Kickstarter Post-Mortem for Buck & Miles

Putting the cart before the horse on Kickstarter.

Hello friends!

It looks like we’ll have to cancel the Buck & Miles-campaign due to lack of backers. We had a great time though, so sign up for the Astrojone newsletter (no spam, just game updates) and we’ll contact you as soon as we’ve got more news on the game.

As for what happened and what this Kickstarter campaign has taught us, here’s a quick rundown that sort of summarizes the process from beginning to end.

Hopefully you’ll walk away from this article with some new insights!

The Incentive: Kickstarter visits Stockholm, Sweden

So prior to even thinking about launching a Kickstarter campaign to help fund our game we’d been in contact with a lot of other projects. My friend Oded Sharon had launched (and ultimately failed with) his moderately successful campaign for Bolt Riley about a year prior to the Buck & Miles-compaign, and I had personally been involved with the Barkley, Shut Up & Jam: Gaiden 2-campaign about a year prior to that (which made a whopping $120,300 – about $85,000 over the target). Another friend of mine had also launched a successful campaign for his game – Octopus City Blues – which made around $20,000 total, so all-in-all Kickstarter looked like a promising platform for funding new projects at the time.

Since Kickstarter had yet to expand outside the US, UK, CA and AU at that point in time, it wasn’t really an option for me (being from Sweden). I figured it’d take several years for Kickstarter to expand to non-English-speaking countries, but come September 2014 I spotted a news update from Kickstarter stating that they’d be launching in Sweden, and that they’d also be hosting a launch party here in Stockholm.

Buck in the desert.
Buck & Miles is a game set in a mysterious desert.

Since I was already interested I immediately signed up, and a few days later attended the event. The party was your run-of-the-mill product presentation, but something that caught my attention was the fact that they seemed to focus a lot on localization (which to a lot of us non-English countries can be a huge pain in the side).

Apparently projects were to have forced local currency even to international visitors, which when I (and a lot of others) asked about it during the open Q&A was dismissed with non-responses from the Kickstarter team. I guess the decision had already been made at that point, but a lot of us saw a big problem with what to me looked like yet another misconception about European countries wanting, needing- or requiring everything localized, and the assumption that European countries are as self-sustaining as perhaps the US is.

In either case and despite the risks – and perhaps with too much optimism – I decided that we’d give it a go, and that we’d perhaps be able to get enough exposure during the launch to counterbalance the shoddy and forced localization.

Phase 1: Research (or lack thereof)

Going into this we expected there to be conclusive information and well-documented metrics available both on and around the web, but the reality was more akin to stepping into a self-help convention with a wad of cash in the hand – a lot of people had systems, ideas, theories or even products to pitch you, but none of them really seemed to know what they were talking about.

No matter how much we tried, we couldn’t really find any reliable data to lean on. There were of course a lot of good articles and post-mortems out there, but who knew what underlying efforts or factors that helped (or didn’t help) these campaigns?

Buck and Miles making their way through a level.
Two players can team up either online or locally in hotseat mode.

At this point we realized that Kickstarter – even at the research stage – was more of a jungle than previously anticipated, so right off the bat we had to rethink our initial approach.

Ultimately we settled for collecting as many articles and post-mortems as possible so we could extract as many do’s and don’ts as we could manage, while also trying to draw up some rough estimates of how much exposure we’d need on a daily basis in order to reach a big enough influx of people for our daily pledge targets to be met, based on a worst-case scenario (which as it turned out, it ended up being!)

In addtion we also came across sites like Kicktraq which allowed us to input Kickstarter campaigns (finished or in progress) and it’d spit back some sort of average-based forecast.

So in the end we knew that we didn’t really have anything reliable to stand on and we knew that the localized currency on our project page would be a huge issue, but we decided to push on anyway and started preparing for our campaign.

Phase 2: Preparation (a.k.a. the grind)

Preparing the campaign was actually the most painful and intensive part of this entire process. Since we had a deadline looming over our heads (the Swedish launch of Kickstarter) we had to get everything ready in about a month’s time.

This included:

  • Budgeting the entire project and trying to figure out how much we needed.
  • Getting in touch with printers and manufacturers in order to budget for reward production.
  • Making sure that we could handle the logistics and costs of reward production and delivery.
  • Checking the legal- and tax implications of running a Kickstarter campaign and offering rewards.
  • Trying to figure out at which point in the process to incorporate the studio.
  • Coming up with a compelling trailer- and profile page.
  • Setting up a PR- and marketing strategy for the duration of the entire campaign.
  • Setting up a full-blown website with community aspects, call-to-actions and ways to make use of (what we thought would be) the coming influx of visitors.
Buck & Miles has a wide range of level themes.

I won’t provide answers to the legal questions (because quite frankly I’m not a lawyer and shouldn’t be giving out legal advice) but here are some of the things we learned:

  • Rewards eat up a HUGE chunk of the budget, and take insane amounts of time to prepare (which we never ended up having to do since our Kickstarter campaign failed).
  • Getting the attention of journalists, bloggers or even low-profile writers with a readership of a couple of hundred people is near-impossible without a project that is extremely compelling to them.
  • Making a good trailer takes a lot of time. Ours ended up consuming almost two full weeks with a lot of back-and-forth between team members, artists and feedback (and subsequent corrections) from external people.
  • I already knew this since I work with web professionally, but building a decent website can take up to 80 hours (or more). I can’t say for sure whether a full-blown website is important for a Kickstarter project or whether a simple splash page will suffice, but if your ambitions are high then make sure to reserve enough time for it (i.e. a lot of time).
  • Validating and verifying the banking information on Kickstarter (for when you receive the money) can take several days. In our case it was faster, but this is perhaps a good thing to be aware of.
  • Setting up a press kit (a.k.a. a page where the press can easily access the information and media necessary to write about your project) takes a bit of time, but the simple and free presskit()-solution can help guide you along the way and save you a lot of trouble.

In the end we couldn’t manage to finish everything in time and were faced with the choice of either launching our campaign prematurely or taking the time to polish it to perfection. We chose the latter which turned out to be quite alright anyway as the Kickstarter people were nice enough to give us some free exposure.

Phase 3: Launch (a.k.a. the immediate failure)

Alright, so launch day eventually came around, we hit the button and spammed all our friends, social channels and just about every outlet we could think of. A lot of people had shown a lot of interest, excitement and willingness to support the project prior to the launch, so we were sure that we’d get an initial boost with which we could create a snowball effect and get us a good momentum.

The player can play as either Buck or Miles.

Not quite!

While the response we anticipated was 25-50 initial pledges from friends and family and a handful of free promotions from our closest fellow game developers, the reality was actually a lot more depressing. Few even bothered to respond to our requests and/or the campaign itself – including the people that had shown an immense interest in the project – and the people who actually ended up backing us initially could be counted on one hand.

I won’t lie, it ticked the entire team off beyond belief (myself included). Our girls and guys had spent the past two months working away (literally day and night) on the campaign, backed by friends and fellow developers, only to see next to no support once the campaign had actually launched. I felt really, really, really bad for them.

I’d read somewhere that projects lacking an initial boost are much more likely to fail, so as a producer you’re forced to choose between either giving up right off the bat, or somehow trying to motivate the team despite the grim circumstances. I chose the latter, and began what would become a month-long process of scouring the internet for any facts that could help convince an already bummed-out team that success was still viable.

Phase 4: Reassessment (and damage control)

So the first day had ended, we’d tapped out all of our resources and we barely made the target for the day. We’d spent literally all of our ideas and connections on the first day just to try to stay on track, and we had no idea how we were going to acheve the same results for the next 29 consecutive days.

We started looking at other projects on Kickstarter and noticed the following:

  • A lot of the currently-running campaigns were cross-promoting each other in news posts.
  • Some projects had managed to find benefactors in the form of well-known online personalities (that I guess were active- or at least interested in the projects’ genres).
  • The projects that were doing well had some kind of gimmick – i.e. there was something newsworthy about them.
Players can combine two powerups by both wearing a hat and wielding an item in their hand.

Since we were out of ideas we started out cross-promoting with a handful of other cool projects. There was Lizard by Brad Smith, Pocket Rumble by Cardboard Robot Games and Target Acquired by TouchTen Games to name a few. The cross-promotion ended up not doing much in terms of bringing in new pledges, but I ended up becoming friends with all of the creators who turned out to be really awesome people, so I’d definitely say that it was worth it. I guess nothing brings people together like being in a pinch. :-)

Side note: Make sure to check these projects out, since their campaigns all succeeded. They’re really cool.

We attempted to get both the attention of the press as well as potential benefactors via various pitches but we never really managed to strike gold (either because our project wasn’t good enough, we weren’t newsworthy enough or because the noise was simply too hard to cut through), and this eventually turned into more of a daily PR effort based on soliciting journalists in various ways with the hopes of eventually getting big exposure somewhere.

Something that disappointed us was that a lot of the gaming news sites that actually cover Kickstarter projects ignored us, despite the fact that they frequently covered (what I’d personally and subjectively call) less ambitious projects. Since some of our friends got on there quite easily we were a bit demoralized by this, but we kept on trying to contact journalists anyway.

Eventually Jason Schreier from Kotaku got back to us and featured us on the front page (which was insanely nice of him). This created a slow trickle of visitors that lasted for a couple of hours, but what surprised us about this was that almost none of the visitors actually pledged to the project (according to the statistics that Kickstarter offered via its backend). When the novelty of the article had died down and people stopped visiting the campaign, we had pretty much nothing to show for our PR efforts. What bugged us about this was that we had no way of telling whether the campaign was uninteresting, whether our game was bad or if it was the previously mentioned localization/currency issue that made people reluctant to pledge.

In either case PR started feeling like a dead end too at this point.

Phase 5: Wrapping up (and licking the wounds)

So the campaign was nearing its end and we’d managed to raise about 12% of our goal. Despite frequently trying to partner up with people who have large followings, managing to get a few features on a handful of gaming news sites and constantly using social media to try to build an interest the fact remained that almost none of our efforts led to any pledges – except for Twitter which for some strange and inexplicable reason represented the majority of our pledges.

Each in-game world has its own set of obstacles and enemies.

Ready to accept defeat I decided to get in touch with the creators of currently-running projects that were doing fairly well despite not being particularly newsworthy (much like our game) to ask for help, and some of them essentially told me that they’d used automated tools that automatically spam every single person they have in their contact lists on every single social network, and that most – if not all – of their pledges came from friends and relatives who had been directly asked to contribute (via this automated message). In other words, it didn’t appear that they’d actually made any money off of Kickstarter itself.

Upon researching the tools they’d been using I almost started getting the impression that some (or maybe even a lot) of the seemingly successful projects on Kickstarter – especially the ones that aren’t particularly sensationalistic – might have reached their goals purely based on the close, personal networks of their creators. Of course there’s no evidence to support this notion, but I guess that’d mean that Kickstarter hadn’t actually done much for them beyond being a glorified payment solution. Huh!

The Conclusion

So on the last day I decided to pull the plug on our project. I redesigned the entire project page into a neat thank you-message (which you might’ve clicked on to reach this article) since Kickstarter prevents creators from editing finished campagins, and cancelled the campaign.

The player navigates levels via an overworld map.

To this day I can’t figure out exactly what caused the campaign to fail, but I have a couple of suspicions:

  • Our project lacked newsworthiness which made it hard to engage both journalists and visitors. This might explain why silly projects sometimes tend to do immensely well (i.e. it’s easier for journalists and people to write- and talk about).
  • Kickstarter forced our project into Swedish currency, which is a shame since a lot of us smaller countries rely on international exposure when it comes to digital entertainment. The Swedish population is about the size of New York City, so expecting niche projects to survive on local exposure and pledges is pretty unrealistic. Had someone like Pewdiepie been forced to target his own countrymen and countrywomen I’m guessing he’d have gone completely unnoticed.
  • Related to the currency bit, the exchange rate makes the target sum look about ten times bigger than it actually is, which at face value probably turned a lot of people off. It’s hard enough as it is to make visitors understand what a realistic budget is since so many other Kickstarter projects undersell (and subsequently fail), so I can only imagine how many people that must’ve left at the sight of “500,000 SEK”, which if you don’t know is actually about 61,000 USD. :-)
  • Our project didn’t really have a following to begin with. We bought into the idea that Kickstarter was a hub where people could discover and fund projects, but in reality (at least at the point of writing this) it seems to have devolved into nothing more than a payment solution, which I guess means that you could do just as well with any kind of payment page that’d allow you to convert your followers into pledges. In other words, if this is true then Kickstarter doesn’t actually add any value whatsoever compared to straight-up payment processing services, because you’re doing all the work from start to finish.

So would we do it again if we had the chance? Probably not, but I still appreciate the experience it gave us and all the relationships we established. The massive PR campaigns we launched in conjunction with our Kickstarter campaign did get us a handful of really dedicated fans (and words can’t express how much we appreciate them), and we managed to make a lot of really, really, really cool friends among project creators.

The player can unlock secrets by completing bonus levels.

To anyone thinking of launching a Kickstarter project, I’d say:

  • Don’t underestimate the amount of time and work you have to put into the campaign.
  • If your project isn’t sensationalistic, newsworthy or doesn’t have an existing following you might be in for a really hard time.
  • Not directly related to our project, but remember that everything you put in your Kickstarter campaign is permanent. Filming yourself might seem like a good idea right now, but might not be as fun when looking back 4 years from now. I spotted quite a few embarrassing videos that I knew the creators would regret in the future. ;-)

Thanks for reading. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any thoughts regarding this article.

P.S. To anyone who’s curious, yes, we’re still working hard on finishing the game. ;-) You can check it out at Astrojone, our game design studio.