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Crowdfunding an Indie Game: Star Traders 2 RPG

Our two person indie game studio recently raised over $60,000 on KickStarter for our newest game - Star Traders 2 RPG. We share our lessons learned and successful tactics, hoping to help other indie studios achieve success on KickStarter.

In July of 2014, Cory and I (the two brothers who make up Trese Brothers Games) were launching some of the final deliveries for our first crowdfunding adventure and digging into planning our next KickStarter campaign for Star Traders 2 RPG. We had been through one successful round of crowdfunding and were excited to return to the platform with a new vision. Armed with the lessons learned from our Heroes of Steel KickStarter (170% funded) and with a vibrant community of backers, we knew we could achieve our goals and bring our game's vision to life. 

But how did we do it? How did a two person indie studio successfully raise $60,000? We're excited to break that down for you and to share our successful tactics and lessons learned so that you can follow in our footsteps. In this article, we'll try to go beyond the tips you find everywhere such as "have a really good video" and "have great concept art." We'll break our experiences and suggestions into three categories:

  • Preparing for your Campaign
  • Running your Campaign
  • Building Campaign Momentum

Before we get going - we owe a huge thanks to our amazing community, supporters and fans. Our success is built on your generosity and love the love you have for the games we have created. Thank you for making Star Traders 2 RPG a KickStarter success.

Star Traders 2 RPG KickStarter

Preparing for Your Campaign

Being ready in advance is half the battle. Once the KickStarter gets rolling, you're going to have a lot of really important things to do. You're going to do better if you can devote every hour to the operation of your KickStarter and to its outreach program, so preparing properly is very important. 

Develop a "Target Scenario" for Rewards to Reach Your Goal

Too often, you see KickStarters that simply do not add up.  With the rewards offered ... how exactly did they plan to reach that goal?  Do not take it for granted that you will make it - there is too much at stake.  During our planning phase, we made a table showing all of our rewards, and then estimated how many backers we thought in a target scenario would take those rewards. We decided we could hope for one backer at the $2,000 level, and we wanted 50 gamers to take our Alpha Access at $50. Go through all your rewards and estimate how many backers you'll need at that tier. Expect the top of your curve to be in the lower dollar rewards.  

Bell Curve of Rewards

Fig. 1 bell curve of our KickStarter rewards - you can see the sweet spots

When we finished this exercise we knew that (1) we had a clear vision that we could reach $50,000, and that (2) we estimated we'd need 2,618 backers. We then shared an empty version of the table with a close community member of ours and asked him to fill out the same estimates. It was illuminating to see the difference and helped us rethink our estimates as to how we would reach the goal.  In some cases, Stu's estimates were far better than ours.

Do not make the mistake of setting a goal, creating rewards, and then failing to map the path between the two!

Reward Estimation Table

Fig 2. Estimating the Rewards

Alert Your Community Early

When we ran our first KickStarter, we were surprised to hear feedback to the tune of "I wish you had told me earlier."  It wasn't something we had expected, but it was a response that many of our core fan base was giving when they heard about the KickStarter.  

There are many good reasons for alerting the community early, but one of the most important is to give time for interested backers to prepare their pledge. If you have high dollar rewards that offer truly compelling value, your community will want to jump on them. But, many of your backers are not going to be able to suddenly find $200 or $1,000 to pledge to your campaign. These backers who were wishing they had been warned are very important -- they would back at a higher level, but they didn't have time to prepare their family budgets to make space for your project. Warn them! Help them make space.

For our second KickStarter, we started making rumblings that our KickStarter :launching at the end of the summer" almost five months in advance. One month before lift-off, we made a formal announcement, blasted the mailing list and starting sharing the exciting news everywhere.  For me, a month's formal notice seemed like a good balance between going too early and waiting till it was too late. But, we still heard from members of our community that they wanted more time. 

Share Your Project Preview

As soon as you have a ready, professional KickStarter page, share your project preview link with your community. They are very smart people. They want to see what you're offering. Let's face it -- KickStarters are not successful due to their sudden surprise attack that no one saw coming. Instead, they are successful because they are well-structured, have great rewards which excite the community, and a good pitch. How do you make sure you've got all that and that there aren't any gaping holes? Give the preview link to your community, the people who are going to pile on as your first round of backers.  Ask them -- do you see any issues? What rewards do you like the best? What reward are you going to take? 

Like bugs in software, finding an issue with your KickStarter before the launch keeps the cost low. As an example, we were a week shy of launching the KickStarter when we made our project preview page public on our forum. We didn't have the video finalized yet, so we didn't post it, but all the rest was available.  During the preview period, a backer from Australia asked a question about our $500 reward which was marked as US Shipping Only. This was a simple mistake made during the lengthy point-click-type process of setting up all the KickStarter rewards.  However, once someone pledges to a reward, you can't change it, so if we had missed this preview opportunity to change the shipping to "Anywhere in the World" we would have had a messy situation our hands and possibly lost one of our five $500 backers.

Create Update Content in Advance

Trust me, you're going to be busy from the moment you click the big green button until the moment the window closes for funding on your project. Before you launch, you should basically know everything about your project. Therefore, you should be able to craft some amazing updates for your KickStarter in advance. Save yourself the time during the campaign and write these updates early. You'll have the extra time to gather or create beautiful art assets, possibly more video, and to put together some really compelling pieces about the benefits and features of your project.  

Use these nuggets of pre-created content as the center of your updates.  Always include something personal and timely in your update, and then add the attention-grabbing content you had time to perfect before the KickStarter.

Fig 3. During the KickStarter, we published 22 updates - one every 1.3 days

Build your Community

The backbone of a KickStarter is your existing community.  They will lift you off the ground, infuse your project with its initial burst of funding and help set the tone and pace. Work hard to build your community instead of just marketing to them.


Running Your Campaign

Get some really good sleep the week before the campaign starts. Stock up on coffee. Make sure all the ducks are standing nicely in a row, and consider acting on our advice about preparation.  Then push the great big green button and you're off!

KickStarter is a Full Time Job

If you want to run a good KickStarter, make sure someone on your team can treat it as a full-time job with copious overtime. The more you can put into a KickStarter, the more you can get out. Do not understaff your KickStarter - if you can, put two team members on it full time.  

Fig 4. A Day in Cory's RescueTime During the KickStarter

If you want success, be willing to work for it. For an indie studio, those hours spent on your KickStarter may be some of the best paid hours you ever clock -- if you succeed.

Do Not Trust the Early Days

There is a well-known pattern to KickStarters -- an exciting launch followed by stressful doldrums and an exhilarating race to the finish.  Do not be lulled into a sense of immediate success by your first few days. Do not let this slow down your efforts.  Remind yourself, you don't just want to succeed, you want to overfund. Don't let up on the gas pedal for an instant. The early days are extremely misleading. At one point on the second day, KickTraq estimated that our project might reach $700,000 against our $50,000 goal. We had an exciting finish at $60,000 and are very glad we didn't let the early days lull us into a false sense of security.

Fig 5. Trending Lines for Star Traders 2, from KickTraq

Similarly, fight your way through the doldrums. Yes, they can be terrible and stressful, but you need to be in a strong place coming out the far side.  You can find KickStarter littered with projects who entered the final stretch at 50% funded and just didn't have enough steam to cross the finish line. If they had come out of the doldrums with 75% or even 60% they might have made it with the momentum and excitement of being so close. 

Be in Constant Communication

Give the KickStarter email address to someone who can be on their computer for the duration of your campaign, and who is watching their email like a hawk.  Respond to comments, questions, and messages as fast as you can.  Choose a threshold pledge, and send a personal thank you message to every backer who pledges at that pledge level of higher.  

Backers want to be a part of a project, and they want to see you and your project succeed.  Give them a chance to meet you, talk to you, ask you questions. Make yourself available and do not stop communicating.

Also, contact potential backers directly. Cory and I dug through our email archives to find all of our previous interactions with gamers for customer support and community building.  We were able to send over 15,000 personalized emails inviting gamers we had previously interacted with to join our KickStarter (it was a long month, see figure 4).  You can see that (which includes was in our top 10 sources for backers, and through name-matching we were able to confirm that over 25% of our backers were reached via direct, personal email.

Fig 6 Our Funding Sources - Facebook, Twitter, and Google (i.e. GMail) were in our top 10

Building Campaign Momentum

I think it is fair to say that generally, KickStarter projects live and die on momentum. A project that is burning hot and bringing in tons of backers and pledge money every day can pick up pace and overfund multiple times over. A project that is cooling and struggles to cross it's 50% funded mark may never pass 52% funded because its just runs out of gas. When you're designing your campaign, consider tactics that you can use to help build campaign momentum.  

I will give two examples from our Star Traders 2 KickStarter.

Voting Polls for Backers

During the campaign, we twice used the KickStarter comments page as a place to hold an open poll among the backers. We have the blessing of having a very large and very active Star Traders RPG fan-base. Star Traders was our first game, and the community behind it has requested Star Traders 2 RPG for some time. So, many of our backers know the Star Traders RPG game, lore, characters. We used this to our advantage by hosting two polls:

  • Which is your favorite political Faction in Star Traders?
  • Which is your favorite profession in Star Traders?

For both polls, we offered to add in-game bonuses into Star Traders RPG and Star Traders 4X Empires for the Factions and professions that received a certain number of votes. These bonuses would be available to all players, but the voting was only among the backers. This gave us a great way to encourage new people to join the project, even for $1, and to join immediately to vote. Each of the polls was time-boxed for 3 to 4 days, so it caused a hubbub on our forum, social channels and a lot of chatter on the KickStarter comments page. We also encouraged everyone to explain why they loved this Faction or that profession, so the commentary on the KickStarter page was full of game advice, hilarity, and really good content.  

This is a great kind of social momentum. Our crowd of backers grew rapidly, comments were pouring in, and the social channels were achatter with gamers lauding their own Faction, slandering others, and lovingly recounting the time that their Level 23 Explorer died on an away mission on some backwater planet of the Star Traders Quadrant.

Fig 7. Comments Per Day - those two mid-project spikes were our polls

Pledge Matching

We have an amazing community and we can thank them for our successful KickStarter. We were lucky to have a community member come forward and offer a pledge match drive about half way through the campaign. He and his wife offered to match dollar-for-dollar pledges made or increased by other backers, up to a $1,000 match. We worked closely with the backer to coordinate on a day, and launched over the weekend.  In the 24 hour period, we raised over $4,000 in total, and it was our first big day coming out of the mid-project doldrums and increasing the project's momentum.

Following that, we worked with ten other interested backers who promised to match from $25 to $150 each. The group of 10 were able to commit to a second pledge drive of $550.  This was another fast success, and the matching money was gone within just a few hours.

Finally, an amazing community member came forward and volunteered to match up to $2,000 in pledges on the last weekend of the campaign.  Again, we were able to burn through the pledge match in less than 48 hours and this final match drive brought us very close to the funding line.

Throughout the three campaigns, we were able to build huge project momentum. The social channels were busy, we had a great reason to reach out to all of our community again and ask them to pledge or increase their pledge, for every $1 they gave, the matcher gave $1. The tight 24 to 48 hour window helped to add urgency to the call to action, and extra gratification to ever backer who gave during those pledge matches as they were "giving twice."

These three pledge match drives were massive successes, spiking in pledges for their given days, and together they raised about 15% of the total project funding.  We positioned them in quick succession after each other, starting at about the halfway mark for the project.  All projects struggle to maintain momentum in during the middle section, but the pledge match drives were a big part of what allowed our project to come roaring out of the doldrums and into the final rush. 

Fig 8. Three Spikes for Three Pledge Matches - straight into the end-of-campaign rush

In Conclusion

The work you do before the KickStarter is as important as the work you do during the KickStarter - don't skimp on pre-prep and planning.  Clear your schedule for the length of your campaign and dedicate yourself fully to your KickStarter - this is a win or lose it all situation.  Find ways to build momentum to push your project forward faster - don't wait for the end rush to make your moves.

Finally, run a good and fun campaign. Do your very best, communicate constantly, and be honest. People notice this, and its important because there are a lot of bad projects on KickStarter and a lot of bad stories about projects that have failed to deliver even after funding big. You can read in Thomas Bidaux's recent article on KickStarter funding for Video Games in 2013 vs 2014 to see that the gold rush around KickStarter games has ended.

But, don't let that stop you! It didn't stop this pair of two brothers from raising $60,000 on KickStarter for their next game. But, expect to put in some 20 hour days and really work that elbow grease.

I hope our retrospective post and advice has been useful and please comment or ask questions.


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