ChickStarter – Episode 1: A Rewarding Experience

Welcome to ChickStarter: Indie Gamer Chick’s advice column on making your crowd funding pitches better.  Successfully securing a pledge will require a promising game and a good pitch.  I can’t help you with the game.  That’s up to you.  But taking pitches is something I have a ton of experience with.  ChickStarter is about refining your pitches, not critiquing the games being pitched. 

You Forgot to Carry the One

You’re a game developer and you’re in need of funding.  You turn to Kickstarter. You’re seeking $10,000.  You’ve also recently spent several hours huffing paint fumes and stabbing your brain with a cotton swab because the total cost of the absurd rewards you’ve picked (everything ranging from t-shirts to a personalized stool sample complete with certificate of authenticity) is going to cost you well over 10% of the money you bring in.  You also forgot that Amazon and Kickstarter will combine to take 10% off the top already.  Also, funds received through Kickstarter are considered a form of income and subject to income tax, which you could end up on the hook for and might have to pay at some point.

Suddenly, that limited edition art book that will cost you $60 off a $100 pledge looks mighty stupid.  And, just so we’re clear, IT WAS!

Look, perspective Kickstarter starter, sit down and let’s have a quick talk.  I know you’re anxious to get up and running and watch those pledges come in, like some kind of demented, less charitable, game-playing Jerry Lewis, but you’re going about it wrong.  People are coming to your Kickstarter trying to create a game, not purchase premium items they may or may not get (many rewards never come through) for a game that may or may not ever come out.  The primary concern of a pledger is helping to assure a game that looks interesting to them comes out.  They don’t require art books or hoodies or a private party with you to be enticed into making it.  They just want assurance that you’ll deliver the game and not fuck about with other distractions.  What’s ironic is, having expensive, overly-complicated rewards suggests that you will do just that.

People will pledge based on the potential of your game and the likelihood you can finish your project as stated in your pitch.  The more costly and impractical the rewards you pile on, the less likely a consumer will view that as happening.

King Voxel probably won't reach its goal, possibly on account of looking like yet another 3D Dot Heroes game. I think it looks just fine. More importantly, the rewards are all completely plausible in-game stuff. Well, besides a giant LEGO figure for the top tier. Sure, it's already built and the developer just has to eat the shipping cost, but still, lame.

King Voxel probably won’t reach its goal, possibly on account of looking like yet another 3D Dot Heroes game. I think it looks just fine. More importantly, the rewards are all completely plausible in-game stuff. Well, besides a giant LEGO figure for the top tier. Sure, it’s already built and the developer just has to eat the shipping cost, but still, lame.  Click the image to check out the full pitch.

Giving Away the Orchard to Sell a Few Apples

The above example of the art book costing $60, which came from a pledge of $100?  I didn’t pull it out of thin air.  In fact, I’m pretty friendly with the developer who did it.  He shared it with me on the condition that I wouldn’t reveal his name and make fun of him.  But while I admit that I broke half of our agreement, I will give him at least enough credit that he wasn’t totally at fault.  He got some bad price quotes and didn’t do his due diligence.  He also didn’t take into account the classic and true saying all businesses taking on start-up costs fail to account for: shit happens.  In this case, it took a couple attempts to print that damn thing right, and they had to swallow the cost of each printing fuck-up.

So, if you insist on having physical rewards, your first step should be to get an exact cost of those rewards.  Do your due diligence.  Shop around.  Get quotes.  Take bids.  Don’t be afraid to ask for samples.  Find out if you’re on the hook for misprintings or bad runs.  Once you have an actual cost, make sure you’re squeezing the maximum value of those items by placing them in tiers that generate a high multiple of the actual cost of the item.  It makes no sense to have reward #1 be $10 netting a free copy of the game (at a cost of $1 to you after the royalty), then having reward #2 be a copy of the game and a tee-shirt if the shirt costs $17 to manufacture and ship, netting you a grand total of $3.  And that’s before Kickstarter’s royalty and tax liabilities.

You have to quit looking at the rewards as an item you’re selling.  You’re asking for donations, and segmenting cool treats, but not products, to higher bidders.  So save those physical rewards for higher tiers.  A tee-shirt should probably be reserved for the $50 range.  An art book that will cost you $20 to make and produce should be in the $100 or over range.  But before making physical items, ask yourself what exactly you need from Kickstarter.  If you tally up the exact cost to be $10,000, you need to factor in the royalty you owe Kickstarter and the cost of any physical items you wish to include to bring people in.  Then, you need to ask yourself if the risk of having those physical rewards potentially putting your goal out of reach is worth it.  Maybe it’s not.

Oh, and don’t purchase the rewards ahead of time.  They should all be made-to-order.  It’s going to be humiliating enough when nobody funds your game about cybernetic chickens busting crack dens on the wrong side of the tracks.  It will only sting worse if you’re sitting on a pile of hundreds of unwanted “Clucking Crack Crusaders” shirts that even the fucking homeless shelter won’t take off you.

It’s in the Game

As a game developer, you have a unique advantage over some other companies that use crowd funding: your most attractive rewards can cost you nothing.  Rewards can come in the form of including the donor as an NPC in the game.  Or a boss.  Or an alternate skin.  Or just in the background, as a statue, a painting, or unseen as townspeople gossip.  And, of course, the reward most people who frequent Kickstarter are looking for is simply a copy of the game when it’s finished.  It adds up quickly.  Let’s say you’re making an RPG.  You could segment the rewards as follows.

Tier One: $10 for a copy of the game upon completion.  Potential raised: $5,000 if you get 500 pledges at this level.

Tier Two: $20 for a copy of the game and early access (possibly in the form of a beta).  Potential raised: $4,000 if you get 200 pledges at this level.

Tier Three: $50 Appearance in the game as a town-person.  Limit: 50.  Potential raised: $2,500

Tier Four: $100 Appearance in the game as a hero or companion. Limit: 10. Potential raised: $1,000.

Tier Five: $250 Appearance in the game as a major plot point, boss character, or central figure.  Limit: 4.  Potential raised: $1,000.

Total raised: $13,500, which is about $12,150 after Kickstarter’s royalty.

If you set a goal of $5,000 for your project, the types of people attracted to Kickstarter would probably be more receptive to those kind of rewards.  If your game looks promising enough, you should be able to raise the money without spending a dime.  Also, in the event that your Kickstarter is a modest ask, somewhere in the $25,000 range, physical rewards probably should never enter into the discussion.

 Tales of Descent also doesn't look like it will reach its goal, though I've heard from friends and readers that might be because the demo was underwhelming at best. Still, I appreciated the realistic rewards, all of which come at no cost to the developer. Though really, development streams are the types of things anyone should have access to when promoting your game. They shouldn't be held for ransom when they're promotional in nature. Click the image for the full pitch.

Tales of Descent also doesn’t look like it will reach its goal, though I’ve heard from friends and readers that might be because the demo was underwhelming at best. Still, I appreciated the realistic rewards, all of which come at no cost to the developer. Though really, development streams are the types of things anyone should have access to when promoting your game. They shouldn’t be held for ransom when they’re promotional in nature. Click the image for the full pitch.

Now You’re Just Being Silly

Sometimes, rewards are just so absurd that you can’t help but laugh.  A common one is the meet and greet with the developer.  Now, if you’re someone with name-recognition, that might mean something.  If your previous release sold three-hundred copies on Desura, asking for $10,000 to hang out with you is narcissistic and delusional.  Even if you had “name value” in the form of a modest Steam hit, I don’t think I would want to hang out with anyone who thinks their mere presence alone is worth a few thousand dollars.  They would probably be kind of douchey, don’t you think?  This is yet another thing we get to thank Tim Schafer for, because he got $40,000 from four pledgers at 10K a pop to have lunch with him.  That worked for him, because he’s Tim fucking Schafer.  You’re someone whose game reached #358 on the Xbox Live Indie Games top-selling chart.  You would be lucky to have someone eat lunch with you and pick up the check, let alone get $10,000, or $1,000, or even $100.  If the reward involves anyone flying out to meet you, save it.  I don’t know who you are, but I assure you, you’re not worth it.

This also applies to developer lessons, Skype calls, personalized phone messages, or anything that involves what you perceive to be your own star power.  Is there really any game developer, great or small, that’s recognizable just by their voice?  If Shigeru Miyamoto left a message on my phone that he was going to disembowel me with a urine-soaked samurai sword, I wouldn’t know it was him!  But even if I did, very few people I know would appreciate that I just got a threat from the master himself.  If I have to explain to them who the person is, it’s really not that big a deal.  So while motion picture related pitches can get away with having a star create a custom message for you, you’re not a movie star.  You’re not even a game development star.  You’re an indie.  Seriously, what are you doing?

Here's an example. Really good looking game, truly. But I haven't heard of DIGITLUS. Why are they worth $10,000? Unless the meet-up with them involves mountains of cocaine and the world's most flexible prostitutes, I seriously doubt anyone will get $10,000 worth of entertainment out of it.  Click the image for the full pitch.

Here’s an example. Really good-looking game, truly. But I haven’t heard of DIGITLUS. Why are they worth $10,000? Unless the meet-up with them involves mountains of cocaine and the world’s most flexible prostitutes, I seriously doubt anyone will get $10,000 worth of entertainment out of it. Click the image for the full pitch.

It Doesn’t Have to End with Kickstarter

One thing about funding anyone, whether it’s though a crowd-funding or venture capital, is that the person receiving the money always ends up needing more than they think they do.  That’s why you end up seeing people with successful campaigns go back for seconds.  This only serves to shake the confidence of those that already backed you and give you the appearance that you can’t manage money.  Your initial pitch should probably ask for 1.3x what you need, and that’s BEFORE factoring in tax liability and Kickstarter’s royalty.  If you earn more than you ask for, don’t think about stretch goals.  Put that money aside, because shit will come up, and you’ll want to have that money handy when your best laid schemes go astray.

But, funding doesn’t have to begin and end with Kickstarter.  If you included physical rewards as part of your campaign, there’s no reason why you can’t have those physical rewards be sold separately on the side to earn you a little extra cash for your project.  Take tee-shirts.  The margin that you get for each shirt sold, we’ll round off and say is $10.  So why not go through a shirt-person and keep the availability of those shirts going long after your project ends?  Sell ten shirts, get $100, potentially pay off a professional artist for one more day of work.  You can increase your margins and make the shirts more attractive by bundling a copy of the game with them.  For most shirt people, all you have to do is provide them the art work and they’ll handle the rest, including the shipping.  For Indie Gamer Chick, I’m going through a gentlemen named Wally Hawk, who will handle the orders as they come in and donate my cut of the shirts to the Epilepsy Foundation for me.  I don’t have to lift a finger.  All you have to do is promote your own website, and link to it somewhere on there.  Drop the link occasionally on social media, noting that all your proceeds from the shirt will be funneled directly into the game.  It couldn’t be simpler.

Rewards Won’t Make You

Ultimately, rewards will not make you.  They might break you, if they’re lame or egotistically overpriced.  But, really, whether or not your game gets funding will probably come down to the potential of your project, the price of your ask, and properly articulating why the game can’t happen without funding.  I picked rewards to kick-off Chickstarter because it’s where I see the entrepreneurial tendencies of indie game developers to do a face-plant most often.  Where you show your naivety.  You guys typically aren’t businessmen, but sometimes you have to think like one.  Structure them in a realistic, plausible, producible way.  The ultimate litmus test is this: will any of the rewards you plan on offering make you second guess whether you can deliver them?  If the answer is yes, even for a split-second, you shouldn’t have them.

Special thanks to Jesse Chounard for being my Kickstarter guru, and to

Jumping the Kickstarter-Gun

Chick SpeaksKickstarter is not venture capital.  It’s not angel investing.  Pledgers are not looking for a monetary return on their investment.  I do understand this.  And yet, I’m still not a supporter of Kickstarter, because I think it sends the wrong message to potential developers: money is easy to come by.  I believe it’s irresponsible to teach young entrepreneurs that money should be given to them based on a concept and raw enthusiasm.  Funding should only be given on the grounds of actual ability, a proven track record of completed, competent projects, and the willingness to personally sacrifice for the benefit of your project.  It’s shocking to me how people fund games from people who meet none of that criteria.  I’m even more shocked when a developer reaches their Kickstarter goal, gets the money, and within weeks has another ask posted for even more funding.. and gets it.

I’ve already offered advice to would-be developers who wish to use Kickstarter to fund their projects.  I’m not against the idea of start-up developers seeking funding, and I have no problem with an established developer (indie or otherwise) using Kickstarter.  But I’ve also made it pretty clear that my blog doesn’t exist to plug Kickstarters.  In April of last year, shortly after Double Fine’s then record-breaking Kickstarter got huge publicity, I received over fifty requests to pledge and plug the Kickstarters from developers of all skills and backgrounds.  It got to the point where I added “Kickstarter” to my spam filter.  It doesn’t always work.  Last week, someone with no history in game design at all who read my blog sent me a request asking me to look at their concept art.  They beat my spam filter by spelling Kickstarter “I < ickstarter.”  The ask was in the five-figure range.  Grotesquely appalling to say the least.

I do not want to discourage dreamers from attempting to create their own games.  Far from it.  I encourage everyone who’s ever considered making a game of their own to give it a shot.  But there’s many options to make your games without spending thousands of dollars of other people’s money to do so.  Xbox Live Indie Games, for example.  For $100, give or take, you not only get the tools needed to develop a game, but you’re guaranteed to have your game be available commercially on the Xbox Live Marketplace.  Well not 100% guaranteed.  There are rules against games with sexual, racist, drug, or Nazi themes to them.  So if your dream game was “Smoke a Blunt with that Homo Kraut Hitler” you’re shit out of luck.

More importantly: if you decide game development isn’t for you, or if you run out of time to do it, or any of the hundreds of things that could possibly go wrong, you’re only out $100 and nobody else is out anything.  I went back to look and see what progress has been made on some of those fifty Kickstarters I got requests for back in April.  Of the seven I checked that got their funding (amounts between $600 and $3,500), exactly zero actually put the games out.  Three of the seven blogs haven’t updated in months, and one other no longer has a website.  One of the developers that hasn’t updated in months also had a second Kickstarter that didn’t meet its goal.  I’m not saying those projects will never come out, but I wouldn’t bet on it.  Sadly, many people did bet on it.

The game that started the Kickstarter plague. I'm actually excited to play it, even if my spam inbox is quite bloated from it.  I legitmately have more Kickstarter pitches in it currently than offers for boner pills or Nigerian princes.

The game that started the Kickstarter plague. I’m actually excited to play it, even if my spam inbox is quite bloated from it. I legitimately have more Kickstarter pitches in it currently than offers for boner pills or Nigerian princes.

Besides the things I noted in my previous Kickstarter piece, there are lots of things that people do wrong.  It’s stuff you also see in legitimate investing too.  Like promising stuff you can’t really promise.  I’ve taken pitches from software developers who believe if they receive funding, they will get a contract from a company to adapt their software.  As if the mere presence of a backer will push them through regardless of the quality of the final product.  The old “it’s about who you know” adage that isn’t as true as most people believe.  Obviously things don’t work that way.  If it were true, there would be no room for start-ups in this world.  For start-ups, it’s almost always about the talent on display and the quality of the product.

The Kickstarter version of that is games from start-ups who say they are aiming for, or outright guarantee, a release on platforms like Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, or Steam.  All those platforms are pretty exclusive and extremely difficult to get listings on.  A pitcher can no more promise that than a theologian can claim to prove the existence of God.  It’s okay to aim high, but be realistic about it.  Your chances of getting listed on a platform like XBLA is slim to none.

Another common problem is having a pitcher use their attempt at receiving funding to prove if there’s interest in a product.  The idea being that if someone is willing to invest money in something, obviously it’s a good idea and will catch on, sell well, and make all involved wealthy.  On the flip side, if nobody bites, obviously there’s not interest in it and it’s not something worth doing.  For some businesses, this is actually valid.  Some.  Not all.  For gaming, I don’t believe it is, and here’s why: not every concept sounds like a winner on paper.  I would think a game like Shadow of the Colossus would be a tough sell on most consumers, at least on the drawing board stage.  On the other hand, a game like NeverDead sounds fun and quirky on paper, looks good from screenshots, and seems downright fun when you watch the trailer for it.  The game itself was an unplayable piece of shit.  If I had taken a pitch for Shadow of the Colossus, I would have passed.  An experimental game formula, from a developer with a history of production delays and heavy employment turnover, whose only previous title underperformed in sales?  It would have been an easy pass.

A large-scale developer, like Double Fine, can legitimately use Kickstarter to find out if there’s interest a game.  They did, there was, and they’re making it.  But a small-time indie developer?  If I heard from one of them that they were only interested in making a game if people pledged money, I would assume they don’t have the type of passion I require to invest in someone.  Indies should make the games they want to play, not the games others want to play.  As much as I bust on punishers (as I will in my next review), if that’s where someone’s passion lies, that is what they should be developing.  Period.  End of story.

Here’s a question that is almost never asked, but it really ought to be: “have you ever had this much money?”  It’s a question that can appear to be condescending or invasive, but it’s actually a very important question to ask to anyone seeking any form of investment.  Does this person have the ability to manage money wisely?  Money spends quickly.  Typically it’s a lot quicker than anyone asking for funding realizes.  When a person receives the payment, it feels so large at first, like it will never run out.  Before you know it, it’s gone, and you haven’t accomplished any of the goals the money was obtained for.  Given the amount of developers who post additional asks, it shows that a lot of them aren’t good with money.

In my previous Kickstarter piece, I said that pitchers should get price quotes and state exactly what the money is being spent on.  Believe it or not, this point was the most contested of the entire feature.  But the reason I included it is because not having those quotes can come back to bite you in the ass.  Let’s say you ask for $10,000, with 25% of that being put towards hiring an artist.  You get a rough quote from the artist before the Kickstarter for $2,500, so you think you’re set.  But once you have the money and you sit down to hire them, they find out the project requires much more time, and thus their fee goes up.  You shop around and find similar prices from other talented artists.  Now you’re forced into either paying a talented artist more, or hiring an inferior artist, which goes against the principle of the pitch you used to get the funding in the first place.  Most start-ups are horrified to discover how little they get for what seems like an extravagant amount of money.  Small-time game developers are no different.

Star Trek

This is a great example of using Kickstarter right. The guys behind The Pinball Arcade asked for exactly what they needed to acquire the license for Twilight Zone and Star Trek: The Next Generation. The rewards they offered were good rewards. Most importantly, they had a track record of making very good conversions of classic pinball machines. Follow their lead.

If you’ve never made a game before, don’t use Kickstarter.  Visualizing a game, drawing concept art, and planning it out are the easy parts.  Once you receive funding, you actually have to make the game.  It’s a slow, tedious process that is anything but smooth.  Even if you have artistic gifts, making a game that looks good is complex.  Making the game play well is even tougher.  Assuming you don’t just want to rush the game out, having a game that is playable and fun requires fine tuning, concessions on your vision, and many hours of frustration.  Almost any independent developer will tell you that their final products never come out exactly how they planned.  Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.  Others get so discouraged by the whole process that they quit.  Why do you think so many people start games that they never finish.  I promise you one thing: for most, it’s not because they run out of money.

Finish a project.  Finish multiple projects.  Learn to compromise.  Learn to take feedback.  More importantly, find out what you are capable of doing as a developer.  Find your strengths and your weaknesses.  And finally, be ready to admit if you don’t have the level of talent that someone asking for donations from strangers should have.  Not everyone has the talent to make a good game.  No amount of money will change that.  You either have talent or you don’t, and this isn’t one of those deals where you can inject talent to get ahead.

And for God’s sake, don’t open a Kickstarter with the intent of using it to quit your job to develop games.  People who have never attempted to make a game do this.  There’s no nice way of saying it: if you try that, you are a jumbo-sized stupid fucking moron.  It would be like someone who has never picked up a golf club deciding to leave their job to join the PGA tour.  You wouldn’t give them money.  You would call for the nice guys with the straight jackets to come take him to the, ahem, country club.

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