Hey, fellow game developer! My name is Liviu Boar and I am the creative director of a small independent Romanian studio called Stuck In Attic. Last May, we successfully Kickstarted our point and click, "Gibbous: A Cthulhu Adventure", and it was one of the greatest experiences we've ever had, on both a professional and personal level. One year passing has been enough time to think back on the campaign and its aftermath, and distil our experience into a sort of guide that I hope you will find helpful in your own crowd funding effort.
I've decided to break this guide down into three articles:
- Part I, which you are reading now, deals with the pre-campaign period;
- Part II (to be published soon) tackles building the campaign itself, and everything you will need to do it;
- Part III (to be published soon) is all about running the campaign and following up.
My intent when writing this pretty lengthy guide was to provide indie game developers who want to turn to crowd funding with exactly the kind of information I was desperately seeking more than a year ago, all nicely gathered in one place. Hope it helps!
Disclaimers and Attributions
First and foremost, I am not an expert on crowd funding, or on "the Industry" ( I'm not even sure I am in the Industry, but that just might be me not paying attention). What I am is a guy who had a dream of making his game, came to Kickstarter, and got funded by awesome people from around the world. Now that it happened, I think I kinda know how to go about his crowd funding business, and that's exactly what I'm sharing with you, so please take this series of articles as such.
Fair warning: this is a series of rather long articles mainly aimed at devs that are seriously considering Kickstarter for their game. I tried to squeeze in as much helpful information as I could, so brevity was out the window from the get-go. Don't say I didn't tell you so.
Before we jump in, I want to acknowledge my main source of information for our campaign, A Lobster's Guide for Video Game Projects on Kickstarter . I recommend you also read it if you are serious about Kickstarting. Keep in mind that it's already three years old, and Kickstarter is an ever changing medium, but it is still essential information, and a fascinating read in and of itself.
Is Kickstarter Right for You?
In case you are convinced the answer to this is "Hell yeah!", feel free to scroll down to the section called "The Pre-Launch M-Word", you tiger you, but I still recommend reading on nevertheless. This thing took a lot of time to type, you know?
The first thing you need to take into account is that Kickstarter means building the game together with your backers. Yes, really. They might not physically be there with you as you're 01001-ing the nights away, but they will want to, and will love to get involved. If that's Okay with you, you are right for crowd funding, and remember that the more you make your backers feel engaged and in the loop, the better everyone will feel about the project, and the more funds your campaign can potentially raise.
On the flip side, please give crowd funding a long thinking over if you are on the non-communicative side and/or tend not to react well to criticism. The overwhelming majority of Kickstarter enthusiasts are really, really nice people, and they expect the same from you. If you tend to go radio silent for months while in production, or have a hard time communicating in general, please let your backers know in advance. They might appreciate your honesty and be cool with it, but please keep in mind that the nicer and more communicative and transparent you are, the better for the campaign.
What It Takes
We successfully Kickstarted Gibbous: A Cthulhu Adventure in May 2016 to the tune of ~$56,000 out of a ~$40,000 ask. We are a team of two guys and one girl from middle-of-nowhere Transylvania, Romania. Gibbous is our first PC game, and our first crowd funding effort. I'd say we did pretty good for ourselves - we did not break any funding records, but our Kickstarter experience was intense and superb - probably the best month of our lives - and it made sure our dream of working full time on the game came true.
What I am trying to say here is that if three dudes like us with no experience or connections whatsoever did it, so can you. You just need a kick-ass game - but you're on that already - and you need to be smart and honest about your campaign. Hopefully this article can help in that regard.
We absolutely loved Kickstarting. I hope this guide will help give you the same experience.
Let's get crackin'!
When to Kickstart?
More precisely, at what point during the production cycle? It is definitely a multiple correct answers thing, so here are a few potential situations and how to approach them:
- All I have is this cool concept art of the hero and I sketched this gnarly level!
Please think twice about Kickstarting at this point, for your project's sake and the backers' alike. That stuff maybe could fly back in 2012 if your art was exceptionally good, but people will need to see a lot more in order to trust you with their money in the Year of Our Lord 2017. Take some time, produce some more pretty graphics, build a prototype.
- I don't yet have a programmer, but --
Stop right there. I am not doubting your very good intentions - you might even be Kickstarting in order to afford said programmer, but most people will not perceive that as a good thing. A lot of them have gotten burnt on beautiful looking pitches that amounted to nothing, because without a programmer they stayed just that - pretty graphics that went nowhere. It's cool if you already have a programmer and you want to hire one more, but please keep in mind that Kickstarting without a coder on your team is a very, very risky proposition.
- I have this functional prototype, it's real fun! It also only has my crappy programmer art.
While I don't doubt that your prototype is fun, remember that we humans are shallow, shallow beings that really love shiny pretty things (I'm earning my daily bread exploiting exactly that; trust me, it is so). The first thing we notice about a campaign are the pretty pictures - especially the moving ones, hence the animated gif reigning supreme over each and every campaign page. Hire a talented graphics guy! If you can't afford one, at least don't just throw up your first art pass and say "Screw it, it'll do". Give it another go, make the visuals as impressive as you're capable of.
Whatever ends up on your project page should be the best looking thing you can come up with.
It's awesome if you have a working prototype - it will really boost confidence in your campaign, because you proved that you can actually pull this game thing off, but the vast majority of backers might just be pleased with its existence and not even download it. Again, it's good that it's there, because it instills confidence. Make it as pretty as you can.
This is how our prototype looked when we launched the campaign.
We spent around a year working on and off on a vertical slice of our point and click adventure - high resolution hand-painted art, detailed tradigital animation, SFX, music, 40+ minutes of gameplay, voice acting, the whole shebang. Some of our backers have not downloaded our demo, but it put their minds at ease to know that we are not some amateurs bumbling around in the dark. Building the demo also gave us a great idea of how to build the entire game - that's a huge advantage of vertical slices, but some genres like adventures do benefit from this approach a lot more than others.
- I have a prototype, no final graphics in the game yet, but I'm thinking of using mockup gameplay footage.
A lot of campaigns actually do this. We didn't have to, because we had the demo; as a backer, I'm cool with mockups - and so are most people on Kickstarter - but only as long as you are confident that you can recreate everything later in the game, to the best of your abilities.
We are getting enough bullshot crap from AAA pre-launch hype campaigns, let's at least stay honest on Kickstarter. You are also setting your own bar very high if you choose this route, so make sure you can live up to it, otherwise it might backfire on you in the future. Our game looked a lot less impressive when we Kickstarted compared to how polished it is now, and backers appreciated the evolution. Don't let your final product be disappointing compared to the pitch.
Alright, let's move on the the juicy stuff.
The Pre-Launch M-Word
I will be honest with you - not trying to insult anyone, but I don't care much for marketing or advertising in general. Most of the times it's disingenuous, empty, boring, or straight up evil... BUT people do really need to know about your game BEFORE you launch your campaign, and this cannot be stressed enough.
Plenty of reasons for why that is so, but Kickstarter itself provides the most important one: raising around 20% of your goal in the first 48 hours of your campaign is crucial in getting it funded. Please don't ask me why that is, some people that are way smarter than me did the math, and that seems to be the case. Also, there is some occult thing about Kickstarter's algorithms pushing forth projects that perform well in the first couple of days...
Anyway, what you need at launch time is a critical mass of people that ensure your project is visible, and encourage other backers in a snowball-like effect. All projects face the inevitable slowdown called "the trough" in the middle, so you really need to gun it while the launch enthusiasm is there.
Distilling down to Essential Concepts
What marketing does a lot of the time is look for hip and trending concept A, combine it with hip and trending concept B, and roll it all into a buzzword-oozing projectile that it then hurls at the world in the hope of hitting as many unsuspecting
suck customers as possible.
But that's not you, is it? You are an enthusiastic indie dev, and that's not how your project was born - it is the fruit of your passion and your sleepless nights, the one thing that's constantly on your mind, your White Whale. Arrr!
That doesn't mean it's not also a sum of influences passing through your own personal creative filter.
In order to best describe your game to the world, what you need to do is retrace your steps and reverse engineer, distilling your baby down to a few concepts, then identify the communities who'd be interested in them.
Muhaha, evil, I know, but it works. Yes, you can use the x meets y in z formula for the simple reason that it works and it can get your point across. That's your elevator pitch, memorize it and have it at the ready at all times.
Case in point: our game is a comedy cosmic horror point and click adventure. That means I love Lucas Arts adventures of the 90s, cartoons, and HP Lovecraft, among many others. Sure, the game is a LOT more than that, but that's what I managed to distil it down to. So, the communities that might be into this quirky game? Classic adventure game fans, Cthulhu aficionados, fans of 2d art and animation.
Your game might be a Star Wars-inspired visual novel that successfully fuses a hard sci fi culinary-themed romp with Argentinean soap opera sensibilities and a baroque musical soundtrack. And if it really is, I kind of want to play that. Distil, don't fear it. Learn about yourself. Be ashamed of the results. Its Ok, there's bound to be weirdos out there who are into the exact same things as you. They are called your audience.
Fig.A - Your game; Fig. B - The infernal fires of marketing and advertising; Fig. C - The essentials that you need to communicate; Fig. D - Your poor unsuspecting backers
Unique Selling Points, Social Media, and Feedback
Here's a question you need to ask yourself:
Is there anything unique that I'm doing with this game?
That might mean a number of things. Take our case, for example.
I did not want the Lovecraftian locations in our game to be New England-looking, for a couple of solid reasons: I've never been to New England, and I live in Transylvania, Romania. The architecture around here rates pretty high on the creepy scale, and it's what I grew around, it's authentic. People appreciate throwing a fresh twist on something like the Cthulhu Mythos, plus they tend to pay attention when you slap the "Made in Transylvania" sticker on it ("Transylvania? Really?" "Yes, really!").
A building from our hometown, in reality and in-game.
Another thing we do that isn't very common is the way we approach animation - instead of the very popular puppet-like animation you'll see in a lot of indies, we went for the oldschool frame-by-frame approach, the same that was used in the 90s games which inspired us... but with more frames.
Animated gif illustrating why frame-by-frame animators have no time for a personal life
We made sure to let the backers know how time-consuming this is, for a couple of reasons: one, so they understand why this game takes so long to make, and two, because it's a fun unique selling point to have. Your backers might not be able to appreciate all your hard work unless you unashamedly point it out. Do it.
The conclusion? Having a unique selling point goes a long way. Identify yours.
If it's not there, that's not so good, because you need it for the game itself, not just the campaign. There are hundreds of PC Games released every week, do your best to stand out.
Moving on, I don't think I or anyone else needs to tell you how important social media is, so do it all: tweet #screenshotsaturday, #fridayfollow, #indiedevhour; make imgur public albums of your sexiest game gifs, instagram, do whatever people do on that snapchat thing. Post your imgur album on /r/indiegaming. Ask for feedback on reddit during #feedbackfriday and on indie dev groups of facebook.
While we're on the subject of feedback, here's an important point: rely on these complete strangers' opinions way, WAY more than on your friends' and family's. Your cousin Phil loves you very much and would never hurt your feelings; these guys might, but it's in your best interest that they be honest.
It is extremely hard to be objective with your own work. You might be afflicted by the dreaded Dunning-Kruger effect and not even know it; that is to say, your game just might be a load of crap while looking and feeling like a masterpiece to you.
Of course it isn't, but you will want this constructive feedback from fellow developers way before you experience it on Kickstarter in the form of people not even bothering to throw in $1 to tell you why your pitch sucks.
Fail early! Gibbous would have a lot crappier walk animations had they not been pointed out to me - It's deceptively easy to lose focus on important stuff when you do the jobs of 5 or 6 people and everything is important.
But that's just the developer communities, and their contribution weighs heavier on the feedback side than on funding. So where do you look for potential backers?
First and foremost, do not think of your backers as mere customers. It makes everything feel a lot less cooler and beautiful than it is. These people are not there for you to fleece and forget. They are akin to like-minded friends that you want to get excited about your cool project. So, where do you find them?
Well, first off, I don't think it's a good idea to e.g. start registering on random forums just to shill your project. In most cases you'll just be perceived as a spammer and your project will suffer rather than gain.
For example, I am not a Redditor. Our campaign would have probably benefited from Reddit's immense exposure, but I neither knew how the site worked nor wanted to be perceived as some spammer begging for shares or funding, so I kept my distance. You might be more willing to risk this kind of thing, but keep in mind that it might backfire.
My advice is to stick to the online communities you already frequent. Since you have common interests with these folks, some of these interests just might overlap with what your game has to offer. I'll just give two examples of communities I was already a member of which were crucial to us getting funded.
I had been lurking the AdventureGamers Forums for a pretty long time, so I eventually drummed up some courage and showed the game off. It got a lot of positive reactions, and the enthusiasm stayed throughout launching the campaign, running it, and past it. A great bunch of people.
Adventures are a pretty niche genre; not a lot get made yearly, and even less go as polish-crazy as we do with Gibbous. What was great was that my post attracted the attention of their editor-in-chief, who announced our Kickstarter on launch day on the front page of the website! All in all it was amazing to have the community behind us, and it didn't feel forced, because games like ours are what they are all about.
The kind of reaction you're hoping for.
My second example - the SomethingAwful Forums, which I'd been browsing since 2008 and been a member of since 2012. Another great community, both developers and gamers - an apparently super cynical and devil may care bunch of goons, but they can be really, really nice guys actually. Some of them helped us out a lot with invaluable technical advice, a lot of them backed our campaign, and we even found our Casting Director there. But, oh boy, I remember some devs registering a $10 account there and just starting to plug their game... Ouch. Poor bastards. Don't!
There were a couple more avenues that I took but this was mostly it - people I already virtually knew. One thing that took us by surprise - the best kind - was the local and national support, but more on that in Part II.
Oh, and, of course, friends and family. Grandma's not getting her entire pension's worth of casino credit come Kickstarter month.
When to Start Plugging the Game and How to Do It
As soon as possible. One year before you launch? Sounds good. Six months is Ok, too. Anything under four months I believe is cutting it a bit too close. You need that darned awareness everyone is on about these days.
I first posted about the game on AdventureGamers in December 2014. We launched the campaign in April 2016.
But probably the most important thing to consider when plugging your game to people before launch - and this goes for the campaign itself, too - is to just talk to your backers like a human being talks to human beings. People are sick of buzzwords, cliches, and specialist PR talk, and after all you are just another Joe Schmoe like them who went a little crazy one day and decided to make a video game.
Be down to earth, be yourself, answer their questions and address their criticism as if they were your friends and it all happened in a bar and the waitress was kind of hot aaand I don't know where I'm going with this. Oh yeah - be a human being, throughout. Ubisoft and Blizzard don't have the privilege to talk to their customers like a regular person does; you do, so take advantage.
When to Kickstart, Part Deux - When to Actually Kickstart
Everyone has their own theory on this, this is just my take on it based on everything I've read, plus personal experience and observation. Go read this section of the Lobster's Guide again for a few more details.
We launched April 5th. April is pretty good because Christmas is long gone, the end of fiscal year AAA release craziness of March is done, some of you American folks get your weird money-back-from-Uncle-Sam thing, and the Steam and GoG summer sales are still far away.
October is pretty nice, too. Summer months are risky because of big PC game sales, and people being away from their computers more; November and December are ruled supreme by AAA releases which eat up everyone's gaming funds, and January is post-Christmas-spending regrets and introspection time.
If I had to choose I'd go either April, May, September, or October, but be very aware of big gaming related events and when they happen. For example, Dark Souls III launched while we were Kickstarting. Not that the games have anything in common, really, and we weren't even a tiny blip on the gamers' radars in comparison, but that kind of monster tends to take a healthy bite out of people's video game budgets.
Don't launch on a week-end. People forget Kickstarter exists on week-ends. Remember that your campaign will end at exactly the same time of day it started. For God's sake, don't make that 5 AM for your main geographical target. Also, be careful not to have your launch coincide with E3 or any kind of similar behemoth that takes the entire gaming press hostage. Plan accordingly.
Contacting Press and YouTubers
The first thing you need to know, and always keep in mind, is that Kickstarting is not newsworthy anymore. Hasn't been for years. Not only that, but some publications just won't write about Kickstarters period, unless it's a runaway hit, or some hundred-year-old designer rises from his slumber in the shadow of a cedar tree on Mount Fuji to drop a spiritual successor to his classic sleeper hit on the world.
In other words, expect little press, and most of it small time. That's cool, though - you are small time too, so it's a nice symbiosis (I realize that sounds sarcastic; it's not). Yes, press can sometimes make or break a campaign, but your own efforts can do the same, so don't despair if they ignore you. These people have dozens of stories ready to be published at any given time, and they might not even get to your e-mail until after your campaign ended.
If you have a prototype, don't forget about YouTubers! Some might play your prototype and maybe show off your game better than you yourself could, like the awesome gentleman called Kikoskia did for us:
Also, don't forget that these guys are busy too, so don't expect instant replies or content. Oh, one thing we messed up when contacting a lot of them: we used the direct messaging on YouTube thing, and that apparently has a spam filter from hell. YouTubers will usually have an e-mail address in the about tab, use it to reach out to them.
Here's a website with a big list of press and YouTubers. No idea if it's up to date or not. Use it wisely.
You Need to Start Streaming!
And start as soon as possible. We use our Twitch channel to stream almost everything we do: art, animation, development, even music production, 5 days a week, at least a couple of hours a day, and I wish we had started earlier.
Twitch is a great way to show your audience how the game is being made in real time, and it has the added benefit of people stumbling upon your stream and finding out you and your game exist. Stream as often as possible.
Don't forget that if you already have a Twitch channel you can now change its name and url to whatever you like (see "across-the-board branding" lower).
A promotional thingie for our bi-weekly team stream we call "The Twitching Hour". Talking about the game with your backers on a regular basis is a very good idea.
Your Website and Across-The-Board Branding
Set up a nice website for the game. It doesn't have to be fancy; you might want it to be elegant, have some nice graphics. What it should contain:
- A trailer for the game and relevant information, or gameplay footage;
- A submission form for people to subscribe to your newsletter;
- A short section about your team members;
- A link to your prototype if you have one;
- A link to the latest articles on your devblog;
- A countdown to your Kickstarter;
- A downloadable press pack.
That last one is very important, since it's handy for game journalists who might want to write about your game - they obviously prefer to not have to hunt for screenshots and information online, and are happy to have it all in one easy to find place. It should be a zip containing your best looking screenshots and animated gifs, and a text file with info and relevant links.
Having some kind of teaser or trailer video (different from your Kickstarter pitch!) very visible on the website is a good idea. Here's our Kickstarter teaser, which we unleashed onto the world a good while before the campaign:
Since it's a teaser, try and only show glimpses of what you feel is your game looking at its prettiest, and conceive it so that it best fits the mood of your game.
Back to your home on the WWW, a visually pleasing and not too hard to implement feature for your website is a bit of parallax scrolling, like we used. You can check out our website for a pretty good example of a nice looking and easy to navigate home for a game.
Our website. It parallaxes, weeee!
Make a YouTube channel. I assume you already have a facebook page and a twitter account.
Try and use the same name when registering accounts for your game (it's called across-the-board branding or some stupid thing like that), it's pretty important.
For example, all of ours are named "gibbousgame", except for our YouTube channel, which is "gibbousthegame". Why, you ask? Because I'm an idiot, obviously. Don't be an idiot like me, brand uniformly. Hey, it rhymes.
Don't forget to look into how much your country's taxes will eat out of your game's crowd funding earnings!
Some countries' tax laws will wreak havoc on your budget, plan accordingly. For example, you can't Kickstart from Romania, but for us it was a blessing in disguise - we have a Swiss friend who gracefully let us take over his account, and Switzerland is very light on taxes.
If you're from a country you cannot start a campaign from, ask a friend from a country where you can. Make it a Swiss friend, if possible. Make sure you can trust him or her with the potential millions upon millions of Kickstarter dollars.
Also, don't forget that people are dumbfounded by any currency that isn't USD, EUR or GBP, so convert whatever type of money you're Kickstarting in into those three popular ones, for your backers' benefit, ease of mind, and enlightenment.
End of Part I
Alright, that was about it for the pre-campaign period. Look for my next incredibly long-winded post soon, where I will discuss actually making the campaign and everything that involves.
Kickstarter, for us, was a humbling reminder that people are amazing enough to actually help you make your dreams come true. This article is a modest way of giving back to the crowd funding communities, because the better the campaign, the happier the backers and the developers. If you found it to be useful, please feel free to share this post wherever you think there are people who might benefit from it.
Also, don't hesitate to ask me anything, in the comments or at [email protected] . I'm probably working on the game but I will do my best to respond.
Thanks for reading, see you soon in Part II.
Creative director, Stuck In Attic