What a strange beast making a Kickstarter is! You pour your heart and soul into your dream and ask the public for their hard-earned cash to keep it going. Marketing and hype wrapped around a dream.
Atomic Society didn’t set the world on fire. It was the Waterworld of flops. In the first, vital 7 days we could attract only 122 people to back us. To me, 122 is a massive amount. But we’d need 1000s to succeed.
Countdown to the Apocalypse
Preparation for our Kickstarter started months before we released. Over a year ago. It was always our goal to go on Kickstarter from the moment we started the game. For me – someone so excited about becoming a game developer - it was something I dreamt about daily. I have draft notes of how our Kickstarter would be planned out on bits of paper from early 2015 and I refined those notes almost every month.
There were so many questions and things to find out. I spent more time drafting our Kickstarter page than any of my university assignments. And don’t get me started on trying to make a captivating trailer for a game that is barely 20% complete.
But I believed in our concept. So I decided to write a script for it that explained why the game deserved to exist in a market where there are a million games already. Every sentence in that trailer was scripted, re-scripted, and re-recorded multiple times (using sound recorded equipment held together with tape). I readied myself to present my vision to the world with my own voice on it. On the internet. Where anybody feels free to say anything.
Things weren’t made any easier when a “rival” game named Endciv appeared on Steam Greenlight as we were going into final preparation. It’s another post-apocalyptic settlement game from the look of it. I wish them well. But to see the internet go crazy over a game vaguely similar to yours less than a week before you go public was stressful. Would people even care about us when we came up?
Life lesson: The public don’t care about rivals at the theory stage. They only care about the end result. Whatever product you want to buy, there are several options these days. Games are no different. Quality and price is all people care about.
In the final week before Kickstarter, our tiny team worked extra hard, pulling overtime on top of exhausting day jobs to get the trailer version ready. We were almost set for launch but tired. The only thing holding us back was pressing submit on Kickstarter and going for it.
Kickstarter say it takes 2-3 days to review a Kickstarter before it goes live on their submission button. This is misleading. When you press the button, it then magically says you can launch immediately. This sudden freedom to just go for it freaked me out so much I had to walk around the block 3 times late at night just to decide if we should launch now or later. My impulse is always to go now. But I decided to wait 2 more weeks until the game was in a better state and it let us tighten up the video. But it was hard telling the team about the delay.
Ultimately, 2 weeks later than we intended, I hit the submit button for real. We launched at 10pm UK time to be friendly to those the US. And I had to be at work sweeping floors the next day. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep a wink as the first backers rolled in. I started throwing out press email after press email to any gaming website or journalist I could find an address for. I launched the Steam Greenlight page and held my breath.
The first 24 hours were one of the most mentally manic moments in my life. I was not fit to drive to work the next day really - I literally felt drunk with the adrenaline of our game being exposed. And being stuck at work when all I wanted to be doing was contacting the press was torture. The mania was scary but gave me the courage to flagrantly advertise our game. I can be timid and self-promotion is difficult for me, but Kickstarter is the best energy drink ever and overcame that.
I think the peak of my mania was when I sent a very long, and very rambling email to Peter Molyneux. He remains one of my gaming heroes. (Theme Park, Dungeon Keeper, Black & White, Fable, Populous, Syndicate… I could go on.) I find his passion for game design inspirational. He helped create the “God-Game” genre. To my surprise he replied quickly with some very positive feedback about Atomic Society and some tips. Not that it really helped as we were already underway by then but it was a thrill. One of those “did that really happen?” moments.
But as the first evening came, I knew we were dead in the water. All that work, and it was doomed already. We had to be at 10% in day 1 to be comfortable. We didn’t even hit 1%. Nearly 30 days later, we still haven't cleared 5%.
It was crushing. Suddenly all the things you felt so certain about – about your game and your future - turn out to be things you regret. “I’m sure it will earn £69k!” becomes “You idiot?! Why did you ask for £69k?!” It was an awful feeling because part of you still has hope that maybe the game will go viral. But 95% the press emails that I’d spent ages drafting and personalising for the press went unanswered. I don’t mind that, it’s normal in a world of a million games, but it’s grim work begging people for attention and putting on a mask of professionalism when you know your game is too early to really captivate.
You’ve hyped up your friends, fans, and family and they’re all watching you, and your teammates have done the same with theirs. And then they get to watch you crash and burn in slow motion. There’s a weird denial you have to deal with. You can’t just say everybody “abandon ship!” – you have to act and pretend like it’s going to work. So you continue sending emails, posting on forums, talking on social media, etc for days. You can’t give up even though it’s hopeless.
Then you come to terms with it. Things improved after a couple of weeks. Not in terms of us earning money, but in terms of how I felt about it. What seems like an apocalypse becomes just another misstep. You learn to appreciate the goodness among the failure. You learn to love it when a friend of a friend donates a small amount. When a random stranger on the internet ups their pledge, maybe more than they can afford. We started to learn the journey isn’t over, it’s just going to be much longer than we thought.
The one thing that could’ve changed everything, and made me come close to despair, would be if Steam Greenlight had let us down too. Failing hard on Kickstarter is one thing, but an epic fail on the store where you’re going to earn 90% of your money is something else. It probably would’ve hurt me more.
But Greenlight was the victory in all this. Funny, considering I was the most scared of it. Steam caters for millions of customers and they’re not shy of telling you what they think. Here we were with a crude trailer. And yet comment after comment was positive. Over 6100 people voted yes for our game is just over 2 weeks. In the first day we rose to the top 100 and kept on going. We levelled out at 9th overall despite receiving almost no media attention.
At the end of 30 days of weirdness, If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from this it’s don’t do what you wouldn’t do yourself as a consumer. Personally, as a gamer, I rarely ever back Kickstarters. So why was I even using it? Because the indie dev wisdom says go that way. I made the mistake of doing something I don’t believe in. I don’t like Kickstarter. And that probably rubbed off in how I treated it. I hate hype without substance. I don’t disparage the devs who have made it on Kickstarter, they can handle that marketing circus, but it’s not for me. Chasing after the press, selling stretch goals (which we refused to do), and getting people to spread the word are all things that kind of make me want to vomit. The backers are awesome, but the process is so fake.
So ultimately coming out of a failed experience but working out what makes you feel good is a plus overall. That's why we're now going for plan B. Plan B's tend to be the most exciting path. We're going to make a product, and sell a product. No hype, just making a game, getting feedback, working with a tiny group of customers, and making it better. I can’t wait. I won’t have to go chasing after attention. We can make it our way and hopefully the little bit of money we’ll earn will pay for development. (If you haven't read elsewhere by now, Atomic Society is going to be on sale in the next 2-3 weeks.)
It seems to be that game development, and perhaps all businesses - and perhaps even life in general - is just a case of making mistakes in public and learning from them. As long as you keep learning and you have the passion and skill to learn quickly, before your rivals, you’ll be fine. I've learnt now.
Are we about to make another mistake selling so early? Probably. But at least it will be one we feel comfortable with.