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Six most important lessons from Kickstarter so far Exclusive

Six most important lessons from Kickstarter so far
November 30, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

November 30, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

Although Star Citizen, the latest game to break Kickstarter records with $6.2 million, was funded just weeks ago, signs of maturation for the crowdfunding platform are on the horizon.

The days when big names could expect automatic plentitude are over, and now that so many desired titles have hit their goals, backers are getting updates about release window delays more often than not. A wave of countless products trading on nostalgia value has begun to create clear consumer fatigue.

The rise of the crowdfunding platform has created an entirely new avenue for the marketing, development and release of games, as well as for developers to build direct relationships with their players. But getting funded on Kickstarter now seems to be a much more complicated proposition than it once was. Any investor will become more risk-averse and more attuned to best practices the more information they're given about process and result -- and that's true even when your investors are crowds of fans.

So what have we learned?

Nostalgia's not enough anymore. Why don't they make old-school RPGs and point-and-click adventure games anymore? Why, the evil publishers don't believe there's money in them. What about those favorite old characters, brands? Nope, no money in them. But I'd throw money at them, gamers have been shouting on forums for years. Along comes Kickstarter, and finally, gamers could. The nostalgia boom was so powerful that Space Quest's Two Guys From Andromeda overcame decades of estrangement to get back on board.

But taking a little audience pulse now reveals gamers have become complacent. Nothing can soothe the power of years of forlorn longing like instant access, and games won't gain funding simply because players remember this or that from when they were little. Look at the case of the Oliver Twins' recent campaign for a new game starring the cartoon egg Dizzy, one of the 1980s' most iconic game characters in Europe. As of press time it's performing anemically at under 20,000 of its 350,000 goal.

dizzy.jpgMeanwhile, Spuds Quest, an indie-made homage with similar features and a much more modest 5000 ask, has beat its goal and will probably please ZX Spectrum fans just as much. In an era where fans can have nearly everything they want, they're less likely to open their wallets wider than necessary just for the sake of a brand.

Your backers aren't the entire audience. Over at Rock Paper Shotgun, UK journalist John Walker's done an excellent status report on the major game funding successes on Kickstarter, checking in on how well they're keeping their audiences informed and whether they've met promised release windows. On both counts, many aren't doing so hot, with release dates vague and delayed and with information available only to backers.

If we view Kickstarter as similar to a conventional publishing model where information on the game's earliest stages is available only to those who have a financial stake, it makes sense that part of what backers have paid for is the privilege of being part of the process from day one. But a major component of the value in the platform is the ability to build a relationship with potential audiences.

It's good to serve your backers -- but too much opacity is sure to alienate other people who would otherwise be completely willing to buy your game when it's finished. This degree of transparency is unfamiliar to devs and probably a bit scary, but one lesson we can take from Kickstarter is that this is what fans expect, now. Game makers will have to learn to leverage that if they want to continue to monetize new audiences with the product early adopters have funded.

Kickstarter can be just the beginning. Given that it's getting harder and harder to reach ambitious funding goals on the abundant and rapidly-maturing platform, many developers are starting to look at Kickstarter as one of multiple avenues for investment. It's clear now that Kickstarter can simply be a powerful way to demonstrate demand in the quest for bigger dollars, or an avenue to fund a risky prototype for funding sources that would ask for more than a good pitch.

Many projects that got fully-funded on Kickstarter might actually come back to the platform for further resources based on what the community demands. Already, listing "stretch goals" -- promises to adjust the project if more cash comes in that requested -- is par for the course on Kickstarter. Further down the line if a project is going well and fans are able to see it's going well through good community management and regular updates, expect devs to try leveraging their audiences for another funding round for expansions on the original vision, depending on what they're able to do with the initial round.

brightdriver.jpgMany devs will also learn from their Kickstarter failures, and may approach the platform again with a better-angled proposal. We recently spoke to BrightDriver, which aims to create a platform for mobile games that can be played via audio and voice in the car. In failing to hit its Kickstarter goal the co-founders had to examine the idea that it would have been better to approach crowdfunding with a specific game for their platform, perhaps one bolstered by desirable partners, that people would want. The door is open for them to try crowdfunding again in the future, armed with more information than they would have had if they hadn't attempted it.

You need a clear and realistic plan -- no matter who you are. Fan love for developers can play a major role in Kickstarter successes, as we saw with Double Fine Adventure. But pedigree isn't everything, and fans are quickly becoming much more circumspect about that.

Veterans Brenda Brathwaite and Tom Hall learned this the hard way. At the beginning of the Kickstarter boom, the idea of an old-school RPG from the creators of Wizardry, Anachronox and more might have been enough to inspire fan faith, but the pair ended up surprised at how much detail and specificity fans demanded when they went live. The pair decided to halt their Kickstarter until they could come back with a stronger plan and a clearer trajectory.

Even though it's possible they could have made their goal in the end, the audience feedback and slow start to the funding was an important sign to Brathwaite and Hall about what even the most experienced developers need to know about the Kickstarter environment.

Don't try your backers' patience. One upside, if you can call it that, to the traditional publishing model may be that developers don't set their own schedule. For better or for worse, milestones are milestones and few studios ever have the luxury of blowing too many. Forced time constraints have created incredible stress in the games industry -- but also incredible resourcefulness. If only the idea of thousands of backers eagerly counting on you could inspire the same careful planning.

Fans invested in a game and receiving reliable communication about its project may be surprisingly willing to be incredibly patient and give it the time it needs to gestate. But their faith requires self-aware developers setting realistic deadlines and then keeping them at all costs. Walker's list of Kickstarter successes is most notable for how spotty most of them are about timing, with deadlines vague, constantly moving or obviously overly-ambitious.

braithwaite.jpgAudiences know Kickstarter is a new frontier, and they're willing to watch and see while devs sort it out. But they spent money, and can be expected to become disgruntled quickly if they feel someone's taken that money and then shut the communication channel in their face. For the health of the crowdfunding ecosystem, everyone seeking funding on Kickstarter will need to make a commitment to schedule and timing.

People want cultural capital. People want deliverables, yes, but they simultaneously want the pleasure of being associated with something popular, something that feels worth believing in. Ian Bogost has even suggested that part of what people pay for is "the entertainment value of expressing your support for... a hypothetical [product]."

Considering these lessons from Kickstarter it's clear that the joy of buying a fantasy isn't enough to satisfy most backers, but it's certainly worth thinking about when it comes to rewards on offer at various tiers. Fans don't consider the honor of being exposed to your dev process, or of being the earliest beta testers, to be a "reward"; it's now the basic thing they expect for backing you. So what might they want instead?

The tricky part of crowdfunding is that you can escape traditional channels, but your audience is now your boss. Perhaps if we understand them to be motivated somewhat by their desire to participate in culture, it makes sense to consider they might be rewarded by something that lets them show that, something tangible that lets their fellow fans know they were there first.

When we start seeing the first wave of finished Kickstarter-funded games reach their audiences, surely there'll be more lessons to learn. But the days of crowdfunding's exciting anything-goes Wild West seem to be ebbing, and developers will be more successful -- and the platform will be healthier and more stable -- if we take stock of what we've learned and how we can implement these lessons going forward.

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