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The perfect Kickstarter: Zeboyd describes the crowdfunding science behind effective campaigns

The perfect Kickstarter: Zeboyd describes the crowdfunding science behind effective campaigns

[Disclosure: Zeboyd Games has developed two games with Penny Arcade]

It’s hard to nail down what makes the perfect Kickstarter pitch.

In fact, it’s much easier to describe what certain campaigns do poorly. Nebulous goals, a lack of communication about the scope of the final project, or insufficient justification of the budget are just a few of the plagues that can keep poorly thought out campaigns from reaching their potential. Problems are common, while solutions are few.

On the other hand, there is the Cosmic Star Heroine Kickstarter.

“I believe we set the goal at $100k early on but debated on whether or not we should change it for quite some time afterwards,” Robert Boyd of Zeboyd Games told the Report. “In the end, we decided that this amount was enough to give a serious boost to our development efforts while not being so ambitious as to prevent us from reaching the goal.”

$100,000 isn’t much money in the world of game development, but it’s an ambitious goal for a classically styled RPG with no major name-brand recognition. In fact, the lead character is female, a fact that can work against games with much larger budgets.

That goal may have seemed like a long shot, but the game is already over 85 percent funded, and there is little doubt that Zeboyd will hit their goals. It helps that the campaign page is laid out perfectly, and does almost everything right when explaining the game, the pedigree of the studio, and their ability to deliver a high-quality RPG.

None of this was an accident, and in fact Boyd and the other half of Zeboyd Games, Bill Stiernberg, began researching how to launch the perfect Kickstarter a year and a half ago for a weekly column on their website, paying close attention to the shared attributes of the projects that were well-funded, including Torment and Wasteland 2. The lessons they learned read like a college course: Crowdfunding 101.

You're not selling a Kickstarter, you're selling a game

“A kickstarter should be treated in many ways like a game launch. If people aren't aware of your game before your kickstarter launches, you're already at a huge disadvantage,” Boyd explained.

“Remember that a new kickstarter isn't newsworthy but your game should be, and if your game isn't newsworthy, you're making the wrong game,” he continued. The trick is to focus on the game itself, and put the crowdfunding on the back burner. Once players and the press are excited about the game, the links to the Kickstarter will come organically.

The rest of the lessons Boyd learned during his 18 months of research are less intuitive. He pointed to the importance of timing, and a strong opening for your campaign.

“Weekends are a horrible time to start since fewer people are online & most members of the press aren't working and yet I still see kickstarters making the mistake of launching on a Saturday or Sunday,” Boyd said. “Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are the best days to launch. Around 9-10 am Pacific time is an ideal time to start, as the West coast press is coming into work, East coast press still has most of their day remaining and you have a few hours to build up some momentum before the highest traffic time of the day.”

If the first day doesn’t do well, you might be sunk, Boyd says that players are much more likely to back a project that is already off to a good start.

Pricing is also important. It’s ideal to keep the cost of a digital copy of the game in the $10 to $15 range, as anything higher is much harder to justify unless you have a well-known name attached to your project. Adding a copy of the soundtrack at the $20 to $30 backing tiers is a good way to incentivize people to pay a little more, even if they can’t afford one of the larger tiers.

“If you can't offer a digital copy of the game, for example, you're making a F2P game, having a successful kickstarter is DRASTICALLY more difficult and you should consider other options for funding like the Minecraft Early Access-model or finding a traditional publisher,” Boyd said.

You’ll notice that physical rewards don’t start appearning in the Cosmic Star Heroine Kickstarter until you reach the $100 tiers, and that’s another lesson that many less-successful Kickstarters learned to their detriment. The creation, shipping, and cost of things like posters, T-Shirts, and even physical CDs is beyond most small teams, and that issue is only made worse with a large amount of backers. Many campaigns becomes victims of their own success, losing too much money and time shipping out thousands of shirts or other physical goods.

“If you don't already have the framework in place, you're a mid-to-large video game company with experience in selling to retail, the creation & shipment of physical rewards can be very expensive and time consuming,” Boyd said. “I would recommend small indie teams limit their physical rewards to $100 or higher.”

The campaign now has 4,064 backers as of this writing, and only 39 of them are in a high enough tier to receive a physical reward. Zeboyd Games can focus their time and energy on creating the game and making it the best it can be instead of shipping posters. Digital rewards make backers happy, as they’ll be playing the game and listening to the soundtrack on their gaming rigs anyway, and keeping things out of the physical realm will allow you to maximize the value for your money and time.

Boyd isn’t a fan of stretch goals, but he provided a few tips for how to handle them well. “Don't talk about stretch goals at all until your project is already funded. Revealing stretch goals before that time makes the project look disorganized or worse,” he explained. “Make sure to research how much a stretch goal will cost to implement & then make the interval needed to unlock that stretch goal higher than your maximum estimated cost. When I see something like ‘For $5,000 more, we'll add full voice acting to our epic game,’ it makes me think that the developer has no clue what they're doing.”

Boyd listed a variety of mistakes that developers make, including promising that the game will come to multiple platforms without having a contract in place with each platform holder. “Most closed platforms have very specific rules & limitations on free codes so don't promise free codes unless you're positive you can deliver them,” he stated.

The rest of his advice may seem obvious, but it deals with issues that were too damned common in campaigns. Everyone thinks they’re funny, but humor often comes off as awkwardness in videos, so it’s better to be informative and confident. It’s important to invest in lighting, microphones, and professional editing for your video. Be sure to lead with your best screenshots, and break up the page with graphical banners and well-defined sections that explain each aspect of the project.

Be thorough, and be clear

Every question you have about Cosmic Star Heroine is likely answered in the campaign’s text, video, or images. They explain what makes the game unique, they list the games they’ve made in the past, and how long it took them to create each one. They’re transparent about where the money will go, and state firmly that being overfunded won’t lead to feature creep or a change in the game’s scope. They are confident of the game they want to make, their ability to deliver that game, and they’d love if you would help them make that happen.

People argue about what Kickstarter is for, but this is an amazing example of a small team that has leveraged the platform perfectly to help with the creation of their next game, while avoiding all the pitfalls that can come from imprecise crowdfunding efforts.

“Remember that your goal with a Kickstarter isn't to raise the most money; it's to make the best game you can,” Boyd said. “Things like impressive physical rewards at low tiers and aggressive stretch goals may sound like a good idea early on, but they'll end up hurting you in the end in both time and money.”

The surprises that have come in the first week of the campaign have been limited, but interesting: Many players want the game to come to Linux, and some have said that the game could use more robots and / or aliens in the playable cast. Boyd told the Report that he should have seen that criticism coming.

Considering everything they did right, I’d say that’s a minor oversight. The Cosmic Star Heroine campaign is going on now, should you decide to back the game.