This is almost a postmortem. It’s an analysis of the state of Kickstarter for the plucky group of friends trying to launch an idea, and a cautionary tale that must be told. This is about launching the Kickstarter campaign of “Niftymancer”, (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/375726835/niftymancer?ref=article), a game inspired by Plants versus Zombies and Tripletown, and targeted for a more casual audience, and its lack of traction with the hardcore game media and the Kickstarter audience.
It began with an idea…
Niftymancer’s roots go all the way back to 2008, when Farmville and other click-o-matic games were popping up in the brand new frontier of Facebook. I had the idea of doing a spoof on Farmville called “Gothic Gardener”, where you raised poisonous or man-eating plants to terrorize the neighborhood children. I was chest deep in shipping “Wizard 101,” and the idea wouldn’t resurface until 2012, after leaving casual game development studio GameHouse to pursue my own endeavors.
Having been a huge fan of “Plants versus Zombies,” I got together with a set of fellow game developers and showed them a prototype I assembled for “The Nifty Necromancer,” which quickly became rebranded as “The Niftymancer.”
The idea was to build a free to play game with the same addictive qualities as Plants versus Zombies and Tripletown, set in a fantasy world where the player assumed the role of a misunderstood necromancer. The player would conjure zombies, ghosts, and other odd minions to defend against angry pixies and forest creatures, while advancing through an RPG style world with quests and magic items.
We approached Northwest artist/cartoonist Justin Hillgrove (www.impsandmonsters.com) for collaboration, and found both a soul and a style for the game. Everything seemed to have come together as if it was meant to be.
Why Not Kickstarter?
It was now October of 2012, and the riches of Kickstarter had stirred the gaming industry like early rumors of gold at Sutter’s Mill or in the Klondike. I had actually worked with Alex “Chewy” Thomas back in the Shadowbane days, and he and a few friends had split off from Bioware to fund their idea, “Banner Saga”, to the tune of $723,886 (1).
Several people in our group had been laid off, and I wanted to return to making video games full time, so some source of money was necessary. Kickstarter seemed the natural choice: the scope of the project was tight and the monetary needs of the team were modest. If we could pay three artists, two programmers, and a designer for a few months, we could totally realize the vision of the game.
Thus began our journey into the dark world of the Kickstarter pitch.
The Pitch, The Stress, The Pain
My first advice to any prospective Kickstarter campaign out there is that assembling the pitch and the Kickstarter page will dominate three months of your life. It will be stressful, aggravating, and leave you with the constant feeling that you should have accomplished oh-so-much more for the amount of time and effort you’ve devoted to it. I understand that fully operational game studios bring the entire studio to a halt to build their Kickstarter pitch, and I believe it.
Here’s what went well with the Niftymancer pitch:
- We held weekly meetings. Being a part time team, everyone was too busy to meet more frequently, but this kept us focused, allowed us to shoot and retake footage, and brainstorm for ideas on the project.
- We took time to film casual conversations and jam sessions, and this gave us more footage to play with and show our team off.
- We took the time to elaborate on all of our game industry experience. This was one of the biggest sources of compliments on our pitch.
Here’s what didn’t go well
- It took way too long. Three months dragged by, and the video wasn’t even remotely ready until February of 2013. In that time we lost team members who got other jobs or had life issues come up.
- We had constant setbacks on building a playable demo. By the time the video was finished we were still waiting on critical art assets in the demo, and decided to launch the Kickstarter with very rough demo footage, which was probably a bad idea.
- Amazon Payments had some bumps in the road. While we were able to sort it out, it set us back a week and a half from our planned launch date.
If you’re going to do a Kickstarter pitch, expect to do the following for success:
- Shoot a high quality video, and have someone skilled in post-production to edit and add special effects. This is a must. If you lack that skill set, expect to pay thousands of dollars on a production house.
- Expect to spend thirty to forty man-hours in producing the art for your Kickstarter page. You will need tee shirt designs, award levels, stretch goals, and professional looking separators. We spent close to $1,500 for art, editing, and post-production.
- Plan on having lots of slick, awesome, polished game footage to show.
“But wait,” you might say, “isn’t the point of the Kickstarter to raise the money to make the game?”
You would be correct, or at least, that was the point for Niftymancer. However, in soliciting feedback on the pitch video, and in subsequent scathing critique of the video, we heard that again and again:
“Show us good footage of the game.” “You showed the game too early. You should have finished more.”
That begs the question: is Kickstarter a pre-sale for games, and can you succeed if you haven’t already made the game?
Success other than Presale
There are some prominent stories of successfully funded Kickstarter campaigns that don’t seem driven by presale of the game. Let’s take a moment to review what we were NOT:
#1 Not a celebrity campaign
While Tom Hall (2) and Chris Taylor (3) can tell you that being a game industry mogul is not a guarantee of a successful Kickstarter, others such as Tim Schafer (4) and Brian Fargo (5) have shown that the right name appeal (coupled with a good idea) can rocket your project to funding, often in the millions of dollars. We certainly didn’t qualify in this category.
#2 Not an impossible MMO
I’ve worked on three Massively Multiplayer Online games in my day, all of which shipped, and I can tell you that funding to get one of these monsters out starts around 20 million dollars, and goes up rapidly from there. Despite that, MMO Kickstarters regularly fund, often by promising hardcore MMO players the moon and by offering them real estate or status within said MMO world. An excellent example of this would be projects like Greed Monger (6) and Arakion (7)
Not a presale
One of the criticisms we got back early in the campaign was that a lot of people pledged to the minimum to get a free copy of a game, and that by doing Niftymancer as a free to play game we’d cut off the major motivation to pledge on Kickstarter.
Certainly if you evaluate successfully funded Kickstarter campaigns, a lot of them look a lot like mostly complete games being offered for pre-sale. My hat’s off to Delver’s Drop, and their final pledge point of $150,745, but if you look at those guys, they’re showing a very polished, complete looking project, and the worked PAX and other conventions for months leading up to the campaign (8).
That may not be an unreasonable thing for the public to expect, but it should be a warning to people looking to get crowdsourced in chasing their dream: you need to have money to get money. You need to have already invested hundreds of man hours of solid programming, art, and sound to get backed in a modern Kickstarter.
Keeping a female focus
Okay, it’s important to note that we did not set out to make a game solely targeted at women with Niftymancer. But we did go with a style and focus our designs heavily towards a female audience: women 15-45; the type that enjoyed “The Corpse Bride” or “Coraline”. At the time of writing we have four women and two men actively working on the game, and we heavily focus tested our main characters, especially the female Niftymancer, to make sure they had proper appeal.
But was that a mistake?
My instinct was a solid “no”, because women have been an underserved part of the game population, and all the research I’ve seen in the last five years shows the rise of female dominance in gaming, specifically social and casual games. Certainly, we’ve seen the rocket success of FeministFrequency’s Kickstarter “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” (9), although it should be noted that Tropes was not a video game. How many Kickstarter video games are really focused on or at least emphasize a female audience? It doesn’t seem to be that many.
I would venture further to say that a lot of media people who watch Kickstarter tend to be males interested in hard core games, and that limits the exposure and publicity of your campaign.
This remains an open question to me, and I’m hoping to see some broader research done on the percentage both of casual, female oriented games in the Kickstarter space and how well they succeed relative to more hardcore, male focused games.
There are several lessons to be learned from Niftymancer. You are free to disagree, but we highly rate the following ones:
- Remember that even a good idea may not have the audience (on Kickstarter) to fund your project
- Most successfully funded projects in the game space are from full time, actualized teams that put together really slick videos. You should plan on being just as slick.
- Most successfully funded projects also are well along in game development, and can show off a polished game. You should do the same.
- Media attention rules. Design a hook and target an audience that will get the attention of the gaming media. If you’re going to target a more casual audience then you need some way of drumming up media attention.
Perhaps that is the direction of the Kickstarter video games: get a solid amount of investment cash for a small team, build PR, and run a pre-sale through Kickstarter. Kickstarter then gets you a large influx of cash with relatively few legal obligations.
This reality means that the small group of friends with a dream is going to have a hard time running a successful Kickstarter campaign.
We’re still out there, and we’ll find a way to make Niftymancer happen. Please feel free to check out Niftymancer’s Kickstarter and its (belated) playable demo:
About the Author
Thomas Sitch is a twelve year game industry veteran, having worked on games like Shadowbane, Pirates of the Burning Sea, and Wizard 101. In 2009 he became an independent developer working on the casual teen vampire game, “Forever 17,” and going on to work in casual and mobile games.
(1) Banner Saga Kickstarter
(2) Tom Hall returns to Kickstarter
(3) Chris Taylor cancels Wildman Kickstarter
(4) Double Fine Adventure
(5) Wastleland 2
(6) Greed Monger
(8) Delver’s Drop
(9) Kickstarter Video Project Attracts Misogynist Horde