Building a Better Kickstarter Campaign

An analysis of what makes Kickstarter game projects successful, with comments from indie developers who have made their goals, and insights from Kickstarter's own director of community -- and plenty of links to successful campaigns to boot.

Since launching in April 2009, more than 13,000 projects have been successfully funded on, with over $100 million pledged by users of the crowdfunding sensation in that time. Video game development projects have comprised a mere sliver of that valuable haul, but many high-profile titles have smashed expectations to bring in tens of thousands of dollars, allowing their creators to complete the games and maintain direct connections with backers.

Kickstarter isn't the only website of its kind -- Gamasutra broke down several of the leading options in May -- but it is the best-known of the bunch, with an all-or-nothing funding design that means project creators that fall short of the stated goal walk away with nothing. And with Kickstarter touting a funding rate of 44 percent, more than half of the projects launched to date have been unsuccessful, with many game development campaigns coming and going over the last two and a half years.

Utilizing the site may seem like a gamble, but recent successes like Star Command and Octodad 2 have shown that it's possible to succeed with a great idea and a well-crafted campaign.

Based on conversations with the creators of those games and others that have triumphed on the site -- along with Kickstarter's director of community -- here are several tips and tactics for creating and promoting an effective game development campaign on the crowdsourced funding service.

Do Your Homework

Launching a campaign starts with a proposal form, after which Kickstarter's community team makes sure it meets guidelines and may offer suggestions prior to approval.

But project leads can learn a lot about finding success on the site by analyzing existing campaigns to discover which elements often help define profitable and well-circulated projects. And don't just limit yourself to researching video game campaigns.

"We looked at a lot of game ones -- just to see what was working -- and then went off-target, looking at books, videos, plays, pens; you name it," admits Jordan Coombs, co-founder and designer at Warballoon, which recently raised $36,967 on Kickstarter for its first project, Star Command.

The research prompted Warballoon to break from the trend of creators talking into the camera, leading instead to a narrated trailer that helped the Game Dev Story-like iOS and Android management sim blast beyond its $20,000 goal. "We really believe in doing our homework, being prepared, and understanding what makes things work," he adds. "Fortune favors the prepared."

Octodad began life as a freely released student project about an octopus disguised as a human father, and the team at upstart Young Horses recently raised $24,320 for PC sequel Octodad 2 on a goal of $20,000.

Kevin Geisler, producer and programmer on the game, says he looked at both funded and unsuccessful projects to discover common trends. "Pretty much all the successful projects had very polished presentations and well-structured information, as well as an interesting campaign video," he observed. "The Kickstarter campaigns that don't have a certain level of professionalism really cast a strong doubt as to whether the game they promise will ever get made."

Cindy Au, director of community at Kickstarter, says the suggestions offered to creators of approved projects are strictly optional, and while they'll call out funding goals that seem wildly out of reach, most project leads know how much money they'll need. Still, she recommends that creators think about "how many people they can reach" and base a goal on that, instead of sticking hard and fast to an existing dollar amount. Plus, successfully funded campaigns typically earn 25 percent more than the goal amount, so shooting low can pay dividends -- and it's better to pull some funding than nothing at all.

Tell a Great Story

Building an effective project page seems nearly as important as sharing your stellar idea on a site like Kickstarter, as the ability to convey the quality and intentions of the project within the singular template can make or break a campaign. "You have an opportunity to tell a really good story through your video and the rewards that you're offering people," asserts Au. Her team stresses the creation of high-quality videos clips, as they lead the project page and give creators an opportunity to speak directly to potential backers.

"Really go for it. Don't be afraid to show yourself and what you've been working on, and don't be afraid to put yourself out there and make a direct connection through your video," adds Au. "People tend to be camera-shy, and it can be scary to get in front of the camera. But it's so important, and I think even being anxious on the camera shows that you're a real person and you're making this thing."

Most interviewees agreed that having a solid chunk of completed gameplay to show in your video makes a huge difference in funding, as well. "If all you've got is your description of it and not much else, it's going to be really hard to have a compelling story to tell someone," concedes Au.

Developer Ted Brown posted a Gamasutra expert blog in August about his own failing Kickstarter campaign for an iOS title called Ninja Baseball, which ultimately tallied just less than 38 percent of its $10,000 goal. In that blog, which posted a week before the project ended, Brown lamented assuming people would back a game they've never seen, concluding that he "made the decision to push the button before the pipeline was ready."

In the case of Octodad 2, the team already had a completed series entry available for free -- which helped build the profile of the project and allowed them to launch the campaign based on the original game's reputation. But for Star Command, Coombs says that Warballoon opted to wait until it had plenty of gameplay to demonstrate, and eventually launched the campaign in September. "We had looked at Kickstarter in June, a little after we announced the game," admits Coombs, "and just decided we didn't have enough to show people and ask for support."

Karakasa Games producer Wiley Wiggins had very little gameplay footage to show for Thunderbeam, his successfully funded iPad adventure game, but found a creative way to skirt the issue. "We had a lot of concept art, and a video detailing the project that was full of clips of classic adventure games and 70's sci-fi we loved," he says. "The video seemed to resonate with a lot of people, especially other fans of the classic stuff we were referencing."

The game earned $24,221 on a goal of $20,000, but he concedes that gameplay often drives contributions -- though that model doesn't always work well with developers' plans. "[It] is a little counter-intuitive, since you probably need less money the further along you are in the game," he notes.

As always, using your best judgment is key here, as projects' financial needs at different stages of development will vary. But once you're ready to take the plunge, don't hesitate to share as much as you can.

"Being able to show some of that raw work is really important," adds Au, "because it shows your audience that you're committed to this thing that you're making, and it gives a sense of how far along you are and what you're doing."

Reward Choices

A defining element of Kickstarter and other similar services is that backers are in essence exchanging financial support for some sort of reward, and projects typically offer numerous dollar amounts with more alluring returns at each ascending level.

Rewards offer creators a way to connect the backers' support with the project's aims and goals, but in many cases, they are not simply freebies -- they are another expense.

"The prizes in Kickstarter have to be treated like a business to be effective. You need to factor in per unit price, shipping prices, and then decide on a price tier," asserts Wiggins, who says he miscalculated the shipping costs for Thunderbeam posters and suffered a smaller margin on that funding level.

But as Au suggests, most backers simply want to play your game, whether it's through beta access, a play-testing opportunity, or even a download code when it ships -- and by and large, that's a free or expense-light option, along with soundtrack downloads, wallpaper images, and other digital files.

Even so, giving away your game can present other challenges, especially when it comes to iOS games. Karakasa Games offered free copies of Thunderbeam at many levels, but Wiggins claims they will only receive 50 promo codes from Apple; further rewards will be gifted out of pocket.

For Star Command, Warballoon opted not to promise codes for the game, noting that without a large burst of launch window sales, the game may not scale the App Store charts, hurting the long-term prospects of the game. Coombs believes they could have doubled their number of backers (more than 1,000) by giving away the game, but explains, "That would also mean on day one our most valuable asset, our fans, would be gone because they all have the game already."

Blade Symphony

Allowing backers the opportunity to insert themselves into the game in some small way can pay off; for example, Star Command saw two people pledge $1,000 apiece to become in-game characters, while Young Horses let two backers name an object or place in Octodad 2 for $200 each. Blade Symphony, an online PC fighting game from Puny Human, offered a variety of content options, including custom weapons and skins for backers, plus the ability to place an ad or logo in a stage, have an achievement named after them, or earn an executive producer listing in the game's credits.

"We had a bit of a panic when we saw the number of people going for the higher-tier rewards," admits Alex Norris, public relations lead at Puny Human. Luckily, the team was able to accommodate the 19 backers who pledged to contribute ads to a stage; and in all, Blade Symphony earned $19,058 from 451 backers, with a starting goal of $15,000. "Our artists had a whale of a time working on something that was custom-built for the people who pledged to our Kickstarter project," he adds.

Au says that physical rewards have a "really interesting pull on people," though, adding, "You want to give something to someone that feels real and that's tangible, that's more than a thank-you." She cites one of Thunderbeam's rewards as a standout offering -- a wearable button that featured the game's logo and doubled as a micro MP3 player containing the game's soundtrack.

Common physical rewards include T-shirts, posters, and other small trinkets, but can scale much larger with success; Octodad convinced one backer to pledge $1,000 for an original oil painting of the game's cephalopod lead, though a custom-fit costume of the character remained unclaimed at $800.

"Even though it didn't make us any money directly, a lot of news sources commented on the costume," says Young Horses programmer Devon Scott-Tunkin, "and it probably got us more attention than any other prize."

Don't hold back on those price levels -- backers may simply be more interested in funding your vision than trading their contributions for tangible prizes. Wiggins included a $1000 backing level for Thunderbeam, which offered a vague promise of friendship and rewards; and to his astonishment, three people each pledged that sum. "Those backers have been as valuable to us as people as their pledges have," he says. "Some of them have had great suggestions, and we've been open to them. There's a different dynamic in Kickstarter than if we had sought traditional funding, and I really appreciate that."

Don't Stop Sharing

While Kickstarter's community team serves what Au calls an "editorial role" for active campaigns, sharing noteworthy or well-crafted projects on the site blog and newsletter, developers should take an active role in promoting their campaigns. Social networking is essential, and pitching your story to websites and blogs may turn out some much-needed exposure for your campaign -- but publicity can come from unexpected places. Use whatever favors or angles are at hand.

"Don't stop telling people you know or the internet about your campaign, no matter how annoying you think you are," asserts Scott-Tunkin. His colleague, Young Horses programmer and community manager, Phil Tibitoski, says the studio contacted members of the press that had written about the first Octodad, and to their surprise, ended up with numerous new stories about the sequel's funding efforts.

Wiggins, an actor who appeared in the films Dazed and Confused and Waking Life, claims his "Z-list pseudo-celebrity" generated a little interest, as did his presence in the indie development scene as a fan and blogger. "I recommend reaching out to any press contacts or rich old aunties you may have before you kick it off," he says.

Still, blogs were reticent to spotlight Thunderbeam due to a lack of gameplay footage, and some of the game's biggest supporters were other indie developers and figures that had seen the game and could speak to its quality. "It became clear as I saw the project spread or be passed over, that Kickstarter deals heavily with trust relationships," he adds.

But in the case of Blade Symphony, Norris notes that the game received zero publicity from notable video game publications, with word of mouth taking a larger role. One post on the front page of on the second day of the campaign played a significant part in its outcome. "We went from 10 percent to 50 percent funding from day two to three, then to 78 percent on day four," he says. "Word of mouth and social media are your biggest allies."

Perhaps just as important as spreading word about your project is keeping your existing backers updated during and after the campaign. "There's definitely a correlation between success and having project updates," notes Au, who says funded campaigns typically feature multiple updates. "If you launch a project and never post an update, that's kind of the equivalent of launching a project and just disappearing."

Coombs agrees, calling project updates "essential," and Octodad 2 designer and writer Kevin Zuhn says updates let them build a relationship with backers. "We made sure to post updates at every major milestone, thanking our backers constantly and revealing more information about ourselves as a team," he says. "We felt that sharing more about us as people was important to make a connection with our backers, so we put up images of our office and our trip to the aquarium."


Just Do It (Again)

As cited earlier, more than half of all Kickstarter campaigns fail to be funded -- so if your first attempt isn't successful, consider everything that happened and don't hesitate to give it another shot with those lessons in mind. "If your first campaign didn't work out, it's not the end of the world," says Au. "It's really just this thing that happened on the internet that everyone forgot about, and you can do it again. It's not a big deal."

One such second-attempt success story is RoboHero (formerly RoboArena), an upcoming iOS tactical strategy game from Bravado Waffle Studios, a three-man team based in San Francisco. Bravado Waffle CEO Stephen Dick blogged a series of Kickstarter tips on Gamasutra in the midst of his initial campaign in May, but with a funding goal of $5,000, the game only earned $479. He speaks honestly about the quality of the first campaign in hindsight, saying the "video wasn't compelling" and calling out the "not-so-cool physical swag for something nobody really knew about or cared about."

A second campaign followed within weeks with a much lower goal ($1,000) and more intriguing rewards, such as exclusive avatars and the option to beta test or design a multiplayer level for the game. RoboHero earned $1,406 on its second run, and Dick has been posting monthly backer-exclusive updates since its conclusion.

While the lowered goal amount meant Bravado Waffle could only use the funds to pay an artist to paint cutscenes for the game, Dick hasn't soured one bit on the potential of the service. "You have nothing to lose and everything to gain for trying. Kickstarter campaigns for indie devs are fundraising, marketing, and research all rolled into one," he says. "It's a great way for your fans to lend support and for you to give back to them as well."

Puny Human's Norris echoes the sentiment, proclaiming, "Do it! This was probably the greatest obstacle we had to overcome: our own doubt. For a while, we weren't sure we'd be able to get any pledges from a Kickstarter campaign. Obviously, we were massively wrong -- and we only found out when we tried."

A successful Kickstarter campaign can also help affirm the promise and worthiness of your game idea -- perhaps the strongest asset for some, despite the funding and free promotion. "Kickstarter kind of validated us. When you're in your own group, you have a lot of doubts, second-guessing, and worrying that you're wasting your time on a niche game that really won't have more than a couple dozen people interested," admits Coombs.

He points out that Star Command's Kickstarter appeared on the front page of top video game websites and the Twitter feed of Irrational Games' Ken Levine. "You can't really put a dollar amount on what that does, but our team went from feeling good about the game to really making it our religion."

Presented with the comment, Au strips the onus from Kickstarter itself. "If you think about it, it's their backers that validated them," she says. "I think that's an important sentiment."

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