Rambling: Thoughts on crowdfunding and putting together your first campaign

Like it or not crowdfunding is now a central component of producing an RPG, especially if you are aiming to produce a physical product. When Matthew from the Effekt Podcast interviewed me at the start of 2022 to promote Signal to Noise we talked about sitting down after the game was out to discuss what goes into running a small crowdfunding campaign. While the game isn’t out just yet Kickstarter has decided to push on with an August Zine Quest so I thought it would be worth discussing some of those details now here on my blog.

You might be wondering why you should be listening to the advice of someone that has only run two small campaigns that raised less than £3k. To that, I would say because I’ve only run two relatively small campaigns. The vast majority of RPG crowdfunding is at the smaller end of the scale and unless you have an established presence or a lot of luck that is probably what you should be aiming at as a first-time crowdfunder. So my experience at the smallest end of the scale is reflective of the challenges new designers are likely to face.

So what do you need to think about going into your campaign? Obviously, there’s the game itself but I’m going to leave that to you and focus on logistics. The most important aspect to me is the budget, which I break down into 2 sections – fixed and dynamic. You should, ideally, be thinking about this well ahead of launch to ensure you have everything covered and that running your campaign won’t cost you in the long run. There are plenty of horror stories out there of disappearing products or people having to shell out from their personal finances because they failed to create a proper budget.

As I said I break my budget into 2 sections – fixed and dynamic – so lets take a closer look at each of them.

Fixed Costs

Your fixed costs are exactly that – one-off payments that will not change regardless of the success of your campaign. If an artist quotes you a price of £200 then that cost is fixed, regardless of whether you sell 10 or 1000 copies of the game. The majority of your fixed costs will usually be associated with contractors such as artists and writers but licences for software, fonts or stock art can also fall into this category. When it comes to hiring people get quotes early and make sure to pay them fairly. The standard rate across the industry for writing is often quoted as 5 cents but that is too low and we should be aiming significantly higher. Try to aim for 10 cents per word as a minimum and work from there. The cost of editing, another essential component, will vary more depending on whether it is copy-editing or proofing. Art is even harder to price as individual pieces may range from small embellishments at the corner of the page to complex full-page pieces so reach out to artists early, discuss rates and make sure to mention that you want to use it commercially as this will increase the price further. Then put it all in writing, make plans for when and how you will pay for the work and be prompt with payment.

You might be thinking but I can’t raise that much or how do I make any money off of this. If you’re thinking your campaign won’t raise that much then you need to scale back your plans (but well done on being realistic on how much you can raise). Look at your budget and scale it back. Do you really need 10 full-page spreads or could you use stock art and include stretch goals to upgrade each piece? Could you do any of the work yourself?

For Project Cassandra, I relied almost exclusively on stock art. My total spend on art? Less than $50 if you exclude the time I then spent tweaking it in photoshop. My art budget for Signal to Noise on the other hand was closer to £500 and was the single largest cost of the campaign. My original budget was for only a single piece but I designed the campaign (and budget!) in such a way that as we pushed past certain goals I would be able to afford additional pieces, a fact I’d already discussed with the artist.

Which brings us to the question of how do I make any money for myself? The short answer is you probably don’t, at least not nearly the amount you deserve relative to the amount of work that goes into producing a game. A small 5,000-word game has a writing cost alone of $500 if we use the 10 cents per word we’ve established as a minimal fair rate. That’s before we consider all of the other work you will have put into the game, from design and testing to promotion and running the campaign. A realistic budget that pays you fairly for the amount of time you have put in will come into the thousands. Some campaigns will raise that but you need to be realistic with what you think you can raise and be prepared to fail if you include those costs upfront.

Dynamic Costs

Simply put these are the costs that increase as you get more backers. The three main areas you will need to be aware of are production, shipping and fees.

Production is the cost of producing each copy of your game – most of the time this means printing by your chosen supplier. As with contractors you need to get quotes early and then add a margin. Paper costs have risen sharply due to the pandemic and continue to do so. So if you think each copy will cost you £1 to print then budget for £1.50 or even higher. This gives you a buffer if costs rise, the game ends up being larger than expected or you decide to switch from black and white to full colour. If it doesn’t then hey, it can go towards other costs.

Shipping – This is the cost of getting copies into the hands of your backers and just like printing costs postage rates have shot up, especially if you’re in the US. It’s fairly standard to charge for postage after the campaign but you should get an initial estimate early if only so you can let the backers know what to expect. You also need to think about how you are going to handle import fees such as VAT if you are shipping into the EU – for a small creator the reality is either finding a shipping partner or leaving backers to pay those fees when the product ships.

Talking of fees don’t forget to include them in your budget. Regardless of which site you run your campaign on each pledge will incur fees, so if a backer pledges £10 you might only receive £8. Sites such as Kickstarter typically take around a 5% cut of every pledge while payment processing will take another 3-5% so expect to lose around 10% of your total straight out of the door. After shipping, this is a common reason for campaigns costing their creators money.

Finally, we add a contingency, which I like to set at 10%. This is there as a just in case, if it’s not needed that’s great but if it is it can be the difference between a project making or losing money overall.

Stress testing the budget

So now that you’ve got all of those numbers what do you do with them?

Maths. Sorry, but it’s time to break out excel. You need to put all those numbers into a spreadsheet and work out a goal for your campaign that, at a minimum, ensures you break even. This is also the point at which you must start thinking about what each pledge tier will offer. Why? Because different products have different dynamic costs. PDFs might be as low as nothing while a physical tier will need to cover printing and shipping.

When running these calculations I start with the total fixed costs as my initial goal and use the cost of the print tier to work out how many backers I would need to reach that target. I then calculate whether that would break even once I add the dynamic costs for that number of backers. Then I incrementally increase the goal and rerun the numbers, repeating the process until I break even. Then I add a buffer, just in case. So lets break that down into an example. Say my fixed costs total £500, my print pledge tier costs £10 and my dynamic costs for that tier are £2 per backer. If I set my initial goal to £500 I will need 50 backers at that level to reach the goal. However, the dynamic costs for those backers come to a total of £100 so my final expenditure is £500 fixed plus £100 dynamic for a total of £600. I’ll therefore lose £100 if I hit that goal but don’t exceed it.

Incrementing the goal I find that to break even I need to set the goal to £630. This requires 63 backers to reach, and their total dynamic costs are £126. Added to my fixed cost of £500 I’d make a profit of £4. After finding that break-even point for my print tier I then check my numbers with other rewards. If a third of my backers choose the print tier and the rest go for PDF only (which will have a much lower dynamic cost per pledge) will I still break even? What if it’s 50/50? If all of those tests return a profit then I’ve found the minimum viable goal for the campaign.

So that’s the budget. Much of it may seem obvious but I’ve spent a lot of time on it because it’s important and because so many creators still seem to trip up at this point. Even big names in the hobby can screw up – just look at the mess that was the 7th Sea 2nd edition Kickstarter.

Before I move on to what else you need to consider I want to come back to paying yourself. This is an issue that gets a lot of discussion. Creating games, for many of us, is a hobby but we also need to ensure that people are paid fairly when they want to make money off of them. There are two things to consider here. The first is not to undersell your work, something I have been guilty of in the past and which is depressingly endemic across the hobby. For my campaigns, I have priced PDFs at £5 and print copies at £10 plus shipping, which I think is the bare minimum you should aim for when producing a zine-sized game. Many creators are starting to raise their prices but it’s a difficult market and the vast majority of small press games will never earn enough to pay their creator fairly. You need to be aware of that going in.

The second factor to consider is the time and effort you have already put into the game. If you have already written 5,000 words then you could be tempted to add £500 to the goal to pay yourself for that work. I would argue against doing that though. Why? Because it’s a sunk cost – you have already done the work regardless of whether the campaign succeeds or not. If you end up being able to pay yourself back £200 then you’re £300 in the red but if you had set the goal £500 higher you’d still be £500 in the red.

I’m aware that this approach requires a level of time, money and privilege that not everyone can afford – if you’re not in a position to afford those upfront costs then add them into your budget but make sure to avoid the temptation to spend on the campaign before it succeeds. For Signal to Noise I was fortunate that I could afford the time to have a complete version of the game before the campaign launched. I then set the initial campaign goal so that it would cover printing and a small amount of art. Stretch goals paid for additional art, maximising the chance of success. Have I paid myself for the work I put in? No, but it hasn’t personally cost me money either, only time and that is something I can afford. Any future sales of the game will slowly pay me back but I doubt it will ever earn me what could be considered a fair wage for the work that went into it.

Creating your campaign page

Right, enough about the budget. What about the campaign itself. My biggest piece of advice here is once again to plan ahead as much as possible, starting with which platform to use. As much as I hate to admit it Kickstarter still rules the crowdfunding space and projects there have a much higher chance of success than if you use one of the alternatives such as Game on Tabletop or Game Found. That may change over time but right now it’s an important factor to take into account. You also need to decide whether you have enough of an audience to go it alone or whether you should join an event such as Zine Quest. If you’re a new creator I would highly recommend this.

Why?

Because they are force multipliers that will bring more eyes to your project, especially if you put in the effort to be active in the community. I’m under no illusion about the fact that my own projects would have struggled or even failed if not for the fact that other creators drove cross-promotion from their own projects. It’s tempting to consider running a project outside of those events but for that, you’ll need to seriously consider your reach and whether you will succeed because building an audience is hard. You cannot just launch a Kickstarter and expect it to gain backers without spending time and effort on promotion. There’s a lot that goes into building an audience but the biggest piece of advice I can offer (which I regularly fail at myself) is to be active. You need to be part of the community, talking about your game but also engaging with others on a regular basis. It’s easy to spot someone that is only interested in talking about their own work and that tends to put people off. A podcast interview or actual play is a fantastic way to bring attention to your project (Thanks again Matthew and Dave from Effekt and Marx from Yes Indie’d!) but as with everything else give yourself time. Most podcasts will schedule interviews a month or more in advance so launching your campaign and then reaching out to people at the last moment is a big no.

Going back to the campaign page itself once you’ve decided on the site and launch window give yourself the time to put your campaign page together and make changes. Many of the sites have rather unintuitive campaign creation tools that can take a while to get used to so don’t expect to be able to throw together a perfect page in a weekend. You need time to work out how to create a page, write and edit the text, to create banners and promo images. At the same time check what the process is to get your campaign approved – it may take a week or two and I’ve heard of more than one project launching late because the creator assumed the process would be relatively quick. For Project Cassandra, I started this process in November ahead of a February launch. I know many fellow Zine Questers that only started mid-January but I wanted to avoid going into the campaign already stressed by creating the page at the last minute. For Signal to Noise I gave myself a month but as the game had already been released on itch I was able to reuse text and art assets, significantly cutting down the amount of work required.

Ultimately what you include on your page is up to you but you need to showcase your work in a clear and concise manner. The text of the campaign is arguably the most important section – it needs to hook the backers and tell them what the game is about. But that’s not enough. The best pages will also use graphics and preview material to support the text. Graphical section headers can help break up the text while art and layout previews give the backers an idea of what to expect from the final product. This upsell is why so many creators invest in the sunk cost that I mentioned earlier – a rules preview or example artwork grabs the attention of supporters in a way that plain text never will.

If you’re unsure of what to include on your page the best idea is to look at successful projects by both small and large creators (These are the links to the Project Cassandra and Signal to Noise pages). What did they write, how did they order the page, did they include any preview material etc. Section banners are an easy and effective way to improve the visual design of your campaign page. You can quickly and easily create eye-catching banners using a combination of stock art and photoshop (or one of the many cheap/free alternatives). My ability to draw is pretty close to zero but over the years I’ve learned the basics of image manipulation and can produce effective banners for my own campaigns that cost me nothing but time. Art previews are another great way to sell your game on the campaign page so if you’ve been able to commission material in advance of the campaign make sure to highlight it. A lot of the time that won’t be possible for the simple reason that the aim of the campaign is to raise funds for art (amongst other things). In that case, ask your artist if they have any existing portfolio pieces that you can share. It lets you show off their abilities and costs absolutely nothing.

Alongside the main page, you will obviously need to set up your reward tiers, which you should have already decided on when creating your budget. For your first campaign, keep these as simple as possible – PDF, Print+PDF and maybe one or two special high-value tiers such as an annotated print copy or private game session. It’s tempting to offer extras such as custom dice or limited edition art prints but these come with a lot of risks due to the added complexity of budgeting for them. That goes double if you were thinking of including them as stretch goals – it’s all too easy to promise extras that you can’t afford in the long run – just look at the disaster that was the 7th Sea 2nd Edition Kickstarter if you want an example of a campaign by a big name in the industry that promised too much and failed to budget properly.

So that’s my rambling thoughts on what you should be thinking about in advance of running a campaign. It’s by no means comprehensive despite its length and there are so many caveats that you shouldn’t take any of it as gospel. I just want people to be aware of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into just setting up a campaign and of the many things you should be thinking about when you do.

In the next post, I’m going to talk about what happens after your campaign has been funded and all the wonderful pitfalls such as customs forms and printing errors that you might run into.

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