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Guns of Icarus Online Post-Mortem - Part III: Lessons from Two Kickstarters

by Howard Tsao on 05/22/14 11:41:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

With the publisher’s insistence that we worked in secrecy and that they would eventually be in charge of player interaction, when we left the publisher, no one knew about what we were doing.  We had 15 facebook followers who were basically us, family, and friends.  The problem of how to get the word out was obvious, but more importantly, we had no way of getting enough people to help us test and give feedback.  With a set of mechanics and a demand for teamwork that hadn’t quite been tried before, we wanted people to help us test as early in our development as possible.  With the struggle to get the word out we turned to Kickstarter

When we started the Kickstarter campaign for Guns of Icarus Online in December of 2011, we were in the later stages of prototyping, so not only did we needed funds, our goal was to also get the word out, start building a community of players, and enlist people to help us test.  With that, we set a goal of $10,000. The campaign ended up being 352% funded with over 1200 backers and$35,000 raised. The campaign was the 8th highest funded game when it ended.  As a testament to how much Kickstarter has grown, we later did a second successful campaign for an expansion called Adventure Mode ending in May 2013, raising $198K (with an additional$25K via paypal), and that was the 53rd highest funded game when it completed.  At the time, we realized that Kickstarter was amazing, and it would fundamentally change the relationship between developers and fans/players, but we couldn’t have predicted how soon and how spectacularly.  Running and succeeding in two Kickstarter campaigns for the same game was interesting and challenging to say the least.  Here, I’ll break from chronology and compare the two campaigns a year and a half apart to draw some lessons.

Lesson 1 - Setting Clear Goals and Messages

The Problem:

While the funds for the second campaign were for expansions that would likely take us over two years to complete when it’s all said and done, communicating this was a challenge.  And the problem really started with what we said in the first campaign for the game.  When we started the first and original campaign, we were still at the later stages of prototyping thanks to the publisher ordeal.  We were conditioned to think in terms of the the ultimate vision of a world with factions and a living breathing economy, in which players can not only form crews and teams, but also belong to a living history and socio-economic construct, with stories that they get to discover and shape.  And with that in mind, and not really having a clear idea of scope, we communicated the ultimate vision for the game in our Kickstarter message.  On our Kickstarter page, we said:

Guns of Icarus Online is a team-based, first-person multiplayer airship combat game set in a post-apocalyptic, steampunk/dieselpunk-inspired world. Join a few of your friends to serve aboard an airship, or get a captain’s license and your own ship, crew it with your friends or some hired hands, and set sail for adventure as you brave danger-filled skies to deliver precious cargo and fight off air pirates and rival factions.

For backers of the first campaign, we said there would be “world,” “licenses,” “cargo,” and “factions.”  We didn’t have enough grasp of the scope or what we could realistically expect from Kickstarter when we launched the campaign.  As it turned out, at a time before the launch of the Double Fine campaign and other transformative campaigns such as Elevation Dock, it wasn’t really viable to fund a significant portion of development through Kickstarter alone.  Also, as our development was exiting prototype, we had a take a hard look about what we could accomplish and release before we run out of funds.  We realized that we had to limit our scope and focus more on the very core of play experience.  Our dream and ultimate vision was simply too big for what we could achieve in a single shot.  As we continued development, we made the decision to focus on PvP.  Not only would the scope be far more achievable and within a timeframe that would not be farfetched for our backers, it would also be the foundation upon which we could build the rest of our vision.  Some backers were understanding, but some were rightfully irate especially when they saw the campaign for the Adventure Mode expansion.

About a year after we launched our Kickstarter campaign, we released Guns of Icarus Online on Steam.  It launched under arguably the worst circumstances, with Hurricane Sandy knocking out our power, internet, and servers and flooding our building.  From that, we were luckily able to recover and survive.  However, to get to Adventure Mode, we knew we could use all the help we could get both in terms of money and awareness.  We decided to launch the second Adventure Mode campaign about six months after release of the game.  This time, we made sure we communicated our scope and what was achievable relative to pledge levels.  We were upfront in the campaign description about the limitations of relying on Kickstarter as source of funding as a small indie studio without celebrity, about the way we were structuring the campaign to have the minimum funding goal be only a fraction of what we would need because we were small and relatively unknown, and about our commitment to deliver based on what levels of support we would receive.

More importantly, we tried to be open about our explanation and apology to backers of the first campaign for any ill will, frustration, or confusion.  We did this in the campaign description, the FAQ, and the updates.  For the backers of the first campaign, we also gave them more limited edition items, or just about whatever they requested. The backer response were generally really supportive and understanding:

“Backed the first project, only really wanted Adventure mode. That said, totally understand the situation and the continued amount of work done to polish up Skirmish Mode shows their dedication to the project. ^_^”

But of course not everyone was happy, and we expected that:

Gotta be honest...the first KS was pretty direct about marketing the Adventure mode under features. I'm still in on this one, since Adventure mode is what I really wanted, and I understand that the first KS was relatively small but yeah... bit disappointed that we're being asked to pony up again for something that we already supported once.”

With comments and messages such as these, the only right thing to do was to be open and direct, to own up to mistakes, and to vow to do better:

“...really appreciate the feedback, and thanks a ton for backing us!!! And to be honest, we didn't do a good job making things clear and being correct or accurate, and that was because we were pretty clueless both about what we can realistically do and what we were able to achieve on Kickstarter. So in short, yeah we didn't do a good job on that front. We did try to deliver a game with everything we got, and we're really proud that we got to make the game and release it, and hopefully you guys liked the gifts that we made from the last campaign. Regardless, we'll try to do more for all you guys who backed us last time. So please stay tuned for a bit. Thanks so much!!”

Some people we would end up offending for good.  It was our mistake, and it was our backers’ hard earn money.  In the history of this game’s development, this was one of my biggest regrets.  The lesson here was to plan and communicate well upfront.  If we messed up, be even more upfront and open about our mistakes and do whatever we can to recompense.

With the Adventure Mode campaign, there were 2 additional sources of confusion.  Firstly, we had referenced some other campaigns and listed the reward notes under the $5 tier (first one from the top) in addition to the main description. This caused quite a bit of confusion, as some backers wondered what exactly was for the$5 tier and whether it included everything we listed below the tier.  Some people also had a hard time finding the relevant information for their respective tiers.  We were also ambitious in what we wanted to offer as gifts and rewards, offering a whopping 25 tiers, to the point where we needed to create a spreadsheet in google docs just to help people keep track.  In hindsight, this was too complex.  10-15 tiers would probably have sufficed (15 was what we had for the first campaign), and descriptions in the main body text and right under each tier would have been much clearer.

The other confusion was how the pledges were progressing.  As Rock Paper Shotgun critiqued, with the minimum pledge goal being only a fraction of our total estimates, their “primary concern here is that none of this is mentioned in the main video, and that never sits right...  They’re not being bad guys here – they could just be clearer about it.”  We were  was definitely a bit depressed for being criticized again for not being clear, but the point stood that we should have been clearer.  In addition to the regular updates, we also created a progress bar graphic at the top of the campaign to help backers track where we were.  The critique ended up being really useful, as the progress bar made it much clearer to our backers.

Lesson 2 - The Anatomy of Our Campaigns

In either of our campaigns, there really wasn’t one thing we could point to and said it made all the difference.  Instead, the success of the campaigns was the amalgamation of all the different things we tried as well as the good fortune we had.  If we breakdown the first campaign, the Kickstarter referred pledges to external pledges was 66% to 34%.

Front page feature by Kickstarter alone accounted for 17.4% of the total pledges.  Referrals from other projects’ confirmation pages accounted for another 13.9%.  20% of pledges came from “Video Game” and “Popular” pages.  Kickstarter pages accounted for 4 out of the top 5 referrers, and 7 out of the top 10.

“Direct traffic,” with the majority of it being friends and family, accounted for 15.8%.  The other two top external sources to round off the top 10 were our site (gunsoficarus.com) and our facebook page, combining to account for less than 7% of the total pledges.

Being featured on Kickstarter in late 2011 had a large impact on the success of the campaign.  Kickstarter was a lot smaller back then, and game projects were easier to be discovered.  We were also small, with not much in the way of an established track record and not much of a community or player base to contribute to the campaign.  Our first campaign’s success owed a lot to Kickstarter’s commitment to feature indie projects.  Through Kickstarter, not only did we build a community, we also forged amazing friendships with the Kickstarter people, who are truly passionate about the projects on their platform.  The featuring and the fact that the project went anywhere were a testament to Kickstarter’s efforts to help interesting projects be discovered.

This graph below trends the pledge level daily over the course of the first campaign:

The graph points to a beginning, middle, and end, marked by two inflection points, one on 1/12, and the other on 2/9.  The first point corresponds to Kickstarter’s featuring. The second point was the result of being listed  on the pledge confirmations of other more prominent projects.  To be featured was a big honor, but getting to those inflection points took everything we had.  From the moment the campaign started, we tried as hard as we could to reach out to friends, family, and fellow indie devs who would be willing to support us.  The first couple of weeks of the campaign were a lot of stress as we progressed toward the funding threshold.  Getting to the point of noticed by the Kickstarter staff took our collective and persistent efforts in reaching out.  This was the same with press coverage and being listed on spotlight pages such as the IGDA and SVA pages.  For the first campaign, we would not have gone as far if Kickstarter hadn’t supported us, but the project may not have been discovered by Kickstarter if we hadn’t done the hard work to do everything we could to reach out and spread the word.

For the second Guns of Icarus Online campaign for the Adventure Mode expansion, the Kickstarter vs. external ratio flipped.  External accounted for 74% of the total pledges while Kickstarter pages only accounted for 26%

Two of the top 3 and 6 out of the top 10 sources of pledges were external.  “Direct Traffic” now accounted for the highest percentages of pledges at 47.8%.  Direct traffic expanded from friends and family to include players as well.

Repeat backers (backers of both the first and the second campaigns) were only 6% of the pledges of the second campaign.  This was in part because of our mistakes in communications and message, but also because the second campaign became much larger than the first.  While the percentage of repeat backers was low, the portion our player base and community willing to support us for the second Kickstarter was significant, and the support was incredible.  The success of the second campaign was really the credit of our community and players.

Above is the funding progression chart for the second Kickstarter campaign.  Once again, the campaign had a beginning, middle, and end.  We launched the campaign right at PAX.  In fact, we hurried to the Kickstarter Arcade the morning of PAX day one to get help getting the campaign approved.  While managing a Kickstarter campaign in the Indie Megabooth on the PAX show floor was more stressful than usual, launching at PAX gave the campaign an initial lift.  Not only did we had the support of existing players, we also received pledges from people who came by to visit.  One backer that we got to befriend at our booth donated $2300 and an Oculus Rift dev kit, incredible. After PAX, we remained hyperactive with answering backer feedback and questions and with posting updates. We also received a lot of support from friends and families again to get us close to the funding threshold. In the meantime, Kickstarter also supported us with Staff Pick featuring. We did more to reach out to journalists this time and were written up by sites such as Rock Paper Shotgun and Joystiq. Overall, the print press coverage contributed to over$4K of the campaign.

During the middle 2-3 weeks of the campaign, the progress was slower, and we didn’t have a bigger reveal or event planned.  In hindsight, we should have.  But we stayed active in responding to player comments and messages and in posting updates, and the campaign progress steadily.  We also introduced or extended a few tiers that were popular.  We received requests from players wanting to back via paypal or other payment methods, so we created a couple of tiers on our own site and allowed people to use paypal, and we then created a section on our Kickstarter page displaying the paypal option.

One thing I wished we could have accommodated was to support Russian payment options.  We have quite a few Russian players, and they really wanted to contribute, but a Russian payment option for us as foreigners wasn’t possible.

During the last two weeks, progress accelerated, and the acceleration started when Polaris did a mini-tournament event with us.  AngryJoe mentioned our Kickstarter along with Jesse Cox and Dodger, and that got a lot of new players interested in the campaign.  In addition, we saw more pledges over the final 2 weeks as would-be backers realized or were reminded that the campaign was ending.

What Lessons Did We Learn?

• Our campaigns had beginnings, middles, and ends, with middle weeks progressing slower.  During the middle weeks of the Adventure Mode campaign, it would have helped to plan for a reveal or bigger update.

• There wasn’t a single silver bullet that made all the difference, and we achieved our goals by pushing as hard as we could and having a little bit of luck.

• While Kickstarter’s support definitely helped significantly, the support of existing players and community was more significant.

• Juggling between a major show (Pax) and a Kickstarter campaign was more work and stress, but ultimately more beneficial.

Lesson 3 - Physical Rewards, To Have or not to Have?

When running a Kickstarter campaign, whether to offer physical rewards was a central question for us.

I plotted out the pledge amount by each of the 15 tiers in the first Guns of Icarus Online Kickstarter campaign below.

I chose to look at total pledge amount per tier instead of backer per tier as pledges offered us a more direct indicator of how each tier contributed to the total campaign funding.  The tiers we offered physical rewards were the $25 one along with tiers that were$50 and above.  Interestingly, not only did 75% of all backers wanted only digital contents, they also contributed to 43% of the campaign’s total pledge amount.  Moreover, the two highest pledge tiers were digital contents only.  If we factor in the cost of procuring and shipping the physical rewards, then the net contribution of digital contents then became the clearly majority.

If we take a look at the same breakdown for Adventure Mode:

With the Adventure Mode campaign, the breakdown was even more glaring.  Firstly, 85.5% of the backers only pledged for digital rewards (copies, exclusive costumes, documentary, soundtrack), and they contributed to 57.4% of the total pledge amount.  Three out of the top five tiers in terms of pledge amount were digital contents only.

Why Physical Reward Then?

There were two reason why we decided to offer physical rewards.  One, we thought they were cool.  Two, we thought they offered more of a sense of permanence for our backers.  We wanted them to be good enough of quality to be collector items, items that players can identify with for a long time.  For physical rewards, we offered posters, t-shirts, log books with our sketches, art books, and bullet USBs for the first campaign, and how we came up with them was us brainstorming together, and then looking for vendors to see if what we imagined would be possible.  Everything except for the bullet USB was relatively easy to find vendors for, and the challenge for us was quality.  Of the rewards, the most cost effective were the USB and the poster, and the biggest drivers for cost effectiveness were size and weight when shipping.

As I mentioned above, we offered 25 tiers the second time around.  Not only did this complicate the project/campaign page and contribute to backer confusion, it also made fulfillment all the more difficult.  For the larger number of tiers, we also decided to widen variety.  In addition to everything we offered for the first campaign, we also offered iphone cases, canvas maps, pins, a different style of bullet USB, larger banners, and a unique USB for the highest pledging backer.  Pins, USBs, and large banners we already have experience creating, but canvas maps and iPhone cases took us quite a while to find the quality that we were happy with.  A lot of vendors have pretty images, but the proofs often told a different story.

What Lessons Did We Learn?

The one inference I think I can safely draw is that, while physical rewards are fun to procure and potentially more impressionable, they do not make or break a project.  First and foremost, people want to support the project and the team, and people like exclusive rewards, but they do not have to be physical.

In the second campaign for Adventure Mode, we offered physical rewards at higher tiers.  Having gone through the campaign once already, we had a clearer idea of how much items cost, and we had vendors that we already had working relationships with.  Therefore, the focus was to ensure the highest quality possible against procurement and shipping costs.  Here are some vendors we recommend:

- USB:  US Digital Media (www.usdigitalmedia.com)

- Poster:  Jakprints (www.jakprints.com)

- T-shirt:  Squeezebox Studios (www.squeezeboxstudios.com)

- Art book:  nekoprint (http://yesneko.com) or Lulu (www.lulu.com)

- Buttons:  Pure Buttons (http://www.purebuttons.com)

For the first campaign, aside from shipping and packing, one other major time sink was sketching for log books.  For higher tier backers, we wanted to offer log books with unique sketches.  We ended up drawing 87 sketches, and it took us weeks during lunches, nights, and weekends.

While sketching was fun, they were also a major burden.  For the second campaign, while we still wanted to offer sketches as we enjoyed creating them, we reserved them only for some of the highest tier backers and placed quantity limits.  The art book was another item was time intensive to create.  For the second campaign especially, we spent quite a lot of time and effort to not only select artwork representative of different stages of development but also weave them into a narrative.  The work was not only in visual arrangement, but in drafting and editing the descriptions as well.  For the art book, we felt it was time well spent though, as it was an enormous source of pride for us, and compiling it took us back in time to relive the moments we alone shared during the development of the game.

As we were fulfilling backer orders from the first campaign, the number of packages we had to ship only totaled 310.  Fulfillment basically meant us printing or writing labels, buying packages at a local copy center, packing everything over a few weekends, and hauling large bags to the post office to ship.  The challenges were stepping across my room without stumbling over piles of packages and shrugging off the sarcastic to exasperated sighs and constant glares of post office clerks.

For the Adventure Mode campaign, we heard of other developers using outside services, but decided against it.  Yet, we were faced with the daunting challenge of shipping out 1200 items to backers, an undertaking that probably would have banned us from our local post office for life.  To ship this many items, we had to be more systematic and efficient.  We ordered packing material in bulk, paid for postage, and printed out labels and custom forms online.  As we finished packing a batch, we used the USPS pick up service.  For packing, we had the incredible help of two players interns who volunteered and came in when they could to help us pack.  They did the heavy lifting for us, and we are truly grateful.  It has taken us over 7 months to order, pack, and ship, and we are still shipping out the last batches.  Fulfillment was, is, and will continue to be a huge time sink for us, way more than we anticipated.  We’ve never tried outside services for fulfillment, but if budgeted appropriately, they are worth a good look.

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