If you’re a small indie developer trying to chase your dreams of making your own game or even a more established game development studio, you’ve probably thought about using crowdfunding on a site like Kickstarter as a way to give you enough runway to make your game.
The first obvious step is to do your research. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot out there for Kickstarting games. Most articles you will read are about tangible products, and as an indie studio currently in the middle of our own Kickstarter campaign we’ve already had a lot of lessons learned that I want to share with others hoping to do a Kickstarter. One thing you’ll quickly learn is that you need the help of others if you want to reach or exceed your funding goal.
This is a two-part article, the second part will be posted which will cover the Kickstarter aftermath of the pains of fulfillment, community building and post-crowdfunding after our Kickstarter completes.
What You’ll Need
Every Kickstarter is different, however many follow a series of guidelines and best practices from Kickstarter, but there are also many tactics and programs that have been created by the Kickstarter gaming community. The following is a breakdown of what you’re going to need before you can hit that Publish button.
To start out you’re going to need the following, which I detail further in this article:
- Kickstarter account
- Key Art
- A Kickstarter Video
- Game Name
- Funding Duration
- Funding Goal
- Company Avatar + Bio
- Game Summary
- Game Overview
- Rewards breakdown
- Gameplay Detail
- Development Team info
- Additional Details (why you're kickstarting, what you’ll use funds for, timelines, etc.)
- Confirmed Bank account
- Risks & Challenges content
You’ll find that this process takes at least 1 month of planning to do right, but can also be around 2 months or more depending on how much preparation work you’re going to want to do with pre-awareness.
Planning a Launch Date
One thing that we had to plan around was the fact that we were launching right before the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco. This was actually perfect timing since we had a lot to talk about during the show and gained some backers, but it could have backfired if we didn’t go in understanding the risks that our Kickstarter would be drowned out by GDC noise.
When planning your launch date, consider the events and holidays around the timing you’re planning. Will people be broke after spending a lot? Will they be traveling and missing your updates? Is a tradeshow coming up? Try not to launch right in the middle of an event if you can, otherwise you’ll be getting commitments from friends who are too busy to remember to follow-through.
Setting the Funding Goal
Setting your funding goal depends on your own goals for the project. The best thing to do is to ask yourself if you really need the Kickstarter to fund your game.
If YES, then try to find the lowest number you can possibly live with in order to make your game. You can always exceed your goal, but if you miss your goal you lose the money unless you can get a wealthy friend to drop in the remaining balance. Get down to the barebones of what you can deliver, but don’t under-estimate it. Projects that don’t deliver the games they promised give indie developers and the crowdfunding platforms a bad reputation and it harms other project creators who actually are delivering.
In addition to your goals, make sure you’re aware of the fees. Kickstarter starts at 5% in the USA with a $0.20 transaction fee per pledge. On top of that, consider the cost of any new functionality or features your promising and any tangible rewards. In our case, if we reach our 24K goal for ONE TOWER, we estimated that we’d be left somewhere between 15K and 17K.
If your answer is NO, then use Kickstarter as a way to validate your product and build a following but don't tell your audience that you don't need their pledges. Go much lower with a 5-10K goal. If you can raise that, then you’ve validated your product. If you have celebrity backing or a large following then you can probably afford to bump that further north, especially if you have solid gameplay to show and solid rewards.
The Kickstarter blog has some great articles about the optimal durations. The optimal timeline was between 27 - 32 days. While you could do more or less, we chose to do 30 days since that is the standard that people expect, and it was a safe call.
Kickstarter Account Creation
Creating an account is straightforward. Unless you’re a well-known developer or celebrity I would recommend creating an account that is separate from your personal one that truly represents your studio. Having your studio name and logo looks more professional and legit than a “John Smith” with a very poorly taken photo out of a home office. Nothing wrong with that, but you’ll look better to the public.
Key art is your primary art to be used in your marketing material. Kickstarter recommends using 1024x768 for this image. You can make it bigger than that but just keep the 4:3 aspect ratio. Any less and things start looking very compressed.
Having backed a LOT of projects, I’ve seen some key art that should never have been used. Things to be careful about:
- Don’t center your logo in the middle of the image. The big “play video” button appears over your key art and will cover your game’s logo if you do.
- Don’t use washed out colors. Make sure your logo pops from the background. I saw some creators use bright colors over bright backgrounds which made it difficult to see their game’s name.
- Don’t use overly abstract images. Communicate the type of game you’re pitching. I’ve seen a number of Kickstarters use images that made no sense and so I never clicked on them until they started trending towards funding.
- Use characters when possible. As the PlayStation Biz Dev team will tell you, games with characters in the key art will often outperform games without it, unless it’s for games with established player bases.
- Don’t add text to your key art other than the artwork and logo. It looks very busy and unprofessional. An exception would be if you want to include a tag that says you have a playable demo.
- Don’t add any Kickstarter logos or icons on your key art. Kickstarter doesn’t like this and will typically contact you if you do since they will often overlay their own logos when they feature you or staff pick.
- Take a screenshot of the Kickstarter page and mock-up your image inside of it. Make changes until it stands out from other Kickstarters.
Your video is your sales pitch. Without one, you’re not ready for Kickstarter. Many users do not read the content on a Kickstarter and only watch the video to determine if they want to spend more than the 10 seconds they’ve already spent on your page.
With our Kickstarter, we started with an 8 minute long video that immersed you into our world at the studio and showed gameplay throughout. We loved it, but we were also very wrong about it. We showed it to the Kickstarter team and friends and they all felt it was too long. Kickstarter recommended that we keep it to 2-3 minutes and have gameplay at the first 10 seconds.
It’s important to spend a lot of time on your video. What you’ll discover is that video capture and interviews will likely take a week. Instead of hiring someone we decided to do this in-house so that we could get a natural setting and impromptu captures when it made sense. When you try to rush it all in one day, you’ll be boxed in without the ability to do much revision to your b-roll and original interview capture and will only be able to cut out and edit what you have.
Because we knew that our primary target audience were friends and family, we knew that showing gameplay upfront was not in our best interest since they were more interested in what we’re trying to do, so we didn’t start with it, but instead introduced ourselves, the studio and our game, ONE TOWER. We also shortened the video to 5:30 minutes.
Here’s what happened:
- The video worked at first but over time we began to alienate Kickstarter users who were immediately turned off by “people talking.” The missed backers early on were not as much of a concern to us because of our specific strategy, but we wouldn’t recommend it to others unless you have the same target audience.
- After the Game Developer’s Conference, we switched the video to a shorter video that was under 3 minutes that really concentrated on the gameplay portion of our original video and the first 10 seconds had gameplay right away. We immediately saw pickup from this.
In short, I suggest the following:
- Keep your video under 2-3 minutes.
- Show gameplay within the first 10 seconds.
- Don’t do a lot of talking about yourselves. Create a second video that you can embed inline if you want to do this.
- Don’t use any kind of negativity, show hesitation, and definitely do not appear cocky. There’s a fine balance here. The backers are people who want to help you succeed.
- Don’t say you don’t need the money or that you’re going to finish the game without it. If they think you can finish without their help, why would they want to back you? Make it clear that you need them to complete the game.
The project name is important. You may think to just put in your game’s name, but in many places there is a lack of a game summary so all people can see is your key art and the game’s name. Add a one-line tag at the end of your game name that describes it.
Gunsmoke - A western side-scrolling shooter
For ONE TOWER, we screwed up, and it’s the most obvious screw up that you could have but we were too close to our game. We started with “ONE TOWER - A 1v1 MOBA”
If you’re an existing player of the MOBA game genre, you’ll totally get it. However, most people have no idea what a MOBA is. After a few friends asking us “what’s a MOBA?” We changed it right away to “ONE TOWER - Head-to-Head Battle Arena.”
It’s a very common mistake for us to assume that people understand these terms, especially in games. For example, not everyone knows what an RTS, jRPG, MMO, or an FPS is, even though we think they should. You are on Kickstarter, not Steam, and it’s a platform that has all walks of life who are fascinated and interested in games, but maybe don’t play every kind. In my case, many of my former game industry colleagues were clueless about what MOBAs were until I mentioned specific game references.
Your location matters. While I know you’ll want to just list the city you’re in, if you are an area that isn’t so close to a large metropolitan area then use the nearest metropolitan city so you can have more chances of being shown by the “nearby project” Kickstarter discovery which helped drive us more leads.
Creating Your Rewards
The reward design process is a fun one, but also full of potential pitfalls. Here are some lessons we’ve learned from our Kickstarter and others we’ve helped with.
- Free-to-play games don’t perform as well as paid since users assume they can just wait for the game to come out and they’ll get it for free. This is counter to what Kickstarter is all about, but a reality. If you’re a F2P game, you’ll need to give users even more than in-game items.
- If you’re a paid game you can tier the price of your game by providing an early bird @ $20 limited to X backers, a standard tier @ $25-30, and a collector’s edition anywhere between $50-100 but most often $75.
- You can offer different levels of upgrades for “early access” including beta and alpha.
- We gave users a chance to reserve their game name early, starting at a $1. It is a no brainer to acquire users this way.
- Don’t require shipping for cheaper tiers, give options for no physical goods vs physical. We learned this after we had a small collector’s pin included with a $20 tier that backers didn’t want to pay shipping on so we immediately provided an alternative tier without the item.
- Don’t limit tiers by too much. Do early bird offerings and limit to 50-100. Give procrastinators a sense of pressure and urgency to get a good deal but make sure you have enough reward tiers that have no limits otherwise you will hinder your fundraising.
- Include rewards that non-gamers will enjoy who don’t necessarily care about your game but want to support you. T-Shirts, Journals, pens, etc. are items everyone can enjoy.
- Include grief rewards for your friends. Most family members don’t care about what you are making but want you to succeed. Give them something they can enjoy. We had pledges from $275-400 that made us eat things that we gag at and cosplay. During our live steam for our final 48 hours we’ll be adding even more grief pledges to keep it fun. This is how fundraising works elsewhere, why not include it for your Kickstarter?
- Consider “sponsor” type rewards for businesses that may want to get their name into your game’s loading screen, web site, banners, T-shirts, etc.
- Don’t overwhelm users with too many reward options. Start with less, you can always add more later but it’s a painful process to try to eliminate rewards that backers have already claimed.
The Review Process
After you submit your project, as long as you are not in violation of any Kickstarter rules, you should have your project approved within 1-3 days.Ours was approved next day.
As a word of advice, before you submit, share your preview link around with friends and get feedback early on your campaign. Make adjustments as needed.
Your Initial Wave of Backers
After you launch your Kickstarter, one of the first things you should do is tell all of your closest friends, family members and advisors via email, SMS, phone or preferred method of communication that you’ve launched.
The second thing you should do is broaden that message via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. I’ve broken down several communication channels that we’ve used for ONE TOWER and what the impact was in the next section covering Marketing Channels.
Here are some lessons we learned to keep in mind:
- Be prepared to learn who your friends are that you had no idea cared. We truly know very little about how much people care and want to help each other out.
- Be prepared for a life change that you can only experience after you’ve gone to friends asking for their help. Asking for help is like asking for investments, even for $1. It makes you appreciate how hard it is for some people who come to you for help and how it feels to be ignored or told yes without follow-through. I remember having conversations with the team wondering why many friends and family weren’t backing us. I finally broke my pride and started asking friends directly and discovered most had no idea we were even doing a Kickstarter. Don’t assume people are ignoring you or don’t care.
- When talking about your project, make sure you tell people that it’s your project. When they discover it is yours personally vs. a company you work for or a friend’s they are going to be more willing to help or go above and beyond. Don’t be afraid to use the words “my game”, even when it’s a team effort. Explain this to your team so they don’t get upset with your choice of words, people get shared stuff constantly for fundraising from a friend of a friend but if it’s YOU, they will be more likely to help.
- When you ask for help, don’t assume everyone is going to throw you $20’s. Ask for a $1 and hope for more, but be grateful for less.
- Don’t assume all of your friends know what Kickstarter is or that they use it. You may need to explain that it’s not a donation system and not an investment platform. I was surprised by many friends that they had either no idea what it was or just never used it.
- You need to remind your friends after a few weeks. Don’t forget they are human and get busy. I had a friend that asked me to back him and he sent me a message while I was in the middle of something so I never responded. I really regret missing the message since I would have helped.
- Don’t get upset when your close friends only give you a $1 pledge and distant friends give you $100. Your friend likely does not realize how much the campaign means to you and had they known they would likely give more, and those friends that you thought were distant care very much about you.
The first instinct of Kickstarter creators is usually “we need to blast posts to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube… <enter social platform here>!” and that is incredibly overwhelming, especially when you don’t see any of the needles moving. The key to solving this is to use the all of your marketing channels correctly for their uses.
Facebook & FB Messenger
- When you first post your project to the Facebook timeline, there’s the thought that suddenly every one of your friends will see your post and back you. The reality is that only about 10-20% of your friends will even see the message unless you engage with all of them often.
- When posting the announcement, be sure to include the URL in the post IN BETWEEN sentences or else the link gets removed because of the auto-embedding of your Kickstarter video. Don’t let it just turn into a video thumbnail, not all users know how to click on the title in the video.
- Facebook can be a ruthless platform because of its timeline algorithm. Unless your friends interact with you often, you will begin to fall off of their feed with rare appearances depending on keywords used (i.e. baby, wedding, etc.) and hot threads (especially political.) To solve this, you need to grab a cup of coffee and something to eat, and settle down for the night. It’s going to be a very long one. You will now load up your Facebook friends list and begin individually messaging every single one of your friends on Facebook that you feel would back you, even some that you may not even talk with that often. The results will be surprising and heartwarming.
- One of the things you may face are temporary blocks by Facebook for sending too many messages out to friends. Just wait a few hours and you should be able to continue your messages. Facebook does this to prevent spammers from spamming people on Facebook which I appreciate. Obviously don’t do this often, and only send the message to people you know.
- After you post the announcement on Facebook, you’ll also want to post it to your company or game’s fan page and promote it immediately so that it starts reaching your audience.
- After your initial announcements and messages, these users will begin to see your updates because they responded to you and interacted. Thanks again Facebook algorithm!
- Whenever you have major milestones, you’ll want to keep your network in the loop. Be sure to include a link to your Kickstarter in all of your updates so that people who decide to back you don’t need to search your timeline for a link. If it’s too much effort they will procrastinate and forget. I know this may seem like you’re spamming your network, but as long as you’re giving real updates and showing progress, many of your friends who have backed you are now along for the ride and are just as excited as you are to watch the fundraising progress, so don’t hold back. Obviously, don’t spam multiple “back us” messages. Once you’ve contacted your friends there’s no point in those types of posts.
- LinkedIn groups for Kickstarters and Indie Games perform well but if you are going to post there, do so with care and participate with other user posts.
- LinkedIn is your second priority, post a status update, add the Kickstarter to your job description so it fires off an update to all of your network, go through your connections and tell them about your Kickstarter similarly to FB.
- Use Twitter as a way to respond and analyze but don’t waste time here unless you have a very large following. Even with other Kickstarters we’ve helped manage, Twitter was not a strong source of traffic for pledges. Facebook is king for acquisition, Twitter is good for awareness and engagement but not pledges.
- You should still build a following and you can actually build quite a bit of awareness to press especially as you follow them or hashtag during an event. The Kickstarter team had a great tip about combining #kickstarter with the official event hashtag like #gdc16 while we were at Game Developer’s conference.
- Thank everyone on Twitter that backs you. Type in your game name and the keyword “backed” and select all Tweets to see the most recent posts. For example “Backed ONE TOWER”
- Follow people that may be interested in backing or sharing information about your game, but don’t get upset if you only get a few backers after hundreds of shares and retweets.
- Reddit is a good place to announce your project and it will absolutely drive traffic your way.
- Be sure to read subreddit rules prior to posting. Don’t just post and not engage other user posts.
- Create a subreddit for your product and start posting there so that you can later have AMA (Ask Me Anything) events and build a community around it. If you don’t use Reddit you can ask a friend who does to create it for you and give you mod permissions. Reddit is a powerful tool for your community and you need to build it now.
- The AMA events are a huge driver and having many active Reddit users will draw them to your subreddit when others see the activity. We are doing our AMA for our ONE TOWER game once we pass the 300 backer mark.
- Depending on your game type, Twitch could be a wonderful place to promote it via your own dev streams to show off your game. Showing your gameplay is a way to help convince those who may be on the fence about your product and whether or not it’s real or just a concept.
- If you have a way to connect with them, Twitch influencers are another great way to get new backers.
- Start building your Twitch following now by promoting it on your Kickstarter page and within Backer Quests (discussed later.)
Our account has 4,000 Instagram followers and unfortunately due to the lack of “link” ability, Instagram doesn’t really drive anything for users. The fact that it’s primarily a mobile audience is also the challenge. Instagram isn’t a priority for your Kickstarter.
Kickstarter Curated Lists
The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) has a curated list for games on Kickstarter. IGDA members can apply with the IGDA to be listed on this curated page. We haven’t seen any uptick with our game but it can’t hurt.
Thunderclap is a cool marketing tool if you can get at least 100 participants willing to schedule an automated tweet or post for your game. Many Kickstarter creators have been using it, however I'm unsure if it made any kind of impact..
Backer Clubs & Promoters
There are a lot of services that offer to help promote you to their audiences. Unfortunately, I’m hearing that this isn’t so great for games. This is more for your 3D printers and other physical products. In a nutshell, you sign up with them, pay them a fee and give their backers a special reward. If you have the extra $ burning in your pocket to try it, go for it, but don’t rely on these too much since the most I’m hearing they will bring you is 1-2K and that’s for the products their backers care about.
Backer Quest Program
In our Kickstarter, we created Quests for users to help retweet, share, like and follow our various posts or channels to help get the word out. Other Kickstarters have been able to get more creative with having users participate in events like AMAs or Twitch streams.
Quests only work really well when you have an audience of 1000 or more backers. For anything less than that it’s ideal to stick to smaller increments for goals (50-100) until you are at a larger audience. Too large of increments will discourage participation.
If you have a game that you expect will do well, get in touch with Kickstarter staff. The sooner they know about you the more likely you can get a staff pick “projects we love” tag and possible featuring depending on your project’s performance. The best way to reach out is via LinkedIn or contacting them via their site.
Stack Your Deck
- Stack your deck and make sure you have friends and family lined up for at least 50% of your funding if not all of it.
- Launch a media campaign weeks or months in advance. Work with a PR team, or do your own grassroots research to find blogs and news sites that will cover your game.
- Build a solid newsletter list of 1,000-2,000 emails that you can notify when your Kickstarter launches. You can use a service like Mailchimp to easily integrate newsletter signup in your site and handle all of your emails to the list.
- When reaching out to media sites provide them with a digital press kit (like a Dropbox link) that they can access to get your logo, game art, screenshots, videos, etc. The more you can provide them with the better and more likely they will want to feature you on their homepage.
- If you have a playable demo, encourage streamers to help. I saw another Kickstarter get featured by Super Best Friends who played their game and streamed which resulted in a large volume of backers for them.
Cross-Promoting and Backing
Cross-promoting is one of the greatest ways to get new backers. Contact successful and similar projects and offer to give them a shout out in your next update and offer to cross-pledge between $1 - 10.
Don’t be the a-hole that refuses to cross promote or cross-back. You spending $1-10 to help back another Kickstarter that is doing the same for you is worth it. Even if the project isn’t something you’d play, it doesn’t matter. The other games campaigning at the same time you are, are in the same boat as you. By joining together you are broadening the potential reach for each other. It’s a community of indie devs that need to help each other out. If you’re not willing to help others, how can you expect people to help you?
Try to also meet up with other Kickstarter creators at tradeshows. Don’t waste backer money on a booth. We had the pleasure of meeting the 2ndSum guys who were working on a campaign for Tiny Graveyard and had a blast. We shared notes and ended up cross-pledging at $150 each, and we’ll continue to help each other beyond Kickstarter.
Using Steam Greenlight
Steam Greenlight is a great way to get some early feedback on your game and new backers. In order to submit to Steam Greenlight, your game needs to be in a playable shape as demonstrated in your gameplay video, and you will need to pay a one-time fee of $100 to Valve that goes to charity.
- During the project creation you can link your Kickstarter page to the project and it will be embedded into the side bar of your Greenlight page.
- After your project is greenlit you will be able to submit your game to Steam whenever you’re ready. There’s no rush.
- Try to launch your Steam Greenlight sometime after your Kickstarter to help fill in the space in the dead zone of your campaign where you start seeing very few backers.
- When you initially post Greenlight you will receive about 500-1000 unique users right away then you’ll taper off into the dead zone just like Kickstarter. After that you need to ask all of your friends on Steam to yes vote so you can get more traffic.
- You will be offered services from companies who claim they can get you through Greenlight. Don’t buy your way into greenlight. You don’t want to greenlight too quickly through false votes. Enjoy the real feedback and followers for your product who will be there at launch, otherwise you'll have crickets when you do. Plus, you can link your Kickstarter from it so why would you want to miss out on backers?
Watch the Data
Some statistics we’ve learned about Kickstarter after reviewing ours, other Kickstarters and in talking with Kickstarter directly:
- 25-30% organic pledges on Kickstarter is very good. Organic pledges are pledges coming directly from Kickstarter.
- 15%+ full video completions is good. When it dives under this, you should quickly revisit your video and make adjustments as needed.
- You will see a spike at the start of the project from rising to the top of the charts then by day 3 or 4 you enter the dead zone. This is the time to work the magic with friends and family to keep the pressure on.
- Because Kickstarter users can click the “star” on a project to remind them 48 hours before a project ends, and many users are procrastinators, you can expect a surge of backers at the end of the project, but don’t rely on this. You still need to do your part.
- Kicktraq is a really great tool to keep an eye on how you’re trending.
- You can integrate Google Analytics into your Kickstarter project to give you a clear indication of where your traffic is coming from, how long users are on your page, demographics and more. You can also see if your updates are being viewed.
Building the Community
- Give your players daily updates. Try to keep them focused and short. Save random details for days you don’t have any updates to give.
- Don’t neglect comments and messages (unless it’s someone soliciting you to pay for their services or to hire them for something.) Respond to even the negative comments unless you’re detecting a troll.
- Promote your social channels and newsletters.
- Get to know other Indie Devs on Kickstarter during your campaign. Be the first to offer help, and back them first if you can afford it. You can always cancel if they turn into a dead end and are unresponsive.
Until Part Two...
If you are launching a Kickstarter, be sure to also reach out to us on Kickstarter and let us know if we can help you in any way, including backing you. Indie devs need to help each other, and we’re here for you!
Until next time!