Colin Walsh

The power of Kickstarter: behind the scenes of the successful Drifter campaign

The power of Kickstarter: behind the scenes of the successful Drifter campaign

Note from Ben: I met Colin Walsh at this year’s Game Developers Conference, where I played an early version of Drifter, a game inspired by the classic Privateer. Walsh told me he was working on a Kickstarter campaign, but he wanted to show Drifter as a working prototype, make sure his ducks were in a row, and then launch the campaign. In my opinion, he’s doing everything right in terms of proving the game to the press, handling his crowdfunding, and aiming at an underserved genre. I’m happy to share his thoughts on Kickstarter with you.

As the Kickstarter for my new game Drifter nears to a successful close, I’ve been asked by Ben Kuchera to give some insights into the campaign. I had already planned on blogging about it, because I feel this could be useful for other developers looking to go to a crowdfunding site for money to help fund their games. As well, I’m sure people might just be interested in learning more about the inner workings of a Kickstarter project so I’m quite happy to have this opportunity to share it with a wider audience.

The Campaign

I had actually been thinking about running a Kickstarter campaign for Drifter since some time late last year, but because it was originally slated to be an iOS game and considering it’s very difficult to offer free copies of an app through the App Store, I wasn’t sure it would work out very well. However, after some early feedback on news of the game’s development, it was clear that people were definitely interested in the game but wanted to play it on the desktop. It dawned on me that I could use the promise of bringing the game to desktop, along with improving it at the same time as the core of a campaign, but I would definitely need to make the game as appealing as possible.

I think many people look at Kickstarter and see it as people giving free money to back projects that are little more than an idea. In a few select cases that may very well be true, but most successful projects have gone out of their way to give potential backers confidence that they were capable of delivering on what they promised.

So while I may not be a well-known and well-liked industry veteran, I realized that my last game, Red Nova, having received a fair amount of critical acclaim, would help show that I had a track record. Also I had already started working with Danny Baranowsky, so his involvement would certainly help make the game more appealing, but I felt that actually having something to show would have the biggest impact on potential backers. So I took my time and worked on Drifter while meticulously planning every aspect of the campaign to make sure it had the best chance of succeeding.

The Budget

One of the most important things you need to do is figure out how much money you need to successfully carry out what you’re promising in your campaign. There’s potential here to underestimate your costs, especially when you’re offering physical rewards. $50,000 may seem like a lot but, as revealed by the team behind Star Command, there are many hidden costs and expenses that come out of a Kickstarter project.

The important thing to remember is to set a realistic budget and in this case, my philosophy was “go big or go home”. I even had a few people question my budget, wondering if maybe by asking for so much it might cause people to shy away from pledging. While it may have been possible to make up the rest I needed through over-funding, the thought of just barely making that lower amount was more terrifying than not making anything at all, because then I’d be on the hook to provide what I promised without enough money to provide it.

Where does the money go? Kickstarter takes 5% off the top, which might seem like a lot but given the large amount of pledges from direct referrals through Kickstarter, it’s downright reasonable. Also Amazon Payments takes 3-5% when they process everyone’s payments. So right there I’m looking at 8-10% of my take gone.

Then there’s the production and shipping of physical rewards. Many video game Kickstarter projects offer unique physical rewards to help encourage backers to pledge more than the price of the game towards reaching the goal and Drifter is no exception. Posters, collectors’ boxes, t-shirts and 3D printed models are not cheap and neither is shipping them out. I took time to price a number of options and built up a “worst case” model, assuming certain levels of production and expensive shipping. Couple that with Danny’s compensation and the service fees and I’m looking at about 40% of my budget gone. I’m hoping it won’t be nearly so bad in the end, but planning for the worst case is key.

While the campaign is on track to finish above its original goal, assuming I’m still dealing with my original budget that only leaves me with $30,000 to, again worst case, pay for operating expenses, cover my own personal expenses for 6 months so I don’t have to worry about looking for consulting work and finally give me enough money to contract a 3D artist to work on adding assets to the game. This then gives me the time I need to focus on game design, adding features to the game, and porting it to the desktop as promised by the Kickstarter.

The Power of Kickstarter

As I hinted at earlier, Kickstarter itself is an incredibly useful platform for crowd-funding. I mean it is probably the largest crowd-funding site around right now, but I had no idea going in exactly how powerful it was. Early on, the campaign had gotten a big push from the game industry friends and comrades of Danny and I via Twitter and various other channels, and that certainly helped immensely, but that then got the project noticed by Kickstarter. It was shortly thereafter chosen as a “Staff Pick” and ended up being featured as a popular project in a number of places. The upshot is around 60% of the backers have come through Kickstarter’s own referral mechanisms which is, I think, pretty amazing.

There are a number of other secondary benefits for being on Kickstarter and having a successful campaign. It means people are excited about the game and there’s much less uncertainty about how well it might have done if I had just released the game as originally planned. When the time comes it will hopefully help convince certain popular digital distribution sites that Drifter is worthwhile and make it easier to get the game on there.

The Road Ahead

While I am still quite fortunate to have succeeded, considering merely 40% of all Kickstarter projects and only 25% of all video game projects hit their goal, some may point out that I now have to deal with the immense pressure of delivering a game to the people who backed it. While that is true, I feel I’m actually in a much better position than I was before.

By having this funding, it guarantees that I’ll be able to make Drifter even better than I had originally hoped and it also means a more certain and brighter future for myself and Celsius Game Studios. So, to be perfectly honest, I think I’d trade the constant worry of trying to make ends meet with the pressure to make an awesome game for a group of awesome people every single time.