We spend a lot of time celebrating our successes. We talk about them at length, share the stories with our friends and family and bask in the glory of the win. Indie game development and Kickstarter projects are no different. Even here at ATGN we’ve published a number of articles discussing and celebrating successful projects. There is nothing wrong with this; it serves as inspiration to those who come after, evidence that it can be done. We’ve even sat down and had lengthy chats with people like Allen Chang from Rule & Make and Jason Kotzur-Yang from End Game Games about the pot holes, traps and other nasty mistakes to avoid on the path to a successful project.
But what of those who don’t succeed? What if the Kickstarter project isn’t successful? What advice can we offer? What becomes of the broken hearted?
I felt it important to shine the light on this in the hope that we might be able to offer some valuable advice to those that may suffer from a failed or cancelled Kickstarter. To let them know that they aren’t alone and to share with them the experiences of others who suffered the same fate.
I reached out to the indie game development industry and was kindly greeted by Al Caynes of Senyac Games and Paul Nicholas of Blue Room Games. Both gentlemen had recently gone through the experience of unsuccessful Kickstarer projects, for Al it was El Luchador Fantastico Grande and for Paul it was Highway Hustle. What I wanted to do was sit down with them, ask them some questions about the entire experience and hopefully come out the other side of it with a useful resource and some positive, uplifting advice for those who might not cross the finishing line on their first pass at a Kickstarter project.
<Toby> Gentlemen, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedules to speak with ATGN today, much appreciated. How are we doing?
<Al> Well, I just ate six doughnuts a large coffee and four biscuits for breakfast. How are you?
<Toby> Working on a coffee myself thanks Al. So before we get into the meat of this, why don’t you tell us the name of your game project and a brief description of what it was about?
<Al> El Luchador Fantastico Grande is a standalone card and dice tabletop game that challenges players to become Mexican wrestling super-stars. Players compete to see who can outlast and knock out all opponents or play in one of the three different match modes. Are you ready to become the ultimate Luchador Wrestler?
<Paul> Highway Hustle was the name of our project, a tile building game in which you play as a musically astute mayor of a small local town with one goal in mind – to be the first to the Big City and make sure your favourite music, Disco or Rock ‘n’ Roll, is crowned the greatest tune maker of all time!
<Toby> I think most people, at least those in the scene, appreciate just how much hard work goes into game development these days. How long did it take you to go from initial idea to Kickstarter page?
<Al> ELFG took around one and a half years I think. But time seems to blur when you do a project like this, there is so much “behind the scenes” stuff you’re doing.
<Paul> About a year in total. The game is monumentaly different to how it started. Highway Hustle had very humble beginnings. It all happened when Alex was bored at his dad’s printing factory and decided to draw some lines on spare pieces of cardboard. The aim of the game was simple – be the first to build a continuous line from your starting tile to the goal in the middle. From that we eventually crafted an elaborate theme (emphasis on elaborate) on top of the basic concept and began relentlessly playtesting and promoting. After about 6 months of playtesting we decided to take the idea to Kickstarter, as a lot of people who played it kept asking where they could buy a copy.
<Toby> It’s no secret that Kickstarter is an emotional coaster ride. From the initial burst to the frantic refreshing in the last few hours. For those that hit their target early there is the initial relief, I would imagine, followed by awe and elation as the number goes higher and higher. For those close to the target in those last few hours I can only imagine the stress and the mad pressing of the refresh button. Can you describe to us, in your own words, how this felt for you up to the point you thought you might be in trouble?
<Al> Well first off, this was obviously my second attempt at Kickstarting, so you know that was a factor that ALMOST prevented me pressing that GO button a second time. The first day I hit 35 % really fast, 40% by day two and I think day three I was at around 55%. Then, the crawl. Well, to me it felt like a crawl, like there were small increases each day until at day 27 when it was the first day of ZERO pledges, stuck at 86% with three days to go. I was freaking out because I had seen some projects just miss that goal on the final day by as little as $100. I wasn’t going to make it in my eyes. But then I made a final post in an event I made on Facebook and headed to sleep. The next morning, the project was funded with a day to go. That was WAY too close for me.
<Paul> Kickstarter definitely has a rhythm to it, as you mentioned. We were really excited when we received that massive burst at the start which took us to… well nowhere near our goal (but $2000 is still a lot of money). Naively we thought “this is going to be a piece of cake!” After all, we’d already funded one game on Pozible (Australian crowdfunding platform) and Kickstarter has an even bigger market than that. But after the initial burst the campaign completely stalled. No one wanted to even give it a chance because it just seemed so whacky and out there. Not to mention there were a few other lacking factors we’d overlooked, but more on that later.
<Toby> At what stage did you feel that your Kickstarter project was not going to hit its target? Again, can you take us through the emotional impact of the moment?
<Al> Okay so we are switching back to the first campaign? Well, it was about four days in and just shy of 30%. I knew from that moment it was already done. Though PAX AUS was a few days around, so I decided to leave the campaign up. Why? Not that crazy. I knew that if you terminate the campaign before the end date, say a few hours before for example, you have access to ALL those backers. So if I was going to relaunch, I already had a user-base to work with.
<Paul> I know the exact moment. It was when I posted a thread on Board Game Geek in the Game Designers forum, asking what was wrong with our game and why it wasn’t receiving any attention. Well, we ended up receiving about 9 full pages of criticisms and comments on what we could’ve done better. Needless to say it was a pretty harsh reality call – trust that it had to happen after we launched. But that’s how it goes sometimes. So after much discussion between Alex and myself we decided it was best to cancel the campaign, re-evaluate everything, and come back with a much stronger product.
<Toby> If you are feeling up to it, could you tell us why you thought the project failed?
<Al> Phil Walker-Harding said something at PAX that rang very true, it goes something like “No matter how great your game may be, no matter how amazing a concept or fantastic the art, it is becoming harder than ever to raise a large goal amount for a fresh new creator. “ The original goal was over $15,000 due to the manufacturer I was using, the artist cost, the postage method and a number of other factors. This was the major reason the project was not funded the first time.
<Paul> That one’s easy. Our theme, as you can probably gather by now, was just absurd. No one could relate to it, and no one really wanted to either. Sometimes quirky bizarre themes can work, and sometimes they fall flat on their face. Unfortunately, ours was the less co-ordinated latter. The gameplay wasn’t that innovative either if we’re being honest. It was fun, but didn’t add anything mind-blowingly fresh to the market. Promotion is also a big factor, and although we did our best with our limited budget we didn’t fully explore all the avenues we could have.
<Toby> Once you knew that your project was not going to succeed, beyond the emotional impact, what did this mean for you as a game designer? Was there any financial impact? What sort of work was involved post-Kickstarter , pre- any thoughts of a second attempt?
<Al> Financial impact? Only about $300 lost in advertising, the month of my life I used to do the campaign. I’m kidding. Those costs were not exactly wasted as you can look at it as prep for round two. There was always thoughts of a round two, always have a back up plan!
<Paul> Luckily for us we didn’t spend a cent. All art was done in-house and all promotion was done via the internet and word of mouth. This is actually a big reason as to why we failed. It’s not that we’re lazy and we put in the bare minimum, we were literally just broke game designers who didn’t have any money. But that’s not how you can do things in the real world. Even though it was possible to get away with it in the early days of crowdfunding those days are gone. Since the big boys have joined the hunt the level of professionalism has raised exponentially and Kickstarter essentially functions these days as a pre-order system rather than a way for people with no money to get their ideas off the ground. Although we might be releasing a vastly different version of Highway Hustle (which definitely won’t be named that) in the very distant future we’re currently focusing on other games. Our next project is planned to launch in June.
<Toby> I’ve seen it brought up in discussion before, but you gents would certainly have your own opinion on the matter. Is it better to cancel the project or let it reach conclusion?
<Al> Cancel before it ends, this is due to SEO and google searches. The reason being is that Google gives priority to a failed campaign over an active and an active over a cancelled. This also impacts Kickstarter searches, so far as I have been made aware.
<Paul> If you’re pretty positive it’s going to fail I think you need to save yourself the effort and worry and just cancel it yourself. Everyone likes cheering for the underdog, but no one wants to wait for the last Mario Kart racer to make it over the finish line. Put down the controller, start a new race, and come back with more blue shells.
<Toby> Now for the big questions! What did you learn and what could you have done (if anything) to prevent your initial Kickstarter from failing? What advice would you give those following in your footsteps so as to avoid the same mistake.
<Al> There is nothing I could have done to prevent the first campaign from failing, once it was up. However, as stated above I believe it was largely due to the goal more than any other factor. If I was able to reduce the goal straight up, it should have funded.
<Paul> You have to treat Kickstarter as you would any business venture. You need to research your market, have starting capital for marketing/advertising and art (professional looking art is a serious big deal in determining a campaign’s success), and of course a thorough and well thought out plan – what you’re going to do pre-launch, during the first lull (all campaigns have one), how you’re going to pace updates. You can’t afford to leave anything to chance or just expect things to work out. It may seem like common sense but you would be surprised how many new project creators still don’t realise these obvious practices. But the fundamentally most important thing every campaign needs to succeed is an audience. Kickstarter is not some magical genie that provides you with an endless source of pledgers. Sure, there are a small group of generous people who regularly browse Kickstarter looking for new projects to contribute too, but you’ll be lucky if these nomads make up 10% of your campaign’s goal. You need to bring your own audience, your own market. Not just your friends and family – a real market, just as any product in the real world would have. This requires you to promote your product by visiting local game stores, attending conventions, appearing as a guest on podcasts, providing prominent reviewers with your game so buzz is generated, taking out ads on websites such as Board Game Geek etc. If you just cross your fingers and hope people will find your gem, you will be guaranteed disappointment.
<Toby> Dealing with the emotional impact of a failed Kickstarter. Suggestions and advice from you who have braved it?
<Al> Get a taste for WHISKY. No, not really. Look, like anything that can and probably will discourage you and make you sad, hang with your significant other and friends. Throw yourself a party and not a pity party either. Assess what you did wrong, what you can improve. Seek advice from your peers and join the facebook groups.
<Paul> Never take it personally. It’s just business. Gamers are one of the smartest and no-bullshit markets I’ve ever dealt with. They know what they want, they sift through the garbage (for the most part), and despise being force fed – in other words, they want to discover things themselves not through cheesy marketing tactics. My point is, if you try and put out a lousy product (like we did) you will be rejected, as you should. Believe it or not they’re actually doing you a favour. It ensures the cream always floats to the top and is the reason I’m constantly pushing myself to be a better game designer. Contrarily if you put out an amazing product, there are no better ambassadors than gamers. They will tell everyone they know if your product is worth talking about. It’s very much a double-edged sword. But as a gamer, I looooove swords.
<Toby> Having gone through that process, do you think you’ve been made stronger by it? Just like we learn to live after a broken heart when we are young (Unless you married your childhood sweat-heart), do you think (heaven forbid) you are better prepared to face a Kickstarter failure again in the future than someone who has only ever met success to date?
<Al> You will NEVER be prepared for it. The person who has an iron heart, lacks the brain to comprehend it. If you don’t succeed, you haven’t FAILED. This is a very important point. You only fail if you didn’t terminate the campign.
<Paul> I’m a big believer in failure breeding success. It definitely makes us stronger. Unless it kills us, right? I could reel off that big ol’ list of all the successful people in the world who have failed, but that would be doing something I’m not a fan of – comparing myself to others. Without getting all Master Chef, I believe we’re all on our separate journeys and all we can do is focus on what we’ve learned and what we can do better. The past might be where we were but it’s not where we have to end up. I’m very thankful for the times I’ve failed. If I didn’t fail I would’ve never grown as a designer (or an individual for that matter) and would still be making the same boring games.
<Toby> Okay, so we’ve failed in our first attempt, but we’ve gained a lot of knowledge and come out stronger. Obvious move is to make a second attempt at Kickstarter right? What did you or will you do differently on the second time around?
<Al> Let’s stop using “failed”. <Grins> Okay I’m just going to condense this one. New intro video, new game play video, new images for the box design, new print and play, new blurbs on the facebook page and new goal amount. The intro and game play videos last time weren’t what I wanted. They weren’t “fun” so I took the chance to get some awesome friends and reshoot them.
<Paul> Everything. We’ve learned so much since we first launched Highway Hustle. We’ve spent the past year building our fan base, honing our design process, and are really happy with the next game we plan to launch in June. We even added a new member to our team, Josh Sommerfeld, and his contributions have just been amazing to say the least. We’re very excited for the future.
<Toby> How long, in your opinion, should one wait from the closure of a fail… err ‘unsuccessful’ Kickstarter to the reboot and why?
<Al> This is a hotly contested topic. I think you need to strike while the iron is hot. I say within a three month window to ensure people still remember how awesome your game is. That existing fan base is not only going to be great for day one relaunch but also a sounding board. Keep them updated, show them the new project page and allow them some imput.
<Paul> That really depends. In our case we took our time to evaluate everything, and decided it was best to just start fresh. Highway Hustle was in no way a standard we were happy releasing. It was a difficult decision but overall was one for the best. Now we have a game we know there is a market for and is at a level of quality we would be proud to release to the public.
<Toby> We’ve spoken to a number of game developers who have met with success first time, every time with their Kickstarter projects. They have absolutely learnt from their experiences and as a community we hand those lessons down to those that follow. Perhaps through not meeting success you gents learnt some lessons that others haven’t yet. Especially if you went on to success with Kickstarter on a second attempt. What valuable lessons, if any, would you like to pass on to the community?
<Al> You all have heard this a thousand times, however once more for drumming it in! INTRO VIDEO, GAME PLAY VIDEO AND PRINT AND PLAY. Do NOT launch without these. Ever. Please just don’t. If I look at your project and there is no intro video, I will not back your game. If you have no gameplay video, I will not back. It is your job to draw me in, show me why I should pledge and then get me to pledge.
<Paul> If you do your research, ensure you have established a market, design an innovative game that actually adds something new (and has amazing art), and come armed with a solid plan – you will succeed. Sometimes the timing won’t be right, try again. The only time you truly fail is when you give up. Best of luck to all of you! <Grin>
<Toby> Thank you for your time gentlemen, it’s been an honour and a privilege. Indie game development via Kickstarter is still in its infancy (Especially in Australia)and we should thank pioneers such as yourselves for paving the road for those that come behind. I wish you the very best on your future endeavours.
<Al> Thanks and everyone should drop by the Senyac Games and 93 Made Games booth at PAXAus!
<Paul> Thank you kindly for the opportunity!
It’s very important to note that while these gents took different directions after the initial unsuccessful Kickstarter projects, both have moved on with a positive attitude. Al re-launched his Kickstarter campaign for El Luchador Fantasico Grande and met with success! Paul and his team have obviously gone away for a serious think and will be bringing a much more polished project to the table in June. The obvious and biggest lesson to take away is that neither of these game developers simply quit. They rallied, they researched, they pulled it together and they mushed on.
In summary, if you are launching a Kickstarter project in the near future and you don’t meet with success initially, know that you aren’t alone and you have every reason to get back on the horse and try again.