Near-Mage is a modern Kickstarter indie game success story.
Near-Mage is an upcoming narrative-driven, point-and-click adventure game about studying spell crafting at a magic school in Transylvania. The game features frame-by-frame animation, hand-drawn 2D environments, and a customizable spell crafting system where you can combine different types of magic (e.g. flame, seed, blood) for different effects that progress the story in different ways.
Stuck in Attic, the Transylvania-based developers of Near-Mage, previously developed Gibbous: A Cthulu Adventure. Gibbous, released in 2019, is a point-and-click adventure game that combines the two disparate elements of comedy and cosmic horror that went on to become a commercial as well as critical success. The Stuck in Attic team took what they learned about Kickstarter promotion from the success of their last game, and replicated that in Near-Mage with refined messaging and a broader scope.
When the Near-Mage Kickstarter campaign launched in August 2021, it beat its funding goals by 500 percent and knocked its €25,250 (approx. $28,600) target out of the park. That's a monumental achievement, especially considering that the average success rate of a Kickstarter campaign is closer to 39 percent.
Game Developer sat down with Liviu Boar, the Creative Director at Stuck in Attic, to talk about what worked in Gibbous that they built on with the Near-Mage Kickstarter, and what else they threw into the mix. Liviu has written blogs for Game Developer himself and has posted on topics ranging from Kickstarter preparation to Steam page optimization.
Game Developer: Walk me through the months leading up to the Near-Mage Kickstarter campaign.
Boar: I have to admit it was more of a flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants-and-learning-along-the-way deal with our first Kickstarter. The one thing we knew for sure was that we didn't know much, so we decided to apply the same strategy to our marketing as we did making the game itself: make sure that we have the best production values and the best value proposition that our tiny, three-person studio is capable of.
Both the first campaign and the development of that game were, unsurprisingly, huge learning opportunities. We inevitably missed our deadline by a lot (but what Kickstarter doesn't?), we figured out who we wanted to work with again, and we started to understand the market a bit better.
So when it came to Kickstarting Near-Mage, we wanted to make sure of a couple of very important things: firstly, that we try to make a game that is much more appealing to a larger group of people than our first game was. Secondly, that our backers understood that the amount we're asking for isn't going towards production costs alone and that we're partly self-funding Near-Mage ourselves.
As was the case with both campaigns, and Kickstarter in general, transparency was key. Being a Kickstarter-crowdfunded game holds you to be open and honest with your audience about what you're doing, how, and when.
Flash-forward to the day before the Kickstarter. Tell me what happened then. What were the final steps or action items you took so that the Kickstarter launch went smoothly?
Other than sitting around in a candle-lit protection circle and chanting the unspeakable names of the Old Ones in reverse, we made sure to leverage every possible avenue to our fans that we had.
We had a few more tricks up our sleeve than we did the first time around. For one thing, we had instant access to all the backers from our first Kickstarter campaign.
Our social media audience had also grown in the time since the release of our last game - not massively, but enough to make a difference. Also, Steam came out with a new system that pushes your new launch to a lot of the people who played your first game. That was pretty helpful, even if it's a bit unpredictable.
Work had begun on this many months before, when we started teasing the project under the working title "Project Greenhorn". Making people curious means making them excited, which I think played a pretty big part in the positive reaction we got when we revealed the game with its real title and concept.
So, it was more of a matter of several months of constantly adding failsafe after failsafe, building anticipation. Also, to be quite honest, relying on the goodwill we had managed to gain from players with the success of the first game helped as well.
This time around, we were able to build on the momentum that gave us the confidence to push that launch button and embark on yet another rollercoaster ride. Unless you're a huge name, I don't think it's wise to surprise people with a crowdfunding campaign. It's more of a matter of putting together small bits of potential success months before so that they lead to actual success.
How did you refine Near-Mage’s messaging and audience targeting based on what worked for Gibbous: A Cthulu Adventure?
Building Near-Mage’s Steam presence was indeed a matter of refining the things that we discovered when creating and maintaining Gibbous’ page, and we learned a lot of them the hard way.
In the period between creating and launching the two pages, Steam greatly reduced the impact that devs have on the visibility of their games. Steam greatly nerfed the importance of steam tags, and enacted more strict policing of what's being recommended in the "More Like This" section, both of which were probably our greatest drivers of traffic and visibility. So we were forced to rely more on what we do control: how pretty and readable the graphical assets are (arguably the most important part of our game's marketing), and how concise and exciting the text is (less important, and used to enhance the pretty and readable graphics).
But that's not to say the copy isn't important, or that you can't write garbage and expect it to stick. Regarding copywriting, I think with Gibbous we were so excited to throw everything we were mixing into the game at the player (Cults! Talking cat! Cthulhu! Fish-people! Transylvania! Krakens! Alchemy! Steampunk!) that the message came through a bit garbled, and the game probably still sells more on the strength of its visuals.
With Near-Mage, we first made sure to distill it down to a simple elevator pitch, “Study Magick in Transylvania!” We made sure it was first and foremost an easy to grasp concept, and then we built the messaging around that. It was also important that that concept excited not just players of adventure games, but a more general audience that includes anyone with a passing interest in video games (and studying magic, heh).
I think the escalating interest was at least in part thanks to a more coherent communication of the core concept of the game.
What were your main takeaways from marketing Gibbous: a Cthulhu Adventure, and how did you use that learning experience during Near-Mage’s pre-Kickstarter promotion?
Probably the most obvious point in retrospect, and one that I wish more devs took into account, is to not surprise people with your game on launch day.
From its reveal to its launch on Steam, Gibbous’ development took nearly four years. That’s a good time frame to build anticipation and hype and a bit of a following. I don’t think most indie studios our size create games that can take the world by storm on launch day.
To account for that, we made sure our fans were aware that we were working on something, even before revealing what it was. Indie devs, please don’t work away on your game in anonymity until the day you release it. Most people are not likely to notice or even care. People need to know your project exists, and you need to build up excitement and followers for it over months, if not years. I can't stress this enough.
It's always best to launch a Steam page for your game as early as possible, but we postponed it a bit to coincide with the game's reveal and Kickstarter campaign.
We did this for a few reasons. First, you need to make sure the first impression is as impactful as possible, so you need good-looking gameplay and an impressive trailer. Please don't launch your Steam page without these.
Second, if you decide to crowdfund, synchronizing it with your Steam page launch means that the two can bring traffic and wishlists/backers to each other. They both come together to form a sales funnel, with the traffic from the Kickstarter page leading to the Steam page, leading people to Wishlist.
One equally important thing was making sure that people understood that our Kickstarter goal doesn't just cover what it costs to make the game, that we're partly funding the game ourselves, and that all the extra money that we get beyond the funding goal goes into making Near-Mage bigger, better, and more immersive.
I think this worked in our favor first and foremost. It also indirectly brought up the often-ignored fact that what games are asking for on Kickstarter is usually a fraction of what they actually cost.
In what ways has Gibbous/Stuck in Attic’s community amplified the Near-Mage Kickstarter and brought it to a wider audience?
The response to Gibbous from its backers was overwhelmingly positive, so we were both excited and confident to bring them back in for another crowdfunding ride with Near-Mage.
When you first kickstart you're in a pretty vulnerable position because all the promises that you're making to your fans might just turn out to be over-hyped dust in the wind. When we offered physical editions of Gibbous: A Cthulu Adventure as a reward for the Near-Mage Kickstarter backers, we were determined to keep the same high standards for our physical Kickstarter rewards as the game itself.
Seeing other, much bigger and respected companies drop the ball on this aspect motivated us, even more, to go above and beyond.
We proved that we put the physical editions together ourselves, and worked with local manufacturers on the parts we couldn't handle so we could make neat collectibles that our backers would be genuinely excited to showcase in their homes. We made sure to share videos of the two of us physically putting the special edition box together, and I think that clicked with people - we're not just blurting out buzzwords when we say we hand-made everything with a lot of love and passion; we proved it.
The adventure game niche is pretty small, and word gets around fast if you deliver nicely - I’m sure that was a pretty big part of the campaign’s success.
As for what we share on Twitter, we started our journey with transparency in mind, which is inevitable when both of your games are crowdfunded by your fans. I decided to share as much as possible, be it good news or bad.
I’m aware that it can sometimes be seen as boasting, but we never in our wildest dreams thought that we could sell 60,000 units of Gibbous on Steam alone. I feel justified and comfortable to shout it from the rooftops - not just because I’m proud of our team and our accomplishments, but because I think it motivates others to not half-ass their indiedev projects and deliver the best product they’re capable of. Otherwise, why even bother?
What were the relationships you built when you prepared for Gibbous' Kickstarter that you leveraged during the Near-Mage Kickstarter?
We've made a lot of friends in the virtual realms of forums and discord servers, but probably the most important ones were made attending IRL conventions before Covid hit. Developers, enthusiasts, and journalists mostly. We met a lot of super nice folks that we're proud to call our friends, and that I now laugh and joke and commiserate with weekly, if only in front of a computer screen.
This wasn't a deliberate play to help hype up our game - rather, being in a healthy community driven by the same passion means that everyone hypes and builds everyone else up, and everybody wins. I'm not even sure influencers are a thing in this genre.
We just kind of know each other and get along, help each other out with whatever is needed, and it makes for a great mental stimulant that to me feels more important than cold, hard, wishlist and backer numbers.
Let’s stop talking about your last game and talk about where things are now. At the time of writing, it’s been about 6 months since the Kickstarter. You’re a year into development. How are things coming along?
Pretty well, actually! Two of us (me and Cami, a fellow artist) live and work together here in Romania, and we work remotely with our programmer Christopher, who’s located in Napoli, Italy. We’re progressing at a much better pace than I had hoped given the physical distance that separates us.
I think the experience with Gibbous has made me into a slightly better project manager. On the other hand, it helps so much to have passionate people like Chris on our team, who I sometimes have to ask to stop working already when he notifies me he's delivering a new build and it's 1 AM. We're up to build number 68 already.
Our strategy was to knock out the main beats of the story at least conceptually at first, and then build most of the world of the game. We did this because, unlike Gibbous which was a steady linear progression through new locations, you can access most of the places in Near-Mage very early on; it's something of an open-world-ish adventure game (Final Fantasy IX is a huge influence here).
Once we were done with that we started focusing on the very first part of the game, which we're shaping into a demo that hopefully people will be able to play sometime this spring. It's pretty exciting!
On the Kickstarter page, you mention that the team has leveled up their drawing and painting skills. Can you go into a little more detail? What are you doing differently in Near-Mage as far as the visuals?
The promotion and marketing emphasize hand-drawn animation. The influences have shifted away from cosmic horror and the Lovecraftian mythos to the supernatural and Romanian folklore.
From a visual standpoint, we made a few critical adjustments. One of the more important ones was to rely even more heavily on local color and flavor, and this ranges from how all buildings in the game are directly inspired by local Transylvanian architecture to the type of mythical creatures that Near-Mage is teeming with, to the way they are dressed, etc.
Another smaller but impactful change was using outlines in our environment art. When I painted the backdrops of our first game, I was hugely influenced by classic Disney animation backgrounds. However, Disney used to have anywhere between 20 and 50 people doing just that, whereas I'm a guy in my pajamas nestling a hot cup of coffee in front of my tablet.
I realized that just drawing outlines and not having to constantly refine edges to get sharpness goes a long way because 1) it looks a bit more cohesive, since characters have outlines, and 2) it greatly reduces the time necessary to paint a piece of background art. We're doubling the resolution with Near-Mage; every screen is at least 4K, so that's a whole lot of hand-painting that needs to be done.
We had some stuff in Gibbous that we thought was cool and exciting - like real-time shadows that rotate around the character depending on the source light, but that involved creating complicated invisible 3D surfaces to project them on. Little things like that take a whole lot of effort that I don’t think is even noticed all that much.
So this time around, we’re focusing on features that are easy to grasp visually, and doing our best not to let our enthusiastic artistic selves go wild at the expense of time efficiency.
Final comments? What do you attribute to the success of Near-Mage’s successful Kickstarter?
This is, honestly, one of the easiest questions to answer. While I do think that our concept and our production values made a difference, what really matters with crowdfunding is honesty, transparency, and passion.
Gamers and backers aren’t dumb - their emotional intelligence can very quickly spot fake enthusiasm and cash grabs. I think we as a studio can’t help but let our sheer passion for making games shine through in everything we do, from the smallest tweet to a month-long Kickstarter campaign. It’s like being a band on stage - if you’re real with people, the crowd vibes with you and gives you even more energy, and so on, back and forth.
That’s the real and only secret to being successful on Kickstarter. That, and good art.