Kickstarter Is a Full-Time Job
Think you know what makes a successful Kickstarter campaign? Get the inside story from five teams who met their goals.
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Running a Kickstarter campaign is easy, right? All you have to do is make a quick video, toss in a few bullet points, make up some pricing tiers, and wait for the money train to reach the station. Not exactly. Executing a successful campaign is a full-time responsibility that demands constant input from the author(s). If you have ever considered launching one of your own, or are just curious about the process, consider these insights from five teams who have weathered the Kickstarter storm. On deck for the discussion are:
Clairvoire, developer on the oceanic adventure game Sealark
Eric Shumaker, developer on the post-cyberpocalyptic action RPG Barkley 2
Jamin Smith, developer on the third-person, space combat game Strike Suit Zero
Jordan Hemenway and Kyle Holdwick, developers on the parkour-inspired racer Distance
Jordan and Justin Coombs, developers on the tactical, deep-space strategy game Star Command
Before launching your Kickstarter campaigns, what were your expectations regarding the amount of effort involved?
Coombs: For our first campaign, none. Kickstarter was still kind of gaining its traction. It was still primarily for things like indie films and albums. Justin was living in New York and ran into Michael Tseng, the creator of Turf Geography Club for mobile. He had just run his Kickstarter and made over $15,000, which sounded amazing at the time.
That little counter on the top right of the [Kickstarter] page is the first thing you check when you wake up, and the last thing you check before going to bed.We said, "Hey, let's give this a shot," and we were inspired by a lot of his ideas for rewards. But we did not fully appreciate what fulfilling each of those entailed. So, in other words, we really underestimated the commitment that comes with it.
Hemenway: We had an interesting perspective going in because we live in the Seattle area, which is the king of Kickstarter for games. There are just so many teams out there, such as Shadowrun Returns and Planetary Annihilation, so we had all these guys around here who had done [campaigns] before, and they were willing to give us feedback and ideas before we went in. We talked with a lot of people who said it was going to be a full-time job, but I don't think we were 100 percent prepared for what we would be doing.
Smith: We'd actually been told (warned?) by others in the industry the amount of work that was involved, so we went into the campaign under no illusions of how hard it would be. It's not just the workload, though; it consumes your life for its duration. That little counter on the top right of the page is the first thing you check when you wake up, and the last thing you check before going to bed. Once the campaign is finished and the timer is stuck on zero, there's a strange sense of emptiness. But yes, it is hard work.
What are some examples of typical day-to-day activities involved in running a campaign?
Shumaker: I spent a lot of time every day answering emails in the Kickstarter and personal Tales of Games inbox. A lot of emails accumulated at night while I slept, so I generally spent a few hours in the morning (or whenever I woke up) catching up on them. I spent the rest of the day monitoring the Kickstarter, responding to emails, making posts on Twitter, talking to people about the game, and, if we got the time, working on it a little. Don't expect to work on your game too much though, because Kickstarter really does take most of your time.
Hemenway: One thing that was kind of a mistake for us was constantly looking at our stats on Kicktraq, [a site that continually monitors the progress of Kickstarter campaigns]. That is an easy way to drive your morale down. I think a lot of people do it just because it's interesting; I mean, we're all programmers, so we're interested in data anyway, and of course all of the backers are sending us these pages constantly, reminding us where we stand and asking if we're going to make it. I think it was a big waste of time checking it every day. [Kicktraq] is a cool website, I'll admit, but just for our sake we probably shouldn't have checked it as much.
What steps did you take to help ensure your campaign remained in the public's eye?
Smith: It's all about updates, and making sure you still have relevant and interesting content to share 15, 20, 25 days into the campaign. To lean on an old cliche: it's a marathon, not a sprint. Just over halfway through our campaign, for example, we were able to announce an Oculus Rift version of our game, which really put the spotlight back on us.
Clairvoire: Honestly? Diddly-squat! I just kept updating the Kickstarter as it went along, and occasionally posted on Tumblr about it, but those aren't anything out of the ordinary. One of my friends kept me abreast of when it got featured places, which was amazing to watch happen. I didn't go out of my way to ask for coverage though; it just feels rude, I guess. Luckily, my friends didn't ask me. They just went and did it. And other people picked it up, and it kind of snowballed I suppose.
What do you wish you had done differently?
Holdwick: One of the things we weren't prepared for was the updates, especially in the beginning. It would have been nice if we had prepared a lot of them a week earlier, just so that we could get them out sooner. Once we had the Kickstarter page finished, we launched it and said, "Okay, now what do we need to do?" I'd say we could have done better. We really could have been a little more prepared with the updates.
Another thing I wish we had done was had a dedicated team of people helping us right from the get-go with comments and content. Even if it is just close friends and family, having people who are willing to help can go a really long way. For us, we found some help when people starting coming to us and asking if we needed any assistance, but that was towards the end. If we had prepared that group earlier, it would have been very helpful and ultimately could have changed the amount of money we raised. I would definitely recommend having a group of people to help you out.
Clairvoire: One of the backer rewards (a limited-run physical copy of the game and soundtrack) was kind of a problem after the fact. I'm just one guy, so I have to prepare all those myself by hand, which can become pretty daunting when the number starts climbing into the hundreds. I went to the USPS office to ask them about shipping that many, and they said they'd kick me out if I showed up with that many packages. I didn't factor in shipping, but I was able to cap the reward off, so it didn't cause too many problems since I caught it early.
What do you wish Kickstarter did differently?
Holdwick: In an ideal world, Kickstarter would already have PayPal support built in. I know that is a tricky issue, and I realize why they don't have that, but I do think it would make the service better. There were a lot of people who didn't have credit cards and because of that couldn't back [our campaign] via Amazon. PayPal has a system in place to handle that situation, and that's why we ultimately added PayPal to our campaign ourselves.
Shumaker: I think it would be nice if Kickstarter let you message everyone in a given backer group. As far as I can tell, they don't do this, which is frustrating. I also think it would be nice if they had some sort of feature that exported all backer data into an Excel sheet that had info about email addresses, backer levels, additional comments, rewards, all of that. Maybe this is something in the works, but the process of organizing backer info is very tedious and can definitely be made faster and easier. Also, a lot of the questions we got asked were actually answered in our FAQ, so I think the FAQ section needs to be more visible.
How would you describe your relationship with your backers?
Coombs: Excellent. You get vocal people who disagree with your approach, but that's OK. They're just passionate about your project. They want it to be awesome, which is exactly why they put their money in. Bottom line: they gave up their hard-earned money (in a recession no less) for what essentially amounts to a hope and a promise. You really owe them, and if you talk to them with a genuine voice, they return with equally genuine feedback. We love them. They let us chase our dream, and you really can't thank them enough.
Shumaker: We realize that we owe this entire game to them, that Barkley 2 would not be happening if it hadn't been for the generosity of nearly 5,000 people who, for some reason, decided our ridiculous idea about a basketball-less, post-Space Jam world was a good one. We would like to have a completely open relationship with them, and we plan on sending monthly emails out that show not only our progress, but who we are as people and as a team. We also maintain constant contact via Twitter, where we regularly answer questions and post stupid garbage that I guess in some way indicates that we are, in fact, working on the game.
I think it's important for people who run Kickstarter campaigns to constantly show progress. They don't need to be specific about what they're doing, but it's really important for them to let backers know that their product is constantly being worked on and the money is being put to good use. I have seen so many Kickstarter backers getting disgruntled about projects that have stopped updating or responding to fans. People who run Kickstarter campaigns absolutely have an obligation to be as transparent as possible.
How beholden do you feel toward backers with regard to design? If the majority of backers agreed on an idea that you and your team thought was bad or did not fit with the game's design, how would you resolve the issue?
Smith: It's an interesting question, and something I'm sure many studios have had to wrestle with. For us, as we were so far along the development pipeline, most of the decisions with regards to design had already been made. Ultimately, I think it's important to stress that while feedback and ideas from a community is fantastic, final say has to be with the designers--the professional creatives the studio hires for the very purpose of making such decisions. I think backers know you have the game's best interests at heart, and hopefully they can trust those decisions. Again, it's about transparency; if you clearly explain why that idea doesn't fit the design of a game, there shouldn't be an issue.
Shumaker: I guess one example of this is the Space Jam song. To us, the Space Jam song represents resting on the laurels of the previous game, kind of like saying Barkley 2 would have the same jokes and content of the original game, but it's something people supporting the game really wanted. We looked up how much it would cost to license the song (it was prohibitively expensive) and made it a stretch goal. We never reached it, but this was an example of something similar to this.
I think backers know you have the game's best interests at heart, and hopefully they can trust those decisions. Again, it's about transparency; if you clearly explain why that idea doesn't fit the design of a game, there shouldn't be an issue.That said, I really don't think people who run Kickstarter campaigns should feel obligated to include ideas the majority of backers agree on. People run Kickstarter projects specifically to avoid publisher and outside influence. Kickstarter is all about receiving the capital needed to have autonomy over your own projects, and if people did not like the ideas we have for our own game, they would not have supported it. I don't think most of the people who support Kickstarter campaigns do it on the condition that developers make weird fan concessions to them; they have a better understanding of the game development process than that.
We were in a fortunate position where we weren't forced to make considerable design concessions to meet our goals. If things had been different I really don't know what we would have done. I can understand why people would want to do this but I think what we wanted happened to coincide with what backers already wanted.
Coombs: We feel that we are beholden to one thing: a great game. They invested their money to see the project come to life, and we made a promise that it would be as good as we could possibly make it. For example: we had originally promised to have a game that was like X-Com in nature with turn-based squad combat. We were really far into making that happen, and we just realized it wasn't fun. We had to make the switch to real time. And yes, when we told everyone that, people were, understandably, pissed. But, again, we promised the best game, not the best design doc. There have been a ton of design changes to the original concept, but we think the game is more fun, and that's the bottom line. We think they would agree.
What impact do larger, celebrity-driven projects, such as Obsidian's Project Eternity or Molyneux's Project GODUS, have on the ecosystem of Kickstarter?
Smith: They certainly bring a wider audience to Kickstarter, establishing crowd funding as an acceptable route of funding for any developer, regardless of size or status. Our industry figureheads (Schafer, Molyneux, Chris Roberts, etc.) are instrumental in establishing the platform as a valid one. While there has been a slight backlash against developers relying on their status, and the overreliance on nostalgia, I don't see an issue here at all. When you consider the bigger picture, [their presence] can only be seen as a good thing.
Clairvoire: It's hard to say, though they certainly inspire folks like me to give [Kickstarter] a shot. They were just a group of folks who had good ideas and the ability to make those ideas happen. I certainly don't have the pedigree they do, but seeing folks backing them--just because they wanted to give them the chance--was just inspiring.
It's kind of like Aerosmith getting on Kickstarter to make a new album--sure, it's cool that they're on there, but is it really the right venue? We like seeing the little guys get a chance.I think what will make the most difference is once these games come to pass. If they flop, it will be incredibly harmful to everyone's confidence in Kickstarter. Kickstarter is built on confidence, essentially, and without that there's nothing. Double Fine and all the other bigger Kickstarters have set a pretty high bar. So if they were to do poorly, after building so much confidence, it would put a lot of doubt into people's minds. I'm pretty optimistic this won't happen, but if it did, folks might be too wary to ever try it again.
If they succeed, then hopefully crowd funding will take off. I might be looking way too far ahead, but it would be nice to see an end to publishers and all the problems they bring to the creative process of bigger games.
Coombs: They're good but very dangerous in our books. Clearly Kickstarter is an open platform, and everyone should be permitted to put whatever project they want on there. However, the spirit of kickstarting is giving people their first shot or helping projects that never would have seen the light of day get going. So when you look at a project like Ouya, that's interesting because without going to the public, it's hard to say if that ever would have been a reality.
The same goes for FTL, Oculus, and countless others. But when guys like Molyneux get involved, it starts to get very gray. This guy has a track record and can seek out publishers, private venture, or even his own capital. It's kind of like Aerosmith getting on Kickstarter to make a new album--sure, it's cool that they're on there, but is it really the right venue? We just like seeing the little guys get a chance. We will have to see how that all works itself out though.