Corey Warning works at Jumpdrive Studios, and indie game company in Portland. They're currently working on their first game, XO.
Since day 1 at Jumpdrive, I knew that we were going to crowdfund our game. I've been researching and analyzing campaigns for months now, and if there's one thing I learned from all the postmortems and unsuccessful projects, it's that coming into Kickstarter cold isn't an option. Even with the best trailer, a slew of captivating GIFs, and social proof via quotes from the hottest indie game sites, I've seen several teams struggle to meet their goals.
I've done a Kickstarter before, but a lot has changed since my campaign ran back in 2011. People have raised a ton of money then failed to deliver, there was that whole potato salad thing, and now we're seeing industry legends turn to Kickstarter to promote their spiritual successors and prove the market for investors (and not everyone agrees that it's a good thing).
During my research I came across a way to test the waters before we launched the crowdfunding campaign for XO. A couple of games that had caught my eye went through this platform called Square Enix Collective. At a glance, it looked similar to Steam Greenlight Concepts – another place to post up your pitch and see how the community reacts. We tried Concepts and saw very little traffic, so we reached out to the Collective to learn more about the process.
You can read more about it on their site, but here's an overview on how the Collective works:
You upload your game's pitch in a format very similar to Kickstarter.
- If approved by Square, they share it through their channels. This includes the folks who frequent the projects posted on the Collective as well as SEC's Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts, and a substantial mailing list. They do this for free.
- The community votes and leaves feedback for the development team for 4 weeks.
- If the reception is strong enough Square Enix may offer to help you with your crowd-funding campaign (in exchange for a small percentage of the crowdfunding earnings.)
- If the crowdfunding is successful, the Collective may offer to distribute your game, again for a small percentage of the game's earnings.
One of the risks we considered was showing too much too early – XO was under 4 months in development at this point. Once a game is posted on the Collective, it's up there forever, and if people didn't like it, there was a chance we'd be written off as amateurs. On the other hand, being featured on the Collective would increase our visibility. We decided to go for it; we all felt like it was a great opportunity to see how potential backers felt about the game, and were anxious to get as much feedback as possible before going into Kickstarter.
After a few days of exchanging emails with SEC, we submitted our pitch...
Ok, I'm really understating this part... we obsessed over everything from the splash image to using the word “to” versus “and” in our opening statement. We had to properly describe as much of the game as possible without being able to show everything since we were so early in development. We spent hours talking about whether we should use this GIF or that GIF, and making sure we weren't over-promising anything.
The guys at Square Enix Collective dug XO, and came back with some great suggestions for the page. We addressed their initial feedback, cleaned up our pitch, and scheduled a launch date for our 28 day feedback phase.
The next 4 weeks were filled with joy, anxiety, panic, and acceptance. You've heard the stories of how Kickstarter is a full time job, and it's all you can think about while it's up? Think of this as a bite-sized version of that.
Day 1: I woke up to a bunch of buzzing notifications signaling that XO was up on the Collective, right on schedule. By the time I got to the office, SEC's Facebook and Twitter headers were changed to our splash image, they had posted a blog about our game on Square-Enix.com, and even made a post from Square Enix's Facebook account to over 500,000 fans. So yeah, these guys are fast and coordinated. I don't know that they do this for every single project, so your mileage may vary.
I'm probably stating the obvious here, but Square Enix is a massive publisher. We grew up playing Square games – I can't tell you how many times I've bought Final Fantasy Tactics. Seeing the XO artwork posted up on their Facebook page somehow made the game feel more real... more special.
There was some initial confusion about what announcing XO on the Collective meant. I had several people ask if we would be using Square's IP to make our game (we aren't), or if they were publishing XO (nothing like that yet). I noticed similar comments across other websites, so I think this is a common misconception.
End of week 1: XO has just over 50 votes, and we're sitting at 87% “yes” votes. I had been waiting to reach out to the press until we had something substantial to show, and this felt like the right time. I'm aware that a Kickstarter campaign isn't news these days, and a pre-Kickstarter page is probably less likely to get a story but if I can at least get a dialogue going with the contacts I've collected that's a good start to landing something bigger in the future.
Some smaller-to-medium sized sites gave us coverage, and I was able to at least get emails back from a few of the big guys – saying that it looked cool and to reach back out when we had a gameplay trailer or a playable demo. I doubt that I would have gotten this kind of response without XO being on the Collective.
We also did a quick poll to see what everyone was interested in the most:
Week 2: A few more no votes, but no negative comments. I hoped our ratio would stay above 90%, putting us on par with the more successful projects on the Collective. I remember laying in bed at 1am and running the numbers through the calculator app on my phone. Since it's such a small sample size we needed about 5 yes votes to go up 1%, while each “no” vote might drop us down another 1%. Grrr.
I'm trying to keep in mind what we're asking here: it's not “would you play this game?” or even “would you buy this game?” - it's “would you crowdfund this game?” which I believe is the hardest question of all to get a “yes” vote on. Not to mention that you're required to create an account, or sign in via Facebook to vote for the projects, which adds a barrier. Speaking of which, I'd like to see the new account signup get a little more streamlined.
I brought up the idea of sending a press release, and the Collective offered to do that from their end; they normally don't do this for every campaign, but the timing just happened to work out for us. This was a huge help; I was able to land a few interviews and additional stories about the game. It also showed me a great example of what a solid, professional press release should look like. After that went out, our trailer was posted on a handful more sites, including a gaming website in the Czech Republic which brought in 1,000 views alone.
Week 3: We're currently at 80% “yes” which is definitely lower than I'd hoped. Part of me wants to rewrite the entire pitch, but I keep reminding myself that it would defeat the whole purpose of the feedback phase. If this exercise shows us that we need to go back and refine our presentation, better to know that before the Kickstarter campaign. I'm still frustrated that we're getting “no” votes without any comments telling us why. Phil from the Collective has since told me that they're considering adding a prompt to ask people to leave feedback after selecting “no.” I think that would be really helpful to developers moving forward. Someone voting “no” because “I only play console games” is wildly different from “I play games like yours and I don't like it because of X/Y/Z.” If we know it's because of the latter, we can at least address it.
Once a month, SEC sends out a newsletter to a subscriber list that's in the hundreds of thousands. We were told that after that's sent, we should expect the bulk of our traffic and votes to come in. This happened on Wednesday morning and now we're seeing a steady stream of people checking out our game. The next day things slowed down considerably, and we're floating between 79-81% “yes” at any given hour.
Awhile back I talked to another team that said they had over 500 votes by the end of their feedback phase. We weren't on track to hit that number. The fact that we were well under this was really bothering me, so I asked the Collective if there was anything unusual about our traffic. They checked the reports and it turns out that something went wrong when the initial newsletter went out, and not everyone received it. Another blast went out that same day, and we saw those missing votes come in.
Week 4: We’re losing about 1% a day, but no one is leaving us comments saying why… c’mon people! Your passive-aggressive “no” vote isn’t helping anyone here! Tell me that you hate the teaser, or that you don’t understand how the gameplay works… anything is better than a silent “no thank you.”
For now, all we can really do is speculate on this. If I had to guess, I’d say three things prompted the “no” votes:
- At the time XO didn't have characters (it does now), which wasn’t as interesting to Square’s fanbase.
- The game isn't turn based. It does allow you to pause and issue commands, but the trailer didn't make that clear.
- Our teaser trailer didn't show enough gameplay – something we knew could hurt our rating coming into the pitch, but at that point in development we didn't feel comfortable showing more.
Last 3 days: Our percentage hasn't changed, a couple more comments here and there, still all positive. At the very end one person said they wouldn't play it because movement was limited to 2D, which was a fair comment, even if it took an entire month to get a negative comment! We can only imagine how much it would have benefited the game if we'd known the reasons why people said “no.”
Here's how things looked at the end of the feedback phase.
I pulled the analytics for our website and it showed that our traffic had doubled during our 4 weeks on The Collective, which is a huge plus:
So what did we learn from all this?
- People were really digging our art style. We nailed that!
- It probably would have been better to feature the characters in XO in the Collective campaign, something that we got to work on immediately after our feedback phase ended.
- Based on a few comments and some chatter outside the Collective page, people see a lot of inspiration from Battlestar Galactica and are pretty excited about political system.
- We need to improve our description of the game and work on our images to support that.
- We have a lot of work to do to build our audience before Kickstarter.
After the feedback phase ended, we continued working on XO and pushing towards a Kickstarter launch on July 20th. We were in constant contact with Phil at the Collective during this time, and things were looking good to move onto phase 2: SEC helping us with our KS campaign. We sent over all the required documents, which included our a general questionnaire, XO's game design doc, a breakdown of the projects mechanics and systems, and our Kickstarter plan.
The last step was our final team assessment interview, and here's where things started to take a turn. E3 caused a major delay in scheduling a conference call (you may recall a pretty large presence from Square at E3 this year...) and after that some internal staff changes caused some more delays.
We're still a virtually unknown company, and it was hard not to get our hopes up on having the Collective's extra push during Kickstarter. We're talking about a mailing list in the millions and a “Square Enix Approved” seal of quality for our game! We were just a few weeks away from pushing the button on our campaign, and we still didn't know for sure if things were going to work out. All we could do was push on as if we'd be doing Kickstarter sans Collective, and if it worked out at the last minute, so be it.
With just 2 weeks to our Kickstarter launch, we scheduled a Skype call and completed our final interview, the waited another whole week before we receiving word (via Twitter DM) that the Collective would officially be supporting XO during our Kickstarter! This felt like a huge win for the entire team. You can read Square Enix's full assessment of our team and XO here.
So the last question is: how much does having Square Enix Collective's support affect a Kickstarter launch? Well, for now you can see the results on our Kickstarter campaign for XO which is now live. I'm planning on posting a multi-part Kickstarter post-mortem after everything is said and done, so please keep an eye out for that – in the mean time you can follow me on Twitter, or visit Jumpdrive Studios website to learn more about the work we're doing!