Kickstarter Lesson #73: The Art of Pitching

11 December 2013 | 22 Comments

“The purpose of a pitch isn’t necessarily to move others immediately to adopt your idea.” –Daniel Pink, To Sell Is Human

WainwrightA Kickstarter project is a pitch. You are pitching your creation to the world to see if the world decides to embrace it. Every element of your project is part of that pitch–the video, the project page text and images, the reward levels, the funding goal, the stretch goals, everything.

But what is the purpose of the pitch? At first glance it would be to compel potential backers to pledge their support, right?

I’d like to offer a different perspective, one that not only debunks that assumption, but also calls into question some peoples’ assertion that Kickstarter is a store.

I’ve cited Daniel Pink’s book on several Kickstarter Lessons, and I’m back again with another insight from him. This particular insight comes from the board rooms of Hollywood where hundreds of agents and screenwriters pitch their films to movie executives every day.

Two researches, Kimberly Elsbach and Roderick Kramer, spent five years observing the pitch process in Hollywood. Day after day they watched people walk into rooms with their dreams on their sleeves, and many walked away with nothing. Sound familiar?

However, over time as the data accumulated, a clear pattern emerged from the successful pitches: The screenwriters and agents who got the execs to say yes were those who invited the executives to be collaborators:

“The more the executives–often derided by their supposedly more artistic counterparts as “suits”–were able to contribute, the better the idea often became, and the more likely it was to be green-lighted.”

Let’s think about that for a second in the context of Kickstarter. This study is suggesting that the more you’re able to make your potential backers feel like collaborators, the more likely they are to back your project.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you show up on Kickstarter with nothing to show. Rather, your project should be designed, tested, and close to production. I think I’ve listed several different percentages over the course of writing Kickstarter Lessons, but let’s say it should be somewhere around 90-95% complete (it’s fine if the art isn’t complete, as long as it’s in the works and you have some money shots on the project page). That wiggle room of 5-10% and how you use it is integral to the success of your project.

amerigoLet’s look at a project that took a different approach to their pitch than Pink is suggesting: Amerigo.

Amerigo is a game designed by superstar Stefan Feld and published by Queen Games. These are two huge names in the gaming business. They came to Kickstarter with a 100% completed product–no room for backer feedback.  They treated Kickstarter like a store and took pre-orders for their game. This isn’t a commentary on that decision; rather, we’re just using it as an example.

Amerigo asked for $20,000 and raised $61,193 from 752 backers. By no means is this a failure. Any of us would be happy to do that on Kickstarter.

But if you compare it to mega-successful gaming projects (most with far worse pedigrees than Feld and Queen), it honestly pales in comparison to them. This was a direct result of the fact that it didn’t even attempt to engage potential backers. Can you imagine how big Amerigo could have been if Queen had engaged backers even just a little bit?

Look at some of the big game projects and how their project creators engage backers. They’re active in the comments, gathering thoughts, opinions, and feedback. They have PnP files available so backers can test the games during the project and proofread the rules. They post polls and surveys to name elements of the product. They have reward levels that subtly incorporate people into the product.

Just like those Hollywood pitches, it’s those projects that truly grow to epic proportions. And they’re the better for it–all of that feedback results in a better product. In those cases, Kickstarter isn’t a store at all. It’s a platform for conversation, collaboration, and mutual creation.

I’ll end by completing the quote at the beginning of this lesson. If you want to significantly increase the chances that your project will fund or overfund, this is the goal of your pitch:

“The purpose of a pitch isn’t necessarily to move others immediately to adopt your idea. The purpose is to offer something so compelling that it begins a conversation, brings the other person in as a participant, and eventually arrives at an outcome that appeals to both of you.”

Can you think of a Kickstarter project where you walked in as a wary potential backer and walked away feeling like not just a backer, but a collaborator?

22 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson #73: The Art of Pitching

  1. I’m right in the middle of deciding these things, so thanks for the encouragement, Jamey. I’m having a few minor elements of the game decided by individual donors and democratically by the backers. I get worried about it from time to time, and this is what I needed to hear today.

  2. Amerigo is actually a Kickstarter that I backed… and then cancelled once I realized that it just essentially was a pre-order system.

    Several people were making comments on the game’s mechanics, giving feedback and suggestions on the mechanics as well as on how to make the cube-tower work well. Several people (including myself) REALLY wanted to see the cube-tower in action. Basically nobody got a direct response, and even though ONE of the responses was “We’ve already designed the tower.” they declined to post a video in a timely manner showing the tower at work.

    I might still pick up the game down the road, but I’m in love with Kickstarter because it helps people CREATE dreams that otherwise wouldn’t likely be created, the second I get a whiff of “This game is already 100% completed, we’re not going to take suggestions.”… I’m gone.

    1. Justin: Well said. I’m in the same boat as you–I have nothing against Amerigo, and I’d love to play it someday, but I needed something to pull me into that project to compel me to give them my money so early.

      It’s an interesting balance between too incomplete and too complete. Any thoughts on the sweet spot?

      1. No, as usual you hit it right on the head.

        Get the rules almost completely done (but not finalized), get the game almost completely done (but not finalized) and ensure that you don’t have any hubris that because you designed the game, that NOBODY else can POSSIBLY have an idea on how to improve the game… I.E. Listen to other’s ideas, and that’s the sweet spot in a nutshell.

        Of course, at the same time if you truly have a vision, don’t let everybody else change your game from something you want it to be!

        1. I completely agree. Well said about the balance between hubris and vision. You have to have vision and clarity, but if you think you and your project/product are without fault, you’re missing out on so many great interactions and connections with backers.

    2. Justin, I appreciate your comments here. I agree that the most compelling aspect of KS is that it allows us (the backers) to take some stake (however small) in the creation of the project and not just the funding success of the project. If I am looking only for another game, I’ll buy it after others have already played it and can reassure me of its quality. With KS its totally different. If I back a game on KS, I’m looking for so much more! Well put sir!

  3. Very true. While much of its growth was due to involving minis, a perfect example of this is Rivet Wars. Their minis had a unique look to them that turned many off, but due to the creator openly listening to and incorporating ideas during the campaign not only was it able to attract new backers, but it was able to get most existing backers to increase the size of their pledges. This further compounded the perceived value of the game as additional stretch goals were collaborated on and met.

    1. tpchid: That’s a great example of how a project creator can loosen up during the campaign and open up to backers. It’s great to go into a campaign with a plan, but being flexible can really help increase the chances of success.

  4. Looking at the astonishing number of Tabletop game projects on Kickstarter right now, one must assume that your project needs to reach out to people in order to succeed. This means engaging people and allowing them to be a part of your project in a real way. Since an average KS takes around 6 months to fulfill the people who back it must really believe in your vision, otherwise they wouldn’t go through the wait.

    I have been working hard on the relaunch for Space Junk, doing my best to create pledges that will give people an opportunity to have a real part in our project. We have pledges that enable people to create a Junk Card, Character ect. One of the things I’ve tried to do is to make these pledges as affordable as possible so they are not out of reach for anyone. Some of our stretch goals also include KS exclusive boxes and a free card game for backers.

    We also have decided to have a permanent $2 pledge level on our upcoming campaigns that allows people to become “Lamplighters”. Lamplighters are permanently entitled to benefits such as retail discounts on future products, name recognition on our website and in our rules books, and draws for various prizes throughout the years to come.

    We trust that people who support us will feel like they are a real part of the process, I sure enjoy feeling appreciated.

  5. In my initial pitch for my Tinker Deck, I had opened up the face cards in the “Rusty” alternate deck to backer portraits. I’ve seen this find some success in other card campaigns.

    Interestingly, there was a very vocal fellow that declared such to be a Bad Idea, asserting that it would put people off of the companion deck. In the end, I didn’t leave it open, and just used alternate art for that companion deck, but it was for time reasons; doing backer portraits would take a lot of time and I wanted to get the decks out as soon as possible to try to hit Christmas.

    I do think it’s possible that there would be those who are put off because of such customization, and there are legal issues that need to be tackled (making sure the backers who get in on portraits have legal rights to the images they have me work from, mostly)… but on the whole, I really would like to do something like that, almost reflexively. Why else take the design to the public?

    Maybe it’s just frippery to some, but I think it’s an important vector to drive interest.

    That said, if I do another deck, I’ll find ways to get more people involved, like asking for submissions for names of historical figures to do portraits of, then voting for the most popular submissions and assignment to suits and ranks. This dodges the copyright issues, by using source material that’s no longer copyrighted, and it engages more people by opening the floor to more than just the lucky/rich few who want their own face on a card.

    It seems to me that some projects naturally lend themselves better to this, though.

    One thing I’d do for a board or card game is to design a core and leave it alone (unless playtesters convince me that something is broken), and then make Kickstarter extras for spice. As in, maybe an extra unit or card. These wouldn’t have to be playtested as thoroughly since they are known to be optional from the beginning. They could even be game-changers, or even game-breakers, depending on the flavor you want to bring to the table.

  6. Mike: That’s a great point about affordability. I think it’s important that creators budget correctly and are then fair to backers with their prices (and with stretch goals as the price per unit goes down).

    Tesh: I’m torn on your final point. I think it’s great that a game can be close to completion when you put it on Kickstarter, but I think some wiggle room is key. On the flip side, having relatively untested add-ons could be a deterrent for backers who want a “complete” game–a complete playtested game at that. But perhaps the additions/expansions could be slightly less playtested, and that’s where you focus the backer feedback.

    1. I guess I’m just not comfortable with the production pipeline research that must be done before the campaign and trying to crowdsource the game design in any but the smallest aspects, which may have a huge effect on production. Even something as superficially simple as adding a card or two can be a boondoggle. Wiggle room that doesn’t really affect production might be good, but that’s naturally going to be limited. That’s speaking as a creator.

      Speaking as a backer, I strongly prefer a solid, playtested game that is really only campaigning for a way to make a production run feasible. (This is why I strongly prefer Print and Play rulesets available for free, so I can dig a bit into the game.) Some might peg this as an eeeeevil preorder system, but production runs of games can be expensive, and I like to facilitate good game designs that don’t fall into the publishers’ pens.

      I’m happy with crowdsourcing additions or alternative rulesets, but when the core game is still up in the air, I find myself much less interested. I might mark it down as a game to come back to later to see if it gets finished, but if it’s still in development while the Kickstarter is running, I’ll almost always pass on it during the campaign.

      I think there’s a place for throwing an unfinished game design into the wild for feedback, but that’s BoardGameGeek or your local shops, not a Kickstarter campaign.

      I do note that this is personal preference, though. I agree with the principle of involving backers, I just think that things should be nailed down as much as possible before ever starting a campaign. Other people may well love a more loosey-goosey approach, a sort of “game design jazz”. If you have a game and KS plan that can work that way, it could be a lot of fun. I think there’s a bit of a spectrum there, and I firmly come down on the “nailed down” side. I’d involve backers with extras, not core aspects.

      1. Tesh: Thanks for your thoughts. I certainly agree that plenty of research and budgeting needs to be done before the project, and the core of the game (as I noted, 90-95% complete) needs to be strong and well tested. I think there’s a big difference between unfinished game design and flexible game design. BGG is a great place to start that, but as the data shows, if you leave some of that flexibility for the project itself–even if it’s structured with several specific surveys planned for different times of the project–not only will the game be better, but you’ll attract more backers too. I think that can happen with the “extras” you describe.

  7. Hey Jamey,

    I partially agree with you here. I think that this can be true for some projects, but not necessarily all.

    For me – one of the most compelling reasons to Kickstart a project is two-fold. First: Is this something I want to exist? Am I excited enough about the project that I want it to happen?

    The second is: Is there a sense of urgency? Do I feel like they need my help to succeed?

    When I see a project that looks great, and won’t happen without my support, I’m much more likely to back it, regardless of being able to help shape the actual project.

    Cheers, -Cody

    1. Cody: I think these are good points. I think the trouble with both of them (it’s not really an issue, but moreso a reason that you need more than that to fund) is that with both of those, they only apply before a project reaches the funding goal. At that point, backers know it’s going to exist, so their desire for it to exist needs to transfer to something else. Perhaps a desire to make it better or a desire to help build it as you did with naming ships in Xia.

  8. You make a great point about having the project 90-95% done for, say, a board game project or anything else you can prototype and just need to pay to take to manufacturing. But I wonder what your thoughts are on a project where part of what needs to be paid for is the time of the people creating it? To give you an example, while it’s been a few years, I seem to recall that for Leaving Megalopolis (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2069222802/leaving-megalopolis/description), a significant piece of the funding was to pay the creators, who are two extremely busy comics professionals, to create the thing in the first place in place of other paying work (they also turned around when they got funded enough, and brought on the colourist from their previous collaboration, much to the joy of the fans).

    There are other cases, obviously, where this would be the case – documentary projects, video game projects, all sorts of stuff. I’d be interested to know what level of “done” you’d suggest in those cases?

    1. That’s a good question. I think it all comes down to how much backers trust the creator and how much patience they have. I think it depends on the project too. Like, there’s no barrier to entry (other than time) that prevents someone from designing and testing a game or writing a book before the campaign begins. But there’s a much bigger barrier to entry for, say, filming a movie–you can’t hire actors, build sets, and buy cameras if you don’t have money. In that case, the projects I’ve seen succeed are those that offer an effective proof of concept to show backers that they know what they’re doing and that they know how to work on a schedule.

  9. Awesome post as usual, Jamey. Question for you:

    I’m working on a game that involves a lot of secrets/spoilers and is essentially a one-time play. I’d love to involve my crowd in the game design but would also hate to rob them of the secrets and surprises we’re building in. Most of the games in this genre like The Werewolf Experiment (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/361817408/escape-room-in-a-box-the-werewolf-experiment) are 100% finished when they launch. Have you ever seen a project that was able to balance both of these priorities? Thanks!

    1. Evan: I’ve definitely seen projects that involve secrets but also engage the community (The Werewolf Experiment like you mentioned, as well as the original Gloomhaven, The 7th Continent, etc). I think the key is to share a playable demo version that allows people to test the core mechanisms and to help them generate ideas without spoiling anything big.

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