A few people have asked me why the Below Kickstarter failed, while our previous one was a rip-roaring success. Below‘s Kickstarter was more streamlined and even had a playable prototype of the game, but still didn’t make it. Having worked extensively on both, here are my best guesses.
After the break, a post-mortem. Warning: contains sadness.
First time around – The Silver Tree
We launched our first Kickstarter on the 3rd of August, following two solid weeks of planning, research and preparation from everyone at Failbetter. Here’s an entirely personal perspective of the events of that day. If you want to skip the mushy stuff and jump straight to ogling the wreckage, scroll down to So what went wrong?
- When I woke up that morning, Kickstarter had confirmed we were good to put the project live. However, during breakfast my three year-old, Robin, accidentally stabbed me in the eye with a plastic toy. I was half-blinded.
- One-eyed, I clicked the button to put the Kickstarter live. Then I went to the doctor.
- He used the word ‘retina’. Also the word ‘detached’. These are not words you want sharing a sentence. He sent me straight to a specialist eye casualty unit.
- As I headed to the hospital, the Kickstarter was going crazy. I checked the page compulsively from the waiting room, answering comments as they were posted. This might work, I remember thinking.
- The eye-specialist put pink dye in my eye, peered at it. Nothing was detached, thank heaven. ‘Plastic toy?’ she asked. I nod. ‘They usually heal clean,’ she told me, like an Old West sawbones comforting an unlucky gunfighter. She gave me some medicine exactly the consistency of spun toffee. I was expected to put in my eye.
- By the time I got home, still blinking toffee-gunk, the Kickstarter had blown through its funding target and was showing no signs of stopping. We’d done it. The relief was so intense, I allowed myself a small cry.
- Next, though, it became clear that something was wrong with our cat. October (that’s her name because it was when she wondered into our house and decided she lived there) has been ill for a couple of days, but now she can’t even stand. We put her in a cat box and rush her to the vet.
- An hour later, my wife and I stroked her fur as the vet administered a lethal injection. She wasn’t going to get better. There was more crying.
- We went home. The Kickstarter was still climbing, but Paula and I were trying to work out how we were going to explain death to a three year-old.
It was a year’s-worth of emotion squeezed into a day.
The sequel – Below
The Kickstarter for Below launched on the 14th of November. That’s my birthday. Again, it followed a fortnight of preparation. This time, though, it was my project on the line. Now I realised how Yasmeen must have felt when we decided to crowdfund The Silver Tree.
The day of the launch, I happened to be on leave. There were no comedy injuries or little tragedies this time. I managed to resist checking on progress until the evening. Seven hours in, and we were about 10% of the way there. By this time with The Silver Tree we’d already hit our target.
Realistically speaking, you’d expect to make about 60% of your funding in the first and last few days of your project. We’d have wanted to be at least 30% of the way there at the end of the first day to feel confident. It was clear that this probably wasn’t going to end well.
So what went wrong?
Kickstarter’s a weird ecology. And where there’s randomness and uncertainty, we invent superstition. Established wisdom surrounding Kickstarters sounds increasingly like astrology. Start on a Monday! End on a Sunday! Price low to make it look achievable! Price high to motivate people to spread the word! Aim to start and finish on the second of each month! Do offer physical rewards! Don’t! Type the name of your project backwards at midnight! Sacrifice a goat!
It’s hard to say what’s science and what’s speculation. But putting all that stuff aside, here are the three key reasons I think Below‘s Kickstarter didn’t make it:
It was launched just two months after our previous Kickstarter ended. It’s likely people were tapped out. Most folks interested in our higher-tier rewards had a chance to get them the first time around, by pledging to The Silver Tree. Launching two Kickstarters in such quick succession was an experiment – I don’t think many people have tried it.
Below isn’t a Fallen London spin-off, and most of our players are Fallen London fans rather than Failbetter fans. This is common in media – compare the sales of any issue of the Avengers comic book with the sales of a creator-owned book by the same writer. Only a fraction of fans follow creators – most follow a setting or character.
Poor fit with our audience
Below is odd – a narrative Rogue-like dungeon-delving game. That’s not a natural fit for Fallen London players. But after the Kickstarter launched we didn’t promote it beyond our existing player-base and the press (and press coverage of Kickstarters is very hard to get unless you’re (a) an industry name, or (b) are releasing a spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment. I don’t blame journalists for this at all – I can only imagine the state of their inboxes since Kickstarter appeared).
We didn’t post many updates, or reach out to other communities that might have been interested. If the initial progress had looked more healthy, then investing time and effort into doing so would have seemed like a better investment. But when you’re a small company, doing one thing means not doing another. We couldn’t justify committing the resources to a long shot, and could only hope for a bit of press or a celebrity endorsement that would have turned things around.
The below played a lesser role, too:
- UK Kickstarters are still in their infancy: It’s great that Kickstarter offers them, but they’re not yet the slick experience U.S. backers are used to. You have to use a credit card rather than Amazon Payments. They’re costed in sterling, not dollars. American backers only find out how much a pledge will actually cost partway through the process. Anecdotal evidence (from project creators and backers) suggests this can put people off, but I’ve no idea to what extent that applied here.
- Kickstarter’s getting really busy: As the number of projects on there grows, it gets harder to find the ones that interest you.
- It was just before Christmas: Not a time when peope are overburdened with disposable income.
- Spotlight: The Silver Tree was chosen as an official Kickstarter staff pick and featured on the site’s front page – Below wasn’t so lucky.
- It was our second Kickstarter: That’s less of an event than the first.
Maybe Below just sucks
Believe me, I considered this. Extensively.
But I don’t believe it does, or I wouldn’t be working on it now. I’m playing it daily and having a great time (even though I keep losing, goddammit). Its appeal is niche at best, but the emails I get show it clicks with a group of (discerning, fiercely intelligent, devilishly attractive) people.
If Below had been a personal project at that point, I would have been ecstatic with getting £4,000. That would make my life much easier. But it’s not the level of interest that makes economic sense for a whole company.
Kickstarter is amazing
It’s an incredible opportunity. It has funded – and will continue to fund – beautiful, eccentric, brilliant, poignant, powerful projects that otherwise would never see the light of day. But it’s also demanding, crowded, and a massive gamble. More often than not, it’ll break your heart.
If anyone’s got questions or thoughts I’d love to hear them – just post in the comments.