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Kickstarter: Presale for Hardcore Games?
by Thomas Sitch on 04/03/13 03:29:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This is almost a postmortem.  It’s an analysis of the state of Kickstarter for the plucky group of friends trying to launch an idea, and a cautionary tale that must be told.  This is about launching the Kickstarter campaign of “Niftymancer”, (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/375726835/niftymancer?ref=article), a game inspired by Plants versus Zombies and Tripletown, and targeted for a more casual audience, and its lack of traction with the hardcore game media and the Kickstarter audience.

It began with an idea…

Niftymancer’s roots go all the way back to 2008, when Farmville and other click-o-matic games were popping up in the brand new frontier of Facebook.  I had the idea of doing a spoof on Farmville called “Gothic Gardener”, where you raised poisonous or man-eating plants to terrorize the neighborhood children.  I was chest deep in shipping “Wizard 101,” and the idea wouldn’t resurface until 2012, after leaving casual game development studio GameHouse to pursue my own endeavors. 

Having been a huge fan of “Plants versus Zombies,” I got together with a set of fellow game developers and showed them a prototype I assembled for “The Nifty Necromancer,” which quickly became rebranded as “The Niftymancer.”

The idea was to build a free to play game with the same addictive qualities as Plants versus Zombies and Tripletown, set in a fantasy world where the player assumed the role of a misunderstood necromancer.  The player would conjure zombies, ghosts, and other odd minions to defend against angry pixies and forest creatures, while advancing through an RPG style world with quests and magic items.

We approached Northwest artist/cartoonist Justin Hillgrove (www.impsandmonsters.com) for collaboration, and found both a soul and a style for the game.  Everything seemed to have come together as if it was meant to be.

Why Not Kickstarter?

It was now October of 2012, and the riches of Kickstarter had stirred the gaming industry like early rumors of gold at Sutter’s Mill or in the Klondike.  I had actually worked with Alex “Chewy” Thomas back in the Shadowbane days, and he and a few friends had split off from Bioware to fund their idea, “Banner Saga”, to the tune of $723,886 (1).

Several people in our group had been laid off, and I wanted to return to making video games full time, so some source of money was necessary.  Kickstarter seemed the natural choice: the scope of the project was tight and the monetary needs of the team were modest.  If we could pay three artists, two programmers, and a designer for a few months, we could totally realize the vision of the game.

Thus began our journey into the dark world of the Kickstarter pitch.

The Pitch, The Stress, The Pain

My first advice to any prospective Kickstarter campaign out there is that assembling the pitch and the Kickstarter page will dominate three months of your life.  It will be stressful, aggravating, and leave you with the constant feeling that you should have accomplished oh-so-much more for the amount of time and effort you’ve devoted to it.  I understand that fully operational game studios bring the entire studio to a halt to build their Kickstarter pitch, and I believe it.

Here’s what went well with the Niftymancer pitch:

  • We held weekly meetings.  Being a part time team, everyone was too busy to meet more frequently, but this kept us focused, allowed us to shoot and retake footage, and brainstorm for ideas on the project.
  • We took time to film casual conversations and jam sessions, and this gave us more footage to play with and show our team off. 
  • We took the time to elaborate on all of our game industry experience.  This was one of the biggest sources of compliments on our pitch.

Here’s what didn’t go well

  • It took way too long.  Three months dragged by, and the video wasn’t even remotely ready until February of 2013.  In that time we lost team members who got other jobs or had life issues come up.
  • We had constant setbacks on building a playable demo.  By the time the video was finished we were still waiting on critical art assets in the demo, and decided to launch the Kickstarter with very rough demo footage, which was probably a bad idea.
  • Amazon Payments had some bumps in the road.  While we were able to sort it out, it set us back a week and a half from our planned launch date.

If you’re going to do a Kickstarter pitch, expect to do the following for success:

  • Shoot a high quality video, and have someone skilled in post-production to edit and add special effects.  This is a must.  If you lack that skill set, expect to pay thousands of dollars on a production house.
  • Expect to spend thirty to forty man-hours in producing the art for your Kickstarter page.  You will need tee shirt designs, award levels, stretch goals, and professional looking separators.  We spent close to $1,500 for art, editing, and post-production.
  • Plan on having lots of slick, awesome, polished game footage to show. 

But wait,” you might say, “isn’t the point of the Kickstarter to raise the money to make the game?”

You would be correct, or at least, that was the point for Niftymancer.  However, in soliciting feedback on the pitch video, and in subsequent scathing critique of the video, we heard that again and again:

“Show us good footage of the game.”  “You showed the game too early.  You should have finished more.”

That begs the question: is Kickstarter a pre-sale for games, and can you succeed if you haven’t already made the game?

Success other than Presale

There are some prominent stories of successfully funded Kickstarter campaigns that don’t seem driven by presale of the game.  Let’s take a moment to review what we were NOT:

#1  Not a celebrity campaign

While Tom Hall (2) and Chris Taylor (3) can tell you that being a game industry mogul is not a guarantee of a successful Kickstarter, others such as Tim Schafer (4) and Brian Fargo (5) have shown that the right name appeal (coupled with a good idea) can rocket your project to funding, often in the millions of dollars.  We certainly didn’t qualify in this category.

#2  Not an impossible MMO

I’ve worked on three Massively Multiplayer Online games in my day, all of which shipped, and I can tell you that funding to get one of these monsters out starts around 20 million dollars, and goes up rapidly from there.  Despite that, MMO Kickstarters regularly fund, often by promising hardcore MMO players the moon and by offering them real estate or status within said MMO world.  An excellent example of this would be projects like Greed Monger (6) and Arakion (7)

Not a presale

One of the criticisms we got back early in the  campaign was that a lot of people pledged to the minimum to get a free copy of a game, and that by doing Niftymancer as a free to play game we’d cut off the major motivation to pledge on Kickstarter.

Certainly if you evaluate successfully funded Kickstarter campaigns, a lot of them look a lot like mostly complete games being offered for pre-sale.  My hat’s off to Delver’s Drop, and their final pledge point of $150,745, but if you look at those guys, they’re showing a very polished, complete looking project, and the worked PAX and other conventions for months leading up to the campaign (8).

That may not be an unreasonable thing for the public to expect, but it should be a warning to people looking to get crowdsourced in chasing their dream: you need to have money to get money.  You need to have already invested hundreds of man hours of solid programming, art, and sound to get backed in a modern Kickstarter.

Keeping a female focus

Okay, it’s important to note that we did not set out to make a game solely targeted at women with Niftymancer.  But we did go with a style and focus our designs heavily towards a female audience: women 15-45; the type that enjoyed “The Corpse Bride” or “Coraline”.  At the time of writing we have four women and two men actively working on the game, and we heavily focus tested our main characters, especially the female Niftymancer, to make sure they had proper appeal.

But was that a mistake? 

My instinct was a solid “no”, because women have been an underserved part of the game population, and all the research I’ve seen in the last five years shows the rise of female dominance in gaming, specifically social and casual games.  Certainly, we’ve seen the rocket success of FeministFrequency’s Kickstarter “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” (9), although it should be noted that Tropes was not a video game.  How many Kickstarter video games are really focused on or at least emphasize a female audience?  It doesn’t seem to be that many.

I would venture further to say that a lot of media people who watch Kickstarter tend to be males interested in hard core games, and that limits the exposure and publicity of your campaign.

This remains an open question to me, and I’m hoping to see some broader research done on the percentage both of casual, female oriented games in the Kickstarter space and how well they succeed relative to more hardcore, male focused games.

In Conclusion

There are several lessons to be learned from Niftymancer.  You are free to disagree, but we highly rate the following ones:

  • Remember that even a good idea may not have the audience (on Kickstarter) to fund your project
  • Most successfully funded projects in the game space are from full time, actualized teams that put together really slick videos.  You should plan on being just as slick.
  • Most successfully funded projects also are well along in game development, and can show off a polished game.  You should do the same.
  • Media attention rules.  Design a hook and target an audience that will get the attention of the gaming media.  If you’re going to target a more casual audience then you need some way of drumming up media attention.

Perhaps that is the direction of the Kickstarter video games: get a solid amount of investment cash for a small team, build PR, and run a pre-sale through Kickstarter.  Kickstarter then gets you a large influx of cash with relatively few legal obligations.

This reality means that the small group of friends with a dream is going to have a hard time running a successful Kickstarter campaign.

We’re still out there, and we’ll find a way to make Niftymancer happen.  Please feel free to check out Niftymancer’s Kickstarter and its (belated) playable demo:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/375726835/niftymancer?ref=article

About the Author

Thomas Sitch is a twelve year game industry veteran, having worked on games like Shadowbane, Pirates of the Burning Sea, and Wizard 101.  In 2009 he became an independent developer working on the casual teen vampire game, “Forever 17,” and going on to work in casual and mobile games.

 

References

(1)     Banner Saga Kickstarter

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/stoic/the-banner-saga

 

(2)     Tom Hall returns to Kickstarter

http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2013-02-04-tom-hall-returns-to-kickstarter

 

(3)     Chris Taylor cancels Wildman Kickstarter

http://kotaku.com/5983476/chris-taylor-and-gas-powered-games-cancel-their-wildman-kickstarter

 

(4)     Double Fine Adventure

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/doublefine/double-fine-adventure

 

(5)     Wastleland 2

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/inxile/wasteland-2

 

(6)     Greed Monger

http://ggimho.com/2012/11/26/kickstarter-spotlight-greed-monger-a-crafting-focused-sandbox-mmorpg/

 

(7)     Arakion

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/lavidimus/chris-taylors-arakion

 

(8)     Delver’s Drop

http://delversdrop.com/

 

(9)     Kickstarter Video Project Attracts Misogynist Horde

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/7.378338-Kickstarter-Video-Project-Attracts-Misogynist-Horde


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Comments


Daniel Bishop
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Thank you for the advice, my Kickstarter is due to be up an running in one month and I still have a lot of prep to accomplish.

Kenneth Blaney
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'women 15-45; the type that enjoyed “The Corpse Bride” or “Coraline”'

Wait... those movies targeted women? I loved those movies and I'm a fan of your art style as well. Does this mean I'm not as good at figuring out if I'm in the target audience?

Connor Fallon
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I don't know why this would cause any distress =P It really doesn't mean anything except you enjoyed the movies.

Jeremy Reaban
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I think the trouble with targeting the casual market is that you have a lot of existing competition and the expectations are that the games will be fairly cheap

Why would someone donate money to a free to play flash game KS, when there are new ones cropping up every day? Even regular games, you have a new game every day at Big Fish, and they are far from the only portal. And those only cost $5-10.

And beyond that, free to play games are inherently shady (there's really no other way to say it). They are a way of extracting a whole lot of money from people (so called whales), as opposed to a small fixed fee. I think a lot of people just have problems with the ethics of the free to play model.

The other thing, I think it always looks very suspicious when a KS has a large part of its funds from just a few people. As near as I can tell, your KS has $8000 of its $10,000 from 5 people.

Ben Sly
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I agree with this post's views on Kickstarting free-to-play games. I wouldn't necessarily say that F2P is a shady business practice in theory, but in practice it's earned its reputation as one.

Typical F2P purchases are made in the heat of the moment to gain immediate gameplay benefits. You know precisely what the purchase will do, and it will make your gameplay easier. (I'm not saying that cosmetic, access-of-new-content, or other types of purchases don't happen, but they're not usually the type of purchase most emphasized in design or by detractors. Some very successful exceptions occur like Path of Exile and Team Fortress 2, but in many ways they're successful because they take a different approach to the average F2P game.)

Typical Kickstarter pledges are based around something much less tangible: how passionate you are about the game overall. Pledgers aren't getting anything for a while except the excitement of having backed and maybe access to some forum. It's far removed from the "I gotta get this now" mindset that most F2P games rely on. Offering gameplay rewards in an unreleased game is always a shaky prospect, but it really gets hard to justify when you'll just be able to buy those or similar items in an ingame store.

There's also the stigma that F2P has earned/really not working well with the Kickstarter model. Discussing the F2P model is also dangerous because it counteracts the (often incorrect) notion that the game developers are doing this purely out of passion and absolutely need the backers' help to make this work. It can easily make the backers feel exploited when that the developers are also trying to make money elsewhere (see the backlash that the Banner Saga generated when it released Factions as F2P multiplayer.) What turns traditional publishers on to F2P design - securing a constant revenue stream while not needing to make more content - is precisely what turns Kickstarter backers off to it.

There's also that Kickstarter is, for a project creator, a very delicate process of trying to get backers to give you money based on promises. There's a reason that a "backer" is "supporting" a "project" and is not a "customer" "preordering" a "product"; it's a dance based around trying to get people to make financial decisions without them feeling like they're making financial decisions. The best way to do that for a creative work is to inspire the backers with your passion, to make each decision you appear to be motivated purely by improving the project. Defending financial decisions about gameplay-affecting sources of funding gives a mercenary impression to a backer that interferes with it, regardless of if those decisions are good or bad.

To summarize, Kickstarter and Free-to-Play mix very badly with eachother. The biggest name I'm aware of that did that - Akaneiro - looks like it did everything else well with a strong concept, frequent updates, star power in the form of American McGee, lots of good concept art, and working gameplay videos, but the Kickstarter project barely succeeded. I think that that was mostly because of it being F2P.

Ian Fisch
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You have to put yourself in the shoes of a backer.

Why should a backer put money toward this when there are so many other games released every day that they could spend money on?

Why should a backer spend money on a free-to-play game?

Why should a backer, who's almost certainly an experienced gamer, care if your project appeals to all ages or will be available for ipad?

Jack Nilssen
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I wonder how many backers are now looking into the track record of the person(s) running the projects. That's certainly my first go-to & as I don't have mountains of disposable income I don't back first-timers/unknowns.

Having a pre-existing audience seems key to any projects that look like they might be asking for more money than they're worth.

Cid Newman
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Another problem may be accountability. How much are these people paying themselves once they get funding? Who places any individual limits on it? Human greed and no oversight are a bad mix, especially with dishonest people, whether they've made a game before or not. And make no mistake, this industry is full of just as many dishonest people as any other industry is.

David Klingler
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I recently held a very small kickstarter for one of my games, Crashland, which is casual and will be released free. My goal was a modest $500, and it raised $561 (the game was mostly done, and I just needed a mac for the iOS port and help paying my office rent). I really think mine was successful only because of how tiny it was, and that another two local developers helped me make a better video simply because they wanted it to succeed.

Raising serious money for any game on kickstarter is not something to approach lightly, and I can understand that in some ways it can be more difficult for smaller casual games, especially free ones. My game got backers not because they wanted rewards, but that they really just wanted to help fund the project to completion. Would that be enough for a game that needs $100,000? Probably not. There are a lot of variables that need to be addressed when making a serious kickstarter, but it's not impossible.

Worth of rewards is something not really addressed in the article, but I think that it's very important. Looking at the reward tiers in the Niftymancer kickstarter, I felt like they weren't really very generous compared to many other successful kickstarters I've seen. As Ian Fisch said in his comment, I think that you need to keep the backer in mind all the time, and backers will often be thinking about what they themselves get out of it.

Having a playable demo is a very good decision, but I think it would have been more successful if it had launched even before the kickstarter began, as well as being further along in terms of gameplay. I played the demo, but was left wondering many things about the game itself. I see a lot of concentration on polish of certain visual aspects of the game, and it seems from the video that the accountability of the team isn't really in question here very much, but having a more complete demo would have been really good to show how tight the gameplay itself will be, which in my opinion is much more important than the polish of the art (although some people that hated on the visuals of my first game might say differently).

Keep focusing on the game, and I hope you guys can pull through.

Rachel Presser
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Just exited the driver's seat of a successful Kickstarter about two weeks ago:
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2112639455/mages-initiation-a
-classic-sierra-style-adventure

I learned more about our own fanbase and the psychology of Kickstarter in the past month and half, than I did in the past year or so of Kickstarting games as a passenger (so to speak.) Heh, I got ranty here, but I hope the following proves helpful for those considering an epic Kickstarter journey.

Yes, preparing your pitch and page, selecting rewards and analyzing your budget, WILL take at least two months. We launched February 19, but we began making the project page on New Year's Day. Submitted it for approval, went through Amazon lag, more and more edits every day, we were all done by January 31. Not counting January, we started laying groundwork and contacting new and existing suppliers around Thanksgiving. We started putting out feelers afterward, and spent December-January building up hype. Things got real in February; we did a round of press at the launch, and again when we released our demo (both were a big help in reeling in new backers beyond the usual awesome gang of adventure game superfans.)

A lot of work had already been completed on Mage's Initiation-- a LOT. We'd been invested in the game for four years and really wanted to kick it off as the start of a great new old school style adventure-with-RPG-elements franchise. The purpose of our campaign was to get that final push to really polish up the game and refine the combat system, with enough funds for those final assets to get it shipped, and hopefully make enough to add some new content. (And also take advantage of the way Kickstarter tends to throw the spotlight on development teams-- it's AMAZING for discoverability.)

After watching as both a passenger then a driver, I have concluded that perception matters. How people perceive the project literally makes or breaks your Kickstarter. Does your audience perceive you as deserving of the funds requested? Do they think you clearly put your skin in the game, and all these factors merit the goal? If potential backers think your goal is too illustrious to merit your team's needs or that the game being made *could've been made without Kickstarter*, big chance they'll back off, thinking there's no point in pledging because it just won't make it. Having renown does not necessarily justify setting a large goal that may or may not truly reflect the project's needs; not anymore, now that many of last year's big Kickstarted games are going to be released this year, and people are being savvier about what they back.

And I DEFINITELY agree with Cid above that accountability also matters. You don't necessarily need to put SEC-level charts and figures into your campaign lit; but a simple pie chart based on your goal alone, dictating what you expect to do with it, will do. Your backers aren't buying a finished game-- they're contributing their money to see it get made. You're not mandated to tell them how your personal finances are doing like you would if you were seeking money from a bank, or how your company's are doing like a publicly-traded company is legally obligated to. BUT, they have a right to know how you plan to spend the money they're about to give.
I budgeted that maybe 50-55% of a $40-60K campaign's proceeds would actually get to go to game development after we diligently sorted how much everyone would get paid, and how much we reasonably expected to lose to fees, overhead, and getting our epic swag made and shipped. So we set the goal for $65,000 and hoped for the best. We weren't expecting to hit almost 200% from over 3,000 backers!

The perception factor is really what's carving out Kickstarter as a means of funding games-- like Jeremy and Ben above said, the more experienced gamers that tend to populate Kickstarter generally shun F2P and there are more offerings on the casual gaming market than there are for the niche genres Kickstarter has breathed life back into.

Adventure games like my team's have long been the Siberia of the gaming industry. Now they seem to have a new home. Hey, Kickstarter's the place for all kinds of stuff that gets shunned by traditional capital means, but it's not without its own risks and quirks like the perception factor. I think most Kickstarter regulars just aren't too keen on casual and F2P games, and the audience who like these kinds of games prefer to buy them, not Kickstart them.

Ben Sly
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I would be somewhat leery in labeling the perception factor as a unique quirk of Kickstarter. It really just comes from selling a game idea directly to customers instead of publishers; it's the fundamental marketing practice of tailoring your pitch to your customers rather than a new idea. To get a game published traditionally, you have to persuade a publisher that the game would make money. To get a game published via Kickstarter, you have to persuade the backers that they'll be getting a good game. Both approaches have significant limitations (the traditional side has a load of preconceptions about what will and won't sell, whereas the Kickstarter side is so focused on the final product that it's very easy to make huge mistakes in how the game is to be developed.)

Frankly, I think that a lot of the flaws of Kickstarter are not apparent now because the games boom hasn't been around long enough. Very few people set out developing a game thinking it will turn out bad, but there are a lot of bad games out there. Indeed, Kickstarter is even more at risk for severe development issues without professional publishers present. How critical hype is to the whole process strongly suggests that the developers will get blinded by it too, and overpromise (even for wildly successful projects - stretch goals are dangerous temptations). And - as difficult it is to negotiate with publishers - renegotiating the promises in a public forum with swarms of unhappy fans is even harder.

Kickstarter projects are prone to failing in the same way that .38 Studios failed: a long, messy process characterized by increasingly desperately optimistic decisions that ruin the reputations of the big names involved and put the majority of employees in dire financial straits. There's not been enough time for many of these debacle to happen: they continue silently on until the developers are forced into accepting that they can't salvage the game, which may take quite a while for projects originally intended to take one or more years. It's very hard to figure out who it'll happen to - the self-deception in the whole process works makes accurate forecasts difficult - but I do think that there will be some big names succumbing to it. Hopefully the damage will be small, and Kickstarter as a funding platform for games will survive.

Thomas Sitch
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Rachel, very interesting insights, and inline with a lot of what I've heard. I got a lot of council to *not* break down costs of the project because it was information overload for backers, but on reflection I'm more inclined to believe what you say, and that it's better to lay out the numbers.

~~Thomas

Ron Dippold
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A successful Kickstarter requires you get enough passionate backers who are willing to take a risk /now/ and fund something they know they can just buy later once after trying it out to see if it's any good.

When you put it that way, that doesn't necessary mean hardcore ( http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1338986832/sealark-an-oceanic
-adventure-game ), but it certainly gives you a big handicap for 'casual'.

Thomas Sitch
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Totally valid. Contrary to the title of my blog (although I think it's worth posing the question), there are very specific types of games that succeed on Kickstarter; I think most of us probably agree on that. If you fall outside those specific targets you'd better have a really good PR game.

~~T

Simone Tanzi
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It's no surprise that casual games don't do well on kickstarter.
Casual gamers by definition have no commitment to gaming. They want something easy and accessible, possibly free to play. Then maybe (but probably not) if the game hooked them they may be willing to give some money.
Kickstarter is the exact opposite, you commit to a game and spend money way before you have access to the game.
Casual games on Kickstarter seems like the perfect formula for disaster.
The Kickstarter target are people who used to follow the developement of a game for years reading all the news, asking all the questions and requesting beta invitation... that means the most core audience of them all. only people with that kind of dedication to gaming would be willing to spend money on a project early in developement stage.
Just ask yourself how many people followed the developement of the major casual games way before the release... probably 0.
Do you find plausible to have hordes of people interested in the developement of farmville, or angry birds, months if not years before release and willing to pay money to see it done?

Dave Breadner
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This one flew under my radar, but I've got to admit, I've never played Plants vs. Zombies before, so that probably had a bit to do with it.

One thing I did notice that really threw me off was your international shipping rates. you had $20 for every single tier, meanwhile the costs wouldn't be anywhere close to that. As someone who lives in Canada, I look at that, and determine if it is worth taking that tier.

In your case, I would have had to pay $20 shipping for just a coloring book that came in the $30 and $50 tiers. That would steer me away from donating that much.

Personally, I prefer just digital awards. That might be something more casual games might try adding more of instead of physical items, especially at lower, mid/low tiers (sub $250 or so). In your folks case, you had the cat at $50, then the next digital item was the dragon at $200.

In the future if you try to bring something like this back (or someone else with a casual game,) why not offer more digital items that don't cost anything to ship? The art in the game was beautiful, why not have a tier that includes a hi-def concept art book? Is there a background story to it? Why not write a short story or novel to it and make that part of a tier? Of course there is also the soundtrack.

Just something to possibly mull over.


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