I recently successfully ran Kickstarter and Greenlight campaigns for my in-development game Scraps, as an unknown games creator without a prior following. I’m a solo developer and I ran everything myself.
I can’t tell you how to raise massive amounts like Night In The Woods or Hyper Light Drifter have, but maybe I can give a bit of insight into how I raised a modest amount and got Greenlit on Steam at the same time. Yes, there was a lot of work involved and yes, there was still a fair amount of luck involved as well.
The Scraps Kickstarter ran for 25 days from the 23rd of November until the 18th of December 2013. The goal of $23,000NZD was reached, with $29,639NZD (around $24,000USD) total raised.
After dropped pledges (people whose cards were declined: $671), Kickstarter’s fees (5%: $1,448.40) and payment processing fees (3-5%: $1,048.93) were accounted for, the amount paid out before tax was $26,470.67NZD.
After the Kickstarter met its goal on day 20, I also put up a PayPal option for those who wanted to donate but couldn’t do it via Kickstarter. I was surprised by how popular this was actually – about $600NZD came in via PayPal in the remaining time. If a Kickstarter doesn’t reach its goal, it fails and the creator gets nothing, hence I waited until the goal was passed before putting up an alternate option. Technically people should only have used the PayPal option if they couldn’t use Kickstarter, but I wasn’t keen to take that chance.
This post is in New Zealand dollars since Kickstarter, Kicktraq etc all like to show data in local currency. $1NZD is currently worth about $0.80USD, so for a general conversion you can multiply by 0.8.
Although I’ve worked in software for a while, I’ve only released one complete game of my own in the past: The simple platform jumping, music generating game Skylight. I made Skylight mainly as a learning experience to get to grips with Unity, and never really marketed it. It’s only made a few hundred dollars in its lifetime and no-one was really following me because of it.
I made an attempt to build up a community for Scraps right from the start. People often ask whether giving so much away so early creates a risk of the idea being stolen. The risk of obscurity is much worse.
The smaller your marketing budget is, the earlier you need to start getting your game seen, because that slow community build-up has to replace the short fast one you might be able to create with paid marketing. Especially if you’re an unknown dev like me.
Additionally, games are rarely copied before they’re already established and successful. A bigger risk might be that people will lose interest in a game that they heard about long before release – worse when the games themselves end up seemingly stuck in Alpha or Beta forever. I don’t have any hard stats on creating a balance there, but don’t be afraid to show your creations early.
Before the Scraps Kickstarter I:
- Created scrapsgame.com as a central point of information about the game
- Created a Twitter account for myself, @_Nition (@Nition is a defunct design company that never deleted their account. I hate them)
- Reworked the Moment Studio Facebook page to be focused on Scraps
- Created DevLog threads on TIGSource, the Unity Forums and later the SomethingAwful Forums
- Created an IndieDB page and cross-posted updates there
- Created a subreddit on Reddit and cross-posted updates there
- Created a page on Steam Greenlight Concepts – a separate section of Greenlight for games early in development – and cross-posted updates there
- Completed and released the “builder demo” for free, where you can try out building and testing vehicles with the current early version of the game
- Worked on the game full-time for a year!
I also made a few posts to relevant places, while trying not to spam anything too much.
So how much did those actually help the Kickstarter specifically?
1. Scrapsgame.com is really useful as a central source of information and a lot of traffic headed there from news articles etc, and was funnelled through to the Kickstarter. Obviously, make sure your Kickstarter link is prominent on your game site.
2. I don’t use Twitter enough for it to be really useful. I also don’t like spamming too much, and people sometimes follow so many people that you’d have to be constantly spamming them for your message to be seen. Then there’s that thing where everyone following a game dev seems to be other game devs, all of them in a separate ecosystem to the real customers. No pledges came directly from Twitter for me, but others with big Twitter followings have had a lot more success – even having links from Twitter as a major source of their pledges. Use #gamedev and especially #screenshotsaturday hashtags when appropriate, as people really do seem to follow them.
3. A fair amount of pledges came from Facebook ($670NZD) but I can’t tell how many came from the Scraps page itself, as it was also posted on other pages. Probably not a huge amount from the Scraps page, but the benefit of Facebook (and Twitter for that matter) is more the continued audience engagement. People can follow those pages as a simple way to keep up with development, since I cross-post news from the site there. Same as if they follow the RSS feed.
4. The SomethingAwful forums contributed a significant amount to the project ($850NZD), but that was largely from the nice people in the Making Games Megathread rather than my project log thread which is hidden away. Zero funds came directly from TIGSource or the Unity Forums. It takes a lot of effort to keep up a good DevLog, but while it doesn’t seem good for funding, you’ll want to be on a forum somewhere to get outside feedback on what you’re doing. Also, it’s still helped to build a community and it’s worth noting that not all contributors come directly from links on other sites. 23% of the Kickstarter’s funds came via direct traffic or through Google, and all those had to find out about the game somewhere. Plus, zero funds from somewhere doesn’t mean zero traffic!
5. Zero funds came directly from IndieDB, so I’m not sure maintaining a page there has been worth it. However, when you do a decent news post (it must include at least one image!) they’ll put it on the front page, which usually guarantees a few hundred views to your game’s page.
6. The Scraps subreddit is very small, and was even smaller before the Kickstarter ran, so I doubt any of the traffic from Reddit came directly from there. It’s intended as just another method for people to keep up with development, as well as post cool stuff they’ve made or talk about the game. I also created a Scraps forum as the main location for that stuff, which is a bit busier (especially since the Kickstarter).
7. I think links from the Steam app count as direct traffic ($176NZD also came from steamcommunity.com), so it’s hard to see what effect Steam had. I also abandoned the Greenlight Concepts page once I created the entry in the main Greenlight section, which was when the Kickstarter started. However, Scraps did very well in Greenlight (more on that later), and I suspect a decent amount of traffic came from there.
8. The free builder demo will continue to be updated and serve as a demo for the main game. It’s the building and testing component without the actual game modes. But another reason for releasing this so early is that I hoped people might start posting their creations on forums, YouTube etc. To some extent this has been a success, and some amazing stuff has already appeared. The demo has also given me the ability to see how people play the game and adjust its direction accordingly.
9. If you don’t have successful prior work to show, you must have a decent-looking game to show in your Kickstarter! Otherwise why should anyone trust you? Some people say you should have a demo available (so people trust you more and get a feel for the game) and some say you shouldn’t (because people will see the game as it is then, not as it will be), but you must at least have a decent-looking working concept.
Here’s the full data. Daily pledge statistics from Kicktraq:
Note that the first and final days above are only partial days. “Av” = average pledge amount. The Joystiq one is super high because of the $1000 pledge.
Now source stats from Kickstarter (click for full-size):
I wish I could see stats on where the big traffic comes from on the really successful video game Kickstarters. If anyone knows of a big one (like $100,000+) that did a full postmortem like this, I’d love to be pointed to it. I haven’t seen much from anything bigger than Scraps.
Because the big numbers don’t even come from the big sites. I know: I was on the big sites, and the numbers aren’t huge. My guess is that there must be a critical mass somewhere where things become almost self-sustaining; where everyone’s seeing the game so much that they’re deciding that they better check it out or report on it too. Where the huge sites are seeing all the big sites reporting on it and joining in. Not that I think success comes just from getting onto The Biggest Sites™; it probably comes from being on all the sites. And YouTube channels, and forums, and streams.
But I don’t really know, which is why I’d love to see the real data.
Internal vs. external
71% of Scraps’ pledges came from external sources. The remaining 29% came from Kickstarter itself. That’s a lot, like eight and a half thousand dollars. I was lucky enough to get into the Staff Picks section a couple of times, but only $425 is specifically from that. Some more of it is from cross-promotion with other projects, but the majority is simply from people browsing the site.
Kickstarter is big. Sorry PledgeMe, I’d like to support the locals, but the fact is if you can get on Kickstarter for your project, use Kickstarter. If you use IndieGogo, if you host your project on your own site, you’re potentially missing out on 30% more funding.
Family and friends vs. existing user base vs. strangers
You can look at any Kickstarter project on Kicktraq. Just replace the “kickstarter” part of the URL with “kicktraq” (or search on Kicktraq directly). You cant’ see where the funding came from, but you can see when it came in.
What you’ll find is that a lot of projects get the majority of their funding in the first few days, sometimes on the first day. This is usually either from friends and family or from an existing user-base. Without those, many projects would be a lot less successful; quite a few that made more money than Scraps were bringing in money a lot less consistently than I was.
Scraps had very little existing user base to contact and a lower percentage coming from friends and family than many projects seem to have. One of the $1000 donations was from family, but one was from a stranger.
Just be aware that some projects getting funded have had a significant portion of their backing come from existing support rather than necessarily from capturing the hearts of the masses.
News media vs. social media vs. streamers and Let’s Players
For Scraps, I worked really hard on getting into the gaming news media (more on this later). In the end it did pretty well in that area. However, many people seem to really overestimate the benefit of getting on gaming sites.
Imagine you get an article on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Some people think you that if you get there you’ve really made it. In reality an article on RPS might send your site a thousand hits. Of that, maybe 2% actually buy your game. Maybe you spent a year making your game, and you’re selling it for $15. Now your game’s made $300. That’s just about enough money to pay for your time spent replying to the people telling you that your game’s too expensive.
News media is still a big deal though, and was a very large part of Scraps getting funded. I’m really thankful to all the press that featured Scraps. Gameplanet.co.nz featured Scraps three times (once as an interview). RPS is insanely good with featuring totally unknown games if they think they look interesting; they even featured my previous game Skylight.
It’s hard to say exactly how much traffic was the result of Twitter, Facebook, forums etc. It’s definitely worth doing, and you can probably do better than me if you’re not averse to being a horrible spammer. I avoided posting on forums I didn’t already frequent for instance.
Reddit can be really good for getting seen, but it’s also a fickle creature. A significant part of my support came from a few successful Reddit posts. Their spam policy is fairly strict, although it depends which subreddit you’re posting to, and some people get away with a lot while others seem to get banned right away. In general, posting your own stuff is fine, but you shouldn’t post unless you have an active account already where you actively post and comment on other things. Each subreddit will also have its own rules on the right. Some options:
- /r/indiegaming (47,000 subscribers right now) is very open to indie devs posting their stuff and generally anything goes. IndieGaming likes: Interesting images or videos of people’s own games.
- /r/gaming (4.3 million subscribers) is a wasteland. It’s probably not worth the attempt, though I managed to get somewhere (not to the front page, but somewhere) by creating a silly animated gif specifically to cater to the demographic. Gaming likes: Humour based on games everyone already knows.
- /r/games (416,000 subscribers) is like /r/gaming for adults. Games likes: Informative, non-spammy posts.
- /r/gamedev (78,000 subscribers) is for content related to game development. If you can get your comment in fast, and I mean fast, in their weekly Feedback Friday or Screenshot Saturday posts, you can get a decent amount of exposure. Check out old posts for the general format and have your game’s comment typed up and ready beforehand (and make sure it’s interesting!). Of course you can also post directly to the subreddit if you have something good to post. GameDev likes: Stuff that helps out the average developer.
Do try not to rely on Reddit, as there’s a fair amount of luck involved in whether your post does well. Subs with less subscribers tend to reduce the luck component (relying instead on actual appealing content), but also reduce the reward from doing well. At one point I posted to /r/games and my post was doing really well, flying up the page, then suddenly it disappeared. I asked the mods and apparently my post was so awesome, they thought I was manipulating votes and deleted it.
It looks like Let’s Players on YouTube and streamers on Twitch.tv et al might be becoming the big thing for indie marketing. I largely targeted traditional news sites for the Scraps Kickstarter but there are YouTube and Twitch channels out there with massive audiences that dwarf most traditional sites, and they have higher potential for virality. Unfortunately I can’t tell you how to get those people to play your game; I’ve had some small YouTubers play Scraps and enjoy it, but I haven’t got any response from larger channels. Having a great game is probably a good start. Sending them a free copy is an obvious one, but remember the fundamental truth here: You should expect these people to say whatever they think about your game, not whatever you think.
Remember also that every big gaming source – news site, YouTube channel, whatever – is probably getting bombarded by people just like you, wanting their games to be featured as well. Your game’s a quirky retro 2D platformer? So is everyone else’s.
Kotaku, the biggest news site to feature Scraps, did so before I’d even contacted them, and right near the start of the campaign. I suspect they must have just seen it on Kickstarter and thought it looked interesting. So yeah, luck is still a significant factor.
Kickstarter sends a 48-hour remaining notification to backers who clicked the Remind Me button. You can see from the daily stats above that this really is a big deal!
I also did cross-promotion with a few other Kickstarters that were running at the same time as Scraps, where we gave a shout-out to each other. I only did this for projects that I actually thought had merit, but you could of course be as unscrupulous as you like. A lot of Kickstarter backers back multiple projects and it’s a good way to point people between projects that the same audience might like.
The Kickstarter Page
You can look at the pages of other successful Kickstarters and get a better idea of how you should lay yours out than from anything I can say. Some notes:
- Kickstarter’s official guidelines go on about how your video doesn’t have to look professional, but make sure it shows YOU, because everyone wants to get to know the creator and be your friend or whatever. All successful game Kickstarters have a professional-looking video and many are just a game trailer with no creators shown. Make of that what you will.
- If you’re not a massive established studio, you must show the game in action, not just concepts!
- Kickstarter doesn’t provide a lot of formatting options. You can’t have two images side-by-side for instance, or have more than one line break in a row. You can use images to clearly delineate sections or even just to create whitespace.
- Make sure you get your rewards right – you can edit the project page after the campaign has started, but not the rewards.
During the Kickstarter
Kickstarter only became available for New Zealand-based projects on November 13th. Previously, we could support projects but creating one required doing things through another already-supported country.
I’d already been working on Scraps full-time for a year by that point. Originally I’d hoped to have an alpha release out by now, with a solid base and basic multiplayer, where I could start getting some money coming in. As is often the case with software, despite taking into account that things always take longer than I think, things were taking longer than I thought. It’s sort of the Coastline Of Britain paradox.
I now had a much better idea of how long things were really going to take, and I could see that there was still quite a while to go. A Kickstarter seemed like a good stop-gap solution. If it failed, at least maybe I’d get a bit more exposure for the game.
The plan assuming Kickstarter failure was to start looking for part-time work fairly soon, and hopefully keep working on the game the rest of the time, but that meant the prospect of things taking even longer again.
Once I’d made that decision, it was already getting worryingly close to Christmas. Who was going to want to donate to a project right before Christmas, or worse, right after Christmas? So I powered through making the project video and Kickstarter page content. Then I waited three days for Kickstarter to approve my ID. Then I waited two more days for the Kickstarter page to be approved.
Make sure you allow for that stuff! Once your Kickstarter is approved, you can still edit it, so write up something decent, get it approved, then tell everyone when you’re going to launch and then make any final changes and launch on the decided day. Don’t tell everyone you’re going to launch on X day and then get stuck waiting for Kickstarter to approve your project.
Kickstarter has statistics indicating that the shorter a project’s length is, the more likely it is to succeed. Something to do with sense of urgency etc. I would have gone with the standard 30 days, but I didn’t want the project to end right before Christmas, so I reduced it to 25 (bringing the end date to December 18th).
The Scraps campaign was still running close to Christmas, and the release of the next-gen consoles was filling up the news. Whether this hurt the campaign I can’t say, and apparently timing doesn’t have a major effect on pledge levels. Though you can probably pick a smarter time to run your campaign than I did.
Running the Kickstarter was a full-time job. I’d suggest that for any project where you want to raise, say, $15,000 or more, you should allow for it to be a full-time job for a month.
On busy days, replying to everyone would take most of the morning. I created some templates to answer the most common questions (and added some to the Kickstarter FAQ), but I’ve always tried to give everyone a fair response and I don’t want to stop now. I can totally understand why a lot of people just start ignoring the unimportant messages though. I also kept up with what was going on on the official Scraps forums, Greenlight, and anywhere else I’d posted stuff, and replied as necessary.
If the morning was replying to people, the afternoon was contacting people hoping for a reply. I have a huge spreadsheet of press contacts, YouTube channels etc and I contacted a big list of people throughout the Kickstarter. A few I had talked to before, some I had emailed before but not gotten a response, and some I had never contacted before. If I didn’t hear back, I’d sometimes try again a week later or when I got a chance. Of my gaming press contacts, I emailed 70, got a response from 22, and an actual article from 17. Those that covered the game spanned the whole range from tiny sites to huge.
I only contacted relevant sites (ones that handled PC gaming content), and I had a basic template for different things, but each email was also personalised.
You’ll almost never get a response from the general contact@ or news@ email addresses, and heaven forbid you should be faced with a contact form. Find a writer for the site that seems to write about games like yours, and see if you can get their email address. YouTube messages are also largely useless and a real email is both more likely to get a response, and much easier to format nicely.
If you’re lucky and your game starts getting into the news a lot, other sites will sometimes follow suit without you asking. Ideally, people start seeing your game all over the place, and consequently decide that they’ve gotta report on it as well. In the popular Kickstarter postmortem from the Soma water filter people, they say they tried to time a big media and social media push to happen all at once, so it’d seem like they were suddenly everywhere.
PixelProspector is a good resource for big lists of sites to start you off. You can also search for the names of other games similar to yours and see where they got mentioned.
If your time is limited, just prioritise who you contact. If you’re contacting news sites, compare their scores on somewhere like compete.com to get an idea of how big they are. Though Compete.com only works for really big sites, and it’s pretty arbitrary even then: For smaller ones, look at how many comments their content gets etc. The biggest sites are likely to ignore you, but a feature on a very small site might not be worth the effort (sorry small indie sites – I still try to fit you in!). For YouTube, check the number of subscribers.
Same with forums. Maybe you’re making Super Button Masher so you want to let Button To Button and Button SMASH fans know about it. If the Button SMASH forum has one post a week it’s probably not worth the effort.
I probably put more time and effort into replying to everyone properly than I really should, but one interesting thing that may or may not be related is that the Scraps community is really good. Other creators always seem to be complaining about trolls invading their Kickstarter comments, on their Greenlight page, on their forums. Apparently the gaming community hates everything and it’s totally not your game, it’s just them. Well, I’ve had almost entirely positive comments and the forums have some good discussion going on, and Scraps doesn’t exactly look or play like the next big AAA title.
Greenlight is a system that Valve now uses with Steam to help them decide which games to let onto their distribution service. People can vote yes or no on games, and Steam uses those statistics plus their own consideration to “greenlight” games for their service. Once greenlit, you can put your game on Steam whenever you decide.
Remember that Valve is a company. They won’t choose your game because it’s the best, they’ll choose it because it has a lot of people who want to buy it.
Long before the Scraps Kickstarter, but after I had some basic gameplay to show, I put Scraps in the Greenlight Concepts section. This is free (going on the main Greenlight costs a one-time fee of $100USD), but Concepts success won’t get you greenlit, it’s just useful for games early in development to start getting seen.
When a game is added to Greenlight (Concepts or not), it seems to go into everyone’s queue of games to vote on, and also appears in the relevant Recent section. This immediately gets your game hundreds of views, and to be honest is way more effective marketing than many other methods, even though the traffic quickly drops off again.
Scraps did especially well on Greenlight Concepts and sat at the top of Most Popular This Week for a little while, getting even more views. Then it climbed up near the top of Top Rated All Time, getting it even more ongoing views. I didn’t do anything to encourage this, it just happened.
Obviously you’ll want to make sure your game looks as good as possible before launching on Greenlight. However, people on concepts seem much more tolerant than those in the main Greenlight section. On Concepts the Scraps entry currently has 6,766 unique views, with 2,443 “yes” votes and 19 “no votes”. That’s over 99% yes! The main Greenlight entry was at just 66% yes when it got greenlit.
I launched Scraps on the main Steam Greenlight at the same time as I launched the Kickstarter campaign, linking prominently to the Greenlight page from the Kickstarter, and linking prominently to the Kickstarter from Greenlight. If your game is in a position to do this, I higher recommend it. If it isn’t, maybe you can wait until it is?
When you add a game to the main Greenlight, you get the same influx of views that you get from adding to Concepts, but even bigger. A week and a half after adding Scraps to Greenlight, Valve greenlit 100 games and Scraps was one of them. It had already entered the top 100 and the stats looked like this:
8,529 “yes” votes and 4,417 “no” votes. A far cry from the 99% “yes” rate in the concepts section, but clearly still enough to do well. Now that it’s greenlit, people can no longer vote, but I still get a lot of traffic to the page so it’s nice to have up there.
I just feel sorry for the all the awesome games that have been stuck in Greenlight hell for months without getting anywhere. Go and support NeonXSZ or something.
I now have funding to work on the game for a while longer, but the Kickstarter and Greenlight campaigns were also really useful for marketing the game and further building up the community. It also used up a month of what could have been development time, but even if it had failed to reach the target, the exposure may have been worth it.
After the Kickstarter ends, updates can still be posted, but the main page can no longer be edited. I took a moment in the last few minutes of the campaign to make it direct people prominently to scrapsgame.com, but many people set it to direct to a permanent pre-order (or “slacker backer”) page. For Scraps, I didn’t originally intend to put the game up for sale until there was a playable paid release ready, and I’ve decided that will still be the case: It won’t be available for purchase again until the actual alpha release. I did think about allowing pre-orders in the meantime but decided not to. The Kickstarter has raised enough for now, and I’d rather people buy when they really know what they’re getting.
A note for casual and mobile games: Your job is a lot harder. Mobile and casual gamers just don’t seem to want to contribute on Kickstarter (or outside of it really) and most money for mobile games seems to come from the existing community/friends and family bracket. Compare the Scraps Kicktraq stats above to the stats for something like Tower Of Elements II, a casual PC game. Their Kickstarter page does everything right, but they’re getting maybe a third of the amount that Scraps got per day from just sitting there. Luckily they had an existing fanbase from their previous work, who contributed the bulk of funding on day one.
Good luck with your own projects. I had a rare holiday over Christmas but I’m now back to work on Scraps.
Edit a year later: One thing I’ve learned, regarding how I said that YouTubers and streamers may be the key to the really big numbers: Since writing this I’ve seen a game get a video by PewDiePie, the biggest gaming YouTuber of all, and the extra income total was maybe about equivalent to getting on a major gaming news site. See the spike at day 11 here. Of course there are other factors: There’s extra exposure outside of straight funding from a video with millions of views. PewDiePie’s audience is also probably on the younger side and may be less likely to chip in on a Kickstarter.
But the lesson I learned is that one big YouTuber or streamer isn’t the path to success either, and the real key to the big numbers seems to be in some sort of amorphous virality – a critical mass where everyone is telling everyone about your game, and a combination of everything above. The best you can do might be just to hit all the channels with your news all at once, and hope somewhere deep in the rush and hum of the system, a feedback loop emerges, and the signal grows above the noise.