About a year and a half ago, we posted about the lessons we learned from a failed Kickstarter – and if that’s the sort of thing that you’re into, you can find that right here. And no doubt about it, you can learn a heck of a lot more from your failures than you can from your successes. Besides, it’s not like we did everything right – trust me.
My buddy John and I have been working on Gothic Doctor since November 2012, and we launched a Kickstarter for it in the summer of 2013. Long story short, that first Kickstarter did not go well.
After taking the summer off to lick our wounds, the following September, we started working on it again. Mostly, we were working on the marketing aspects of the project (which I’ll talk more about later) – but we also worked on refining the gameplay.
Once my school year ended (I teach high school English, which might not be that surprising given the subject matter of the game), we relaunched the project with a lower funding goal ($7,000 instead of $18,000) and a shorter campaign (22.5 days instead of 30). Our first project had just under $9,000 pledged to it; our second, just over $20,000.
So, what happened?
What We Did Right, Part 1: Before July 1st at 10 am
Prior to hitting the launch button on July 1st at 10:00 am, we did virtually everything right. Most importantly, we became part of the community, playtested the game publicly, marketed the game, and finished the game. Most importantly, we did them in that order.
Becoming part of the community
Jeff King, of All Us Geeks fame, is fond of asking people the following pointed question: “What have you done for the community?” And if you don’t have a good answer for that question, you probably aren’t ready to run your own Kickstarter.
So here’s what we did. First off, we shared our mistakes publicly. A few weeks after the Kickstarter failed, we posted a “post-mortem” on the campaign, carefully reflecting over what we did wrong – and what we did right. Almost every week, that’s the page that gets the most hits on our blog, and a few people have contacted us to let them know how much that helped them from falling into the same snares that we laid for ourselves on the first project. Also, as a result of that post, I started writing an article a month for Cardboard Edison, who had already become very good friends, so I continued to help the community in that way.
On top of that, the aforementioned Jeff King and I did a mostly-monthly podcast entitled the Road to Relaunch, where he talked to me about the process of taking a failed Kickstarter to a successful one over the course of a year. We often hear from folks who heard that and learned something from it, and Jeff and I are continuing the podcast series letting people know about what goes on after the funding ends. (If you’d like to check those recordings out, you can find them by clicking here.)
Lastly, I became very active on a Facebook group called Kickstarter Best Practices and Lessons Learned, a phenomenal resource for creators and would-be creators to share ideas and give each other feedback for free. There are paid consultants out there who won’t give your page the same time and effort that the group will give it – but only if you’re part of the group for awhile before you ask for something in return.
Because, when you’re becoming part of the community, you’re joining a group that you want to be a part of, not that you want to get something out of. There’s no way that everyone who read the post-mortem, listened to the Road to Relaunch, and got advice from me on Facebook backed our project – but that’s fine. Would we have been happy if they did? Of course we would, but we didn’t expect it. If you’re joining the community because you think it’s going to be quid pro quo, you’re doing it wrong.
But, when you are part of the community, lots of the members of that community will want to help you…because that’s what communities do. You cannot start this step early enough. Join the Facebook group; start reading articles and see if you think there’s something you can contribute; just go to cons and be nice to people and give them feedback on their games – but start. Now. (Well, finish this article first…)
Playtesting the game
Prior to our first campaign, Gothic Doctor had been playtested in public once when John took it to a game store near him to settle a disagreement we were having about the rules (he was right).
This time around, though, we made sure that it got in front of as many testers as we reasonably could at cons, UnPub events, and even through sending prototype copies to interested players to blind test the game.
Cons are the easy part. There’s one pretty much every weekend somewhere in America. The trouble is getting there – and you won’t be able to get to all of them. But, as much as you can, you should take the game to local cons to get it in front of people. Double Exposure runs a series of cons about an hour north of me and they’re always exceptionally well-run events. In particular, their Metatopia, which is happening the first weekend in November this year, is specifically designed for games that have not yet been completed to be tested out and tweaked, often mid-game.
In addition to that, there are UnPub events that you could find by going to their website and looking for something in your area – or by going to a Protospiel event, which you can find out about here if you’re in other parts of the country than I am. These, too, are designed for unpublished games to go through the wringer.
The feedback you get will be brutal sometimes. No one makes a perfect game right off the bat, especially if it’s their first design. Lord knows we hadn’t – though the game was 90% to 95% done. But, as anyone who has brought a design to fruition will tell you, the last 5% to 10% is the toughest to finish. Cons designed for playtesting are exactly the kinds of places to do work on those last few pesky percentages. There’s a steady supply of people who don’t know you and won’t spare your feelings.
However, don’t treat this as a one-sided arrangement. If someone playtests your game for you, and then asks if you’d give theirs a shot, you’re not too tired – or if you absolutely are, make a time to playtest it the next day. Remember, this is a community, and communities collapse with even a few selfish members in it. Besides, word travels fast. If you make it clear that you’re only out for you, people will figure that out pretty quickly.
But, when I was at cons, I made sure that I gave other people at least as much time as they gave me. I played games I never would have played; some of them were awesome, some of them were awful, and some of them were awful and then I got to see them become awesome. That’s the best part.
On top of playtesting at cons, once we had prototype copies of our game, we found a group of playtesters who wanted to try out some variant rules we were testing (of the three variations, only one survived). These were folks who I met at cons and who liked the base game enough to try out some of the optional rules. Most of them gave us great feedback.
One suggestion here, though, is that if you are going to send copies to blind playtesters, have an arrangement with them ahead of time about how many plays you’d like them to complete – and a system in place for getting feedback. We created a form on Google Drive to collect their feedback, and that proved very valuable in making decisions about which variants to keep and which to scrap.
However, make sure that you have an incentive for them to complete the playtesting. For us, anyone who playtested the game at least 5 times got to be listed in the rulebook as an official playtester. When you have people paying up to $30 extra for a game just to have their name in one, this is a good carrot to dangle, I think. Second, we did a raffle, where each time a person logged a playtest on the form, they’d get one “raffle ticket” – and after we closed the playtesting, we randomly selected a number and gave that person a prize. It wasn’t anything huge, but it was another reasonably good carrot. But, even with these things in place, we still had just over 50% completion. You just have to expect that of sending games to people you don’t know well and expecting them to do something with them.
But, I will say this – and perhaps this is the lesson for doing this in the future: the people who I met at cons and wanted to do more playtesting all did at least five plays – and some of them over twice as many. In the future, I’m more likely to playtest with people I’ve met based on that.
Finish the game
When we did the first campaign, we had five pieces of art completed from the artist – since we were planning on using Kickstarter money to pay him for the rest. Big mistake.
The second time around, he had completed nearly everything that he could. All of the patients and treatment cards that he could do were done. This meant quite a bit more upfront, but it also meant two things. One, we had a lot more to show off during the campaign; two, our goal could be a lot lower.
For the first thing, people want to see the art from the game. One of the most responded-to updates was one in which I asked backers to let me know which patient they’d like to see the art for. That lets backers have some control over what you’re sharing with them and shows them that you’ve really got everything ready to go. People have been burned in the past by the okay-thanks-for-your-money-now-my-artist-will-start projects that turn into well-the-artist-is-having-some-problems projects. By showing off a lot of Jeff’s work, we were able to show that we just needed to finish the images that came up during the campaign as backer levels and stretch goals.
Also, it certainly didn’t hurt that the first thing nearly every player commented on was how awesome the art looked. A good artist is worth spending money on. That’s going to be the way that you draw players in. Amazing mechanics with bad art will have a tough time getting players to the table – because mechanics are very rarely the hook.
But, remember one thing. There’s a rule in any sort of out-sourced creative project that you can have it done fast and cheap, cheap and well, or well and fast – but not fast, cheap, and well. We chose to work with an artist who has a full time teaching job and two kids under 5. His work is awesome, and he’s giving us a great price. But, we knew that he wouldn’t turn images around in a day, and we planned for that – and for how much he has going on, Jeff works very fast.
That’s all in terms of the art – and I hope it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that the mechanics of the game have to be finished and thoroughly playtested before you even think about launching on Kickstarter. And to prove that we had that done, in addition to reviews (which I’ll talk about in the next section), we put up a PnP of the game with non-finalized art. That way, potential backers could snag the game, try it out, and decide if they liked it. But most importantly, they could see that it was all done and ready to roll in terms of the mechanics.
Market the game
Of all of the issues our first campaign had, this was probably the biggest. So, this time around, we had a thorough marketing strategy. We got it to reviewers a few months before launch so that they could release their review just before the campaign or in the first two weeks. Two days after launch, I took the game to DexCon (one of Double Exposure’s events), so we bought an ad on the inside cover of the con’s program. Being the extrovert of the two of us, I did interviews with podcasts to help get the word out there. We bought banner ads on a few reasonably-priced but well-trafficked webpages.
It’s important to remember, though, that it’s impossible to know what your return on ads is, even if you do something we should have done and had a different link for each source. Sometimes, it’s seeing the ad the second time – or the fifth time – that makes someone finally click on it. Much of advertising is getting the name of the game out there to potential backers.
Another way to market the game is to get in played by people once you’re out of the playtesting phase, which we did during the campaign and in the few weeks leading up to it. But in addition to our own efforts, we also enlisted the help of Matt Holden’s awesome Indie Game Alliance to get the game to places we never could have. You can check out the website to find out more about them, but, in short, IGA can help get your game demoed all over the country for the cost of shipping a copy. I couldn’t possibly recommend them highly enough.
Join the community and playtest, market, and finish your game – all at the same time
It’s a bit of a false distinction to separate these categories, since, really, they all feed into each other. If you send a demo copy to a playtester and they need to play it with friends, that’s marketing. When you’re sitting and talking game design with a new friend after they playtest your game, that’s becoming part of the community. So on and so forth. The more you think about everything you do prior to launch as part of one big bundle, the better – and so much the better if you focus on just enjoying yourself and becoming part of the community.
To Be Continued…
If you’re still reading, good on ya – and thanks. I know it was a long one. One of the big issues that you have to do before the launch is designing your page, and I didn’t address that at all here. Next time, though, I’ll talk about what we did right with our page and what we did right during the 22 and a half days that our Kickstarter was running. And I’ll also explain why the hell we had such a weird number of days.
Until next time, happy gaming!