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Kickstarter for the Average Indie

Much has been made of the major success of companies like Double Fine and inXile have found with Kickstarter -- but what can an average small team with a solid idea expect? Dinofarm Games developer Keith Burgun recounts a tale of two Kickstarters: one failed, one successful.

Part of me feels a little bit presumptuous writing this article, because while we have had a successful Kickstarter, there are certainly many more Kickstarters that have been far more successful. At first glance, you might think that massive multi-million dollar success stories from Double Fine and inXile seem like they'd be more useful, and certainly more interesting.

But I think our experience will probably be more useful to most people reading this article. Because most game developers are a little more like my team -- Dinofarm Games -- than they are like Double Fine. Most working game developers -- the people who really need Kickstarter more than anyone -- don't have a famous game designer at their helm to give their campaign a massive popularity boost.

With that in mind, I have decided to present a sort of "working-man's Kickstarter tips" article. This article is written for people who are passionate and believe in what they have to offer, but don't have a lot of money for marketing or production of some amazing video. I hope that my experiences and advice can help small developers get healthy funding for small, but great games.

Further, we're in the somewhat unusual position of having run two Kickstarter campaigns for the same game -- a tactical dungeon crawler game called Auro. One of the campaigns failed, and the second one succeeded (by an almost 200 percent margin). With this experience, we can take away a few lessons and share them with you.

Our First Kickstarter

As I mentioned, the game I was trying to Kickstart was Auro, a turn-based tactical dungeon crawler (I've written about it before here on Gamasutra). It's striving to be much more accessible, simple, and easy to learn than our previous title, 100 Rogues, while at the same time being deeper strategically and also better looking. Also, it's going to be cross-platform, where 100 Rogues was only available on iOS and OS X. 100 Rogues was also well-received, getting good reviews pretty consistently, so we felt pretty confident that our Kickstarter would do well.

We were totally wrong about that.

Our first video started off with a shot of Blake (our lead artist) and I sitting at a couch and pretending to play some video game that couldn't be seen. About the room, we had strewn hundreds of pieces of video game paraphernalia: a Master System, a U-Force, an Atari 2600, dozens of cartridges from all kinds. Even our bodies were covered head to toe with video game stuff: cables of all sorts, Power Gloves, that ridiculous NES helmet accessory, and Blake had a Super Scope over his shoulder.

The video starts out with this ridiculous scene, which we thought was pretty funny and strange. We were both shouting at the screen and generic video game noises coming out of the off-screen television. I'm yelling at Blake to "shoot his head", and Blake is yelling back that he is shooting his head. Then we do that thing where we pretend that we just noticed that you walked in and we weren't quite expecting you, and we go into a quick spiel about who we are.

The rest of this video was basically shots of concept art and gameplay mockups. We spent a decent amount of time talking about 100 Rogues and how different Auro was from it. Because of that comparison, there was a lot of talk about what Auro wasn't, and a small amount about what it was.

Even though we liked it, this video was kind of a disaster, in retrospect. Actually, even a week into the Kickstarter, we started getting some meaningfully negative feedback. Our campaign asked for $15,000, which we figured was pretty reasonable (for three guys working for what we thought would be maybe another six to eight months, $15k is actually a very small amount of money). But we were met with a good bit of hostility regarding this figure, which we found surprising.

There were also some good (i.e. useful) bits of feedback, though, both regarding our video and even some things like our character design. Things were at a crawl, so we took this advice to heart and started quickly on a second video that we'd launch halfway through.

Our Second Video


One of the best bits of feedback on our first video was that we were not only too "what Auro isn't", we were also a bit too "inside baseball" -- I was talking the way that one game designer speaks to another. It probably wasn't the best way to communicate what was great about the game to a normal, non-game-designing person.

We were inspired by the famous Star Command video, which had just come out. It was extremely thematic -- voiced by an in-game character and never once mentioning anything about the game's development. Basically, it was like the total opposite of our first video, and so we, in quite a rush, decided to emulate that.

Few seemed to like the original look for our lead character, the eponymous Auro, so we changed him around as well. Here's the old Auro and our new, current Auro, which was used in our second video.

Our second Kickstarter video launched about halfway through. We made the rounds, excitedly spreading the word that we've now got a new, improved Kickstarter video. I personally worked really hard on editing this video, which was extremely thematic and more of a production. Blake voiced over some dialogue as one of the game's characters, which played over shot after shot of concept art.

Then at the end of the video, the user was treated to some meticulously mocked-up and animated simulation of "game footage", which took me probably a dozen hours to do. As I'll explain later, this ended up being a dozen wasted hours.


Our Second Kickstarter

Months went by, and during this time we charged forward with development, creating an alpha version of the game. Once we had one, we felt like we might have better success. I also felt like I had learned a lot from the experience, and wanted to apply those lessons in a new, better video.

Essentially, the failures of the first two videos were the same. Put short, we didn't do a good job of showing what Auro was either time. All of the work we put into little jokes and production values made it seem like maybe there wasn't anything special about what we were actually doing.

So this time, I wanted keep it simple. Just me, in front of a camera, talking about this game that I was so passionate about. We also had a nice alpha version of the game running and I could just show clips from that, while I voiced over it explaining what would happen. Super simple. Also, this time, we asked for half as much: $7,500. The thinking was, we were roughly halfway done with the game by then, and any help we could get, we could really use.

The second Kickstarter, which we invested vastly less time and effort in, was a great success, making nearly 200 percent what we asked for.

Out with the Tips!

There are a few key lessons that I think people in similar positions as my team should take from this article. Again, we've done two Kickstarters for the same project, so I feel like we can talk a little bit about what seems to work, and what doesn't.

Again, these are tips for people like us: people who aren't yet making a living off of previous releases, who maybe have to have other jobs in the meantime, and aren't famous.

One other caveat for these tips: you actually have to sincerely believe that your project is something that would be valuable for people. If you're doing a Kickstarter out of any kind of cynical quest to make a quick buck, then I'm not sure my advice will be as helpful.

1. Keep it simple and direct. Keep your video short and down to earth. You don't need to come up with some great joke, some funny gimmick, or whatever. I know that a lot of popular Kickstarters do this, but if you have a good idea, I think people would generally rather just hear a sincere, passionate appeal from the people who want to make the idea happen. I know I would.

2. Wait until you have something to show. This part can be painful, but actually start making your thing before you set up shop on Kickstarter. It's just the same as how record companies want to see that you've already built a fan base, have a demo, and are playing shows before they'll sign you to a contract. With Kickstarter, the people are your investors, and letting them see your actual progress gives them comfort. It makes us feel like you're really serious about making this thing, and aren't going to just run off to Mexico with our 12-dollar pledge.

One thing that makes this bit a bit easier, of course, is having a simple, down to earth game. If you're making a giant earth-shattering MMO, then this is going to be a lot harder than if you're making something simple.


3. Shoot for a smaller amount. First, find a number that you'd consider the absolute bare minimum amount that you'd need to really get this project done. Then, halve that number, and that's the number you should shoot for. I know this sounds kind of strange, but people generally don't have a great sense for what kind of work game development really takes, and it's difficult to explain it to them. Further, you get nothing if you don't make your goal amount, so it's just simply better to get something to help you along than it is to get nothing. And hey, you never know, you could get 10 times what you ask for.

4. Consider not trying to be funny. We all think that our own jokes are pretty great, but unless you're a professional comedian, don't make us sit through your amateur YouTube video sketch comedy. Think of it this way: few things are more of a turn-off than a failed attempt to be funny, so you're taking a huge risk by relying on comedy. Further, it probably has little to do with what you're trying to show us anyway.

5. Don't get discouraged if you don't make it. A failed Kickstarter could mean that no one is interested in your project, but it could also mean that you simply didn't market it correctly. Actually, I believe that with proper marketing, people will want just about anything. So, do some soul-searching, ask around, and figure out how you can do better next time.

It's often mentioned, but there are quite a few overhead costs associated with Kickstarter and Amazon Payments, as well as paying for shipping/producing any physical rewards. So, you might want to start off with a number that's about 15 percent inflated before cutting it in half.

For instance, on our Kickstarter page it says we made $14,571. However, what actually appeared in the Amazon Payments account was just around $13,000, so just about 10 percent was taken by Amazon. That's something you should be ready for.

Kickstarter, as well as other crowdsourcing websites, provide us with a great opportunity not only for funding, but for feedback. One of the best things about our first failed Kickstarter was how much it actually improved on our game.

We got tons of reactions that we simply wouldn't have gotten if it weren't for the fact that we were out there asking for money. Some of them weren't helpful, but some of them were. A healthy way to think about doing a Kickstarter campaign is that you're doing a test-run of your game's marketing, and for this reason, even a failed campaign can be incredibly useful.

You need to have a little bit of a thick skin, as not everyone is going to be respectful, fair, or even coherent. It is the internet, after all. We wrote a couple of articles (this one got a lot of attention) on our site showing and responding to the unfair treatment we got from some users.

So, you should be prepared for some people treating you like you're scam artists. However, that's the case for releasing a game at all these days, so again it's a good experience to have up front. Be prepared for absurdity.

However, also be able to take good criticism, and adapt. You have to really listen to what people are saying to discern the good sense from the nonsense. It's worth noting that when we did our second Kickstarter, which was far less produced and much more down to earth, we got almost no intensely negative "you guys are a bunch of charlatans" type stuff, so I think that following my Step 1 will go a long way in this.

Anyhow, if you're running a Kickstarter now, already have, or are planning to, share your advice with us. What are your tips for running a successful Kickstarter?

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