Failing fast and hard
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
It’s the Jewish New Year and I’ve taken a brief break from the two week old Enhanced Wars Kickstarter campaign to attend services. I check the time on my phone and see the notification that we have had two new backers. Despite my best intentions, I cannot help but open up my email to check the details. I recognize both names. At that moment, I know that Quarter Spiral is finished.
We’ve crawled over the 20% funding mark past which 4 out of 5 projects are successful. But with a platform wide backer average of $25, we will need to attract over 1,500 new backers to the project in two weeks. In the past 36 hours the small number of new backers are friends and family. Despite the common wisdom that many projects get funded in the final 48 hours it feels impossible.
Knowing that we were unlikely to attract much press attention, we pursued a number of tactics to spread the word. We had spent months building up an early fan base and had acquired several hundred email addresses largely through articles posted to reddit and Gamasutra. We launched a playable, multiplayer demo in tandem with the Kickstarter. Due to lucky circumstances, an op-ed I wrote defending the free-to-play business model on Kotaku was launched hours after the campaign launch. It was read over 100,000 times, had nearly 1,000 comments and contains multiple links to the Enhanced Wars Kickstarter page. I gave game design and monetization talks to a couple hundred at PAX Dev and PAX Prime where I plugged Enhanced Wars at the beginning and end of each lecture. Gabe and Tycho of Penny Arcade retweeted the game to over 200,000 followers as a reward I had purchased for their first Kickstarter campaign. Industry friends and fans retweeted the game, and in total the game was tweeted to somewhere between 250k and 300k followers. I wrote posts on Reddit’s r/gamedev thread and Gamasutra that received hundreds of upvotes and plenty of retweets and comments. These were meaningful posts for game developers that contained mention of and links to Enhanced Wars.
I was pursuing an earned media campaign to get as many people as possible to read or hear the words Enhanced Wars. The media itself was popular, judging from talk attendance, upvotes, comments, retweets and personal emails. But the strategy failed. Twitter raised $785. Kotaku $315. Gamasutra and Reddit less than $100 each. I failed to get the funding and tweet bumps I was hoping for from PAX. Over 60% of our funding came from friends and family.
There are many possible reasons for why the campaign was not successful. Perhaps the earned media approach is flawed. Perhaps the demo was not far enough along to excite players. Perhaps our name and art style were too derivative and turned off potential backers. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
Regardless of the root cause, our game failed to capture the imagination of potential backers. My Kotaku post was all about how professional game developers are guided by market forces and this is a prime example. When we set our funding goal on Kickstarter, we talked about two possibilities. A low number we knew we could hit mainly from our personal network that would not give us enough funding to finish the game. And the real number, the one we chose, the minimum amount of money necessary to work on the game full time for 6 months and release it at quality.
We chose the scenario that required true player engagement. If we were not capable of attracting at least 2,000 players on Kickstarter, then our game was unlikely to succeed in the marketplace. Better to fail the campaign then to raise only enough money to delay our death for another few months.
The adage in Silicon Valley is to fail fast. We bootstrapped Quarter Spiral, funding the company out of our personal savings for a year and change. We founded Quarter Spiral to build a DIY publishing solution to help independent game developers transform games into businesses. We spent the first 10 months doing the Silicon Valley thing: building our technology demo and pitch deck, talking to potential customers and advisors, securing meetings with VCs. After months of hard work we met with a small number of VCs. We had a good team, an interesting vision and a working tech demo, but we were not far enough along. Come back when you have met metric X or Y.
We looked at our progress to date, our bank account and the amount of effort it would take to reach these metrics. We knew that if we hit them it did not guarantee funding. All it meant was we were in a shape where it would not be a waste of time for a VC to meet with us again. Best case scenario would mean 6 months from that point to funding. We were en route to go broke begging for money. This was our first failure point.
We decided to pivot. We had a working tech stack, so we decided to build a game on top of it. We would build a demo and use Kickstarter to fund the game’s development. We considered our options and given our technology and previous titles settled on a turn based strategy game. We started building Enhanced Wars. We put together a PR strategy and roadmap. We launched a campaign and earlier today, we shut it down. This was our second failure point.
We do not have enough money to continue as a company. We will shut down the game and unwind the studio. We will move on with our lives.
Days on Earth is the most limited resource for any of us. I do not regret that our entrepreneurial venture did not work out. I do not regret the strategies we pursued or the game we made. I do not regret a public failure.
I regret that it took us this long to fail.
The dust was only just kicked up into the air. I do not think any of us have clear plans for what the future holds. For me at least, it is the start of a New Year. The world is full of possibilities.