We speak to developers about the challenges of using Kickstarter and other platforms to raise finance for development, and how you can improve your chances of meeting your goal.
Having an idea for a video game is arguably the easy part. Securing the finance required to make that idea a reality is far more challenging.
Earlier this month, we took a look at many of the different routes developers can take to funding their game. And since crowdfunding is by far the most accessible (though by no means easiest), it’s worth exploring in more detail.
Why do games makers turn to crowdfunding their game through sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Fig et al? For one thing, there’s no barrier to entry other than the time it takes to prepare your campaign. For another, there’s the healthy track record of studios that have raised tens or hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars from folks eager to see their proposed game developed – although naturally for every project that has been successful, there are many that have failed.
Thomas Bidaux, CEO of PR firm Ico – which also does regular analysis of success rates on Kickstarter – says crowdfunding can accomplish much more than just bringing in finance; it can also test the marketability of a project and validate assumptions about the target audience. The marketing beats around a campaign can also raise a game’s profile well ahead of launch, creating anticipation for the final product.
“The main challenge for a crowdfunding campaign is that it requires an existing audience to make it work – and it requires a lot of work and resources ahead of a campaign to build that audience,” he observes. “In video games for instance, it is near impossible to crowdfund a project in its early stage as you need to have a fairly comprehensive – and pretty – prototype or demo already to convince backers to support you.”
“The commitment to the backers is also not to be underestimated. They will be your strongest supporters, but also the ones that will feel the most betrayed if you do not deliver on your promises.”
Jaw Drop Games’ co-founder Dan Da Rocha – whose dinosaur survival horror game Deathground raised almost £120,000 via Kickstarter last year – agrees a crowdfunding campaign can confirm whether a game concept is worth taking into full development, as well as helping to build a community around the title from the beginning. Da Rocha had been reluctant at first, but is pleased his studio took the leap.
“I always shied away from doing a Kickstarter campaign as people warned me that they’re a lot of work and the failure rate is high,” he says. “However, I always thought if I had a game concept that I thought people really wanted and there was a gap in the market, then surely people would back the game. This was proven right when my team did a Kickstarter campaign for Deathground. It enabled us to get the game off the ground, grow our team significantly and build a community in the process.”
Playtonic Studios managing director Gavin Price, whose team managed to raise over £2 million in 2015 for nostalgic 3D platformer Yooka-Laylee, adds that the marketing benefits and ability to create a core following are “invaluable for any game.”
“Kickstarter really boosts this and discoverability is every game’s challenge,” he says. “Crowdfunding is a lot of work though and can distract developers from the thing they want to be doing with most of their time: focusing on making a great game.”
There are challenges, of course, and Da Rocha warns that raising funds on these platforms is almost always an ‘all or nothing’ affair, adding pressure to meet the financial target you set. Price adds that, even after close to a decade of major games crowdfunding campaigns, educating consumers as to what the process really involves and the evolving nature of games development is still a hurdle that needs to be overcome.
“Early content and ideas can become bad and replacing them becomes necessary but with the aim of creating a better end result,” he explains. “People need to understand they’re helping fund a process, not pre-ordering a finished product.”
Preparing Your Campaign
Before developers can even think about how much money they might raise, they need to think about how they’re going to convince members of the public to pledge it to the project. Care must be taken when describing the game’s concept, plans for its development and release, the risks involved, what may or may not change. It’s also important to consider what backers will want out of their investment, both when the game is finally complete and while they wait for this to happen.
Creating different reward tiers gives gamers plenty of choice when it comes to how they can back your game, but expectations of value will rise as donations grow larger. In the past, developers have thought beyond the game itself, to find ways to reward their supporters but Da Rocha warns this should be done with caution.
“Be sparing with the number of physical rewards you decide to do as these will eat into your development budget as well as take time to fulfill,” he says. “You can also set up a pre-launch page to begin building the hype before the campaign has launched.
“And make sure stretch goals [new features that will be added if your campaign surpasses its initial target] are planned out in advance, as well as forward-thinking about anything that could crop up during the campaign as you’ll be spending a lot of time managing it.”
But, Bidaux urges, do not announce these stretch goals at the beginning: “Very often new creators look at past campaigns that were very successful and see many stretch goals achieved throughout the campaign and somehow think that they were part of the winning strategy. That is universally wrong – the main campaign was what made them successful and they built on it through the life of the campaign.
“Announcing your stretch goal at the very launch of your campaign is a bad idea. It distracts from the core campaign, which should be your main focus, and it sabotages your ability to announce cool things coming up down the line.”
He adds that a great way to increase the chances of people backing your project is to have showed the game publicly in some way – and ideally started building a fanbase – before the campaign even begins. If possible, having a playable demo available online will give potential fans a sense of how the game will play. It’s not a requirement in every genre, he notes, but it is “becoming more and more prevalent.”
Price emphasises the importance of planning key marketing and PR beats through the campaign, suggesting that developers hire a third-party agency to help with this and “think of it as a game launch.”
Da Rocha agrees, adding: “Announcing the game at the same time can be beneficial and this way, you can build up your Steam wishlists and Discord community. It also helps make the game look more official.”
Those marketing and PR beats are designed to convince more people to invest as the end date of your crowdfunding push approaches. Fans who have already seen the game or are familiar with a developer may back the campaign at the beginning, but developers need to reach as many potential customers as possible if they want to meet their goals.
“The biggest challenge here is to build something that is exciting, visually representative of your intention, showcase what is fun and unique about it, but early enough in the process so that you don't have to fully build the whole project at that stage,” Bidaux says. “This is the eternal struggle between showing it too early and nobody is convinced, and showing it too late when you don't need the funds.”
Da Rocha once again points to the importance of those reward tiers, emphasising that developers need to give backers clear benefits for investing in the game now rather than waiting for the full release.
“Getting the reward tier pricing on point is important as well as ensuring picking the right tier is as frictionless as possible,” he says.
“Many potential backers will ask for a console version. However, there’s a risk of confirming console support when so early in development, as it’s not 100% guaranteed you’ll be able to deploy the game there for a variety of reasons – including being approved by the platforms in the first place.”
He continues: “Have some big marketing beats throughout the campaign and especially at the end to really drive things home and get as many people backing the game as you can. Release a new piece of gameplay footage and run your own social media ad campaigns to boost attention. Work with YouTubers and Streamers for a big, final push.”
Bidaux observes that achieving a strong start to a campaign can lead to a bigger fanbase overall, one that will “relay and discuss your projects throughout the life of the campaign.”
“Planning ahead updates to the campaign showcasing new elements of the game is really helpful – especially as finding time to write these might be tricky in the heat of the moment,” he says.
“Another easy thing you can do is partner with other live campaigns and share visibility with each other. There is a lot of value in doing this – the crowdfunding platforms are ecosystems and backers tend to support multiple projects.”
After the campaign
Assuming all goes well and a crowdfunding campaign meets its financial goals, the hard work is still far from over. Now that people have put money behind your project, they’ll want to see progress and return on their investment.
Most crowdfunding platforms enable developers to send and post regular updates for their backers in order to keep them abreast of the latest advances on the project, but Da Rocha reminds studios that this is something that should be made clear from the beginning.
“You usually outline a timeline on the Kickstarter page and this sets their expectation,” he says. “It could easily be one to two years at least before the game is finished, depending on the size of it.
“Keep backers informed of development with regular progress updates. We like to do this monthly at a minimum. Fulfill the rewards they’ve purchased. Keep an open conversation in Discord and on other social media channels.”
Bidaux adds the easiest way to manage backer expectations is to underpromise and overdeliver: “In the heat of a campaign with fans being very enthusiastic, it is easy to forget that principle and overpromise – but this will always come back to haunt you.
“For all their enthusiasm, backers also are very respectful when you set boundaries. Many campaigns stop offering stretch goals when they reach the point where they feel they can’t commit further – and backers have been very receptive of this attitude.”
Price adds: “Open and frequent communication explaining how all aspects are going. The return can vary – did they back at a level for physical goods, the game upon release, or perhaps a profit? Again, educating backers is more important so they can make an informed decision on the campaign and avoid disappointment or confusion.”
And what if you don’t meet your goals? Success on crowdfunding platforms is by no means guaranteed, and if you do not meet the goal you set, you will receive none of the money pledged by those who were convinced to invest. But Da Rocha encourages developers to remain optimistic and focus on the positives.
“Don’t take failure to heart and accept it as a learning experience,” he says. “Identify why it failed – there could be many reasons, such as your asking amount was too high or it didn’t get enough eyeballs on it in the first place. There are things you can tweak and go at it again with the same game in the future.”
“However, if you feel you did everything you could have done and it still wasn’t gaining traction, then it’s wise to ask if there’s a large enough demand for your game and possibly consider shelving that concept and moving onto something else.”
Bidaux reiterates that most of the projects he sees get fully funded have started their marketing strategy and built an audience before accepting a single pledge. He also warns that there are areas where it is much harder to succeed, such as mobile and free-to-play games, or games targeting kids. These three categories consistently fail to work on crowdfunding platforms, he says.
“I always say that failing a campaign is always a better result than failing the launch of a game,” he concludes. “Use this as an opportunity to understand why it failed and use these as lessons to improve on.”
“You can relaunch another campaign if you are so inclined. The data shows that there is no dark mark of failure that means that your previous supporter won't be behind you again the second time around – if anything they are as disappointed as the creators when that happens. Just make sure you take the time to improve on the first attempt and maximise the learnings.”