A Letter from the trenches of Kickstarter.
About 6 Months ago Sega announced they were closing Sega Studio Australia, leaving us a few months to finish the remake of Castle of Illusion and find another job (probably in Canada).
And so began the plan to save the games industry in Australia, well at least for five of us, and hopefully more...
Actually the plan to Kickstart a spiritual successor was something I often brought up everywhere I worked over the last few years, but a few things started to cement it into reality.
Kickstarter started becoming a viable source of funding for mid to large budget games.
EA released a Syndicate remake that was actually a FPS, the ensuing outcry from the fans was heartwarming for me, and poured more petrol on the fire.
Day, an SC2 caster I watched religiously during the depths of my StarCraft addiction, released a "My life of starcraft" where he mentioned his love of Syndicate Wars and how he played it with his brother in his youth. You would be amazed how happy this made me.
I ended up working with a group of Syndicate fans who worked at Sega, all refugees from the steadily collapsing Brisbane dev scene, each at the top of their field and each representing a different facet of game making.syn
So armed with forewarning of joblessness a crack team of game devs and 5 copies of Unity pro we set about our Kickstarter campaign.
Like any war plan, it was meticulously put together, chaotically executed and didn’t survive first contact with the enemy.
First we started with a teaser 4 weeks before the launch day that generated quite a bit of press and linked to a countdown webpage. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9nWNAXLJEb8
With a fixed time scale, practically no budget and the help of a few friends we managed to get our Kickstarter video put together and a small collection of concept artwork, some paid for, some produced by a good friend, thanks Jeremy Love. And thanks to Russell Shaw for the cinematic’s audio.
I think we did a great job (I say we, as the coder of the team my input to the cinematic was of the tighten up the graphics on level 4 variety), the cinematic is awesome (and is taken frame by frame straight out of unity), the parts of us talking to camera don’t look totally incompetent (I hope) and we get across most of the information we wanted too. I now have a newfound respect for anyone who can look into the cold dead stare of a camera and remain composed and string coherent sentences together.
In fact much of the video editing of the pitch became a battle to stop me waffling on for 20 minutes at a time about AI , emergent behaviours, chaos theory and how this all used to be green fields and in my day we didn’t need GPU’s real programmers wrote software rasterizers.
We cut ourselves back to single line, key bullet points. It actually took about 10 hours of filming to generate 5 minutes of usable footage in the end, the final magic ingredient of beer on the last shoot managed to unleash my waggling eyebrows and arm waving on an unsuspecting public. You can check it for youself here http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/5livesstudios/satellite-reign
The team battled epicly with the arcane quirks of the Kickstarter page making interface, and finally launch day came.
The five of us gathered together in Brent’s converted garage on 9:00 pm on a rainy Friday night. We cracked open a crate of beer and hit the launch button, sitting back to wait out the lonely next few hours as we waited for our first pledge.
But something magical happened that I still don’t quite understand, before we could even hit refresh we had a pledge, before anyone would have even had time to watch the video. It wasn't even a mistake. Then we had another, then another, they were soon coming in thick and fast.
We were amazed, our gobs truly smacked, we hadn’t even told anyone yet, in fact we had actually gone live 3 hours earlier than our webpage countdown would have people believe. (We couldn't wait, the temptation of the launch button had become too strong, we are only mortal men).
We sat back to watch the show shouting out occasional names we knew as pledges came in from friends and family eager to help. A beer per grand we jokingly decided, within an hour we were at 10 grand and falling way behind our beer quota, by bed time we were at 30K by morning 60K.
And so the craziness started, we all thought we’d be able to take it a bit easy after launch, talking about the games we’d play that we’d missed out on while preparing the kickstarter. But we were getting a thousand internal Kickstarter messages a day, emails for interviews, a thousand public comments on the KS, our forums coming to life, random forums all over the net that needed reading and analysing, every word written carefully studied and taken on board.
We kept posting updates as much as we could, but people wanted more, they wanted stretch goals they wanted alpha gameplay footage, they wanted the game design to match their own wishes. In the middle of our night one backer famously threatened to pull his pledge if we didn't give in to his game design demands within 2 hours, fortunately the drama was over by the time we awoke.
By 14 days in the pledges has slowed to a trickle, our vigilance of the Kickstater pledge total is omnipotent. First thing in the morning check KS, every ten minutes check KS, KS app on phone checked, wake up in the middle of the night, check KS, wife wakes up in the middle of the night, checks Kickstarter -- it is totally consuming and utterly addictive.
And so the early days of we could hit a million, turn into will we hit our stretch goals, turn into will we hit our target at all.
Some backers are getting worried, many are old hands at this and are used to the dip in the middle and the wait for the final surge, the hockey stick graph, as it's known.
We have become staticians carefully analysing other KS’s, hunting down similarities in trends looking for signs of hope.
As of today we are 77% funded with 8750 backers and 7 days to go. Quietly confident that a backlog of updates on hand for our last week and a call to arms should send us over the line, secretly terrified we will break the trends and end with a mighty fall.
So if we could do this all again, what would we do differently?
I’ve made a terrible mistake.
First and foremost do everything you can to get on the US Kickstarter, it's painful to see people turned away from pledging because they don’t have a credit card, or they don’t want to enter their CC details. US backers are in the majority and they have their amazon payment details already entered in. The ease of a one click pledge becomes a battle with CC forms. Why KS for all their greatness don't take Paypal , or amazon or google wallet from the UK is beyond me, what is this 1996 :P (I’m sure they have logical reasons for doing so btw).
It turns out, much to our surprise that KS is very quiet at weekends, so launching on a Friday night and ending on Sunday night was both dumb and dumber. Start on a Monday and end on a Friday, maximise those weekdays!
Just because InXile and Double Fine can run a kickstarter without gameplay footage and a few sentences about the game and a smile, doesn't mean you can. You are not double fine and nor are we, people want the game to be already done so that they can pledge to see it made, a chicken and egg situation, have plenty of gameplay mockups ready to go! We are still working on ours, will our grey box gameplay video entice more backers or put off the ones we have, every decision is a nightmare of pros and cons.
For the love of god hold something back for the updates, we didn't hold back enough we fired our guns before we saw the whites of their eyes. We thought we would keep working during the KS, not realising we’d have a hard time just keeping up with the messages/comments and PR.
We have more to come but you always wish you had more.
Make allies in the Kickstarter world, plenty of devs have been through it before and are happy to give advice (Thanks Jeff Pobst), don't do what we did and get the advice after you launch.
A week of Torture.
And so we enter the final week, will I be pulling the kids from their cosy schools and the heat of sub tropical Brisbane and shipping them to the icy colds of Canada to work in the snow mines.
Or will we move onto the next step of the game dev rollercoaster and launch fully into the development of Satellite Reign.
Perhaps you can help launch the game that redefines a forgotten genre or you know stop me having to buy a woolly coat.