Thine Commandments of Kickstarter for an Indie Video Game [Gamer by Design][Best of FaN]

For my favorite post of the year for Fierce and Nerdy, I chose to re-publish my Kickstarter how-to. It was by far my most popular post, probably because there are not a lot of straightforward, honest articles of how to succeed in doing a Kickstarter for a video game (I know, because I searched for it before we did the campaign). By now Zig Zag Zombie is a success on the app store, and we’re thinking about the next thing. Time Flies! So I’m republishing it because it’s useful, unlike most of the things I write, which are usually half rant and half awkward jokes. Enjoy!  -Matt

My little outfit, Part Time Evil, recently decided to do a Kickstarter to fund our indie game Zig Zag Zombie. Not the “I need money to live off for a year to make this thing” type of Kickstarter. Everyone on this project is employed in the day, so we raised enough for contractor pay, software, account to publish on iTunes, and all the other things that can really add up. So my point is, the project has zero budget. But as we all know, there’s no such thing as zero budget. That being said this article is something I’m writing so other designers can read it and get a leg up on doing a Kickstarter for a game.

We were fortunate enough to succeed in getting the funding, which is not super common on Kickstarter. But it could have been easier, and we could have raised more money if we’d been on top of the following:

Let’s just jump right in.

What’s a Kickstarter

This is a good topic to start with, because you may not know either.  Kickstarter is the worlds largest funding platform for projects. So there are things like crazy iphone holders all the way to movies or album projects.

It goes like this:

You register and describe your project, and then the Kickstarter people have to approve it (so I can’t make a project called “Matt wants a new car”). Once approved, you put all kinds of pretty stuff up there to describe it. Here is our site (even though we are funded, the page stays up there).

People who want to help you pledge money to your project. Here’re a few simple trivia points:

  • You get no funding if you don’t reach the goal, even if only by one dollar.
  • You can’t fund yourself.
  • The funds are all through Amazon payments, which is basically Amazon Paypal.
  • You have to give rewards for people who pledge. These cannot be an interest in the project (like a payoff). For example, we gave a bunch of stuff, including T shirts and posters.

One of the biggest things we learned is ALSO one of the cardinal rules of making casual video games for iPhone. Which is what Zig Zag Zombie is, so Lord knows why I didn’t think this about Kickstarter, too. The rule is, just because you and your high tech, Facebook-posting, twittering friends know about something, doesn’t mean the majority of people do. For example, ask your family what Google+ is, ask them what memes are, ask them what Kickstarter is…even though you and your friends talk about this stuff all the time, most people don’t know or care about these type of things. Video game designers who make games for the masses (Im talking Angry Birds, not Call of Duty) know how to think like the horde.  I underlined that rule because people really get out of touch with middle America on these things. We can debate who is a gamer and who isn’t, but I’ll just refer you to my article where I did just that.

Though, when designing Zig Zag Zombie, I thought of this rule, I didn’t totally remember it with Kickstarter. So I had people emailing me saying the page looks great and such — but that they didn’t realize what it was. Some of them thought it was just a website.

So my point is, you have to explain what you’re asking for, and how Kickstarter works! That leads to the next point.

New School Funding, Old school asking

We spent so much damn time spreading the word on Facebook and Twitter about the project. So much. And people liked it, they commented, etc. It was good for PR. We even got a few initial pledges from the early-adopter types that we mentioned above.

But we started to see that most of the big pledges we got — even though they came through Facebook links — were from people who I’d personally told about the game.

So the next thing I did was send a personal email to a group of really close friends. And we got around 40% of our funding just from that.

So big lesson here. Write this down on your desk with a freaking blade if you’re gonna do a Kickstarter project: Call people on the phone, email people, and just ask. Most of your close friends and family WANT to help you. They just don’t swing by Facebook 12 times a day like you, and they probably never saw that post breeze through the news feed!  But they do see emails from you.  The next time I do a Kickstarter, if I have to again, I’m gonna have a little fundraising picnic. And I’ll say, come over for free drinks and food on the house, and give what you can. Fundraiser, on the cheap. Old school asking, for new school funding.

Kickstarter-friendly

We just talked about a bunch of ways that you’ll get funded through old school methods. Now let’s talk new school. Examples here.

Good Kickstarter projects have some or all of these traits:

  • Further the art: “I’m gonna use a 3D printer to create modular blocks to build a giant sculpture in half the time”
  • Sound quirky in their description. “I’m gonna build a vintage barn out of e-waste”
  • (This is a big one) Appeal to the techie-Kickstarter audience: The strangers you’ll get to donate are often people who, if you click on their profiles, have donated to hundreds of Kickstarters. It’s like a hobby to them. So, in the case of a video game, if you can get this audience and the game blogger audience, you are golden. STAR COMMAND is a great example. I think it’s gonna be a great game. I don’t really think that my non-gamer friends would play it, however, just because it describes itself as “sci fi meets gamedev story.” My non-gamer friends tend to get turned off by sci-fi, and they don’t know what the GameDev Story is. So the point is, in the general marketplace, this game has less broad appeal than say, ANGRY BIRDS. But, if these projects were both on Kickstarter, STAR COMMAND would get more press. It’s just more experimental and more interesting to the techies who hang out on Kickstarter. So we faced a challenge with Zig Zag Zombie. We really want to make a mass appeal game. We found that most of the Kickstarter action you get on a game like Zig Zag Zombie is from people who like the style, people who like zombies, and people who just personally wanted to help us.

This Part Won’t Make Sense But Check it Out

Finish most of your game before you Kickstart it. Yeah I know that is nonsensical, since Kickstarter is supposed to be the freaking thing that funds it! But hey, video games are crazy and it’s a complicated thing. We got emails (and we still do) that say “your game looks awesome, but we want to see more gameplay.” And at first, we thought, wow that’s kind of weird since we are Kickstarting this thing to get money to MAKE it.  But then we looked at other projects and saw how far along they were.

So here’s what you do. If you’re not making a huge game that will totally kill your finances, make MOST of the game and then Kickstart it to recoup yourself out of debt.  That way you can show crazy amounts of video of the gameplay. Yeah I know it’s ass-backwards, but think from the point of view of the donator. They want to see that you’re legit. Lesson learned here.

These are the things that the majority of Kickstarter audience likes. Yes and I like them too. Remember we are nerds for a reason...

We put up a TEASER video like two weeks before the damn Kickstarter was over. So we made 90% of our money in two weeks. And this teaser wasn’t even gameplay. It contained 9 seconds of it. One fan emailed me, “Why didn’t you wait until a month later to start the Kickstarter, and start with the teaser, and then add a FULL gameplay video two weeks from the end?”  I don’t know. I’m young and young people are dumber than they know. And they don’t know that until they learn. You learn things every day, that’s my defense.

Selling Dreams

Here’s one I really didn’t realize until our project was over. Maybe I’m slow in the head. Who knows. But here  are some reasons why Kickstarter staff will “feature” your project.

You gotta have something that gives them good press. This is basically the same as the “Kickstarter-friendly” rule above.

Your project has to have a pretty big asking amount. This is because Kickstarter takes 5% of all winnings, and they have limited space on their front page. So if you look at that page, it’s mostly pretty big projects. Some of them have even gone over their asking amount, which is weird to me. Why keep featuring a project that’s succeeded? But money’s money.

The game we talked about above, STAR COMMAND, is the perfect Kickstarter video game project. It has all the appeal we talked about, plus it asks for a lot of money. As of the time I’m writing this, that game will make Kickstarter like 1300 bucks.

I had this football player friend in college (I forget who exactly said this, so if it was you, let me know).  One of our friends was chasing one of those standard super hot blonde girls (guys used to call them “high-fivers” because they were so mainstream that people would high-five you for talking to them and such, but I digress…), and she was just leading him along by a leash but not really giving him the time of day. My football friend was like, “man, she’s just selling dreams. Sellin’ dreams.”  Kickstarter is like that girl. Yes people see it as idealistic, and I love it. Really I do. I love all this web stuff that takes some idea and crowd sources it to make people’s goals attainable. But they do have a business to run, so you have to craft your listing and the images you post so they get something from it too. Which, in their case, is good publicity (I mean every project that tries to get funded is going around posting Kickstarter links everywhere) and money.  Like they say, it sure doesn’t grow on trees.

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