In my last column, I talked about the ways my small studio has managed to survive. A major component of my team's sustainability can be attributed to our decision to use Kickstarter to fund the production of Hero Generations, our most recent title.
My Kickstarter experience dates back to mid-2014, and since then the perception has shifted such that it seems increasingly difficult to get funded as a small to mid-sized developer. While there is data to suggest this is true, like many platforms these days, the problem has much less to do with a decrease in demand, and more to do with an increase in competition. If you are a new developer with little experience or track record, then yes, I concede getting funded at a living wage is more challenging. However, for even moderately experienced indies I believe there is still a large opportunity to find success on Kickstarter. I want to share what worked for us, and how that can be applied to help other developers of small budget (less than 100K goal) crowdfunding projects today.
Note: there are other crowdfunding platforms such as Fig and IndieGoGo that may also be a good fit, but this article will focus on Kickstarter given it is the only platform I have direct experience with.
Starting with the Right Goal In Mind
Before choosing to crowdfund your project, it's worth considering if the conditions are right for you to run a successful campaign. Do you have at least 2-4 months runway and time to prepare and refine your pitch materials? Will you be able to dedicate yourself full-time to running the campaign once it starts? Is the game you're making a good fit for pre-sale and early access (i.e. it's not mobile, free-to-play, etc)?
"I recommend thinking in terms of your minimum and maximum scopes. Your base funding goal should allow you to deliver the minimum you would be proud to ship, but no more"
There are a lot of game types and teams that are not a great fit for the crowdfunding model, so ask yourself if Kickstarter is the best place for your project.
Properties of a Strong Pitch on Kickstarter
Picking the right project and refining your pitch to backers is where you'll need to spend your early effort. Through my own campaign and observing many others, the things that make a great Kickstarter pitch are not dissimilar from a traditional funding pitch. You're ultimately looking to demonstrate why you have a great game that people want to pay for, with the added concern of offering enticing pre-sales at the same time. In broad terms, a great crowdfunding pitch has:
- A unique and exciting hook, that makes people stay for the rest of the pitch.
- A team with the skill and experience necessary to execute on the pitch promises.
- Proof of concept, such as a demo and/or concept art.
- Appealing art style, presentation, or familiar world.
- “Valuable” rewards for backers.
We know the successful large budget Kickstarter campaigns consistently tick all of these boxes in big ways. An exciting new version of a beloved classic franchise, made by a team of veteran all-star developers? Amazing art you say? Behind the scenes with my favorite legendary designers? We're in.
Smaller teams have to work harder to drive that same excitement, but it's not impossible. Here are just a few of the ways you can strengthen your pitch without needing to be famous or expanding the size of your budget:
- Not well-known? Reach out to more well-known developers who might offer a quote in support of the project, then include it as part of your campaign page.
- Lacking a long list of shipped titles? Create an undeniably fun playable demo with a walkthrough video you can show on your page.
- No funding to build a complete demo? Create a simple functional prototype, then couple it with good looking concept art that can paint the picture of what the game will be.
- Don't have a huge built-in following from past titles? Find a niche genre/community to target to help build early support, or create associations with more established projects (“it's like The Legend of Zelda but...”)
- Can't manage a lot of high-end rewards? Offer digital rewards that can add more value to your reward tiers. Soundtracks, digital art books, forum badges, design documents, backer likenesses in the game, etc. are all affordable rewards you can add to make it more likely for backers to support you. If you can avoid physical rewards entirely, you'll save yourself a lot of headaches in fulfilment later.
I'd recommend studying the strong Kickstarter campaigns of the fellow indie developers of Darkest Dungeon, Super Hot, and the recent Eco. Each of these projects are original designs that came from experienced yet relatively unknown teams that were able to meet and far exceed their funding goals. I think each team found one category to really excel at, and found creative ways to add strength to their pitch where resources may have been lacking.
Scope and Budget
The greatest value Kickstarter offers small developers is the chance to learn what the customer appetite actually is for what you want to build. It can save you from overspending, or help you learn that demand is higher than expected, or even learn that the project just isn't connecting, allowing you to move on to a stronger game.
To get the most out of Kickstarter, I recommend thinking in terms of your minimum and maximum scopes. Your base funding goal should allow you to deliver the minimum you would be proud to ship, but no more. As well, you should be prepared to present what you would do with more money, and know where the realistic upper boundaries of development would be. If your game relies on a very specific, high end budget, your road to funding has less room for error. Finding a game with a core mechanic that can work with $50,000 or $500,000 is a better starting point. This is easier to achieve if you don't have a large team up front, which would necessitate a much higher starting budget.
Pre-Promotion and Nailing the Launch Days
Taking your time in the lead up to launch is also critical. Rushing out the campaign was a trap I nearly fell into. The following advice was invaluable to receive before I pulled the trigger, and in hindsight I'm glad I took the time to prepare before the madness of the campaign began.
Get Feedback on Your Campaign Page. The first thing to spend time on prior to your launch is iterating on your campaign page, videos, and rewards. Kickstarter allows you to share a preview page before release, and it's critical to get feedback on this page from a variety of people. In particular, seek out other developers who have run successful kickstarters. They'll help you identify important pieces from your message that may be missing. After a few iterations, also share your page with people who have backed a lot of projects. They'll give you insight on what appeals, and also help you identify reward opportunities you may not have thought of that worked to drive pledges to other projects.
Do Pre-Launch Marketing. Once you have your campaign set, spend time getting the word out that the campaign is launching soon. Kickstarters rely heavily on getting good early momentum. People are weird: the more traction a campaign appears to have, the more others feel the project is worth their time. It also makes it more likely that you'll get featured within the Kickstarter ecosystem. So take the time, at least 2 weeks ahead, to contact press, youtubers, social media, friends & family. Get them ready to contribute in the first day. A rule of thumb that seems to hold up for successful projects is that they were able to reach 10-15 percent funding within the first 48 hours.
Build a Daily Campaign Plan. Once your campaign goes live, it should become your full-time job. You'll be preoccupied with spreading the word, answering customer questions, and tracking your progress. In all likelihood, you won't have time to author a lot of content. It's important to work out a plan for the content you'll release every day to drive awareness of your campaign. Here are the things a lot of campaigns have done to keep people engaged with their campaign:
- Design Blog Posts
- Concept Art Releases
- Trailers / Let's Plays
- Audio snippets
- Reddit AMAs
- Funding milestone announcements
- Cross promotion with other campaigns
- Releases of demo builds
- Stretch goal reveals
- Platform reveals
In short, a little bit of upfront planning and preparation goes a long way.
There are other small-but-important things that vary from campaign to campaign. Here are a few other considerations that may or may not be as critical to your project:
"My perspective is that a lower end early-bird offering (in the $20-$25 range) is more helpful than not for small developers. We don't have the advantages that more well known studios have"
Include a Call to Action. A significant portion of the people who will see your campaign will not be crowdfunding savvy, and need that clarity on how they can help, pledge, and share. Be as clear as you can about what steps people need to take to support you.
Video Style. How to create your video is a large topic area on its own. I don't think there is a singular formula that works. In general, I think polish is less important than a streamlined, coherent structure. I cringe at my own video, but I think it managed to get the critical points across about why players should care, and why we would be able to execute on the vision. A new trend is to focus just on a gameplay trailer, and avoid having your team on camera. I don't think there is a right answer, but anecdotally I tend to prefer knowing who I am giving money to before backing a project.
Page Design for Key Sections. Most people will decide to back or not before reading your description. That said, the page is useful as a quick skim for people who like your pitch, but are looking for final validation that your project is worth their money. I received feedback from my backers that the following sections were important to have:
- Description of gameplay - explain what the player will do.
- VISUALS! Show as much cool art as you can. GIFs are even better. It's all about painting a picture for the player to get excited about.
- Platforms (link to a Steam Greenlight, if relevant)
- Information about the team and their previous shipped games.
- Details of the contents of each reward tier. A reward chart for all tiers is highly recommended, as it can entice backers to upgrade their pledge.
- Clear “Why we're using Kickstarter” statement.
Offer “Early-Bird” reward tiers. There are two schools of thought here. You can offer a discounted reward tier in a limited quantity, that can help drive those critical early backers. On the other hand, offering that discount may devalue your game, and make later potential backers feel as though they missed out. My perspective is that a lower end early-bird offering (in the $20-$25 range) is more helpful than not for small developers. We don't have the advantages that more well known studios have, so using every technique possible to drive early adoption seems worth the potential downsides in how it could hurt your overall earning potential.
Avoid Promises and Feature Guarantees. You want to be absolutely clear on what backers will receive, but you must also be careful not to commit to anything you aren't 100 percent sure you can deliver on.
Near the end of your campaign. Update your page how you would like it, as you can't edit your campaign page when it's done (you can edit some other sections, however). If you'll offer post-campaign backing options such as Pay Pal, be sure to include those links for people who find your campaign too late.
Crowdfunding brings with it a whole host of benefits and challenges small teams wouldn't have if we chose a more “traditional” path of development. Many people fear the added overhead of catering to a player community in-tandem with trying to build your game, but in reality I've found my backers to be nothing but supportive. If you can avoid physical rewards, deliver on your milestones, and be transparent in your regular communication, crowdfunding can be the important advantage your game needs to find success when it's finally released. Running a successful campaign will leave you with funding to complete your project, a community that can help test and vet the fun of the game, and be your early stage marketing champions when it comes time to launch.
If you have other questions about my experience with Kickstarter, I'm happy to answer your questions in the comments.
Scott Brodie is the Founder & Creative Director at independent studio Heart Shaped Games. He is the designer and programmer of IndieCade Finalist Hero Generations and online CCG Highgrounds. Prior to Heart Shaped Games he was an XBLA Producer for Microsoft Game Studios on 20+ titles, and a Designer and Programmer on a variety of AAA PC and Console titles.