I've been meaning to write a post-mortem on the Hiro Fodder: A Blue Hope Kickstarter campaign for some time, but I always felt like I wasn't ready. The last year has been a whirlwind of highs and lows, development breakthroughs and failures. It's been marked by periods of renewed hope and financial distress. Throughout it all, my team of extremely talented, grossly underpaid gaming enthusiasts have stayed by my side. It's wasn't always pretty, but we persevered.
Finally, after 19 months of working together, we've hit a groove. After all this time, the development process is somewhat streamlined. And because of that, I feel ready to recount my experiences with Kickstarter and how it both helped (and forced) me to live out my dream. Along the way, I'll share what I think we did right, what we could have done better, and ways in which we completed goofed.
Hiro Fodder went into production in January 2012. We made a previous attempt to develop the game in 2010, but then opted to create a few smaller games first. That was a good decision. We lacked the experience, funding, team members and business know-how to create a game, and while we certainly weren't experts by early-2012, we had at least established a solid understanding of the industry. And releasing four smaller games on XBLIG did wonders for our confidence.
It was around this time that I decided Hiro Fodder would not, and could not, be a clone of other RPGs from the SNES era. If I really wanted to create a bad version of Final Fantasy VI, I could buy RPG Maker and create the game myself. So we made the decision to go out, hire an engine programmer, and build Hiro Fodder from the ground up. I would shift over to Game and Level Designer and would write the story with my co-founder. Hiro Fodder would feature hand-drawn art, complex animations, sleek maps, somewhat dynamic NPCs, and semi-sophisticated AI, and would offer players a measure of choice, both in how they explored the world and built their characters. In short, it would use SNES RPGs as a starting point, and then go off in 50 new directions.
My ambition would end up being costly. Within five months, I had ran through the $10,000 I set aside for the game. My first mistake was not fully grasping the game's scope. In order to make even a small RPG, hundreds or even thousands of art assets have to be created. It took my programmer, who began the project as a seasoned hobbyist, nearly five months to get the fundamentals of our engine working. Luckily, my composer and story-writer were working as volunteers, but because of that they didn't really take the project as seriously as those who were getting paid. Hard to blame them.
Needing money for at least one more artist and to keep my programmer working, I turned to Kickstarter.
After careful evaluation, which in retrospect would prove not careful enough, I reasoned that I would need an additional $30,000 to complete Hiro Fodder. But thirty grand seemed like an awful lot to ask for- after all, Divergent Games wasn't exactly a tour de force of the gaming industry. Therefore, I elected to take a more conservative route: I would ask for $12,500 and raise the additional $17,500 through my various day jobs as a writer and application developer. If being funded on Kickstarter meant that I wouldn't have to dump a penny into the game for at least another few months, it would be worth it.
That was a mistake. One piece of advice I can give to developers considering a Kickstarter is: never low-ball your funding goal. It's better to shoot for the stars and fail then to successfully raise a smaller amount and still not be able to produce a finished product in a reasonable time period. Why? Because once your campaign succeeds there is no turning back. Well, there is, but your reputation within the gaming community will forever be tainted.
If I had to do it all over again, I would have asked for at least $20,000; at least then I'd have a bit more breathing room. As it stood, we raised a little over $13,000. About $1,100 of that went to Kickstarter and Amazon fees, another couple of hundred failed to process, and another $1,000 had to be devoted to shipping out backer rewards. What I didn't account for was the cost of actually creating backer gifts - another $1,500 or so. When all was said and done, about $9,000 was left to actually develop the game. By the time it dried up, I had only saved another $7,000 or so, for a total of $16,000, so I was still $14,000 short of my projected goal.
My troubles didn't end there. Because we had to quickly prepare a demo for the campaign, we were forced to cut some corners. We hard-coded aspects of the game, we implemented more than a few programming hacks, and we used cheap, makeshift art wherever possible. All of this would have to be redone after the campaign ended. Combine this with the fact that I had to focus the majority of May 2012 running the campaign and not working on the game, and we were in a big hole.
It's a hole that we have just dug ourselves out of. To date, Hiro Fodder is approximately 60% done. The engine is mostly ready, we've written a ton of custom Lua functions for scripting, the majority of the art assets are finished, and the main plot and all of the essential dialog is written. But we've only built about one-quarter of the bloody game. The good news is that once you have the assets and tools, bringing your idea to life is almost fun, at least in comparison.
The total amount of money spent on Hiro Fodder thus far is about $41,000 - roughly $1,000 over my initial budget, and I still owe my team about $5,000 more. But at least we turned the corner.
The Campaign: What Worked
- Analyzing similar Kickstarter campaigns: JRPGs typically don't get funded on Kickstarter. Most of them are rather generic, feature stock art, are made in RPG Maker, or a combination of all three. One of the keys to our success was realizing this and making a point on our project page that Hiro Fodder wasn't like other RPGs. For the most part, it worked.
- Good pitch video: Our video featured tons of gameplay, story bits and concept art. Only after we showed off the game for a full two minutes did I introduce myself as the Lead Designer. Two other team members volunteered to be in front of the camera, which also helped.
- Cross-plugging: About a week into our campaign, which was treading water at the time, another campaign creator approached me and asked if I could plug his game in my next update. In turn, he would reciprocate the favor. I noticed that he was also creating a JRPG, and quite a good one at that, so I agreed. Our unlikely alliance paid immediate dividends. Immediately after he plugged us, our campaign received an influx of donations.
- Frequent, but not too frequent updates: I posted updates exactly twice a week for the first three weeks, and four times during the last week. In each update, I either linked to a new media piece, or posted new artwork. Every update was relevant, and I encourage other developers to only post updates when there is something worthwhile to show or say.
- Family and friends: I had heard about the trough (the middle portion of a Kickstarter campaign, when donations grind to a near halt), and was prepared for it. Instead of asking my family and friends to donate early in the project, I had them wait until Day 14 or so. At the time, only one or two donations were coming in each day. This strategic planning helped us gain a more favorable spot on the Most Popular list.
- Non-physical rewards: By offering mostly digital rewards, we saved ourselves a lot of money that was better spent elsewhere. The few physical rewards we did offer were reserved for the higher tiers.
A Simple Comment
I firmly believe that the sole reason we were successful is because of one little comment. Allow me to explain:
I had been following Echoes of Eternea closely. Their campaign was featured by Kickstarter, and because of that was widely successful- perhaps too successful. The creator Ryan was new to game development and, due to his project's popularity, felt obligated to make lofty promises to his backers.
His original intention was to develop the game in RPG Maker. Realizing that RPG Maker wouldn't be powerful enough to create his game, Ryan asked the community if they would mind if the game was based on a simple turn-based mechanic instead of the promised ATB system. Suffice to say, they did not care for this idea.
Not even thinking about a partnership at the time, I posted on E.o.E's thread, offering my help. Ryan and I got to talking and eventually agreed that it would be in his best interest to use our engine. In return, without me even asking, he plugged our game. That night, our activity increased 20-fold. To date, Ryan and I have formed a great friendship and we're proud to offer our programming skills to his game.
The Campaign and its Aftermath: Mistakes
Besides the budgeting issues, we made other mistakes that hurt our campaign. In no particular order:
- Poor graphical presentation - For the most part, the artwork we presented in our demo was pretty bad. Our concept art was fine, but the tilesets and sprites were made on the fly by someone who really didn't have much experience creating that type of art. Hiro ended up looking more like a fat kid who ate too many blueberry muffins than an angry slime hell-bent on revenge.
- Campaign management - If I had to do it all over again, I would devote one person to answering questions, contacting the media and monitoring donations. Running a campaign, working a day job and developing a game was too much for me to handle.
- Contacting the press - We waited until about ten days into our campaign to contact the press. Big mistake. Luckily, we still managed to coerce Rock, Paper, Shotgun into writing a feature on Hiro Fodder. A few outlets, like Cinema Blend, wrote articles on Hiro Fodder without us even asking. Still, we should have prepared and sent out some sort of press kit before the campaign launched, or at least near the beginning
- Stretch goals - These were a relatively new concept at the time. Not knowing what they were until towards the end of the campaign, I ended up adding only one. At $13,500 we would create a cut-scene. We never reached the goal, but ended up doing the cut-scene anyway.
- Relying too much on plugs - Asking another team for a plug is not a bad thing, if done selectively. But towards the end of our campaign, I started feeling a little desperate and began asking more than a few RPG creators for plugs on Kickstarter, Facebook and Twitter.
- Release date - Our targeted release date was overly optimistic. The reasoning behind my estimated delivery date of January 2013 was partly that I didn't want to admit to myself that Hiro Fodder would take at least another 18 months to make, and partly that I thought that a later estimate might drive away some potential backers from throwing money at our project. In reality, I should have opted for a more conservative, yet still optimistic release date of August 2013. Yes, I realize that it's already August and the game isn't finished, but at least it's much closer to being done.
- Don't work with friends - I founded Divergent Games with two of my best friends. Don't get me wrong, they're fine folks, but asking two guys to work in exchange for royalties they wouldn't see for years wasn't the best idea, especially since Hiro Fodder is my brainchild. I don't think they fully understood the commitment necessary to develop a game. Then again, at the time, neither did I.
- Forging an alliance with E.o.E - Earlier, I mentioned that a comment I made on E.o.E's page turned out to be the key to our success. But it also committed me to working on a smaller, albeit similar, game. So while our partnership is still mostly a good thing, customizing an engine for two games, writing scripts, creating maps and working a day job can be a bit overwhelming. In addition, my programmer and I have been forced to work on games and applications for outside clients, just to fund our own. It's certainly not an ideal situation, and one that has contributed to Hiro Fodder's delay.
Charts and Graphs
Listed below are a few visuals depicting the progress and breakdown of our campaign. They're lifted straight from our Kickstarter page, and should provide some interesting information to those considering a campaign:
You know how when you reach a certain age you say to yourself, "Man I wish I could go back in time. I'd do things so much differently"? Well, that's exactly how I feel. Sure, I managed to run a successful campaign, but it took a heroic last-minute effort and a lot of luck. And, looking back, we needed to have raised at least $5,000 more for it to have been worth it. As it stands, I'm still paying my team out of my own savings account, and am still at least a few months away from beta.
Still, the game is getting done, and who knows how long it would have taken without Kickstarter's help. So, in the end, I'm grateful - especially to those who backed our project. But if I had to do it all over again, and I likely will, I'd run a much tighter ship.