Kickin’ Ain’t Easy: An eXposition

Kick1One of the major forces in game experimentation and development today is, without a doubt, crowdfunding. Video games have raised millions upon millions of dollars over the last half-decade from numerous sites. The behemoth in this sector is Kickstarter. Nowadays it’s commonplace to hear of a new game project that is launching a Kickstarter campaign – often to much fanfare and excitement. However, there is a growing misconception about Kickstarter, and some high profile collapses in crowd-funded games are now giving people pause. Should fans continue to subsidize these efforts when so many have failed so spectacularly? Without a doubt, the Kickstarter model will be with us for the foreseeable future, so it would be wise for us examine what the site is really all about.

One must wonder what makes a Kickstarter succeed or fail. Some of the ideas, of course, just aren’t good. The projects don’t deserve to be funded, or the market does not want them to be funded. That’s harsh, but it’s the truth. Projects also fail because their campaigns are unpolished, confusing, or unenthusiastic.

Today though, I’m not here to grade the worthiness of this project or that idea. Nor am I here to give advice on running a professional campaign. I’m here to take a look at what I believe is another major cause leading to a Kickstarter’s success or failure. And that is, a fundamental misunderstanding of what Kickstarter or similar sites, like Indie Go-Go or Rockethub, actually are.

I’ll start with a bold statement. Kickstarter is not an alternative funding site; it is a social media site, much like Facebook or Twitter. It just has a different revenue model. There are those who think that Kickstarter et al. are magic ATM machines where you just have to punch in a few numbers, provide some ID, and BOOM you get money out of it. They think that projects like Torment, Mighty No. 9, and Star Citizen are the norm. I’ve backed a few Kickstarters in the past where the creators had this kind of mindset. They never succeeded.

Crowdfunding attracts dollars through word of mouth. It’s not because of any slick marketing campaign or advertising blitz. The power is with the people. In order to successfully fund a game through Kickstarter, the campaign operator must focus on building a personal connection with the backers. Kickstarter provides a few resources for doing that but the fund-seekers must go beyond those meager tools by engaging the fans with supplemental social media. They must also recognize that, through mutualism, there might be additional opportunities to extend their business connections.

The first way Kickstarter is like social media is that it gives each campaign some social media tools with which to work. For instance, each campaign gets an update blog that’s basically like Tumblr. There’s the front page of the campaign, similar in style to the timeline on Facebook. Kickstarter will host your videos, like YouTube, to help you communicate and advertise your campaign. And lastly, each campaign is given a single message board so backers and interested parties can leave comments and suggestions. None of these are fantastic, but they aren’t useless either. They provide what every new Kickstarter needs: a way to reach out and initially bring together a community of people with similar interests and a very high motivation to make something succeed.

What went wrong here? Quite a bit…

The creator of the campaign needs to take it from there, though. Kickstarter gets the ball rolling, but it’s up to the owner to keep it moving. I once backed a campaign where the whole dev team (around 10 people in total) vanished for the first 28 hours. They didn’t post on the campaign, their Twitter feeds fell silent, their Facebook and G+ pages weren’t updated. The KS comment board was flooded with interested people asking a myriad of questions. None of the devs answered them. It is no surprise that the Kickstarter failed. The creators thought Kickstarter was a cash machine. It turned out to be something different; it turned out to be a nascent flock of fans that desperately needed shepherding.

That dev team had no outside message boards up, no wiki, no functioning website. And this campaign was being run by a legend in the industry who once made the cover of PC Gamer as a “Gaming God.” I learned an important lesson through that campaign. Kickstarter is absolutely fantastic at building a community, but it does very little to help maintain it.

Hence, it is up to the fund-seeker to do that on his or her own. Twitter, Facebook, G+, Tumblr, and the rest are all nice. They will help you reach out and attract that community to your crowdfunding campaign, but they aren’t enough. Kickstarter backers need a place to just be, a place to call “home” where they can get to know each other and the dev team. This means a message board of some kind. I know it’s old fashioned, but that’s where the really useful interactions will take place. Whether it’s a Steam group or a traditional phpbb kind of thing, your community needs a base of operations where you can nurture them and more importantly, learn from them. Kickstarter plants the seed, but other social media has to “water and make it grow”. Failure to do this – during the campaign or even before it begins – will have a negative effect on the campaign. It won’t necessarily spell failure, but it certainly reduces the odds of success.

Sometimes, not EVERY promise can be kept.

Finally, Kickstarter is a great place to make connections with other media developers. In this way, Kickstarter is almost like a game developers version of LinkedIn. There are all kinds of creative people bringing forth great creations on Kickstarter that any small-scale video game developer could be interested in. Need some sound loops for your game? Maybe you could get in touch with Wes Otis who creates those very things. Need some 2D artwork? Alex Walker has funded a few projects for commercial use on Kickstarter and continues to produce them at pretty high level. Need a 3D or voxel engine for your game? Gavin Woolery is in the process of creating something called Voxel Quest that might meet your needs precisely. Being on Kickstarter, browsing the new projects and pledging your support can open up so many doors to small developers at a fraction of the cost it might take if you were to go through larger, more established publishers.

As you meet more and more fellow creators, you will develop a circle of colleagues that trusts one another and can help one another when the time is right. Numerous creators on Kickstarter will do “shout outs” in their updates to promote one another. Understand that most campaigns will have one to three thousand backers – sometimes more. Each time that campaign sends out an update with a shout out for your project, that’s a few thousand people that could potentially read about it. If you get to know ten or twelve other creators, you could reach tens of thousands of individuals FOR FREE. No advertising dollars have to go toward that.

Funded. Released. Ready yet?
Funded. Released. Still a WIP.

The secret, though, is mutualism. You have to send out those shout outs first. You have to be the one to reach out first. Find some projects you like. Back them, even if it’s only $5. Donate. Then message the creator, ask questions, offer to boost their signal on your Facebook or Twitter account. They’ll appreciate that, and will be more likely to respond in kind should you ever make the request or have the need. Some will do it without you having to ask. Small content creators of every stripe (not just video games) that rely on crowdfunding feel a camaraderie with one another, and most recognize that they can’t succeed alone. Kickstarter is great for building those professional relationships that can last years and years down the road.

To close, if you are considering a crowdfunding campaign for your game, think carefully about the community. Consider the tools that Kickstarter, Indie Go-Go and Rockethub provide you with. Begin work on an outside place – a home – for your community where you can nurture its growth both during and after the initial campaign. Finally, pledge your support to other creators on Kickstarter before you start your own. Get to know them, support them both monetarily and through your social media outlets, and don’t be afraid to ask them to give you a signal boost at a critical time during your campaign, early access, or on launch day.

Kickstarter is so much more than just a virtual ATM. It’s about building a circle of friends, fans, and stakeholders that form a support network which can last well beyond that initial infusion of cash. The money is important. It always is, but it’s transient. Once it’s spent, it’s gone forever. However, the people you meet and get to know on Kickstarter can last a lifetime, and they’ll be there to help you launch your first project and support you on the next. That will be worth more than those initial Kickstarter funds every time.


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