I come across many Kickstarters for gaming resources of all kinds as a part of running Kismet’s Gamer Gathering, my Facebook fan page. I announce Kickstarters on my page in their last 48 hours, so long as they’ve made it to 75% of their funding goal and passed my initial scan. I do this to help gamers keep track of the scores of projects available. I do not work for these companies nor receive kickbacks. I do not have the cash to kick in for many games - but I have learned a few things after doing this for a couple of years that I would like to share with you.
This quick overview will point to features you should look for when deciding if a Kickstarter is worth backing. It can also serve as a checklist if you are thinking of crowdfunding your own game. I can make no promises about what your outcomes will be, but I can say that, aside from the video games I’ve backed, I’ve received the rewards I expected from the Kickstarters I’ve supported. They have been as promised and mostly on time. And I take my own advice while reviewing everything I support.
First, a basic rule of thumb: If a Kickstarter just has a video and two anemic paragraphs of text, pass it by. Don’t even bother. While Kickstarter is a place for ordinary folks to bring their projects to life, it’s also a place to learn how to be professional. There are many guides and successful Kickstarters to learn from, and if a project leader can’t do their homework, the sad truth is that they probably can’t follow through on their larger, longer-term promises.
Secondly, beware the plagiarist. If a Kickstarter is using art that has been yanked from somewhere else on the internet, without any indication that permission has been granted, keep moving. If rewards are offered that have been bought from elsewhere but no indication of a working relationship with that other party is given, back away. If the author is claiming that they will create a game based on known properties (like movies, shows, or other games) without explaining if they have asked for permission to do so, hold onto your wallet. It is nice to have big dreams but a legitimate entity will secure their own art, their own rewards, and any permissions needed before asking anyone else to support them.
Video: Please note that unlike many folks, I don’t tend to watch the videos for Kickstarters first, or all that often. I want to see a text explanation that is nicely laid out and easy to understand, not just a video that is harder to follow and easier to forget. It is standard for a project to have a video and it’s a good way to reach visual and auditory learners, but it is only one part of the process. Don’t just rely on a slick video to sell you on a project, or to sell your project for you.
Art/Pictures: There doesn’t have to be a ton of art, but a few pieces definitely show some effort and help to establish the mood and style. Very small operations might only have one piece, or might only have the logo for the company; this isn’t the best way to start a presentation. A little effort to provide visuals shows some dedication and transparency. Even less polished art or pictures show the desire to provide the audience with more.
Project Description: A condensed and informative description is worth its weight in gold. The audience can’t hold the product in their hands yet; they need to be able to imagine it and know what they’re getting into. Bullet lists are good for the highlights, and short paragraphs are preferable to lengthy diatribes. The project should be broken down into its most attractive and unique features and presented in a persuasive fashion. If the project leader can’t be bothered to do that much, chances are they won’t be bothered to bring the project to a satisfactory conclusion, and you’ll lose your money for backing it.
This is particularly true for those who want starting cash to open gaming stores or cafes. Brick and mortar businesses are quite risky. Many people who kick in will never get to visit the location - and nobody should have faith that the business will get off the ground if the Kickstarter only has two paragraphs expressing an earnest desire to run a small store. It is baffling how many people ask for tens of thousands of dollars to open brick and mortar stores but do not provide plans for a location, layout, inventory, or running the business.
It is understandable for some grammatical flaws to be present, especially in international projects written by second-language learners, but again, polish is a sign of dedication. Some project leaders will post their Kickstarters in draft form before they go live to ask for feedback. Getting friends or fans to review the text for a Kickstarter and provide corrections is worth the time. Attention to detail is one of the qualities a Kickstarter crew needs to have in order to provide everything they promise, so even if it feels nit-picky, be wary of the writing.
Social Media/Web Connections: Look for social media links and an official web presence. See if the crew has a plan for teasers, updates, and FAQs. Regular communication is an excellent sign of a professional entity that intends to provide real customer service, not just lip service. Active social media updates help to keep people interested and spread the word. A Kickstarter that makes no real effort to promote itself is shooting itself in the foot. Not everything is going to go viral, especially since games are niche products to begin with, so the project crew needs to be willing to put extended motion into reaching out.
Samples: It is a great sign if a project has mock-ups, PDFs, clips, or other evidence that some work has already been done. These samples will give the viewer an idea of the quality and style the project is aiming for. Even if it’s just one card, one character sheet, or something small, it is better than simply offering a typed description of what a project intends to do.
Reward Tiers: It is always worth paying attention to how much you will have to pay and for what. If the minimum amount for one short book by an unknown writer is $100, chances are good that the project is going to struggle and fail. On the other hand, if a small-time project is promising tons of rewards at each tier, it is right to be skeptical about their ability to deliver. Kickstarters that let you kick in for less than $10 for small rewards can be welcoming. The Dark Eras Kickstarter by Onyx Path did a great job by offering only specific chapters in PDF for just $5, for instance.
One important aspect that cannot be avoided is pricing and perceived value. Some people are willing to pay $30 for a PDF of a gaming book, but many are not. Whether or not it is fair, cheaper options can attract more backers. If you can get a PDF version of a book for a few dollars more when you kick in for a print copy, more people will feel like they're getting more for their money. With that being said, there are certain standards in pricing. Chances are, you’re going to pay $40 to $60 for a printed, color, 300+ page hardcover core rulebook for just about any game. Whether you like that range is another matter, but complaining about it isn’t likely to go far.
It is vital to look for a description of what is in each pledge level. If you cannot understand what you are pledging for or how much you are going to get from your pledge, ask the project leader a question before pledging. If they cannot directly explain exactly what you are signing up for at each level, keep moving.
Stretch Goals: It is a sign of confidence when a project has a reasonable list of stretch goals. As always, beware of projects that promise the moon. Fulfilling stretch goals adds extra cost, time, and wear and tear, even when they’re not that intensive. Trying to promise something big at each step is a sign of overreaching and could overwhelm the project, leading to delays or worse, quitting without finishing the full run. If the stretch goals are for things that are already made or mostly arranged, that can help backers feel confident that they will be delivered.
Add-Ons: Add-ons are nice, but not necessary. A game might have something related, like a card deck, novels, dice, maps, or other items that you can add to your order by adding extra money. If a Kickstarter has add-ons, they should be clearly described and priced in their own section.
People: It is ideal to have a section about the people behind the project. It’s not that everybody who’s working on a project has to have a lot of games under their belt. It’s okay to have new faces, but they should be able to speak for themselves and sell their abilities. Of course, having previous experience in doing the work and/or running a successful Kickstarter is always a plus.
Risks and Costs: Some projects address their risks toward the bottom of their opening page. It is a sign of forethought when a Kickstarter goes over things that could go wrong or cause delays. It is even better if possible solutions are already given, in case these problems should come to pass. Anything that has been learned from previous Kickstarters is great to see. A few projects have charts that show how they intend to spend the money they receive; these are always welcome sights.
What sounds like common sense is easily overlooked, so I thought I would put this out there as a source of help. We've all heard horror stories about unscrupulous creators who never followed through with their Kickstarters, and some of us may have burned by crowdfunding before. There are no guarantees, but you can have better luck if you put your excitement aside as you shop. Examine everything that's outlined. Don't be afraid to pull back from something that doesn't seem stable or trustworthy.
And if you're designing a Kickstarter, you don't want to be that guy who disappoints everyone. The good news is, you don't have to be. Brief searches can bring up a wealth of usable information. Spend a few bucks to learn from Monte Cook, who's been behind a number of very successful projects now. At least study the 7th Sea Kickstarter, which was amazing from start to finish.