Sunday, September 15, 2013

Kickstarting Kickstarter

Those of you who follow this blog (or my twitter account) are probably aware I recently ran a Kickstarter for my anime-inspired role-playing game, OVA. My experience with crowd-funding only bolsters my belief that we are on the verge of a real paradigm shift in how we create our content, interact with our supporters, and make things happen.

But Kickstarter isn't a magical push button for success. It’s a lot of work—I’m working on content to send to my backers as I write this—and for all the ways Kickstarter makes things easier, there are pitfalls that are just as easy to fall into. While I only have one project so far, I have been an active part of Kickstarters for Minion Games, Jolly Roger Games, Asmadi Games, and maybe a few other companies that end in "Games," and I’ve gotten to know my way around the most popular crowd-funding platform. It seems only fair to share some of the things I’ve learned along the way. Looking to start a project of your own? Read on, Macduff.

You may have read a few articles about Kickstarter to prepare yourself for the task ahead. Maybe you’ve read a lot of them. Apparently, you’re reading at least one—this one—and that’s good! The fact you’re not jumping into your first project believing it an autonomous money-making machine is certainly a proper first step. You may think the next one involves planning your pledge levels, writing your pitch, or setting up your marketing engine. But my first and most important piece of advice actually has nothing to do with your project at all.


Before setting off on this adventure, it’s imperative that you actually try it out for yourself. While any project will do, finding a few somewhat similar to your own would be most ideal. You should back a project because no amount of research will teach you more about how Kickstarter works.

You understand your backers because you are a backer. You see firsthand what excites you in a project, what bores you, what annoys you. You understand what makes you want to pledge and at what levels. You get a feel for the kind and number of updates that neither feel too pushy or too sparse. You realize the questions you want answered by the project creators.

You understand Kickstarter because you see the process firsthand. You experience the ebb and flow of the campaign, the aftermath, the surveys, the private message system. You see inventive ways people modify the Kickstarter ecosystem with add-ons and stretch goals. You experience how Kickstarter notifies you throughout the campaign.

You instill confidence in your potential backers because you have been one of them. You show you believe in this whole crowd-funding thing, that you’re not just dropping in for an “easy” paycheck. People do care, and I’ve received several messages from people who greatly appreciated that I gave to a lot of other projects before I launched my own.

And come on, you get cool stuff. Why wouldn’t you?


Despite the age-old axiom imploring you to do the opposite, people can and will judge your project by the face you put forward. It’s not only what catches (and hopefully holds) their attention, it’s an indication of what the finished product will be.

Now I know you’re launching a Kickstarter to make money, but you have to show that you’re making the effort, too. If you throw up a project that hasn't had a cent put into it, your campaign will look like a panhandle instead of your personal dream. Take the time. Save the money. Make sure you have a compelling and eye-catching thumbnail. Show at least one example of your final product, whether it's an interior spread, a fan of cards, or even just a selection of illustrations. Everything doesn't have to be polished, and don't feel you can't show prototype or in-progress items. But make sure your backers know exactly how great a product they will be getting when they back.

Your video is another matter of great importance. And by that I don’t mean you have to have a video. It helps, of course, but if your options are a great thumbnail and no video, or a video that is painful and annoying to sit through, you are much better off with no trailer at all.

I'm not saying you have to go blow your budget hiring James Cameron. While a really awesome video will certainly help, you can do just fine with less. The important thing is to never look careless. Don't upload a handheld selfie you took amid the din of the commuter car while heading to work. Don't ramble on for ten minutes about your project without direction or forethought. Make sure your product appears in the video, preferably upfront. If you aren't able to edit the video in a way to show off your art, assets, and components digitally, have a convincing prototype built and film it in lighting where it’s easily visible. If you have trouble speaking clearly or charismatically, consider hiring a voiceover.


People are busy, and they may be cramming their Kickstarter browsing in between all matters of multitasking. Don’t make it difficult to throw money at you. Limit the number of pledge levels as much as possible to eliminate backing confusion and paralysis. Detail what each of them include in the body of your project, with images if possible. Pitch the crux of what makes your project special early on in your video and on your page, not after a detailed history of your toils. If you can, offer a demo, quick-start, or print & play version of your game so potential backers can weigh first hand if the project is one they want to back.

There’s also one more barrier to entry to consider, and it’s an easy one to forget. “Why should I back now?” If you don’t give compelling answer to this, whether through exclusive content or cool bonuses, a lot of your fans will just buy your product when it’s available later...and after distributors, storefronts, and others have taken a substantial slice out of your profits.


Kickstarter is as much powered by psychology as it is by the content it purveys. The entire experience, from the personal appeal to help achieve dreams, to the limited window to support a project and receive its rewards, to even the Trivial Pursuit-esque backed project wheel, plays on human nature to maximize the desire to give money now instead of buying a given thing later.

With all that  working in your favor, you very much don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot by setting your goal too high. When you’re sitting on a campaign that’s half over and not anywhere close to its goal, it becomes an intense disincentive to backers. If it’s not going to fund anyway, why bother? Don’t underestimate how powerful this impression can be. I’ve seen time and time again great projects fail miserably because they set their goal too high, only to relaunch with a more modest target and make exponentially more money than their goal the first time!

So how high is too high? Projects differ so widely that what works for your five pound box of miniatures is not appropriate for your lightweight RPG. Just take a look at similar projects and see what seems to be a typical successful baseline. My personal rule of thumb is to cover your production and fulfillment costs, but leave out (at least a good portion of) your art and design budget. In other words, the stuff that hasn’t happened at the time of your Kickstarter. Of course, the minimum needs to be whatever you can afford to finish off the project, so this advice may not be appropriate. But as I mentioned earlier, you should try to cover some of your costs yourself, as a show of good faith and belief in your own project, if nothing else.


Finally, just remember this is still your project, and you have to put in the time, too. Looking at OVA's stats, only 50% of the money pledged came directly from Kickstarter’s ecosystem. The rest was through my own efforts with social media, word of mouth, and the contacts I have built over time. But hey, that’s pretty empowering that Kickstarter can double your efforts, right? It’s a great time to make things, so go out there and do it!

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