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Indie creators' lessons learned from Kickstarter success and failure

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

Veteran game designer Brenda Romero introduced her Indiecade panel — titled "Crowdfunding: Do you feel lucky?" — with an admission: "I'm Brenda Romero, and I'm the failure on this panel," she said. "I failed a Kickstarter and it's alright."

"Hi, Brenda," the crowd sympathetically responded.

Romero was part of an eclectic group of game designers who had seen success on small and large scale on the crowdfunding site. Her more successful peers included Chris Avellone (Torment: Tides of Numenera, Project Eternity) of Obsidian Entertainment, Max Temkin of Cards Against Humanity fame and Susan and Kenzie Wilson, the mother-daughter team behind the heavily scrutinized — but well-funded — Truth & Trolls project.

Shaker, an "old school RPG," was Romero's failed Kickstarter project. Co-developed with Tom Hall and Loot Drop, Shaker's fundraiser was canceled mid-drive. Romero said she ultimately saw the project's failure to raise the $1 million it needed as a positive.

"Kickstarter prevented a game that had a fatal flaw in it from being made," Romero said. "We made some mistakes that were pretty obvious [later]."

She thanked non-backers "for saving me a year's worth of work" on Shaker, which she plans to pursue at some point as a non-digital game. While Romero said she no longer feels sad about her whiff on Kickstarter, the days immediately following its cancellation were difficult.

"I've never had what I consider to be a public failure," she said. "It was a horrible experience." After that initial disappointment, she said, "There was this wonderful euphoria that I had failed ... and it was OK. I still had friends. People still responded to my emails."

Avellone, who's attached to two very successful Kickstarter projects, said crowdfunding has helped Obsidian and inXile Entertainment respond faster to fan feedback.

"The process of making mistakes and being able to course correct, [that's] one thing I enjoy about the model," he said. "Because you're talking to the public all the time," fans can voice their opinion during the design process. He recalled a Wasteland 2 design decision — the team wanted to make the RPG with "all these social hooks in it" — that was received poorly by backers. Because developers can field feedback on ideas before they're built, he said, "you're not going to waste any programmer or art time. You can focus on the features that people actually want to play the game for."

Beyond the infusion of cash that helped Cards Against Humanity go from idea to reality, Temkin touted another positive of Kickstarter.

"We got a community of people behind our game to evangelize it," he said. "They went into game stores and said 'You should carry this game.' It's a small base, a couple hundred people, but no amount of money can buy that. That was the thing that brought Cards Against Humanity to where it is today."

Kickstarter can carry some unforeseen negatives, as well, the panel warned.

"Anyone with a dollar can [voice their] opinion," Romero said. Her campaign was frequently the target of a comment troll who backed the game with a $1 pledge. And some publishers are asking smaller developers to take their already green-lit projects to Kickstarter to raise extra capital, she said.

Developers who take their projects to Kickstarter often underestimate their development time, the cut Kickstarter and Amazon take, and the cost of shipping physical goods, Temkin warned. "Increase your deadline dramatically," he advised. "The worst case scenario is you're wrong and you make people really happy."

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