5. The Emotional Toll
Leading a struggling Kickstarter campaign is not a fate I would wish upon my worst enemy. The project consumes your every waking moment (and dreams) with a constant whine of stress. Our worst day was April 21 when République took in a meager $729 from 31 backers, bringing us 0.0015 percent closer to our goal of $500,000.
There's nothing worse than when your Kickstarter dries up like that. People avoid making eye contact with you. They act like your dog just died, or your girlfriend just cheated on you. It's a time of quiet reflection and common questions: "Are you guys going to be okay?" "Think you'll try again?" and "I hear Zynga is hiring."
I was saddened by the depressed state of our Kickstarter. In fact, there was a stretch of three or four days when I didn't even check the page, instead waiting for the happy phone call from my dad (who says he refreshed the page over 1,000 times) saying, "Ryan, you seeing this?!" that never seemed to come.
But overall, I'm proud to say that I stayed positive and realistic about the campaign after the devastating first 72 hours. I knew the team was looking to me to assure them that we'd survive as a studio, and I knew that miracles could happen. Penny Arcade could blog about us! IGN and Geoff Keighley could tweet about us! Some dudes with $10,000 may just feel compelled to pledge one day! And you know what? I'm happy to report that all of those things eventually happened.
It's still surreal for me to sit here and write this postmortem, knowing that I'm chronicling the very happy event that we were able to gather $555,662 in pledges for our game République, thanks to 11,611 generous souls.
Now, let's go over what went right with this whole crazy Kickstarter experiment.
What Went Right
1. Exhaustive Prep Work
I was wrong in assuming that our Kickstarter would go nuclear right out of the gate, but I shudder to think where we would have been without the extensive preparation we did. For two months, I applied my ghetto Excel skills and tracked daily numbers from the best and worst Kickstarter projects to better understand pledging trends.
One of my biggest takeaways was that successful projects were getting average pledges of around $50, which is triple the $15 that most projects were asking for the baseline game. In every case, it was because thousands of backers were looking to connect to the project behind just the core game -- they wanted art books, soundtracks, cloth maps, collector's editions -- a physical connection to the game that they feel is missing from many new releases today.
This led me to dream up some ideas for a cool collector's edition as well as doubling-down on an idea I was bouncing around prior to our Kickstarter: packaging our iOS game with a fictional book companion, which we ended up pricing at $50. The journal and the collector's edition were two big components that led to our eventual success, accounting for over a third of our pledges.
As part of my prep work, I also made sure to integrate myself as much as possible into the Kickstarter community by becoming a backer of multiple projects and learning what I liked and didn't like about the process and certain projects. I'm surprised whenever I talk to future Kickstarter hopefuls who have never personally been part of this process. Even if you're strapped for cash, pledge $3 to a project you like so you can get on their Backer Only mailing list -- it's a front row seat to their development status and one of the most fascinating aspects of Kickstarter.
We put a lot of work into developing memorable pledge rewards with short and snappy text descriptions. We also tried to make our page as visual as possible, knowing that most people wouldn't bother reading our page text. In fact, I'm sure I'm not alone in admitting that I've backed dozens of projects never having read their pages.
I think we were right to assume that it's all about having a great video, although I'm a little confused as to why only 20 percent of our visitors watched our entire pitch video. Was it because they were already sold on the project before the video ended and then pledged? Were they turned off by something? Did they see my purple jacket and killed their browser in disgust? We will never know...
Finally, we put a lot of thought into the start and end time for our Kickstarter project. We intentionally started ours at the beginning of the workweek to give the campaign time to generate online buzz before the first weekend. We went live at 5 a.m. PST to be present at the beginning of the day for both East and West Coasters of North America.
We were also very deliberate about the time and day that our Kickstarter ended, avoiding a common mistake -- the final hours can be some of the most exciting and accessed times for your entire Kickstarter campaign, and many projects mistakenly set their end time for when people aren't generally on their computers, like 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning.
I think we were smart to set our end time for 3 p.m. PST on a Friday -- a time that we assumed would allow many eyeballs to be on our project, including dedicated backers, potential pledgers, and members of the media. On our final day, my phone was ringing off the hook with writers wanting to write stories about our final hours, something that wouldn't have happened if we ended our campaign on a weekend.
2. Focus On The Team and Game Vision
I believe that the primary reason why we found success on Kickstarter was because we were pitching the community on a great game. Our video wasn't perfect, we announced it exclusively for a controversial platform, and were a little late to the Kickstarter party, but the fact remains that we got a lot of attention of gamers, press, and investors because the game looked good and showed off fun and innovative gameplay. In this regard, the hard work that the teams at Camouflaj and Logan did really paid off.
Having done a successful Kickstarter project, I often get emails from other project leaders asking for help and advice on why their project isn't doing well. So often they are focused on areas of their campaign that are completely outside of the actual game that they're pitching, which I believe is a mistake. This sounds harsh, but the realities of Kickstarter is that you will have trouble if you're pitching another retro platformer or space shooter that doesn't communicate quality and some sort of exciting new hook.
One thing I got wrong early on was intentionally disassociating the team from the project. With our first pitch video, I kicked it off with our game trailer and then deliberately minimized the on-screen time for myself and other team members to keep the focus on the game. Cindy Au of Kickstarter helped me realize that this was a mistake -- that our project initially felt cold and lacked a human element.
For subsequent videos, we spent more time getting each team member on camera and letting the audience know more about their background in the game industry. And while I hated to do this (because I wanted République to stand on its own), I eventually changed our 50-word project description to make note of our previous projects like Halo, Metal Gear, and F.E.A.R. Why? Because I found that I was personally guilty of only checking out projects with some familiar names attached to them. Hell, I've already got some money set aside for Chris Avellone's rumored Planescape: Torment Kickstarter...
On that note, I think the Kickstarter deck is definitely stacked in the favor of developers with notable prior game development experience. Too often I haven't backed a project because I looked at the team's pedigree (or lack thereof) and suspected that they lacked the experience to deliver on what they were promising. But back on the subject of game vision, if quality and innovation is clearly shown in your pitch video, like in the case of Castle Story, I believe that the community will overlook any lack of name value associated with your project.