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The WHF Kickstarter: A Recap

This is a repost of a blog I made last week and published on n4g.com. I touched up a few sections as we have a bit more info now, and I wanted to make it a bit less focused on new readers.

Hi everyone!

Forgive me for this incoming wall of text. It’s the story of the Kickstarter for We Happy Few.

My name is Sam, and I am the moderately dashing business chap here at Compulsion Games. On the 4th of July, the Kickstarter campaign for We Happy Few came to an end, after raising CA$334k on a goal of CA$250k. It’s been a crazy ride, with some really high points (seeing the responses to our KS video, and getting funded) but some equally low points (very pointedly not talking to each other while we created our KS video, and being worried at E3).

We thought it might be interesting to write a little bit about our experience on Kickstarter, as a team that sits part way between a small indie studio and the big guys. So, this post is going to cover two broad topics:

  1. Why we went on Kickstarter in the first place
  2. How the Kickstarter went, and why E3 is a giant god damned black hole

Kickstarter, and why it is useful for more than just initial funding

The Kickstarter landscape has changed a bit in recent years. Games aren’t generally funded with the same enthusiasm as they once were - gone are the days when a new team can raise $600k on just an idea, a hope, and a dream. It’s the nature of new things - as we see more competition, a few failures, and a growing awareness of what that means, we end up with a steady-state of “normal” on Kickstarter.

Many of you are probably familiar with the big Kickstarter success stories - Project Eternity, Mighty Number 9, Bloodstained and, of course, Shenmue. These projects come from big names, usually very well known developers with a history of creating some of the best games of the past 20 years. These guys ask for big numbers ($1m), because the games they want to make are big. And, because of their reputations, and very careful planning, they often get them.

However, the vast majority of projects on Kickstarter (funded or unfunded) tend to be either smaller teams or first projects, that generally aren’t looking for a great deal of money. They ask for smaller sums - from $5k to $80k - which have the distinct advantage of being achievable.

Of course, as everyone in development knows, and as many gamers are now becoming aware, the amount of money they’re asking for generally will not be enough to complete their game.

Most of the time these projects are looking for the proverbial kick-start to the development of their game - the money that will help them really get started, so that they can use that to find more funding. There might be a rough prototype, but sometimes there is nothing at all, except some concept art, a nice video, etc. However, the key point if teams start like this is that the game itself won’t get made unless the Kickstarter is successful.

And here we are, in the middle of all of this, a small-medium Canadian team that already has a fairly well known game with something of a cult following under our belt. But, strangely, we have already spent quite a bit of time and money in development - something that is generally not the case for video games on Kickstarter - to the point that we already have a playable pre-alpha. (In our case, pre-alpha means “we’re still messing around with what makes this game this game, and it really doesn’t have a lot to it yet.”) We’re not a big name, so we don’t have a huge following to draw on. We’re not a small team, so the amounts we need to keep ourselves going often look like a great deal of money.

However, a great deal of money we certainly need. 9 months ago, when looking at our launch strategy, we knew that at some point down the line we’d need additional funds, to allow us to build the game we wanted to build. We had a few choices: go into Early Access, raise funds privately (whether that is through a publisher, or some other kind of partnership), or jump on Kickstarter, and see what we could do.

The reasons we chose Kickstarter are pretty straight forward. If it is successful, Kickstarter has the most unique advantage in that it lets us retain control of our own destiny. Early Access at an early stage is risky - if your game isn’t ready, it’ll get swallowed by the Steam ecosystem. Publishers provide stability, but less flexibility and, critically, less revenue at the end to help us build our studio. Private fundraising is generally more flexible, but much harder to obtain and always comes at a cost.

But Kickstarter suffers none of these things. It’s flexible; you can Kickstart a project at any stage. In our case, we’re raising funds almost half way through development. We have a gameplay prototype to show - videos of which you can see on Youtube - which helps provide a great deal of explanation of our concept, and also reassures people that we know what we’re doing. In theory :) And, to us the most important part, is that if it does very well, you can add stretch goals, and perhaps do more than you thought you could. This is a big deal: one of the big challenges for teams our size is to understand how big we should make the game, and understanding demand is next to impossible until after release.

But, of course, it comes with perhaps the biggest downside: what if we fail?

The We Happy Few Kickstarter

Well, the good news is, we didn’t! We reached our goal, and in fact managed to reach four out of our first five stretch goals. We’re hoping to continue the campaign with contributions for another couple of months (expect an announcement/news post on this soon), so we can still work towards the last announced stretch goal, and maybe even the ones we have hidden up our sleeves.

Since this is our first Kickstarter project, we spent a great deal of time researching other projects, and talking to friends in the Montreal development community who had gone through it in the past. Their advice? Prepare like you have never prepared before. Basically, launching your Kickstarter is like practice for launching your game, many months later.

One of the most important things we realised was that we needed to stand out. To us, we decided that we needed to make the best video that we could make. And, because we are who we are, we decided to try something different - something that wasn’t just describing our game, but was also entertaining in and of itself. We came up with this idea of having Uncle Jack interview Guillaume, our creative director/studio head, about this crazy game we are making… but actually interview him as if he was inside the game itself. We’re pretty proud of what came out, and here it is if you fancy taking a look:

However, you can’t just make a good page - you have to drive people to it, as well. For exposure, we simply tried everything. We reached out to press outlets, reached out to our community on FaceBook and e-mailed everyone we knew in the videogame industry to help spread the word. Not even kidding. Our own efforts gave us a nice initial surge, and built some early excitement around the campaign.

But, as usual, when doing something for the first time you learn a hell of a lot that you didn’t expect to learn.

This graph is a combination of three things: how many people checked out our page (Google Analytics), how much money we raised per day (Kicktraq), and a timeline with major activities that happened during the campaign.

Our initial spike was really solid, so it looks like preparing an announcement trailer, going to PAX East, creating a good Kickstarter campaign and video, and spreading the news as best we could before the campaign was actually quite effective (as we’d hoped). There were some early champions in the community, such as Jim Sterling and the /r/games AMA we did, but we started to fall off pretty quickly. And by quickly, we mean really quickly.

We suspected this might happen. E3 happened during the week of 15 - 19 June, and traditionally the week before that is really, really slow as the hype builds for E3 (the wisdom is, never try to do a damn thing in the public sphere in video games during these two weeks, unless you’re Ubisoft or Activision, or another big dev). We went to E3 knowing that the campaign would be slow that week, but we didn’t anticipate exactly how slow it would be the week before.

Thankfully, something happened: our fantastic, amazing community continued helping us spreading the word on social media and things just took off again. As you can see, the spikes in the campaign coincide perfectly with one of our backers discussing or posting about the game on public, social forums like Tumblr, Reddit or Imgur. Funny how that works, huh?

Conclusion (like my English teacher used to tell me)

Kickstarter is one hell of a gamble. But, it’s a gamble with some distinct advantages. It was a great practice run at understanding how to pitch and market our games. Making good games is a difficult job, but understanding how to get attention for them is equally hard, and often overlooked by developers.

We remain a little uncertain about where Kickstarter will go from here. It seems that games with serious nostalgia-cred or huge followings are the ones that tend to win really big on Kickstarter - so total funding for projects like ours is a relic of a bygone (and short lived) age. Most developers won’t be able to plan for having Obsidian’s (well-deserved) reputation, or Yooka-Laylee’s history. And, we can only hope that these big projects continue to deliver on their promises, as the bigger the success, the bigger the hit to Kickstarter’s credibility if the project doesn’t work out.

At the same time, smaller, unique projects do seem to be able to get good attention, and it’s often a great way for innovative concepts to get the start they need.

So, important things to learn:

  • Don’t, for the love of god, start, end or otherwise do a video game Kickstarter in the week before or during E3. Or, more broadly, make sure you don’t overlap with any major gaming events that might draw attention away from your campaign.
  • It’s backers themselves, telling people about our project, that had the most impact over time.
  • Prepare people for your Kickstarter - if people don’t know about it on day 1, you may have already failed.
  • If you are pitching a new IP and you are thinking of asking a substantial amount of money, it’s probably best if you can show-case tangible progress. This means going to Kickstarter a little later than is traditional.
  • It’s 11:00pm on a Monday night and I’m writing this blog. Expect not to see your family very much during the campaign, and make sure to take days off to rest.
  • More often than not, humanity will surprise you.

Thank you for being awesome, everyone.

Sam

 

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