Adventures in Wargaming: Whoa, Kickstarter! Easy now!

July 31, 2013 by crew

Just for a minute, I’d like to talk to you about rodeo cowboys. Bear with me here.

They just seem absolutely mental, don’t they? They climb onto the back of a wild horse and try to ride it in front of a crowd of baying fans, doing their best to stay upright no matter what. At first, the exhilaration’s clear to see. After all, the adrenaline rush – just barely controlling a beast of that size – must be immense. Usually, though, that exhilaration starts to slip and you can see the cracks emerge. The cowboy is suddenly clinging on for dear life with a look on his face that says, clear as day, what on earth am I doing? This is crazy! Before you know it they’re on the ground. The good cowboys, the pros that will go far, will only let the cracks show for a moment, if at all. You can guarantee that they’re thinking the same thing, but they know that the only way to succeed is to get the job done without showing any fear. They’ll finish their ride, score their points, and go on to be superstars of the circuit…

Kickstarter Logo

…that, in a nutshell, is Kickstarter.

Hello, by the way! I’m James, and I work at Mantic Games. I’ve actually never seen a rodeo – after all, they aren’t exactly a common occurrence in Nottingham, where I live. I did once see a Louis Theroux documentary about rodeos, though, so I like to think I’m qualified enough to get away with an extended metaphor. Sort of.

When I joined Mantic back in April, we were in the middle of a Kickstarter frenzy. LOKA, the elemental chess-based game we produced for Alessio Cavatore’s River Horse Games, hadn’t long finished, and we were less than a month away from a game called Deadzone. I knew before I started that a big part of my job would be helping out with Kickstarter campaigns, but I didn’t really know what to expect. Although I’d been heavily involved in DreadBall’s design, I wasn’t that involved in the project by the time it hit Kickstarter. “It’s going to be absolutely insane,” Ronnie [Renton, Mantic CEO and resident evil genius] told me in my first week. “Forget everything you think a Kickstarter might be like, because you’ll be miles off. Free time and sleep are luxuries for a month, but it’s one of the most exciting experiences you’ll ever have.” I thought he was exaggerating at the time.

In my first couple of weeks I was asked to put together a script for the Kickstarter video, the short campaign piece that would greet potential backers when they first came to the page. I had some key ingredients – an early rough draft of the back story segment, a general structure and some examples of what they were looking for – and it was my job to turn them into something punchy, and attention-grabbing. I spent a few days typing away at it, writing and re-writing, reading it back to myself to get a feel for the screen time. I turned what I thought was the finished article over to Chris (brains behind our online business) and discovered that it needed to almost be cut in half. The world of Kickstarter is a place that doesn’t allow for waffle. Every word needs to count, because if your video doesn’t sell its concept succinctly and in a manner that’s easy to understand, you might as well give up before you’ve even started. Since I started I’ve seen countless campaigns for awesome products fail because their video isn’t up to scratch, and I realise what an important responsibility I was given. Good thing Chris was there to lend a guiding hand!

Shooting the Video

I’m not someone who enjoys being in front of the camera, so when I was told that Ronnie wasn’t going to be available for the video and I’d have to fill his shoes I was a bit taken aback. The thought of appearing on thousands of computer screens just filled me with dread. Thankfully my years working in gaming shops came to the fore and professionalism overcame the fear when we came to shoot my scenes. I’ve been told that my segments on the Deadzone video come across as fairly natural, but believe me, that was far from the case! It was a gradual process, filming until I fluffed a line then going back to the start and trying again. Sam, the awesome director who shot the whole thing for us, was amazingly patient and we soon ended up with several takes that they were happy with (plus about an hour of outtake footage, which I really must see if I can get my hands on). Sure enough, the video was really well-received. I also got a lot more accustomed to seeing my face on screen!

As well as the video, I had another important job before the campaign started. We needed to spread the word of Deadzone but we didn’t want to go public with it straight away, so I came up with the idea of doing a viral marketing campaign through Twitter. It wasn’t going to be anything massive – it couldn’t be, considering how little time I had to plan it – but hopefully it would be something cool and a bit different that would make people sit up and pay attention.

The backstory of Deadzone features a planet ravaged by a mysterious plague after a team of scientists dig up an alien artefact, and my plan was to tell the short from the first-person perspective. I set up three Twitter accounts, each from a different point of view in the planet’s story, and started posting in character. Planning the tweets was a huge job in itself – I wanted it to run in real-time, across about a three-week period. I sketched out the story in advance and worked out the main beats, covered my whiteboard in post-it notes (rearranging them as I went) then scheduled a ton of tweets to go out at appropriate times. Once a few had gone up I started dropping hints. We never wanted to overtly say that the accounts were linked to Mantic, so it was all very cloak-and-dagger. I took a picture of my wall of post-it notes and posted it to the Mantic Twitter account, with a caption along the lines of “I’ve been planning stuff all day!” The image was intentionally blurry, with the exception of one post-it in the top corner that just said “@six_alpha” – the username of the main viral account. It was easy enough to miss – in fact, I’m fairly certain it wouldn’t have been visible without downloading the image and playing about with it in Photoshop – but I didn’t think that was beyond the average gamer, and sure enough we got a couple of followers!

Kickstarter Planner

I started spreading a trail of breadcrumbs across the internet, in forum signatures, photos, and newsletters we sent out. People who saw what was going on soon realised it was related to Mantic – each account’s user info pointed to the Deadzone website, which was just a countdown timer but had a few links to the Mantic website as well. This had exactly the effect I wanted: people were getting excited and talking about it on forums and blogs and Facebook pages. People knew that we were coming out with a new game, and suddenly here was a repository of information. We weren’t saying much, but the fact that it was sort of hidden made it all the more interesting. Having participated in things like this in the past, I understand how cool that feeling can be, which is why I was so keen to do this.

It didn’t take long for the three accounts to get a small army of followers. Suddenly a load of people were sold on the story, and they wanted to see the game behind it! When we launched the campaign we already had a crowd of people who were interested in whatever it was we had to show them.

Friday 26th April came around way quicker than I’d have ever thought possible. We’d spent so much time getting ready for the launch, the morning went by in a buzz of excitement. 1pm was the designated launch time, but everything was prepared way in advance. Chris handled most of the back end of the campaign – liaising with Kickstarter themselves, deciding the pledge levels, coming up with some awesome stretch goals. His general sense of efficiency meant that everything was good to go for a couple of days before launch. The most difficult part, the part that was looking-over-the-edge-of-a-cliff scary, was the fact that there was effective a big red button to launch the page. Rather than scheduling it to start at a given time, we just had to press the button to set it in motion. That button was on the site from the word go, even before we’d finished it. One stray click and we’d have launched early, ruining the momentum we were trying to build. As 1pm loomed, that button seemed to get bigger. Then the nerves really set in. The countdown timer on the Deadzone site was due to hit 0 at 1:00 BST. What if the site didn’t launch? What if there was a glitch? As it happened, we launched right on time – actually about twenty seconds early, just to make sure.

What followed was the craziest hour of my working life.

The Team

Our goal was set at $50,000. We thought this was quite a high number; Kings of War had had a target of $5,000 and DreadBall $20,000. We knew we’d hit it (or at least, we really hoped we would!) but what we didn’t expect was to smash it 33 minutes after launch. The Early Bird pledge levels fell like dominoes. I remember us all stood around the office, staring at computer screens as the number climbed higher. Whenever we hit a particular milestone someone would shout out. We had a sweepstake for how much we’d make by Monday, and the person who’d bet for the highest number suddenly didn’t look so foolishly optimistic.

The dollars kept piling up throughout the day, and comments were flying it at a speed we couldn’t hope to keep up with. By the end of that first Friday we’d more than tripled our goal. That was just the start, though.

We’d just leapt onto our bucking bronco and ridden it out of the gate. Now our task was to hold on and ride it as hard as we could…

…but let’s call that part two of the story, shall we?

James M. Hewitt

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