Best of British: Is crowdfunding the right solution for cash-strapped indies?
From a failed Kickstarter to forming a plan B
Byron Atkinson-Jones is an experienced developer who has worked for the likes of EA, Sega Sports Interactive, Lionhead Studios and notable indies Introversion and PomPom.
Most recently he went full time indie to work on his first multi-platform title Cyberstream Fugitive.
I love being an indie developer. The amount of freedom it gives you is frankly amazing and if I could remain this way for the rest of my career I would die a happy man.
The downside of course is the lack of a regular salary going into your bank account, which can be a bit of a downer when you want to do basic things like eat.
The lack of salary or funds doesn't just affect your lifestyle; it also affects the kind of project you can take on. I would love to be working on an epic game with the graphical quality of Skyrim, but the reality is that I have to pick my battles carefully and make games that can be finished relatively quickly and be out for sale.
Unless your previous games have earned you bucket loads of cash, chances are that while you work on your next game you'll be burning through whatever savings you have left.
There are of course ways around this. You could, for instance, do some contract work for other developers and make your game part-time. This is far from ideal, though.
I've done this, and while it's an excellent way of generating cash reserves, your games do suffer because of it. At most you're going to get something like two hours a night to work on your game if you are totally dedicated to it.
This pushes out the development time for the game by quite a lot and I feel you lose the initial passion you get at the beginning of projects, which can lead to it not being completed at all.
Big questions and big answers
The main question prospective indie developers need to ask themselves is if they can live with the risk of no income coming in for a while.
They should be under no illusions that making your own game full time with no real promises of sales at the end of it all is a tough thing to do.
I asked myself this question and, after some deliberation, I made the plunge last September to go full time on my own project, to see what I could really do if I wasn't working part-time.
The end result was Cyberstream Fugitive.
The decision to try out Kickstarter came as a result of a meeting with a friend while at the Eurogamer Expo in 2012. His thoughts were that Cyberstream Fugitive was a prime candidate for crowdfunding.
To be honest, I was very sceptical – not about the game, but about doing a Kickstarter. My thoughts at the time were that I simply wasn't well known enough to be able to attract the kind of attention it would need.
However, I spent some time thinking about it.
Around this time I had also engaged the talents of an amazing composer to do the music to the game and what he was coming up with was amazing but was also going to burn through my funds at a much faster rate.
In the end the conclusion was that I didn't really have much to lose by trying it and everything to gain should it be successful.
So how did it go?
I read all the information on the Kickstarter site about how to put a project together. I planned the page, what it should look like, what I should put down on it. I planned the rewards.
After all this was put together I emailed a preview of the page out to a few people to get their feedback. What came back was positive, so at 1:30 AM I made the project live. It was at that point I developed a dread that nobody would back it at all.
As it turns out I didn't get any sleep that night because the iPhone just kept buzzing with all the people tweeting about it – my wife threatened to throw the phone out of the window at one point.
All the fear about people not backing it was unfounded and in fact, within a couple of days, the Kickstarter campaign for Cyberstream Fugitive was 22 percent funded.
Reaching 22 percent was a good sign, but the problem is that progress stopped right there, and only moved forwards in small trickles.
It seemed the initial surge was over and from then on I was only getting one or two people a day pledging towards the project at an average of £5 a day.
Don't get me wrong, it was amazing that people were still doing this but it was obvious into the last 10 days of the project that, with approximately £7,500 to go, the Kickstarter had failed.
After a lot of thinking about it and consulting again with others I decided to end the campaign.
So what went wrong?
The biggest mistake I made was not creating a day-by-day plan for when the Kickstarter was live. All the planning I had done was in the preparation of the campaign and not what happens once you've gone live.
As it turns out you have exactly the same issues driving traffic to a Kickstarter page as you do to your own website – it was naive of me to think it would be easier.
I think part of the problem was that I had attended a talk that emphasised the fact that organic traffic to Kickstarter is quite high. Yes, it was high but engagement was low. Less than 0.02 percent of the visitors went on to pledge.
As you can see from this graph the total amount pledged was a slow progression each day:
If you compare this to a successful campaign like Fist Of Awesome you can see the difference:
The other stark differences are the number of backers per day for my campaign:
As you can see the maximum amount of backers in one day was 25 whereas if you compare this to Fist Of Awesome you'll notice a far higher rate of backers per day:
So why are the numbers going to my Kickstarter campaign a lot lower? We'll never know the real answer to this but a number of factors are the video, the information on the page and the rewards.
In hindsight I would have been better placed to get somebody more experienced in marketing to come up with all three.
Kickstarter is like a large sales portal with a lot of products trying to grab the attention of buyers.
In some sense it's a lot harder because you are selling a promise not something that is immediately tangible and available straight away, the people pledging to your campaign are effectively paying to wait. It's a fine line between funding and pre-orders.
This in turn leads to another factor, if somebody has already pledged to projects on Kickstarter and have yet to see any of them come to fruition then it's likely they will become increasingly reluctant to back another one.
This could end up becoming cyclical with the right time to launch a Kickstarter campaign being when previous campaigns have actually delivered on their promises. Time will tell.
Before launching my Kickstarter, I had formed a plan for success and a plan for failure.
In this case I had to go with the failure plan, which was to put the Alpha version up for sale on my own website and use all the techniques I was using to drive traffic to the Kickstarter page to drive traffic to my own website instead.
The traffic hasn't been anywhere near as much as the Kickstarter page but in the first night the direct sales of the Alpha version of my game exceeded the revenue generated in a whole year of my first iOS game.
Those sales have dropped off to nothing now but unlike the Kickstarter there's a lot more I can do to promote the page and generate sales throughout the life of the rest of the development of the game.
If there is one take-away from this article it should be that you shouldn't just jump into making games full time if you don't already have a means to support yourself.
You will burn through your money quicker than you realise.
While there are methods of generating funds such as Kickstarter they are by no means something you should rely on. They are just as difficult, if not harder than actually making the game.
My Kickstarter failed and I was lucky in that I had more than one plan in place just in case I didn't succeed – you should also have a plan in place for if you succeed and if you fail.
Above all don't take failure as defeat, carry on and find other ways to make your game - treat it like a learning exercise and move on.
You can find out more about Cyberstream Fugitive and Xiotex Studios on the company's website, or follow Byron himself on Twitter.
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