Kickstarter - Featured

Interview: Kickstarter’s Cindy Au

Kickstarter’s head of community sits down with Dork Shelf to talk about crowdfunding best practices and advice for game creators.

Kickstarter - Cindy Au

You can’t talk about funding sources for games without Kickstarter entering the conversation.

As a crowdfunding platform for creative projects, Kickstarter has arguably become a very viable method for financing a creator’s hopes and dreams — especially since games have become the site’s second most popular funded category in terms of total dollars pledged, right behind film and video. So it was no surprise to see Kickstarter’s head of community Cindy Au on an alternative funding panel at Interactive Ontario’s GameON: Finance conference last week.

While game projects have seen successful and failed campaigns since Kickstarter’s launch in April 2009, Au says that developer Double Fine Productions was the high-profile catalyst that proved to the games industry that, yes, there are viable game funding options outside of the traditional publishing model.

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Last year, the popular California-based game studio launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund point-and-click game Double Fine Adventure. It quickly set all kinds of records and headlines when it blasted past its $400,000 goal and crossed the finish line with a whopping $3.3 million.

Working with the Kickstarter-experienced documentary house 2 Player Productions (Minecraft: The Story of Mojang), Double Fine was well-equipped to navigate the growing crowdfunding space. All creators must be prepared to communicate with their backers — and, for many, this route becomes a crash course in community management.

Double Fine Adventure
Double Fine Adventure

That’s where Au and her team come in. “For a lot of people coming to Kickstarter for the first time, they aren’t fully prepared for how much community engagement they’re going to end up doing,” she tells Dork Shelf. “[Creators] spend so much time with their ideas behind the scenes and not openly sharing them. When you have a chance to put that in front of people, you get a lot of excitement and a lot of feedback.”

It’s that peek behind the curtain that makes Kickstarter a breath of fresh air for backers, particularly game backers. The behind-the-scenes and open access is an appealing fan perk, given that the games industry — specifically the triple-A space — is traditionally shrouded in secrecy.

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“Address as many people personally as you can,” advises Au. “There’s an enormous benefit to this — you’re building your life and career on these relationships. If your project does make it, that’s the same group of people cheering for you. Kickstarter has been facilitating direct to audience relationships that a lot of people haven’t encountered before. They’re not used to being that close.”

When it comes to giving the backers what they want, Au says the most common question from the game creator is: what can I offer?

Rewards are a popular method of piquing backers’ interests — from signed posters, to having your name included in the credits, to receiving a studio tour — but being able to ultimately play or own the finished game remains the most popular reward for most.

Offering something that backers can’t easily obtain is a way to drum up more attention and excitement. For example, with many music-based campaigns, Au saw a reward trend of creators offering to go to a backer’s house to play the music and cook dinner. (Although you may want to reserve that for local backers and higher reward tiers.)

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But offering wild rewards doesn’t necessarily translate to success. Kickstarter itself called 2012 “the year of the game,” but its less than stellar 33.8% success rate in the games category is closer to the bottom of the list. In fact, the top three categories with the highest success rates are dance (70.1%), theatre (64%) and music (51.1%), according to the most recent stats pulled at press time.

Sure, being a cult favourite and legendary game designer worked in Tim Schafer’s favour with Double Fine Adventure and for Obsidian Entertainment’s Project Eternity, but the name isn’t everything. Projects with well-known industry vets like Brenda Brathwaite (Wizardly, Dungeons & Dragons) and Tom Hall (DOOM, Commander Keen) attached, even that wasn’t enough for them hit their funding goals.

Project Eternity from Obsidian Entertainment
Project Eternity from Obsidian Entertainment

“Whether you’re a big game developer or not, you have to be able to communicate what the project is,” advises Au. “Is it what people want? Are you the right person to make it? Every backer comes to the table thinking about those things.”

The advice that Au and her team give creators is simply this: show your work. Tell people who you are and don’t assume they know. “Every person who comes to your project page is a potential new relationship you’re building, so think about what’s going to be important to them. They want to know if it’s going to be fun and if it looks like you know what you’re doing.”

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To that end, having a bare bones Kickstarter page will definitely not help you, and while that seems like obvious advice, Au says she’s seen campaigns fail because their pitches lacked audio-visual material. Would you fund a project based on a large block of text? “Think about the things you’d like to see to feel confident in supporting someone,” she says.

As if the creator didn’t have enough pressure, there’s also the potential of not meeting the estimated delivery date. More than a few cases have cropped up that have turned a critical eye or two in this direction.

“Creative processes can be messy, and can often mean you have to push things back,” says Au. Communication is the solution, as well as providing relevant, frequent updates to keep backers involved in the experience. Just like any healthy relationship, honesty and support works both ways. Knowing that you have a community of backers is a good motivator for creators when roadblocks pop up, adds Au.

As scary as it is to tell your backers that you may have to push your delivery date, Au says she’s noticed that communities have generally been accepting. “They get it because they don’t want creators to put something out there that’s garbage because they’re racing to hit an arbitrary deadline you set for yourself. Flexibility is important for creativity.”

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As for Kickstarter opening up to Canadian citizens — currently it’s only available for US and UK citizens — Au couldn’t confirm or any deny anything, except to say that Canada remains a “high priority” for the company.



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