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  • Writer's pictureIan

If you’ve spent any time developing a game and getting it ready for a Kickstarter campaign, you’ve probably heard about the importance of building a crowd. Although you’ll get a lot of passing traffic during a Kickstarter campaign, you really need to bring your own crowd. Part of this is about getting the best possible start for the campaign – if you get at least half-funded in the first 48 hours, you have a significantly higher chance of funding by the end. But whatever your early days are like, you’ve got a better chance, the more people know and care about your game before you launch.

So how are you supposed to get that crowd together? How can you get people subscribing to your email newsletters, how can you make sure that people are anticipating your launch before it happens, rather than just hoping they’ll find it on the day? I’ve had two successful Kickstarter campaigns in the last six months and during that time have managed to build my ‘crowd’ from nothing to around 800 people. Here’s five steps you can take, and my assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of each step.

1. Give stuff away. Running a prize draw is a really quick and easy way to get people to subscribe. If you already have any kind of social media profile you can publicise it yourself, or you can do this through a site like that already has a lot of visitors (and has a special ‘giveaways’ page. I tried this in October 2020 using a basic model of ‘subscribe to my email and get entered into the draw’. The prize was a pile of boardgames, although you can get a similar result by giving away just one good quality, high-profile game. I’d originally seen this done by Dan & Connie Kazmeier for their campaign for Chai, and it seemed to get a lot of interest (although at the time I hadn’t appreciated how much legwork they were doing at conventions and online as well). I picked up around 250 email subscribers in 30 days this way.

Pros – You can get hundreds of subscribers quickly, for a relatively small cost and almost no effort.

Cons – If people come for the free stuff, they may not be interested in what you’re developing or selling, and you may well find they unsubscribe as soon as they find out they haven’t won. But you do at least get their attention for a while, and many people will stay subscribed (especially the prize winners!).

2. Create content - Write stuff or broadcast stuff to inform and entertain people.

This is a great way of getting people interested in what you have to say. It’s a slow-burn approach but costs no money and just a little of your time. Writing is a habit and it can be easy to feel like you have nothing to say, but just start writing about something you’re interested in and you’ll soon get your flow. Just having a blog (like this one) is a great way to get started – don’t worry about how many people are reading it, but do assume that people will (so make sure you’re not saying anything that you might regret at a later date). Or if you don’t think you’re a writer, make videos. Record a podcast. Draw or paint stuff. And share it all on social media.

There are lots of great examples of individuals and companies that have done this to great effect – Exploding Kittens launched their game off the back of the very popular comic The Oatmeal; Edmund McMillen took a very similar approach for his game Tapeworm, which attracted over 12000 KS backers; Of course Jamey Stegmaier has built a huge following through his definitive guide to running Kickstarters (he’d already had some KS success which gave him something to write about, but he continued to build his audience by sharing his success and his lessons). And Gabe Barratt, who runs the Board Game Design Lab site and podcast, has built up a large following from his advice, network and listeners.

Content creation can be a great way to build a loyal and lasting audience as long as you’re prepared to put in sustained effort over a long-ish period of time, but you’ll learn a lot from it too.

3. The ‘loss-leader’ campaign. This is one of the ways in which you can generate a crowd directly on Kickstarter – by launching something at a very low price that people can’t help but back. Cardboard Alchemy did this really well with their initial campaign for drinks coasters and game trays, which didn’t make them any money but gathered over a thousand backers, which they were then able to carry into their next campaign for their full game Mission Catastrophe.

Perroloko Games did this with their Dirty Fridge campaign (a print & play game for just 1 Euro); Chilean company Nebrall Games did something very similar with their roll & write games. My own game Ukiyo wasn’t quite in this mould, but I did always have the intention of having Ukiyo at a no-brainer price (£7) so that people would be encouraged to take a look and hopefully give it a try even if they weren’t sure.

This approach can have some real advantages – people can try what you have to offer and you can build a good level of trust if you deliver successfully on that first project. You’ll also get to try delivering a campaign with minimal risk. Just make sure you’re not heading for a financial loss by doing this – something like a print & play can be a great way to get started.

4. Ads. Some people are put off by this because it feels a bit too commercial and if you’re starting off as a hobbyist designer, this might feel more like running a business. But ultimately, if you’re planning a Kickstarter then that’s exactly what you’re doing – you’ll be running a business with all the accounting, taxes, publicity, manufacturing and everything else that brings. Adverts are a great way to get to people that you know could be interested, with a budget to suit you.

There’s lots of different ways in which you can place ads, and there’s an option for every budget. You can get decent reach from as little as £20-30, or you can spend many hundreds over a co-ordinated campaign.

My personal favourite is Facebook ads, for two reasons – you can reach a large, targeted audience and be very specific about the stated interests you want to get to, and it’s really affordable. Even with an ad that costs less than £5 a day you can still reach thousands of viewers that you know have an interest in your subject. It’s also really easy to tweak and tailor your ads based on the detailed data you get back, so you can test and adjust what gets the best results in terms of clickthroughs.

Many other publishers swear by Boardgamegeek ads, which directly reach huge numbers of gamers, but they’re not cheap (expect around $500 for a campaign) and personally I’ve had very little success with them, but they are generally better for big games or campaigns that want to become even bigger.

5. Finally, the old-fashioned way, talking to one individual at a time. This is about getting round the game conventions (real or virtual), playtesting, helping others and building genuine community around your work (and their work). If you help people, they’re far more likely to be interested in you – plus it’s the right thing to do, you’ll feel better and everyone wins. This takes the longest, but gets backers and followers that will stick around through thick and thin – they’re there because they want to be there. This might seem like a lot of work, and it is, but it’s more scalable than you might think. Why not set yourself an achievable target of, say, two new people or connections a month?

If this all sounds a bit calculating and cold to you, then you’re feeling a common concern about what used to be called ‘networking’. But think of it more as ‘connecting’, or just plain helping, and you’ll find that your community will build, organically, before you know it, and you'll be adding a load of value to a lot of people around you.

In all of this, it’s really important to remember everyone’s right to unsubscribe – don’t force your content on people that don’t want it, and make sure you understand and respect the wishes of every individual as to how they want to be contacted. This is not just the right thing to do, it’s also a legal requirement. If you’re not sure if you’re leaning too heavily on your followers, put yourself in their shoes. Are you sending out comms too frequently? Is it really adding value to them? If you’re not sure, I would say err on the side of caution – you want people to look forward to your emails, not groan, and once you’ve lost a subscriber, chances are you’ll never get them back.

Ultimately, you can do any or all of the above – a giveaway and a few ads can give you an early boost of interest, but without the genuine community spadework, it’ll be hard to build an audience that are there for the long run. Take a long view – there’s no real quick wins in this if you want people to genuinely care about your work. But I hope with the above you can find the right combination to suit the amount of time and money that you have available. Good luck!

Do let me know in the comments if you have other ways of building a crowd.

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In many ways, designing a game is the easy bit. Certainly when it comes to Kickstarter campaigns, the bit that you’re likely to be least familiar with (assuming you got into all of this as a gamer then as a game designer) is the business of actually getting stuff into the hands of backers, or Fulfilment. To me, Fulfilment was one of those things that I’d never really considered how it might work until I came to do this myself. Much like plumbing, and chocolate, they’re just things that happen by magic.

And like those things, there are people in the world that have a very good handle on how to make them happen. If you’re considering running a Kickstarter yourself, there are basically two options you can take – either you get a specialist company to do this for you, or you do it yourself. Companies like Spiral Galaxy, GamesQuest, Easyship, QML and Funagain are just some of the most popular specialists in this field. For you, at its simplest, this is a straight choice between money and time, although with a more complex project it may also be a question of whether it’s actually possible for you to do the job sufficient justice.

For my recent Kickstarter campaign for Ukiyo, I decided to do the fulfilment myself. This was for two reasons, both deriving from the small size and weight of the game. First, the games and their packaging wouldn’t take up a ridiculous amount of space in my house (assuming the campaign was modestly successful rather than a surprise viral hit) and second, the postage cost for a small package was very cheap if I did the shipping via the UK’s national postal service, Royal Mail.

Basically, if you involve a specialised fulfilment service (and there are many very able and experienced companies available that can help with this), they have a tiered pricing structure based on the weight of the package. And the minimum size is usually 500g, with the price only gradually increasing up to several kilos. So for a ‘big box’ game, this is great. But as an 18-card mini-game, Ukiyo only weighs 42 grammes (and only 60g even when it’s in a padded envelope), so this isn’t a great deal – no backer is going to pay £10 or £15 shipping for a game that only costs £7. So I went with Royal Mail, and assumed that if it was more successful than expected, that would be a ‘nice problem to have’.

This left me with the small matter of around 400 padded envelopes to fill, check and send. I won’t bore you with all the details, but I will pass on some tips and observations in case you’re considering doing this yourself:

  1. Don’t forget to factor in the cost of the packaging as well as the postage. For each package, I needed a padded envelope, a compliments slip, a company logo sticker and a customs label. This worked out about 40p per backer – not a cost that makes a big difference to a backer, but it’s a big extra total cost for you if you’ve not planned for it.

  2. Customs labels are a chore. From the UK, any package going to any other country needs a customs label, which has to be filled in with the details of the package to avoid any annoying delays or packages getting stuck in customs. In my case, this meant writing out 300 labels by hand.

  3. And then there’s the Post Office – I definitely annoyed a few local people by monopolising the Post Office counter for hours with my 400 parcels. But then again, they weren’t spending over £1500, so I didn’t feel too bad…

  4. Know your restrictions and ‘de minimis rates’. In other words, for each country you’re sending to, what is the package value above which the recipient is going to have to pay tax or customs duty? It’s different for each country (here’s a great guide). If you’re working with a fulfilment company, you make arrange to have the VAT collected by them, and either you or they then claim it back. But if you’re not using a company, or you’re not VAT-registered, you can’t do this, which might mean a nasty surprise for your backers. On my campaign, I listed up front what backers should be paying in taxes (thankfully, in most cases, it was nothing).

  5. More positively, Mailmerge is great – this is an automated means by which you can take your spreadsheet of backers’ details, and use it to automatically print out address labels. MS Word has a tool for doing this; I ended up using Avery’s own online tool (Avery make the sheets of labels that you print onto). It probably took an hour to set up the spreadsheet, organise the data and get the formatting right, but then being able to bulk print saved six or seven hours of handwriting.

6. All this takes time – again, absolutely fine during a winter lockdown, as time is something I have right now. I might have felt differently if it was a July without movement restrictions!

7. Also, don’t forget about the space in your home – with a small game and a relatively modest number of backers this was just a case of having a few boxes lying around for a week. If you have 5000 backers for a sprawling, story-driven epic, where will you put them all?

8. Finally, the most important thing is getting it right. You want to be absolutely sure that every one of your backers gets what they were expecting, without mistakes. That means having a slick enough process and workflow so that you’re confident that you’ve got it right, and that you’ll spot any mistakes before packages get sent. If you’re not one for detail, or if you don’t feel like you need that kind of hassle, think carefully before committing to doing the fulfilment yourself.

In conclusion, this ultimately comes down to your appetite for what’s involved. There’s a lot of work to do, and it’s all on you if anything goes wrong. But it’s also a great way to learn, and there’s something really rewarding about doing the entire process of game creation, from having an idea right through to sticking on the stamps and posting the parcels. You can personalise the package (in my case, I hand-wrote a thank-you on each one); it can also save your backers money, as using your national postal service can often be the cheapest way to ship something, particularly if it’s small and light.

Just make sure you think about what you'll do if your 100 backers ends up being 2000...!

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In this episode in the current mini-series of blogs based around lessons and observations from my most recent Kickstarter campaign, I’m looking at the Kickstarter pledge manager and whether it’s got enough functionality to serve your needs as a project creator.

There are plenty of companies around that will offer Pledge Manager services for you, outside of Kickstarter itself. The big ones are Backerkit (now incorporating CrowdOx, previously one of its rivals), Gamefound (now also a crowdfunding site in its own right) and the clearly named Pledge Manager, a subsidiary of Kicktraq. But Kickstarter itself comes with quite a bit of functionality – my last blog looked at some of the data you get as a creator, and in this post I’ll make the case that Kickstarter’s own functionality might be everything you need.

If you want to engage the services of a pledge management service, you’ll need to pay anything from $200 to $500, possibly more if you project really takes off. Most of these services will say (probably reasonably) that you’ll make at least that much in extra pledges, but for a smaller project that’s still a lot of money, particularly if you’re considering paid advertising and/or paid preview videos (which can each set you back another $500).

For me, the biggest drawback with KS remains that you have to include shipping as part of the pledge total, which means it forms part of the funding total that Kickstarter take their 10% from (so it’s more expensive for backers and for you) and you also have to factor this in when setting your project funding total. If you want to add shipping on afterwards, you need an external pledge manager. A smaller drawback is that you can’t factor in ‘add-ons’, like a playmat, a bigger box or extra pieces – you have to factor this into core reward levels. It also means you lose the opportunity to ‘up-sell’, in other words to get backers to drop more stuff into their basket on the way out (like maybe other games you’ve published, or accessories). Again, you can build these items into your pledge levels, but it can get unwieldy if you have too many options and variants.

An external pledge manager also allows you to keep the door open for pre-orders after the project itself has closed (which feels a bit like cheating to me, but it makes sense for larger publishers). So fundamentally, these are your main advantages to using an external pledge manager:

- It saves money on shipping (because KS fees won’t be taken from your shipping total)

- It allows you to provide more up to date quote for shipping (particularly now, when prices seem to go up every week)

- You have more chances to get your backers to ‘upgrade’ their pledge, including after the KS campaign has finished

- You can sell other things to your backers, like previous games, accessories or merch.

But then, if you’re on your first or second project, and you’re just looking to get your game backed, you may not need all that extra stuff. So what can you do, if you decide to keep it cheap and simple, and go with Kickstarter’s built in services? Here’s the main features:

- Send one backer survey per reward level, which can have as many questions as you want, but cannot include marketing information;

- Export backer details and track what you’ve sent to whom;

- See individual and total pledge amounts, including what’s been pledged for shipping, which can be sorted by country and by reward tier;

Some potentially hot news is that Kickstarter have just finished beta testing an add-ons service. I spoke to a couple of commercial pledge manager providers and they were relatively dismissive of this as a service (perhaps understandably) but if this does what it claims to, then it’s potentially a big uplift in the in-built service you get from KS as a creator. This would potentially make it far easier for you to offer a more customised service to backers, and allow backing options without having to define every variable as part of the reward levels.

So what’s my verdict? I think if you fit most of the following criteria then you’re probably just fine with Kickstarter:

- You have no more than two versions of your game (eg a standard version and a deluxe version);

- You don’t have a range of expansions or other optional extras;

- You are not aiming to sell related merchandise like t-shirts, posters and artwork;

- You’re not expecting more than a few hundred backers;

- There’s nothing unusual about your shipping arrangements (eg multiple waves);

- It is your first game, and/or you’re not holding ‘stock’ of another game;

For most people embarking on their first or even second KS campaign, much of the above is probably true. And equally, the bigger and more complex your project, the more likely you are to benefit from external help. And with a bigger campaign (and if you’re thinking thousands rather than hundreds of backers) then the cost of that service will be a much smaller proportion of your overall budget, and hence better value.

Of course, the more attractive and varied the services are that are provided by external pledge managers, the more pressure it puts on Kickstarter to keep upping their game, which has got to be good for everyone. GameFound have recently expanded their services to become a direct competitor to Kickstarter, so that will definitely be one to watch.

Next time – what happens if you do the shipping and fulfilment yourself (and it’s not all bad news)…

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