Troy Goodfellow assisted me with this article.
Special thanks to American McGee, Jon Shafer, Sophia Tong, Adam Smith, and Jason Wilson for their comments and insight. †
We consulted with some of our clients and talked to members of the press for some advice on preparing, launching, and running Kickstarters for independent developers. What follows is advice from those who’ve been there on the development side and those who read your pitches and decide your fate on the press side.
Planning Your Kickstarter
While Kickstarters are blossoming like flowers after a spring rain, most of them are destined for the dustbin of history or, at least,†Tumblr†. Launching a Kickstarter should be treated with the seriousness and planning of any major business venture, as a successful one can fund your project and company and a failure can be a massively public misstep that scares off interested players, as well as investors and other potential business partners.
For established teams, it can require a bit more planning. For†Spicy Horse’s campaign for Akaneiro: Demon Hunters, American McGee broke it down to the total man-month cost of running the studio for a month, then figured out the minimum full-time team to make what was promised over a target period of five months, then figured out the cost of keeping that smaller team running over those months.
Picking the target number is the most important part of the plan for any Kickstarter. We talked to some of our clients about how they went about setting that goal before kicking off their campaign., Conifer Games’ campaign for†Jon Shafer’s At The Gates†is designed to get Jon and his small team. enough money to maintain a steady diet of ramen while making the game. †He decided to not focus on physical rewards for specific donor levels, so that he could devote more time and money to the project itself – something that has tripped up other Kickstarter projects.
Spicy Horse avoided one of the major hurdles that trips up first-timers: ensuring that his budget/goal included the cost of running the campaign. All physical rewards have to be shipped; someone has to provide updates–more on the importance of updates later–and manage questions; and Kickstarter takes a cut of the money raised, all of which need to be accounted for in the target number.
“Ultimately, I didn’t want to set the value higher than what I could easily outline as the minimum cost for completing the features as promised,” American said, “Because I wanted to be able to back up our request with transparent explanation if needed… I figured we were safer to aim low and hope for over-funding than to aim too high and fail completely. As you can see, we just barely squeaked past the finish line.”
Some services do allow for partial or incomplete funding to take place, but Kickstarter is currently an all-or-nothing proposition, which is important to keep in mind when setting that target.
Talking to Press
The ease of setting up a Kickstarter also means press inboxes get deluged with pitches, whether professional projects from established teams or a few people in basements with nothing but an idea and maybe some concept art. We talked to some members of the games media about what it takes to break through this noise and get a Kickstarter covered.
“It really depends on timing and resources on our end,” said Sophia Tong, editor in chief at GamesRadar. “Our news freelancers keep tabs on new Kickstarters, but if they’re not linked to an even greater news item (like Gas Powered Games), it’ll be hard to set aside time to cover every Kickstarter when we have other news items we need to hit.” Sophia added that the volume has gotten so great, GamesRadar is considering a feature highlighting new Kickstarters to make it easier for interested people to find and follow them.
Jason Wilson, copy editor for VentureBeat and GamesBeat, likes to see pitches that target the site. “Since GamesBeat deals more with the business side of video games, it’s great to see Kickstarter pitches that focus on what this company is, what it’s doing, where it’s received funding previously, and how the game fits into the greater gaming landscape.”
Jason also emphasized the importance of concrete details on the project. “If you don’t have good enough screens or a video to go along with your pitch as proof that your game is more than just a concept in your head, you are in trouble. Not only will you have trouble convincing us, but you’re going to have trouble enticing anyone to pledge money toward your game.”
Adam Smith handles†the Kickstarter Katchup on Rock, Paper, Shotgun†and says an interesting concept trumps everything, but with a caveat: “Be interesting and be realistic. By realistic, I mean prove to the press that your game is worth covering and remember that your personal story is less interesting at this point than what you are creating. In contact with press, cut to the chase, let us know why the game might be of interest, and THEN convince us that you’re the right person to be in charge of the project.”
Adam also likes to see solid evidence in the video rather than just a talking head or concepts. “If there’s a prototype, show it… In my experience, people who frequent Kickstarter understand the process of development better than the majority of potential players. As long as context is provided, they are likely to be reassured by footage, no matter how early, and dissuaded by its absence.” Playable demos and other proofs of concept can also be encouraging signs for a project.
Lastly, “The video matters. When blogs and sites cover the Kickstarter, it’s the first thing most will include. Use the most professional equipment available and unless you have a great concept for your performance/delivery and/or a history in theatre, put the game upfront.”
All writers we spoke with emphasized that getting coverage requires more than just a Kickstarter. It requires what we’d call a “hook” for the story, which can be an established team with a track record or a “band getting back together” scenario or an impressive personal or business story. All emphasized the importance of a solid development history with evidence of successful projects, be they professional projects or solid personal projects.
Furthermore, the team’s development history and notable experience can be the critical difference between coverage and inbox oblivion. In any mailing, make sure to emphasize your team’s experience and development history to set yourself apart from the typical “I don’t have any experience but I have a lot of great ideas” pitch, with an eye toward what makes your team the right team for this game in particular.
If you already have strong relationships with some members of the games media, it is a good idea to prepare your media campaign well ahead of launching the Kickstarter. Because Shafer has been in the industry for a long time and worked on high-profile games during his time at Firaxis and Stardock, he was able to coordinate a number of interviews and features with influential media outlets to be published on the day the At the Gates’ Kickstarter opened, while we helped spread the word to media he didn’t have relationships with.
Even if you don’t have these relationships in place, it is still worthwhile to plan some sort of targeted media campaign. Focus on sites, blogs and podcasts (appropriate to your game’s genre or theme) that might have time to at least listen to your pitch. Mass emails to general games media are not always as helpful as finding one opinion shaper with a decent audience (or Twitter following) and convincing him/her that your game is worthy of attention. Writing up a guide to who to approach is an entire article of its own, so look for an upcoming PR Pro Tips on that topic, coming soon. Not Gaming Industry Soon. Actual soon.
The Care and Feeding of your Kickstarter
It’s also exceptionally important to determine and plan what you’re going to put on Kickstarter to keep people interested with a full month (or more). Building a full update and editorial calendar may seem like overreach until it’s Day 28, everyone is exhausted, and the team is pressed for ideas and ready to kill each other.
Kickstarter backers are your most hardcore fans and are more interested in the minutiae of this particular project than is otherwise common.† Features that press might find boring such as the intricacies of systems design or “work in progress” shots of the interface can be red meat to eager fans. Remember that once your project is up, you have to keep the attention of potential backers more than anyone else, but they will not be shy about asking questions. Jon Shafer tells us he’s responded to over 500, probably approaching 1000, individual messages since launching his Kickstarter, and that does not include the larger updates to all backers. While not all campaigns will attract that level of interest, be aware that everyone will want to know everything, preferably as soon as possible.
Your Kickstarter backers can also serve as a focus group (remember, these are customers that like you so much they’ve already paid for your game) and sounding board. The Spicy Horse team in particular used their Kickstarter backers to help plan which features to implement first and tweak their reward structure, with the result being a successful campaign and a pleased fanbase. Essentially, these are the people who believe in your project the most and care the most. Use that enthusiasm and knowledge to your advantage.
The press watch the updates page, too, once they’ve taken an interest. Adam from RPS says, “I’d argue that updates…are worth doing every couple of days. Find SOMETHING to write about or show. There’s nothing I find more ominous than a Kickstarter that has had a poor week of pledging and hasn’t received a single update in seven days. Rightly or wrongly, it tends to suggest the page has been abandoned. The people who have pledged want to know what’s happening and won’t feel updates are spamming them – they signed up because they are interested already. And for anyone visiting, a page without presence can seem like a lost cause.”
One temptation for any Kickstarter, especially one struggling, is to add more reward tiers and more items. While this can result in increased pledges and further interest, it also comes with a cost. Every physical item added requires shipping and handling and even virtual items cost time for whichever team member has been elected to send them out.
Most importantly, don’t break out the champagne after a mind-blowing first day and don’t lapse into despair if contributions die off. Nearly every Kickstarter campaign has a big burst of funding in the first few days and a big burst of funding in the last few days, with much lower contributions in the middle.
The middle portion is where the Kickstarter truly earns its funding by regular updates, regular press coverage, and motivating the existing backers to tell their friends and spread the word, building a history that shows the project can be successful, which in turn gets more people to pledge as the timer ticks down.
Before the campaign ends, and perhaps before it starts, make sure to have a plan for success if funded, as well as what to do if not funded. †For projects that don’t make their goal, make sure to have a way to stay in touch with your backers like a forum or mailing list and conduct a thorough post-mortem to identify any errors and plan for next time.
Your success plan should cover the basics: Who notifies the backers, how the items get produced, who packs the boxes, who drives things to the post office, and so on. Be ready for a successful campaign to derail a significant portion of your staff for a few days or even a few weeks. Have plans in place to expand both the reward tiers and scope of the project as funding allows or if the Kickstarter catches fire, from plausible things to shoot-for-the-stars goals if funding goes bananas.
Be ready for Kickstarter fatigue after 30 or more days of daily pushing and enthusiasm. Your team may need a break from the constant deluge of questions and your players will demand updates on everything you’ve accomplished. Balancing these goals–giving your team a breather and giving your players what they want–is critical and should be part of the planning process. You can certainly take some time to gather yourself, but update them and tell them you need a few days to plan. Once you’ve finished planning, tell them your plans and keep them apprised of your progress, because a project that goes silent creates the perception of a doomed project. As part of your pre-planning, a calendar of updates for once the Kickstarter is funded would not be amiss, if only to keep everyone on track after the daily grind of securing the funding. In a way, that was the easy part. All you have to do now is make a great game.