What is the secret formula for Kickstarter success? Well, I haven’t done one myself, but as you know, I’ve interviewed plenty of folks who have–and tried my best to support the ones I felt passionately about.
As you’ve probably heard by now, Guido Henkel’s Deathfire Kickstarter failed to meet its $390,000 goal, coming in at only $204,344. You probably also know that this was Guido’s second attempt at a Kickstarter; his earlier Thorvalla project raised only $47,074 of its $1,000,000 goal. Guido did much better this time, but it’s sad to see what I thought was a remarkably promising CRPG fail to raise a modest sum for such an ambitious project. He’s since gone to “Plan B,” which amounts to re-thinking the project as a series of episodes and accepting donations through PayPal (the reward structure is similar to the one on Kickstarter).
When I interviewed Guido, I specifically asked him what he had learned from his Thorvalla project and what he intended to do differently with Kickstarter. He said that this time, we’ll create “presentable material.” He felt that the earlier project didn’t have stuff to show potential supporters. This time he wanted to develop a prototype and flesh everything out with more detail on the Kickstarter page. He also stressed how committed he was to engaging with the community, blogging and giving people more insight into what they were doing: “With Kickstarter, it’s important to show people that you’re invested.” While I agree that it’s important to convince folks that you’re serious and committed to your project, and that you have some tangible evidence that what you’ve got in mind works, I don’t think that’s what is most important.
So what is? Well, that’s the area where Guido needed the most help. In the same interview, I asked what I ask everyone doing a Kickstarter: If you were a gamer on the outside looking at this, what would you need to see before you’d pony up the money? Unfortunately, Guido had a hard time with this question, as though he had never really considered it before. I then tried asking him about other Kickstarters he’s supported, but again his answers didn’t do him justice.
I think the big problem here is one that I hammer home to students in my composition classes day in, day out: “Know your audience!” From what I saw, and not based on anything but my own gut, Guido seems to think of his audience as not that different than the publishers he’s used to dealing with. What do publishers need to see? Prototypes, resumes, etc., (pretty much the stuff he said he wanted to focus on). It makes sense; game developers are accustomed to pitching to publishers. So why should Kickstarter be any different?
The big difference is that the audience is different. With Kickstarter, you’re not pitching to publishers–folks who expect a financial return on an investment, who have a long history of dealing with a diversity of developers, and are skeptical of anything that doesn’t seem to have a clear, established market already. I can imagine the questions a publisher would ask if reviewing Guido’s project: Can I trust this guy to do the work? Is the team competent enough to actually deliver this? If we publish it, will it sell?
Notice that the publisher doesn’t ask the key questions that gamers would ask: Is this game going to be any fun? Does this guy like the same kind of games I like? Is this something I can play (or at least talk about) with my friends? Would I have a beer with this man?
If you look back at the successful kickstarters, such as Torment: Tides of Numenera, Wasteland 2, or Project: Eternity, you’ll see a huge difference in these pitches. Brian Fargo is a guy who really knows audience. In his videos, he explicitly makes fun of publishers, chiding them for not really knowing gaming and not approving of his type of game (which, by the way, gamers like us also love). Thus, before we even think about what a Wasteland 2 might look or play like, we’re already emotionally invested and thinking to ourselves–”Oh, hell yeah, this guy is one of us.” In each case, I pledged without thinking twice about what the actual game might look or be like. I just saw that these guys “got it,” or knew what I wanted in a game, and were excited about it. It didn’t even occur to me to question whether they could actually deliver, or whether they might just go to the Bahamas instead of their cubicles.
In short, if you’re a game developer thinking about launching a Kickstarter project, don’t approach the pitch the same way you’d do for a traditional publisher. Think instead like a marketer. What are you selling? You’re selling yourself, but you’re also selling a role for the viewer. Hey, I’m a great guy who loves playing and making the same type of games that you do. Look, here’s some great stuff I did in the past that was really cool. Now I want to make this new thing that’s even better than the old stuff. I can’t do that because the Man doesn’t get it–doesn’t get us. If you help out, you’re going to get this awesome game and some really cool stuff on top of that. $#@ the man. Let’s do this!
If you do this well enough, you don’t even need to show a screenshot of the game you’re working on. Indeed, you’re probably better off just showing some concept art and keeping the details vague. The audience will be free to imagine a game much better than anything you could ever actually deliver, and it might also draw them to participate on your Kickstarter page–oh, and of course they have to pledge before they can start asking questions.
Rhetorically speaking, what we’re doing here is focusing on identification. Kenneth Burke puts it this way in a famous passage: “A is not identical with his colleague B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so.” Burke later gives the example of a wealthy politician going on about his “farm boy” background and so on. Deep down, I’m sure we all know the bastard prefers golf to bowling. But at least he’s willing to make the effort to talk to us as equals.
Brian Fargo does a remarkable job identifying with gamers like me–and I get the sense he knows I’m much different than the “average gamer,” the Battlefield, COD types, Zelda fanatics, and so on. I’m the guy who played Bard’s Tale, Baldur’s Gate, and Fallout back in the day and loved every second of it. Fargo has convinced me that he gets that, feels the same way, and is in a position to do something about if I’m willing to help him. I want to have an ale with this man. If you recall my interviews with him back in 2011, you’ll notice that Fargo does something that hardly any other guest does: He asks me about my gaming habits and what I like to play. There was a lot more pre-interview conversation to that effect, too. He wanted to learn as much as he could about how I identified as a gamer, so that when it came time for him to “pitch” his views, he could tailor them especially for me. That shit works.
Now let’s look at Guido’s pitches. He does a great job describing his vision and convincing me that he’s serious about the project and has the technical skills to pull it off. However, I don’t feel like he’s talking to me as a gamer. I get the feeling that if I went down to visit his studio, I’d get a lovely tour, but not be hanging out in the game room a few hours later chugging dopplebock and playing Realms of Arkania with him and the team. By contrast, take a look at the Divinity: Original Sin guys. You almost feel like you’re in their living room!
I don’t want to give the impression that I think Guido did a bad job or didn’t deserve to meet his funding goal. Heck, I pledged the highest to his project than any so far. I really liked the project and was excited about stuff like the Rat Faction and the mysterious complexity he kept referring to in his German games. It’s probably my disappointment with this Kickstarter (and a few others near to my heart that also failed) that led me to try to help him so much. But if he (or anyone else) wants to try for another Kickstarter, I think they’d do well to focus on identifying with their audience as gamers first, developers second. They need to sell themselves well, but also a fulfilling role for the viewers, who (after all) want something more than just a game at the end of this. We want to feel that we’re part of something larger, and the guy values our goodwill and enthusiasm as much as our money.