Aegis Defenders Crowdfunding Post-Mortem, Pt. 1: So, you wanna crowdfund?
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Check out the rest of our Kickstarter Advice Series!:
UPDATE: Check out the video companion piece on YouTube: http://youtu.be/_8rVEeQrGVg or just hear an MP3 of the chat between the developers on SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/aegisdefenders/kickstarter-post-mortem-with-aegis-defenders-part-1-so-you-wanna-crowdfund
A quick word about this series: We had a phenomenal Kickstarter. One of the by-products of that has been people constantly asking us for help and advice. We’re always happy to spare some time for another team in need, but we also wanted to get all of our knowledge down in one place as a reference for other hopefuls. The unfortunate news is that we have no real killer secret. As Euclid noted, “There is no royal road”. The real advice is to prepare 300% and pray that the luck of the universe turns up in your favor. But we also see what we feel are common mistakes that could be avoided. We hope this series will give you something to think about as you prepare, but it’s also not the final word on the topic. Without further ado:
GUTS Dept. Kickstarter Post-Mortem, Part 1: So, you wanna crowdfund…
This introductory piece is easily the hardest to talk about. We have solid advice for the design of the actual Kickstarter, but the emotional and logical acrobatics of actually diving in are a little murkier. Obviously, what we did may not work for you, but here’s what our process looked like from a very macro perspective:
January 2014: Team joins up with a killer demo, decides to Kickstart in March
February: Reality check! Need more money and a a lot more time. We start auditioning new composers for the trailer. We move from 2D Toolkit to Unity’s native 2D Toolset.
March: GDC! Meet Power Up Audio on the floor of the expo. The first storyboards for the trailer come together. We start talking to a few publishers about the game. We decide on a proposed launch date of June 15th.
April: Publish premiere of the new demo at AnimeConji. Trailer is coming along, but its already clear that it’ll be a very tight deadline. We start meeting with other Kickstarter success stories to get their experiences.
May: Trailer still looks amazing, but June 15th is going to be tight, especially with all of the assets we still need to make for the Kickstarter page, to say nothing of pricing rewards.
June: Decide to delay until early July to overlap with AnimeExpo. Work continues on the trailer, the Kickstarter page comes togethers. We show the demo at a press event at E3 and make some valuable contacts.
July: The trailer is amazing, but its not mindblowing. The hardest delay- We decided to show at AnimeExpo, but delay the Kickstarter. The show is great and work continues.
August: Launch! Finally! Only 5 months later than we’d originally proposed and with 4 months of more-than-full-time work for $0 pay! But its worth it.
Number of people working on the Kickstarter full-time: 4. In the run-up to the Kickstarter, we were a foursome- Bryce Kho is the Game Director and Lead Artist, Lifu Lin is the Lead Engineer. The amazing Brian Ott and Scott Stephan Co-Produced the million tiny headaches that had nothing to do with making a video game (Team Paperwork!).
Actual Number of People Who Had a Hand in Making the Kickstarter Come To Life: Eight and then some. Bryce, Lifu, Brian, Scott. Jessie Wong is an amazing animator and did some sprite animations for the trailer. Lai Xu did a silly amount of artwork for the Kickstarter page, including all those cool animated reward icons. She also copy-edited the hell out of that page. Lawrence Jung was our intern super-hero who’s amazing ability to plow through grunt work amazes us to this day. Power Up Audio did all of the incredible music and sound effects for the trailer. Amazing booth staff help from Alice and Wai!
What we spent promoting the game, including merchandise and convention fees: About $7500. We off-set some of this in merchandise sales and we had a double-wide space at AnimeExpo. Your costs could be much lower. This was all out of pocket, much of it Bryce’s own money.
Before you start thinking about how you’ll spend that money...
Think About Why You Want to Crowdfund
The biggest thing you have to think about with crowdfundng is why you want to go this route. If its for the ‘free money’, turn back now. Crowdfunding is an exhausting, amazing, terrible and fantastic way to get cash in hand. But it is not easy and it entails a lot of unique difficulties that don’t always come with traditional funding.
Here’s why we went to Kickstarter: We worked up a budget over the course of several long, grueling days (And we’ll get into that when we talk about The Ask). When we were done, we were left with a number that was nearly triple our best guess as to what it’d cost us to make the game. Our best guess was about $60,000. But sitting down and writing up every single cost element we could think of, we realized that number was closer to $150,000 and even that felt a little conservative.
Now, $150,000 is a lot of money. But it also isn’t an impossible amount and we felt like it was still roughly in friends and family territory. So, we approached some publishers and agents with a fairly solid vertical slice. And here’s where the trouble started: The fact that we weren’t looking for more was working against us. We got offers as high as 30+% of our revenue for the $150k. And we just didn’t feel like giving up 30% of everything we were going to make- off of what would be our only revenue stream- was worth the $150k. We eventually ended up committing to the Kickstarter because it allowed us to keep all of the revenue and (hopefully!) still get the money.
But it also meant that instead of developing the game for ourselves, cloistered away like monks, we’d suddenly have an expectant audience of thousands. And we’d owe them. Decide early if that’s what you want. We did and it has made our game immeasurably better. Its also a huge responsibility. If your games crashes and burns, it won’t do so in your bedroom. It’ll burn brightly and publicly in front of a few thousand people. That can be a good motivator, but it’ll also keep you up at night.
Finally, running a Kickstarter is like having a full-time, unpaid, difficult job for 3 or more months. You will turn into a weird, desperate, Gollum-like creature. You will have put your passion and effort ahead of everything else. This, the emotional toll, is complex and difficult. Steve Swink has a great GDC talk about this that should be required viewing for anyone thinking about crowdfunding their game.
Getting Ready For Your Kickstarter
The first and most important thing is to do your research. I’m providing a link to our first major research document. We looked at other, similar Kickstarters (Roughly defined as retro, 2D, pixel art Kickstarters) and looked not only as how much they raised, but where they raised it, something we’ll cover in our Rewards article. But this research gave us a lot of data about what people liked and where they tended to back. This spreadsheet verges on unreadable- As it outlived its purpose, we stopped cleaning it up. But the individual tabs at the bottom will let you see similar games, what % of backers backed at what reward level and what % of the total take that tier represented.
The second thing is to reach out to other Kickstarter success (and failure!) stories. Our first two discussions with the James who made Chasam and Nick at Yacht Club Games absolutely changed the way we were designing our campaign. A great example is the colossal importance of YouTube and Twitch coverage. All 3 of us here at Guts Dept. are creeping up on 30 (Scott the Elder turns 31 in a few weeks). The idea that there was content on YouTube and Twitch and that ton of people watch it didn’t quite occur to us. In talking with James and Nick, they were able to tell us how important it’d been for them and it dramatically changed our expectations and design of our marketing efforts.
Just send an e-mail! Heck, send two! The worst that happens is that someone won’t answer. We’re always happy to talk with teams looking to Kickstart and the relationships we made in this stage are what opened the door to a lot of our killer crossovers during the campaign. As much as we shudder at the word ‘networking’, this is a great excuse to get to know other teams. The team at Bugbyte.fi has a great series of interviews with some of the teams Kickstarting around the same time we did. Read up!
A third thing that worked for us was to do a bunch of small convention appearances. We attended AnimeConji in San Diego and it set us back $400. We sold some t-shirts to cover costs, used our laptops as demo stations and, more importantly, saw that the game was really resonating with people. We were able to grow our mailing list from 3 people to something like 300. Not bad! We also opted to show at AnimeExpo, which was when we thought we were going to launch our Kickstarter. This was much more expensive (Around $2500), but we got much more exposure. We added some 1000 names to our mailing list by giving out free posters for signing up. Again, it’s hard to say exactly what our success was, but being able to e-mail 1200 die-hard fans- who were going to tell their friends!- on launch day really helped give us that dynamite day one.
Finally: Give yourself time. It took us nearly 4 months to prepare for an execute the Kickstarter and that was with a major delay. There is simply an abundance of work to be done as you’ll not only be making assets, but researching postage costs and manufacturing options etc etc. and you want to be sure you have the time to get it right, even if it means a major delay. If you’re done ahead of time: Awesome. But our advice is about 4 months.
A note on legally incorporating as a business: You should absolutely create an LLC or similar legal business entity BEFORE starting your Kickstarter. Kickstarter funds will count as income. If you don't have a legal entity to deposit them in, then you're essentially taking a one-time, huge paycheck that's going to count as personal income that'll wreak havoc on your taxes come April. Additionally, many console development programs require you to have been incorporated and have a federal EIN Tax ID. This is also a good chance for you and any collaborators you may have to sort out issues of ownership, IP ownership and a million other tiny details that will define your working relationship. More than one project has been undone by not sorting out these issues in advance.
Now, starting a business is kind of mysterious. There's a bunch of paperwork. The good news is that many lawyers can do this in their sleep. In California, the state filing fees were $800 per year. On top of that, you can expect to pay a lawyer around $1200 to process and handle your paperwork.
However, we were able to avoid the lawyer fees by contacting a local university. They had a small business clinic where our case was assigned to a law student who essentially took it on as classwork. We still paid the $800, but managed to avoid the larger fee. Call around and see if there's a similar program in your area.
When to launch
At a macro level, Kickstarter provides a bunch of data about project funding. Projects seem to fund more often in the summer, not so often in the winter. Think about cultural factors- Post-Christmas, people feel cash strapped, in the summer they may not be at their desks as often. We delayed the Kickstarter a few days to avoid a major games conference, but our final days happened during PAX and it definitely cost us one huge YouTube appearance.
Zooming in a a bit, you can find 500 articles all telling you that every day of the week is the wrong day to launch. They’re all right and wrong. What we can say is that Thursdays were universally terrible (We actually lost money one Thursday), but Fridays were great. Launching around a major holiday is bad- You want as many people at their desks as possible. We eventually chose a Wednesday for its mix of the pragmatic (A weekday!) with a blend of voodoo mysticism (We read a few articles that said Wednesday was the best). It also gave us a few hype days to lead into a Friday.
As for Friday- People get paid. It sounds reductive, but its true. Here’s our average take by day of the week (Thanks, Kicktraq!). Our trend seems to contradict what that Kickstarter link indicates, which is interesting:
Getting down to the real micro, Scott once ran the social media presence for a small food company and what he learned that proved to be true here- More people read your e-mails and updates and tweets in that post-lunch doldrum around 1:30-3. We launched at 8 AM PST because it was right before lunch on the east coast and we’d be able to ride the lunch wave across the time zones.
In general, Use Your Brain and DON’T BE AFRAID TO DELAY. One of the hardest decisions we made was to push the Kickstarter back from launching during AnimeExpo. But the trailer just wasn’t ready. The extra month really helped bring it up to professional quality. Don’t feel like you HAVE TO release a certain time. Follow your gut.
A Quick Word on Press
We’ll cover marketing in-depth in another article, but one of the most frequent questions we get (And the one that gave us the most nightmares) was when to start bugging press people. We started about 2-3 weeks out and the general response was, “Well, e-mail me when its live and we’ll see”. But at least that gave us someone to bother when the time rolled around. When it came time to send these e-mails, there were about 5 of us just carpet bombing the internet. Its a numbers game.
The short version is that its a lot of work for just to get ready to roll the dice. And once you launch, its even more work. All for, maybe, nothing. But if you’re ready to take that leap, we’ll be posting a new article every two weeks. The next installment will cover The Video, which is easily the place we see the most teams fail.