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A Few Thoughts on Kickstarter
by Luis Levy on 05/31/12 12:30:00 pm   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.

 

Kickstarter. It extends funding for those who are tired of catering to publishers. It creates a lasting bond with your "backers,” leading to tons of press coverage, adulation from gamers worldwide, and financial freedom. It will change the world as we know it.

Hold on a minute. Let's back off a bit. There's a lot of buzz around Kickstarter and game development ever since Double Fine's  Adventure created a huge splash back in February. Adventure is regarded as Kickstarter's poster child thanks to almost 90 thousand backers and $3.4 million in funding.

After Adventure, it was Wasteland 2's chance to shine. And it didn't disappoint: almost 62 thousand backers, $3 million in funding. Wow.

Those two games led to a veritable gold rush. Independent studios and amateurs alike suddenly realized they didn't need to bootstrap in order to make a game. They didn't need to go begging to a publisher either. Getting funded on Kickstarter would mean getting a project fast-tracked to success with full creative control and a horde of "backers" ready to help spread the word. It seemed too good to be true, and in a way, it still is.



Tim Schafer's Adventure got the ball rolling


Winter is Coming


Stealing from Game of Thrones is fun. Do you know what's even more fun? Watching history unfold in real time. My day job, promoting indie and mobile games, allowed me to observe (and learn) a lot in the past few months. In HBO's hit series, "winter" is when the White Walkers may return once more to wreak havoc on the Realms.

In the Kickstarter world, winter would be:

a) Scams
b) Failed projects

We already had our first scam. Uncovered by Reddit, Mythic: The Story of Gods and Men was quickly outed to the whole world as a shameless attempt to scam Kickstarter users. Since no one's credit card gets charged unless a project is fully funded, financial loss was avoided.

There are hundreds of failed projects. They are no fault of Kickstarter nor the project owners. Like the App Store, the sheer number of new projects -- increasing every day -- will make getting noticed and therefore funded much harder than in the halcyon days of 2011. Such failures should be taken as learning opportunities, high quality feedback before the game is actually in the market. Seen in this light, failing to get funded on Kickstarter might actually be a blessing in disguise.



This is what a Kickstarter scam looks like


Best Laid Plans


It pains me to see quality projects fail to generate enough excitement to get funded. As an independent games supporter, I want creative ideas and concepts not only to get funded, but to get made. I want to read about them -- and play them. Still, a huge number of projects fails to take off or crashes right before landing. After months of careful observation, I concluded the problem is fourfold:

(1) Developers without a "following" fail to gain traction
(2) Projects without playable code scare away possible backers
(3) Lack of a high concept or "big idea"
(4) Journalists tired of Kickstarter pitches limit the amount of coverage devoted to Kickstarter projects

As seen in Adventure and Wasteland 2, well-known studios/developers have a much better chance of getting funded. Gamers recognize that such developers have a track record; that they have shipped dozens of games in the past, often much bigger projects than the one currently hosted on Kickstarter. Of course, no one takes a minute to consider that a huge number of well-known developers has failed to ship titles before, or that even publisher-supported AAA titles may get cancelled (sometimes mere months before release). Nonetheless, being a celebrity -- or even a minor celebrity -- pays off if you need to fund a game via Kickstarter.

Playable code. We're all used to open betas where an almost-finished game is stress-tested by hordes across the planet. Few of us have access to alpha builds and an even smaller number to prototypes. In Kickstarter, concept art and videos are a given, but real prototypes are hard to come by. Well, I can share with readers right now that in the near future, you will need a prototype to get funded. A backlash against prototype-less titles is already evident -- see this Reddit thread for the supporting evidence. Concept art, music, videos will not be able to assure possible backers that a project is healthy. The same goes for the press: it's much more newsworthy to try a new Kickstarter project, share your own particular impressions with readers, than to write about yet another new project.

Everyone knows a big idea from a generic, OK one. Big ideas have reach. They make us look at the world in a different way. The personal computer was a big idea. Same for the App Store and the creation of Android. In Kickstarter, big ideas inspire gamers to become backers. They are more viral and more newsworthy to the press. A big idea spreads via social media, provoking oohs and aahs on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ -- and therefore driving funding. Picking a niche genre in Kickstarter, something smaller, is a big risk instead. You would think that gamers would welcome an approachable, doable concept but the opposite is true: they shrug their shoulders and move on to the next game. Another problem is that a niche genre like casino games or music has a smaller pool of fans than something big like first-person shooters or even the Phoenix-like adventure genre. From a small pool of fans, you'd need to convince an even smaller pool of Kickstarter users or sympathizers to support your project. That makes things exponentially more difficult.

Promoting SRRN's Always Outnumbered last week, I encountered three different reactions from journalists. The first one was support -- they know SRRN from Ash and Ash II: Shadows and helped us with a small post or tweet. A site even gave us free advertising (!) The second one was silence. No reply, which is expected and part of everyday life if you work in Public Relations. The third reaction was one of frustration. The journalist in question told me he gets such pitches, dozens of them, day in and day out. That other journos have filters set up so by merely mentioning the word "Kickstarter" an email gets moved to a particular folder, or deleted forever. He told me that there are way too many developers jumping on the bandwagon and flooding journalists with pitches in the process.

I understand why he reacted this way. I share some of his misgivings and can certainly imagine how annoying it is to get 20, 30 Kickstarter pitches every day. Where you can click on a link and download the game featured in a real pitch, that's not an option with Kickstarter. There's no way to know how good -- or how bad -- the game truly is. Journalists are forced to trust the studio, believe in all the promised features, have faith in the release date. And that's IF the project gets funded. No wonder so many are burned-out.

Countermeasures

I still have hope that projects like SRRN's, full of potential and with innovative gameplay, get fully funded instead of yet another zombie game. But I don't have that power. What I can do is list a few directives that may help developers in their quest for crowd-funding.

  • Wait for the right moment. Invest some time and money in order to have a prototype ready by Day One
  • Be careful with niche titles. Unless you're really, really famous like Tim Schafer, a niche title will be much harder to fund
  • Consider your rewards carefully. Make sure to include high dollar rewards for those who can afford them. Avoid expensive-to-manufacture rewards -- you should spend your budget making the game, not designing/creating/shipping rewards
  • Try to include experienced developers in the team. Ideally one or all of you will have shipped multiple titles in the past
  • Kickstarter is no place for amateurs -- if you're making games for the first time, it's best to create a mod or even a small mobile game. Getting funded implies real responsibility for shipping an actual product
  • Invest in a great camera and microphones. Enlist pros to shoot your videos, even if they're still in film school. Production values are becoming a huge deal -- some (unfairly) see them as an extension of your talent as a game developer
  • Finally, have fun with it. Understand that it's cheaper to fail on Kickstarter than on the marketplace. If your project didn't get funded, regroup and start anew


A period of euphoria tends to follow the introduction of every new technology. In gaming, we saw it with CD-ROM drives in the 1990s, in-game advertising in 2007 and now free-to-play. In its current incarnation, Kickstarter is a truly disruptive development for the game industry, one which no one knows where it will take us. It will be worth your while to take a few deep breaths, then make the best possible decision(s) for your project.

Feel free to share your opinion/experience in the comments. And if you feel like this is a worthy post, please share it with colleagues, friends and family.


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Comments


Benjamin Quintero
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I saw your campaign and it certainly all looks compelling. Still, I can't completely agree with your countermeasures. Though most of those suggestions are sound, I've seen poorly recorded pitches from kids who looked like they were still in high school get 300% funding on their $25k campaigns to make a "classic RPG" that looked like something out of RPGMaker. He had little more than a few mockups of his "idea" for a classic RPG and that was enough. The economy on Kickstarter just doesn't make sense and that is also something to remember.

Things just blow up for no reason sometimes. The more sure-thing is to get a bunch of gray-beard game developers in your video, but there's always dumb luck too. I've seen lots of professional projects fail on Kickstarter and plenty of never-gonna-ship projects exceed their pitch. The best you can do is just put it up there and hope that it catches fire.

The post-Double Fine gold rush may soon be over but, with programs like Kick It Forward, I am hopeful that promising developers will get support from their own people. If these high profile Kickstarter games go on to sell big beyond their release it could mean a considerable amount of money returning to the Kickstarter community.

shayne oneill
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In fairness though, its also possible theres more of a market for low-tek "classic" RPGs than we might be giving credit for. I know people fanatical about the damn things and will soak up anything that even remembers an N64 zelda type game. It mystifies me, but hey.

As to whether you can do it for $25K I dont know. That'd buy 2 months of my time and uh, yeah it'd flop. But it might buy 6 months of a 20 year old college kids time, and that might be plenty.

Kevin Reilly
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What you say Luis makes a lot of sense. I think the old byline "Show Me, Don't Tell Me" applies to lesser known developers more than industry darlings such as Tim Schaefer. Too much talking about the content or design of the game and not enough Showing the actual gameplay can kill off initial enthusiasm. Obviously having some personality to the developer or unique hook in the pitch would also make the campaign much more viral.

Jeremy Reaban
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I don't think niche is the problem - if anything, the problem is in genres that aren't niche.

Like the one you linked to - it's a tower defense game. Those things are pretty much a dime a dozen these days, so why would anyone back it? Same with another project I saw that just got canceled, a futuristic RTS with a pretty good pedigree (Conquest 2). But RTSes come out what, every week?

KS probably works best when it's for things that people simply can't log onto Steam (or Gamer's Gate or Origin) and buy.

By contrast, look at the genres that have done well - turn based RPGs, something that used to be huge but now is anathema to big publishers; space sims (ditto); and adventure games, which never really went away, and other than Double Fine, isn't exactly bringing in the huge bucks. Jane Jensen struggled, Al Lowe got $600k, but he was huge once, Tex Murphy will probably make its goal 450k goal, but only just, while the SpaceQuest guys won't make their 500k one.

I think a reason the adventure game's relative struggle (other than Double Fine) is that it's a genre that still exists, just not as popular as it once way. And a lot of the buyers of adventure games have moved to casual games, like HOGs.


The other problem that I see with Kickstarter is also represented by the tower defense game you mentioned - developers who are already making the game, but seemingly just want more money "because", or because they simply don't want to invest their own money.

In some cases, like say, Eisenwald or Xenonauts, it's a case of the people making the game simply just not having the money to finish it or release it without cutting features, or Republique, where they could finance half of it themselves. But in your TD game's case, or say, Pathfinder Online, it seems to be case of just wanting to risk someone else's money rather than your own. If you have a big following, you'd get enough people to do that, but even then...


The other thing is, the money you ask for should probably scale to your fame. Al Lowe can probably get $500k, a guy who made a computer novel in the 1980s that happens to share the name of a popular franchise now cannot (the Portal project). $150-200k is probably the limit for someone with a vague background in the industry (like, I used to work at ____ on ____ but not a household name)

EnDian Neo
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It's the same problem you find with App Store, with Steam, even the Internet. Noise is everywhere when everyone shares the same space.

Eventually Kickstarter best practices will follow the same guidelines as for publisher pitches.

Have a clear, exciting vision
Have a reasonable plan to realize that vision
Have an estimate for how much time and money you need

The difference is that you are marketing to your final audience rather than an intermediary (like your publisher).

Daniel Gooding
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There are some legitimate kickstarter campaigns that really feel like they are in the realm of home shopping network.

Just taking advantage of people who compulsively donate.

Whether the team has a chance in hell of completing it or not.

Rahul Choudhury
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Your point about needing a prototype is a great one and one we're trying to proactively address with the Kickstarter campaign for Guys From Andromeda's SpaceVenture (by the original creators of Space Quest). For every $100k in pledges reached we've been releasing iterations of a prototype built with HTML5 (because HTML is just a great rapid prototyping environment). As we near $300k pledged, we're about to release the third one. So far the feedback has been really valuable and it's been great showing people that we're capable, we know what we're doing, and we can ship on time and on scope (the budget part will need to be proved later, I guess!).

We are, however, also learning about some negative aspects of prototyping: not everyone is as understanding of its iterative nature. Some fans seem confused that although they're pledging money towards the campaign, they don't get some kind of voice in the direction of the prototype. This has caused some controversy which we (perhaps naively) didn't anticipate and have found tough to deal with beyond releasing some other material that redirects the dialogue to something more constructive. Unfortunately, it seems that showing fans prototypes is not the same as showing publishers prototypes, since the latter - while still famously difficult about comprehending the nature of prototyping - still at least have a basic understanding of their purpose.

Overall, though, it's a fantastic adventure to be on and we seem to be truly on the bleeding edge as far as Kickstarter campaigns go. I hope we can inspire future campaigns to follow the path we took.

Elizabeth Boylan
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We used Appbackr last summer to build a concept game, Big Top Ballet. We raised a 'modest' $5K which allowed us to commit to the title and focus. It also allowed us to generate some pre-release buzz.

Both alternative and trippy (as all indie games should be), Big Top Ballet has debuted with the first of a series of 12 'cirque' inspired mini games with killer electronic music by DJ ill-esha. It's trippy and ill-esha's original compositions are sick! We didn't have a prototype, as the game designer I had a vision and manage to team up with a musical genius.

We released to iOS, Mac, Chrome this Spring and just a couple weeks ago to Android on Google Play. We're set to release to Facebook in September. Our approach? This is our 'exclusive' title we're starting small but it's scalable and we have a big vision for the game as a title. We're getting traction and about to update for Game Center on iOS.

Appbackr.com has been really great, instead of offering rewards we've got to push sales of the game which we are sharing with backrs. Unlike KickStarter for games and other projects, on appbackr.com it isn't a 'donation' backrs redeem a financial return on their backing from game or app sales.

Evan Combs
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When kickstarter has died down to stability I believe it will be a haven for those who have built up a name on the Indie/Kickstarter scene, and young developers who have a small game idea they want to make on a small budget. I think both segments will require a different attitude and offerings to be able to be successful.

Greg Holsclaw
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Working prototypes are the differentiators. The old adage, talk is silver, code is gold still applies.

Mark Nowotarski
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"talk is silver, code is gold still applies. "

Excellent! I've had a number of clients with successful Kickstarter projects. Prototypes make a very compelling case.


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