IGDATC This Indie Life: Lessons From the Front by Kris Szafranski


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Everyone’s going “Indie” these days and there are as many ways to succeed and fail as there are types of people that give it a try. For Kris Szafranski, the journey is its own reward. It’s about growth, learning, and loving the challenge of new horizons.

One year ago Kris founded Thoughtshelter Games, having stepped out of a prominent position at a popular company to work as an independent game developer. Join us to hear about Kris’ experiences and trials, successes and failures.

Expect candid observations and honest reflection on the lessons he’s learned during the development of A Druid’s Duel, Thoughtshelter Games’ upcoming strategy title. You’ll follow the game’s ups and downs through these mini post-mortems:

Concepting and false starts
Competitive analysis, technology, and market choices
Prototyping and gathering feedback
Exposure and Kickstarter, a marketing dilemma
Showing at PAX East 2014

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IGDATC This Indie Life: Lessons From the Front by Kris Szafranski

  1. 1. Kris Szafranski This Indie Life: Lessons From the Front 1Friday, May 16, 14 Hello, thanks for coming. I’m Kris Szafranski, owner of Thoughtshelter Games, a video game start-up here in the twin cities. My company has been around for about a year but I’ve been working on games for quite a bit longer than that.
  2. 2. TODAY Story of A Druid’s Duel What I’ve Learned Practical Insight on Major Milestones Game Design, Prototyping, Competitive Analysis, Technology Analysis, Kickstarter/Marketing 2Friday, May 16, 14 Today I want to share with you what I’ve learned on my short but eventful journey as a full- time indie game dev. I’m going to do so through the lens of my upcoming strategy title called A Druid’s Duel. We’ll step through the making of the game, what I experienced, why I did certain things and didn’t do others. My hope is that you can gain some insight into your own endeavors by seeing how I handled some of the major topics in bringing something to market.
  3. 3. BEFORE... • NerderyVP of Software Development • Leader, manager, entrepreneur • Web developer, designer, writer • Gamer 3Friday, May 16, 14 A little bit about me: For the last 15 years I’ve been involved in web and software development. First as a graphic and multimedia designer, then developer, then manager and executive at The Nerdery (www.nerdery.com). But I’ve always loved games. Any kind: sports, video games, RPGs, board games, you name it. As a creative, I’ve designed and written up rules and invented all sorts of games, but never as a serious focus until a few year ago.
  4. 4. MAKINGTHE LEAP • Some dreams require full time attention • Have confidence in persistence • Do your Research, Planning (& Saving) • Have a Goal 4Friday, May 16, 14 As we’ll see, making the leap to do this for a living didn’t happen overnight, and didn’t happen without a lot of thought and planning put into it. Eventually I recognized the only way I could chase my dream was to put all of energy and resources into it. I had a few things going for me. One, I have confidence in being persistent. I love to learn new things and I love to grow as a professional. Those alone have taught me that if I put my mind to it, I can do anything. I also was able to plan and save for my shift to self-employment. I didn’t take that prospect lightly, not after having helped to built something like The Nerdery. The most important factor, however, is that I have a goal, and every day I can see if I’m getting closer or farther from that goal. My goal is to build Thoughthelter Games into a studio that consistently delivers solid games and is based right here in Minneapolis.
  5. 5. DESIGNING ‘DRUIDS’ 5Friday, May 16, 14 So, how did I get here? Well, it’s been a long journey, well over ten years in the making. I’m going to start with how A Druid’s Duel came to be and what I went through over that timeframe working the idea into something worth pursuing.
  6. 6. 6Friday, May 16, 14 It’s very possible you have no idea what A Druid’s Duel actually is, so here’s a recent trailer, with current artwork, gameplay, and music. Just to give you an idea. The game is not yet complete, but this will give you a look at what I’m going to be talking about. Imagine chess where the pieces and the game board are meant to be changing constantly... Trailer at: druidsduel.com
  7. 7. 7Friday, May 16, 14 There you have it. It has been summed up as “Worms meets chess,” a very astute observation. The objective of the game is to own the land spaces on the board. This generates Mana, which is used to do all the cool stuff. Such as adding new druids to the board. Each druid has its own way to moving and attacking. You can also transform those druids into animals, which give them additional ways to move and attack. Your opponent is doing the same thing, as well as morphing the land to suit his needs. This constant changing of the board and units forces you to adapt your strategy throughout the game. Looks pretty good, huh? Well, let’s rewind a couple of years. Why would I pick this concept as the first product for my business?
  8. 8. WHYTHIS GAME? • Chess-like land grab • Turn-based strategy • Full-time effort would overcome my failures • Competitive research showed potential for niche 8Friday, May 16, 14 It has two elements I am very familiar with: it’s a chess-like land grab and a turn-based strategy game. Even as I’ve tried many times to turn these elements into game designs, I believed with my full effort, I could find the game within. Plus, as you’ll see, I did ample research that showed the market potential for a game like this.
  9. 9. LOST SOULS Richard White, Spiderweb Software 9Friday, May 16, 14 It all started in the year 2000 with a very little known Mac shareware game called Lost Souls. This is all the Internet remembers of the game, a screenshot from level one. Even the creator has disappeared, being the subject of a string of forum posts in 2007 searching for his whereabouts. Even from this one shot, you get the impression of a chess-like game on divergent battle fields.
  10. 10. SPAWNED A DECADE OF IDEAS • Isometric land-grab • Battling wizards • Dynamic maps • Unique upgrade schemes • Dark, moody aesthetic • Units persisted across maps 10Friday, May 16, 14 Something about this game fascinated me, and all I wanted to do was to build on its basic premise. I spent years sketching and writing up rules and game design docs. Each version got more and more expansive until I had built up this whole franchise of games in my head.
  11. 11. YEARS OF FALSE STARTS • Tons of emphasis on casting and upgrading mechanics • Tried OpenGL, Flash, Javascript • Input and Isometric are hard • Druid idea entered drawings in 2010 • Already searching for a unique theme and setting 11Friday, May 16, 14 Keep in mind that I am not a programmer. Not by training. I’m self-taught and mostly web technologies at that. That doubt in myself led me to give up a number of times throughout the last decade. By 2010 couldn’t recall all the rules of Lost Souls and I’d probably built it up in my mind that it was better than it actually was. Still, something about its core kept me enthralled. But I never wanted to copy it. Looking through my notes and sketches, the idea of casting the pieces as druids entered in early 2010.
  12. 12. 2010: FLASH-BASED MAP BUILDER 12Friday, May 16, 14 The game was always map-based, and this was my attempt to create an editor in Flash/ ActionScript 3. I could always get to loading and drawing maps using the various technologies, but stalled on input and game state, thinking I was missing some crucial skill.
  13. 13. 2011–12: PAPER & IOS PROTOTYPES • Game design with Jonny Brannum • Simplified project: Implement Lost Souls rules • Whiteboard offered cheap and effective play testing • Focused on core mechanics • Tedious book-keeping 13Friday, May 16, 14 This is the time I tried to get formal about the idea. I whittled the project down to just a recreation of Lost Souls, hoping that would give me a foundation on which could be built all the other things I wanted to do. As I still saw the programming side as the one skill I did not have, I brought in my good friend Jonny Brannum (@wlejon), a talented programmer and game enthusiast.
  14. 14. 14Friday, May 16, 14 As isometric had seemed too daunting to me technically, I redrew the map art in a top-down fashion. But first we went with paper prototypes. The game would still play the same, as isometric is just a tilted view of this, so I figured the design changes we came up with would hold over visually.
  15. 15. 15Friday, May 16, 14 We ended up using the white board for a lot of the prototyping, however. It was very fast, very cheap, and could be done almost anywhere. Just draw a grid and get playing. As Jonny began moving the game into iOS native code, I continued to work on pieces and unit art, as well as GUI and the isometric game board concept. In the bottom right you can see an interface concept for upgrading the units, one of the core changes I wanted to make to Lost Souls.
  16. 16. REVEALED DESIGN FLAWS • Limited movements made it slow and created stalemates • Fronts just moved back and forth • No way to flank or otherwise use the board • Tile Mana value too high • Powers vaguely defined 16Friday, May 16, 14 When we got close to what I could remember of Lost Souls, continued playtests revealed some huge problems with the game. Putting the units on an upgrade path instead of being able to place any type you wished seemed a likely culprit, but the movements were also just too slow. The games got stale as there wasn’t a good way to out-maneuver your opponent.
  17. 17. TRIED SOLUTIONS • Alter starting conditions • Unit placement rules • Varied Mana costs • Changed Archer shot range • Unit upgrades were too dynamic • Added one-time use spells 17Friday, May 16, 14 Seeing this as a critical flaw, we tried a lot of things to speed up and alter how the game played. We devised rules for starting the game on an empty board, we varied the costs of the units and how much Mana each tile supplied. We changed the Archer’s shot range and tried variations on how upgrades worked.
  18. 18. 2012: SCRAPPED! • Game growing in scope • Team interest diminished • Didn’t want to make a clone • Druid concept was vague • Life goes on 18Friday, May 16, 14 After over a year of nights and weekends, Jonny and I got tired of it. I grew frustrated in not being able to find the magic I felt was there. We both also wanted to finish something and saw no end in sight for this game. In the end, while I added the druid concept and upgrades, they were a very thin veneer, and added very little to game that inspired me.
  19. 19. 2013: COALESCENCE • Continued to think about the design • Fleshed out druid concept • Re-drew druid units and tile art 19Friday, May 16, 14 Throughout the rest of 2012 and into 2013, I didn’t give up completely on the game concepts. There was something there, but the failure to find it told me I would have to work even harder. Remaking Lost Souls was a dead-end, but I kept drawing and writing out ideas to bring the Druids to the forefront and make the game my own. Somewhere in here was something worth making.
  20. 20. 2013: DRUIDS REINVENTED 20Friday, May 16, 14 I knew the visual style was a decent direction, but it needed to be better. I redrew the units and concentrated on finding something unique and appealing. This brought them some character and further away from the Lost Souls chess-like units. It also helped me think more concretely about the design problems as tied to a fantasy world filled with these funny little druid characters.
  21. 21. GAME DESIGN GOALS • SimplifiedTurn-based Strategy • Mutable Game Board/ Elements • No Hit Points • Minimal Randomness • Unit Upgrades • Fast: < 20 Minutes per game • Core Objective is Land Acquisition 21Friday, May 16, 14 Falling back to my competitive research, the game I wanted to make was there somewhere. I needed clearer design objectives with which to work. This would allow me to advance the appeal of Lost Souls into something workable for today’s gamer. I knew these goals made the product unique, I just needed to merge it with my druid theme.
  22. 22. • Fully embraced Druid theme • Animals solved everything IT ALL COMESTOGETHER 22Friday, May 16, 14 The Druid theme had been identified, but until now, it was meaningless; Just a skin. I came to understand the movement, pace, and upgrade problems were all the same thing, and that by embracing the notion that Druids are nature-based mages, they can easily overcome such a thing. If a Druid could fly, for instance, it could flank or move beyond the front lines. It could also make use of disconnected land masses, which would inevitably occur in a game where the board was supposed to change. And wolves are fast, maybe they could simply run past the front lines. And a Bear... Animals complimented their Druid form and offered the trade-offs that make great strategy.
  23. 23. • Removed user spells: all game actions performed by units on the board • Waywalker unit added as the critical caster • Broke from Lost Souls IT ALL COMESTOGETHER 23Friday, May 16, 14 The board was always supposed to change. I had envisioned powerup totems you collect that gave the player one- time use spells to do so. The other major change was to get ride of the notion of a god-like player having pseudo control of the board. I moved all the board-changing spells to a new ranged unit, who was expensive and powerful, but critical to gameplay. I had finally broken from the Lost Souls mold, making it my own, but still maintained the core concepts: a chess- like land grab.
  24. 24. GAME DESIGN LESSONS • Playtesting will change the design – so let it! • Get outside opinions • Be flexible, seek evolution • Be aware your inspiration can hold you back • Find your theme and setting • Make itYOURS 24Friday, May 16, 14 I’d spent a decade chasing the ghost of Lost Souls, and in the end, all I needed to do was play it again. Had I been able to play it, maybe I could have surpassed it quickly. As it turned out, I had to determine what exactly I wanted from it and discard the rest, and this came from a lot of prototyping and problem solving.
  25. 25. COMPETITIVE ANALYSIS, TECHNOLOGY & MARKETS 25Friday, May 16, 14 The game design didn’t happen overnight. But neither did I spend all my efforts during that time on the design. When it became apparent I was able to design a game that *could* succeed, I knew I needed to learn a lot of things to ensure it actually *would* succeed. Starting a business is hard work and there is a lot to consider beyond how your game works.
  26. 26. MEANWHILE, BACK ATTHE RANCH... Game Design? Game Programming? Game Engines? Marketplace? Competition? Distribution? What about... 26Friday, May 16, 14 I spent 2012 and 2013 learning. That’s on top of working a lot of hours at the day job. I was contemplating changing careers and venturing into the unknown. I knew games, was becoming more and more confident I could make one, but didn’t know anything about making products, or selling them. This all has to come together to be successful.
  27. 27. THIS IS A BUSINESS Competing in the marketplace has always been a major objective. 27Friday, May 16, 14 My underlying goal is to build a business. My goal with Thoughtshelter Games is to build a local independent game design studio. That means I need to make money. This won’t be easy and I certainly don’t know everything. But stating this goal made it real, and with a goal, I could better consider what I’d need to make it happen. I could hold each decision up to this goal and it would help guide me.
  28. 28. GAME DESIGN The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell Introspective, deep, yet extremely practical and applicable. 28Friday, May 16, 14 I had no formal method of learning game design and no time for school. So I turned to books. IMHO, the single greatest text on both the theory and practicality of designing games.
  29. 29. GAME PROGRAMMING • Introducing HTML5 Game Development by Jesse Freeman • Unity Game Development Essentials by Will Goldstone • HTML5 Games by Jacob Seidelin • Prototyped simple game ideas • Various HTML5/JS engines (Impact, Melon) 29Friday, May 16, 14 These all gave me the confidence to know that I could make a game. All were hands-on and ended with built games or prototypes. HTML5 Games in particular helped me move my own project ahead.
  30. 30. COMPETITIVE ANALYSIS 30Friday, May 16, 14 I picked the top turn-based tactics games on iOS as a place to start the formal competitive analysis. They were popular and had elements I wanted to improve or evaluate. I played them a ton and got very detailed on the hows and whys they worked (or didn’t). This was also training in game design: critiquing other designs.
  31. 31. TECHNOLOGY ANALYSIS • First concern was marketability, not game design needs. • Distribution/Storefront ease • Support DLC • Multi-platform (PC and mobile) 31Friday, May 16, 14 I knew my game wasn’t going to stress the hardware, but I also knew it would play great on a tablet. So I focused on how I would sell the game, not what tech would make it fly. As a business, if you can’t sell it, you’re not going anywhere. Your technology choice is a long-term decision. Take your time and know your goals. You can research forever - Don’t.
  32. 32. WEB (HTML/JAVASCRIPT) • Plethora of game engines • Wide support • Great communities • Already had advanced knowledge • Endless documentation and examples PROS CONS • Multi-platforms, multi-browsers • Javascript evolving very rapidly • Questionable on mobile without middleware/build product • Audio concerns • Weak isometric support of engines • Weak adoption of storefronts 32Friday, May 16, 14 Using web technologies was very appealing to me. Given my background, it was a natural fit and seemed to offer the quickest path. Biggest development concern was the prospect of testing in all the browser/platform combinations. Business concern: How do you sell a web-native game?
  33. 33. • Famous for community • Enormous adoption by Indie community • Cross-platform, including iOS • Free to try, decent pricing model • Suitable for any time of game (in theory) • Distribution is open PROS CONS • Need to learn Unityscript or • Need to learn C# • How well does it work for 2D? • Weak 2D resources other than platformers UNITY GAME ENGINE 33Friday, May 16, 14 Everyone is using it – it must be good. It is untested as a 2D platform, at least for me. Platformers were everywhere, but could I wrangle it for an isometric turn-based game?
  34. 34. LESSONS • Do your homework, you have competitors. • Be open to changing based on your research. • There’s more to technology than development. 34Friday, May 16, 14 You need to have some idea where your game will fit in with the marketplace. Not that you need to predict the future, but your game needs to offer something the others don’t. Ultimately I decided to prototype in one technology, knowing I would likely change for the release codebase. This allowed me to move on and just get to work. I had gained confidence in canvas and javascript enough to know I could use it. The longer-term decision on the release platform leaned heavily toward Unity.
  35. 35. MAY 17, 2013 I foundedThoughtshelter Games and then really got to work. 35Friday, May 16, 14 So, solid design in hand, with an idea of the marketplace and competition, along with knowledge of the technological landscape and where I would start, I set forth on the next phase of the adventure. I made the leap.
  36. 36. PROTOTYPING & PLAYTESTING 36Friday, May 16, 14 By this point it was only me. All design, programming, art, and testing fell to me. I happily accepted the challenge.
  37. 37. DIGITAL PROTOTYPE (MAY–AUGUST 2013) • Design mostly set, time to implement • HTML/CSS/Javascript with Canvas, limited to Chrome on Mac • Home-rolled engine • Built from HTML5 Games by Jacob Seidelin • Ready in 3 weeks, including SFX and Music 37Friday, May 16, 14 The animals and Waywalker design changes were only ideas at this point. They hadn’t been playtested, even on paper, so I learned to design and prototype concurrently. These new ideas would need to be worked out on the fly as I developed the rest of the game prototype.
  38. 38. DIGITAL PROTOTYPE (MAY–AUGUST 2013) • Translating Input to game elements • Drawing logic (isometric challenges) TWO HISTORICAL HURDLES 38Friday, May 16, 14 Given a decent engine-like structure, I got to work, quickly hitting the hurdles I feared the most. Armed with new confidence, I attacked them head-on.
  39. 39. 39Friday, May 16, 14 Here are my notes on determining isometric inputs. In the end there wasn’t a silver bullet, which I always thought I was somehow missing. It just comes down to hard work. HTML5 Canvas is old-school, only pixels, not directly tied to anything in your data. So the only way to bridge input to data is to bridge the input to your data. This just meant doing the math and geometry required, and then it just worked.
  40. 40. DIGITAL PROTOTYPE (MAY–AUGUST 2013) • Rapid game logic progress • Sound is critical to playtesting • Used opengameart.org sound effects • Contracted professional composer 40Friday, May 16, 14 Solving those problems, which I had built up for a decade into impossible tasks, was an epiphany, and my growing confidence just soared. I very quickly implemented the logic that made A Druid’s Duel it’s own game, using the art I’d drawn myself. Sound is critical to a video game, and it should be put in asap. Believing sound fuels critique of experience and theme, I strived to include it in the prototype.
  41. 41. PROTOTYPING LESSONS • Choose one target platform • Focus on game mechanics, not polish • Expect throw-away code or to refactor • Iterate quickly on concepts • Okay to build only partial games • Goal is to test game design decisions 41Friday, May 16, 14 Read the bullets :) Repeat: The goal is to test game design decisions.
  42. 42. 2013: PROTOTYPE DEMO 42Friday, May 16, 14 This is a screen grab of the actual canvas/javascript build used in the first public playtests. Not pretty, but you can see all of the elements present are still in the game screen today.
  43. 43. PLAYTESTING ROUND 1 • Enlisted testers fromThe Nerdery, friends, and acquaintances. • Wanted 20+ local players • Ran sessions myself • 30 mins How to Play • 60 mins playing vs. each other • Created questionnaire 43Friday, May 16, 14 Having just left The Nerdery, I had plenty of friends there who wanted to help playtest, and given that it was ready in a month gave everyone confidence to spend time on it. I immediately put a date on the calendar to work toward. This helped drive me to be pragmatic and make decisions.
  44. 44. GENCON 2014 SESSIONS • First Exposure Playtest Hall • One of two video games presented • Different Demographic, still on target • Players chose their game • Consistent feedback • Confirmation of direction • Allowed A/B testing of Waywalker 44Friday, May 16, 14 GenCon was the first true “stranger” test. I presented the game and was fortunate to get four groups of four players, with varying player types. I had made adjustments following the Nerdery testing groups and had a chance to do some A/B testing on the Waywalker, a new but critical addition to the game.
  45. 45. • Know what you’re looking for • Ask for specifics • Playtest early but make sure there are few bugs • More polish means expectations are higher PLAYTESTING LESSONS 45Friday, May 16, 14 This is pertaining to public playtesting. As the designer, you should be playing your concepts repeatedly with a few trusted partners. Even so, plan to do public playtesting early. Bugs: Bugs are distracting, and since you’re playing on a stable, small platform, making it rock solid should be doable. Specifics: You’re looking for the whys. This doesn’t work...why? Polish: Up to you, but changing things gets harder the more polish you add. Focus on the core game. Also, some people are hesitant to contribute if it looks done.
  46. 46. PLAYTESTING LESSONS • Stay Positive • Write it all down • Record if you can • Keep old versions 46Friday, May 16, 14
  47. 47. PROVEN WITH SCIENCE! 47Friday, May 16, 14 In the end, I only really wanted to get an idea of one thing: Was it fun? This is unmeasurable and highly subjective, but games are played because they are fun, so you have to ask. I certainly tried to qualify other feedback, evaluate balance and strategy in the game’s design, but this let me know I had found something.
  48. 48. Cool. Now build it in Unity. 48Friday, May 16, 14 A few months of work culminated in great feedback and a decent first showing in public. But I couldn’t launch with that prototype, and a ton of work remained. I also had chosen to move the game to Unity. Meaning I’d have to port or re-build a lot of the game.
  49. 49. 2013: UNITY REBUILD 49Friday, May 16, 14 The initial Unity build-out went pretty quickly. I had to start over, since porting the hard stuff wasn’t feasible, but the game logic was pretty easy to port, some was just copy and paste. I had to re-solve the same tough problems (input->data, isometric) but I also got to celebrate the triumphs when I got it working in a new environment. Plus, I’d done it before, so I knew I could do it. I opted to use a sprite framework called Orthello, which gave me a camera set-up and sprite prefabs, including animations, tweening, and a nice delegate structure for timing and input events.
  50. 50. UNITY IMPRESSIONS • Learn the terminology • Get comfortable with the Editor • Architecture? LOL! • Unityscript ≠ Javascript. Just use C#. • Prepare to hate the GUI system • Documentation and community are rock solid 50Friday, May 16, 14 Terminology: That’s why I worked through that book earlier, to learn the Unity terms so documentation made more sense. Architecture: Learn how Unity expects the Editor and code to work together. That will free your mind. C# is amazing and powerful. The Mono port is in parity with all MSDN dox, so there is no fear. GUI System: Always being “redone.” Find something else. I used Orthello. Dox are very solid and the community is very helpful.
  51. 51. THE KICKSTARTER DILEMMA 51Friday, May 16, 14 The next few months saw steady progress in Unity. I re-worked the GUI several times, brought on a character artist and continued to work with Troy Strand (yellowchordaudio.com) on music. I got an alpha version of the online multiplayer functionality working using simple web services and a PHP web server. I also stubbed in logic for the single player game. But I was always thinking about marketing and what I would do when I was finally done. How could I prepare now for the eventual sale of the game?
  52. 52. JANUARY - APRIL 2014 • Originally considered fall of 2013 • Questioned the value • “Lost time” argument • Can’t quantify exposure • Can’t qualify customers • Seemed more important to others than myself 52Friday, May 16, 14 Kickstarter was always on the horizon; always something I intended to do. But I kept pushing it back. The more research I did, the more trouble I had seeing the value. Lost time here refers to the idea that if I did a Kickstarter and failed to get funded, much of the work on the campaign was not moving the game development forward at all. Basically, wasted time to market.
  53. 53. REQUIRES... • Considerable effort (1-3 months) • Marketing and PR plan • Tremendous social networking • Need to show advanced progress • Difficult to predict success • No guarantee of return 53Friday, May 16, 14 These are the main requirements of a Kickstarter for a video game. Other types of projects can bend some of them, in particular video games need to show advanced progress so people know what they’re going to get. Even with these it is difficult to predict success and as KS is all-or-nothing, there is no guarantee your invested time and money will generate a return, even if your work is really solid.
  54. 54. SOUND FAMILIAR? It’s the same as launching a completed product. 54Friday, May 16, 14 It seemed so much like launching a product that it was hard to justify the effort given I had even less control over the likelihood of success. At the end of either process, at least with a regular launch, I’d be done and wouldn’t owe anybody anything.
  55. 55. WHY I DID IT • Test-run of marketing and PR foundation • Forced timelines on things I needed to do anyway • Needed external validation • Burning desire to “succeed” • Income wouldn’t hurt :) 55Friday, May 16, 14 Ultimately I came to see it as a test-run of launch, and as such, could be used as a test harness for my business. First and foremost was the idea that I can gain a lot of exposure now, during development. It became a trial in marketing my company and product. These were to be my success factors.
  56. 56. PREPARATION • Research • Remade websites • Set up Presskit() • Video Production • Made the demo product • Launched Steam Greenlight page • Contracted professional artists • Contracted PR professional 56Friday, May 16, 14 I researched the design and messaging of about ten KS video game campaigns. I wrote, shot, and edited the KS video three times. I made trailers, I started building social media presences. I reworked the design of druidsduel.com and continued to work on the demo build. I prepped the Steam Greenlight page. I also brought on an animator and re-contacted the sprite artist to continue work, assuming success. I signed on a general PR contractor with some history in the video game industry. It was a solid three months of hard work. I chose a goal of $7,000 as an attainable amount. I wanted $10k but thought as a complete unknown this was a stretch. $5k seemed too low. $7k is way less than the actual development budget of the game, but it was more about exposure than covering all my costs.
  57. 57. LAUNCH DAY • Emotionally draining • 6 hour launch and blast follow-ups • Monitored social media • Used Buffer (bufferapp.com) to cross- post to social media • Hit Day One goals (>10%) • Launch DayTacos! 57Friday, May 16, 14 Launch was fairly painless, all told. I was warned not to stare at the funding money tick upward (or not), so tried to keep busy otherwise.
  58. 58. CELEBRATE SUCCESSES! Nom! Nom! Nom! Nom! Nom! Nom! 58Friday, May 16, 14 Remember: Always celebrate your successes, no matter how small. There’s so much out there that can bring you down, you need to keep some perspective.
  59. 59. ALLTHE IN-BETWEEN • Emotionally draining ups and downs • Constantly questioned the value and generated crippling FUD • Swells of pride and elation as I got noticed • Constant social media posting • Enormous pressure to make progress so people would cover it • All this resulted in no media coverage 59Friday, May 16, 14 The middle weeks are pretty much a blur of emotional fits of depression and elation. This rubber-banding was exhausting and concerning. I felt like a pimp on Twitter and FB. But I was doing solid work on the game, and still believed it could be great. The support felt genuine and I my mood was more often positive than negative. Knowing at this point that PAX East was also on the horizon, I was doubling my efforts to make great leaps of progress on the visuals and presentation of the game.
  60. 60. FINAL WEEK • Emotionally draining • “Do anything” mentality • Touched by amazing support • Priming the pump • Ultimately made the goal two days early • Nothing prepared! 60Friday, May 16, 14 I asked family to donate more money, to raise the bar a bit, thinking that people are more inclined to back a project they see as on its way. Closing the gap to the goal helped springboard the final week push I expected to get. This felt truly icky, but ultimately it came down to the dollars, which had somehow gone from last on my list of success factors to first. Having seen the outcome of the other tests, making the funding goal seemed paramount, or it would be truly a waste of effort. Family gave enough to help give it a boost. I wasn’t prepared to give up the vast majority of funding by missing it by a little bit. I’m likely not the only project runner to make the decision to give it a lift in order to make it. The last week push occurred just as predicted and I hit the goal with two days left. Since I wanted to pay back the money to my family, I tried to over-fund as much as possible, but I was spent, and didn’t pull in much more than my goal.
  61. 61. 61Friday, May 16, 14 By the end, the game looked completely refreshed from the demo version at the outset. It had all new tile art for two complete seasons, all the units were animated, and the there was a bunch of visual polish on UI elements. It was where I wish it had been at the campaign start.
  62. 62. INTHE END • Funded at 111% • Built social media presence • Badge of honor: still in a minority • Fewer funders than estimated • Weak rewards • Backer bonus idea flopped • Missed PAX East timing 62Friday, May 16, 14 So, in the end, what happened? How’d it go? What worked? When I began creating the KS campaign using their tools, I had set the time frame to 30 days. By the time I actually hit “Launch,” I’d been accepted to show at PAX East. I failed to adjust the 30 days out to 35 in order to cover PAX weekend. Had I done that I am confident I would have blown away my goal of $7,000.
  63. 63. HOW’D I DO? • Test-run of marketing and PR foundation? • Timelines help get things done? • Supply external validation? • Satisfy desire to “succeed?” • Money? YES YES NO YES YES... 63Friday, May 16, 14 How’d I do with those original success criteria? Overall, I think it was mostly a success. External validation wouldn’t come for another few days when I went to PAX East, but I was able to garner some attention and players seemed to truly appreciate the game. Money is a wash. It was mostly spent by the time it was finalized. Which I expected. $7,000 is hardly a video game budget, but it certainly helped. It was nice to get paid after so long.
  64. 64. KICKSTARTER CONCLUSION • Don’t know what to expect • Would do it again for certain projects • Seems too haphazard for business-critical products • Would have launched with the progress I had at the end • Evaluate your options very carefully • Expect to work your ass off • Build up social presence first • Happy to offer advice or insight 64Friday, May 16, 14 Indie video games have almost single-handedly grown the crowd-funding industry and it may seem like almost a required step on the path to success. I would argue that video game Kickstarters are in their own world and have their own set of rules and stricter, harsher requirements. Difficult to have valid expectations as each project is different. You won’t know until you start working on it. I would happily discuss the KS in-depth with anyone who wants to know more. It was quite an experience. Link to actual KS page: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/481479629/a-druids-duel- whimsical-turn-based-strategy Link to Kicktraq summary: www.kicktraq.com/projects/481479629/a-druids-duel- whimsical-turn-based-strategy/
  65. 65. WHAT’S NEXT? 65Friday, May 16, 14
  66. 66. ONWARD, DRUID! • Recover fromThe Crash • Single Player Campaign • Online Multiplayer • Publishers • Marketing Strategy • Launch August 2014 66Friday, May 16, 14 I went from 3 solid months of the emotional peaks and valleys of Kickstarter, not even having time to really enjoy its success. I dove straight into the fire of PAX East, one of the most prominent shows you can be at. There I was overwhelmed with praise and attention. It was way beyond my wildest expectations. I was so shot afterwards: I felt like a fraud. I felt like a success. I couldn’t relate to what I’d been through and done, let alone get back to work. All that and I’m still a complete unknown and the game isn’t even done. That’s what I call The Crash. I came home, I got sick, I got depressed and in the end, got nothing done for a couple weeks. I read a few books, I prototyped other games. But I’d done very little on A Druid’s Duel. My social media dried up and I struggled to even care. This is a known pattern that I didn’t take seriously. This talk has actually given me a ton of perspective, and has helped get me back on track. Having to put together my story has reminded me just why I’m doing this. I do this to learn. I do this to grow. I’m really good at both, and through those I continue to build my business and help others do the same.
  68. 68. TALKTO ME • kris@thoughtshelter.com • www.druidsduel.com • Twitter: @druidsduel • www.facebook.com/ThoughtshelterGames 68Friday, May 16, 14 Send me any questions or comments you have! Seriously, I’m very happy to discuss any of this with you. Thank you for reading :) Kris