Kickstarter Lesson #112: Mega Projects and You

2 September 2014 | 29 Comments

credit: Cthulhu Wars Kickstarter project
credit: Cthulhu Wars Kickstarter project

A few weeks ago in the Tabletop Game Kickstarter Advice Facebook group, someone gave a piece of misleading advice that worried me a bit. The next day, someone else gave almost identical advice about a different project mentioned on the Kickstarter Best Practices group.

The advice? “You should do X because Cthulhu Wars did it.”

Cthulhu Wars is one of the top-funding tabletop game Kickstarters ever, having raised over $1.4 million in July 2013. It’s an outlier, an anomaly–it should not be used as supporting evidence for dispensing advice or making decisions about your Kickstarter campaign.

The same goes for any mega project–any KS project that earns over $500,000. Just the other day someone e-mailed me for advice about their project preview page, and they cited The Coolest as the reason they made a specific decision. The Coolest is the most funded campaign ever on Kickstarter–it is not the norm!

Now, you may be wondering why we shouldn’t use mega campaigns as templates for our Kickstarter projects. After all, they clearly did something right, and we all want that same level of success. Shouldn’t we emulate them? Here’s why that’s a bad idea:

  • It’s really hard to tell the difference between the elements that made them successful and the elements that made no difference at all (or even impeded their success): The best example of this is early bird pricing. As I discussed on my dissection of the Zombicide 3 campaign, I think these mega projects would do just as well without the early-bird pricing–in fact, I think they would have done better without it because they wouldn’t lose backers who are really turned off by early-bird pricing (my data shows that 50% of backers don’t like early birds, compared to 25% who do and 25% who don’t care).
  • There are other reasons below the surface these projects are successful. When you look back at an older mega project, it’s really hard to see all of the aligning forces that made it so successful at the time. Looking at the Kicktraq graph can help–perhaps there’s a spike for which you can track down the source. Perhaps it was a key review or a celebrity endorsement. Or maybe the creator has a huge following from a previous career or project. The point is, there’s usually a specific reason mega projects are successful, and it’s not going to be clear from the minutiae on the project page.
  • You lose any sense of project evolution during the campaign by looking at it after the fact. A Kickstarter project page is frozen in time forever after the campaign ends. It will appear to future readers as static even though it was completely in flux during the campaign, and it can be quite misleading as a result. For example, Cthulhu Wars has exactly 29 reward levels. Does that mean it started out on launch day with 29 reward levels? Nope. Does that mean that 29 rewards levels is the sweet spot for your campaign on launch day? Heck no. Aim for about 7, and if you need to expand during the campaign, do so sparingly.
  • What you need to know is in the post-mortem, not on the project page…and way too few creators write post-mortems. We’re humans. It’s hard to admit when we screw up. Perhaps even harder when we screw up and things still turn out fine (we might even convince ourselves that we didn’t screw up). But I think it’s incredibly important for the Kickstarter community that project creators write a post-mortem after the project about the mistakes they made and the lessons they learned. It’s in these post-mortems that other project creators can learn about all the things on this list in one place. Here are all of my post-mortems in one place.
  • The truth is, sometimes these projects are really bad examples for your campaign. Cthulhu Wars, for example, doesn’t have a single third-party review on their project page. Does that mean third-party reviews aren’t important? Not at all! They’re really important. Same goes with the 29 (!) reward levels I mentioned above. I could list 5-10 things like this about almost any mega project. They’re successful despite their faults, not because of them.

If you really want to study a mega campaign, back a live one for $1 (or more) and follow it very closely during and after the campaign. You can see all live mega projects here.

Otherwise, when using other projects as examples for your campaign, look at those that overfunded within reason. You should definitely still study successful projects, but you want to make sure they’re not Kickstarter outliers. Dig under the surface–read the project updates, poke around for a post-mortem/lessons learned post, future projects that showed their evolution as creators, etc. And find a few successful projects in your category that are currently live on Kickstarter to back and learn from.

The next time you see someone use a mega project as an example for Kickstarter advice, please point them to this article. I’m sure they mean well, but I think they’re doing a disservice to project creators (especially new ones) by using extreme outliers as our supporting evidence for why they should or shouldn’t do something on their campaign.

Also read: How to Effectively Research Other Kickstarter Projects and Back Other Projects

29 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson #112: Mega Projects and You

  1. Strong points. It is tough to tell sometimes why a project does well, and there are many reasons why projects have success or fail. I think you give good advice to really look at a campagin on an individual basis. The other side of the coin would suggest to take all those things you find that make a campagin successful and see if any of those things will fit in your campagin. If they do then ensure you use them in the proper setting for your campagin. History shows even if you do evening right on your page, that does not equal a sucessful campagin.

    There are so many variables it can be overwhelming to know what to do. I think in the end best practices are very important. But innovation has its place as well. Create a good mix of these things and communicate with your community. That should get you going in the right direction.

    Thanks for the insight sir!

    1. Jason: Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that if you can distill a campaign down to the elements that made it successful, those are the elements you should try to emulate. It’s just really tough to figure out what those elements are in a mega campaign! :)

  2. I saw an article a while back about Tim Schafer giving kickstarter tips and my first thought was: “How are his tips going to help you unless you’re already as famous as he is?. You need to make a point to study campaigns similar to yours that are run by people in a similar situation to you. If you’re a complete unknown, look at kickstarters that are run by other unknowns. If you have a couple of products released, look at people with a couple products. That’s why Fred Hicks’s default kickstarter tip is: “First, take ten years building a fan base”, that’s the only way any of his other advice is going to apply.

    1. Richard: That’s a great illustration of the importance of studying not only campaigns that are similar to yours, but people who are similar to you in terms of their fanbase. I like Fred’s advice too!

  3. I couldn’t agree more.
    There are soooooo many articles out there saying “How to make $1.000.000 project on Kickstarter” and then they link to Pepple watch or Double Fine or some of the other easy to pick projects….
    It makes me frustrated and I get in the mood where I want to write a post like yours Jamey – thanks for covering that aspect for me :D

  4. Another great article Jamey. I know I am learning a lot with my Kickstarter right now, and one of the things I’m really getting a better understanding of is the (at least in some cases) powerful marketing forces behind some of these mega projects. Not to say a person can’t try to emulate some of their techniques, but I’m just saying that your point about how “There are other reasons below the surface these projects are successful” is a very critical one.

    1. Jason: Yeah, I think many of the mega projects show the value of having a built-in audience. The nice thing is, even though it takes a lot of time, it’s very easy to create content online these days to start to build that audience. :)

  5. Excellent points Jamey and I really enjoyed this particular post. It’s really hard as a project creator to not compare your project with others, and then take ideas of the successful ones, intertwine those with yours, and think it will generate the same effect. Using the word “outlier” hits it perfectly. Also, I think creators need to keep in mind that their project is not the same, even though it may be very similar to others. Take the potato salad project for instance. How many copies and variations of this project spawned, and none of them could get even a $1? It’s the exact same thing but they weren’t THE potato salad.

    You mentioned this before in another post on timing, but the Coolest Cooler didn’t even fund the first time it launched, yet now it’s the most successful Kickstarter project ever. How many people have taken the time to even notice that or look deeper into that campaign? Outlier for sure.

    Since running a Kickstarter is a journey with typically months of planning and a month long campaign, those “mistakes/wish I would have done it this way” are going to be there, even with the most successful ones. Your point on looking how even the successful ones have changed/adapted along the way with multiple projects is really important to look at.

    Thanks Jamey!

    1. Kevin: Thanks for the excellent comment. You touched upon several of my worries when I saw the Potato Salad campaign–it’s really important for project creators to dig a little deeper when researching projects (and when using them as examples for other creators).

      I may have mentioned this to you, but if you’d like to write a post-mortem about your project for me to host here on my blog, I’d be happy to do so. Your experience changing the price during the campaign (successfully) would definitely be helpful for other creators to read about.

      1. Hi Jamey,

        Yes, I still plan on writing something up and sending it your way. Sorry for the delay, it’s a busy time of year with school starting and my full time job. I should have it to you in the next few weeks, and I hope it will be a great help to others. It was great to meet you at Gen Con and look forward to being in touch soon!

  6. It’s interesting because the first thing I ever did when I started planning this was to look at all the most funded tabletop Kickstarters, and see take note of their common characteristics. After a while I concluded the most relevant pattern was most of these campaigns had not been firsts for the project creators.

    I personally think there is a lot more to be learned from researching campaigns that failed and then were re-launched, and look at what the creators chose to change about them. They learned from their failures, so why can’t you, right?

  7. Jamey. Are there any kickstarter tips from your blog that might be prone to the idea that it might not work for smaller projects or beginner creators?

    1. ben: After writing 112 of these lessons, I’m sure there are, but I try to bring attention to tips that apply more to repeat creators than first-timers. The vast majority of what I talk about applies to any KS creator (old or new) in any category.

  8. Surely we all can learn something from the Cthulhu Wars kickstarter, though? Namely that if your project has a theme of ‘Cthulhu’ and involves minis, you’ll probably be fine. ;)

  9. I stumbled upon this site and it is a goldmine! I have a lot of reading and research to do before I launch. Thanks in advance for your help.

  10. Jamey,

    Great post! Your blog (and story) have been an inspiration to me in developing my own board games. I have been reading through the posts and couldn’t help but notice a perfect example of this post’s principles on Kickstarter right now: Disturbed Friends (caution – mature content). The game was funded in 1 day, but as I dug into why – I just couldn’t figure it out. Their website, facebook and twitter feeds look professional, but were started mere days before their campaign went live. If anything – the success is probably due to the incredibly polarizing content, not to any smartly curated community of followers. However, to your point, people might draw the wrong conclusions once their campaign ends.

    Thanks for the post, great reading!

  11. I’m coming to this conversation a bit late, but it’s in reference to “The Coolest.” Now that so much time has passed, we can see yet one more reason NOT to cite this project as good advice for how to proceed. This project has had so many delays on the part of the inventor–constant changes to the design and the like–even to the point where he has asked (AFTER BEING FUNDED) for additional shipping funds… Large factions of his backers are furious with how this has turned out. Definitely NOT the model you want to follow.

  12. […] Mega Projects and You: I always worry about the lessons new creators learn from mega projects. As is the case with many of these projects, the creator of Kingdom Death: Monster 1.5 has done some brilliant things, and the success is well deserved. But there are also a number of elements here that would have sunk most projects that have so much pent-up demand leading up to the campaign. So if you’re studying a mega project for elements to incorporate into your campaign, please read this first. […]

  13. I agree with your points here. I wonder if the same thing applies to campaigns that raise over 100k. That is still uncommon in the games category. I would say over 75k is a pretty exclusive group. You could make the argument that you should look for common features in that group only

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