I’ve been on a small writing hiatus the past few months, given our extremely successful physical game Kickstarter over at Élan and continuing to work on Canvas Menagerie. While I’ve been “away”, more indie devs have swarmed the scene, both new and old, making grander projects than before.
Some of these projects have slipped into the undercurrents of the Internet, swept away into obscurity, while some have barely managed to stay afloat. I hate seeing that, I really do.
These ideas have been simmering in my head for a while but I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to dedicate full articles to each topic with the breath of knowledge I’d like to give each of them. So instead, I’ll be going over different topics in bite-sized chunks, namely Kickstarters, branding, and having a critical eye.
Two very cursed words to start off with but hear me out. If you’re even considering doing crowdfunding, you need to do a lot of math.
- How much do I need to fund?
- How much will my tiers be?
- How much will my merch cost me to produce?
- How much will it cost to ship merch tiers to people?
- How much will I make from tiers after physical merch rewards?
- How many extras of merch will I need if some get lost in shipping or are damaged in production?
- How many tiers are we going to need to sell to hit our goal?
I only somewhat remember the heyday of visual novel Kickstarters—I had just gotten into VN dev during this time period. So many of the campaigns were rushed and wildly overscoped their own capabilities. Nowadays most campaigns that wildly overscope won’t be funded in the first place- the fervor of funding indie VN devs has worn off and campaigns are looked at more realistically.
But yet there are still Kickstarters coming out every year that avoid the basics- they avoid making their pages easily digestible and interesting to look at, they avoid making rewards that are enticing to buy, and worst of all they avoid doing the math.
Let’s make up some numbers for a digital only Kickstarter.
You need to raise $8k for your visual novel. You have a $5 digital wallpaper tier, a $12 game key tier, a $25 game + OST tier, and a $400 “put your OC in the game” tier that’s limited to 3 people.
Tell me, how many backers do we need?
According to Kickstarter the average backer across crowdfunding campaigns is around $25. However, for this Kickstarter that average will be much less. Why? It’s 2 reasons.
- Backers can get the game at $12. A lot of people will just go for that.
- There are no regular tiers higher than $25. The gap between $25 and $400 is way too big and the $400 tier is a limited tier.
Now let’s actually do the math.
We need $8k, so let’s divide $8k by $12, the tier where people can get the game. That gives us 666.66.
That means if our average backer backs at $12, we would need to find 667 backers to fund our Kickstarter.
Let’s bump it up a bit. Let’s say a lot of people want the $25 tier and our average backer amount ends up being $20.
Even with an average backer backing at $20, we would still need to find 400 people to back our Kickstarter.
Can you find 400 people to give you $20?
I want more people to take a look at Kickstarters before jumping into theirs. Look at the successful VN KSs. Look at the ones that barely made 10% of their goal. Why were some successful and others not? What kind of social media presence did they have before and during the campaign?
The Kickstarter we just ran was definitely an oddity for VNs—it wasn’t to fund a game but rather to fund physical copies of existing games, along with other merch. It was entirely a merch KS, meaning if we didn’t have an established fanbase we would’ve sunk immediately.
However, we hit our $10k goal in 2 1/2 hours and smashed through some stretch goals. We earned $47,790 from 367 backers with an average of a whopping $130.21 pledged per backer—this high amount is due to how high it was to get a physical game, as that tier was $30 and it was $190 to get all 3 games as deluxe editions.
If people had only backed on average at the $30 tier—the base tier to get a physical copy—then we would’ve needed around 333 backers (not counting for shipping costs) to hit our goal. That still would’ve been doable, as we ended up with 367 backers.
But, keep in mind, we’re an established studio. We’ve made several very positively reviewed games. We have a newsletter with almost 1k subs.
If this is your first game, you don’t have that more likely than not. So please, do the math. Look at other Kickstarters, the successful and the failed ones. Get outside feedback.
Before we move on, I want to reiterate some things about doing a Kickstarter:
- you have to start marketing before the KS launches
- the KS launch is the biggest wave a vast majority of the time- if you don’t hit 30ish percent of your goal after the first 2 days, you will struggle
- continue marketing during the KS- don’t just link the KS with no new value
I asked in DevTalk a simple question- what does branding mean to you?
A majority of the answers were along the lines of “consistency”. Branding is being consistent, it’s knowing what a group will publish will be inline with their prior works.
Coda, though, had a different take on it.
A brand is a defining story and experience around a company and its product. If you don’t have a strong image to sell and you’re relying on the product alone, you’re thinking insularly and are shorting yourself from connecting to your target audience.
Bottled water companies all sell water. They don’t focus on that though. They focus on the values around their quality, environmental focus, sourcing, and benefits that make them stand out against competitors.Coda
To her, branding is a story. It’s an experience.
Branding is not simply “this is what we do”, but rather “this is who we are”.
Who are you? What is your studio about? Not what kind of games do you make, but why do you make them?
Yeah, it is rather existential.
Branding is a rather large umbrella of marketing, encapsulating copywriting, graphic design, product design and more. It’s daunting, having to come up with a story behind your studio, and not something you can do in just a few minutes. But I encourage you to try.
I think a somewhat easy way to tackle branding is to start off with why you’re doing it and what you want to make. Your games can be varied—maybe one is a dating sim, maybe another is a dark linear story—but there should be some commonality between them- you. What can people expect from you?
Right now I’m only talking about branding for you, a creator/studio, rather than branding per project. Your studio shouldn’t be defined by the individual branding of each of your projects. Instead, your studio should have its own brand. Maybe it’s similar to your projects, maybe it’s different.
Take into consideration graphic design as well. The visual aspects of branding are often under appreciated but easily some of the most important. A lot of the standout newbies to VN dev I see standout because of their excellent graphic design in their games and studios.
You cannot underestimate how important good graphic design is. Bad graphic design will always turn people away—I’m not talking meme-y bad, I’m taking just outright bad with no charm. If you’re not experienced in graphic design, please hire someone and get feedback from others.
At Studio Élan our branding is pink and flowery. It’s very feminine. Not all of our games are cozy—2 of our published games have women murdering each other—but you can tell immediately that our games are feminine. All of the images on the home page feature women, some being romantic with other women. Our website is easy to read and we’re planning on some updates to make it even better.
I recently did a rebranding of my own studio, Crystal Game Works, turning the website from something very purple/pink to much more fantasy-looking. My current game Canvas Menagerie is more realistic (it’s set in real world locations without fantasy), but a vast majority of my games are very fantasy. Several of my games are nighttime or blue-themed, so I went with a nighttime theme for the website. I also put a stronger emphasis on the games being queer, as that’s a common thread in all of them.
While my examples above are of websites, you can take these tips to use on your itchio pages as well. Players will go to your itchio page to see your other projects. Make it easy for them to see your brand and find games to play.
On both the Élan and CGW itchio pages, we use collections to make it easier for players to find things. With Élan we have collections for each game with their DLC and on CGW I have similar games bundled together. If you have several games out, use collections!
As someone who spends too much time on social media, I love seeing beautiful social media graphics that emphasis a group’s brand. Here’s a few of my favorite ones from indie VN devs:
Visuki is a Spanish otome developer I’ve followed for years- their graphic design is something I’ve always thought was lovely. It only takes a glance to tell that they make otome games.
I haven’t played any of their games but Great Gretuski Studios is another otome developer whose graphic design I’ve always enjoyed.
If we’re talking social media graphics, I’d be remiss to not include my friend Ing’s extremely thoughtful approach to graphic design with her main project Of Sense and Soul.
As the creators of The Storyteller’s Festival on Steam, Two and a Half Studios gave a beautiful press kit for the featured developers to use. Their other graphics can be risqué (so look with caution) but I also love how they format their Patreon social media posts.
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend making a folder on your computer where you save screenshots, graphics, logos, etc. for inspiration and reference.
I talked about this years ago and I think I’ll bring it back up.
When you venture into game dev as a business—that is, you decide to charge for your projects—you should treat it like a business.
This means you need to cultivate a critical eye for what you’re making. You’re no longer a hobbyist who can make whatever you want and put it out there- you’re now expecting others to spend their money on what you create, and with that you have to abide by their expectations.
You should make games that you’re proud of, that you’d like to see in the world, sure—but you also need to think critically about your decisions for the project.
Is this art style really what we should go for? Is this story beat something players will enjoy? Does this character backstory make sense or just an easy way out? Would players rather self-insert as the MC or do they want someone more fleshed out? Don’t let friendships blind your eyes from critical issues in a project.
It’s not very much a secret that I no longer treat my studio as a business. It is one, but I no longer spend much time marketing it—I’d much rather spend time marketing at Élan and just make games for fun. I only charge for my games because my audience is adults and I don’t want the younger audience that free games bring in.
However, I still make “business” decisions while working on my projects. I hired a video editor to make a beautiful character trailer for Canvas Menagerie rather than make one myself. I redrew several character sprites—which easily took 25+ hours—because the artwork wasn’t up to par.
Even in the writing, something that I expressly make just for myself, I’ve made “business” decisions. Niko, the main character, gets the lead role in a major TV show, something he’s never had before. However, Niko isn’t completely inexperienced- he’s a lifelong actor, having been a child actor and never stopping. I’ve seen anime and visual novels before with similar circumstances, where the MC is thrown into a new job that they’re vastly underqualified for for no good reason other than “it’s just the plot of the game”. How did they get this job? Why were they not fired on the spot? I know it’s a tired trope to others just like myself.
If you’re making commercial projects, ask yourself these things:
Did I do research into this line of storytelling?
Look into games similar to yours. Listen to players. What are things they complain about and things they enjoy? What are the things people expect from these types of games?
Am I being considerate to the genre tropes?
If you label your game as romance, players expect a romance with happy endings. Trying to “trick” them with only having bad endings and not communicating that will upset players.
Is the artwork & graphic design high enough quality?
Be honest with yourself. Is this artwork something people will pay for? You’re not making games just for yourself anymore. Sometimes this means hiring someone else to do your logo. Sometimes this just means redoing artwork or touching it up.
Do I know who will want to play my game?
It takes research and trial & error to find your target audience, but it’s something you have to do if you want to sell games.
Finding the best way to pitch it to people will also take a lot of trial & error. There’s a ton of ways to describe games but certain key words work better for certain audiences.
Am I sure this is a game people want?
If you have people clamoring to share your posts, tweet about it, pledge to your Kickstarter, then you’re definitely on to something! Don’t let that slip away, even if you get a few hateful comments.
If you’re struggling to get more than 50 people signing up to your Kickstarter prelaunch page, have little engagement on your social media posts, and the only people talking about your game are fellow developers, then you need to reassess things.
These are some thoughts I’ve had for a while. Like I said at the beginning, I was considering making these their own full posts but I felt I didn’t have enough to say about each and 2 out of 3 of these already have articles on them.
I’m not perfect at marketing, nor do I know everything about it. I’m a self-taught person who somehow made it into the capstone course for entrepreneurship at my college despite not taking a single entrepreneurship class—I spent so much time researching digital marketing and small businesses in college that people didn’t know I was instead a computer science major. It’s just something I’ve found interesting—it’s a way for us creatives to communicate our stories to people who want to hear them. I want others to be able to better communicate their projects as well.
Personally, I want to get better at branding. Crafting stories for a brand persona is something I’ve struggled with, probably because the games I work on are queer and it feels too personal trying to build a story around that. It’s all a learning journey!
Talking about recent events… right now the annual Otome Jam is going on and this year we’ve introduced Josei Jam to go alongside it, for games that are otome-esque but don’t quite fit the requirements. Given that myself and the other cohost, Akua, make anime-styled games, we decided that “josei” would be a good term to use for this—it’s already familiar to anime-oriented audiences and is easier to remember than something like “joseimuke”. I’m very excited to see what comes out of the jams this year, as every year has produced another hit indie otome game.
I think that’s about it for my rambling this month. If this article helped you, feel free to link it to other devs or RT it on Twitter. Anyway, thanks for reading!