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Our KickStarter: Scraping By Without a Scam in the World

Like most Indie games, we didn’t get Big Press coverage, so what we saw is probably a good example of what most can expect, what we did is most likely what you need to do to to succeed, and you can probably learn from our mistakes.

Ascent: The Space Game scraped over the line by a few hundred bucks at the end of our recent KickStarter Campaign. Like most Indie games, we never got big press coverage or much in the way of backers from KickStarter itself, so our experience is probably a pretty good guide to what you can expect.

What Worked Well?

Playerbase

Our existing playerbase did the vast majority of the heavy lifting. Every single backer who pledged $90 or up (where I recognise the names, and that’s almost all of them) and certainly every backer over $200, was at least a sometime player of the game itself.

So – having a pre-existing fanbase for your game, preferably by having a playable game that people enjoy already, is a must for an Indie company who can’t expect Big Press coverage.

Even outside our pre-existing fanbase, having a game people could come and check out was invaluable to those people who discovered us during the campaign itself. What better way to ascertain our ability to deliver on our promises than to play the game we’ve already made?

Personal Contacts

Every backer over $500 bar one was someone we’ve met in person, as well as a member of the playerbase, be it regular or past. We can’t stress enough how important this one is. Without the backing of people we knew with serious money to spare, we would never have even come close.

Our in-game map. Highly irrelevant at this juncture but it sure breaks up these walls of text.

Compelling Rewards, and Dialogue with Fanbase

In the months leading up to our KickStarter opening, we held a lengthy and detailed dialogue with our playerbase. Proposals for rewards were made on both sides, and feedback taken into careful consideration. Adjustments were made – several times – to the rewards based on feedback to ensure that each level was desirable, and each level sufficiently more desirable than the one before to motivate everybody to upgrade.

The results were threefold. First, every active player (and many a past player returning) was compelled to pledge. Not because they wanted to support the game, but because the rewards were irresistible for a player. Second, each player (active and past) who pledged, was motivated to pledge as much as they could afford, rather than stopping at $90 or $100. Players would put up $250 or $500 and then say “I wish I could afford the next reward level!” Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, players knew months in advance that we were doing a KickStarter and weeks in advance what the rewards were going to be, giving them time to think and arrange their finances.

Consequently, players had money set aside to pledge early, and lots of it.

Later on in the campaign, we took more feedback and added new pledge levels and new options for rewards, and this resulted in several thousand dollars in further pledges or increases to existing pledges, without which we never would have even come close to our goal.

So the message here is: Have rewards that your fanbase have TOLD YOU are compelling, and have them ramp up so people can’t resist upgrading to the next level wherever they can afford it.

A small G-Device, a relatively pricey reward based on Alien technology that can completely terraform a planet up to 1 earth mass.

What could be improved?

Press Coverage

Despite nothing short of heroics from our PR firm, and some small and medium sites totally getting it and giving us as much coverage as could be expected and then some, there was just never enough of it to make a big enough difference to the end result.

Running a KickStarter generally seems to make the gaming press run away screaming if you aren’t well known already (which we knew was a thing), but we found the level of being-ignored we experienced to be a real eye-opener. Eye-closer?

We were the first MMO to go live with both client and server developed by one person. We were the first MMO to go live within a year of development starting. We have by far the largest playable sandbox space ever attempted, let alone live. Fully Earth-sized rocky planets and hundreds of billions of star systems. We’ve got a colony out there, built by one player, with over fifty thousand structures completed. We’ve got more than 2.5 million colonists, all shipped out there by players in ships that start with three passenger seats. Our playerbase have formed a galactic government, renaming planets and star systems, and interconnecting their systems and NPC controlled ones with player-constructed jump gates.

Those are some of our potential headlines, and with them we can’t get one paragraph on Rock Paper Shotgun or any similar sized site, and we’ve been trying for a year. We ended up with over $35,000 AUD pledged from less than 2,500 views of our video by the campaign’s end. That is a lot of money from NOT a lot of traffic, and tells me we could’ve done a lot better with a bit more coverage. Where we had traffic, clearly, there was significant interest generated.

So the message for an Indie here is… you can’t count on big press support to get you over the line, because you can’t count on big press support. For every great Indie game out there, there are a hundred great Indie games out there. They all deserve coverage, and there’s no guarantee you’ll be one of the lucky few.

Backers from KickStarter Itself

This one was a real eye opener too. When I correct for known backers, our stats page right now says $1,122 was pledged from KickStarter itself, whether searches or browsing or referral. That’s a little over 3% of our total.

Why so little? Well, ultimately, we got very little TRAFFIC from KickStarter itself. Almost all of our traffic to our KS page came from our website, our Facebook page and from in-game, or were direct hits. A small amount came from press coverage, various forums, or originally from press coverage but via our site.

Where KickStarter places you on the “popular” page comes down to mostly a single metric, and we can be very sure which metric that is, based on our experience. We were never a “popular” campaign, so we can pretty much rule out everything we did well.

We were at 25% on our first day, and 47% by the end of day two – so we can largely rule out the actual performance of your KickStarter. We had hundreds of Facebook shares and a lot of comments in those first few days too, so you can largely rule those out as well.

So what did we score poorly at that’s left? The number of backers. Yes, that’s right; one of the easiest numbers to game is the most important by several orders of magnitude. If this is true, then a campaign with 300 $1 backers can be more ‘popular’ than a campaign with $16,000 pledged. More on this under “What Puzzled Us”!

Now, while I would still say KickStarter is the premier platform for crowd funding, and that KickStarter imbues your campaign with a certain credibility, the message for Indies here is clear as well – you can’t expect a huge pile of funding to be pledged via KickStarter itself. Make sure your target is reachable with your existing fanbase and supporters!

Our Game’s Graphics and UI

It’s ironic, or at the very least rather frustrating, that our KickStarter campaign was solely to hire our artist full time and pay a UI expert part time to improve our graphics and UI, and that we got feedback throughout the campaign that people either didn’t want to pledge, didn’t want to try the game out or didn’t want to post about us because our graphics and UI needed improvement.

Especially amusing was being shown a Maya render of a competing game’s space ship (competing game being something you can’t play yet), and being told it looks better than the screenshots from in game of our space ships. What’s wrong with this (perfectly ray traced) picture?

Nevertheless, had we begun the campaign with vastly better graphics and UI, it’s clear we may’ve got more coverage and definitely would’ve got more funding, so these could be improved – so that they could be improved… more… again...

Seriously though, it is clear that the old adage that “gameplay is more important than graphics” is absolutely true... for the 3% of the population that keep saying it. Everyone else oohs and aahs over pretty graphics first, and THEN finds out about the gameplay. So don’t do what we did. Start with an artist on day one.

Our new experimental paint system (not stable yet, in Beta) and a good example of why I should be banned from making user interfaces.

What Puzzled Us

Scams

Really early on, we had several large pledges up from long term players and former players we knew personally, and in a few places eyebrow-raising comments began to emerge.

“I really hope these large backers are genuine”, on a forum we frequent.

“Conversations with developers has taught us to be weary of often-fraudulent large donations” [sic], from a press article covering us.

Looking into it, apparently some KickStarter campaigns do a kind of pump and dump scam, where they get others or perhaps sock-puppet accounts to make large pledges to their campaign, and then cancel or reduce these pledges once they have the ‘popularity’ they need.

Now for the record, ALL of our large backers were real, and they ALL paid up. So a big sarcastic golf clap for everyone who assumed we were scamming or worse yet publicly insinuated that we were scamming. We can only guess at what damage was done to our campaign from such assumptions and insinuations.

In response to this scam, it seems KickStarter have moved the primary ‘popularity’ measure over to ‘number of backers’ instead of just removing the ability to reduce or retract pledges, which brings us to scam number two.

We received quite a number of messages throughout the campaign blatantly offering us the ability to “buy” $1 backers, in batches of several hundred. Several of these also explained KickStarter’s ‘popularity’ algorithm, or at least their theory of it. We can’t tell you if this scam works, because our response every time was to report each message as spam – but at least one message was directly from someone who HAD a successful KickStarter campaign, and who had raised quite a bit of money too, so these weren’t all shady looking fly-by-nighters.

What puzzles us about these scams is that KickStarter hasn’t just shut them off. It would be simple in theory – just remove the ability to retract or reduce pledges. You could then move the ‘popularity’ measure straight back over to actual campaign performance where it belongs and that would be the end of it.

We don’t know how effective these scams are, or how often people get caught doing them, or what KickStarter might be doing about them, so not making any claims here, just expressing puzzlement.

And now, some gratuitous violence!

What’s next?

Well, we’re now in the enviable position of having money in the bank to get the job done, and the slightly unenviable position of the amount in the bank being equal to our “worst case scenario – we CAN continue with this level of funding” calculation.

So we’re continuing, and our numbers tell us we can deliver on our promises on time and within budget if we stick to the discipline we’ve shown for the past year and a half.

Meanwhile, the real hero at the end of this story may yet be Valve Corporation. As of last Friday, we are now in the Top 100 on Steam Greenlight. Fingers, toes, arms, legs, elbows and rubber band collections crossed we will be greenlit any month now and working towards a Steam Release with our updated Graphics and UI funded by our (just barely) successful KickStarter campaign!

 

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