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[Nearing the end of his successful Kickstarter campaign, Psychotic Psoftware's Mike Hanson talks about his crowdfunding experiences.]
Well, hello again.
It's Mike here from Psychotic Psoftware. It's been a while, but isn't it always? Still, this time it really feels like a while, and thats probably because I've been so busy in such transient times. Let me enlighten you a bit.
As I'm coming to the end of a long and hard-fought Kickstarter campaign, I thought I'd give you a bit of an account of the protocols, the process and my feelings throughout the whole thing.
As those who follow Psychotic Pspeaks will know, I was made redundant as of New Year's Day 2013. This has forced me and my household into a pretty tricky time... So far I've applied for over 130 art roles and been accepted for just one interview with a company in Canada. (I'm UK based so no, it's not ideal).
Now, hopefully I'm not completely deluded, but I'm pretty sure that this lack of interest from my industry isn't simply because I'm rubbish at what I do. Apparently, I didn't get that job in Canada because I've got "too many skills" and they just wanted a UI artist. Ok. I can dig that... but yep. It's a specialist's industry at the moment and getting employed is becoming noteably harder for all rounders like me.
One really cool thing that came from my redundancy was that I was able to spend a couple of weeks getting out of that overcrowded back bedroom and making something of a proper home study for myself to job hunt and finish PowerUp from... Much better!
I'm not completely soft though. I always suspected something like this from an industry that moves as quickly as the games industry does. I spent most of the last decade as a games artist. I've made games on lots of different fomats and in lots of different styles... and In my free time, I set about familliarising myself with the fields of designing, coding, producing art, sound and music for small scale video games. The kind that can be produced by one person... you know, just in case I found myself in trouble.
This year I found myself in trouble.
...Winding back a bit, last year I started PowerUp for fun. Then I realised I was onto something that might actually one day supliment my income. Part way through the game's development it occurred to me that to release PowerUp, I'd have to pay for the licences for the software I was using, so I started saving. I expected to release the game in spring so saved with a view to doing that... In January, I lost my job and have since been watching all those savings trickle away on the mortgage and the bills. Not the sort of thing you can put on hold while you buy your software.
To be honest, for a while there I was pretty desperate. There were two options:
1. Give up. Stack shelves. Lament the better days.
2. Contact the nice people at Kickstarter to find out what's what.
Obviously, this is what I did. I explained what I was making and what I needed. I asked them if I was elligible to run a Kickstarter to pay for my software and they advised me to draft a page out for the campaign, then submit it to them. They'd take a look and let me know.
...and so started my Kickstarter journey.
First up, I needed to see what all of these Kickstarting people actually do. What do they say? What promises do they make and what's exected of me? If I wanted to make my Kickstarter a success I'd need to make sure I offer plenty of good incentives, but on the other side of the coin, I needed to make sure I could provide the things I offered.
I resolved to keep that in mind through the campaign... and I have.
I found that I was actually in a pretty good position with the project itself though. PowerUp was about 65% finished when I started the campaign and a lot of the content was visual, glitzy and really represented the game well. there were plenty of screenshots and videos to give a newcomer a solid impression of what they would be backing and I was fairly sure that if I just went at it, I would be able to type up a fairly concise account outlining me and my project. There was one thing bothering me though... The Video!
The Kickstarter guys reckon that a really high percentage of succesful Kickstarters had one thing in common. A video. Basically, the implication was that if you want to be a Kickstarter success, you've got to get in front of that camera and talk to your audience... and possibly at the risk of making a bit of a div of yourself, but hey! in for a penny, right?
So far, in my experience these videos were in the region of 6-10 minutes and mainly consisted of a nervous guy in an office/bedroom rambling about his project. With the best intention in the world, I was finding it hard to stay engaged to the vast majority of the vids. Lucky for me, I'd written, directed and edited a number of short films back in my university days (Not to mention storyboarded, acted in...blah, blah,blah, you know what I'm like. Jack of all trades, and that). I was sure I could do better... I just didn't have the first idea where to begin.
I was realising that up until this point I'd barely even given my name out, and here I was about to appear on my own Kickstarter video!... and talk!! what was I going to say? Should I write a list and just read? Should I stage some elaborate shadowy mystique with an altered voice?? ...NO!!! I'll bite the bullet and just go for it before my courage fails me! (actually, in hindsight, that shadowy mystique idea might have been quite a lot of fun... hey, I was panicking. I wasn't thinking straight... I went for it).
In a fit of something that crossed determination with sheer terror, I grabbed my mobile phone and hit record!
Later, exhausted, I copied my footage over to see what I had.....
OH NO! I was that nervous guy, rambling on for ages about my game. Damn!! What's worse, I COULD NOT STOP going "errrrrrrrrr, ummmmmmmm,ermmmmmmmmmmm". It was Bad!
...or was it?
...hang on, I had pretty much said everything I needed to say, if I just chopped out all of the "eeeerm"s, and then connected those fractured bits of sentences together in MovieMaker, surely I'd have like, 2 minutes of vaguely useable footage.
I chopped in a few moments from my game's trailer at what appeared to be suitable points and threw in some pictures of my concept art, then sent the finished movie to my partner, Jo. I thought that maybe it was quirky and watchable but pervious editing experience had taught me that after an evening's work on it, I was far too close to it. Thankfully, she's always brutally honest with me. I was sure I could trust her verdict. And sure enough, the verdict came back
...It was good to go! :D
But what else was needed? I threw in a load of basic award tiers, you know, "Your Name in the Game", "Concept Art Prints" (after having a word with some nice neighbours who do that stuff day to day), that sort of thing, then I sent the whole campaign back to the Kickstarter peeps and tried not to think about it all too much.
A week or so later and I got an email back. They'd added a button to my page and I could "Launch" whenever I felt ready. Woah... what, really??
Gawd, I felt like such a div doing those videos!
I was so adrenaline fuelled at this point that I very nearly hit the launch button there and then! ...but pausing for thought, I saw an opportunity to get the word out before I did. I went straight to my Twitter community with the good news. These guys have been growing in number since I first tweeted
"Er, Hello, I think I'm going to make a game"
or something to that extent. Every progression I've made on that journey has been broadcast to these guys. I was sure that a lot of them would be pumped for it. I wasn't wrong.
It occurred to me that if timed right, the recommended 30 day campaign would end on my birthday (28th Feb) and if things went well, I could have a rather nice birthday present out of it too. It seemed to make sense to delay a few more days and do that. I set the start date for Jan 29th and went straight to my inbox to dig into the next phase of my little publicity plan...
Over the last 12 months I've built up a good relationship with a number of people in the indie and mainstream gaming press. Some of these are with the big important sites while some of them just do it from their own little page. I treat all of these people with the same respect and my favourite, most reliable, most professional contacts get informed of my latest important activities regardless of the scale of their operation. It's pretty simple really.
I got immediate responses from some of these guys, while others were understandably busy with other stuff. The really cool thing here was that my campaign was set to run for a month so I was happy to get publicity at any point during it. The press contacts who took the story up early helped me to create a buzz at the beginning while the contacts that came to it later were able to help me build momentum further in, when I particularly needed it. (As you'll see, this worked out pretty well).
I then took my message to the Psychotic Psoftware Facebook account. This has a much smaller following than my Twitter one, but is not to be underestimated. My facebook followers have proved to be highly into what I'm doing, though I'm always wary of spamming peoples' facebook accounts too much as I feel that facebook is considered much more of a personal space.
Bearing in mind that the Kickstarter peeps had advised me to get my own social network involved I also posted the launch on my own personal facebook, calling all of my immediate friends and family to get involved too. I decided that I'd do this every few days in the hopes of getting the message to as many of my personal network as I could while annoying as few as possible too.
At 12:00PM on Jan 29th, I hit "Launch", and for a few days there, my Facebook, Twitter, and email inbox went NUTS!
The initial rush pushed the PowerUp Kickstarter past 10% in its first day!
I could hardly believe what I was seeing on that first day. I just had to look again... and again... and again. It just kept going up! For a moment there, I honestly thought that the hard work was done and I was set! ...That all I'd have to do was to crack on with my game and wait for the cash to come in.
Er, I was pretty far off the mark there.
You see, it turns out that a successful Kickstarter takes some really continued and focussed attention. You basically have to look at what people are asking for and consider whether you can provide it in a way that makes the maximum ammount of backers happy while ensuring that you won't kill yourself making it happen. It's far from free money, and in that first week I was certainly not able to get much of my game done.
I remember recieving a message from a big games company early on. They told me that I was doing a great job juggling my game's production along with the responsibilities of maintaining the Kickstarter and that they have a seperate department working 9-5 for the Kickstarter campaigns alone!!
I could easily believe it. The truth was that I was getting zero time to spend on the game and I was exhausted. On top of this, I'd committed to providing daily updates for my backers which were accompanied with early design sketches, and short videos of me talking to them and doing my best not to look as rough as I was feeling. I still feel that it was the least I could have done for anyone willing to part with their hard earned cash so that I could finish and release my game and I'd do it all again, but I was wired on cafeine, not eating properly and my head was constantly buzzing with the vast multi-tasking demands of going it alone. Come the evenings, I was a total zombie in poor Jo's company.
Toward the end of week one, I was seriously doubting my decision to use kickstarter. It turns out that in making my updates for backers only, I was angering a number of non-backers who were feeling left out and had resultantly decided not to back my project! I attempted to remedy this with a weekly public update which brought together all of the content of the previous week for backers and non-backers alike.
...but no sooner had I calmed one angry party, when another would take issue with the fact that there was no "Buy the Game" tier in the awards. I tried to explain that I couldn't guarantee that Microsoft would even provide me with free copies of the game on Xbox, so couldn't make that commitment but it was pretty clear that I was losing potential backers over this. I considered hard and concluded that I would be able to control the distribution of a PC version of the game. this allowed me to commit to porting PowerUp to PC. What was now a possibillity had suddenly become not only a certainty,but a commitment!
...but it was also a necessity. If I wanted to publish PowerUp at all, it was a commitment I needed to make. so I did!
Meanwhile, there was a similar issue flaring up about my lack of the use of the term DRM when announcing the PC version... I simply hadn't thought that it needed clarifying. I clarified it... Then another angry customer began shouting "FRAUD" on Twitter because I'd assumed XBLIG to be a part of XBLA, apparently its a common mistake and not one I'd ever been called to answer for before, but when I checked directly with Microsoft for the official angle, I was told that indeed, XBLIG and XBLA should be treated as two different entities.
I can't begin to tell you how much energy I put into putting out these fires. I was well organised for a first-timer but my lack of experience here cost me a lot of time and caused me a lot of stress. Not only was the game stalling, ...but so were the backers!!
Over that second week things moved slowly and I longed for those headdy first days when everyone was in love with the game and the effort I was putting into it. By week two the honeymoon was over. It was just gruelling, and little that I did seemed to make much of an impact. Publicly, I tried to remain optimistic but I'll be honest, it was hard to read so many variants of:
"I'm holding my money back until I see that it's going to be a success."
hitting my Twitter, Facebook and email feeds... Man, that's something I still can't get my head around now. Are so many people that frightened to be associated with a failure story? I have to say, if anything, I prefer to bid on the underdog. Not only does the underdog need it more, but bid on the underdog and you encourage faith in the underdog. There's a very positive example of the positive feedback loop, right there... also, often it's the underdog that's doing something great! They're only the underdog cause comparitively few people have the foresight to see what it is they're trying to achieve.. I'm not saying I'm re-inventing the wheel with PowerUp, but the idea that I wasn't getting backers because I didn't have backers?... well that was just wrong.
...It's kinda hard to get that into a 128 character reply without sounding a tiny bit negative, so I'd generally settle for "Thanks." and move on.
Now, I know I can be a bit of a drama queen at times, but it was appearing more and more likely that I'd be stacking shelves again in a few months, and that hard as I fight, my career as a game developer would soon be behind me. It was hard to keep smiling around the middle of the campaign. It was headded for a 60% close and I was getting pretty tired. That, my friends... was the low point.
For a while, PowerUp barely saw any movement from this point despite some extremely hard work on my part.
I was spent. And what was worse, the job hunt was not going well... however, one thing had my attention piqued. The angry voices over my Kickstarter had calmed right down.
I seemed to be getting a bit of respite. My energy was coming back and I was longing to get my teeth to something creative..... PowerUp!
In a much improved mindset and with a what-will-be-will-be attitude, I decided to attack my Chapter 3 boss, The Worm. I kept in touch with my Twitter community as I went along and each day, I updated my Kickstarter backers, treating it all as just part of the learning curve and expecting no big victory in return. I alternated the extra content between early spaceship designs and videos of me talking about, and later testing the little subleties of The Worm baddie... and couldn't help but notice my ammount of backers slowly but surely starting to rise.
My latecomer press was just beginning to hit too, giving me and my Twitter followers something to retweet to new people who were finding the campaign, watching the public updates... and backing!
The rise was steady, but definitely there and soon I was projecting a close of 70%... 80%... 85%... I was trying not to pay too much attention to all this. It had occurred to me that there were patterns in play that I didn't yet fully understand. That anything could happen and all I could do was my best. This helped me to find my optimism again without expecting too much. To be honest, though, other than the regular updates to my Twitter followers and facebook friends, by now I was pretty low on ideas.
A helpful message from one of my YouTube channel subscribers suggested that I put links to the Kickstarter on my videos, which I did, and drew some traffic with (thanks, that person) and in a conversation with the owner of a retro gaming website I was told that they'd have done a piece on me but they couldn't see where my game would fit in with their retro niche. This tickled me a bit, but it was pretty clear that their decidion was made... It did, however, give me a rather good idea.
I have a retro gaming channel of my own on YouTube. It's called 1GO Shortplay and on it, I basically play my way through the entire back catalogue of Amiga games for a maximum of ten minutes at a time... I know. So niche as to actually niche itself out of relevance eh.
1GO is gloriously unsuccessful, despite the major plugging it got from YouTube retro-gaming legend, Steve Benway a year or-so ago. (That said, I couldn't care less about 1GO's success. I do it because I love the games).
The thing is, when Steve plugged my channel, I saw a short lived, but rather large increase in popularity. Well a short lived but rather large increase in popularity was exactly what I needed here. I was pretty sure that Steve would see the retro heritage behind PowerUp and I dropped him a line.
Knowing what a gentlemanly supporter of the good cause Steve is, I asked him if he would see his way to taking a look at my kickstarter and deciding if he thought it was worthy of a mention on his "Friday Talkie". Well, he did, and as it happens... it was.
This was the moment we smashed the target, making the iOS and Android versions possible too.
So, What now?
Well as they say, its not over until the fat lady sings. Anything could happen between now and lunchtime on the 28th. What really matters for me is that the dizzying stresses of surviving that Kickstarter will hopefully prove to be utterly worthwhile. That I'll at last, be able to own my own legitimate copies of 3DS Max, Photoshop, Cubase and Audition and licences in hand, release my first game!
Once I've handled that, I'll be looking into the ports I've promised. I also made sure to buffer the additional reward tiers out so that I can handle them throughout the project too. I think everything's gonna be alllllright! :D
...Look, really though, all drama asside, if you're thinking about doing your own Kickstarter then let's not start under any false pretences. You'll really have to engage with your backers and fight for your target. You'll find yourself constantly adjusting tiers, stretch goals and the project in general. You'll add more and more FAQ's and you'll have to explicitly clarify many an ambiguity before you're through. It really is massively stressful and takes grit you never knew you had to make it to the other side.
It's also an incredibly rewarding learning process that will teach you as much about your own limits and inventiveness as it will about the technical process. If you're sure about your integrity and the quality of your project, I'd heartilly recommend it.
...Well, you didn't think I'd let you go without giving you the link did you? There's just 40 hours to go as I write this and we're really close to breaking through some serious stretch goals now... If you're quick you might just get in there.
Whether you feel the urge to back PowerUp or not, I really hope you enjoy the page ...Not to mention the game, of course. That should be out on Xbox 360 in August and on PC in November, but I'm sure you'll hear from me before that.
Thanks for reading my post. See you next time.