A month ago I wrote a post about misleading marketing on Gamasutra, it was mostly meant for fellow game developers, as is this one. In that post I talked about how raising expectations and player disappointment can lead to a corroded "ecosystem" for games. I proposed to test an opposite: a sober level-headed crowdfunding campaign with no social network to speak of, no press connections and no flashy things. Just purely a concept and videogame in it's early stages, present it as such and see how well it would do on it's own. That campaign ended last week and was a financial failure. Perhaps there's something to learn from this.
First off, since I am just one person with one small project, any conclusions can't speak for the entirety of the crowdfunding ecosystem of course. For comparison's sake: my game AnimalAlbum is an early, rough and in part educational light-rpg. Also the funding goal had to be displayed in Euros and I very much recommend you look at its kickstarter page to better see how it compares to your own project. But even if it is very different, there may still be some useful things in this postmortem. I'll start by showing you the math and preparations I did, then I'll debunk some of my assumptions while confirming others, and end up with some miscellaneous notes.
Most of my research consisted of observing other crowdfunding projects over a period of months (a year perhaps). Not just the successes but the failures as well. And not just videogame projects, though most I paid attention to were comparable, jrpg/adventure/videogames. I started doing weekly screenshot overviews after a while, of pretty much all the games that were showing actual gameplay (and had no in-app purchases and such). This was also in the hopes of providing people with a clearer overview of what was going on in crowdfunding.
In addition I also read a lot of marketing advice, how to contact the press/write press releases & articles, crowdfunding postmortems, etc. Here are a few resources that I strongly suggest you fully absorb, including most of the articles they link:
(And find your own truth in all of this of course.)
Here's part of the mathemagical analysis I did:
#backers #money #avg money per backer
Midora 127 $2454 $19
Undertale 1000 $24000 $24
Duelyst 1500 $49000 $32
You are not the hero 2000 $51000 $25
Liege 2000 $57000 $28
Chasm 7000 $191000 $27
Darkest Dungeon 10000 $313000 $31
Shovel Knight 14700 $311502 $21
Shadowrun 36000 $1836000 $51
Broken Age 87000 $3336000 $38
It shows a number of game crowdfunding projects with: the number of backers they had, the total amount of money they got, and the average pledge per backer. Duelyst was probably in the early stages when I included it and Shadowrun had some great physical goodies at around $100 that people wanted which explains the high average. Shadowrun is known for it's novels for instance (among other things).
So after gathering general information like this, I wanted to know where the money came from, so I looked at the reward tiers. You might not be surprised to know that, in most instances, most of the money comes from 2 basic tiers. Usually a $10 game tier and a $25 early access tier. The number of backers is pretty evenly divided between those two tiers in most cases. The rest of the tiers are icing on the cake the way I see it, but are great for upping the average pledge per backer.
My goal was to get 1000 people willing to back me for $25 each on average. From the numbers above, that seems like a reasonable goal and I have not changed my opinion on that. There's also been a theory among music crowdfunding since before kickstarter even existed that you should be able to make a living with 1000 "true fans" or whatever they called it. For me, it ended up like this:
AnimalAlbum 65 backers, ~$813 total, ~$12.5 per backer
Or like this without a certain friend and myself (for testing backer issues):
AnimalAlbum 63 backers, ~$476 total, ~$7.5 per backer
(Read the section on rewards further below for an explanation of the low average)
Debunking and Confirming Assumptions
1. Press coverage does not guarantee successful funding.
I was actually a bit surprised by this. I didn't get a lot of press, about 15 websites or so, of which Indiegames.com, Riot Pixels and Siliconera were among the biggest I think. All of the coverage combined resulted in about 5 backers (by far the largest part of my backers found my project through direct emails and simply browsing kickstarter). In addition, some of the other crowdfunding game projects that launched within days of my campaign were covered by the big game sites and didn't get funded either: Adventures of Pip, Kingdom (though it got cancelled when it won an external grant). Some others did: Codemancer, The Way. I'm not sure what conclusions you can draw from this, probably that my game didn't present itself well. Perhaps it could indicate that readers are careful and hold back when offered early gameplay and a demo, or that these particular readers had no interest in a game in its early stages. Or just that non-flashy coverage won't cross the impulse-buy threshold.
2. Assume the press is unreliable.
This surprised me as well. It happened often that game journalists would say they'd do something, and then not do it. Things like publishing articles, interviews etc. So it's important to see them like random people, or harshly put: don't expect a higher standard in communication. They're very much normal people of course, and you'll note from the articles I mentioned above that that's how they want to be treated in general. But it also means that there are a lot of contradictions between them. Some of them write advice about how you should start promoting early, and love it when you do this. While others will tell you to stop bothering them. Some will write a fantastic article for you even under harsh circumstances, while others will ridicule you behind your back on social networks and then delete any trace of it when you confront them.
I was expecting there to be a bit more of a standard in communicating, a consistency I guess. Instead it all seems to happen on a whim. But I also know a lot of the press people are swamped all the time and get paid very little, if at all. In fact I'm paying Tim W a measly amount through Patreon (and you should too!) (though it also means I don't submit my games to him, financial conflict and such). So all in all, it's not really a situation you can generalize and criticize or deal with easily. Press relations demand a lot of attention from the side of the developer and very often give less than a minute in return. Prepare yourself for this mentally.
What I did was, I'd been writing certain press people since february, 3 months before I started the campaign. And I ramped the number of people up to well over a hundred, keeping track of all communications. It took up almost all my time for the entire campaign. During the campaign I had two substantial updates (the pokewalker like app for phones that works with the game, and the new trailer) which I used as a reminder, to ask them what they thought, etc. I wanted to avoid nagging the press people without providing substantial new stuff. I also tried to provide them with angles for their stories (New Pokemon games just got announced during the campaign and AnimalAlbum is a reaction/extension of it. Or things about my background in the games industry etc.). Doing the math with the 5 backers it resulted in, it was clearly not worth the stress and the effort. But the little things that do make it worth are when some of them care about the concept or go to the trouble of playing the game and honestly criticizing it. After a couple of months a certain person whose opinion I really wanted finally got back to me with that, even though the E3-hype was already drowning out a lot. So there are some things that make it worth doing. Just be sure to adjust expectations accordingly. And no, there doesn't seem to be a difference between journalists working for big and small websites.
3. Polish your presentation.
There are a number of things part of this general idea. If you're after money, be sure everything is incredibly polished and flashy.
- Don't do early demos unless...
Early demo's work for multiplayer games, when the gameplay is already fun. RPG's are very different monsters. I released a demo because I want people to get used to what games are like in the early stages. That creating games is not some magical process. Well, part of it is, but you get the idea. The more flashy and bombastic trailers are, the more you know that "they got nothin'". Especially on crowdfunding platforms, I keep being astonished at what people are throwing money at, often there's no gameplay shown whatsoever. Project Phoenix is a good example. But fancy stuff sells. So if you want that it's probably better to only release a demo if it's incredibly polished. But we all knew this right? It's just not going to make the "ecosystem" better.
- Most of the press doesn't have time for non polished stuff. They get so incredibly swamped, and I know a lot of it really is crap from doing my crowdfunding overviews. They also don't have a lot of time to get to know the game, they'll miss certain realizations, so that's an argument for including those horrible tutorials that spell everything out.
- Make sure no early assets are available. My first youtube test video got picked for an article instead of the kickstarter video that explained stuff. Though it did show the game, it was pretty rough, pixel deformation everywhere.
4. No hype means no money.
"Well Duh" you might say. Of course hype brings in money. But I wasn't so certain that providing clarity and substance without some amount of hype would not bring in money. I'm pretty certain of that now. So if you want money it's probably better to make grand claims first, do research later. I really urge you to make sure you can back up those claims though. Emotions and feelings seem to be very important, as is the personal approach. Look at the trailer and comments for Hello Ruby for instance. (If I see that happiness one more time I swear I will punch a random stranger. In a videogame of course.)
5. Random announcements could interfere at any time.
A day or two after I launched AnimalAlbum, a Pokemon style rpg with real animals and without the fighting, Nintendo announced two new Pokemon remakes. A few days later a couple more Pokemon themed games appeared. Pokemon fans are a big part of my target audience and since the release of the last entries in the series, it had been pretty silent. The perfect time to announce something like AnimalAlbum. But of course by the time the emails and posts were read the new games had already been announced, completely blowing my announcement out of the picture.
Before the campaign I tried to pick the perfect time to launch, but I was too early and got held up because kickstarter didn't say when they'd allow projects from the Netherlands. The status was "soon" for a couple of months. But even if it had gone as planned, there would have been no guarantee some random big announcement wouldn't drop and steal all the attention away.
6. Building bridges is hard.
With my game I'm trying to build a bridge between videogames, education and conservation. I'd like it if people would have a Pokemon-like experience that would make them more aware of actual animals instead of fantasy creatures. We can create fantasy creatures all we want, but real animals we can't create (at least not yet anyway), and a lot of them are on the brink of extinction. I think it's a decent enough goal, but as it turns out it's very hard to bring these fields together. There's a lot of sympathy but both education and conservation don't seem very willing to invest. It's probably because the project is in it's early stages and doesn't present itself as anything other than a videogame about animals.
Mostly I want kids to want it, and then parents to see it and realize: "Hey this might actually be useful, sure I'll buy you that game". Kid happy, parent happy. But the desire should come from kids, not from a school or something else. I don't want to push the game on them. But that of course doesn't provide direct value to these fields. They're saving lives and teaching kids, and my project is just a game after all. To our field, gamers and games press, it often gets stigmatized with being educational and thus un-fun. Caught between a rock and a hard place.
Before I started, fellow developers gave me the advice to simply hide the educational aspect, because the game can pass for a normal rpg by looks. It's probably the path of least resistance and the most practical advice, hiding everything away and sneaking things in. But things won't change like that and you won't build trust.
7 You have to earn press coverage.
There were a few striking bits in the recent Grave postmortem by Tristan Moore: "We had developed a following for the game online, but the reality is that wouldn't have been enough to give us access to press. By meeting people in person at GDC and The Mix, we were able to express our vision of the game clearly and that was invaluable in the press attention we received." Also: "Most of the responses also didn't come until we were able to announce Xbox One launch. That story gave us credibility, and gave press something to write about that wasn't simply a Kickstarter project." Grave is a bigger project than AnimalAlbum of course, but I think the principles hold true for most unknown indie developers. Perhaps this is a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Personally I have my reservations about developers and press cosying up, and the need to be physically present at big conventions seems a bit old fashioned and drives costs up. But I do think it's indeed the way it's done.
Probably the most useful thing to realize from all this is that you'll want to have a big following before you start a crowdfunding project. The fact that there are multiple projects that fail but use the built-up community to retry and then succeed (see Red Goddess for example) seem to prove this. There are also a number of projects that succeed through having a publisher backing them with marketing efforts (Witchmarsh, Heart Forth, Alicia). And Project Phoenix seemed to get a lot of funding through the OC-remix community. A large following also makes you more attractive to the press. They can monetize your followers, or at least the large fanbase makes it seem more likely your project can attract people to their site.
You should already know to have thick skin as a creator, and you'll need to be diplomatic and handle screams of bloody murder with grace, all during a highly stressful period. So anticipate needing a break once it's over, and don't expect others to respect that. If you associate yourself with hardcore fans of beloved franchises, like Pokemon in my case, expect backlash. They might feel threatened, or insulted. Their franchise is the best and the existence of anything besides that decreases it's absolute worth. Think of religion, heresy, holy wars etc. I guess the best way to handle this is to show you're part of them, just don't expect them to inquire. In my case I clearly illustrated where I was coming from and that Pokemon is a fantastic jrpg, but almost none of them bothered to read it and will have you up in the gallows before you even found out an article about your game got published.
Don't expect to sleep much and consider if simply publishing press releases to the wonderful folks of http://www.gamespress.com/ is a better move in your situation.
I was very clear from the start that the game would get made, even if the project wasn't funded. It would simply have to be a smaller game. This may have cost me some backers of course, but as a consumer I despise it when developers pretend like they really need your help but as soon as a campaign fails they go: "Whelp, let's develop that game then shall we!". It instantly boots trust out the window.
From the start I also gave a lowest price guarantee, much in the same train of thought as Jason Rohrer. I wrote an article on price psychology earlier. And Cliffski also wrote about it. Both Rohrer and Cliffski's posts were picked up by the press and resulted in a storm of comments.
I had one big difference in reward tiers from other game projects in that I had multiple 1$ tiers. Each of these represented "I'm holding out until you announce support for platform X", which gave me some indication of what platforms to focus on first. Had the funding been very succesful I would have been able to buy a mac, test iOS and OSX ports and then announce support officially, at which point those backers would likely have moved up to a higher tier in order to secure a copy of the game at release.
Next to these tiers I also had multiple limited early bird tiers ranging from approximately 3-10$. I expected the lowest tiers to be taken pretty quickly, it was supposed to increase word of mouth because of the limited amount of slots for the cheap deals. But instead it functioned more like a pay what you want deal, with people picking higher tiers pretty often. Just shows how supportive your backers can be.
I did several updates during the campaign:
Week 2 I announced a Pokewalker-like app. With this people would have an app on their phone, showing the world map, and they could literally walk to different levels in the game. Stuck on a nasty level? Go for a stroll, come back, exchange the data, go play the new level.
Week 3 I made a new trailer that talked Funk instead of Tranquility and showed a number of animals, some of which resemble Pokemons (Kingler, Pikachu).
Week 4 I made a tiny game as part of an 8-hour jam. I asked for themes a week beforehand but nobody responded. So that option seems pretty unpopular.
In between these I did updates showing some of the new animals I had added to the game. While the campaign and the promotional things were going on I was also contacting photographers about using their photo's in the game. The photo's usually came from Wikipedia or Flickr with Creative Commons licenses, but I wanted to make sure they were ok with it. Over 90% of them were, over 70% appreciated the notification, over 50% was very enthusiastic, freely offering whole libraries and really high resolution pictures, and a few even became backers. So talk to them, you might brighten up somebody's day. But do expect a few people to give you hell.
There's one important note if you ever want to do something like this yourself. Before starting the game I had done all the legal legwork and had a lawyer specialized in CC and GNU licensing look it over. Turns out CC offers no legal protection whatsoever, the burden of proof is completely on the user. So that's an extra reason to seek out the original photographers. And actually, a number of pictures are simply being redistributed under CC without consent or knowledge of their original photographers. A lot of wikipedians, even admins, are unaware of this and will make your life hard for claiming otherwise.
After the campaign failed I promised every backer a free copy of the game, as appreciation for their support. This is something I was able to do because there weren't many backers. It was received a very well. When you're small it's easier to afford big gestures, so use that to your advantage to support your earliest fans.
I hope some of this was useful, thanks for reading.