So I think it’s somewhat traditional to do an update after your kickstarter ends reflecting on the experience, so here’s mine. Be warned, this is mostly stream of consciousness rambling. In my case I technically ran 2 kickstarter campaigns in quick succession. I have a bit of a unique experience, I think, as I ended up funding my game from private sources (loans and investments) during the time frame of the KS campaign, but still went on to complete a KS campaign.
How it all went down
I’ve been working on my game, Star Eater, for a while now (Since May). Due to personal circumstances that I won’t go into I ended up deciding to spend at least 4 months of my time to work solely on Star Eater starting September/October 2020. By this point I had invested a substantial amount of my personal savings and art + exposure were becoming important to the projects future. I determined that funding the remainder of the project from an external source such as kickstarter was necessary to proceed.
Kickstarters usually fail, and I was aware that the community which was building around the project was still far too niche to significantly sway my odds of success on the platform. I decided to pursue funding simultaneously from both Kickstarter and private sources (mostly people from my personal life interested in the venture, as well as planning out the variety and volume of loans I was comfortable with taking out to secure the project’s future). To cut a long story short, the kickstarter didn’t come even close to its $20’000 goal, but still proved that people have a serious interest in the product which (I think) allowed me to secure private funding. I then ran a second $1-goal kickstarter(btw, don’t do that, KS does not like low-goal projects which made things very stressful for me) to ensure that everyone who had backed the first KS before it failed could still get the promised pledge rewards.
The First Campaign
I was prepared for the Kickstarter to consume all of my time like the hungry hungry hippos world champion. In fact the whole experience from start to finish was basically exactly as difficult and time consuming as my research online had lead me to believe. Even with that knowledge in hand going in, my experience of having an active Kickstarter campaign was that it is confusing and stressful.
For those who haven’t read up: while your kickstarter campaign is live, you can kiss goodbye to the notion of doing any development on your actual project(unless you’re a company with like…a significant marketing budget and stuff). The general premise works something like this: You need the kickstarter to succeed in order for your project to succeed, so if you have time to work on something extra, it should be funnelled back into working on ensuring the highest rate of success for your kickstarter.
This means that during the kickstarter portion of your project plan, you should be prepared to pivot literally every resource at your disposal to becoming an online marketing machine. In the case of Star Eater, every resource at my disposal is effectively just me.
Every waking moment not occupied by real life obligations was dedicated to interacting with fans and supporters, generating marketing materials, researching marketing techniques, ad space, etc. Negotiating advertising with various blogs and websites, pursuing reviewers to take a look at the game, organising events with local board game stores, etc, and any time left over was spent personally chasing down every friend and family member I had in order to convince them to back my project. Literally every single one of these activities is well outside of my comfort zone, so I basically spent 2 months of my life doing a bunch of stuff that I basically don’t understand at all. All in all I think I learned a lot, but I messed up a lot, too.
What I wasn’t prepared for, and was pleasantly surprised by, was how seriously everyone seems to take you the second your kickstarter is live. Prior to kickstarter, I was very used to people being extremely sceptical of Star Eater whenever it came up. I understand this impulse; to people outside of the industry it may seem like every man, woman and dog has a ‘brilliant idea for a game’, and of those people who muse about one-day making it into a reality, the truth is that very few genuinely pursue it with the gusto required to actually achieve that goal. The second my kickstarter went up, peoples perception of Star Eater seemed to instantly shift. My friends took the product seriously. I had several people who had known about the project for a long time finally spontaneously check it out and start messaging me with their thoughts. I have walked into board game stores, prototype in hand and kickstarter page loaded up on my phone and the store owners have enthusiastically agreed to run preview events and promise to put the game on their shelves when it’s published.
From my perspective, nothing about the project really ‘changed’ when kickstarter went live, but the way people saw the project definitely took a dramatic turn. Anecdotally, Star Eater seem to have gone from being perceived ‘weird little hobby’ to ‘potential start-up business’ in the blink of an eye.
Unfortunately I faltered when it came to capitalising on this perception shift. For instance, I only started going to board game stores several weeks into my first campaign. If I had to do it again, I’d be pursuing those leads on the third day (after the big online advertising push is winding down).
I thought Christmas time would be a good time to run a KS campaign(while everyone is on break), but the problem with that is that all your potential professional contacts are ALSO on break. This made organising advertising harder, it made talking to board game stores harder, and above all it made putting aside my own time to pursue such things around my family obligations harder. I’m not sure if it was a valuable trade-off, in the end. I think perhaps the timing is less important than people give it credit for, I feel as though a February campaign would have been equally successful, and also easier to manage.
Even though my kickstarter failed, we managed to attract 100 backers even with a very minimal marketing budget and tiny community. Anecdotally I’ve heard it said that you can expect approximately 1% of your online community to back your KS. We must have hit something closer to 20-30%. I know the sample size is too small to say anything about the project’s quality, but I think the implication is still clear: not many people saw our KS campaign, but those who did liked what they saw. I believe that this helped demonstrate to my potential investors that the game is a serious product with at least a chance of survival on the open market, which is why I was able to convince them to put money in.
Once I had the funding necessary to proceed, I posted an update informing my backers of the situation and cancelled the kickstarter campaign about 4 days before it’s scheduled conclusion.
The Second Campaign
So I had private funding. But I also had 100 supporters who liked this project and wanted it enough to pledge their hard-earned money before it was even made. Those 100 people were promised a copy of Star Eater for $68. This is not a price that I could afford to sell the game at retail (The $68 price tag relied on us shipping a bunch of games at once to get the bulk rates afforded by a dedicated fulfilment shipping solution. A running theme of selling a niche physical product internationally from Australia is that shipping costs dominate all of your spreadsheets). Some of them were also promised signed copies and other KS exclusive benefits which just wouldn’t make sense in a retail plan. Beyond that, they were willing to take a chance on me and my game, which is something I’m deeply appreciative of and want to demonstrate my gratitude for. I made what I think might be an unorthodox decision here; I elected to run a second campaign with no funding goal almost purely so that these people can get what I promised them in the first campaign. Even though my shipping rates would be much higher with this low volume, I could still afford to do this without *losing* money, even though the amount of budgetary benefit from this second campaign would be minimal at best(I was projecting about a $200-$500 budget increase after shipping was accounted for, assuming that 30-50% of the original backers re-pledged on the new campaign).
Mostly I just felt that if I had gone away with my private funding and returned months later with an $85 retail product it would be akin to pulling the rug out from under the people who had supported the project from the beginning, and that’s not the kind of business I am looking to run.
The second campaign ran for 1 week with effectively zero marketing behind it beyond posting updates on the failed campaign and the other Star Eater community spots (Facebook page, discord, etc).
During that time almost 100% of the backers from the original campaign transferred over to the new one. The 1 week long ‘re-launched’ campaign got more funding than the original 5 week campaign ($7.4k on the new campaign, the old campaign had $7.2k in pledges when I pulled the plug) even though it had 2 fewer backers. This was a better result than I was expecting, and after accounting for shipping and processing fees translates to a budget increase of about $2500, a significant amount to be sure(for reference the entire project budget including art+manufacturing, but excluding my own living expenses while I work full time on it is approximately $15’000).
I want to add a note here that Kickstarter.com did NOT like me doing this. They tried to pull the campaign down for having no funding goal, but I managed to cling on just long enough for the campaign to finish. If you’re curious about all that, check out the update on the campaign here.
Overall the campaign was, in fact, a success, and I think that Star Eater would be in a less good place if it hadn’t happened. That being said, I’m glad it’s over and I can finally get back to doing the part of this project that I truly love: Making the game.
I hope you found my experience enlightening in some way. I tried to edit my writing very minimally in this post to keep it as authentic a representation of my experiences as I can, but this may lead to some confusing turns of phrase or a scattered sense of progression in the topics I’m discussing.