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Kickstarting a Serious Game, Pt. The Last (now with guest stars!)

I chatted with indie developers Daniel Benmergui, Deirdra Kiai, and Vince Twelve about using Kickstarter and patron-based funding for games. Also, an update on my serious game, The Unconcerned.

Borut Pfeifer, Blogger

December 11, 2009

14 Min Read

Previously in this series, I've written about my experiences experimenting with Kickstarter to fund a serious game.

For my last entry, I thought I would get the perspectives of more indie developers who've used Kickstarter or patron-based funding successfully. Daniel Benmergui uses donations to help support the development of his games, such as Today I Die and I Wish I Were the Moon. Deirdra Kiai, a programmer by day at Hothead Games, has put her free indie game, Life Flashes By, up for funding on Kickstarter - she's reached her goal of $1,000 but still has 40 days remaining to surpass it. Vince Twelve, creator of What Linus Bruckman Sees When His Eyes Are Closed and Anna, put his retro-style adventure game Resonance up on Kickstarter to pay the $95 IGF entry fee, and then proceeded to raise over $2,000.

The Kickstarter Community

The community that's sprung up around Kickstarter, people looking to help fund interesting small videogames, is by far the most promising aspect to the site's growth. There are still some challenges the site needs to overcome, but it's a promising place for developers with the right type of projects to find support. 

As Daniel puts it:

"The good thing is that it will generate a community of people looking for interesting projects to fund, which is something we individual creators can't achieve on our own. The downside is that it actually puts a middle man between the projects and the sponsors... but this might be solved with technology and common sense, eventually."

The community aspect was key for Deirdra:

"What drew me to Kickstarter in the first place was that it isn't so much about fundraising as it is about community-building. The way it encourages building relationships with your backers by offering interesting, personalised rewards related to your project gives the site a comfortable, not-purely-commercial feel characteristic of the indie spirit I try to put in my games, so I'd say it's the perfect home for them. What I'd really like to see in the future is better support for non-US people creating projects, but I've been assured that they're working on it!"

The existing feature set, with tools to track backers & what rewards they have chosen, is very easy to use. One downside is that it's difficult to know where your backers were linked to project to gauge the effectiveness of your marketing. Also, if you are a project creator, a U.S address and bank account are needed for payment through Amazon, making it difficult for international developers - Daniel uses Paypal for his own donations primarily because he is able to receive payments in Argentina. Both areas seem to be something Kickstarter is actively addressing.

Best Practices

There are several recurring elements of successful Kickstarter projects. Posting regular updates helps to keep backers involved and generate new interest. While every project seems have different types of rewards, certain elements appeal to a variety of backers. Good presentation always helps, as well as making sure your project can be found easily by those interested. 


Vince made it a habit to post regular updates with game info, which worked well for him:

"I made a plan to post one gift to all the backers each weekend, be it a sample music track, or a never-before-seen screenshot, plus a little bit of background info.  I didn't spend a whole lot of time on them since it was stuff I already had.  I usually forgot about it until late Sunday night and then quickly chose something to share.  But I think these updates helped say thank you to the pledgers and also attract new pledges, since I would the Tweet or post an update on Facebook about the cool new gift I had just posted."


Deirdra liked to focus on physical elements in her rewards, including a custom postcard at the lowest pledge level ($5): 

"As for reward preference, the most popular was my $25 and up tier, which consists of a boxed copy of the finished game complete with old school-style feelies. It seems to me that a lot of people like the idea of having a physical product they can hold in their hands (I myself am no exception), and these were indeed more popular than my less tangible and more expensive rewards. Of course, a surprisingly large number of my backers wound up choosing no reward at all, which I found to be a touching gesture on its own."  

Daniel's seen results from his different reward levels:  

"There are lots of 3-5 USD donations. A lot of people chose to go with the 'be included in credits' options (27$). The setup of the reward levels is pretty much the same as the one I started with. I only switched the most expensive ones a bit to make the 'I Wish I Were the Moon Poster' option more affordable. I would say that mostly, only people who believe more games like Today I Die should happen are the ones that sponsored me with the top tier amount."


Certainly the advice any game pitch receives is applicable here as well - the more of your game you can show as playable, the better. Of course, the more playable your game is, the less funding you need, so as is typical, this is advice is not that helpful in planning your strategy to get your game made. But giving this advice is as required as having to ignore it, based on your situation, so there you go. 

Nonetheless, there's lots of good advice on how to present yourself in web videos, so be sure to spend some time on that aspect. The short version - make sure you note the general topics you want to mention, rehearse, keep lighting levels reasonable so the video is clear, and make sure the audio quality is acceptable. I've had success using a teleprompter program for vlogging (don't read straight off it, just use it as an automated way of going through your notes to make sure you cover all your topics).


Kickstarter's search functionality lets you to select up to 10 keywords for your project. They have one videogame related keyword ("game") on the sidebar of their Discover Projects page - be sure to include this in your keywords! That way people new to the site will be able to find your project easily. Make sure you also include "games", and your project name. I've been thwarted a couple times on searching by name, although I am guilty of that as well (due to picking a working title in the middle of the funding period).

Other Noteworthy Kickstarter Projects 

A number of other projects have been successful on Kickstarter, or reached a significant funding level.

FREEQ: A successfully funded iPhone game involving a time traveling radio that can tune into conversations across time. Or, something like that (sounds pretty neat in any case). With only 25 backers, they reached their $12,300 goal. Their success definitely seemed to stem from a few large backers, with four backers over $500, including one over $2,500.

Flywrench: Messhof's brutally difficult arcade game reached its $5,000 goal with 29 backers. Most backers were in the $20-$50 ranged with just under 20% of backers being in the $250 or more range.

Liferaft: While Intuition Games' metroidvania had reach $3,000 out of its $5,000 goal, they canceled the funding because they felt the scope of the game was too much for them at the time. Mike Boxleiter writes on the Intuition Games' blog:

"The thing about our small games, Gray, Wild an Free and Fig 8, is that they’re not perfect and that’s OK. We have the crutch of saying “Well, it’s just a 2 week game, it’s good enough,” which is something we can’t really say with Liferaft. This allows us to create something pure and quick, and we don’t have to worry about perfection because we’ll do better the next time...

We always viewed the Kickstarter page as an experiment, and it’s been a pretty interesting thing to watch, but if we’re not sure we’re going to complete Liferaft then there’s no way we could take any money from our fans. We would much rather just cancel it before we got the money than take your money and then fail to make the game."

Current Limitations of Patron-Based Funding 

It's hard not to look at the successes and notice patterns as to what works and what doesn't work, with the current size of the community. 

Vince notes:

"I don't think I would go on Kickstarter looking for a huge up-front surge of cash on a project.  It may work out... but I think that the goal amount is useful only for projects that MUST HAVE a certain amount of money RIGHT NOW or they're going in the can.  Otherwise you could spend months attracting people to the project, getting pledges, but ultimately falling short and having it all go away.  I'd imagine it might be difficult to attract all the backers you had back if you then had to restart the project with a lower goal. 

I started Kickstarter with a goal of $150 because I had no idea what to expect and was just hoping to get a little money to help me submit the game to the IGF.  I wound up getting just over 2000 (or just under after Amazon took their cut).  In hind-sight, I think that if I had set my goal at $2500, I probably would have been able to get it by imploring people to help me hit my goal.  However, if I had set it at $3000, I would likely never have seen a penny, since no money changes hands if you don't hit the goal.

So, I think, if the project is going forward whether you get X amount of money or not, setting a small goal and just seeing where the chips fall is the best way to approach people.  Attract new backers with updates and gifts rather than with arbitrary funding goals.  Just my two cents!" 

Deirdra similarly observes the size of the project being a key factor:

"Crowd funding of the nature espoused by Kickstarter is a relatively new and unknown business model, and with such things, I'm somewhat realising that it's best to start small and gradually ramp up to a larger scale. That most of the successful game projects I see on the site are in the low thousands seems to confirm this hypothesis, at least at this present time. I think it's really a matter of how big one's fan base is, since the vast majority of my backers are people I already know, whether in person or online, or at least people who have played and enjoyed one or more of my previous games. As such, I can see this fan base growing over time, as current fans spread the word to their friends about my work and they become fans themselves, but as we know, these things don't always happen immediately."

Daniel's had some noteworthy success through donations he managed on his own:

"The sponsorship certainly beat the amount of money I would have gotten through portals. Although the long tail of flash portals is pretty long, but sponsorships don't have a long tail, so I would say they were pretty much at the same level with this experiment."

Today I Die made around $5000. Of course, living in Argentina, Daniel estimated that money could go three times as long as if he was living in the US.

If you have some amount of fans/friends/followers who are interested, $1,000-$2,000 is an achievable goal. Once you start to move past that range, the more it turns from a conversation with those fans and friends into pitching your project to people who will fund it (like pitching a project to publishers). All your communication has to be on message, direct, and sell the game concept. From my perspective, you seem to need full gameplay footage the same as if you were approaching a publisher. Backers that give an individual large amount become much more of a factor than getting a wide number of backers - the number of backers for the indie games on Kickstarter tend to range from 30-60 people, and certainly not more than 100.

The Unconcerned

On December 10th, the funding deadline for my game, The Unconcerned, passed. For those unfamiliar with it, the game is set in Iran during this summer's election riots. Despite not meeting the funding goals, I've been making good progress working on the game part-time. I'm coming to a close on my initial gameplay prototyping.

Much like the guys at Intuition, I treated Kickstarter as more of an experiment. I put my game up when I had about a paragraph of design and some concrete goals for the game. In retrospect, if I had launched it later on in the game's development, with polished gameplay to show, I would have been closer to achieve my overly ambitious goal of $15k. If I had decreased the goal to just $3,000 (about what I raised) while putting it up early on, the success of the project wouldn't have been guaranteed. I couldn't accept backing at that level without being worried that the game might not get finished and everyone's donations would be for nothing.

While I could perhaps put the project up again when it's closer to being complete, there's another element of hesitation I feel. Here, Ian Bogost's words haunt me, as he perfectly expressed a moving train of thought I was having as I pushed pass the initial surge of backers to try and promote the project. From his blog:

"It is tempting to view Kickstarter as just a 'democratized' arts patronage system, whereby the closed system of gallery commissions are released into the equitable rainbow of populism. It sure sounds good, especially in that Silicon Valley way, whereby cultural contribution is a matter of boxed up, templated facility rather than messy, dangerous creativity.

But I wonder, can art be run like a business loan or a farmers market? Doesn't there have to be some conceptual and personal risk involved? Is it even sensical to say "I want to plumb the black depths of human sorrow, and I can do it for $5,000, and if you contribute $200, I'll send you a sketch of me in a deep evening funk drinking bourbon out of a Denny's mug."

At the same time, Kickstarter does provide an opportunity, through its services and community, for some people to fund their games, and for that alone it deserves much praise (so I would advise you not to take my or Ian's existential quandaries to heart if you really believe your project is a fit for it).

Work on the game continues - I will be speaking at the Serious Games Summit at GDC this March, about the prototyping process for The Unconcerned, on how to address prototyping for engaging mechanics as well as thematic depth. So for anybody's who's interested, you'll see a bit more of the game then. I will continue to periodically update this Gamasutra blog as well, but my future posts will be more on serious games and not Kickstarter or similar funding models. 


For the right project size and gameplay type, or to help a project meet a short-term concrete goal (like IGF fees), Kickstarter meets an important need in the creative community. As the community grows, hopefully the size of projects that can be funded this way will expand, but it's possible certain projects will never be a perfect fit for this approach.  

Thanks to Daniel, Deirdra, Vince, and to all of those who've supported us in pledging & donating to our projects! Help back Deirdra's game Life Flashes By on Kickstarter, support Daniel's work on his site, and keep tabs on Vince's game Resonance via his blog.

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Borut Pfeifer


Borut is a designer-programmer-writer-entrepreneur. After that he stopped adding hyphens. He cofounded and worked at White Knuckle Games until 2003, and since then has worked on Scarface at Radical Entertainment. He currently teaches in the game design program at the Vancouver Film School, and has a variety of articles published in industry publications such as the Game Programming Gems series and Secrets of the Games Business. He can be reached at [email protected].

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