The cure for indie game failure
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
You really don't have to.
This article proposes the principle that our games should prove they are worth our time. Not the other way around.
For years I had it backward. I would work and work at my game, putting in more stuff, developing this and that, just to prove that I was worth it.
Me: I love you, my gamey game. See how much time I've put into you? Ok, now shine for me, my little redeemer. Make me famous and rich! Because I've put in so much time, you are sure to be played often and much.
Typically indie developers spend a few years making a game, incurring the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars in time, then unleash the game on the world hoping for fame and fortune.
The reality is that most games fail to find either.
Before we get to an actionable solution, let us further define the problem.
There are more and more indie games that despite years of effort turn out to be flops. One such example is the post-mortem provided by Daniel West, Good isn't Good Enough. Daniel and a small team spent nearly four years creating a good game and even doing good marketing, but despite that the game flopped.
I got a tear in my eye reading Daniel's post-mortem because his story hit so close to home. In 2013, after spending two years of life, racking up $20,000 in credit card bills and spending $5,000 on PR, our indie game Hero Bash turned out to be a complete flop. To this day it has not made more than $50 in a single month. On top of that we did not even get enough momentum to make it a successful realtime multiplayer game. Two years worth of hope turned into utter despair. This was one of the most soul-crushing experiences of my life.
Need more examples? There are too many to mention.
Yet another good game that totally flopped ("YAGGTTF")
At this point let us say that making a good game and doing good marketing is not enough to create success in today's scene.
So what does it take?
Well, what did Daniel and his team do wrong? They did not verify if the game was something people wanted to buy. I can say the same for Hero Bash.
In The Four Hour Workweek, author Tim Ferriss puts forth a plan for verifying a business idea before investing too much time. The gist is to create mockup artwork for your product, then create a website that asks people to buy it. No credit cards are charged. The goal is simply to gauge the percentage of buys vs visitors. If you have a decent ratio then the product is a proven seller.
For years I wondered how to apply that technique to proving indie games. It just seemed that there was no good way to ask people to buy my game before I had spent the years needed to make it awesome.
Then along came crowdfunding.
Crowdfunding to Prove Your Game Idea
A developer can risk a minimal amount of time into creating a game demo, then launch a crowdfunding campaign to prove whether people will buy it. This idea of proving a game is also known as market validation of your IP.
Some developers immediately shy away from such a path because they have issues with asking. If your heart cringed a little at the topic of crowdfunding, or perhaps you believe it is a bad idea to run a crowdfunding campaign if you do not need the funds, then I recommend at least watching Amanda Palmer's TED talk The Art of Asking.
Crowdfunding is not the only way to prove that people will buy an indie game, one can also use alpha funding. Keep in mind that alpha funding is best suited to certain types of games, for example those with high replayability. Also, alpha funding tends to work best with existing, proven brands. For the purpose of this article we will focus on crowdfunding, but if you'd like more information check out Expert tips on alpha funding.
Running a successful crowdfunding campaign for your game is beneficial for many reasons:
- You earn the funds to make your game a reality (rather than using some funds which can lead to resentment if the game flops)
- You validate that your game is desired by others (rather than assuming that if you like it then others will)
- You prove that people will buy the game (rather than wasting years on an aesthetic or design or system that people aren't willing to pay for)
- You build a following for your project (rather than hoping a PR company or Steam or Apple will do it for you)
- You might gain attention from the press (rather than expecting or demanding it)
- You polish your game to a demo phase (rather than polishing it all-the-freaking-way to a release phase)
Even if the crowdfunding campaign fails to meet its funding goal it still can be a good thing because:
- You do not have to waste those years developing something people do not want to buy,
- You can share your next game with the following you built, and
- You can always try again.
For the remainder of this article I will go about explaining how an indie can run a successful crowdfunding campaign. Occasionally I will intersperse my story of successfully funding my game Songbringer on Kickstarter, exposing all the prep work I did for the campaign and sharing in detail any tips and tricks learned along the way.
I write from the perspective of a solo developer doing everything on their own without any outside assistance, but hopefully this story is equally valuable to teams.
Kickstarter and Indiegogo
Kickstarter is a curated platform where projects must be approved and guidelines specify what kinds of projects are allowed. Projects have fixed deadlines and fixed funding goals, meaning they are all or nothing. If a project fails to meet its goal, no one is charged. Only after a successful project is closed are people charged the amount pledged.
Indiegogo is a little different. Projects can be partially funded. In my humble opinion, partial funding is undesirable for a few reasons:
- If our goal as indies is to prove that a game is worth our time, then partial proofs simply cannot be accepted.
- By setting the amount of the crowdfunding goal you are communicating to others how much you need to fund your project. How can you genuinely continue with a project that did not earn the amount of funds that you said it needed?
Whether you use Kickstarter, Indiegogo or another crowdfunding platform is up to you. Check out the sites and back a few projects to get a feel for what you prefer.
Prepping for the Campaign
Preparing for a crowdfunding campaign will likely take some number of months and is basically comprised of the following:
- Learning about the crowdfunding platform,
- Creating a demo, and
- Building a following for your game.
Learning about the Crowdfunding Platform
The first thing on your list should be to back somebody's project. Go browse the video games until you find something that you would like to play. Back the project at the level you are comfortable with, then sit back and watch what they do. Take note of what you like, read all the updates and make comments. Reflect on what motivated you to become a backer.
Make it your goal to back at least ten projects before launching your own campaign. This is critical. A lot of good-looking projects fail and the first thing to look at is how many projects the creator has backed. Often it is zero. Without backing other projects, one simply has no clue about what motivates people to become backers.
The next thing you should do is learn everything you can about Kickstarter and/or Indiegogo. Do you know how many projects on average succeed? That info is freely available on the stats page. Have you read through the FAQ?
Here's some more resources I found helpful:
- Stonemaier Games' Kickstarter lessons
- Richard Bliss' Funding the Dream podcast
- Learning from Shadowrun Returns' Kickstarter success
Wildfire, successfully funded in 2015
Building a Following
While you are going about learning the ins and outs of crowdfunding you can build a game demo and through the process earn a following.
That following is going to be critical to your campaign's success.
With how much competition for attention there is in today's scene, you simply cannot rely on discovery pages to bring in the traffic. You must have enough of a following that you are confident that you can drive the needed traffic to the project page. Only then will discovery pages, the press and your own efforts synergistically work with the existing following to fund and prove the game.
How does one go about building a following? First of all you want to choose which social networks that you prefer to use. If you are not going to genuinely be active on a social network then cross it off your list. People can tell when you are posting but not actively using the network and often this will backfire. Try out social networks until you are happy with a few of them. Personally, I prefer Twitter, Twitch and Youtube for daily posting. I also have a Tumblr blog, Facebook page and a TIGSource devlog.
Once you have settled on your preferred social network(s), begin posting. Remember to have fun with it. Individuals are smart. If it feels like a chore then they will be able to tell. You're a game developer, remember? People want to have fun with the stuff you create so have some freaking fun already.
At first you will have almost zero followers, but have some faith, consistently improve the content you share, be 100% genuine and you will steadily gain more and more.
Do more than just post your own stuff. Be sure to interact with others and in general be a cool person. Help people out. Get involved. Post about other people's games. Follow the people that interest you. When I started on Twitter, I followed a few pixel artists that appealed to my aesthetic. This made it really fun and also productive.
Avoid being a serial follower. This is a person who follows only expecting to be followed back. In all likelihood they are not genuine followers. They have so many thousands of posts in their feed that there is a very low probability they will see your post (if they even check the feed). Besides, our goal is to prove the game. Genuine interest from real followers is what we want to see.
Remember that one quality follower is worth, like, a bajillion non-quality followers. So do not worry about somebody else having a larger following. It could be that their following is weak sauce.
Starting from zero followers in December of 2014, Songbringer had around 1000 followers combined on Twitter, Twitch and Youtube when the Kickstarter launched in April of 2015. Depending on your funding goal, this may be around the minimum amount of quality followers needed to pull off a successful campaign.
Here a few more resources on the subject of building a following:
- 10 Daily Actions to Build Your Crowd
- An Indie Game Developer's Marketing Checklist
- What Makes an Indie Hit?
- The Marketing Guide for Game Developers
- The Basic Marketing Plan For Indie Games
Prepping the Campaign
Besides having a decent following, you also want to have a game demo that is able to produce a minute or two of juicy gameplay for the project video. I suggest recording and editing together sections of gameplay mixed with one of the music tracks from your game and keeping it under two minutes. Of course, you are a creator though, so be creative here. Some people prefer to film themselves talking about the game. Just make sure to show some of the gameplay and keep the overall video brief.
Songbringer's video (third revision)
By the way, you do not need to have a playable demo but it can help. I launched crowdfunding with the best video I could create at the time and no demo. Throughout the 30 days of the campaign I was able to finish the demo (in this case, for press only) and also release an updated video with new content, better color and a nicer mix of the song. It all worked out.
After your video is prepared, start to draft your Kickstarter page. Remember all those projects you backed? Revisit your favorite ones and remember what you like. Take those things you like and use them as inspiration for writing your own unique description. Be creative and think of how your words and images will come across to others. Your ultimate purpose here is not just to get the person to back your project, but to create a relationship with the backer that hopefully lasts into future projects. So be open, honest and clear about everything.
Next thing to consider is your reward tiers. I recommend mostly digital rewards, as physical rewards can take a lot of time and money away from your game. They also have the potential for issues like wrong address, wrong item shipped, returns, etc. If you are going to do physical rewards, shoot for keeping the incurred expenses under 10% of your funding goal, preferrably around 5%.
Think about the short sentence or two which sums up your project. The goal is to be able to convey the excitement players will feel when playing the game in as few words as possible. I recommend writing as many of these as you can, then sleeping on it.
Get Some Feedback
Now you have a first draft of your Kickstarter page. You also have a private URL that you can share with your existing following to get feedback. I shared Songbringer's page with followers each day on the Twitch live stream, gaining valuable and direct feedback on the video, summary, images, description and reward tiers.
Without that feedback my project might have failed to meet its goal.
Before you think about launching the campaign, double check the reward tiers. Think about them in depth from the perspective of others. On Kickstarter, a reward tier cannot be modified once a single person has chosen it.
Another thing to consider is the duration of your campaign and when to end it. 30 or 45 days is common. Think about the pros and cons in relation to your particular project. On the topic of of what time to end, I recommend planning for a time that you know works well for you and for your following. I scheduled the ending time so that it occurred during one of the daily live streams. This way I knew we all could count down together. Ending time is also one of those things you cannot change after launching, so consider well.
Preparing for Some Press
It does not hurt to have a spreadsheet full of contacts you intend to notify about your project. I recommend looking at the websites of your favorite gaming publications and reading about how to get in touch with them. Start a spreadsheet with the name, email address, twitter handle, notes and a column for links to articles they have written about your game. Also note any Let's Players that you think might dig your game.
In my case, I had prepared this spreadsheet intending to get in touch with the press on the launch day of the campaign. It turned out that they wrote articles before I could even contact them. Most of them came from people who were not on the list.
Another thing to have prepared is a good press kit. Get presskit(), fill in what data is available, upload some screenshots and link to your video. Do not worry if you have no existing press quotes or coverage. The point is to have your marketing materials organized in a place and fashion ready for the press. Basically, you are making it easy for the press to write about your project.
For more info on this subject, checkout PixelProspector's How to Contact the Press.
Songbringer's Greenlight stats
Prepping for Steam Greenlight
Preparing your game for Steam Greenlight should be a cinch now that you have created all the needed material for a crowdfunding campaign. Just make sure your Steam account is able to create a Greenlight project.
A crowdfunding campaign and Greenlight campaign can work synergistically. One will reference the other. People (including backers, gamers and the press) may discover your project through either avenue. The combined effect is greater than the sum of each.
As to when to launch the Greenlight exactly, there are pros and cons to launching at the beginning, middle and end of the crowdfunding campaign. I ended up launching both simultaneously and it worked well for that synergism effect.
While you are sharing and improving your Kickstarter page with your following, it is a good time to set a firm date for when you will launch the campaign. Be aware of the time zones that your following lives by and schedule something that works for you and them. I recommend setting a launch day and time as early in the week as possible. This gives plenty of time for the game to be chosen as a Kickstarter Staff Pick and also gets on the press radar nice and early.
For Songbringer, I launched Sunday night at 1am Pacific time. This was morning for people in Europe and plenty early enough for writers in both Europe and the Americas to become aware of the game and consider writing about it that week.
Launch day is all about your following. It is likely going to be mostly them backing you on the first day. Consider playing a game with your followers and creating some sort of launch day contest. As always, make it fun for yourself and fun for others.
The followers and I had a little game going where the first person to back Songbringer would get double the rewards. People ended up backing within minutes after hitting the launch button, before I even had time to announce it. I believe this initial momentum is what set a good precedent for the remainder of the campaign.
If your project looks interesting or has some unique aspect, it is possible the press has already written about your project. Some will find your project because they are monitoring new Kickstarter games, others will be paying attention to Greenlight.
The press is not going to write about a project that does not look promising, and this is one reason it is important to have a good following and a propitious launch day. It all boils down to how well you prepared the project and the following.
Regardless of whether you have gotten any press yet, it is time to reach out to all those contacts on the spreadsheet you prepared. Email them with a catchy title, short description of the game, links to the video, screenshots and if possible the demo. Once again, a good reference here is PixelProspector's guide.
Some of these contacts may end up writing about your project. If so, send them a quick thank you and ask them if they would like to be added to a list to get promotional, beta and/or final copies of the game.
Remember, dear fellow, that this is about proving the project. It is not you that has to get the press to write about the game. It is the game that has to grab the attention of the press. Think about it this way and you will come across the right way.
Running the Campaign
Through the process of running the crowdfunding you will come into contact with some of the most positive, encouraging and uplifting fans. There is something magical about your creation finding its niche. It just feels right.
I recommend saying a silent "thank you" in your mind every time you get a new backer. Include the backer's name in your thanks. Gratitude can go a long way towards making a crowdfunding campaign successful. It puts you in the zone.
Most of the work involved in a crowdfunding campaign can be done before launch in the preparation phase. Still there is much to do while running the campaign. Respond to emails and comments. Make sure to post updates as often as you can. Have fun creating new content for these updates. Keep yourself and your following in a flowing state of excitement. Improve on the page, artwork and video if possible.
Crowdfunded projects tend to get the highest amount of backing during the first and last weeks. The first week is likely due to the strength of your following and the rush of initial awareness. The last week is when people tend to get really excited for the final push. If your project is close to its goal the backers, fans and believers of your project will want to help it succeed. If you are within reach of a stretch goal people will likewise want to stretch for that. Another awesome thing about the final week is that people who have marked your project as interesting will get an email reminder exactly 48 hours before your campaign ends. Here lies another good reason to plan an appropriate ending time.
Keep in mind that you cannot change a Kickstarter page after the closing date and time. Sometime during the last 48 hours, make sure you read through your description from the perspective of someone finding your project in the future. Make any appropriate edits so that your description is as future-proof as possible. If you are going to add the option for people to informally pledge via PayPal, make sure to add the link.
When it comes down to the last few hours, do make a big deal out of it. Live stream it, tweet it, post all over the place. Your funding total can grow by leaps and bounds during this time.
When it is all said and done -- regardless of the outcome -- celebrate. You have scientifically proven whether or not the game deserves your time. Isn't that worth a little hoopla?
Stuff to Ignore
One type of communication you are going to get a lot of is from marketers claiming they can make your campaign more successful. The deal they propose is that you pay them money and they deliver results. I recommend that you ignore these. Do not be tempted by their touts. Remember the principle. The game must prove itself.
Another group to ignore is haters. You likely will not get any hateful messages on Kickstarter, but if you are doing Greenlight then you are almost guaranteed to get a few trolls. It can really hurt to get these types of messages. It can hurt really bad. Just keep it all in perspective. I did the math on the Greenlight comments for Songbringer and a mere 2% of them were from haters. It can be so easy to focus entirely on that 2% of hate and ignore the 98% of uplifting positivity. If the 2% is bothering you, feel free to just delete it. Remember that your game is not for everyone. It is definitely not for the haters. It is for the people that are excited and love what you are doing. Focus on them and filter out the rest.
After your campaign is finished, it will take the crowdfunding platform a few weeks to collect all the pledges. This gives time for people whose pledges did not go through to fix whatever issues arose.
Let's take a look at the reality of how much profit campaigns actually make. First of all, some pledges can be fraudulent or simply not go through for some reason. This can take 5% or more away from the total. After that, Kickstarter takes 5%. The payment processor also takes around 5%. Lastly there are the expenses incurred from delivering rewards to your backers.
Here is how that looked for Songbringer:
- Funding total displayed on Kickstarter: ~$15,000
- Fraudulent / uncollectable pledges: ~$2,200
- Kickstarter / Amazon cut: ~$1,300
- Reward creation / delivery expenses: ~$1,000
- Actual funding total: ~$10,500
- ~30% expenses / 70% profit
Keep in mind that much of the fraudulent pledges listed above came from one single source. Someone pledged $2,048 but it turned out to be fraud. Someone else tried to pledge $2,048 but Kickstarter's system caught it in time. No one else pledged above $512. Learn from my mistake and consider making around $500 your highest reward tier.
I read some statistic saying that 60% or more of most crowdfunding campaigns are funded from friends and family. This turned out to be far from accurate in my case. I knew that Songbringer was not something most of my friends and family would genuinely want to buy. I also knew that some of them would buy anyway if I asked them, perhaps out of guilt. So I did not push it on them and only casually mentioned it. Of the total pledged to Songbringer, around 1.5% came from friends.
Okay, I admit that was a lot to cover. If you take one thing away from this then remember to somehow prove your game before it consumes your life. I say this with all the sincerity that comes from learning a lesson the hard way.
And that is really all there is to it. You now have a technique for mitigating the time and money risks of indie game development. Simply make your game prove itself.
If your crowdfunding campaign fails to meet its goal then learn from it, apply it to what you are doing, consider trying again or perhaps move on to proving a new game.
If your campaign succeeds you will have earned the funds, built a community and proven the game. More than that, you can now develop with the peace of mind that comes from knowing that what you do matters greatly to a special group of people. Remember to be grateful and keep on having fun.
Good luck with this, fellow creator. And feel free to contact me if you would like feedback on your project page.