As a small indie dev team, we’ve always struggled with getting the word out and funding development. We typically rely on social media and our distribution platforms (being featured on Steam and Mac App Store, for example). With regards to funding, we’ve pitched to publishers and angel investors, who invariably demanded a significant share of the project revenue in return for some bridge funding. Last year, I started hearing about this site called Kickstarter, and we tried it with our game CreaVures. We ran a campaign for two weeks with a small funding target of $3,000, and the campaign ended up being 177% funded. Now that Guns of Icarus Online is finally in alpha, we started another campaign with a higher funding goal of $10,000. The campaign is so far 130% funded with 28 days more to go. Discovering Kickstarter turned out to make a difference for us in terms of both promotion and securing extra money to spend on development. My purpose in writing this is not only to recommend Kickstarter for game development projects, but to share some of our experiences getting our projects funded with this platform.
For people who haven’t heard of or tried it, Kickstarter is a crowd-funding service that features creative and independently funded projects, and offers creators an avenue to receive funding pledges from individuals in exchange for pre-orders and other goodies. The creators design a set of reward tiers, and the individual backers decide how much to pledge, with funds only going through if a target threshold is met. In essence, Kickstarter has created a marketplace connecting indies to their audiences, bypassing the VCs, the angels, and potentially one day the entire distribution apparatus. While in a lot of cases Kickstarter is not enough to cover the whole cost of development, it’s a great supplement to traditional funding and a great way to foster a fan base.
In setting up our campaigns, there are a few to-dos we found to be really important.
1) The trailer - include people and talk about the game! Kickstarter recommends every project to feature a video introduction, which is usually the first point of contact for people encountering your campaign. This can be in the form of a simple trailer or a series of slides, but we found actually putting ourselves in front of the camera and talking about our project to be far more effective. For CreaVures we took a more comedic approach, and with Guns of Icarus Online, we focused more on the game, and I think the latter approach is more effective in our experiences. This can be tough if you’re camera-shy, but the video is your chance to communicate directly to people who are shopping for interesting projects to support. Also, I don't think people are looking for a slick sales pitch. Instead, they are looking to get to know you and your project. Having a sense of personal connection worked really well for us, especially given that people just browsing the site likely didn’t know who we were beforehand.
2) Give as much background as possible. For Guns of Icarus Online, beyond just descriptions and a feature list, we also wrote about the worldview, the story, the inspiration behind the game, and the development process. Nothing we wrote was particularly long, and we included a few screen shots from our work-in-progress build.
3) Include photos of the gifts. We didn’t have this for our first campaign for CreaVures, and people commented or messaged us asking for them. Some people didn’t want to pledge because they didn’t know what they were getting. So for our current campaign, Guns of Icarus Online, we at least included the photos for t-shirt and poster. Currently, the poster and t-shirt pledge item is second only to the pre-order of the game. The low pledge price is definitely a part of it, but backers knowing exactly what it is they’re buying is perhaps just as important a reason for pledging.
4) Think through the costs! There is a Kickstarter tip about making sure the costs are covered, but it’s important to think through the entire process from creating and producing the gift items to shipping, and to make sure all the costs are included in the pricing of the pledges. For the t-shirts for CreaVures, we should have budgeted more for the cost of both packaging and international shipping. In the case of the posters, we chose a vendor we’ve never worked with before, so we shipped the posters to our office first. We then had to buy the poster tubes, do the assembly work ourselves, and ship. It made for a bit of a scene at the post office, that’s for sure. This time, since we already know how the posters will turn out, we are going to ship to backers directly from the vendor to save both money and time.
5) When you are creating the rewards, consider creating a pledge item that simply offers the pre-order item at a discount from the full retail price and advertising that discount in the item description. For the rest of the items, it is all about bundling items and experiences at pledge amounts that backers will find appealing. Basically the idea is to reward early players who are willing to support the game before it is released.
I did a couple of quick graphs comparing the two Kickstarter campaigns we did for CreaVures and Guns of Icarus Online. (The numbers for Guns of Icarus Online are not final, as the campaign is still ongoing.) The X-axis shows the different reward tiers we created, and the Y-axis shows the number of people who pledged. For CreaVures the most popular pledge by far was at $20, which was the t-shirt or the poster plus the game. Compared to the Guns of Icarus Online campaign, what was glaringly absent was a pledge to just get the game and reward players for supporting the game early. When we created the $10 pledge in the Guns of Icarus Online campaign for players to just pre-order the game at a discount from the $15 target retail price, it easily became the most popular pledge item. In hindsight, this should have been obvious, but it was something we missed the first time. Another point to note is that, in the Guns of Icarus Online campaign, we created a much wider array of pledges, gifts, and bundles, giving people more choices and encompassing a much wider range of price/pledge points. Quite a few items, such as the bundles with multiple copies to play with friends, we created in response to backer requests. For the pledges with high pledge amounts, our idea was that, if people are willing to give us this much to support the project, we don’t want to just give them gift items. Instead, we want create experiences for them, and collaborate with them to craft something memorable and fun in game.
I also plotted the total pledge amounts in dollars against the pledge items. The discovery we made here is that the contribution was relatively even across multiple price/pledge points. This indicates that a wide range of price points is actually viable as long as the reward items or experiences appeal to the players. One conclusion to be drawn is the importance of making sure that each item offers value, and value is a combination of price and appeal of the item. Initially, we didn’t get a lot of our rewards right for Guns of Icarus Online, and no one was interested in pledging for them. We had to adjust the prices down on a number of tiers (down to $200 from $250, for example), while still ensuring we could afford to fulfil them at the reduced price. We added quite a few items at our backers’ suggestion as well. So listening and making adjustments were crucial for the success of our campaign.
In promoting the Guns of Icarus Online campaign, we tried to reach out in a variety of ways. Using the simple analytics tools that Kickstarter provides, the breakdown of Kickstarter vs. external referrals is about 45:55, so pretty even. This suggests that there are two aspects to getting the word out. One is via Kickstarter, and the other is our own efforts. On Kickstarter, Guns of Icarus Online has been featured as a Staff Pick, a Popular project, on the SVA and IGDA curated pages, and on the Kickstarter front page. Yet, most people on Kickstarter found the project through the video game category or search, and together these two avenues accounted for 27% of total pledges. The campaign benefited from good visibility of game projects on Kickstarter in general.
In our own efforts, we tried a number of things. The first thing we did was to reach out to the fans of the original Guns of Icarus as well as people who subscribed to our mailing list on gunsoficarus.com. That went a long way to get the campaign off the ground initially. We also spread the word to our followers on Facebook and Twitter. Together, gunsoficarus.com, Facebook, and Twitter referrals accounted for 19% of our contributions, so social media and a website do help!
We also reached out to our networks of friends and family, as well as posting to different forums. Write-ups by game blogs, especially Rock, Paper Shotgun, also helped. No individual means of reaching out was particularly dominant, but together, they added up to a significant portion of our campaign’s pledges.
The lesson for us was to get out of our shells and do as much as we possibly could to reach out. There was no magic formula. The more we did, the more people noticed the project incrementally. Our efforts also helped build momentum on Kickstarter. The more people pledged, the more chances we had to be featured on the main Kickstarter pages, so in a way, both aspects of getting the word out reinforced one another.
Perhaps even more important than the fundraising aspect of Kickstarter, the site is an intimate and direct way for us to interact with fans or anyone interested in what we do. When the campaign first started a month ago, the gunsoficarus.com site was pretty bare bones. It didn’t have a forum or a dedicated art gallery, both of which have been added recently as interest in our project grew. As we made progress with the site development, the Kickstarter campaign, or the game itself, we made announcements on Kickstarter via their update feature and posted the updates on Facebook and Twitter. This was a great way for us to communicate with people who pledged and to keep them informed.
Overall, Kickstarter had been a great way for us to spread the word about our projects as well as to raise some funds for things that we lacked the budget for. I would encourage everyone who is working on an indie project to check out Kickstarter.