How Game Developers Turn Kickstarter Failure Into Success

Telepath Tactics

When you ask random strangers on the Internet to give you money, there are no guarantees. That’s true in almost any scenario, including when video game developers use Kickstarter to crowdfund the creation of a game. While 3,900 or so games have been funded on Kickstarter, more than 7,200 game projects failed to hit their goal.

Within those two numbers are some people who fall into both categories: developers who failed to get funding on their first try, but re-launched campaigns and hit their goals. In fact, the initial failure is sometimes a necessary step toward ultimate glory.

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Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing proposition. If you ask for $50,000 and receive only $40,000 in pledges, you get nothing. But there’s nothing stopping a developer from re-launching a project. If a significant number of people backed the project the first time around, they can be enlisted to provide an early boost to the sequel. The initial failure can also provide some valuable marketing lessons that tip the scales in your favor on the second try.

These are the lessons learned by developers such as Craig Stern of Chicago, who asked Kickstarter backers for $25,500 in late 2012 to make a tactical role-playing game called Telepath Tactics for Windows, Mac, and Linux. 840 people offered money, but he fell short with $18,615 pledged.

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A few months later, he went back to Kickstarter, asking for just $15,000 this time. He got $41,259 from 1,733 backers.

A few things went wrong the first time, Stern said in an interview. He ran the campaign during holiday shopping season, when people had less money to spare. Potential backers were also turned off by how he planned to spend some of the money, and criticized some of his development priorities.

Stern wrote on his first Kickstarter page that he planned to spend $12,000 to “hir[e] a sound designer to create all of the sound effects for every last button click, movement, attack, character death, item usage, and action in the game.”

“People didn’t like that,” Stern said. After the campaign failed, “I said, ‘Clearly this is not a thing people want me spending significant amounts of money on. Clearly they’re ok if I take royalty-free sound effects and manipulate them myself.’”

With a new low-budget plan for sound effects, Stern lowered the amount he asked for in his second campaign. He also shifted his focus from multi-player to single-player. Initially, he hoped Telepath Tactics would be the “Super Smash Brothers” of tactical games. But that isn’t what players wanted.

“What I learned from doing the first campaign is that while some people cared about multiplayer, the vast majority of people who were excited about the game were excited about the single-player campaign and mod support,” he said. “I realized that was where I should focus my development efforts.” The game still has a local multi-player mode, but not one that works over the Internet. The mod support includes a map editor and the ability for players to create their own battles, characters, items, attacks, destructible objects, and more.

The second campaign included a variety of “stretch goals” based on what people told Stern they wanted, and these allowed him to vastly exceed his base goal. If funding reached $22,000, he would build “extra character classes with animated sprites.” At $34,000, there would be “randomized battlefield generation.” In all, Stern hit four stretch goals, falling a few thousand dollars short of the fifth, which would have brought mobile versions of the game.

Stern wrote a blog post full of advice on how to prepare for a Kickstarter—it’s worth a read if you’re considering a crowdfunding campaign yourself.

Becoming a “Promotional Machine”

Despite Stern’s first campaign falling short, he had several things going his way from the start. Stern had made seven previous games, though none as ambitious as Telepath Tactics, and he runs a local indie game developer meetup group, allowing him to pick the brains of people who had used Kickstarter before.

Stern prepared extensively for that first Kickstarter, hiring a professional videographer to make a pitch video with gameplay footage and reaching out to journalists to get coverage.

“I knew I would be essentially vanishing off the face of the earth for 30 days. I would exist only on the Internet as a promotional machine,” he said.

The 840 backers from the first campaign proved crucial in the second. “I was able to rally the troops I accrued over the first campaign to throw money at it all at once over the first few days,” he said. He also purchased a booth at the PAX East conference for $3,000 to promote the Kickstarter, and edited the pitch video to make it shorter and more effective.

The early boost in funding may have helped Telepath Tactics get more prominently featured on the Kickstarter website. More than half of the money he accrued in his successful campaign “came from people who were just browsing the site, Kickstarter.com, which if you think about it is kind of enormous, given all the different avenues I was pursuing publicity in,” he said.

When reached for comment, a Kickstarter spokesperson suggested the company cannot provide statistics on how many projects succeed the second time, but said, “Anecdotally we do see that many creators who had trouble the first time around will lower their funding goal, shorten their project duration, rethink their presentation, or all of the above, and then relaunch. That’s often a path to success.”

The spokesperson pointed to the “Coolest Cooler” project, which fell short of a $125,000 goal and then hit more than $9 million on a second try. Besides keeping drinks cold, the cooler blends icy drinks, charges phones, and plays music.

Stern is also not alone among video game developers. Henry Smith’s Spaceteam Admiral’s Club Kickstarter fell more than $15,000 short of its $80,000 goal earlier this year, but he re-launched the project and hit the goal with $83,235 in July.

In a blog post, Smith wrote that “existing momentum combined with more aggressive outreach” helped the second time. Smith already had a hit with Spaceteam, a party game released in 2012 that involves players shouting nonsensical “technobabble” at each other while a virtual spaceship disintegrates. Smith held a big Spaceteam tournament in June this year to promote his second Kickstarter.

Launching a fresh Kickstarter isn’t the only option, as we wrote in a previous article. Erin Reynolds, creator of a horror adventure game called Nevermind, fell short of her crowdfunding goal but ended up getting money from Intel to bring the game to a future version of the company’s RealSense 3D Camera.

Preserving Creative Freedom, Without Going Broke

Stern said he could have attempted to find a publisher for Telepath Tactics, but didn’t want to sacrifice any creative freedom. Self-funding wasn’t a great option, either, since Stern works a day job while developing on the side.

“I don’t have that big of an income and that would have had some consequences for the game,” he said. “I really wanted to make the best, most professional game that I could. I decided I would give Kickstarter one more try.”

Kickstarter charges a 5 percent commission, but developers don’t have to pay unless their projects get funded, so there was little harm in trying again. As it turned out, the surprisingly large amount collected in the second Kickstarter allowed Stern to take a few months off work and spend eight hours a day developing the game. Early backers have enjoyed access to the game for months—and newcomers can buy access now for $25—although it isn’t quite done.

Stern missed the April 2014 estimated delivery date for the final product, but that was largely because of added work created by the stretch goals.

“Kickstarter makes you pick an estimated delivery date for your rewards when you first create the campaign, but it doesn’t let you edit it if you then hit like five stretch goals,” Stern said. The stretch goals added new coding demands and time to commission art: “Right now, I am planning to have it finished around the end of this year and release it in early 2015.”

When asked if the whole process was worth it, Stern immediately said, “Oh, absolutely. It was very helpful from almost every conceivable perspective. It got word of the game out there, it gave the game an actual budget. It will be much more polished than if I hadn’t run the campaign.”

Perhaps most beneficial is the “great mailing list of people who are really into the game, who are going to be fans going forward,” he added. “Even if I hadn’t gotten the money that probably would have been worth the effort of running the campaign all on its own.”

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Image: Telepath Tactics (Sinister Design)

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