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September 23, 2020
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Anatomy of a Failed Kickstarter pt3: Lessons Learned

by Rafael Vazquez on 05/04/20 11:44:00 am   Featured Blogs

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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.

 

 

Hi folks! Welcome to the final piece of the series on the failed Kickstarter campaign for Puppet Master.  This is a full disclosure article, where you get to see what my thought process was, the numbers behind the campaign and why it didn’t work (at least in my opinion). In part 1 we talked about the context for the campaign, what was “the plan”; in part 2 we saw the data behind the campaign and how each marketing channel behaved. In this part we’ll take a deeper dive into the results and finally my conclusions. If it’s been a while and you need to remember what the game was about here’s a trailer: 

Also, here’s the campaign page in case you want to check it out yourself! Ready? Then let’s dive in! 

Results

This chart, courtesy of the ever helpful Kicktraq, is the tldr version.  After campaigning from March 3rd to April 2nd  I managed to get 72% of my goal and as such the Kickstarter failed. I am incredibly grateful to the backers who believed in the project and voted with their wallet and their words to try and make this game come true. In total, there were 184 backers, with an average pledge of $39 CAD. Kickstarter watchers might notice that this is a small number of backers, particularly for the goal raised, and this will be our first clue on what went wrong. You see, there’s more to these figures that meets the eye. 

You can see these graphs in more detail at Puppet Master’s Kicktraq page. Breaking it down by day, the first thing we notice is the infamous mid-campaign trough.  The first day brought in 15% of the goal which was awesome! (as far as I understand the average is 7%), but by day 3 we can see there is a problem. Despite the apparently strong start, the number of backers is small. Going through the kickstarter back-end, I noticed that many of the emails of backers seemed familiar; my friends and family who came out to show support. This was expected, I knew the importance of a strong start, so I had asked them to pledge in the first days (here was one mistake, but more on that later). But by day 3, and despite the outward good-looking numbers, I knew I was in trouble. I was not picking up any traffic outside my own personal network.  This became the dark theme of the campaign. 

Digging through the Kickstarter portal, seeing if my game had been featured (it was not ðŸ™Â), I noticed that my game was hard to find. Despite it being a game for PC, it wasn’t listed under that category.  I emailed KS and they let me know that, due to the volume of campaigns, they don’t look at each one individually to categorize it, instead relying on the blurb and title to place it, until someone can take a longer look. Originally, my blurb stated: “A strategy game where you are the Illuminati. Take over all nations via bribery, intimidation and seduction.” Nowhere did I mention the platform, and as such, it wasn't taken into account for that section. Instead it was featured under the “Strategy Games” category, which needs visitors to scroll quite a bit before found. The staff at KS were really supportive and, once notified, placed it in the correct categories, but between the email back-and-forth, a few more days were lost and by the time it was categorized correctly, the initial momentum was lost. 

To make matters worse, on March 2nd, a day before my campaign started, the US announced 100 cases of COVID-19; by March 12th it will be 1,500 [1]. As the pandemic worsened in the US, my main market, people would go on to buy essentials and bunker at home. A silly Kickstarter game would be the last thing on people’s minds. I know other games have had a bit of a “golden month” with more people stuck at home playing games. However, it’s a harder sell if you’re promising to deliver a game for them 6-8 months from now. 

Despite all my efforts detailed in part 2, I was never able to get enough outside traffic into my campaign. Without that initial push of a Kickstarter feature nor a large outside following already established, and as we can see in the above Google Analytics graph, the trough was way too large for me to overcome with a spike in the end. With ~100 visitors a day, even with an ok conversion rate (3.8% according to Google [do take these with a grain of salt]), there was just not enough people coming in for me to sell to. Despite an uptick near the end of nearly 20% of my goal (as expected due to featuring in the “ending soon” sections), the pledges throughout the month were not high enough for that the last-minute boost to succeed. 

Final Kickstarter stats 

Before we go into the lessons learnt, I wanted to share some miscellaneous stats on the campaign that I found difficult to find elsewhere. Hopefully these can serve as a benchmark for your own projects. 

Pledgers by source 

By the end of the campaign, this is how my pledger distribution looked like: 

For my campaign, direct visitors and backers from Kickstarter were the lion share. One note however, I don’t think I had a good custom link strategy. I didn’t know about referral tags (URL variants you can create to determine where a visitor is coming from) until a couple days after the launch, so a lot of my initial traffic was acquired by sending the generic link/ external referrers. That being said, you can see how much impact my marketing strategy mid-campaign had.   

Movie Views

In terms of my trailer this is the stats I got. Unfortunately, I don’t have the statistics for how long viewers watched the trailer for, but in my mind, ~30% of completed views is not bad.  On YouTube, my trailer got 1892 views with an average view time of 0:33 min (around ~40% of viewers). 

Wishlists

I set up my KS page about a week and a half before launch to start gathering followers. When I started I had very few followers (close to 50) and that definitely grew throughout the campaign.  Though I haven’t found stats on what a usual conversion rate looks like for followers on KS, asking around the Vancouver Indie scene, ~20% is an average amount. 

Conclusions

Ok, now to the good stuff, what have I learnt from this experience? There are three main takeaways (and a plethora of small ones): 

Numbers of Backers > Spending of backers 

This piece of advice has probably been done to death; but at least I know that I had misunderstood what it meant. Blogs everywhere will tell you how important it is to get to 30% in the first few days (some say 3 days, some say first week), but here’s the thing; the percentage of your goals is not as important as the number of backers. I did ask my friends and family to pledge in the first days, but I should have asked them to pledge on the very first day. Thanks to them, I had a good amount of my goal locked in at the start of the campaign, but I had a very few number of backers.  Start your outreach months before your Kickstarter, it is better to have a low level, but consistent, marketing campaign than a few large ones.  This is critical. I thought that I could condense marketing by dedicating three full months to it. However, spreading out that effort through the whole dev process, even if the “total” effort is the same, would have been more fruitful. This because, contrary to my initial assumption: 

Kickstarter is not really a marketing tool 

In order to have a really successful Kickstarter, you need to have stellar first days. In order to have a stellar first days, you need to have an audience ready to jump onto the campaign. Kickstarter is better at monetizing an audience you already have, then at creating a new audience. Sure, you will get some new eyes on your game, but without that initial surge of pledgers, and the visibility that comes with that, you will be hard pressed to naturally find new customers. Instead you might try traditional marketing techniques to get people into your campaign, but these can be used at any time to draw people into your steam page/trailer/event/etc.... The question becomes then, how do you build that audience, in that way: 

Not every marketing vector weighs the same 

For my art-light game marketing was the hardest part of the whole campaign. This really shaped what marketing avenues worked best for me in gathering people. I understand this is different for different games and developers, but for me Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn were the best avenues to drive people in; while reddit and reaching out to the press didn’t help. Personally, I believe this is due to my game not being visually flashy; I really suffered from having little exciting content to show off. On Twitter or LinkedIn I can send out regular promotional material and updates; while that will get you quickly banned on the main sub-reddits (as I unfortunately discovered the hard way).  Because I don’t have a constant turn-around of art, consistency with other topics is key for me to expand my audience (design advice, articles, other games I find interesting, etc...).  

A note on the press; despite having a press kit and doing research on journalists who enjoy this type of game, it’s the only vector that gave me zero returns. I really believe that establishing a relationship with them is key, but that a cold call email is not the right approach. Conferences or meet & greets would work better, but for a one-man show on a budget like myself this seems far out of reach. 

Nuggets of Knowledge

With those three big ones out of the way, I wanted to share an assortment of smaller lessons I learnt during this process: 

  • Make sure to seed the blurb beneath your title with the categories you want to be added to; you do not want to leave mis-categorization to chance. 

  • I would advise getting a Kickstarter page ready really early, and using it as target practice with different marketing vectors to see which one works best. 

  • Create tags for referral links on Day 1, before you do your main media push, and divide them by marketing avenue; that will give you a ton of info on what is working best for you. You really want to see which avenue brings you more backers, not just more eyeballs. 

  • Ads are useful at the tail end of the campaign to drive traffic to your page and use FOMO to get them to pledge; in the first weeks, people will come look, but not pledge. 

  • Kickstarter updates are not for getting new backers; they are for keeping the ones you already have engaged. In my mind any big announcement you make (new levels, new characters, etc...) is best aimed at upselling your pledgers on a bigger deal. 

  • Use limited time tiers instead of limited quantity tiers. The latter really doesn’t move early birds unless they feel there’s enough buzz around your game that someone might take it from them. If it's based on time, then that’s not a factor. Remember, number of pledgers > amount they send. 

  • To demo or not to demo; this is one question to which I don’t have a definitive answer yet. However, seeing that I didn’t have any backers asking where they can play it, I feel that it was the right call to not have it on the main campaign page. The demo did not move much traffic into the campaign, however it has attracted a small stream of players to my discord. I’m really curious to see what the long-term effects of this will be.  

Now what? 

The campaign has come and gone, and it’s goal failed. What happens next?  

Well for starters, Puppet Master will continue development. The failed Kickstarter does mean that I’ve gone back to working full time at a studio, so the game will be developed slower and will be smaller than what I had hoped. It was a tough pill to swallow, but it’s ok. It will allow me to do a leaner release, hopefully adding more features if the game does well enough. My plan is to release on Q1 2021, though that might change depending on what the world situation looks like from here to then. I’ve learned from my mistakes and set up a steam page early. I’m also much more active on discord and twitter, focusing my attention there (come say hi!). I’m adding some features to the game with the sole purpose of making it easier to market (for example, the ability to name your secret society): 

...and in general I’m devoting much more time to marketing, right now about 1/3 of my time each day goes to interacting with social media and the community at large.  I’ve become more consistent with my devlog emails, even when there is little “visible” progress to show. There are still a few things I haven’t solved yet. The lack of art continues to haunt me. I’m trying to shift the emphasis into gameplay, sending out ciphers for the community on my devlogs (sign up here  :P ), and I’m going to soon begin a “rolling alpha”.  

I Instead of having one set alpha test for my game, I’ll send out bi-weekly builds that contain a sliver of the game (a single region with the latest mechanics/fixes) and a single question for the testers. My hope is this will be able to keep my burgeoning community active and interested for the many months that are left in development. 

The other big question is, when is the game good enough? I know that it can’t be as complex as I had hoped for before KS; I simply don’t the time/money to handle that scope. Deciding what to change, what to leave out for a future expansion and what to cut completely is a daily battle; sometimes pretty bittersweet. Slowly and steadily the game will shape up to its new incarnation, and in the meantime I’ll keep trucking along. I mean, at the end of the day, you can’t really keep the Illuminati down  ;) 

Will I make another Kickstarter? Honestly I don’t know. With the effort it took and the state of things these days, I’d rather be cautious and wait until a time when I feel it has a good chance of success. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts or feedback on the campaign or the game itself, I’d love to hear them! You can find me through discord or twitter; I’m always happy to chat :D 

I want to end this post by thanking and giving a high five to everyone that made this campaign even remotely possible either by helping with editing, assets and proofreading or by providing moral support. I also want to give a big thanks to all the backers who supported the project. Its honestly because of your encouragement that the project is still going forward. Thank you. 


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