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Some of the most candid advice you will ever hear about crowdfunding
Some of the most candid advice you will ever hear about crowdfunding
October 4, 2013 | By Kris Ligman




With crowdfunding turning into the first port of call for many developers looking to launch a new project, today's IndieCade crowdfunding panel -- led by Loot Drop co-founder (and unsuccessful Kickstarter project founder) Brenda Romero -- imparted a healthy dose of practical advice in addition to some cautious optimism.

"When [co-developer Tom Hall] and I launched our Kickstarter, we were the cutting edge. In two days, we were out of date," said Brenda Romero. "It doesn't feel like a failure. Kickstarter prevented a game from being made that had a flaw. I like to say Kickstarter saved me a year's worth of work."

Joining Romero on the panel were Max Temkin (Cards Against Humanity), Chris Avellone (Project Eternity, Wasteland 2) and nine-year-old Kenzie Wilson, who with her entrepreneur mother Susan launched a Kickstarter to fund her admission to a game development summer camp. Each brought a distinct perspective to the panel's topic.

The Bad

The "hidden" costs of Kickstarter and similar services come up on occasion: the fees extracted by the servicers, possible taxes, unforeseen expenses. Temkin, who had run three other successful Kickstarter campaigns in addition to his successful card game Cards Against Humanity, in particular warned against offering physical rewards to backers.

"You will get burned by shipping," he said. "Ship it to yourself before you even do a Kickstarter. Make sure you know what you will need."

"International shipping will clear out your entire Kickstarter," added Avellone, who is attached to three Kickstarters to date which include physical rewards.

And so help you if you miss a delivery date, said Temkin, who described encounters with irate backers who refused to accept any reason for a delay. Wilson reported a similar experience, saying some commenters on her and her daughter's project refused to believe so much money had gone into shipping physical rewards -- and demanded that she post receipts.

While everyone on the panel noted that understanding donors would always outnumber the "trolls," Wilson encouraged project creators to "get creative" with low-impact rewards, and Temkin advised creators to be generous with their own timeline. Delivering early, after all, was always better than delivering late.

"Increase your deadline dramatically," he said. "If you think you can get it done in six months, give yourself a year."

"Just be transparent, just give [your backers] the facts," continued Avellone. "If you've been transparent with your backers up to that point they will trust you."

"The people funding your game have [generally] not been inside game development," Romero added. "So you end up needing to educate them on it... It's a full-time job."

The Ugly

Susan Wilson, a successful entrepreneur, said she was shocked and aghast by the outpouring of negativity she and her daughter experienced because of the campaign.

"We asked for $829. We received over $20,000," said Wilson. "People asked what we were going to do with the extra and were outraged when I said I didn't know. It was not okay to say 'I don't know.'"

Wilson's critics accused her of fraud, even going so far as to suggest her daughter Kenzie -- seated beside her at the panel -- did not actually exist. She admitted that she had no idea at the time the sort of charged atmosphere she had been heading into -- one in which, as Romero reminded the audience, Anita Sarkeesian had also just raised a substantial amount over her funding target, to skepticism and outrage from a vocal minority of detractors.

"Anyone with a dollar has an opinion," said Romero.

"People get very emotional about [crowdfunding]," Temkin offered. Because Kickstarter and similar services offer a tremendous amount of empowerment to both project creators and prospective backers, he said, it becomes a hot issue even for the uninvolved.

"That's just a result of the technology being new and [the fact that] we don't yet have the language to talk about it," Temkin concluded.

The Good

The panelists each stressed that there were positives to bear out of pursuing crowdfunding -- and optimism for services like Kickstarter to improve as the websites continue to develop.

"The most valuable thing we got was a community of people who cared about our game and evangelized about it," said Temkin. "No amount of money can buy that."

Asked what to do about drops in press attention or interest from backers, Avellone recommended that project creators "have a narrative" beyond the fact of the crowdfunding page itself, and to hold back certain big news until the second or third week, when donations start to slip.

Additionally, Avellone reminded attendees that "having to course correct happens even with successful campaigns." The benefit of crowdfunding, he said, was being able to take into consideration and implement community feedback from an early stage.

"You aren't going to waste development time, art time hooking in a feature that customers don't want," he said.

As an alternative to costly physical rewards, Avellone stressed that digital goodies can often be more valuable to certain donors -- especially big spenders.

"Any reward that involves immortalizing a person [in the game] is great," he said, listing off examples such as naming boss characters, weapons or artifacts after donors. "Obviously, it works better for some games than others [but] there are probably a lot of super-fans out there that would jump at the chance."

Avellone cautioned against setting a low donation target with the "gamble" of receiving more. Likewise, Temkin reminded attendees that it was not only acceptable, but advisable to factor in living costs.

"Budget in to get paid and live," said Temkin. "It is responsible to budget in being paid and it is irresponsible not to do that."


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Comments


Maria Jayne
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That point about receiving more than you asked for and not knowing what to do with it, making backers angry is strange. Presumably the majority of people donating over the target are not original donators upping their pledge. Which suggests those people already accept the project is being funded, so they are giving money to receive either the reward tier or simply as a gesture of good will.

This idea that something has to be better because you get more than you asked for seems odd to me. Individuals are probably not paying more, instead more individuals are simply paying. While I can see the benefit of attracting a larger fund than you originally desire, I feel the expectation is poorly managed about what that means.

People will back your project after the goal because those are new people, they don't back just because of stretch goals, often they just want whatever you were doing anyway. Better to get the game you paid $20 for and be happy, than put in stretch goals that eventually overreach your projections and force you to release a broken or buggy version that nobody is happy with.

Then when the game is released, then, you can announce plans for what you will do with any of the money left over. I'm actually ok with a developer not having a plan for the extra money, because if I'm backing them, I already trust them enough to pledge, what they do with the extra is not something I care about.

James Yee
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What I've seen Maria is that folks like to know where the dollars are going, period. No matter if it is more than was originally requested extra money is extra money and folks hate hearing how their money was "wasted." Now of course those who are concerned could always just pull their money out, but as we all know people love to complain. :)

Maria Jayne
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I get that, but are we saying the complainers are the people who donated before or after the project hit the goal?

If the complainers donated before the goal was reached....why are they unhappy when the project reaches success? They donated for the original pitch and it was successful.

If the complainers donated after the goal was reached, why did they donate if there wasn't already a clear plan for what that additional funding would provide? They wanted what was originally promised.

Nobody is getting cheated, all we see here is how business works. You offer something and more people want it than the projected cost of the result. Now if they don't deliver, or what they deliver is not what was expected, sure that seems justified.

I just can't get my head around it. I think the problem may be that people can see the goal, perhaps a "funded/not funded" banner or meter would be preferable. The moment you add a monetary number, people start making assumptions.

Christian Kulenkampff
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I totally agree with you. It's crazy that people with such an ungenerous attitude spend money on crowd funding sites. I guess these are probably the ones who just want to make a bargain buy and have a greedy nature.

Bob Satori
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"Greedy nature?"

While I'd agree that funding above the goal is in the realm of free money, and not necessarily something that needs to be accounted for (after all, it was not asked for, right?), it is not anything to do with "greed" that backers feel they have a stake in that money's use. That suggestion is insulting and wrong.

Pointing out how Kickstarter backers are not making a formal investment misses out the fact that they are still paying to see something done. Maybe it would make more sense to analogize Kickstarter as work for hire, with the backers viewed as employers?

And maybe, because funding is not capped, Kickstarter is an inappropriate venue for anything that cannot offer reasonable "stretch" goals. Stretch goals need not involve any increased reward to backers so much as an assurance of competent stewardship.

Tomer Mlynarsky
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Maria,think about it this way, if I see an ad for a research grant to cure cancer and decide to donate and then realize they have no idea what to do with my money - isn't it legitimate for me to be upset because I could have given my money to someone else? You don't need it to cure cancer? Fine, I'll give it to someone who will cure some other disease.

See my point? It essentially means that I wasted my money as it will not go to support a cause if you have nothing to do with it.

This is why I personally prefer to donate to projects that have some sort of "extra strech goal" project, so I know at least *something* is going to be done with my money.

Jacob Germany
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@Tomer Except, using the "cancer charity" example, it isn't that they don't know what to do with the money, but that they cured cancer after you donated but still have some money in the charity account.

That's how that metaphor would play out. And in that scenario, not a soul would complain they didn't use every dime.

Willy Hwang
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I might get upset if they decided to pocket the remaining money instead of, say, using it to subsidize the cure for indigent cancer sufferers. At least they should use it for something related to the original goal.
It's about the same as how I feel about other donation services where the majority of the money given is actually used for advertising the service (or as I've heard about goodwill, pocketed by the founders) rather than using it for its intended (edit: I should have written "perceived") purpose.

In this case though, I feel like there's some information that was truncated from the article to make it more digestible. Something like "well, maybe we'll put the extra funds towards the next game" or "maybe I'll put the extra funds into my daughter's college fund." I mean, I guess I want to believe that the internet collective is not so hostile, even though, well, there's plenty of evidence to the contrary...

Dane MacMahon
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This is a nice article!

I especially liking a failed kickstarter saving you time and work. Too many failed or borderline kickstarters treat the experience like they are not getting what they deserve, when really you should look at it as a failed game nipped in the bud way ahead of time and be thankful.

Kevin Fishburne
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Yes and no... I don't mean to sound arrogant about this, but people often don't know what they want until they get it, and it's sometimes very difficult to accurately and effectively convey a message as complex as what a game is or will be. Sometimes successful product creation can be the result of consumer surveys, other times it's the result of ingenious vision and consumers only fall in love once they've experienced it themselves. The latter is usually not the case, but when it is history is made.

Dane MacMahon
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There's always outliers. However, when something like "Wildman" fails and Chris Taylor insists it's kickstarter fatigue or whatever else it comes across to me as an unwillingness to accept the idea was poor.

Kevin Fishburne
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We may never know, but 9,235 people and half a million dollars disagree. I personally thought the pitch was--to be politically correct--retarded, but I don't consider $500,000 to be a failure. I think the real failure was the inability of the team to project using those dollars efficiently enough to deliver the basic premise of what was proposed.

Guess the bone I'm suggesting picking here is that successful marketing, by any means available, is the key to bringing in the dollars in a crowdfunded endeavor.

"Kickstarter fatigue" is indeed BS... There's plenty of money out there. It's just troubling to me to see a lot of people throwing around their past accumulated good will to rake in the cash for something that their heart's plainly not in. If you've got the cojones to start a campaign, finish the project, even if the cash doesn't come in. Just do it, to use the marketing cliche.

Scott Lavigne
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"it's sometimes very difficult to accurately and effectively convey a message as complex as what a game is or will be"

I feel like this is a weakness in the team pitching the project, and a valid reason to be concerned as an investor. Being inarticulate about your project just makes me think that you have goals to achieve certain player reactions but aren't quite sure how you plan to get them yet. I agree with the rest, though.

The average video game player has no idea what a good game is. No, I'm not saying the market is "wrong" or anything. What wins should win, inherently. I'm speaking more on the part of services like Greenlight. People hype up completely unremarkable projects all the time because they like the idea of an underdog group of indies succeeding in their dream or think the vague concept pitch would be neat, but when the project is actually completed (if it ever is), wallets seem to often remain closed. Kickstarter fixes some of this (requiring money ahead of time), but people still often fail to properly judge the preparedness of a team to actually execute their idea or even if the idea has been fleshed out enough to have an opinion on it.

Kevin Fishburne
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What you say is true, but I'd be wary about tying the inability to effectively communicate/market your game idea to the inability to execute what your idea actually is in your head (your vision).

Let's say it's 1979 and Kickstarter existed. I pitched the idea for a game on Kickstarter like this because I'm a clever programmer but not good at much else:

You move a circle over squares on a fixed screen with some walls and try to move over all the squares without getting touched by enemies. There are a few special squares that make the enemies run away and if you touch them they die, but come back after a timer runs out. You keep doing this until the game becomes so hard you die no matter how good you are, but if you get enough points you get to enter three letters/numbers onto a scoreboard people can see when no one's playing the game. Be careful though, because if someone unplugs the game all these are reset. It costs $0.25 to play and you have to stand up the whole time (hey, it's good exercise!). Also you can't save your game, but that just makes it more exciting!

If that's a poorly-worded description of an extremely simple game, imagine some programmer or engineer trying to explain Portal (relatively simple), or anything sufficiently complex and potentially genre-bending/breaking (Minecraft). Pitching and creating are just two different things.

Scott Lavigne
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I think the point you fail to acknowledge in this example is that presentation is very important to market success. If Pac-Man had just been dully colored shapes with beeps and boops instead of a yellow face and ghosts with its incredibly memorable "wakka-wakka" and pellet sounds, I don't think it would have been remotely as successful as it was.

Given, this point would have been mitigated at the time of Pac-Man's release in particular since so few games existed (new gameplay ideas stood out a lot, regardless of presentation). Today, though, I don't think you're getting past "cult indie game" without pretty great presentation. I can think of a couple exceptions (M&B, Day Z), but being an exception is a longshot, even on a crowdfunding platform, considering that so few will get funded to start with, let alone the number that do actually end up having good presentation.

Kevin Fishburne
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@Scott If by presentation you mean graphics/animation/sound and all that, then yes you're absolutely right; that is very important. I was just speaking of the "pitch" used on Kickstarter/Indiegogo, which is the intro video and accompanying text attempting to explain to potential backers what the project actually -is-.

If you show off a lot of gameplay and people aren't interested then it's probably a bad idea and you have been done a favor as Dane said. If you're just talking/writing trying to convey what the game's about, you need an expert; a salesperson/marketer to make it sound compelling, even if the end product will end up being crap. So to me there are two problems here:

1) Projects that will end up being awesome but receive no funds because they suck at creating a convincing and interesting pitch video/text.

2) Project that will end up crap but receive total funding because they used an experienced marketer to create their pitch video/text.

Sadly I don't think there's a way to fix that.

Christian Kulenkampff
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Thank you for the interesting summary!

I wonder how much physical funding incentives really matter for video game funding success.

Maria Jayne
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I suppose it depends on who you ask really. Personally there are no physical rewards that have made me interested in paying more and then being required to pay shipping too. I like digital rewards, mostly because they are within the game I'm playing. The fact they don't cost me any extra to receive is a bonus.

People do like collectible stuff though, then there are the people who dislike digital altogether and want a physical product. I think they are a minority these days, but still significant when you're measuring in kickstarter donations.

Peter Eisenmann
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Before considering to launch a kickstarter, I'd ask myself one question: Would I myself, without a doubt, donate to a campaign like this?

Kevin Fishburne
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That's a good way to look at it, but it's sometimes as they say "hard to see the forest for the trees". When it's your project, especially if you're already deep into development, it's sometimes difficult to step out of yourself and try to perceive your work neutrally. Maybe running it by anyone you know who is also a gamer, like an informal focus group, might be effective?


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