Kickstarting and Screaming

Over the course of April, I have gotten a request to plug someone’s Kickstarter literally every day.  That’s not hyperbole.  Sometimes I get more than one a day.  As of yet, I haven’t plugged a single Kickstarter, and I probably never will.  At the rate I get requests for it, my site, or at minimum my Twitter account, would become a dedicated Kickstarter alert channel.  This has been going on pretty much non-stop since Double Fine Productions asked for $400,000 and received over three million dollars during their Kickstarter.  You can practically see every wannabe indie developer walking around with dollar signs in their eyes since that happened.  Before Double Fine’s, I hadn’t received a single request for one.  Since March, I’ve had over fifty.  Developers also aren’t afraid to hound you by sending you requests several times a week.  In my case, they start getting uppity with me if I don’t immediately tell my readers to spend their hard-earned money towards funding the hobby of someone else for little or no return.

Let’s get something straight here.  You are NOT Double Fine.  They were able to raise money because they have a long, proven track record with the genre they were raising funds for.  You are a person with an idea.  Maybe a good idea, but that doesn’t entitle you to free money to attempt to realize it.  People could confidently give cash to Double Fine, because they know something will come of it.  Meanwhile, there are developers who have a history of abandoning projects before completion who are asking for some shockingly large sums of money.

Having a Kickstarter for an Xbox Live Indie Game seems especially dim to me.  This is a platform where a game is lucky to make $1,000, yet some people ask for ten times that, or more.  And what do they offer back?  XBLIG developers only get 50 tokens to pass out, and they can’t purchase more.  So not everyone will get a copy of the game.  It kind of throws out the whole “Kickstarter as a pre-order outlet” theory I’ve heard a lot of this week.  Then again, who pre-orders a game for $10,000?  Because that’s what some of these developers ask for pledges of.  That’s assuming they can actually program a game while wearing their straight jacket.

Granted, I don't think I could resist pledging for a sequel to LaserCat.

I have viewed a ton of Kickstarters (and some planned ones), and I don’t deny that some people genuinely have the ability to pull off the games they so ambitiously panhandle for.  That’s why I’ve come up with a list of some handy-dandy tips to make your Kickstarter stand out.  No sarcasm here.  These are genuine pointers.

#1 – Have a track record to prove you have the talent needed to make a game.

If you’ve never made a game before, don’t bother with a Kickstarter.  Make a game first.  A good game.  Show us that you’re talented enough and creative enough to see a vision through.  Go through the same ups and downs that any novice developer experiences.  If you have no talent, no amount of money will change your ability to create a good game.  Maybe you’ll find out that developing games is not what you expected it to be and move on to something else.

#2 – Explain why you need the money.

Having a good idea for a game doesn’t entitle you to free money.  People should know exactly what the money is being spent on.  High end work station?  Better programs for graphics?  To pay a sound designer?  People should know.  Don’t be vague about it either.  Account for every single dollar you need, and explain exactly why you need it and why you can’t do it yourself.  Do you need to hire an artist?  Find the artist, get a price quote, then include that person’s portfolio and cost in your Kickstarter.  Generically saying “we need to hire a graphics guy” doesn’t work for me, because whose to say you won’t just keep the money yourself, or give it to a novice who is no more qualified to do it than you or I are?  I want to know who you’re hiring.  I should know.  It’s my money.  When I ask what you need it for, saying “because” is not a good way to win me over.  Which leads me into the next point..

#3 – Prove you have the discipline necessary to use Kickstarter wisely.

When I asked one gentleman why he needed his Kickstarter money, his answer was shocking in its glorious stupidity.  “I need it so I can quit my job and devote all my attention to my game.”  That is an actual answer I have gotten from a developer whose previous experience was a couple non-successful (but critically well-received) games.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a career in independent game development is a long shot at best, so don’t quit your day job.  If you start a Kickstarter so that you can, you’re basically turning yourself into a digital hobo.  Asking people to use money they worked for so that you don’t have to work and can devote all your time to what should be a hobby and nothing else is so incredibly brazen and stupid that I have to chalk it up to some kind of mental illness.  Maybe video games do rot your brain.

I’m not interested in paying you so that you don’t have to work.  If you’re bound and determined to go down this path, my tax dollars will already be footing your bill when your game inevitably busts and you end up on welfare in the coming months.  Ethically speaking, I think giving you a head start on that sends the wrong message.  I want my money to go to someone who has their priorities in life straight.  That generally means someone who makes rational decisions based on their desire to not be on food stamps.

Lack of discipline rears its head in other ways.  When someone opens a Kickstarter, then tweets about their week-long benders and the massive amount of weed they can smoke, I think to myself “so I have to sacrifice my money for you, but you don’t want to sacrifice anything for your own project.”  One person sent me a Kickstarter that was asking for $2,000.  On their Twitter, they talked about a surfboard they had their eye on.  One that costs, you guessed it, $2,000.  Now, I’m not suggesting the person would use the money from their Kickstarter to buy the surfboard.  I’m not saying they wouldn’t either.  What I am saying is the person made it clear, they WOULD be buying the surfboard, yet they wanted an additional $2,000 to fund their other hobby.  So what is getting the priority?  Will you be focusing on the game, the one you’re begging strangers for money so that you can develop it, or the one that benefits nobody but yourself?  If the person had said “I love surfing, but I’ll probably be spending my time this summer finishing my project” I might have taken them more seriously.

#4 – When writing your Kickstarter pitch, at least pretend to give a shit.

I’ve seen Kickstarters where the developer couldn’t bother to do a simple spell check, capitalize words, or use punctuation.  Never mind all the points listed above.  If you can’t even bother to make any effort when asking people for money, why would I think you would make any effort when it comes to the actual development part?  I would assume you’re going to half-ass it, just like you did with your pitch.

#5 – Don’t make your pitch sound like a threat.

One developer who sent me their Kickstarter had made a semi-successful PC game.  They had an idea for another project, but their Kickstarter sounded more like a hostage situation.  It took a pretty snotty tone, something along the lines of “My idea for my next game is blah blah blah, but if I don’t get X amount of dollars, I’m not even going to bother with it.  It’s not worth my time.”  Yea, that makes it sound like you really care about your idea and will make the best effort to do well with it.  I know some game developers pride themselves on being aloof and irreverent, but when you make like you’re holding a knife to the throat of your own concept, I sort of want to tell you to go fuck yourself.  Really, there are thousands of games released every year.  I don’t care if you don’t make your game.  I’ll just play something else.

#6 – Do something original.

This is the final point.  I don’t want to fund something that is a clone of something already out there.  Nor do I want to pay for something that uses RPG Maker or some other lazy game creation tool.  I want something original.  Something weird.  Something one-of-a-kind.  Or especially something risky.  After all, isn’t that why Double Fine had to resort to a Kickstarter?  These are the guys who made Psychonauts and Brutal Legend.  Regardless of whether you liked them or not, they were considered under-performing games, if not outright busts.  So the likelihood of them getting any publisher to stake them on a dead genre like point and click adventures was probably slim to none.

Pictured: the man responsible for me adding the word "Kickstarter" to my spam filter.

I do admire the shit out of Tim Schafer.  I’m not necessarily a fan of his games.  I never even played any of his point and click adventures.  Remember, I’m 22-years-old.  Which doesn’t excuse me for never having played Psychonauts either, but that’s beside the point.  I admire him for being an entrepreneur.  And for Stacking, which was so overlooked.  I also think he needs to tell novice developers that they aren’t him, and to stop with the unnecessary Kickstarters.  For those of you who genuinely have a reason to ask for crowd funding, the six tips above were for you.  For everyone else, before asking for money to create yet another zombie game, put in long hours and work to improve your development skills.  You’ll know you’re ready when your dream project is in fact not another zombie game.

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37 Responses to Kickstarting and Screaming

  1. BrunoB says:

    I don’t really 100% agree with the “don’t quit your job” thing – that’s a leap of faith that could be needed in many cases IMHO – but I’m 1000% with you for everything else. Great post!

  2. couldn’t have written it any better Kairi. Now where’s Laser Cat 2?

  3. Jason says:

    Work should be around 40 hours a week. There are 128 other hours in which to do things.

    If you want to badly enough, you can almost always find the time. But many people aren’t willing to sacrifice.

  4. Starglider says:

    I have had some people suggest that I make a Kickstarter. Why? Because that’s what all the cool indie devs are doing and if I don’t act now I might miss the free money!

    I would not consider Kickstarter without several games published, a solid demo and a credible business plan. While it’s nice to see fans feeling empowered about chosing what games get developed and more devs funded, I think there is a bit of a bubble around it at the moment that will pop if several projects fail to deliver the promised titles.

  5. Paul says:

    “I’m not interested in paying you so that you don’t have to work.”

    Making videogames doesn’t count as work? I’m not sure I agree with that–or the idea that you can’t build a career making indie games. (Probably not XBLIG, specifically, but there HAS to people people who make PC indie games full-time.) The other advice is great, though, particularly #4. I’m not going to trust my money to someone who didn’t even take the time to read over his doc before putting it online.

    • Well there’s a difference between doing something you love or at least want to do versus having to fill out those damn TPS reports every week like the rest of us.

      • Paul says:

        True! But I mean, people get jobs they enjoy, right? A job isn’t by definition something you dislike. For example, I’m a copy editor because I enjoy correcting other people’s mistakes (and because it allows me the free time to work on other projects).

        • JazFusion says:

          Too often it doesn’t work out that way. I take care of the elderly and work nights. I don’t do it because I love it; I do it to pay bills, and to be home for my autistic son. Day care is notoriously expensive, and I am afraid he would not assimilate well in one. You do what you have to do.

        • To reference the movie “Office Space” again, if everyone had their dream job there’d be no one to clean shit up because there’d be no janitors. ;)

    • Kairi Vice says:

      If someone has to do a Kickstarter so that they don’t have to work their regular job, they probably shouldn’t be doing a Kickstarter. Save up your own money for that. Or produce a hit game in your spare time and use the funds for that. If you’ve never produced a commercially viable game, again, you should not quit your job, because you don’t have a career yet. You have a hobby that makes money. A high risk job with no guarantees. I find telling someone “Yea go for it, quit your job. Here, I’ll pay you to do it” as reckless as telling someone to quit their job and devote it to betting on horses at the track.

    • It can count as work, but I think it has to be your work BEFORE you quit your job. If you’re putting 30 hours a week into developing games around your full time job and family etc, and have done this for three or four games’ worth of releases, then quitting your job to go full time seems more reasonable. But begging for money so you can quit work and do something that you’ve never made into more than a hobby risks being self-indulgent.

  6. JazFusion says:

    I think people are perfectly entitled to start a Kickstarter campaign. That doesn’t mean you have to give them money, but they are entitled to try their luck. I’d love to see what can happen with Kickstarter. Obviously Double Fine is a shining example of what Kickstarter can accomplish, and Tim Schaefer is a god among indie developers, but this isn’t his first game. Back in the day there was The Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle, and Full Throttle – all which now have cult followings.

    I think you make some valid points; chiefly, treat your Kickstarter as a business proposal. I don’t necessarily think you need to have a few games under your belt. But, it does need to be professional and believable. Another good piece of advice – pick the right team! Oftentimes a good idea can fail due to bad coding or poor art direction.

    Taking risks is definitely in this business. I think even the big names in this business had their flops. Some even quit their day jobs and threw together their savings to make a game. With the ever increasing costs of making games, I think it’s only fair for indie developers to ask for donations.

    • Kairi Vice says:

      Start ups should not ask for donations. They should probably find out first if they will even like game design. Of the 53 Kickstarter proposals I’ve had e-mailed to me since March 1, seven of them were for people who said they never designed a game, and another four were for people who never had finished a game. Sure, they are perfectly allowed to. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t fucking insane for them to do so.

      These people are hobbyists. I’m not a big fan of paying someone to do their hobby. I would describe more than half of the pitches I’ve been e-mailed as hobbyists, and none of them have a track record that tells me “they have a legitimate shot of making a career in this.” I’m not a huge fan of false encouragement.

      • JazFusion says:

        As stated in the Kickstarter guidelines, “Every Kickstarter project must be fully funded before its time expires or no money changes hands.

        Why?

        1. It’s less risk for everyone. If you need $5,000, it’s tough having $2,000 and a bunch of people expecting you to complete a $5,000 project.

        2. It allows people to test concepts (or conditionally sell stuff) without risk. If you don’t receive the support you want, you’re not compelled to follow through. This is huge!

        3. It motivates. If people want to see a project come to life, they’re going to spread the word.”

        I think point #2 is key. You could have an idea in your head that you want to do. Maybe you can do it, maybe you can’t. If you get the project funded, great! But you have to show something for it. And if you don’t get enough people to fund you, then you start over. Which is where point #3 comes into play. If I saw a promising project (and had money to pledge) I’d do it in a heartbeat; and share the project with others. Whether or not there are 500 Kickstarters that don’t interest me is inconsequential. I won’t be donating my money if *I* do not like and/or believe in the project. Period.

  7. The attitude I’ve been seeing is that if a low quality game on Kickstarter meets it’s goal, other indies see this as a sign that their game stands a chance at funding. Hence the constant e-mails and poorly executed pitches and ideas.

    One part of the problem is that the average backer has no clue what is and isn’t a feasible project. They also have very little idea as to what to expect from indie games. The Ron Paul game is a good example of this I think:

    http://www.somethingawful.com/d/news/ron-paul-kickstarter.php

    There’s a lot more projects like this. Fully backed projects have already failed, faded into oblivion, or will never meet their lofty promises. The other side of the problem, the arrogant, naive, or incompetent dev has everything to gain and nothing to lose with how KS is set up. Every dev is making room for an actual budget on their project now and submitting a KS for it because of that.

    The low quality and failed projects are going to ruin it for those with a plan and a reputation. Except, no developer goes into a game thinking it’s bad or won’t succeed, and it’s been show up until now that many backers are going on blind faith.

  8. J says:

    I think this is mostly excellent advice. There does seem to be a bit of a negative “give it up, you can’t do it” tone to certain parts of this post, but if I had people constantly bugging me to plug crappy Kickstarters I might get a bit jaded too. Regardless, these are all good pointers.

    • Kairi Vice says:

      I don’t think it’s really “give it up.” It’s saying “earn your keep and prove me wrong.” I also try to avoid false encouragement, because in the wrong hands that can ruin a person’s life. Many people do throw their savings and their lives away to invest in things or invent things that are horrible and will never make money, and they do so because people are afraid to say “don’t do it, it’s not a good idea.”

      • J says:

        Fair enough. But it’s a fine line to discourage those who can’t hack it without also discouraging those who could put out good work with a little support. I do understand your point though.

  9. Kairi Vice says:

    The article was running long. I had planned for there to be 7 steps, with one being “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.” This included start-up devs saying they would have their game on platforms like Steam and Xbox Live Arcade, which truly are long shots.

  10. The only part that I do not agree with is this: “Nor do I want to pay for something that uses RPG Maker or some other lazy game creation tool”

    As an game developer, I chose to teach myself to program and create pixel are so that I wouldn’t use any tool like mentioned above. For some though, this is the only avenue they have to start with. I think that unexpected and weird things could be created with RPG Maker. I think it is kind of insulting to say that they are lazy game creation tools just because they take many of the steps out of the process. I don’t think you can really make the argument validly that good creations can’t come from a “lazy” game creation tool. Just because no one has made something great doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible and the tools themselves didn’t choose for “indie’s” to make lazy games with them. To your point, if you are using these tools and starting out, I don’t think you should try and make a kickstarter. I have been hoping that the real world would catch up with some of the fad kickstarter campaigns and that people wouldn’t back them. I do not believe this fad will last very long for that reason.

    While we are all here, I don’t think that anyone should term themselves as an indie until they can ship a title, because by that logic, if I assemble model airplanes on the weekend I could say that I am an indie model airplane assembler. The over usage of the word indie by these kids who haven’t shipped a single title is annoying to say the least. I choose to call myself a game developer because I am developing a game, that has not yet been completed, and I certainly haven’t shipped a title. I wish that there were some cosmic rule prohibiting people from calling themselves an indie until they ship something.

    I am glad that you put this WordPress out into the world, someone needed to say it.

    • Kairi Vice says:

      Fair enough Will. I think my point that I let slip away with the RPG Maker thing was that you already have the tools to make a game, so why are you asking for money? Someone sent me a pitch for a game that used RPG Maker. They wanted $20,000. It’s not like they had to hire a graphics artist or anything if they were just using RPG Maker. It was absurd.

      • CJ says:

        That’s just retarded. Although if someone did make an exceptional project using middleware, they do deserve some funding to help them finish, like an upcoming IndieCity feature pay-to-finish.

      • I disagree vehemently. The tools they choose to use don’t necessarily reduce the quality of the title they’re creating. If they’re serious about it, they’ll need art, music, sound effects, scripting and story, just like any rpg that wasn’t made with rpg maker.

        Of course, their pitch shouldn’t be using stock maker assets, or I’m not going to believe they can deliver. We’ve seen several pitches with stock assets with just a couple of pretty concept sketches beyond that.

        I also don’t care how much they’re asking for, or what they need the money for. As long as they can reach their goal, the only thing that matters to me is if I’m getting value for my money as a backer. I’ve backed 12 projects now, and they’ve all funded so far. (Well, Spriter has 3 days left, but it’s well over the goal.)

        • Kairi Vice says:

          You should do a counter-point to my Kickstarter pitch as a Tales from the Dev Side. But I do ask, do you have a bench-mark set for what makes you want to invest in a game? Do you ask fundamental questions like “Why do they need the money?”

          • I was considering writing a counter argument on my own blog, but I don’t think I have enough to say.

            The big difference is that I don’t think of it as an investment. It’s just a preorder service to me, often at a substantial discount, with lots of bonuses thrown in. (Both Double Fine and Wasteland 2 are throwing in development videos for example.)

            I acknowledge that there’s a risk that they might not complete the project and I’ll lose the money, but I’m not overly worried.

            I never ask what they need the money for. I really don’t care if they’re using it to feed their llama gourmet meals, as long as they keep making awesome stuff for me.

          • Your point is very true, why do they need so much money if they have all the tools. The assets (art, music, levels) have to be generated by people. I think if a person wanted to make it bad enough, they would ask for what they need, as in, I would find out the cost of art as commissioned by someone and ask for just that. In their case, I would not be ashamed to use placeholder art or some of the royalty free stuff until I got the project far along enough to make it make sense to others. I would ask for money at that point.

            Imagine the response they could get if they dropped a demo of a nearly complete game that just needed real art? I bet they would get better responses. I do think the $ are distracting the hobbyists to the point that kickstarter is the sole motivation to fullfil that desire to have money. There are enough resources out in the wild now that I believe that anyone can make it without kickstarter if they want to.

    • Starglider says:

      RPGMaker goes way beyond middleware such as Sunburn and Unity. It imposes significant constraints and conventions on the gameplay and overall experience. If you use it you are giving up the ability to do most game mechanic innovation, e.g. you can’t radically reinvent the combat experience the way Sequence did. As such if you’re asking for thousands of dollars, I expect to see extra innovation elsewhere (story, setting) to make up for it.

  11. One of the best Kickstarter pitches I’ve seen (and the only one I’ve been tempted to donate to) was for a new Shadowrun RPG. By the time I saw it they’d already met their goal, but they impressed me with what came next. They said “The game is going to be made now, but since you guys are still donating to us, if we reach xx dollars, we’ll be able to add this feature. With xx dollars, we can port the whole thing to Mac and Linux. With xx dollars…” and so on.

    If I wanted to donate, I knew exactly what I would be contributing to, and I could decide for myself whether I thought a larger world map or a co-op mode was something I’d be interested in helping to pay for.

    • UnSubject says:

      The cynic in me sees that kind of offer as a form of feature creep. Especially if they are unable to achieve those extra features on the money raised.

      A lot of the Kickstarter projects are heavily depending on the developers getting their budget estimates right. A large part of the reason publishers exist is because numerous game developers don’t get their budget and time estimates correct.

  12. There are many things I’d like to rebut here, but it’s late so I’ll choose just one for now.

    “XBLIG developers only get 50 tokens to pass out, and they can’t purchase more. So not everyone will get a copy of the game. It kind of throws out the whole “Kickstarter as a pre-order outlet” theory I’ve heard a lot of this week.”

    I was one person who told you this and I stand by it. One of the great things about XNA is you can build your game for PC with basically the same code as XBLIG. You can still offer a pre-order of the PC version of your game to as many donors as you get. XBLIG developers need to diversify their revenue streams if we want to see better games on the channel, and this is one way to do it.

    I enjoyed the column by the way, I just think you are fixating on the poorly planned Kickstarters instead of looking at the profound resource crowd funding can be for indie games.

    • Jim Perry says:

      “I just think you are fixating on the poorly planned Kickstarters instead of looking at the profound resource crowd funding can be for indie games.”

      I would say the reason she’s fixating on the bad ones is that there are so many more of them than good ones. With one success everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon thinking they can get just as much donated to their game when no one knows who they are and have nothing to show that they can actually deliver. Those people need a reality check.

  13. There are definitely more bad Kickstarters then good ones, but I would suggest that same conclusion could be made about videogames in general. I’m also certain Kairi got a disproportionate sample of the bad ones if she is just looking at those that solicited her for coverage. Anyone who is familiar with this site should know IGC is not going to spend time promoting XBLIG Kickstarters, that’s not what this site is about. There is no ‘Kickstarters in Due Time’ feature here last I checked. A Kickstarter that pleads for a plug here is clearly one that did not research the site very well, and we can assume the other aspects of the campaign were similarly poorly organized.

    We had a Kickstarter going over the last month (and I won’t even claim it to be one of the ‘good ones’), and although we sent out many press releases and personal notes to people in the media, we tried to target the right places. We didn’t send anything to IGC because we would have been asking to be blasted, as was (fairly) done to so many in the column above.

  14. Pingback: Kickstarter: i 6 consigli dell’Indie Gamer Chick – Indie Vault

  15. Pingback: Jumping the Kickstarter-Gun « Indie Gamer Chick

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