The definition of crowdfunding is using a “crowd,” or a group to fund your project, rather than major investors. While there are more methods than ever to find funding for your video game, crowdfunding campaigns have proven themselves as not only a funding mechanism but outright publicity portals as well. Everyone from indie developers to publishers can benefit from their community-building functionality to push in-progress games over the finish line and spur successful launches.
But just because there've been hits like Shenmue III, Project CARS, and Elite Dangerous, doesn't mean that there haven't been plenty of misses. Crowdfunding is only a tool, and running a successful campaign will require hard work, dedication, and a commitment to growing and engaging a satisfied community.
Read on to learn everything you need to know about how to crowdfund your game successfully.
For many, Kickstarter is synonymous with crowdfunding. It's the most prominent crowdfunding platform by far and has helped bring many now-iconic games to life. It's not the only game in town, however, so it's worth checking out all of your options as you construct your game's campaign.
It’s also possible to raise money yourself without the use of any other platforms. One notable example of this is developer Cloud Imperium Games, which raised more than $2 million for its ambitious sci-fi title Star Citizen on Kickstarter back in 2013. Since then, the studio has managed to gain over $291 million from some 2.6 million backers at the time of this writing.
While it is possible to crowdfund directly from your audience, Star Citizen is very much the exception rather than the rule. For most indie studios, raising this kind of money directly from your audience would be almost impossible.
That being said, "slacker backing," or raising money directly after your crowdfunding campaign has ended, is one way of continuing to bring in funds throughout development. Ys Net took money directly from consumers via PayPal — and Alipay for Chinese users — for Shenmue III. The game had already raised $6.3 million on Kickstarter, with players donating another $800,000 between the campaign’s conclusion in September 2015 and its overall crowdfunding conclusion in September of 2018.
Developer Owlcat Games has also used this technique for its classic RPG title Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous. The studio raised $2 million from Kickstarter earlier in 2020, but fans can still put their money behind the project by pre-ordering it via the developer’s website. You can read our guide to pre-orders here.
Crowdfunding is a viable way to raise funds, but it's not a perfect solution for all games. Historically, crowdfunding success stories have featured a strong pitch or a famous name that helps drive initial interest.
Major crowdfunding platforms are also good for games that play on nostalgia or are in a genre that most developers have underserved. That's one reason why games like Mighty No.9, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, and Yooka-Laylee were strong performers on crowdfunding platforms. They tapped into nostalgia for the Mega Man, Castlevania, and Banjo-Kazooie franchises, respectively. Yu Suzuki (below) turned to Kickstarter to fund the eagerly-awaited Shenmue III for this exact reason and announced the campaign onstage at Sony’s E3 2015 press conference.
Calling back to classic games is one way of attracting attention, but crowdfunding can also be a valuable way of not only building a community but also testing your concept with an audience. Regardless, making sure that people are excited about your game is vital. Many companies use Kickstarter as a proof of concept to show publishers that there is, indeed, interest in their game.
Crowdfunding campaigns are also a way of raising money for titles that are a bit "out there." Experimental first-person horror title Nevermind was created by Erin Reynolds as her thesis project for the University of Southern California. She formed the studio Flying Mollusk to make a full version of the game, turning to Kickstarter as she felt it was a sound way of funding what was — at the time — a fairly unusual game.
While fund raising is obviously at the core, crowdfunding — it’s in the name — campaigns do much more than raise financial capital.
These days, developers need to have a project that’s pretty far along in development and raise a lot of awareness to make their games a success on platforms like Kickstarter. That means you already need to have some money to pay for development and marketing, so why not just turn to investors or other funding avenues to make your game instead?
Turning to investors for funding is potentially less risky than going it alone, but keep in mind that crowdfunding platforms can be as powerful PR and marketing tools. In fact, successful campaigns use them to raise money and build communities simultaneously. When you create a crowdfunding campaign, you’re not just making a game; you’re forging a strong relationship with a highly engaged community of people who will become your biggest advocates — if you can deliver what you promise. Investors might have money and a bit of insight, but they can’t match the power of an excited audience.
Studios like PlatinumGames have been open about how crowdfunding isn’t just about money. When the Japanese developer took to Kickstarter for The Wonderful 101: Remastered, executive director Atsushi Inaba told Gematsu that the campaign was about bringing fans together and funding the various rewards it had promised backers.
It’s also possible to attract a publisher as the result of a successful crowdfunding campaign. If you have a large community of people who are willing to give you money to create it, that shows that you have something special. There are more publishers now than ever, each looking for the next big thing. For these companies, backing something that is already hugely popular and has attracted a considerable amount of money is a much safer bet than trying to create something from scratch.
When the first wave of video game crowdfunding success stories for games like Elite Dangerous and Project CARS hit back in 2012, it was possible to come to platforms like Kickstarter with only a rough idea and some concepts for what your finished game could be. As time has passed, consumers have come to want more information about your project because solid pitches in the past failed to materialize. In 2020, your game should be far into production to secure funding from players. If you don't have a gameplay video as part of your campaign, you will find it very hard to convince anyone to give you money.
Here's one of the paradoxes about crowdfunding: You are meant to raise money from your audience to fuel the creation of your game, but it already has to be in development to be crowdfunded. Deciding on a goal on crowdfunding should be about hitting a figure you know you can reach, and having a clear plan on how that money will be used.
Regardless, your funding goal needs to be at a level where you can deliver what you are setting out to do. As Ico Partners’ Thomas Bidaux puts it, "Aiming too low and being funded, but unable to deliver on the rewards is an excellent way to sabotage your career." Campaigns that raise 20% of their goal in the first 48 hours are generally successfully funded, so it's essential to engage with your community and make sure that they not only know about your project but are excited about it too.
As well as your funding goal, developers and publishers need to think about stretch goals. These are additional features that the company will commit to adding once the campaign has hit a certain amount of funding. If your initial goal would allow you to make a smaller-scale version of the game, then stretch goals are a great place to flesh out your work. One example of these is the targets that Playtonic came up with when funding Yooka-Laylee via Kickstarter (below).
"Our funding goal had been set for a scope we were happy with," Playtonic's Gavin Price explains, "We saw stretch goals as purely a way to add some wishlist features the game otherwise would ship without, maybe to be added at a later date."
When deciding on these features, it's essential to engage with your audience to ensure that your stretch goals are in line with what the community wants. However, Hannah Flynn, the communications director of Sunless Skies developer Failbetter, says that you don't want to give everything away.
"The most important thing with stretch goals is not to announce them in advance," she says, "That way, you can pace their reveal alongside the pace of the campaign."
In addition to stretch goals, many platforms allow for various funding tiers. These are different amounts that people can donate to a project, with backers receiving more perks the more money they give. For example, donating $8 to the Yooka-Laylee campaign would mean those backers’ names appear in the credits. Forking out $15 for a higher tier would mean receiving the game on Steam, while the digital console version of the game could be purchased for $24. If backers gave $87, they received a T-shirt from Insert Coin and all previous rewards, including the digital deluxe edition of the game — which included a code for the game — the digital soundtrack, a retro manual, and a digital artbook.
One way to make these rewards encourage people to back your campaign is to add a ticking clock. Have limited edition items or rewards that funders can only obtain by supporting the crowdfunding campaign. Alternatively, you can offer digital and physical versions of your game at a slight discount from how much they will cost on release.
Rewards can be both digital or physical, but it’s important to remember that, like the game itself, these need to be things that you can deliver.
Now that you've planned your crowdfunding campaign, you're ready to launch, right? Not quite. You need to have an existing audience before you take it live. Ideally, you should announce your crowdfunding plans at least a month before the campaign goes live. That way, people have time to get excited and help spread the word.
This announcement needs to get people excited and tease some information about what your campaign will include, and have a distinct call to action. You need to make sure that people are paying attention and engaged enough to spread the word and back you financially when your campaign launches.
Make it clear what date your campaign starts, and make sure that people know which platform you’ll use. In the time leading up to the crowdfunding push, make sure you are out there in front of your community. Put a face to your campaign. Do an ‘Ask Me Anything’ (AMA) event on Reddit where your audience can get to know you and any other people on your team. A human face (or faces) can help people become invested in your game, in your story, much more than any screenshots, trailers, or gameplay videos might.
Be sure to keep the excitement going well after your campaign launches. Keep your audience informed with constant updates, videos, and comments, being as detailed as you possibly can. Take time to respond to questions from the audience, and strive to be as transparent as possible about the process. The crowdfunding audience greatly appreciates it when game developers share their success, and level with them about their challenges.
The crowdfunding audience is your community and greatly appreciates game developers when they share their stories as they are an integral part of the journey to success. Treat them just like you would want to treat your most loyal fans, and make them a part of the conversation around your game.
There are numerous reasons why a crowdfunding campaign might fail, but failure doesn't necessarily mean your game has reached the end of the road. If you approach things correctly, you can still cultivate success even if you don’t reach your funding goal. The horror game Nevermind raised only half of its $250,000 target when developer Flying Mollusk took to Kickstarter in early 2014. However, studio co-founder Erin Reynolds says there were still positives to the experience.
"While it’s true that the first campaign didn’t reach its funding goal, we ultimately still see it as having been a success in that it helped us connect with so many amazing supporters who became an important part of the Nevermind community," she explains, "Given that we were able to build upon the interest from that community in shaping future campaigns, it proved to be just as valuable as the potential project funding itself."
The main issue with Nevermind’s crowdfunding push was its ambitious funding goal. $250,000 is a high target. Flying Mollusk aimed for an amount that meant it could deliver a high-quality experience, but this was too much for consumers to give to a small and relatively new development studio.
Fable Fortune from Flaming Fowl was far from reaching its $353,000 target on Kickstarter three weeks into its campaign in 2016. Ultimately, the studio canceled the crowdfunding push. A large part of the reason for this was that it was a free-to-play game. If consumers could play the end result for free, then trying to convince them to give you money ahead of launch is pretty tough. That’s especially true when they won’t have played it yet and therefore won’t know how good a value your perks could be.
Mobile games also struggle, likely due to them already having a pretty low RRP (Recommended Retail Price) — if they aren't already free-to-play. Games targeted at kids also aren't strong performers on crowdfunding platforms. This is because children obviously don’t have their own credit cards and therefore have to ask their parents to spend money on a game that may not be out for years. It's a pretty hard sell.
More often than not, successful campaigns are the ones that raise 20% of their goal within the first two days of launching. Not only does this mean that lots of people are backing a game from the get-go, but that other consumers are far more likely to contribute to your campaign since it looks like it’s going to succeed. A campaign that’s struggling won’t exactly make a great impression on someone, so they won’t back it.
Another reason why crowdfunding campaigns can fail is if the pitch simply isn’t strong enough or the project is too early in development. Back in 2012, games like Frontier Developments’ Elite Dangerous went to Kickstarter and won hearts, minds, and — most importantly — money from its audience based on a relatively limited pitch.
These days, crowdfunding campaigns depend on games that are well into production. Developers also need to have a trailer that shows off their game's complete feature set. Ideally, developers also need a playable demo. It’s not enough to launch a crowdfunding campaign with some concept art and cool ideas; you need to win people over by not only presenting your pitch but showing that you can deliver on it.
If your crowdfunding campaign fails to meet its funding goal, you still have options. For one, you can try to do another crowdfunding campaign, taking into account the lessons from your previous failure.
When Flying Mollusk returned to Kickstarter later in 2014, the studio set a lower goal of $75,000 for Nevermind. It was able to do this with funding from another source, meaning they could build a new core experience to show potential backers. Through crowdfunding, they were able to add extra features to the experimental horror game, including an Xbox One version and VR support.
"For that, we didn’t need quite as much funding, so we were naturally able to ask for a lower amount than the first campaign," Reynolds says.
After Fable Fortune failed to hit its $353,000 funding target on Kickstarter, developer Flaming Fowl attracted private funding. This was partly the result of the campaign showing how much love and desire there was for the game, illustrating once again that crowdfunding is not only a sound way of raising money but also a means of building a community around your game. Ultimately, Flaming Fowl released Fable Fortune on Steam Early Access in July 2017, building on the audience it had created via Kickstarter before the card game was finally fully released the following year.
It’s also possible to attract publishers even if your crowdfunding campaign doesn’t meet its target. Many games financed through Kickstarter end up being released by third-parties: Yooka-Laylee was published by Team17, for example, while Deep Silver released Shenmue III, and 505 Games published Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. So even if your campaign fails, you can use it to show that there’s an audience for your game, even if you couldn’t raise enough money on your own. You can show that people want what you’re making, but you just need some cash from elsewhere to finish your game.
A crowdfunding campaign can be a good testing period, but you’re not out of the woods after it is finished — in many ways, you're just getting started. After you've celebrated the successful funding of your game, remember that you need to deliver on your campaign promises.
Having a community around your campaign is wonderful, but you need to manage expectations. Communication with your audience is paramount. Show off your game, then take community feedback. Be transparent so that your players are satisfied when your game finally arrives on their platforms of choice.
And don't forget to deliver big on any of your other campaign promises. Make sure that you deliver every reward at top quality and on time.
Offering backers a physical reward, such as a T-shirt, figure, or comic book — like PlatinumGames did with The Wonderful 101: Remastered on Kickstarter — is a great incentive, but remember that’s something you’re going to have to have designed, produced, and shipped to them. These costs could add up, especially if you need to send items overseas, and backers might not be happy if they’re asked to pay for shipping.
Sometimes backer rewards can’t be delivered due to unexpected factors. These are, by nature, impossible to predict, but make sure you have a strategy in place to appease fans who are unhappy with you not being able to live up to your promises as planned. Have other rewards ready to keep them happy, such as access to a playable demo.
Remember, those who back your crowdfunding campaign are among your biggest fans and most vocal advocates — a precious commodity in the games industry. But, if you disappoint them, they can just as easily become your most prominent critics.
A good example of this was Project GODUS from legendary developer Peter Molyneux. The campaign raised more than $700,000 USD on Kickstarter, but it quickly became apparent that they overpromised and under-delivered. This led to an extremely disappointed and frustrated fan base, and Molyneux said he regrets what happened with funding.
Crowdfunding has the potential to help developers raise a lot of money, but it’s not an easy journey. Developers need to make sure their project wins the confidence of potential backers with a pitch that is both exciting and achievable. It's crucial to be geared up to engage with your community before the campaign goes live and to make sure that there is a groundswell of excitement right away and to ensure it continues through the campaign and after.
Crowdfunding isn’t just about making money; it’s about building a loyal audience around your game, so you must keep these fans engaged. They will be your most active and excited customers, but if you don’t keep an eye on what the community is saying or what they’re expecting, you could end up failing in the long run.
As you look to crowdfund your own project, let’s recap the steps you should take to set yourself up for a successful campaign.
Crowdfunding isn't the only way to fund your game. You can build even more momentum and expand your game's potential with additional funding sources that support your crowdfunding efforts.
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