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You Can't Always Kickstart Your Heart

Sanya Weathers Posted:
Columns Developer Perspectives 0

Sometimes, in the vale of tears we call the game industry, your startup shuts down before launch. Mine did, on Monday. Dominus is no more. I'm reasonably sure some of you reading this article are here today hoping for a post-mortem, or at least some juicy gossip. Fortunately for me, I was raised right. My mentors over the years have taught me that you never draw to an inside straight, you never pee outside on a windy day, and you never write a post-mortem until the body is cold. 

Instead, today I'm going to try and address the most common response to cancellation in this modern age: "Why don't you just try Kickstarter?"

Here are the five questions to ask before you Kickstart (or create a project at any crowdfunding site):

1. Do I Own The Rights To This Idea?

If you thought up the concept on your own, terrific. Move to #2.

If you are trying to save a project that was originally funded elsewhere, you first need to convince the original investors/backers that you should take possession of the intellectual property and existing assets. It's worth a shot. Hey, you don't ask, you don't get, right?

It's likely that the answer they will give you is "Sure, if you pay us X." X is equal to whatever they put in, plus a percentage. If you can pay, great, move to #2.

If you would need crowdfunding just to buy the rights/IP, and then still more crowdfunding to get it off the ground, you're probably done before you start. Part of the problem is timing. While you're out there beating the drum on Kickstarter, the people who own the assets are going to be trying to sell them. What will you do if they find a buyer?

Part of the problem is money. With a lot of luck you might raise enough to buy the IP, or enough to develop the idea, but for both it'd take a miracle (see #3 and #4).

Until/unless you own the concept, you cannot put together a crowdfunding proposal that would be worth the risk.

2. Do I Have The Team?

If you are planning on making an MMO, you need a skeleton team at least verbally committed to joining you if you acquire the funding. At minimum, you need an experienced project manager, a server programmer, and an animator on board - because those are the three roles that are the hardest to fill. We call them unicorns. Sorry, but "idea guy" is completely useless, here.

If you're trying to relaunch a cancelled project, you're not in any better position than someone starting from scratch. The artists and programmers you had (the ones with industry experience and the ability to relocate) had interviews lined up within 24 hours of the project's cancellation.

In fact, if you're trying to relaunch a cancelled project, you've got an even larger personnel challenge, because your new server programmer will largely be working with someone else's code.

Unicorns don't like that. Mop and bucket work does not appeal to people who are so rare and in such demand that it's difficult to fill positions at high status companies with guaranteed bonuses and free donuts. That's not to say you won't find anyone for your labor of love. But you do need to have that person located and committed before you start raising money.

3. Roughly How Many People Would Support This Project?

Okay, you own the concept and you have the core of a team that can pull it off. Are there enough people out there willing to support your concept with money?

You don't know until you try, of course. But you can get a rough guess, especially if what you're trying to fund was already in the public eye.

You can't assume that everyone who signed up for your beta or your newsletter is willing to pony up. If liking you on Facebook was a condition of beta access, you can't use your Facebook likes as an indicator, either. Your most engaged users - the ones commenting on Facebook, lurking in the forums on a regular basis, or showing up at events - are probably good bets.

You can beg those engaged users to each bring a friend. You can hope that word of mouth will take over and you'll get lots of interest*. It could happen. But that's not the way to bet.

*NB, "interest" is not the same thing as "pledges." Not to kick a dog when it's down, but look at "Your World." That Kickstarter got written up everywhere in the gaming community, and in a whole pile of places outside the gaming community. It wound up with a total of 109 backers before it closed down. Two of those were 10K donors, and I've got a nickel that says one of those was the guy who was running the project. (The other 107 backers contributed less than 2K to the total, which takes us to #4.)

4. How Much Money Can I Expect To Raise?

Another one that you don't know until you try, and if you're crazy enough to want to make an MMO in the first place, you're probably a cockeyed optimist and there's nothing I can say to you. Also, you're my kind of crazy; we should get together at the next con.

Seriously, though, most of your pledges will be small. This has nothing to do with how cool your rewards are, though it won't hurt to be cool. The vast majority of your backers will donate under a hundred dollars.  (Kickstarter's website says "To date the most popular pledge amount is $25 and the average pledge is around $70.")

I'm not turning up my nose at such sums. The beauty of crowdsourcing is that it's not the size of each donation, it's the number of people donating that matters.

It's just... math. Ten thousand people (a wildly optimistic number) donating a hundred dollars each (also wildly optimistic) is only a million dollars.

Only?! WTH!!

Well... see #5.

5. How Much Money Do I Need?

It depends on what you want to build. But let's assume you really are crazy, and you want to build a full-featured MMO.

Telling you how much money you need is not something for a single column. It's also impossible, frankly, without knowing the parameters of the project. There are rafts of consultants making a very nice living telling people how much they need to execute their particular idea.

But most of those consultants, after a beer or two or twelve, will tell you that a no-frills MMO with minimal QA testing and a rough launch will take four years and ten million dollars.

One million will not do it. Not even close.

Now you see why I was saying that you should own the concept before Kickstarting, because you almost certainly will not be able to crowdfund enough to acquire an IP, let alone complete the development process.

Strawman's Question: "But what about just using Kickstarter as a proof-of-concept? Something to show the venture capitalists just how many people love the idea so much they're willing to open their wallets?"

This is the hope and prayer of practically everyone using Kickstarter, because none of the pros really think they can raise everything through crowdfunding. They just want to get enough done to go trolling for publishers and partners.

But it can backfire. What if investors want to see ten thousand devoted fans, and all you can produce is three thousand? Does it mean the finished project wouldn't have resonated with 10K people? No! But that 3K number looks awfully lonely there in your presentation.

Still and all, if I ever find myself in a situation where I can answer my five questions with confidence and positive numbers, you better believe I'm going to go for it. Because for every Your World, there's a Banner Saga or a Double Fine.




Sanya Weathers