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Kickstarter: After the Kick but before the Start

By on July 17, 2012

This is a guest post from Alex Thomas of Stoic

Hi, my name’s Alex Thomas. I’m the creative director at Stoic and we’ve been working on The Banner Saga after a shockingly successful Kickstarter campaign. We set out to raise $100,000 to help us expand our game content and ending up with over $720,000 once the doors closed on the last day. Since then we’ve also gotten a lot of attention from not just games press but other Kickstarter projects asking for advice on how we ran the campaign.

The interesting part to me is that a lot of people don’t realize is that while the launch was important, the maintenance of the campaign was equally crucial to our success, if not moreso. Truth be told, I feel like how well a project does right out the gate is going to rely on a lot of factors that you can’t change in the short term; do people know who you are or trust you based on your experience? Do you have a concept that real game enthusiasts can get behind (as opposed to the casual crowds)? Are you offering something that people can’t get anywhere else? These seem to be the key components to coming up with a successful campaign.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the start of your project, but aside from the above fundamentals, here’s a quick list of things we’ve observed that I’d recommend to anyone putting together a game campaign:

  • Start talking about your project anywhere you can weeks before putting up your campaign. Momentum is of utmost importance, and a cold start is the quickest path to failure.
  • If you’re relatively unknown, you have to show actual gameplay. If you don’t have gameplay, make some.
  • Imagine you’re pitching to a publisher when you develop your video. It should look like you put in some real effort.
  • Make roughly half your prizes physical and the other half digital or in-game.
  • The price of a prize should be roughly 8 times more than the cost to produce and ship it.
  • International shipping costs more than $10. Plan accordingly.
  • The lowest tier that includes your game will be the most popular, but your largest profit margin will probably be in the $30-$50 range. We offered three different prizes within this range to give backers the most incentive to go for it.
  • People like physical prizes that are beautiful in their own right, not just a company logo. If it’s not compelling, don’t do it.
  • Show an image of anything physical. We spent the time to photoshop an example of everything we planned to make.
  • Show that you have a team ready to go. Backers won’t trust someone who can’t convince anyone else to work on the project.

So now that you’ve been talking up your idea for a while, you have your team, your game idea and your killer pitch it’s time to throw the campaign up for 30 days and get back to work, right?

That’s certainly what we expected, but here’s 10 things I wish we knew. As with almost anything, a lot of this is common sense stuff but only seems to be obvious in hindsight.

The early days

1) Kickstarter is your new job

Possibly the most important thing is that for the next 30 days your job is Kickstarter. I can’t over-emphasize how much this isn’t an exaggeration. Don’t expect to get any production done in this time aside from marketing.

By the end of our campaign we had produced roughly a half-dozen high quality videos, posted a dozen updates with images and writing, responded to literally thousands of messages and comments and I had written or given well over a dozen interviews and each of these things could take us a full day or two to produce.

Why spend all of this time on promotion? Without a marketing budget, this was our one chance to really advocate the game, and we only had 30 days to hit it as hard as possible while eyes were on us. In fact, while our initial goal was to raise some funding, we quickly realized that the marketing produced by a concentrated effort like this may be even more valuable. Ignoring the kickstarter campaign would not only hurt us financially but give backers the impression that we weren’t invested, which would be pretty contradictory to our goals.

2) Know your limits

You’re going to be barraged with people wanting more than you’re offering. If you’re making a PC or Mac game the first thing you’re likely to see a lot of is requests to port the game to Linux, consoles, handhelds, iOS or anything else they happen to use. If you’re not on PC and Mac, you might want to reconsider your platform, since limiting your backer potential right from the start isn’t a great idea for a fundraiser. This can be pretty intimidating if you’ve never dealt with the public before.

Most Kickstarter campaigns offer goals that unlock new ports or translations of the game. In fact, we did this as well, across almost every platform. We learned two things from this; the first, be honest and up front if you don’t want to port to a certain platform. Stringing along a certain group of backers is a surefire way to ensure they constantly barrage you with complaints and bombard your comments thread, which can be poisonous to a community. Secondly, a large percentage of backers don’t want you to port the game at all and will be upset if you do. The truth is if they have already backed your projects they can play it on their preferred platform and they don’t like the idea that their money might be going toward something they don’t care about. We sent out a couple surveys and were a bit surprised that when asked “In what languages should we translate the game?” the largest percentage of backers responded “I don’t want you to translate it”.

What we learned the majority of backers wanted to see was “more content” as opposed to hiring developers, hired help for shipping prizes, accountants or lawyers. This was interesting to us because paying for these services are what allow the developer to spend more time on content. We came to the conclusion that the whole process may appear somewhat magical to many backers, as if we simply pour money into a computer and it spits out content. That’s not to be derogatory, we simply discovered that most gamers don’t have a solid understanding of development, but have strong opinions about how their donations are used.

In summary, define what you want your final product to be regardless of the funding you get. Promising bigger and better things along the way can make it dangerously tempting to make promises you can’t keep.

3) Adjust

While being swamped with comments can be overwhelming, it’s also one of the most successful aspects of Kickstarter. Instead of putting up a website and having no idea what kind of reaction it is generating, you can see exactly how people are reacting to your campaign and even a floundering campaign can turn it around within the last week. This is actually a hugely beneficial tool because it allows you adjust to very frequent feedback.

For example, from the start we made it a personal goal to run a very clean and tight campaign, abstaining from begging for word of mouth or dangling bonuses out there if we hit higher targets. The further along the campaign went, however, the more feedback we got from people begging for these things. The backers wanted goals to shoot for and they wanted to know ways in which they could help. When people are invested in the project, they want to help.

However, simply asking your backers to “spread the word” is a nebulous sort of help that doesn’t make anyone feel particularly good. Instead we shared other Kickstarter projects we liked with our backers, encouraged them to create custom crests for their kickstarter profiles and responded frequently to their comments, making sure they knew we were listening and present. Speaking of which…

The middle ages

4) Build a community

This came as a bit of a surprise to us, but Kickstarter started not just our funding but a real and fantastic community who advocate the game wherever they can. As mentioned earlier, your backers are already as invested as they can be – they’re early adopters – and without a place for them to congregate they’ll scatter to the winds after your campaign has ended. We had no intentions of setting up a forum so soon, but we scrambled to get something available to backers as soon as we could and continued to feed them with new information, tech and art blogs and reply to questions regularly.

Over time we started to migrate new information to our website and reward backers for signing up with special backer access and videos or animations that couldn’t be displayed through Kickstarters update system. It can be difficult to convince someone to sign up for a website but it’s the best way to keep them interested in the project and give them a direct line to communicate with you, which should be your goal in the first place.

5) The half way slump

So far every project I’ve watched has suffered from the same mid-campaign slump. The novelty of your project has worn off and your most enthusiastic backers have already signed up, but it isn’t close enough to the finish to attract the procrastinators and the people who like to feel like they made a difference at the end (like me). It seems to me that regardless of whether you’re asking for ten thousand or half a million, you’ll stall out about half-way through your campaign.

Again, this is where Kickstarter as your full-time job comes in. When this occurred during out campaign we had raised a lot more than we expected and felt confident that we’d be able to produce the full trilogy we had originally planned, so we offered the full game to anyone who had pledged at $50 or more and saw an immediate and massive boost in pledges which largely helped to keep us moving during the slow middle. We also took this opportunity to do a lot of written interviews and podcasts that got new eyes on the project.

Don’t lose hope in the middle just because it gets slow! Unless you’re absolutely not moving, the momentum can end up being bigger at the end than at the beginning. Our last two days saw more pledges than our first two.

6) So who should I be talking to?

When we started this, we tried to generate interest in all the traditional avenues for game news- Kotaku, IGN, PC Gamer, Joystiq, so on and so forth. These provided a great amount of our backers but the ones that really changed things were somewhat surprising.

Rock Paper Shotgun is a PC-only site that has a smaller but much more active community than some of these larger sites and is a fantastic site to boot. They currently do a weekly Kickstarter roundup. Penny Arcade was incredibly kind to mention us in one of their updates and generated the second-highest amount of interest in the project. These guys, of course, are pretty selective about who they endorse and we’re extraordinarily lucky that they like our project. The top contributor to our great surprise was Their reader base is absolutely massive and they wrote a very positive article about the top 10 Kickstarter campaigns at the time. Whether that was a one-time-only lucky strike we’re not sure, but the point still stands that avenues outside the usual game news sites shouldn’t be ignored.

We also spent a lot of time on popular forums like Something Awful and RPG Codex, but this can be a double edged sword. Don’t try to casually wade into an established community and get chummy because they’ll see through that in a second. In this case I’ve had a presence on Something Awful for a long time and got a great reception, but had never stepped onto RPG Codex before and things quickly went south.

7) Get a community manager

We formed Stoic with three co-founders and “community manager” wasn’t one of them. We scrambled to stay on top of all the feedback as long as we could but eventually we just couldn’t afford to tie up entire days at a time any more. Once the campaign ended and we had begun setting up our forums we realized that investing in a real community manager was going to be critical. Kickstarter doesn’t provide a simple way to share access with someone who doesn’t own the campaign but having someone who could have prepped the website, forums and answer questions in the comments is something we should have done much sooner.

The wrap up

8) Transparency

One of the most successful aspects we had with our campaign so far is being transparent in our actions. Like it or not, some backers are going to feel a sense of entitlement when they’ve put up money for what is basically a pre-order. These sometimes vocal backers can really affect the tone of your campaign, especially if they are constantly in your comments.

Backers constantly wanted to know what we’d be doing with our funds once we crossed our goal. Many projects mention stretch goals often before they even found any backers but we felt that this set the wrong tone. Once we had gained extra funding we planned out how it would be spent and theorized about the most effective use of the funds, then sought out people who would benefit the project. We all greatly respected the work of Austin Wintory, the composer of Journey, and enlisted his work on the project. Austin’s fans created a huge surge of interest in our game. This allowed us to go after what we wanted without having to make decisions at the beginning of the campaign, when a lot of things are still just a shot in the dark.

Our experience was that transparency seemed to solve almost every communication problem we had. Owning up to mistakes, telling people what we planned to do before we did it and the reason behind our decisions kept backers in good spirits and is in general just a common courtesy that people will respect you for. There is a concept in game development that you should keep everything about your game close to your chest until it’s completely finished but that would have actually been pretty detrimental to our success.

9) Watch your prizes

A little over half-way through the campaign we noticed that certain prizes were unexpectedly popular. For example, from reading various comments and forums we discovered that people really wanted the poster but were unwilling to pay $80 for it. We ran some number and found that if we made a new category for the prize at $50 for just the poster it would be a worthwhile prize. A huge number of backers increased their pledges in response.

Likewise, our $600 prize of a framed landscape picture sold out almost immediately. We decided not to increase the availabiltiy of this prize but we did create a new tier at $800 that included all the prizes before it, so people who were also interested in the $600 prize could still get it (plus something else) if they were really interested.

Not surprisingly, the availability of our prizes had a large influence over their popularity. Some of the prizes that had lingered for a long time had availability in the hundreds. By the end of the campaign they wouldn’t have gotten many more pledges, but by reducing them to 50 they usually sold out. We were probably a little unrealistic about this in the first place – both us and the backers benefit from fewer physical prizes since we have less to produce and their prizes are more valuable.

10) Stay in touch

One of the more surprising aspects of the campaign is that people can decrease and even cancel their pledges any time before the campaign ends. Like clockwork, if we went up to a week without an official update we’d start seeing a concerning amount of these cancellations and if we provided new content the leaking would stop.

Keep in mind also that while Kickstarter projects seem to exist in a different bubble from other game projects they’re definitely susceptible to cannibalizing each other. Whenever a new popular project would pop up we’d see a large number of people shift their donations so they could support both. Not that there’s much to be done about this, but it’s worth noting that if you’ll want to be able to have as much presence as these other campaigns.

Hopefully this has given a good sense of the process of managing a Kickstarter campaign. We were absolutely taken by surprise by most of these things and the saving grace was the amazing opportunity to adjust along the way and understand what the backers wanted. Kickstarter is an incredibly powerful tool that lets people feel invested in your project and meeting your fans half way can be the difference between barely making your goal and blowing it away.

About Alex Thomas