I ran my first Kickstarter September/October 2015 and we managed to fund by the skin of our teeth at 106%. I learned a tremendous amount from the experience and I’d like to share some of it in the hopes that it helps other designers and would-be Kickstarters launch better and more successful campaigns. You can think of what follows as something of a Kickstarter retrospective.
The Three Pillars of Kickstarter
So for my Kickstarter I thought that I had done most things right, I had great reviews from well known reviewers, play through videos, I’d built a good community of support and made the product as attractive as possible by figuring out a way to offer free postage for most locations (Jamey Stegamaier’s brilliant articles helped a lot). Still after all this I found myself chasing a $17,000 target when I felt I should have nailed it. So what went wrong?
There were a lot of reasons why the Kickstarter under-performed but key among them was that I’d failed to hit at least two out of three of what I’ve come to call the pillars of Kickstarter for tabletop games. If you study successful Kickstarters you’ll find that they tend to have three things in common:
- Pricing – They are priced sensibly often with postage included in the price of the pledges. The pledges are simple and attractive.
- Theme – I cannot emphasize this strongly enough but the theme has to be right. There are certain themes that very much hit the Kickstarter zeitgeist and it tends to be these that perform outstandingly.
- Community – Crowdfunding doesn’t mean that you find a crowd on Kickstarter, it means that you take a crowd with you to Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a part of your marketing campaign but it isn’t *all* of your marketing campaign.
If you can nail these three elements then your campaign is almost guaranteed to be a success. Can you be successful if you don’t nail all three of these? Well Exploding Kittens is a good example of a game that nailed it big without really having a theme that solidly appealed to the Kickstarter zeitgeist. However the Oatmeal has a huge following and it was on that basis that the game was phenomenally successful…he did two of the pillars OK (pricing and theme) and the third he did outstandingly bringing with him a community of over 2 million people (although not all of them pledged).
So where did Creature College go wrong and how should this advise future projects? First our theme was off-center, it was perceived too much as a children’s game because of the artwork. We knew it would be because we’d designed it as a crossover game that gamer parents could play with their kids but still also enjoy with their friends. We thought this would be a big enough target group to carry the game. We were wrong. If you take a look at games that smash it on Kickstarter vanishingly few are in this category.
Second we had built a good community on Facebook and they were highly supportive but we’d put too many of our eggs in one basket and brilliant although our community was it wasn’t big enough to carry the game to high funding totals. It was our first game and we were very much brand building. Although we’d run test games at several cons throughout the year it wasn’t enough to generate the kind of community we needed to smash the Kickstarter. We needed to diversify beyond Facebook and look at what other methods we could use to build community.
So out of the three pillars of Kickstarter we failed on two of them and we only managed to creep over the line with funding because our presentation and community building had been adequate.
I’m not going to go into detail regarding community building and theme in this article largely because each of these subjects deserves an article in its own right but I do want to go into a few other reasons why ultimately we didn’t do as well as we might have done that go above and beyond the issues mentioned previously.
So I want to talk a little bit about funding goals. Setting funding goals is more of an art form than a science and I’ve heard a lot of sound advice and some rather more dubious advice surrounding the subject. We set our goal too high for a first Kickstarter. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and with hindsight we should have set it at around $10,000 instead of $17,000. What would this have achieved? Well for a start we would nearly have funded in the first five days. People like success and they also like predictability. Simply if you fund quickly or nearly fund in the first week people will be much more likely to invest in your Kickstarter and ultimately this will probably result in raising more funds than you would have otherwise.
One issue with this of course is that you may struggle to meet the investment to deliver your game if you go for a lower funding total. So here I’m going to say something contentious but if it’s your first game then you need to be willing to invest in it. Unless you’ve produced your own art work and design and charged for postage it’s unlikely that you’re going to be making much direct profit on a Kickstarter. Figure in the hours of work you’ve put into it and forget it. A Kickstarter is not unlike any other business, it requires a large investment of time and money. Ultimately if you use the Kickstarter to produce more games than you have pledges and there are many good reasons why you would do this to do with bulk discounts and the costs of transportation, you’ll probably eventually break even or turn a small profit.
Don’t become an indy games developer with the intent that you’re going to strike it rich. Do it because you love games and want to spread your passion. That being said there are ways to make money in the board games industry:
- Hit Kickstarter just right – this isn’t likely to happen on your first game and it happens to a vanishingly small number of very talented individuals.
- Sell your idea to a publisher – In this model you do very little other than watch the royalties trickle in but again it’s a small number of folks that successfully manage to sell to a publisher. It’s like trying to get a book published but harder and at around 6% royalties, if you’re lucky, don’t expect to go order that Ferrari just yet.
- Scale your company – Start off small from your first Kickstarter and slowly scale your company adding game after game…maybe partnering or buying out other talented game designers until you’re either purchased by a large publisher or you manage to make the transition into a larger company yourself. Either way expect hard work and long hours.
“You’re not making this sound very attractive Orhan” I hear you cry. I’m not trying to, I’m trying to ensure that if you’re going into this business you’re not doing it with rose tinted specs on. The flip-side is that you’re going to have a phenomenal amount of fun as well and you’ll meet some very cool people along the way.
Kickstarter Marketing Companies
When you launch on Kickstarter, assuming that you’re doing OK you’ll have a deluge of emails from folks offering to make your game more popular on Kickstarter or generate noise on social media. We tried a couple and whilst they do what they say on the tin I’m not convinced that it actually resulted in a lot more pledges from the stats breakdown I had in google analytics and KS analytics. My considered opinion is that they’re expensive and don’t deliver much in the way of value. If you haven’t got the three pillars right you’ll struggle with or without these companies and if you have the formula right then you won’t need them.
We advertised in a number of places. I would say that the adverts that we had in the hard copy magazines Tabletop gaming in the UK and Casual Game Insider in the US were useful. I also think that from the point of view of referrals to Kickstarter the advertising we did on Boardgame Geek was worth it but by far our most effective marketing channel was Facebook. It’s important to remember here as well that your advertising isn’t just about garnering pledges it’s also about generating brand equity. If you’re planning to be around for a while as a games company then brand recognition will be increasingly important for you.
Currently we’re half way through development of our next game “Ninja Snails” and I’ve seriously considered canning it as it suffers from some of the same problems that Creature College has. Ultimately I think we will deliver this game because although it won’t be a $50K game, it’s a great little game which will be quick and cheap to produce. However after Ninja Snails expect to see a significant change in direction from Happy Otter Games.
I’ll be posting more on this subject over the next few weeks as I’ve only managed to briefly touch upon some subjects in this article. If there are any particular subjects that you’d like me to write about let me know. 🙂
I’m always happy to talk about our Kickstarter experience so if you’re starting out on this journey and want to chat to someone about it feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.