Kickstarting The Easy Way
This is a blog outlining my personal experiences with SSO, which is both my first Kickstarter project and my first independent table top game. As such it is mostly full of personal opinions and prejudices and should not be taken as anything more than one man's opinion. I found prior to my Kickstarter that very little of the available advice was useful to me as a low budget, independent games designer.
I acknowledge that having engaged in only one Kickstarter campaign makes me far from expert but I hope to offer reassurance to other independent designers who, like me, might well be thinking success is only possible by matching up to the advertising and campaign presentation of significantly higher budget, bigger name campaigns.
Our final campaign status was £8,919 from 508 backers, amounting to 148% backing on our £6,000 goal over a 35 day campaign. We were 49% backed in our first 12 hours and fully backed in 11 days. I am Glenn Ford and my last project prior to SSO was the Osprey games blue book Gaslands.
Prior to launch we had a mailing list of 5 people, spent £200 on advertising and launched on a Saturday at 12 noon. Throughout the campaign we spent no more than 3 hours a day on-line. Certainly projects have raised more, and possibly ours could have also, but Kickstarters do not need to be huge investments of time and or money and success is readily achievable with very little risk.
Know Thy Self
The most important thing I would say to struggling first time creators would be to understand, accept and plan for your own limitations. As a first time creator, for example, you shouldn't be planning to raise much above £10,000. Its easy to remember the stories of first time designers who raised millions on Kickstarter, but try to think of those people as winning the lottery, possible but not a plan for paying your rent. Also, many of those "out of nowhere" success stories invested significant amounts of money in their campaigns because they might not have known they were going to raise the small fortune they did, but they had a very good idea they were going to raise a lot. You do not know that, do not plan a campaign as if you do, please do not spend and plan based on your raising £50,000 just because you might or other people have.
The second area this applies is in your talent pool. As mentioned I am an independent games designer and developer. I'm not an artist or graphic artist, I do not have an art department. There are Kickstarter campaigns run by companies with on staff designers or even by advertising companies and graphic designers with a game idea, which is fine. Their campaign is going to look better than mine because every piece of art is an upfront cost for me but essentially free for them. Before I launched I heard again and again the advice that I could have a great game but no-one would back it unless the Kickstarter page had strong visuals. This is largely untrue, Kickstarter is awash with campaigns that have graphic designers rather than games designers and games with more design work put into their attached miniatures than their attached rules. There is a community of intelligent, informed table top gamers who will find a good game concept and don't need to be spoon fed their gaming.
Remember, there will be people who tell you that gamers will pay more for improved artwork, but that is their opinion and the money that you pay out for that artwork is a fact. There are many reasons why Kickstarters fail, but there is only one reason they fail, they raise less money than their goal. To put it another way, every single Kickstarter that failed failed because it asked for too much money.
Design Your Way Out
Which brings me to your strength (I hope) and the best solution to all your problems, game design (and development). The one thing I can do for free is re-design my game over and over as often as I want. I've talked to creators on Facebook who have failed to fund with high goals who have said that they can't reduce their unit cost because reducing components would unbalance the game, which I don't understand because if you're a games designer game balancing is what you do.
You should have more than one prototype idea before launching your game on the public. If you don't have several ideas please don't visit your sole idea on the rest of us. You can launch your first idea but please for all our sanity prototype a few others first. When you look at your shelf of prototypes take a minute to consider which will have the widest player count, which will cost the least to distribute, the least to manufacture and which will be the easiest to explain to backers and excite them with. Feel free to rank them in release order. There is no shame in designing a game so that it will be easier to Kickstart. I chose to develop and launch SSO because it had a 1-6 player count, used 73 cards and could be distributed in a Royal Mail large letter format. It allows players to experience a range of sci-fi movies with their friends for £10, is co-op but can be played competitively. Which is as wide a net for as low a price as I am capable of casting, because I'm the designer, I built the net, why would I not build it large? Games design, much like game play, is about interesting choices. Choices are only interesting with boundaries upon them, design without purpose and restriction is generally bad design.
Do What's Free
Re-design is free and will make your final job much easier but its not the only free way of improving a campaign. Most campaigns have a website and its shocking how may of them fail to assist the campaign itself. I've seen campaigns cancelled in the first week that have spent thousands on advertising with a website that when I visited gave me no clue what the game consisted of. Its not a great idea to keep your game idea hidden at any point because it will only improve with input and recognition but once you launch on Kickstarter explain it in as much detail in as many places as you can possibly manage.
Most conventions are entirely free (aside from entry tickets), prior to launching SSO's Kickstarter I'd promoted it at a minimum of one convention a month for the previous 6 months, also showing it at local games stores and clubs. I timed the Kickstarter to include UKGE, which while not generally free, I piggy backed on my Gaslands association. Despite it being the first event I'd been to where exhibitors stalls were charged at a premium only three of the twenty or so pre- or during Kickstarter projects I saw there I'd encountered at any of the free events I'd visited up and down the country. Always start with free. If nothing else, practice with free.
Advertising Vs Community
Re-design is your best advert, but your second best is talking to people like a human being. Advertising is not for the likes of us, I spent £200 advertising in Tabletop Gaming Magazine, mostly this was because until I saw our launch date in print in a real magazine it wouldn't feel real to me. Remember that in Kickstarter you'll be paying 8% + 20p per unit to Kickstarter if you back, on an £8,000 project with unit price of £10 that's £1,000. Kickstarter is excellent advertising, thousands of people in your very specific demographic see it and anything on Kickstarter is on Kicktraq, Boardgame Geek roundups and other Kickstarter analysis sites. What's more is, its the only "no win no fee" advertising you're likely to get, if it fails you pay nothing. If you have a goal of around £8,000 Kickstarter's charge should be pretty much the whole of your advertising budget. I've seen projects in this price band with Boardgame Geek advertising (minimum spend $500) and Facebook advertising, cancelled with a plan to re-advertise and re-launch, at that point they've spent a quarter to half their goal on advertising.
Advertising is useful and powerful, but it is a specialist skill, and one you probably don't possess. In a similar vein some people seem obsessed by mailing lists, as though a project with a big enough mailing list will be unable to fail and one without is doomed. As the creator of a successful campaign with a mailing list of five (and three of them from a convention the day before launch) I'm here to say relax about mailing lists. They're nice to have but don't kill yourself or your project over them.
I performed my own very unscientific experiment with Facebook advertising, just a short run advert for under £30 over a few days in the mid-campaign lull, but while it resulted in greatly increased reach it had no measurable difference in overall backers and no increase whatsoever in Facebook referred backers. Conversely a single post about being in the mid-campaign lull in the right Facebook group resulted in a direct raise in Facebook referred backers. Now, I except that there is a very limited amount that can be done via direct community interaction of such a type, but a small campaign can succeed by doing limited amounts. Most importantly community interactions are free, to replicate or overtake their success with paid advertising becomes expensive, to gain more money from backers than is spent on adverts is a very specific skill.
On the subject of community, it is vital to post your Kickstarter preview, artwork, prototype development and progress on community groups such as Facebook or Boardgame Geek. It is a good idea to ask for community feedback from these groups, to be honest you'll get the feedback whether you ask for it or not. There are two important things to remember when this occurs:
Firstly, people will post in one of two ways, they'll say your project is good or bad. If good you'll tend to get a line of comment, a word or even just a like. If bad you'll get long comments through to short essays. What you never get are page long essays from those who like your project detailing exactly what they liked stage by stage, because that would be plain weird. This can result in a strongly negative sense from such posts to something you probably feel pretty strongly about. Remember that one post of constructive criticism will take up the space of ten positive comments, and double that in your head. Try to keep a decent perspective on negative feedback. Its probably a theme of most Kickstarters that positive responses come from a largely silent majority while you'll send a lot of your time dealing with a vocal minority. Also, remember that negative feedback is, by and large, coming from people who want to help. They're on your side and see themselves as your most helpful contributors.
The second point to keep in mind is that whatever you do other people will not "get" every aspect of your game and your campaign. Its your job to communicate your position as well as you can and explain your game accurately. But you must keep in mind what your game is and not allow it to be changed from your central intent. Everybody wants to turn every game into their own vision, and no-body is right or wrong, but you need to know what your vision is and be both its cheerleader and defender.
Goals and Rewards
I know that everybody has their own opinion on Kickstarter goals and profits and I'm not saying that anyone is right or wrong. That said, my opinion on Kickstarter goals are that they should be sufficient to cover your costs and set you up to make a profit in the future. They should have a comfortable margin of error which if everything goes smoothly will result in a healthy profit and if stretch goals get hit will allow you to launch at a higher level than you could otherwise.
The main reason I say this is that as a small time designer a successful Kickstarter brings with it a number of significant rewards. Distributors will listen to a first time designer with a successful Kickstarter more than one without. You'll gain followers on Kickstarter, the chance to contact reviewers and nothing looks better on your next Kickstarter than your successful previous one. Decide what these advantages are worth to you and price them into your goal.
Lies, Damned Lies ...
That's not actually my favourite quote about statistics, my favourite is "a man uses statistics as a drunk uses a lamp post, not for illumination but for support.". There are a lot of statistics knocking about the internet relating to Kickstarter. I'm not going to examine them all here, I will say that a good rule of thumb is to ignore them. Most can be interpreted in various ways and none are as important as you putting together and running your campaign in a manner convenient to you. Statistics are easy to become an expert on and the internet is the home of the self appointed expert, but in actuality statistics are incredibly complex and difficult to correctly interpret, most of those on Kickstarter miss a massive amount of pertinent information. I will say a few words on the most peculiarly persistent of these beliefs, the myth of Tuesday.
I launched on a Saturday and was roundly told that I was a fool for doing so because everybody knows that you launch on a Tuesday. First of all, this belief is based on a 10% swing in the number of successful projects that launch on a Saturday (the worst day) to a Tuesday (the best day), its not a 50% swing and it doesn't take into account investment, end dates or other elements. More to the point there is such a thing as confirmational bias and post-justification. The logic often given for Tuesday being good and Saturday bad goes something like this: "People have other things to do on a Saturday and no-one backs at conventions", which I always feel rings hollow when I see all the people saying that still showing their Kickstarters at every convention they can, but the point is that this is classic post-justification. If before we had any Kickstarter data everyone said that and the statistics confirmed the theory that would be fine but we didn't, the data arrived and an explanation was applied. If the exact opposite were true we'd have the reasoning that "On Tuesday people are tired from work and on a budget. On Saturday people have longer to spend on-line, they see things at conventions and have money set to spend on entertainment.". Which would be fine again, fitting theory to statistic is ok if there are one hundred options with a 50% swing but we have seven with a 10% swing. One day has to be higher and 10% is small enough to not be significant in such a tiny spread.
Most importantly, everyone now "knows" that Tuesday is best and since its as easy to launch on Tuesday as any other day lots of projects that have done their research will launch on Tuesday and if it weren't true before it certainly is now. The fact that it's widely accepted that Tuesday is the best day so every project that does research and planning launches on a Tuesday and it's still only 10% or less better than any other day should suggest something, but even if not consider the following. Everyone knows Tuesday is best, everyone launches on a Tuesday, on a Tuesday there is a massive crowd of showy new releases that it is hard to stand out from. The question could be, is the swing from launches being 50% successful to 60% worth being in a category where you're up against every million pound project on Kickstarter? There is after all not so much data on the relative goals of projects cross related with release dates, if I'm on a 50/50 on Saturday with another £6,000 project or on 60/40 with nine £100,000 projects on a Tuesday, the 50% verses 60% is looking a lot more attractive. Long story short, launch when you're ready, when is good for you, despite the bewildering array of Kickstarter tracking and analysis there is shockingly little in the way of xi squared analysis about.
In conclusion, Kickstarter does not need to be a full time job while its running and does not need a large scale front end investment. Success is not absolute, it is relative, hold your project up to its own aims and goals and do not compare it to those of others.