Friday, September 14, 2012

Two easy ways to succeed on Kickstarter (and two reasons you should look for these kinds of projects)

Over the weekend, Ars Technica put up a quick post on old games getting rebooted through Kickstarter. They talk about how it's fertile ground for rebooting old games. Unfortunately, at least for creative endeavors, revisiting well-trodden ground may be one of the only profitable uses for it. But surprisingly this might be a really good thing for people looking to back Kickstarter projects.

As someone who is mentioned twice (obliquely) in the promotional video for one of the most successful Kickstarter reboots (when at Microsoft I worked on Shadowrun), I have a bit of a sentimental interest in this topic. It would seem that if you want to succeed on Kickstarter, try for one of two things:

1. You're working with a well-known IP, so fans of the IP will buy your product
2. You've worked with or created well-known IPs in the past, so your fans will buy your product

These aren't foolproof - you can be famous and still make something that will interest no one. And lightning can always strike, giving a new creator a great chance. But to me, having watched content creators trying to get funding for years, Kickstarter reminds me of foreign rights sales and other types of presales, which the film industry has been doing for years. Instead of going to Cannes and drinking rosé and eating oysters on La Croisette and deciding whether to spend $2M of your company's money, Kickstarter funders are sitting in front of their computers drinking a Mountain Dew and thinking about putting down $25 of their own.

I've put money into Kickstarter IP projects (unlike manufactured goods like the Pebble watch where I'll know exactly what I'm getting if it shows up). But not many. And with one exception, where I took a flyer because I thought a concept sounded kind of interesting and the barrier to entry was pretty low, it was always because I knew the property or the project.

Here's the types of projects that have received 100% or more of the amounts they have requested:
  • SolForge, a digital card game developed by a company that already makes digital card games and the guy who developed Magic: The Gathering.
  • Anomalisa, an animated film from Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich).
  • The Canyons, a film written by Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho, Less Than Zero) and directed by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull).
  • Two games set in the Shadowrun universe, a popular role-playing game franchise, both developed in conjunction with the original creators of that IP.
Starting to get the idea?

If your idea has enough promise that people will want to pay you money for it, they'll pay you money for the promise of it. If it doesn't, they won't. Or if you've worked on great things in the past then people will hope that you know how to deliver great things in the future. Past performance may not guarantee future success, but it's at least an indicator that you know how to get there. But most people aren't going to Kickstarter to take a chance on something new. They're shopping for known quantities. How else do you explain projects getting 300%, even 500% more funding than they asked for?

Seth Godin put it well: If you don't have an audience, Kickstarter probably won't get it for you. It's not a shortcut. It's a maximizer.

But from a backer's perspective, this is a good thing for two reasons.

Getting the necessary rights. There's a very good reason to go with people who are working with an established track record or IP: they will likely go to the effort to obtain the rights to do what they want to do. The Shadowrun projects above are a good example: there have been many fan-initiated projects to create something using that IP over the years, but these are the first projects done by people who actually have obtained the rights to do them. And so the owners of the IP won't come shut them down halfway through, costing the backers all of their money. Same with people who come from a background at a major content creator: they know they need things like licenses to IP, permits to film on location, insurance, and all that boring stuff that's vital to running a real business.

And so you can have some comfort that projects involving known IPs or people with a proven track record will be seen through to completion and not shut down by litigation. It's not foolproof - I've seen some projects in Kickstarter where I think the creators really could have benefited from a patent search before they submitted their project. But at least going with a proven commodity you have some circumstantial guarantee that the creators have done their due diligence and will be able to see their project through.

The project leads have probably asked for enough money. Kickstarter doesn't take your money unless the requested funding level is met. But most people don't know what happens if a project gets funded but never gets finished. If a Kickstarter project doesn't get completed you lose your money and Kickstarter makes it clear that they won't help you get it back. So it's smart to go for things that look like they have a high chance of success and avoid things that maybe don't seem so likely to succeed.

People working with known IPs will have had to demonstrate to the IP owner that they know how to succeed. If you're the owner of an IP you don't want 50 different video game versions of the IP being created because that just fragments your audience. So you'll pick someone who looks like they know what they're doing and give them the exclusive right. If that person then goes to Kickstarter and asks for money, you can be pretty confident that their budget is the same one that the IP owner has previously seen and approved. Yes projects slip and budgets get exceeded, but someone who has had to think about this in advance will probably do better at getting it right than someone who hasn't.

It's similar for people who come from a major background. They know what it takes to get the job done. They know where the bodies are buried. And so they have very likely done the same exercise as the people above who have had to present it to the owners of the IP. Here, though, the people they've presented it to have even more reason to make sure it's right: themselves. If you're quitting a good job with a large company to chase your dream, you're probably going to check that you'll be able to succeed.

It's a truism that nothing is certain in life, and that goes double (at least) for creative enterprises. The best resume in the world doesn't guarantee success. And I'm not saying that small projects or passionate new creators shouldn't merit consideration for your money: I've backed a couple myself. But I keep hearing that Kickstarter is going to revolutionize the way content is created. I'm afraid there's going to be a few rude surprises coming, and then the landscape will change. And not for the better.

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