All's Well that Starts Well?
As I write this, Darkest Dungeon has about 9 days to go until the end of its Kickstarter campaign, and has earned $240,500 on an ask of $75,000. There are over 7,300 backers, which gives an average per backer of just above $32.50.
Here at Red Hook, we are obviously pleased with the first half of the campaign. But there is a long way to go yet and the final number we can achieve is unknown. And although we're doing great for an unknown indie, we're still a HUGE notch below hits like Hyper Light Drifter, which had grossed about $425k by this point in their campaign and went on to finish with an astounding $645k, or the Banner Saga, which amassed $724k in the end.
Aside from the incredible interest in Darkest Dungeon and the huge number of backer messages and comments, we've also gotten a lot of questions from other devs that are various permutations of: "How did you do it?"
So far, all we know is that we have had a great first half. But I thought it would be interesting to do a brain dump of some of the strategies we've used so far and lessons we've learned (good and bad) up until now. Then, at the end of the campaign, I hope to do another post (or more) to finish the story.
Our Basic Kickstarter Strategy
The goal of any crowdfunding campaign is usually the same: to earn as much as possible. But despite this sharing of the goal, campaign strategies differ greatly. A lot of campaigns seem to launch with little or no strategy besides a general hope of achieving the goal.
We spent quite a while preparing for our KS. Personally, I was basically full-time on it for about 1.5 months before launching, and I spent a fair amount of effort before that point, too. And that doesn't count the enormous amount of KS-specific art prep.
That's one huge piece of advice I can pass on: creating a good KS requires a lot of time, and the time you put into it (and the product) are somewhat proportional to what you can get out of it.
Our strategy can be summarized as follows:
- Build some fan following before launching the KS: Building interest takes time and we didn't want to have to start at zero the day the KS launched.
- Channel as much interest into the KS start as possible (BLAST!): KS campaigns are very non-linear, momentum-driven beasts. Many backers only want to back something that they know will successfully fund. Also, well-funded campaigns score higher on popularity indexes and lists, thereby increasing continued discovery. Third, well-funded campaigns become a "story", which gets additional coverage just from being funded.
- Rather than offering heavy discounts for pre-ordering, offer fantastic value and pre-order bonuses instead. Many campaigns reward backers with big discounts in return for the risk they bear. Instead, we wanted to preserve our core price and instead give backers great rewards in return for them backing. The key is to answer this question that every backer asks in their head: "Why should I back this now, rather than wait and see how it turns out?"
- Give the Press reasons to cover the game besides "we are Kickstarting". We read it and heard it very clearly from observing press over the past 6 months: they don't want to be bothered by your email that "We are Kickstarting!" That was news 2 years ago, but doesn't consititute news anymore. It was crucial that we have a solid reason to contact the press when the KS started that wasn't ONLY about the campaign.
- Research goods and price tiers appropriately up-front and be selective about which physical items to offer. Tales of crazy KS expenses abound, and large sums can vanish very quickly once printing, shipping, and other fulfillment expenses are tallied. I have a decent amount of experience in physical goods and also supply chain logistics, so I refused (in theory) to be caught by surprise by print costs, shipping, and the like. I researched as much as possible up front and built that into my KS cost-modeling spreadsheet to calculate our margins on every tier as accurately as possible and allow that to guide us in some of the decisions of whether to do them or not. If you have a really low margin tier, it could increase your overall KS revenue but ultimately not make you much money.
What Went Right (So Far)
1. Game Concept Market Validated
Overall response to the game has been great. One of the best, but scariest, parts of a Kickstarter is that you get to market test whether people like the game concept. An unsuccessful Kickstarter doesn't necessarily mean your idea is flawed (a lot of reasons could cause an unsuccessful campaign), but it definitely should give you pause.
We’re happy to say the response to DD’s “hook” (the affliction system and psychological stresses of adventuring) has been really positive. And the art style is resonating in a huge way.
People vote with their dollars, and the dollars have spoken that there’s enough market interest in this game. That's encouraging and reduces some (but not all) of the risk of continuing with development.
2. Investment in Two Preview Trailers Paid Off Hugely
In October, we released the “Terror and Madness” announcement trailer.
This was our first public act as a company and for the game. It got press coverage and drove over 1,000 mailing list signups (see below). In fact, it was so successful that we decided to invest in a second preview trailer: “House of Ruin.”
We coordinated the release of “House of Ruin” with the start of the KS campaign. This enabled us to contact press with different news than “we are Kickstarting.”
For example, this one-two trailer punch directly led to a great and ongoing partnership with GameTrailers, which got us three separate pieces of coverage in the first week of our KS.
3. Built Initial Fan Base and Converted that into Day 1 Momentum
As discussed above, our “Terror and Madness” announce trailer helped us to prebuild an audience by driving mailing list adoption.
We also began an article series on the Penny Arcade Report called "Darkest Dungeon Pre-Mortem." For the two episodes we wrote, it helped drive Darkest Dungeon discussion in advance of our Kickstarter. Sadly, then PAR went belly up--we were pretty bummed as we were counting on it to help reach consumers once the KS launched, too.
In any case, when KS rolled around, we leveraged our mailing list by giving them KS tier previews and by providing incentives and encouragement to back the KS. We knew that anyone on our mailing list was incredibly valuable, and hopefully the small core to what could become something big. We told them such, and specifically asked that, if they were to consider pledging at all, to do it on Day 1 if at all possible. We expressed how critical Day 1 momentum was in the campaign's overall success.
When Day 1 came, that core fan group turned up in great numbers! And we’re very thankful. At that time, we had a mailing list of about 1,500. We guessed that there was a good chance of getting at least half of them to pledge in the early phase. Our average pledge is around $30, so 750 pledges represent a value of $22,500 by themselves! And it’s likely that core fans will pledge at higher than the average, so there's no question that they were a big part of our initial push.
4. KS Launch Timing was Good
Launch timing for the campaign worked well. There wasn’t a ton of news that week, and we were able to get some nice coverage.
There are more good things to report, but I think that’s enough for Part 1 of the "What Went Right."
What Went Wrong (So Far)
1. Offering an In-Game Exclusive Item Created a Lot of Negative Discussion
As part of our ADVENTURER tiers and higher, backers gain access to an exclusive in-game character class variant. Uptake and purchases of this tier have been very high as there are a lot of great rewards in the tier even aside from the exclusive class: pdf art book, original soundtrack, and more. But the excitement and success of the first week of the campaign was impacted a bit by a large amount of comment debates revolving around the ideology of offering an in-game exclusive item. A certain portion of backers find offers such as these to be extremely offensive. Regardless of opinion, this can create a lot of friction and heated discussion in a campaign’s critical stages. And it can become a huge distraction for the team. We are far from the first campaign to experience this. Almost universally, our rewards were built around other value-added items. The exclusive in-game content was used only for one reward. But it still created a bit of a firestorm that gave us our first big test of the KS.
Not all of the above comments are great. But fortunately many of them are.
2. Difficulty Finding a Way to Raise the Dreaded “KS Trough”
Every KS campaign has a trough in the middle—a long trudge where the daily pledges bottom out. That part is unavoidable. The thing is, those trough numbers vary a lot between projects. We’ve bottomed out at around $2,500 per day.
That number is not bad, but it’s significantly below the daily hauls of some other very successful indies (note I’m not comparing to “name” projects like those from Double Fine, Harebrained, Uber, etc.). Our trough doesn’t totally correspond with our early take, either: some other comparable indies that had lower overall campaign hauls still had healthier mid-range pledge numbers. I guess it shows the success we had in front-loading the campaign.
In any case, I was hoping to get trough numbers in the $5-10k per day range, but that’s proven very difficult to achieve. We’ve released quite a few backer updates, tried some new press angles, a bit of advertising—pretty much anything we can think of to raise the trough. So far nothing has honestly seemed to matter over the past 12 days or so. I’m hoping to see a bump this week as a result of a coordinated press blast we did last Thursday and Friday, but time will tell. (In that blast, we announced DRM Free, PayPal payment options, and released a 5-minute combat gameplay video.)
If we were ready to give a build out to streamers/YouTubers/Let’s Players, I think that would really boost the campaign. But we’re choosing instead to wait until later when we have even more to show. In keeping with our overall marketing strategy to date, we like to make big splashes rather than little dribbles, for better or worse.
3. End Rush Might be Compromised by Terrible Ending Week Choice
Our campaign ends on March 13th at midnight PST. Most KS campaigns have a great last few days.
The thing is, a few little ‘ol things are happening that week. Titanfall, Dark Souls 2, and Towerfall all hit on March 11th. I fear that, collectively, these are going to suck a TON of money out of the gaming consumer base that week. Also, journalists are going to be a tad busy.
Whether those things impact our end rush remains to be seen, but it does concern me. Extending another week wasn’t really an option, though, as that would’ve brought us into GDC week and I really didn’t want to be administering the close of a KS campaign while traveling. So the die is cast, and we’ll see what happens!
9 Days and Counting
There is much more to talk about, but I’m going to end it here, as the story is incomplete. I’ll write a part 2 when the campaign wraps up, and we’ve had time to reflect on the result.
Thanks for reading! I am extremely grateful for all the excellent learnings past KS'ers have posted before, and if there's any way I can pay some of that forward, I will.
P.P.S. If you want to hear a bit more about our Darkest Dungeon Kickstarter strategy and lessons learned, check out this interview we did with a friend, Rick Davidson: