Disclaimer: I have not backed Rising Sun, nor have I had any contact with the creative team behind the project.
Trawling Kickstarter has been a hobby of mine for a number of years now. I'm fascinated by the many wonderful ideas that crop up every day across the site, but I'm also fascinated by what makes a project the ability to galvanize the KS user base and draw astronomical attention to itself. Every week there's another campaign which meets its funding goals within hours or even minutes of going live, even when if its goal are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet I'm still astounded when I find a project that is gaining such traction at such a pace that I can watch in real time as its funding increases by thousands of dollars.
On Tuesday, March 7th, I came across one such project: Rising Sun, from CoolMiniOrNot, a miniature-based tactical board game set in feudal Japan. The campaign went up at around noon, and when I found it at 12:45 it had already raised $660,000. I left my computer for about ten minutes, and when I returned its funding had already rocketed to $730,000. In an hour it had raised nearly 250% of its $300,000 goal, all while charging $100 a pop.
When examining the page I could immediately see why it was garnering such attention: Rising Sun is a gorgeous piece of work, the gameplay sounds multifaceted and compelling, and the pitch is immaculate. As the funding continued to rise I got to thinking about why this particular game is eliciting such a strong reaction from the user base on Kickstarter. It's a topic that I've considered for a while, and as there are a few patterns I've noticed among the greater successes of the site I decided to explore some of the more prominent elements which make for a successful KS campaign.
Below I've chosen four of what seem to me the most important aspects to keep in mind when constructing a campaign on Kickstarter or any similar site. First I discuss the rule, before going into how Rising Sun exemplifies that rule. I've also considered demonstrating the opposite of each point: campaigns which fail to follow these guidelines and thus failed to reach their funding goal would provide just as strong an example of what not to do when constructing your campaign. That sounded... mean, however, and I've decided just to focus Rising Sun for this article. So while these may sound like common sense, trust me when I say there are a multitude of campaigns which fail to take any of these points into account.
1) You have 4"x2" to grab my attention
That's an approximation based on my monitor, but it doesn't change the fact that Kickstarter provides you a thumbnail roughly the size of a playing card to snag the attention of anyone scrawling by. Someone searching on a mobile device will see an even smaller version of your thumbnail, so make the best use of the limited space provided to you. This is essentially your store* window: there's only enough space to grab the attention of passerby, so don't muck about. Once you have a backer sufficiently interested to enter your page you can be as verbose and granular as you like, but right now you need to dress the two sexiest mannequins in your collection and put them to work. And your two mannequins are the elevator pitch and the header photo.
*Reminder: Kickstarter is not a store.
Your pitch needs to be precise while encompassing the scope of your project. You have about the length of a tweet to explain to the public what sets your project apart, and that space cannot be wasted in anyway. Use it to paint an image of your envisioned product: if it is a game, what is the genre? What is the setting? What does the player do in your game that they can't do in a similar title? If you find yourself running long, whittle down your pitch to a delicious core you would feel comfortable handing out as a sample.
(Also do a spelling and grammar check. Please, please do a spelling and grammar check.)
More important than your pitch is the header image: this is what will catch the backer's eye, getting them to stop and read the pitch you so lovingly crafted. This will be the "face" of your project, so choose something that you would be proud to see at the top of an article covering your campaign. If you are producing a physical item, such as a board game, show us a prototype of the finished product. For a less tangible item, be it something to be digitally distributed or something which simply can't exist in a finished state without the funds you're requesting, put forward your strongest proof of concept. A piece of art that evokes the tone or the look you're aiming for always works well for this purpose.
The header image also gives you an opportunity to reinforce the message of your pitch: if you have "beautiful miniatures" or "breathtaking art," then show us the beautiful miniatures or the breathtaking art. Backers are taking a risk by trusting you with their money, and the greater the confidence you can inspire, and the more quickly you can inspire that confidence, the more likely you are to succeed. If you can demonstrate the quality of your work right from the start you'll have won 80% of the battle with just your thumbnail.
How Rising Sun does it right:
As a header image they've used just the game's box with a bit of drop shadow behind it. Whether a prototype or a piece of concept art, the image of the box is striking even in miniature: the reds are bold, the lettering angular, and the figure is active without being busy. On this scale I can't be sure exactly what the image is, but I want to come in for a closer look and poke around the rest of the project. In art school they would say this "works."
The design on the box is clean, and a closer look at box reveals a warrior who makes the setting immediately apparent: feudal Japan, or thereabouts. Behind the warrior are a bunch of oni and dragons having a knock-down brawl, which also provides the sense that this will be tactics game of some sort. All of this reinforces the pitch, which reads:
Clans must use politics, strength and honor to rule the land in this board game with amazing miniatures set in legendary feudal Japan.
Image and pitch support each other, but either could also stand on its own. If you described the game to me without the image I would ask you to tell me more; and if I saw the box on a store shelf I would immediately pick it up. Taken together you can't help but at least poke your head in for a look around.
2) Sell me on the project, not on yourself
I love that KS gives any schmuck the potential to bring their dream to life (and I use "schmuck" with the greatest possible affection). I'm inspired by stories of nameless creators trapped in wolf-infested Moose Snout, BC who find unimaginable success on the platform and can now bring the fight straight to the wolves. The interconnectedness of the Internet grants a single pitch the potential to reach millions of ears, with no one voice given an inherent advantage over any other. Your location, your connections, your name, none of the old advantages necessarily matter; all that matters is what you can show the public, and if you can show them something worth backing then they will happily do so.
If you are just some schmuck however, you will do well to leave yourself out of the project as much as possible. People don't come to Kickstarter for altruism; there are plenty of other sites to go to for that express purpose. They come to KS because they want something they can eat, watch, play, or otherwise tangibly experience. To that end, don't attempt to sell the public on your personality.
As I expressed in the first point, you need to give backers a taste of what you're offering, be it concept art, a finished prototype, or anything which similarly provides a sense of what the finished product will be. Be professional, write in the third-person, and let your project speak for itself. If you have a compelling personal story, by all means include it toward the end of your pitch, but unless you're Joel Hodgson or that guy from Scrubs what made the boring movie, don't shine the spotlight on yourself.
(The obvious exception is any project which is explicitly about the creator. If your own story is so compelling that it deserves to be told, then you can't get around talking about yourself.)
How Rising Sun does it right:
The creators behind Rising Sun, CoolMiniOrNot (CMON), have 25 previous KS projects to their name, all of which have been successfully funded. Seventeen of those 25 feature the blue "Project We Love" sticker, indicating they received particular attention from KS staff. To date their projects have raised $27,307,946; their single largest campaign was "Zombicide: Black Plague," which garnered $4,079,204. In short, they get work done over at CMON.
I'm telling you all about CMON because they certainly don't mention anything about themselves on their project page. There's nothing about who they are, what they do or why you should trust them with your money; they only drop into first-person at the end of the page to discuss shipping as well as the risks & challenges associated with the project. CMON avoids any self-aggrandizement in favor of walking you through the project and showing off every last detail of their game. The only names mentioned are those of Eric M. Lang, the game's designer; Adrian Smith, the artist; and Mike McVey, the director behind sculpting the miniatures. Even those names aren't held up as a strong get or positioned as a selling point, but simply as a matter-of-fact: "These are the names behind "Rising Sun" it says, before moving right along to the amazing miniatures and beautiful art.
It could be argued that, with as many successes as CMON has under their belt, they have a built-in fan base who already knows all about their work and doesn't need a refresher on the studio. They have enough attention that any project they release is liable to succeed through sheer numbers alone. While the rich do get richer and being a known quantity goes a long way on KS (see Keiji Inafune, or the examples listed above), remember that I came to this project having never heard of CMON before. The astronomical pace of the funding (over $700,000 in under an hour!) is what caught my attention, but the professionalism on display is what got me excited about the project. Rising Sun would succeed on the strength of their vision even if the studio were completely unknown.
3) Don't promise the world
There's a stigma around Kickstarter due to projects which secure funding but then fail to deliver a finished product to their backers. I don't need to link any examples, because if you're reading this you almost certainly know of at least one famous project which saw success in the fundraising process only to go down in flames in the months that followed. The knee-jerk reaction is to call these projects "scams," and in a perverse twist the platform would be better off if such projects had in fact been scams. Fraudulent campaigns have tell-tale signs which give them away to observant backers and the authorities at KS, allowing them to be taken down before they can do any damage. No, those projects which fail to ultimately deliver aren't scams; more often their creators simply learn too late the limitations on their ability to deliver.
I wish I had hard data for this point, because I strongly suspect that over-promising during the campaign is the impetus for the majority of post-campaign problems. Either the logistics of fulfilling all that was promised simply overwhelm the team responsible for finishing the project, or else the rewards expected by certain backers consume more resources than the team had originally estimated. An MMO in a life-sized world with a robust physics engine and a realistic eco system sounds wonderful, but it isn't something a team of the size you would expect to find on KS will be capable of delivering upon. Likewise, t-shirts and other physical backer rewards are grand, but they eat up a lot of funds just in their production, let alone the cost of shipping and the investment of time needed to ensure they're of quality expected by your backers.
An elegant design is always appealing, and I find myself most intrigued by campaigns which are lean and to the point. Limited and straightforward pledge levels allow me to know exactly what I'm buying; minimal backer rewards reduce the chance of post-campaign spending growing out of control; and a clear vision gives me an idea of whether or not your goals are achievable with the resources you're asking for. I can understand the temptation to promise gems and spices to anyone willing to finance your expedition, but such promises are likely to bite you in the ass in the long run. So keep it simple, and have faith that your product will sell itself.
How Rising Sun does it right:
This is actually what I love most about the Rising Sun campaign: the clarity of vision and elegance of the pitch. The game and every element of the gameplay are plainly laid out without getting bogged down in detail. The creators know their product and aren't dealing in possibilities. Most importantly, there's a single pledge level: for $100 (plus shipping) you get the game. That's it! For a Benji you get the game, a unique monster, and any unlocked stretch goals. No mucking about with art books, t-shirts, lunches with the creators, or any of the other extraneous rewards so many campaigns use to entice greater pledges from backers. There's just the product and a handful of stretch goals.
What are those stretch goals? Merely extensions upon what's already in the box. They come in four specific forms: alternative sculpts of the Bushi figures; higher-quality materials for the various pieces; new pieces to serve specific purposes, or extra copies of already included pieces; and new monsters. While the addition of new pieces does increase the chance of production errors causing delays in fulfillment, none of these stretch goals expand the scope of the project outside of what is being pitched for the base funding level. The game is the game, you simply get some new pieces to play with.
4) Have something people want
There's... there's not a lot you can do on this front, honestly. You can do everything else right, but it's a bit of a crap shoot as to whether or not anyone will ultimately be interested in your project. As I mentioned in my previous Kickstarter Corner covering the Food section of the KS, sometimes people just don't care about your dream. If you want to be cynical and try to take advantage of trends, there are a few themes you can couch your vision in which I've noticed have a tendency to secure funding time and time again.
Cthulhu is pretty popular. You can't go wrong with Lovecraft in general, but slap Cthulhu on something and people will buy it. Not a week goes by that I don't see some new campaign crop up about Cthulhu, Lovecraft, the Old Gods, et al. on a new folio or campaign or dice set. These seldom secure huge levels of funding, but they do tend to pull in a few thousand dollars each, so if you set your sights low and don't mind being just another piece of tentacle-themed merchandise, you may well find success.
Also dice, whether Cthulhu themed or not, tend to do well. All kinds of games need dice, and there's a surprising market for dice featuring new designs or made from unusual materials. Can you get your hands on a meteor? How about the bones of a Spanish king? Carve 'em into as many d20's as you can get rollin' (horty hort hort).
How Rising Sun does it right:
My heart is slightly broken whenever I come across a mishandled project. I see sloppy grammar, a lack of a plan, or a header image consisting of nothing but text on a black screen and I just want to reach out and yell "No! Let me help you!" I've not managed a campaign myself but I have plenty of friends who attempted to fund their senior projects through crowd funding, and I know they had invested their entire hopes into their campaigns. Each person on the site, save those very, very few who are attempting to run a scam, is making that same investment. I can't help them all, but maybe I can help a few of them, or even one. That would be good enough.