We ran the Eyes Open Kickstarter from August 2nd to September 1st, with a funding goal of $8,000. By the end of the campaign, we had raised just over $5,000. "We" was three people from my university, the Rochester Institute of Technology - Sean Brennan, Sarah Armstrong, and myself.
One of the goals we had going into Kickstarter was to document the entire process. We wanted to be able to show people the experiences we had, so we spent a fair amount of time trying to document our Kickstarter strategies and situations as they happened.
As such, this postmortem focuses less on describing what we personally learned, and more on both giving an accurate picture of what happened to us and providing a jumping off ground for other small projects to create their own strategies and theories. It's also fairly long, because I've prioritized giving detailed and complete information more than making everything concise.
Any advice is being aimed specifically at small developers. That's not to say that $50,000 projects can't or shouldn't find anything valuable here, but we are taking the perspective of first-time developers with relatively small goals and minimal amounts of experience both in advertising and funding. I'm still a relatively young college student, so I don't mean anything more than to give advice to peers or other developers that are in similar situations to me.
Finally, any conclusions written below are meant to be nothing more than conjecture. While reading, you should keep in mind that -
- This is the first Kickstarter we've run.
- We were not successfully funded.
It goes without saying that if we knew exactly what we were doing, we'd be funded right now - so if you're launching a campaign, you should expect to draw some conflicting conclusions and to have some differing experiences from us.
I've already outlined a lot of our strategy in detail while the Kickstarter was running, but I'm going to give a very brief overview of what we were trying to do. As mentioned above, our team themed the Kickstarter around openness. We were already documenting everything that happened and sharing it with our university, so it made sense to convert that work into rewards for backers. We wanted to give an unfiltered look into what indie development was on a micro-scale, so we added tiers with access to livestreams, extensive developer blogs, and access to design documents. That also filtered into the way we marketed at our university - we were offering first and foremost a direct look into our company and the game-making process.
As far as the actual Kickstarter goes, we copied a lot of our formatting and structure from other projects: what wording we used, the pricing for reward tiers, and the structure of our video. Based on community feedback during the Kickstarter, we switched out one of the tiers to give access to perks that backers were more interested in - namely, development builds of the game. It's blatantly obvious when said, but a backer's definition of value is not always the same as a developer's.
On the sixth day of our Kickstarter, we were featured on the front page of Kickstarter as Project of the Day, which was a fairly large boost of funding. I wish I could give you some advice on how to do that, but Kickstarter didn't give us any information on why we were a staff pick or why we were featured.
Kickstarter has very good tools for tracking where funding is coming from, and it actually is pretty useful.
Spam, Community and Spreading the Word
Family and Friends
I haven't been able to find the specific article, but I remember reading while preparing for the Kickstarter that a project should know, up front, that you can get around 50% of your funding from existing community. I want to encourage you not to take that advice, especially if you're a small developer. If you have an existing group of customers that are following your studio, as might be the case if you're running a webcomic or blog, it's not bad to leverage them. However, part of your goal with Kickstarter should be the establishment of a larger community. Family and friends are excellent, but they are not your company's long-term support group, and there's really no way they'll ever be able to fill that role.
What family and friends are useful for is spreading the word about your Kickstarter, as well as doing pushes of funding. We pulled in around $800 in the first few days because there were a lot of very supportive people on Facebook. What I felt this did was give our project a sense of legitimacy. Our project did best immediately after large pushes of funding, so I would propose that preserving momentum with large spikes of traffic is a better strategy than establishing a steady baseline of new backers.
People are much more likely to back a project if they think it's already going to get funded - I was approached multiple times by individuals who told me they desperately wanted the project to succeed, but weren't backing or spreading the word because they thought we were dead in the water. If you have pools of collective funding in the form of close friends or family that are willing to support you, I would suggest trying to coordinate their funding to specific points of time in your campaign, even though that may be a fairly awkward topic for you to bring up with them - have them pledge while you're in a slump to convince other potential backers that your project isn't dying.
Forums and Social Sites
It's recommended in most communities that you spend some time getting to know everybody before you post anything like a personal Kickstarter. If you have communities you're already involved in and actively participate in regularly, you should definitely talk in them. However, I would be very surprised if you have connections in every community you're interested in reaching out to. It's a bit of a catch-22 situation to be in, because for all a forum might hate you spamming them, it really will help you get new backers.
Because of that conflict of interest, there is an element of self-policing that you'll need to do. I would recommend, at the very least, spending some time researching any community you post to so you can mirror the style of other posters and find out specifically how to breach the subject. Your job isn't just to get people to know about your project, it's to post something that's genuinely interesting to the community. In some cases, your Kickstarter may be enough, but in other cases, it may center around art, insight into a part of your development process, or discussion in a particular genre. Remember that you are, essentially, inserting yourself into another group's dwelling place. You exist to be valuable to them, not the other way around.
There are a couple of tips I would give in regards to specific communities. The Steam forums are fairly open to Kickstarters, although it obviously varies wildly depending on what game you post in. We made posts both both to the Amnesia community and Binding of Isaac, and no one had a problem with us soliciting support. Reddit is very cautious about spam, and self-promotion is not considered to be much different. If you don't personally have a Reddit account, try to get someone else to post on your behalf, rather than registering for a new account. Even if you're posting in an area where it makes sense for the content to exist, such as r/kickstarter, you should assume that the visibility of your post is going to be directly related to how long you've been on reddit and how much karma you have.
Again, the reactions you get will vary from community to community, but if you have your heart in the right place and make your best effort to actually make valuable posts, it will be difficult for people to fault you. The first live-steam I ran was posted to several forums I'd never visited before, and I had someone specifically show up to tell me he was upset I had registered just to post the Kickstarter. However, after apologizing that I had offended him and explaining both why I had targeted that particular forum and what research I had done in advance, he stayed for the entire livestream and backed the project afterwords.
Embrace community feedback
One of the advantages of starting so small is that you're less of a target for nonconstructive criticism. Generally speaking, the only people outside of your family or friends that will be contacting you for any reason will be doing so because they're genuinely interested or excited about your project. People who really dislike your project probably aren't going to take the time to comment on anything you do, because there's little to no social reason to do so.
When we got criticism, it was almost always useful and good-natured. I don't know if this is the case for larger projects, but I've found that even anonymous people will be, in general, very supportive of indie campaigns. I wasted a lot of time not showing people what we were doing with the engine or gameplay because I felt if it wasn't polished to a certain level, it would be universally bashed. That wasn't even remotely the case.
The people that have backed your project probably already believe in what you're doing, and I feel there's little reason to be afraid of them. Even amongst anonymous communities, we generally got good reactions from people - with the exception of reddit, where no-one really commented or gave feedback at all.
Some of the most interesting parts of the Kickstarter for me personally was being able to watch other Kickstarters attempt to fund alongside us. Currently running projects are really useful, because they allow you to see other people's strategies in real time and adapt to them or avoid them. This can be in the form of writing to whatever sites cover them, or in figuring out how often and how much to update your backers, or even just getting reassurance that you're not the only project in a slump right now.
Reach out to other Kickstarters and get to know the people working on the projects, even if you're not interested in doing cross-promotion with them. At least for smaller projects, Kickstarter feels less like a contest and more like a cooperative effort, so support other creators and give them the opportunity to support you.
It's tempting, although not necessarily accurate, to say that if we had gotten coverage on even one or two large sites, that would probably have been enough to get the extra funding we needed. Press is important, and if there's any part of your Kickstarter campaign you should be really worried about, this is it.
Most of the sites we contacted gave us no reply at all, so it's equally within the realm of possibly that emails were ignored or that they were marked as spam and never actually appeared in the inbox. I've seen poor amounts of coverage happen with a couple of other campaigns as well, both personally in campaigns running along side Eyes Open and through other postmortems. The best advice I see other people give is to be aggressive: for example, DwarfCorp went as far as to directly ask RockPaperShotgun why they hadn't been covered or mentioned yet, and as a result got a fairly profitable article posted.
This is, in all likelihood, an awkward situation for you to be in for several reasons -
- As a small, unestablished developer, you are probably hesitant about being confrontational or pushy with established press sources. You're worried both about sucking up to people and about being too demanding.
- You probably haven't had time to build relationships with established press sources, possibly because of the first point. As such, you can't rely either on talking to specific editors or on tailoring your message to the person reading it. A fair number of gaming sites (even large ones) don't list emails for specific editors, or at least hide them in hard-to-reach places. It's not uncommon to be posting through a feedback form on the site itself, at which point personalization is kind of a null point.
- You also probably don't have any experience with the culture surrounding press. This is compounded because many of the articles you read about contacting press will give you very generic advice, such as "use an interesting subject line" or "tell an engaging story, but also get to the point". There's a good chance that even after doing your research, you'll still have little to no idea of whether or not the email you've just sent out is good.
- Finally, the response to spamming someone too much and spamming someone too little is going to be exactly the same - complete silence. This means that if your press efforts go wrong, you're probably not going to have any feedback to use when readjusting your strategy.
I'm not sure what the solution is, other than to try different things over and over until you get it right. Once you start getting popular, I assume this will become less of an issue because the press probably won't be as concerned with how you're contacting them, and they'll be less likely to ignore an email based on what your subject line is.
In the meantime, my advice would be to send out as many emails to as many different sources as possible. Personalization is great, but if using a template is going to allow you to send out 30 emails as opposed to 10, I'm going to theorize that quantity is far more important. We spent a long time personally writing messages to different sites, and didn't really see any response to the effort. If your experience is similar to ours, expect to get few responses, even in the form of rejection letters.
Don't assume that someone will cover you even if they do contact you back. We did fairly long personal interviews with multiple sites that never actually posted the contents of the interviews, even though they seemed to be very excited about the game when we were talking to them. Press doesn't count as press until an article is actually visible on a site.
Our most positive experiences with press actually came from smaller sites and blogs. People were more likely to do writeups of us if we contacted them, and the articles posted were longer and more detailed than any other site coverage we got. One thing to note when talking about these sites is that you're not going any indication that someone has actually covered your game, so it might be worthwhile to set up Google Alerts or at the very least to daily search yourself on both google and duckduckgo. Duckduckgo won't customize your results, so you're more likely to find results that don't show up on Google.
Some statistics are useless
While Kicktraq was an extremely valuable tool for us, even properly interpreted, it's trends are next to useless. It's not exactly the fault of the service, Kickstarters have widely varying curves and trends. Regardless though, predicting exactly what's going to happen based on the trends given by Kicktraq is next to useless - something that Kicktraq itself acknowledges.
Where Kicktraq excels is in looking at other campaigns. You can cross-index when a site covered a project with how much funding it got on that day, or check to see what the average curve looked like for other projects.
Advertising may actually be a good idea
Kicktraq's ad program may also be worth your time. It's cheap and they're flexible - there's not much else to say about it, so I'll just show you our ad and list the stats underneath. You should keep in mind that we launched our ads right at the end of the campaign, so there are a number of external factors that could be influencing what you see, and I'm not in a position to distinguish between all of them.
General Kickstarter tips
Triple-check literally everything
I found out during the last three days of our campaign that our most popular reward tier offering the base game was marked as only being shippable to US backers. It was complete nonsense (our game was set to be distributed digitally), and many people knew it and backed anyway. However, at least 2 people wrote vague letters to me saying they wished they could pledge but lived in other countries. At the time, I had no idea what they meant.
We lost multiple backers over that mistake, and even once I realized what was going on, I couldn't change the tier. I proofread our Kickstarter multiple times before it launched but missed it; I even got an editor to look it over for me. I would encourage you to be even more obsessive than our team was in finding mistakes, especially in areas that you won't be able to change once you launch.
Set reward tiers using general language
Speaking of that, you can change reward tiers after a project has launched, but only if literally no-one one has backed at that tier. The problem is that in all likelihood, your tiers are going to mention each other, so even if you do get the chance to change a tier, you'll be introducing errors into your other rewards.
My advice would be to aim for generic language within the tier itself, and reference that language in a more detailed section elsewhere - that way you can make small changes to your tiers as your campaign progresses based on feedback from backers. Kickstarter also doesn't allow you to edit updates after they've been posted for more than around 1 hour, so I would advise against referring information that is subject to change in an actual update. Keep that to your main page.
A $1 reward is not a bad idea
We received multiple backers at the $1 level, and I honestly don't see any disadvantage to making a tier that rewards them. I know there are a number of articles and postmortems that say it's a waste of time to list rewards under the $5 level, and without stats to contradict them, I won't fight over it - they may well be right. But I will say for the record I disagree with that assessment. I wish we had more reward tiers in our Kickstarter; we might have done better if we had introduced additional steps between $15 and $25 tiers. From that perspective, having a reward for almost any level of backing is a good thing.
I want to reiterate that I'm just a student that's run one unsuccessful Kickstarter, so if any of this seems foolish or uninformed to you, it's probably because it is. What I've written here is mostly conjecture. That being said, if you are in a similar position to where our team was starting the Eyes Open campaign, I do hope that the information here is useful to you. There are additional things I could talk about with the Eyes Open campaign, but I've pushed too much text out already.