Why did the Below Kickstarter fail?


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:

Timing

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.

New IP

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.

Additional factors

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. 

16 Comments

  1. Hierophant December 14, 2012 8:17 pm  Reply

    Thanks for the insights! Given we’re gearing up for a Zero Summer kickstarter in Q1 next year, it’s helpful to hear the triage.

    • Chris December 14, 2012 8:31 pm  Reply

      Best of luck with the Kickstarter, Hierophant! Drop me a mail if you’d like to talk about the nitty-gritty.

  2. Urthdigger December 14, 2012 9:57 pm  Reply

    As someone who funded Silver Tree but not Below, my reasons were mainly the timing and new IP. I don’t make much money, and when Silver Tree came out the $50 I pledged was a splurge for me. I did so because I love Fallen London, and was eager to explore more of the world surrounding it. Below, while I was interested in it, didn’t have the allure of solving additional mysteries that had been plaguing the userbase, and I was wary of making 2 “big expenses” in such a short time.

    Another reason, which I’m hesitant to say, is that I was actually disappointed with Silver Tree. I had expected something closer to Fallen London, with definitive plot lines you follow towards a mystery’s answer. Instead what I got was a game that doesn’t have a real definitive sense of progress. You grind the same options the whole game to get your resources to advance the main storylines, but you do so through repeatable storylets and you can’t see the storylets unless you have the resources to play them, meaning that you may wind up playing the same plot-increasing storylets over and over instead of getting a variety. Even though that number goes up, it never felt like I was making any real progress. Some storylets opened up when you were far enough on a plot, but they were far and few between. And then finally, when a plot was finished, only then did you finally get something like progress and answers… if you guessed the correct option in the “quiz” based on what you’d seen while advancing the story.

    All in all, while the writing in Silver Tree was interesting, I was vastly disappointed in the mechanics of play, and this partly was what led to me not funding Below. That said, I did play the prototype for Below, and the mechanics were one thing I LOVED. I appreciated how it seems the different classes will have their own unique abilities, and I love how the game is simple to play, with all the little nuances being something you can pick up as you go.

    • Ivan December 15, 2012 5:16 pm  Reply

      I”l go with this man. Was disappointed in Silver Tree
      Felt the ending came out of nowhere after a very very long grind. While the ending text itself was interesting I have zero desire to grind through whole game again to see other options.

    • Chris December 16, 2012 6:09 pm  Reply

      Sorry to hear Silver Tree wasn’t to your tastes. It’s a lower-pressure, more ‘buffet’-like approach to storytelling than Fallen London. Some people much prefer that ability to control the pace of the story, (and given the recent Fallen London survey that revealed more of its players self-identify as readers than gamers, it could be the majority).

      I’ve had feedback about Below from people who LOVED Silver Tree and found Below didn’t do anything for them at all.

      I still struggle to get my head around the vast spectrum of behaviour we call “play” and the different motivations people have for engaging in it. The fact that the word “game” can refer to any and all of Scrabble, Empire of the Petal Throne, and Twister is kind of a problem (if a glorious one).The barrier to entry on a free-to-play game is so low that it can end up with players that get completely different things out of it, to the extent that it’s like they’re playing different games.

      Which is a challenge when you’re writing a new game to appeal to existing players. Any changes you make will please some and alienate others. Hopefully Below will be more to your tastes!

      • Andy Raff December 16, 2012 9:51 pm  Reply

        I can see that. What keeps me coming back to Fallen London is the combination of game and narrative, and it’s the same reason I very much enjoyed Cabinet Noir.

  3. Yasmeen December 16, 2012 10:55 pm  Reply

    Really sorry to hear that people were disappointed with the Silver Tree. It was an experiment in mechanics, and attempting to offer a lot of choice at once; I wanted most of the stories to be as non-linear as I could make them, so players could read the fragments in any order. I wanted the effect to be like a jigsaw puzzle, in the hope that it would allow players more freedom to create narratives of their own.

    Part of the problem is obviously that intention is always ideal and outcome is limited by skill, time, etc. Another part is that not everyone likes this kind of structure – and I think that’s totally fair enough, and I would like to do something about the grind cycle if I can.

    Ideally I’d like to make some changes and additions to the Silver Tree; primarily with the aim of making the mechanics more interesting and varied. If there’s anything in particular you guys would like to suggest I’d be really interested in hearing it! :)

    • Urthdigger December 17, 2012 5:58 am  Reply

      My suggestion would be to allow players to see options they do not have the resources to play, so they can better prepare by noticing “Oh hey, I can see options I haven’t seen before for the Khan and Daughter by getting more gifts!” for example.

      My second request, and sadly one that may require more work, is to have more options that lock and unlock at certain points of progress. In fact, I’d dare to say that there should be no options that are playable all the way through from start to finish. A big issue I had was the lack of progress because the end of the stories felt much the same as the beginning, since most of the storylets I played to advance it were the same ones. The first issue of being unable to see storylets you can’t play only exacerbates this problem, as you could conceivably never know that there are ANY storylets that got unlocked with more progress, due to not having the requirements when you clicked it.

      So, to sum things up, I’d say let players see storylets they cannot play yet (Possibly only if they have the storyline progress for it, to limit clutter somewhat), and use storyline progress requirements so it feels more like actually piecing together some clues rather than “repeat this 20 times”

  4. Yasmeen December 18, 2012 7:30 pm  Reply

    Thanks Urthdigger, that makes sense and I do understand that this is something that’s more frustrating for some people than I wanted it to be
    I’ve got a couple of things in mind that I want to add to help with this; obviously the main problem with having locked branches be visible is that there are A LOT of them; but I think there’s a couple of middle ground type things I could do…

    • Vael Victus December 19, 2012 4:53 am  Reply

      @Yasmeen:

      I finished Silver Tree without finishing the optional storylines, so I’m going through again. I did not particularly enjoy my time, but due to my love for FL, I kept with it. I have two gripes that could have turned this around. Since you’re listening… :P

      I would like to see the relationships represented as bars! Goodness I hate seeing that I earned 3x khan loyalty. Really breaks me out of the atmosphere. Additionally, I’d like to farm them via pinned cards. At least up to 30x rep. Sometimes I’m at work and just want to quickly push through the actions I have available.

      Secondly, seeing the -same- content regarding the story 18 times is a bit much. I know there are various ways to progress through a story, but once I’ve seen each one twice, I lose a lot of interest. There’s no more mystery.

      @Chris as this is, after all, a Below post.

      I REALLY liked Below! :} Seriously, I worried about dying down in the ground, how close I was to camp, if I could beat a certain encounter, and the ever-looming possibility of permanent (as I understand it) death by the raiders. I’m so glad you’ll be continuing it. I look forward to buying a premium character, I believe there was a lady I took a liking to. So there’s that for monetization. I might buy a resurrection if I ever need it.

      I was surprised with such an early second kickstarter, though, and I worried my beloved FL would fall behind if I supported Below. :/ I’m waiting for FL’s endgame! I must know what a storm threnody is used for! So that and Christmas presents for my children discouraged me from a donation. Just a bit of timing would have helped a lot, I think. You’ve made a great game on StoryNexus.

  5. Catherine Raymond December 18, 2012 8:17 pm  Reply

    Chris, I think Below has fabulous potential. It’s a neat experience even now.

    I believe the failure of its Kickstarter was due to timing (right after a successful Kickstarter, close to the holiday season), less publicity, and not being able to trade on the success of Fallen London. I’m sure it will be splendid, and when my own financial situation improves I will probably be willing to throw money to you for it.

    • Chris December 18, 2012 9:35 pm  Reply

      Thanks Catherine!

  6. Yasmeen December 19, 2012 10:40 pm  Reply

    Thanks Vael. Sadly the bars thing is beyond my control – it’s not a StoryNexus feature. But I can have a look at the level descriptions, at least.

    There’s enough branches in each story that you could theoretically see a different one for every point – but I’ve taken the point on board that this isn’t happening for people, and am looking at ways to alleviate that. Thanks for the feedback!

  7. Isaac Knapp (the lord of the magic spoon) January 1, 2013 5:59 pm  Reply

    Does this mean Below will not be developed? If so, thumbs down. I played the prototype several times through, enthralled with it each time. Will you ever put it back up for funding?

    • Chris January 1, 2013 6:05 pm  Reply

      Hi Isaac,

      Below is in active development as a personal project – check out the Status Update entries in the Blog section of this site to see how progress is going!

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