I was driving across Seattle's 520 bridge on a beautiful, sunny afternoon on the third day of our Kickstarter campaign, dazed and confused, and momentarily considered hitting the red "abort mission" button on our whole Kickstarter. Fifty-five hours into our campaign and we had only gathered 11 percent of our funding goal.
Even worse, I had just glanced at our backer list and recognized nearly half of the names: mostly friends and family. Over 95 percent of visitors aren't pledging. Our funding goal of $500,000 didn't feel "aggressive" anymore, but impossible. We were getting hundreds of thousands of views on our Kickstarter and nobody was pledging, but I knew that they're definitely keeping an eye on us... And if we gave up, what would that say about my team, our game République, and me?
It was then that I recommitted myself to doing whatever it took to run a great Kickstarter campaign, even though I was certain we wouldn't achieve our aggressive $500,000 funding goal unless by some kind of miracle. I decided that I would do this without distracting the team anymore, as we were running low on money and couldn't afford to spend a month running a Kickstarter instead of developing the game.
As the indigo toll bridge lights scanned my car and I unwillingly coughed up $3 to the state of Washington, I thought, "How am I going to get 10,000 people to willingly pre-order our iPhone game on Kickstarter?"
What Went Wrong
1. Too Polished
It was on a typical rainy February 10th when we decided to do our very own campaign that would feature the proof-of-concept demo of République that we were already working late every night on.
While the Kickstarter boom that Double Fine initiated was inspiring, we knew that we wouldn't be able to lean on nostalgia, name value, or the latest resurgence in PC gaming to achieve big crowdfunding success. We were a new studio announcing a big budget, iOS-only game that overtly questions some of the biggest tropes in gaming today. We were abandoning our console upbringing to start a revolution on iOS, and we had to get people inspired by this vision.
We decided that we would communicate some of our studio's values (high quality, meaningful, honest) through our Kickstarter page and video. Maybe if people saw how beautiful our game was, how pro our trailer was, and how polished our pitch was, they'd get behind our ambitious aims for République -- or so we thought.
A week into our campaign, we were surprised to see dozens of comments online from people saying: "Look at that game, look at how expensive their video looks... They don't need our money." Meanwhile, our company bank account was getting dangerously low.
As I sought out reasons as to why our campaign wasn't resonating, I realized that people were put off by how polished everything looked. This was disappointing because, yes, in fact, we worked extremely hard to make everything as professional as possible. I called up my good friend Victor Lucas and asked if his company, Greedy Productions, wanted to produce all our Kickstarter videos. (We developed a great partnership with them working on the "Making of Metal Gear Solid 4" together.)
I spent a week in Los Angeles, driving back and forth between Logan, where we cut the trailer, and Soundelux DMG, where the audio mix was being finalized. Alexei Tylevich and I were in constant communication with Petrol, who designed the iconic main visuals for the game and campaign, and I even had trusted friends Mark MacDonald and John Ricciardi of 8-4 Ltd. to copy-edit our page and gut check our pledge rewards.
Initially, I was frustrated at the "too polished" complaints, especially when I remembered the late nights and weekends Craig Cerhit put into our video content. I often thought about the rich guys on Kickstarter intentionally making rough-looking webcam videos to appeal to peoples' charitable instincts and subsequently pull in six or seven figures in pledges.
While aggravating, I understood the point. While I don't necessarily agree with the commonly used analogy that running a Kickstarter is a digital form of panhandling, if that were true, I was standing on a street corner in a freshly pressed suit holding an iPad with a typed out message "Need money. Anything helps."
2. It's a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Prepping our Kickstarter took exactly two months layered atop four months of perpetual crunch on our game. All said and done, the prep work involved dozens of people and many sleepless nights to make sure everything was perfect. This included copious amounts of research of other crowdfunding efforts to make sure we were learning from other successes and failures. We stress-tested the campaign with friends and family to get critical feedback, and made every effort we could to launch the most readable and best-looking Kickstarter page ever.
Busy tweaking every knob available, I didn't sleep the night before our Kickstarter went live, and by the time I clicked the launch button on the morning of April 10, I was physically and mentally exhausted. I was excited and optimistic, and confident that the incredible amount of prep work we did would quickly translate into a successful Kickstarter campaign. I was wrong, and tired.
On one of the biggest days of my career, I was too tired to stay awake. After six or seven hours of answering questions that came in and clicking the refresh button a few dozen times, I fell asleep for a few hours, curious to know how many tens of thousands of dollars in pledges would be counted while I recharged my batteries. To my disappointment, I woke up to an already anemic Kickstarter campaign.
Internally, we believed that we would need to gather at least $100,000 on day one to keep the momentum going for the remaining 29 days of the campaign. By the time I went to bed on the first night, we were at $36,607. It was then that I realized that the battle had just begun, and we didn't have an action plan.
I mistakenly assumed that we had done enough prep work to provide visitors with enough information and product vision to convince them to pledge. Instead, it was clear that I had 29 days to turn this campaign around, and had previously been too busy and confident to prep a contingency plan. We had already spent all our ammo, and the battle was just beginning...
3. Understanding What Was Wrong
I spent the first week of our Kickstarter campaign trying to understand what wasn't resonating with the online community. This was a difficult and time-consuming process, mainly because I didn't have the tools to clearly understand why our Kickstarter wasn't connecting with people.
I think some of the difficulty stemmed from the fact that there weren't one or two obvious problems with our campaign that we could quickly remedy.
Instead, we were faced with mountains of feedback that seemed all over the place: "Great game, but you should have announced it for PC," "You're not showing enough of the game," "You're showing too much," "You need to be more anti-publisher," "Lean on your past experiences like Metal Gear and Halo more," "People don't like your purple jacket."
Strangely enough, the thing I was most worried about going into launch (would the vision behind République would connect with people?) turned out to be the least of our concerns -- everybody seemed to love the game and trailer. In fact, the most common thing I heard from Kickstarter veterans was, "Your Kickstarter looks great. Just give it a few days. I'm sure it'll start building steam."
A week into our Kickstarter campaign, all the feedback I was able to collect seemed more like static than reliable data. Some community feedback (from NeoGAF mainly) was helpful in focusing the discussion on whether we should announce a PC version of the game (which ended up being the most reliable -- and harshest -- feedback), but if we were to take all the online feedback and rank it in terms of pure volume, you would be lead to believe that all our problems would have been solved if we just announced the game for Linux and PlayStation Vita, and opened up pledges via PayPal.
One point of criticism we faced that surprised me was those questioning the cost of République's development. Before our Kickstarter went live, I was concerned that people would question us for assuming République would only cost a million dollars to make -- an absolute bargain in this industry. But instead, we received harsh criticisms for asking $500,000 for a mobile title, especially one that required "needless" motion capture and voiceover work.
The negative reaction from gamers about our proposed budget was surprising -- I wrongly assumed that hardcore gamers had a good handle on how much money games cost to make. In fact, I personally battled many folks online who felt we were going against the ethos of Kickstarter and independent game development by paying our staff actual salaries.
To make matters worse, I felt in the dark about how about how much exposure our page was truly getting. While the Kickstarter dashboard offers some helpful information such as what external sites are directing pledges to your campaign, it doesn't expose data like number of page views, backer regional demographics, or (until recently) the playback numbers of your pitch video.
One thing that we desperately wanted to know was how much backer crossover there was with non-iOS game Kickstarter projects like the Pebble watch. While many were right to point out that we were pitching a big budget iOS game to a Kickstarter community that primarily serves PC games, we knew that they were forgetting about successful iOS non-game products on the site -- it wasn't that Kickstarter and iOS aren't compatible, it just hadn't been done yet on the games side, and I felt like I had inadequate data to fully understand the landscape.
One tricky thing we were able to do was use Amazon's AWS hosting service to host a single image and then look at bandwidth usage stats associated with that one image, allowing us to see that our page was getting hundreds of thousands of unique views in the first week, but that less than 10 percent of visitors were converting to pledges.
While I wish we could have used this method to track unique views for the entire campaign, we ended up moving the remainder of our images to AWS, making it much harder to track daily bandwidth. All said and done, we know we had over 140,000 plays of our pitch video (which is roughly the same number a Kickstarter that collected $1.2 million had), and I would guess that our page had well over a million unique views.
But even with this information, I felt wildly uninformed about what wasn't resonating about our campaign. I had a gut feeling that simply announcing a PC and Mac port wouldn't solve all our problems, and I was right about that.
4. Late To The Party
While I don't have any hard data to back this theory, I believe that some of our challenges stemmed from an overall Kickstarter cool down for games. Some of this, I believe, is from general Kickstarter fatigue in the enthusiast game press. By the time we launched, there had already been around a dozen or so high profile Kickstarter projects that grabbed headlines, and I noticed more and more readers complaining about the frequent coverage of crowdfunded game projects. Double Fine's Kickstarter revolution was a fun and heartwarming tale, but by the time we launched, I believe we were in the midst of some Kickstarter market saturation.
There is also a popular theory that a large percentage of Kickstarter backers are the same people supporting multiple projects (as opposed to the site attracting multitudes of virgin backers). We tried to understand this more but failed to gather any meaningful data. If the theory is true, then that would explain why we had some trouble getting pledges -- hardcore gamer Kickstarter backers were just financially tapped out by the time we went live.
I think there is something true about this "LTTP" theory -- since we wrapped up our Kickstarter, there has been significant drop in the number of high-profile Kickstarter game projects, especially those that exceed $500,000 in pledges. I'm convinced that a lot of would-be Kickstarters have gotten cold feet after seeing the struggles that République, SpaceVenture, Clang, Takedown and Shadowrun Online experienced.
5. The Emotional Toll
Leading a struggling Kickstarter campaign is not a fate I would wish upon my worst enemy. The project consumes your every waking moment (and dreams) with a constant whine of stress. Our worst day was April 21 when République took in a meager $729 from 31 backers, bringing us 0.0015 percent closer to our goal of $500,000.
There's nothing worse than when your Kickstarter dries up like that. People avoid making eye contact with you. They act like your dog just died, or your girlfriend just cheated on you. It's a time of quiet reflection and common questions: "Are you guys going to be okay?" "Think you'll try again?" and "I hear Zynga is hiring."
I was saddened by the depressed state of our Kickstarter. In fact, there was a stretch of three or four days when I didn't even check the page, instead waiting for the happy phone call from my dad (who says he refreshed the page over 1,000 times) saying, "Ryan, you seeing this?!" that never seemed to come.
But overall, I'm proud to say that I stayed positive and realistic about the campaign after the devastating first 72 hours. I knew the team was looking to me to assure them that we'd survive as a studio, and I knew that miracles could happen. Penny Arcade could blog about us! IGN and Geoff Keighley could tweet about us! Some dudes with $10,000 may just feel compelled to pledge one day! And you know what? I'm happy to report that all of those things eventually happened.
It's still surreal for me to sit here and write this postmortem, knowing that I'm chronicling the very happy event that we were able to gather $555,662 in pledges for our game République, thanks to 11,611 generous souls.
Now, let's go over what went right with this whole crazy Kickstarter experiment.
What Went Right
1. Exhaustive Prep Work
I was wrong in assuming that our Kickstarter would go nuclear right out of the gate, but I shudder to think where we would have been without the extensive preparation we did. For two months, I applied my ghetto Excel skills and tracked daily numbers from the best and worst Kickstarter projects to better understand pledging trends.
One of my biggest takeaways was that successful projects were getting average pledges of around $50, which is triple the $15 that most projects were asking for the baseline game. In every case, it was because thousands of backers were looking to connect to the project behind just the core game -- they wanted art books, soundtracks, cloth maps, collector's editions -- a physical connection to the game that they feel is missing from many new releases today.
This led me to dream up some ideas for a cool collector's edition as well as doubling-down on an idea I was bouncing around prior to our Kickstarter: packaging our iOS game with a fictional book companion, which we ended up pricing at $50. The journal and the collector's edition were two big components that led to our eventual success, accounting for over a third of our pledges.
As part of my prep work, I also made sure to integrate myself as much as possible into the Kickstarter community by becoming a backer of multiple projects and learning what I liked and didn't like about the process and certain projects. I'm surprised whenever I talk to future Kickstarter hopefuls who have never personally been part of this process. Even if you're strapped for cash, pledge $3 to a project you like so you can get on their Backer Only mailing list -- it's a front row seat to their development status and one of the most fascinating aspects of Kickstarter.
We put a lot of work into developing memorable pledge rewards with short and snappy text descriptions. We also tried to make our page as visual as possible, knowing that most people wouldn't bother reading our page text. In fact, I'm sure I'm not alone in admitting that I've backed dozens of projects never having read their pages.
I think we were right to assume that it's all about having a great video, although I'm a little confused as to why only 20 percent of our visitors watched our entire pitch video. Was it because they were already sold on the project before the video ended and then pledged? Were they turned off by something? Did they see my purple jacket and killed their browser in disgust? We will never know...
Finally, we put a lot of thought into the start and end time for our Kickstarter project. We intentionally started ours at the beginning of the workweek to give the campaign time to generate online buzz before the first weekend. We went live at 5 a.m. PST to be present at the beginning of the day for both East and West Coasters of North America.
We were also very deliberate about the time and day that our Kickstarter ended, avoiding a common mistake -- the final hours can be some of the most exciting and accessed times for your entire Kickstarter campaign, and many projects mistakenly set their end time for when people aren't generally on their computers, like 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning.
I think we were smart to set our end time for 3 p.m. PST on a Friday -- a time that we assumed would allow many eyeballs to be on our project, including dedicated backers, potential pledgers, and members of the media. On our final day, my phone was ringing off the hook with writers wanting to write stories about our final hours, something that wouldn't have happened if we ended our campaign on a weekend.
2. Focus On The Team and Game Vision
I believe that the primary reason why we found success on Kickstarter was because we were pitching the community on a great game. Our video wasn't perfect, we announced it exclusively for a controversial platform, and were a little late to the Kickstarter party, but the fact remains that we got a lot of attention of gamers, press, and investors because the game looked good and showed off fun and innovative gameplay. In this regard, the hard work that the teams at Camouflaj and Logan did really paid off.
Having done a successful Kickstarter project, I often get emails from other project leaders asking for help and advice on why their project isn't doing well. So often they are focused on areas of their campaign that are completely outside of the actual game that they're pitching, which I believe is a mistake. This sounds harsh, but the realities of Kickstarter is that you will have trouble if you're pitching another retro platformer or space shooter that doesn't communicate quality and some sort of exciting new hook.
One thing I got wrong early on was intentionally disassociating the team from the project. With our first pitch video, I kicked it off with our game trailer and then deliberately minimized the on-screen time for myself and other team members to keep the focus on the game. Cindy Au of Kickstarter helped me realize that this was a mistake -- that our project initially felt cold and lacked a human element.
For subsequent videos, we spent more time getting each team member on camera and letting the audience know more about their background in the game industry. And while I hated to do this (because I wanted République to stand on its own), I eventually changed our 50-word project description to make note of our previous projects like Halo, Metal Gear, and F.E.A.R. Why? Because I found that I was personally guilty of only checking out projects with some familiar names attached to them. Hell, I've already got some money set aside for Chris Avellone's rumored Planescape: Torment Kickstarter...
On that note, I think the Kickstarter deck is definitely stacked in the favor of developers with notable prior game development experience. Too often I haven't backed a project because I looked at the team's pedigree (or lack thereof) and suspected that they lacked the experience to deliver on what they were promising. But back on the subject of game vision, if quality and innovation is clearly shown in your pitch video, like in the case of Castle Story, I believe that the community will overlook any lack of name value associated with your project.
3. Staying True To The Vision
When times are tough, they can shake your values and make you desperate. For too many projects, when it looks like the funding goal won't be met, teams promise the moon and appeal to every request from folks in the community, oftentimes leaving themselves with an impossibly large financial commitment for the additional rewards and features they promised during their campaign. I know how tempting it is to compromise your vision in the hopes to achieve your funding goal, which I why I'm proud that we stuck to our guns and only made changes to our project that fit within the vision for our game.
This is one of the trickier aspects of running a Kickstarter campaign -- on the one hand, crowdfunding is all about making the community an integral part of the development process, but responding to every request can also doom your project.
In the case of République, we got both encouragement and seething criticism for announcing the game for iOS only. In general, it was industry colleagues who were patting us on the back for boldly throwing our support behind the iOS platform and committing to doing something new and different on iPhone and iPad.
On the flip side, it was mainly hardcore gamers who were extremely angry with us for announcing République (a game they admitted to wanting to play) for a platform that they not only didn't want to play it on, but a platform that they outright hated.
One of better-spoken critics led a mini anti-République campaign voicing criticism like, "We don't want iOS to be that platform. We are happy right where we are and always have been, on the PC. As more and more companies slouch towards Apple, we are told that it is inevitable that they will swallow core gaming as well. Whether that is true or not, it will certainly not happen with our facilitation. You are essentially asking us to help realize the future we fear most."
But for every well-articulated critique, we had dozens of hateful messages thrown our way for focusing on the iOS platform. The easy thing would have been to just listen to the community, quickly backtrack on our iOS aims, and announce the game for PC and PlayStation Vita, but that was never an option.
The team was settled on its long-term vision for République: our belief that iOS can and will be a serious game platform, and that it just needs more high quality games designed for the device from the ground-up. Even during some of darkest days early on, I had to remind myself that I would rather we fail in our Kickstarter and still hold on to our unique vision than to sell out and make promises that we didn't truly believe in, only to reach that illusive funding goal.
Still, amidst all the static, the community had a point -- we had entered the PC-centric space of Kickstarter, pitched them on a touch-only iOS game, and wrongly expected them to embrace it. It was then that the team kicked off a number of long meetings to discuss the creative and development realities of committing to a PC and Mac version of République.
From the very beginning, we all agreed that we would ignore those in the community telling us to "just port the game to PC" and instead focused the meetings on story and design changes that would play to the strengths of the desktop.
After a number of promising meetings (one of which we taped and shared with the community), we decided to pitch the community on a compromise: We would promise the game for PC and Mac, but only after the iOS version was designed and completed, and then we would use initial revenue to fund a reimagining of the game specifically designed for desktop play. The community response was extremely positive, and the praise we got committing to a unique development cycle for the PC and Mac version versus just porting the game validated our philosophies.
By the time the countdown clock winded down, it was the PC and Mac version that pushed us over the line of our funding goal, representing roughly half of the total pledges in terms of platform. In fact, as something of a happy accident, we stumbled upon a reward tier strategy that led to an increase in individual pledges: reward tiers that allowed pledgers to double-dip on the game, getting both iOS and desktop versions. For those interested, here are the survey results from our backers about which platform and OS they expect to play République on:
Committing to PC and Mac was the most exciting outcome of our Kickstarter. We stayed flexible and listened to the community, but also made sure we stuck to our vision and expressed that honestly to the community, who responded with generous pledges and words of encouragement. And most importantly, the team's happy -- we're still developing our dream iOS game while also knowing that we have a second Christmas when we can deliver a unique version of the game for PC and Mac users.
4. Generating Buzz
Our job in getting the word out about République was made much easier by the fact that both Logan and Camouflaj team members have been associated with dozens of high-profile projects, making it more likely that the press will pick up on the story of République's Kickstarter launch.
But it wasn't just our individual backgrounds that made the République story worth picking up. We also had an exciting story to tell: Console developers ditch the living room to make a console-like iOS experience built from the ground up. We prepped a press release and made sure to have plenty of screenshots and team photos available for any outlet interested in running a story.
All said and done, there were well over 100 articles written about République during our 30-day campaign and about a dozen podcasts that discussed the project, many of which were kind enough to invite me on their shows to chat.
One unique thing we did was show République to press members before we went live to give them a heads up as to what we were planning to do on Kickstarter. Kotaku ran a story that exclusively revealed République to the public, teasing our upcoming Kickstarter campaign and further adding to the online buzz leading to launch day. I believe this was a smart approach -- why keep your Kickstarter secret until launch? Give the community a heads up so they're ready to support you from the initial hours. Everyone needs a big first day on Kickstarter.
One unexpected source of online buzz was the surprisingly controversial nature of our game and Kickstarter. More so than any other Kickstarter project that I'm aware of, République was the focus of a number of forum debates ranging from iOS gaming to the true cost of game development to the press's role in this Kickstarter phenomenon. All of this attention (both positive and negative) led to a lot more exposure for the game, which was great.
While some of the criticisms we faced were quite pointed and harsh, we were not alone in defending ourselves -- the project had inspired a legion of supporters willing to go to battle with us. This made our last-minute success all the sweeter for our team and the thousands of impassioned République supporters.
5. Friends Who Kept Hope Alive
Our Kickstarter would have not been successful if not for the heroic efforts of Billy Berghammer and Selina Rodriguez, two friends who saw a friend in need (me) and fully invested themselves in turning our Kickstarter campaign around.
With dozens of daily Kickstarter emails and a constant stream of press interview requests pouring in, I was so overwhelmed with the immediate needs of the campaign that I didn't have time to take a step back and plot out a proper strategy for the remaining three weeks of our campaign.
That's when both Billy and Selina came to the rescue, and worked with me on mapping out a calendar filled with daily content updates including team interviews, behind-the-scenes clips, new announcements, and fresh prototype gameplay footage.
Their content was very deliberate -- it was created to energize the current supporter base and appeal to the countless fence sitters who were looking for answers to specific doubts they had about the project. Both Billy and Selina mingled with the community to gather more feedback, so we could make more informed decisions about what content to produce in the precious remaining days we had on our campaign.
I remember that Selina, Billy, and I were disappointed by the initial lukewarm response to our PC and Mac version announcement, but instead of throwing in the towel, Billy devised the clever #KeepHopeAlive social media campaign that encouraged backers to utilize their Facebook and Twitter feeds to get the word out. Billy equipped them with cool avatar images and desktop wallpapers to fuel the viral campaign, energizing the community as we finally gave them an avenue to directly help us out in our crazy campaign.
One unintended victory to the #KeepHopeAlive campaign was how it began to shift the community's opinion on us and our Kickstarter. We started to see more and more comments like Alexey N's: "I don't even own an iOS device, but I'm going to back these guys. You have to admire their hard work in trying to see this game get made."
Even our resident artist, Jeremy Romanowski, got in on the action, posting a heartfelt message on Reddit to appeal to the community for their support, which garnered over a