As I contemplated writing a post-mortem of the campaign, a few people have asked about how The Emerald Flame Kickstarter achieved its success, so I decided to share my takeaways. Considering how many blog posts about Kickstarter I read in preparation for the campaign, it feels a bit surreal to even be writing this now, but I hope it will prove useful to other puzzle game creators venturing into the crowdfunding space. (This post got very long very quickly, so I have separated it into 2 parts: Before Launch and During the Campaign.)
It goes without saying that people have run successful campaigns in myriad ways and these recommendations are based solely on my personal experience. It is not necessarily that all of these points will make or break your project, but below is what I did to prepare and I plan to take forward these practices with me. Having run only one campaign, I have learned a ton but still can’t claim to be an expert on the topic… which brings me to my first point:
Do your research.
This one is crucial and will take a significant amount of time, but you've got to study if you're going to take the test. So listen to podcasts about crowdfunding. Watch interviews with designers and publishers. Read blogs. My favorite place to start is this post by James Mathe, followed by the entirety of Jamey Stegmaier’s blog (or his book). I read the blog post by post on my commute through much of last year and incorporated a lot of the principles he lays out into my campaign. (This will not be the entirety of your research, of course... there is much more outlined below.)
And you never know, going through these steps might even make you realize that you don't want to run a Kickstarter! After all, it's a ton of work, both on the front and back end. If you don't want to deal with marketing and logistics, or have a very limited amount of free time, maybe you're better off seeking a publisher. Don't stay married to the idea of crowdfunding--it's not always the answer.
Build an audience.
Every single piece of Kickstarter advice I read or listened to strongly emphasized this point and the need to start doing it as early as possible, but it’s easier said than done. One thing that helped me tremendously was that PostCurious had a prior reputation from The Tale of Ord. The game was well-reviewed and I had proved myself capable of delivering a product, which automatically lent me a certain level of trust. But only 500 copies of The Tale of Ord were made, so how did everyone else hear about it?
The truth is I considered using Kickstarter to fund the production of Tale of Ord back in 2018, so I read a lot about crowdfunding back then and tried to follow Jamey's wisdom by starting a monthly newsletter, using social media more, and finding ways to engage with enthusiasts.
I wanted people to get something out of the newsletter, so rather than just using it to promote PostCurious products, I started trying to introduce other things that could be of interest to my audience. My subscriber list started out small but has grown a lot over the past two years, and one can say that it was ultimately a big factor in why we funded so quickly. A big percentage of our first day backers were newsletter subscribers.
Social media is tricky and I am far from being a guru, but posting regularly, following others, commenting on posts, and figuring out which hashtags to use are good ways to get started if you don’t already have a presence. One way to build on this is offering some kind of free puzzles as well. Free puzzles are a great way to get people engaged with your brand and give them a taste of what you’re offering. You can also use these on your website and in your newsletter.
Finally, connect with people who have similar interests on various platforms. Introduce yourself and participate in (or start) discussions. Building relationships within the community is important, but don’t do it solely for the sake of self-promotion. Be real and connect on a human level!
Can you fund without doing this kind of buildup beforehand? Of course it's possible, but it's going to be harder to build a house without foundation.
Especially if this is your first campaign, I highly recommend having a fully finished and playtested game (or at least a finished chapter, if the game has multiple) before launch. First of all, exhibiting a finished product will make people more likely to put their faith in you. Remember that Kickstarter is not a store and products are not pre-made, so backers are essentially taking a risk by contributing to your campaign. Ask yourself if you’re more willing to invest money into something that is already shown to exist or into an unrealized idea? Second, if your game is finished you can send it to reviewers. Having reviews and testimonials proves that the game not only exists but has also been played and enjoyed by multiple people. If the site is popular, reviews can also drive organic traffic to the Kickstarter page. Ideally you’ll want several reviews in a variety of media, with at least one video to add to the page. It's best to have at least a couple published before or on launch day so that anyone who lands on the page will see it. All that said, even one review is better than none.
Know your costs.
This is a hard one. It is easy to underestimate the cost of producing and shipping a game. This is another reason why it helps to have a completed design before you launch.
Manufacturing - Once you know what you need I recommend making a spreadsheet of all the components, including material, size, and any other relevant information, as well as gathering images of your prototype for visual reference. You’ll need this in order to get quotes from manufacturers. Here is a great resource for finding some manufacturing options. Contact multiple manufacturers for quotes and be sure they understand your requests, especially if you have components that are not typically found in a board game or your quote seems too low. Start asking for quotes as soon as you have all the information because it can be a long process. If you’re planning on offering other rewards besides your main game, make sure to account for those costs as well. Of course, if you plan to produce and ship the game yourself, you’ll need to source your own materials and estimate costs that way. Personally, I do not recommend doing this unless you’re making a very small run (1000 copies max).
Freight - If you’re going to manufacture overseas, you also need to factor in freight and delivery costs. Freight forwarders are the ones who get your games from the factory to the warehouse/fulfillment center (if you’re using one.) Fulfillment centers are where the orders get packaged for shipping and dispatched to the backers. Here’s a good primer on the process. It’s a bit difficult to estimate these costs early on because you may not know the exact size and weight of your product, but do your best to estimate based on your finished prototype, and then add 10% - 20% on top of the quoted price you’re given (freight costs usually increase by about 10% every year.) These will seem very high when you’re estimating at a lower quantity, but the cost per item will significantly decrease if you end up with more volume.
Shipping - You will also need delivery cost estimates for getting the game from the fulfillment center to your backers. These are contingent on weight and destination, and almost always end up being more costly than you expect. Once you have estimates for various destinations it is up to you how much of the delivery cost you want to roll into the cost of your good, subsidize, or have covered by backers. Make sure that you do your due diligence on this part, especially if you’re offering worldwide shipping, because shipping to certain countries can get outrageously expensive and sometimes difficult to track. You may decide to limit the countries you ship to in order to avoid the logistical headache, and it may not be a bad decision, especially for a first campaign. Don't forget to also factor in the cost of shipping additional copies, other rewards, and packaging. (Hot tip about international shipping via USPS: Don't go over 4lbs or the price suddenly doubles. Easy to overlook this kind of detail until you're in too deep.)
Taxes and VAT - Another important thing about international shipping is being aware of taxes and VAT (particularly in the EU and UK). With a significant number of backers in Europe I decided to warehouse in the UK as well as the US to make it easier to offer “customs-friendly” shipping, meaning the VAT is paid by the publisher (either directly or with the freight forwarder acting on the publisher's behalf) rather than the backer having to pay for the package upon arrival.
Your budget should at least include the following:
Manufacturing cost of game at the minimum quantity
Manufacturing cost of any extra rewards, special edition components, etc.
Anything else you need to make the game (web services or artwork, for example)
Customs, taxes, VAT
Shipping fees, if you choose to subsidize them
5% Kickstarter fee and 3% credit card fee
At least a 5% buffer. Things will inevitably end up costing more than you think.
Setting a goal - It’s tempting to set a lower goal so you can say you got funded quickly, but setting it lower than the amount of money you actually need is a huge risk, unless you can comfortably cover the remainder and recoup it later. (For example, you could in theory set a 20k goal when you really need 25k if you’re willing to invest 5k and make it up in later sales.) Otherwise, you put yourself in the position of potentially funding but not actually having enough money to complete the project, which could end up being a worse failure than not reaching the goal in the first place because it will harm your reputation. On that same note, factor in a buffer for your timeline as well. All kinds of delays can happen in this complicated process and delivering early is always better than late.
Phew! Are you tired yet? Stay tuned for Part 2: During the Campaign.
Do you have any Kickstarter prep advice to share?