05/27/2022

Lessons Learned from MerFight's Kickstarter & Early Access Launch

So after doing both a Kickstarter to help fund MerFight's VO and releasing the game into Early Access, I've learned a lot. I wanted to share some of those lessons in a blog post, and talk about some things I will most likely do different for future games.

Kickstarter Lessons

Kickstarters, especially as a small developer are tough, but not impossible. I was able to make MerFight's goal of $5,000. Though I didn't overwhelmingly surpass it with any stretch goals, I was still happy that I got some extra income needed to fund the voice over work for the game. So here are some things I learned.

Kickstarter's logo.

Saw a lot of this logo when working on this. Though curious if I should try IndieGogo next time.

Visuals Are King

As a solo developer, I know that visuals are not my top strength, and I haven't had much luck finding artists to fill those gaps. I enjoy animating and 3D modeling, but I fall a bit short when it comes to texturing and lighting. An early comment I received when doing the Kickstarter was that the MerFight's visuals are just not there yet, which hurt to read but made sense. A Kickstarter is sort of a pitch, and a good-looking pitch tends to do better than an ugly one, even if the uglier pitch is stronger behind the scenes -- say a visually stunning video with "representative gameplay" versus an ugly but playable and fun demo. (I know a visually stunning demo and video are ideal.) We often judge things by their looks first, so one lesson I'm taking away from MerFight's Kickstarter is I should focus on my visuals earlier, make sure I have something that will really attract both my current audience as well new participants. MerFight did not have a strong preproduction phase to explore visuals and choose an art style I could excel at. This is something I want to remedy with future games. This also extends to the page itself, taking the time to make custom header graphics and a big button for the demo so people don't miss it. Also -- small note -- don't use .gifs on Kickstarter; I found most of mine didn't play properly, and I had to replace them with videos instead.

An open book with the phrase Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover in white text.

Unfortunately, we often judge a lot of creative work by its appearance -- at first. I feel good visuals will get people in the door; a good game will make them stay.

Prelaunch & Postlaunch Posting

So before I launched my Kickstarter, I spent about two weeks looking for help -- contacting those who could stream about the game, post about it, etc. Even with these two weeks, I didn't really contact and market or get as much done as I would have wanted. So the simple lesson is that I would probably preserve a month beforehand to do this prelauch work. Additionally, one type of post support I heard to avoid is streamers, that the conversion rate of a streamer getting any of their watches to back your project is relatively low, so though it's not bad to try and work with some streamers, it's not the best idea to invest a ton of time or money into it. A Kickstarter is about growing and galvanizing your audience, not someone else's.

Now when you do a Kickstarter, you have keep people updated: new posts, stretch goals, features, snippets of content, etc. I would call this post-launch. Now for MerFight, I had done about half of this work. I had a schedule of what I wanted to do. For about a 30-days Kickstarter, I had about 15-updates and events planned. The issue was, it was difficult to manage the Kickstarter AND do these updates. So, for a future Kickstarter, during my prelaunch phase, I would create a majority of this content -- art assets, tweets, videos, etc. -- ahead of time. Obviously, once a Kickstarter goes live, things can come up that can will cause you to pivot, which is why I would only plan about 25% to 50% of post launch ahead of time as there will most likely be new content you have to whip up.

A person overwhelmed by social media.

The overabundance of social media platforms is its own issue, which makes making all of these posts so difficult.

No Physical Rewards!

This is a good lesson learned; obviously, if you are making a physical item such as a board game, this doesn't apply to you, but choosing not to do physical rewards was a good choice. The production time and costs, especially as a solo dev, would not have been worth it for MerFight. Choosing not to do physical rewards, even if it made some people ultimately choose not to back it, I think was a good choice. Digital rewards such as alternate costume colors was a much better choice and most likely the route I would take with future Kickstarters.

A chart of the increase in cost of shipping.

Some chart demonstrating the increase in the cost of shipping; one of many reasons why physical rewards probably aren't in the cards for me.

The Stress & Drop-Off Are Real and Don't Bank On The Final 48

My final lessons are that Kickstarter is that they are stressful. During the first 48 hours I found myself constantly checking social media, to see if there were more backers, comments, etc. After that initial 48 hours, engagement drops off immensely. The silence is a bit scary, but it's normal. Doing updates, especially ones you planned beforehand will help a lot. Also, if you can find a marketing company to do an email blast or even some social media ads will probably help. I did some relatively cheap Facebook ads I think helped. I would probably put a budget aside to do more promoted tweets, instagram posts, etc., for a future Kickstarter as well. I did try doing a larger email blast near the end of my Kickstarter, something I wouldn't do again. Not the email blast itself, but the timing of it.

That brings my to my final point, that if you make your goal before the final 48 hours, don't bank on them to help you cross any of your stretch goals. I was a bit deflated by these final 48 hours, hearing that, "Oh, you'll get a huge push the final two days," to find that, I simply didn't. I had made my goal about 3 weeks out -- and admittedly I was running out of steam trying to make new posts and keep up engagement -- so those final 48 hours seem to not really add that much. Additionally, if your goal is X, don't do a Kickstarter for some fraction of X and hope that stretch goals will reach X.

Early Access Lessons

So I think MerFight's Early Access (EA) launch went well or at least quietly. I wasn't stressed by a sudden influx of positive or negative reviews. Obviously, the game blowing up with a ton of feedback would have been great, but as a small dev there's it's easy for a "good" problem to be overwhelming before it can become manageable. For example, if my discord blew up with thousands of users, I would most likely have to hire mods to help manage it, but that hasn't happened -- yet. That being said, it doesn't mean there is more I could do with MerFight and future games to help make my launches a little bigger.

More Videos

Personally, I don't love editing and making videos. I do my best with it, but it isn't my favorite thing to do. That being said, besides MerFight's early access trailer, I should have made a few more videos. I have some on YouTube that explain the game's mechanics or just show matches, so I assumed if players wanted to know more, they would just go to YouTube; however, I learned that some Steam users don't have access to YouTube, so the more videos, both flashy trailers, and informational, the better. This is something I've yet to do for MerFight, and fortunately, still have time to do since the game is in EA.

A stack collection of VHS tapes.

Not these type of videos of course...

Wishlists, Wishlists, Wishlists

I'd say the other big lesson I learned is that I should have had MerFight's page up on Steam as "coming soon" for much longer. I had it up for maybe two weeks, which probably wasn't enough time to utilize social media and other marketing tools to try and garner a large wishlist following. There's a lot of algorithm stuff that comes into play; more wishlists means more reviews at launch which can lead to more exposure. MerFight didn't quite achieve the magic 10 review quota they say is so important within its first two weeks, which is a bummer. I think for me a lot of lessons here come that, despite my experience as a developer making games, I still have a lot to learn when it comes to selling games. In fact, for a future title, I would like to look into pitching and maybe finding a publisher; of course, that'll come with a lot of lessons -- and rejection -- too.

Movie poster for some YouTube series called Wishlist.

Not this wishlist either...

Weird Release

This is more about how I released MerFight early on. When I first started working on MerFight, it was mostly just a focus on implementing my own rollback netcode solution. I was happy with it and felt I made good progress, but it needed testing, so I released it on itch.io and GameJolt for free. I think this was a mistake; though it helped build an audience early on, it prevents me from releasing character overtime for EA, and other things. It also made it look like the game has been out forever according to various sites' algorithms. For my next game, I will mostly like have a release schedule similar to this:

  • Prototype/Alpha: Ugly, small and closed for Patrons and select few.
  • Beta: Small amount of content, closed but more open for those interested.
  • Pre-launch: Start working on trailers when the visuals are polished, getting people "hyped" for the game.
  • Open Beta/Kickstarter: If I do a Kickstarter, this is when, when there isn't a lot of content, but the game looks presentable. It would probably be in an open, free-to-play beta as well.
  • Early Access: Game looks nearly finished but with few characters and content. Content released over the course of EA for about a year or two.
  • Launch: I've yet to really do this for a game besides Battle High, but the hope is that to let the game live and breathe with few patches and only release new content.
new release schedule in white text on a red background.

Whatever I work on next will have a very different release schedule than MerFight's.

This being said, releasing MerFight for free early on has helped fostered a growing discord community whose feedback and enthusiasm for the game has been invaluable.

MerFight's Remaining Work

Currently, MerFight's Early Access period is going well. I'm getting good feedback from players in my discord; the game is even being featured as part of a tournament series hosted, but of course, the game is in EA and a lot of work still needs to be done. My current approach was to "finish" a character every month before April of 2023, which is when I want to launch the game, however, after two months of this, doing it for Gigi and King Rho, the process isn't working as well as I would like, so I need to change my approach.

The following is a list of pretty much what I need to do before I feel the game can leave EA.

  • Cut-Up and Implement VO
          All of the VO has been recorded; however, I need to both cut it up and have it cleaned. I will most likely be working on this next, so an audio engineer can do said cleaning work.
  • Environments!!!
          Probably the toughest thing I have yet to do, which will most likely take two months. I want to redo almost all the environments besieds the training stage. Both the use of post-processing needs to be reduced and the stages need to be optimized. I want MerFight to run well on low end machines, and right now, some machines can't play certain stages well, which I'd like to prevent.
  • Story Mode
  • AI
  • VFX
  • Animation Fixes and Polish
  • Badges, Achievements, and Small Rewards
  • New Costumes and model fixes
  • Final Balance & Frame Data Pass

I know I'm probably missing a few things. I also don't know if I'm going to do these in order, but my estimate is that each of these (besides environments) will take about a month, so I think I'm in decent shape. I think focusing on one tasks per month, instead of jumping between various things on a character-by-character basis will help in the long run.

Post launch will be a whole other thing as I want to support MerFight for a few years. I'd love if, by the time, I'm done with MerFight, the game has 24 characters, but we'll see how that goes as I'm sure I'll learn plenty of lessons before then.

MerFight release info.

MerFight is available now for those reading this and unaware, and a card like this is something I should have made a long time ago.