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How Camouflaj saved République's Kickstarter
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How Camouflaj saved République's Kickstarter

August 20, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

I was driving across Seattle's 520 bridge on a beautiful, sunny afternoon on the third day of our Kickstarter campaign, dazed and confused, and momentarily considered hitting the red "abort mission" button on our whole Kickstarter. Fifty-five hours into our campaign and we had only gathered 11 percent of our funding goal.

Even worse, I had just glanced at our backer list and recognized nearly half of the names: mostly friends and family. Over 95 percent of visitors aren't pledging. Our funding goal of $500,000 didn't feel "aggressive" anymore, but impossible. We were getting hundreds of thousands of views on our Kickstarter and nobody was pledging, but I knew that they're definitely keeping an eye on us... And if we gave up, what would that say about my team, our game République, and me?

It was then that I recommitted myself to doing whatever it took to run a great Kickstarter campaign, even though I was certain we wouldn't achieve our aggressive $500,000 funding goal unless by some kind of miracle. I decided that I would do this without distracting the team anymore, as we were running low on money and couldn't afford to spend a month running a Kickstarter instead of developing the game.

As the indigo toll bridge lights scanned my car and I unwillingly coughed up $3 to the state of Washington, I thought, "How am I going to get 10,000 people to willingly pre-order our iPhone game on Kickstarter?"

What Went Wrong

1. Too Polished

It was on a typical rainy February 10th when we decided to do our very own campaign that would feature the proof-of-concept demo of République that we were already working late every night on.

While the Kickstarter boom that Double Fine initiated was inspiring, we knew that we wouldn't be able to lean on nostalgia, name value, or the latest resurgence in PC gaming to achieve big crowdfunding success. We were a new studio announcing a big budget, iOS-only game that overtly questions some of the biggest tropes in gaming today. We were abandoning our console upbringing to start a revolution on iOS, and we had to get people inspired by this vision.

We decided that we would communicate some of our studio's values (high quality, meaningful, honest) through our Kickstarter page and video. Maybe if people saw how beautiful our game was, how pro our trailer was, and how polished our pitch was, they'd get behind our ambitious aims for République -- or so we thought.

A week into our campaign, we were surprised to see dozens of comments online from people saying: "Look at that game, look at how expensive their video looks... They don't need our money." Meanwhile, our company bank account was getting dangerously low.

As I sought out reasons as to why our campaign wasn't resonating, I realized that people were put off by how polished everything looked. This was disappointing because, yes, in fact, we worked extremely hard to make everything as professional as possible. I called up my good friend Victor Lucas and asked if his company, Greedy Productions, wanted to produce all our Kickstarter videos. (We developed a great partnership with them working on the "Making of Metal Gear Solid 4" together.)

I spent a week in Los Angeles, driving back and forth between Logan, where we cut the trailer, and Soundelux DMG, where the audio mix was being finalized. Alexei Tylevich and I were in constant communication with Petrol, who designed the iconic main visuals for the game and campaign, and I even had trusted friends Mark MacDonald and John Ricciardi of 8-4 Ltd. to copy-edit our page and gut check our pledge rewards.

Initially, I was frustrated at the "too polished" complaints, especially when I remembered the late nights and weekends Craig Cerhit put into our video content. I often thought about the rich guys on Kickstarter intentionally making rough-looking webcam videos to appeal to peoples' charitable instincts and subsequently pull in six or seven figures in pledges.

While aggravating, I understood the point. While I don't necessarily agree with the commonly used analogy that running a Kickstarter is a digital form of panhandling, if that were true, I was standing on a street corner in a freshly pressed suit holding an iPad with a typed out message "Need money. Anything helps."

2. It's a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Prepping our Kickstarter took exactly two months layered atop four months of perpetual crunch on our game. All said and done, the prep work involved dozens of people and many sleepless nights to make sure everything was perfect. This included copious amounts of research of other crowdfunding efforts to make sure we were learning from other successes and failures. We stress-tested the campaign with friends and family to get critical feedback, and made every effort we could to launch the most readable and best-looking Kickstarter page ever.

Busy tweaking every knob available, I didn't sleep the night before our Kickstarter went live, and by the time I clicked the launch button on the morning of April 10, I was physically and mentally exhausted. I was excited and optimistic, and confident that the incredible amount of prep work we did would quickly translate into a successful Kickstarter campaign. I was wrong, and tired.

On one of the biggest days of my career, I was too tired to stay awake. After six or seven hours of answering questions that came in and clicking the refresh button a few dozen times, I fell asleep for a few hours, curious to know how many tens of thousands of dollars in pledges would be counted while I recharged my batteries. To my disappointment, I woke up to an already anemic Kickstarter campaign.

Internally, we believed that we would need to gather at least $100,000 on day one to keep the momentum going for the remaining 29 days of the campaign. By the time I went to bed on the first night, we were at $36,607. It was then that I realized that the battle had just begun, and we didn't have an action plan.

I mistakenly assumed that we had done enough prep work to provide visitors with enough information and product vision to convince them to pledge. Instead, it was clear that I had 29 days to turn this campaign around, and had previously been too busy and confident to prep a contingency plan. We had already spent all our ammo, and the battle was just beginning...

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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mike madden
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Thank you for sharing. Always fun to read the trials and tribulations that developers go through in chasing their dream. Happy to see you are getting that chance.

Felipe Budinich
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I'm currently in the midst of our own Kickstarter campaign and I also got the "Look at that game, look at how expensive their video looks... They don't need our money." comment, it was completely dazzling (and it's not as polished as yours!).

We are doing pretty much Ok, and most probably we will reach our humble 10k goal, but I think that you are completely right about feeling like the feedback is confusing.

Curtiss Murphy
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Fantastic article! Thank you for sharing and congratulations.

Kickstarter fatigue will increase. It's a 'me too' phenom already. Unique, then novel, then interesting. How long until it's passe? Reminds me of Ray Kurzweil's predictions - innovations will sweep through our lives with ever increasing speed.

Kyle Redd
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"I often thought about the rich guys on Kickstarter intentionally making rough-looking webcam videos to appeal to peoples' charitable instincts and subsequently pull in six or seven figures in pledges."

That's a pretty incendiary statement to make. Which campaigns have actually been guilty of this?

Johnathon Swift
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Very nice, and for a sample of one I can confirm that I'm the only person I know personally (at least that I talk to on a regular basis) that has backed a Kickstarted project, and I've backed about eight or nine at this point.

That being said, I have heard discussion between some people that are weary of "gambling" on some of the less known projects. For example the Planetary Annihilation kickstarter seems to have gotten some praise for being a very experienced team behind it.

Joseph Cook
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It really is eye-opening when you start questioning gamers about how much they think it costs to make a game. Unfortunately, the emotions of seeing a relatively large number take over compared to the simple logic and mathematics behind what it takes to pay people and run a business.

Take the Defense Grid 2 Kickstarter, for example. They asked for $1 million to fund a full sequel to the game, and I saw a lot of "How the heck can it cost $1 million to create a tower defense game??" Only after you run the numbers and think about it for a bit, you realize that $1 million can probably fund a company of 10 people working for average wages for a year. For a very highly polished game like the original Defense Grid, someone could easily understand how it could take 10 people working for a year to create that.

I wonder if it would be of help to some Kickstarter projects to be more transparent into where the money will go? If potential donors knew "This other game had X people working on it for Y months, and after costs of office space, legal expenses, and benefits, it costs us $Z to create", maybe it would make it easier to understand where they're coming from asking for a specific amount?

Billy Bissette
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A counter to this is that companies shouldn't be looking to get all their funding through Kickstarter. Even people who consider themselves "micro-investors" can choke on that idea, that the developers are asking the consumers to shoulder most or all the costs in advance, while the developers will end up with a complete product that they can continue to sell in order to continue to make themselves money. (Considering yourself a micro-investor seems silly to me anyway. You aren't a micro-investor, you are just a fan who is pre-ordering a game and possibly getting some pre-order bonuses. Unlike most pre-orders, you just won't get your money back if the game goes belly-up after the first month or so.)

The more popular argument is of course that other Kickstarters ask for less. And, to be fair, if you launch a Kickstarter then you are competing against other Kickstarters. Maybe you really need $1,000,000, but if the other guys are asking for $200,000 or $50,000, it starts to look like you are greedy. Or out of touch. Or a company with ideals beyond your station. Or a company that should be looking at more traditional funding routes. You certainly aren't seen as a fan who wants to get a game out, but rather more likely as a business who, after seeing other success stories, is trying to jump onto the Kickstarter money train before it leaves the station.

(For Defense Grid 2 specifically, not only was it competing against other Kickstarters, it was competing against other Tower Defense games. That genre which the market has been flooded with for years, and for a while appeared to be one of the backbone of free Flash games. It was a sequel to a somewhat recently released game that didn't need Kickstarter. People only quirked their eyebrows harder when they were told that Defense Grid 2 was going with a high budget Kickstarter because the first Defense Grid didn't make money. And it certainly didn't help the court of public opinion when they saw the tiering system, and how the "goal" was only an expansion pack while the full sequel was a stretch goal.)

Jeremy Alessi
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Interesting stuff, thanks for sharing Ryan!

Matt Walker
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Excellent article and of course I'm thrilled that these hard working people made their goal - but does Gamasutra not believe in editing their feature articles at all? There are at least two totally obvious spelling errors that really stand out in this article. (And if I caught them they must be obvious - I'm not exactly an English major.)

Boon Cotter
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Is it possible that the game's fiction worked against it? I was one of those visitors who watched the video, was incredibly impressed, and then moved on without pledging. It's a stunning piece of work, and it looks like it could have come from an established studio with a mountain of cash behind it. But that's not what disinterested me, in fact the polish was what made me focus. Truly gorgeous work.

What turned me away was the fictional space and the aesthetic, which said: Mainstream.

There's a fantastic mechanic in there, wrapped up in a presentation space that feels very safe. This isn't a criticism. There's no problem with the space, and I love the blend of sci-fi espionage you have going on. But I've seen it, and done it, and don't really want to re-do it. It feels like big studio domain, and what has traditionally attracted me most to Kickstarter campaigns is the sense of something which is mechanically AND visually and emotionally risky (experimental, unique). You hit one target for me, but missed the other two.

Not that I want to imply that my feelings are indicative of some broad public opinion. In fact, I could very well be the only potential backer who felt this way. But I just wanted to offer you another point of view that you may not have considered, if it helps at all.

I do wish you the best of luck, and I'll almost certainly purchase the game because it looks phenomenal (I've seen so called triple-A games with less polish) and the main mechanic is brilliant.

Aaron Fowler
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Thanks for the insight. It certainly tipped my initial idea of the recipe and plan for a successful KickStarter campaign. (Not that there is a guaranteed success plan, but still)

Who would have thought that being too polished would be seen as a negative? Because certainly the opposite is true as well.

I guess you just need to communicate your idea clearly, demonstrate or prove that what you are promising can be done, and relate to the community in a more personal way.

Thanks again for sharing!

Tora Teig
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I really enjoyed reading this, and it is so inspiring to see you guys having success with this project! Best of luck to you and thank you for sharing some of the journey with us :)

Eugene Zhukov
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Very very interesting article! Thank you Ryan! It was very helpful and instructive to read this article, having own Kickstarter experience. Unfortunately our project (SKYJACKER) failed to reach its goal there on Kickstarter, but it's really helpful to read such postmortem and to compare other's experience with your own. I even made brief extraction of the most important thoughts and ideas to make troubleshooting for the future. Thank you Ryan!

Matt Hackett
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After reading this, I'm actually less convinced than before that our little indie company could get a project crowd-funded. It sounds like the project's success depends heavily on press coverage, and that's our single biggest weak point right now. Nobody wants to write about our released games, and it seems to me that it would be even harder to get them to write about an unreleased game.

Interesting read, thank you for sharing and congrats!

Ryan Payton
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Thanks for all the nice comments, everyone. Glad people are finding the article helpful.

Eugene Zhukov
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Ryan, we both with my partner have some point of discussion since May concerning your project. Could you reveal: all your updates were prepared in advance, or it was a result of spontaneous actions. For instance, did you planned to launch #KEEP HOPE ALIVE in advance, exactly in a day you did this, or it was some not planned spontaneous action in purpose to save the project?
Thank you in advance for your answer.

Kenan Alpay
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Kickstarter is scary, but it managed to make the impossible, possible!
I'm really excited at the idea of "core" games on iOS, and I was crossing my fingers from day one. I'm super excited that you guys made it, and I can't wait to see the fruits of your labor. Wishing you guys a smooth development, I can't wait to see what you come up with!

Remi Lavoie
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Very interesting read, thanks for sharing your experience.

I can understand why people would be put off by the "polished" look of the game. Personally, when I look at Kickstarter projects for games, I do not look for high profile names. Rather the opposite, I look for a small team with a cool idea, and not enough money, and for whom finding a publisher would be pretty hard to near impossible.
As for your game, you could have pitched it to any publisher, or any other kind of financial backing system and be rewarded with a pile of money, based on the sheer professionalism, and polish of your product, (not to mention the game projects that members of your team have worked on). This to me, (and this is my opinion here, but may also be shared by others) was what made me look at your kickstarter page, and your video, be interested, and yet not contribute to the campaign. I saw the product, and instantly I thought: "well this game will eventually see the light of day whether I contribute or not, there's no way that they wont be able to get financing in one way or another". Now, that might not be the best reaction, but I am sure that I am not the only one who thought and did so.

Anyway, that's it, I just wanted to shed some light as to what might be going through the minds of some of the visitors to your kickstarter page (or others like it), and hopefully help your team and others who will surely follow gain a bit of insight.
That being said, I wish you guys the best of luck on your project, and like most people, will be looking forward to seeing, and playing, the final product.


Ryan Payton
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Eugene: Absolutely no planning was done, including #KeepHopeAlive. That was one of our big mistakes -- we thought we were going to be a lot stronger out of the gate.

Eugene Zhukov
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I see ... I told him the same Actually the same was my mistake as well. But in result we generated a lot of cool stuff during our campaign, spontaneously reacting on backers' desires. But some of our our backers are preparing to their own kickstarter now, and they already prepared all updates they will need to post during the campaign.
Thank you for your reply, Ryan, and thank you again for mentioning us there in your update that time - I remember this too ;))
Good luck with your game!

Kevin Oke
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Ryan - Did you expect at all that sort of backlash from the hardcore gaming crowd? Really surprising to me, as there are a lot of advantages to developing for iOS that is very conductive to innovative games, especially for start ups that don't have a vault of finances to reach into: No lotcheck, dev kit, dealing with video cards and driver compatibility etc.

I come from a core gaming background and still love them, but I can't see these "war on gaming" and "tablet supremacy = core games' death" theories as anything but irrational.

Anyways, I missed out on the Kickstarter (d'oh) but if you're still taking monies I'd love to chip in.

Billy Bissette
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I think the "war on gaming" against iOS is similar to the arguments long levied against consoles.

In the case of consoles, designing for consoles has certainly affected PC games. Where a couple of decades ago, PC games were the "best" and consoles had to get scaled down ports, now PC games are getting ports of console games, often with little to no improvements (and sometimes with added issues.) Publishers went to consoles because that is where they thought the money was (whether it actually was or not.)

That is why people get up in arms when a new PC game has a "Push Start Button" at the title screen. Or displays tutorial stuff with gamepad buttons, assuming you will be using a gamepad just because you've got one plugged in. When you go to the video options and see you've got only three or four basic things. When the PC version gets saddled with Games For Windows Live, because the publisher won't spend the money to create a new working network option. When Ubisoft does anything.

People expect similar to happen as iOS becomes more popular. The difference here is that PC versions of iOS games tend to be priced around 5-10x as much as their iOS counter-parts, even when they are nearly identical. So not only do you get a game made for a different environment (iOS games tend to be made for playing in shorter bursts, and for a different control scheme, for examples) and a weaker system, you get to pay much much more for it.

Steven Christian
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"I think we were right to assume that it's all about having a great video, although I'm a little confused as to why only 20 percent of our visitors watched our entire pitch video."

Personally, I will start watching a video and if it's good I'll click the link to go to the parent site (youtube or vimeo) to continue watching it in HD and read people's comments.

I have no idea if I'm the majority, but this could attribute some of those stats.

Billy Bissette
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I often won't watch a pitch video through fully. If it turns me off, I turn it off. If it sells me, then I might turn it off anyway, as I don't really need to see more. If I'm curious about the title, but not in the market, I'll watch to see what the hype is about and then quit.

Mark Jordan
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It seems like a KS needs the developer to build up huge hype first, then make the KS live, so there is a surge that triggers their metrics. They mention that 30 days is good, but I would say 40+ is a minimum for most games. We thought KS would be a source for sharing our open alpha, but it is tough to even find ours on the site. As a KSvet, I'd appreciate any specific feedback you can give me:

Carlos Rocha
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Excellent article, reading it and preparing for a possible kickstarter of our own :)