the record for the lowest funding percentage (about 0.3%) for any game project in the history of Kickstarter.
With only 8 backers at the time of this writing (the project is still live, but I consider it over since nothing short of a miracle could save it now), it is embarrasing to even direct people to view it.
I decided to reflect on some of the reasons why the project failed so miserably, despite having researched so many previous game projects (both failed and successful). If you have any additional observations, please share in the comments.
Zero Community. Our "community" largely consisted of Twitter followers of the company account @Backward_pieS, somewhere upwards of 1600. After reading this blog about how Moon Hunters had 700 Twitter followers at the start of their campaign, and 1500 afterwards, I thought we were in good shape in this regard. I was sadly mistaken.
Despite this number of followers, we only had 5 backers at most that could have come through the Twitter announcements. I can imagine two reasons for the low turnout:
First, the large majority of our followers likely fall into the "follow me and I'll follow you" category, with little-to-no direct interaction or true interest in us. It was probably a mistake to follow so many other accounts, because their "return follows" provided an inflated sense of interest.
Second, our previous game "Let There Be Life" is totally different from Dukes and Dirigibles, being a relaxing creative game about trees, so fans of our earlier work may not be interested in the new action game.
Being the lead developer in a small husband-and-wife studio, I have poured so much of my time and energy into building the game, that I hadn't done the necessary promotion of it on forums like TIGSource and Reddit (and other sites I should probably know about but don't). I knew that would be a weakness, but I didn't know it would be death knell.
Work-In-Progress Art. I focused too much on refining the game play, particularly the game loop for the multiplayer demo. With a steady schedule of public appearances, I felt pressured to make fixes and additions so that the multiplayer experience felt complete. This took away time from development of the game's graphics.
The weakest visual elements of the game are the drab and repetitive arenas, which are using old art. Since the arena walls/islands are not grid-based (allowing for angles and smooth curves), I have been waiting on the introduction of Smartsprites in Unity (scheduled for next June) to allow me to create sophisticated arena geometry easily and efficiently. Waiting for this release to focus on arena updates was smart from a development viewpoint, but terrible from a promotional one.
The landscape backdrop doesn't help either (it was done in about an hour-and-a-half right before a previous convention).
So what we were left with was drab multiplayer arenas, and singleplayer arenas that were recolors of the multiplayer artwork. Hoping people will look at your unfinished graphics and transpose your vision onto them is a losing prospect.
Bad Timing. We initially intended to run our Kickstarter back in June, but the time spent keeping the game in a playable state for each public event took away from development of the Kickstarter project (in addition to the art development). By Autumn we still weren't ready but were quickly running out of cash.
October through November became a death march as I frantically implemented new player art, prepared for the next convention, added bosses for the singleplayer, recorded/edited footage for a video, and created imagery, gifs, and copy for the Kickstarter. The earliest we could get it all done was the week before Thanksgiving. So here we are, running a project that spans the peak of the Christmas gift-buying season.
We wanted to show the game at a convention during the Kickstarter campaign, but having one the weekend it went live pulled all our time away from making any sort of online push over those first few crucial days. The project launched a little past noon on a Thursday, then I went right back into fixing the game build for the show, followed by packing for the weekend. We got up early Friday and headed out for the show, leaving the Kickstarter to basically fend for itself.
No Console Support. While Dukes and Dirigibles has been approved for the Xbox One in recent weeks, we are just now working out the details so we didn't want to promise a release for it. So a game that's been designed to be a great "sit on the couch with your friends" experience had no consoles tied to it.
Local Multiplayer Only. This one dovetails with the lack of definite console support. I have no data for how many PC/Mac users own multiple gamepads, let alone how many like to play local multiplayer games on their desktop system (according to steamspy, TowerFall has sold well over 100K copies, but it's difficult to predict typical consumer behaviors from a breakout hit).
The Video. Did the black-and-white opening to the video scare some people off? It's difficult to say. The ratio of completed plays per views has been hovering around 40% - is that good? Bad? I don't know. I do fear that the video highlighted the repetitiveness of the graphics.
Lack of "DRM-Free" Reference. We pushed the fact that Dukes and Dirigibles has been approved for Steam, but didn't specifically mention that we'd be willing to provide DRM-Free copies as well. Did that have an impact?
What are Dirigibles? A lot of people don't know that dirigibles means "airships" or "blimps." Heck, some younger players even have trouble saying it. Perhaps that turned off random Kickstarter users browsing through the new game projects.
Preview Image. Despite being unconventional (it is basically a two-color art-deco image), I think the preview image for our project stands out rather nicely amongst the others. However, there are no visuals within it to suggest what the game is about - did that hurt us?
With the Kickstarter's failure, it is time for me to look for either contract work or full time employment. Once my wife and I are more financially secure, I would like to invest money into some good contract artists to make the graphics more exciting. Once the final art style starts to take form, I will begin the long process of promoting the game everywhere I can to build up fan interest.
Will there be another Kickstarter? I don't know, but if so, I hope it goes better (at least it can't go worse :) .