Running a Kickstarter project that’s late

How I feel and what to do about it

It’s been two and a half years since I launched my project Pixel Art Academy on Kickstarter. Anyone that runs a campaign has to set an estimate for delivery of the rewards. I estimated mine for September 2016. It’s 2018 now, and I’m nowhere near done.

Being late comes with a variety of bad feelings. Guilt, panic, stress, worry, disappointment, self-deprecation. What was once a happy activity of posting updates to backers, becomes a dreadful anticipation of letting your supporters down. Many projects go silent for this reason, which only makes things worse.

I’m certain that it’s a feeling every project creator knows because almost all Kickstarter projects are late, especially for video games. From first-time indie developers to big league names that have been doing this for decades, missing deadlines is an industry-wide disease.

As Kickstarter projects go, mine is just about average. The only project that’s in the green—Castle Story—is only technically not late because they shipped their beta version straight up as they promised. In reality it took them 5 years to deliver the final version.

For one thing, we’re not late due to lack of working hard. Most of us live and breathe for our projects. It’s often the first time in our lives we’re able to work on what we love, full-time. When it finally happens, working a lot comes naturally.

People work so hard that I know many stories of developers getting burnt out and depressed from trying to meet the deadlines. I could write a separate article just for that, covering everything from Owlboy’s decade-long development cycle to Slipstream author’s life struggles. And it would be just the people that are willing to speak up.

Mental health issues are a common part of game development.

I’m lucky that I haven’t had a breakdown in the 2.5 years since my campaign launched. It’s only because I already figured out in advance I’m bipolar (type 2) and decided to treat it with medication. My new healthy emotional state allows me to work on the project at a sustainable, constant pace, even when shit hits the fan.

Digging deeper

So why are we late if we all work so hard?

First of all, everything in software development takes 2–3 times longer than you think. We are chronically optimistic, and writing code is chronically hard. Finishing a game is even harder.

Don’t believe the hype.

I’ve observed it throughout my career as a programer, with me and others, so it’s not like that’s going to change. But it would be irresponsible to just ignore it as a matter of fact. We should remain critical and always strive to do better.

It’s important to recognize what is making you in particular go over your budget. I can’t speak for others, so here are the factors that are slowing down Pixel Art Academy.

Faulty assumptions

The initial setback came from my grad school schedule not turning out the way I thought it would. In a nutshell, while I was working on my Master’s Degree in Education, I thought I’d be able to work on Pixel Art Academy as part of my internship, which didn’t happen.

Plan (left) vs reality (right). The 3 unit internship/quarter was supposed to be work on Pixel Art Academy. That’s about two months-worth of full-time work lost. On the plus side, the extra assistantship made sure I had zero debt coming out of a Master’s, which is some crazy magic by US standards.

I shouldn’t have made my estimate based on assumptions.

Also protip: Don’t run Kickstarter projects while in grad school. I’m sure the author of Steel Assault shares my experience.

Limited manpower

I was lucky enough to have the budget to try and work with others, but not lucky enough for that to be sustainable beyond a few months. It’s been just me on the project for the last year and a half, so my total manpower hits a theoretical limit at 24 hours/day. In practice it’s closer to 12 hours, and even that can only be sustainable with a rock-solid mental state.

Even if you have the budget to pay others, unless you find people that are better than you, you can’t just make your project happen twice as fast by doubling your team size. It’s not an exact science, because like all relationships, you might find a partner where the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. There are plenty of marriages where 1+1=3, but know that there are even more where 1+1=1.

Wearing all the hats

When you’re working alone or in a small team, your time to create the actual bits and pieces of your project is spread out thin. I work on Retronator non-stop (besides eating, sleeping, and exercising; I don’t have much of a social life), but there are many things to do as Retronator besides working on Pixel Art Academy:

  • general business necessities such as accounting and other paperwork,
  • covering the pixel art scene in form of blog posts and my YouTube show,
  • making educational articles and videos.

Most of this doubles as DIY-marketing, which is crucial to get recognized as an independent game developer. I maintain 15 social media accounts. It takes time to post things, keep up with the comments, reach out to people, answer support emails.

Keeping the ship afloat

Kickstarter funding is finite, so you have to make sure you can continue working on your project after the budget is gone. In an ideal world, your Kickstarter goal is high enough to cover all your costs and this would never be an issue. It is not an ideal world, however, so running a crowdfunded project means finding additional funding towards the end.

Many people take on commissions. Cyangmou worked on The Mummy Demastered while finishing Tower 57. Becca Bair has a Patreon and freelances besides doing Arcadian Atlas. Legend of Iya developer Andrew Bado does contract work and released his previous game Mystic Belle on consoles to generate extra income. A lot of projects find publishers to cover the gap in funding (11 bit studios for Tower 57 and Moonlighter, Double Eleven for Songbringer). Double Fine Adventure a.k.a. Broken Age got released in two parts so that the sales of the first half could fund the rest of development. Almost all of us also continue to sell pre-orders after the Kickstarter campaign is funded.

All of this of course takes time. Building my online store to sell pre-orders took time. The commission I did for Kano Computing took time. Preparing my Patreon campaign took time; running it isn’t free money either.

Lack of focus

If you’ve done your math by now, you’ll see that even if I work 12 hours a day as a hermit, I’m left with perhaps 2–3 weeks a month to actually work on my game. But it gets worse. It’s not that hard to mismanage this time.

It comes down to experience, but rare projects have everything planned in advance so that development would be just a matter of executing things from A to Z. More often one thing leads to another, a problem emerges that requires some other problem solved first, and before you know it, you’ve implemented your own DIY Backer Kit, a localization system that allows players to translate the game while playing it, a templating system for completely customizing your characters … Meanwhile you’re barely any closer to the core idea of the game and you can convince yourself as much as you want that things will go much faster once the foundations are laid down, but the truth is, there’ll always be some new foundation to build. I am guilty of this perhaps the most.

What to do about it

We assessed the problem. Now what?

Before running a Kickstarter

This advice comes a bit late for me, but if you’re reading this because you’re thinking of running a Kickstarter, here’s one easy fix:

Multiply your estimated delivery time by 3, and funding goal by 2.

If you think you won’t meet the goal if you do this, you should think hard about crowdfunding.

It’s not exactly black and white. If we were all cautious, we’d never see the greatness of Hyper Light Drifter (3.6x lateness factor), Thimbleweed Park (1.5x), and Tower 57 (4.3x). You wouldn’t see Pixel Art Academy either (2.3x and rising), as I would be depressed in some cubicle or homeless in a ditch. Just know that you might get even more depressed if you can’t deliver your project.

If I got another chance at this, I’d at least cut down my features by 2. It sure would make things easier if I had twice less to do.

Tough luck, I’m already late, now what?

First of all, if you didn’t know, it’s pretty easy to issue refunds to backers. If someone is vocally disappointed, I immediately refund them. Every once and a while (during one of the ‘harder’ updates) I make sure everyone knows they can ask for a refund, no questions asked. I see no need for people to feel cheated, like they’ve made a bad investment. I’m not here to steal people’s money. Just refund and move on.

It’s easier said than done. It stings every time. Luckily, most backers are happy to support you through good and bad, as long as you keep communicating with them. From over 2,700 backers, I issued only a handful of refunds so far. Each one hurt and I felt shitty about myself (I should!), but it eventually made it easier to sleep at night.

Document, don’t create

I said it’s crucial to do marketing as an independent developer if you want to have any chance of success. What I don’t need to do is create all the high quality content to do the marketing for me. There are more efficient ways to go about it.

It would be OK if Retronator Magazine or Pixel Art News (my new show on YouTube) were my actual products that were bringing in the money. They’re not, my game is. I’m sure some of my patrons support me because of the articles and videos, but the majority of the funds come to support Pixel Art Academy.

My total 2017 income. Luxurious, I know.

So here’s the hard thing to say: I need to stop making Pixel Art News. I need to stop writing Retronator Magazine. If not stop, at least put on hold, until I repay my Kickstarted debt.

I’ve been down this road before, so this feels like bad deja vu. I stopped posting so that I could keep working on the game. That didn’t feel right either. I’ve seen good games go by unnoticed because teams didn’t do any marketing. However, I don’t intend to drop off the face of the Earth this time. What I should do is simply document my journey. It’ll continue my presence, but sustain it with much lower-maintenance content. (Thank you Gary Vaynerchuk for the section title.)

Laser focus

Cutting unnecessary marketing is one way to go. I also need to spend my time more efficiently.

During the first year of my project I studied learning theories for my Master’s Degree, and solidified the game’s design. In the second year I set up the main infrastructure parts, to have a foundation upon which to build the rest of the game. In other words, I drew a map and built a boat. It’s now time to hire a producer that’ll make sure I’m rowing straight at the goal.

How do you hire a producer on zero budget? Yup, you put on one more hat. I’m already using to-do lists to document all the missing functions when I work towards milestone releases. I love to-dos. They’re simple and they work. My productivity enters beast mode when I have things to check off.

Coming up with what to put on your to-do is more problematic. Every feature and system you develop open up possibilities to build new things upon them. You can easily get sidetracked into doing stuff just because you can, not because it’s absolutely necessary to get to the end (a.k.a. feature creep).

So I need a system that’s designed to focus me towards the goal. Enter reverse flowchart!

You basically start with the end goal:

And break it down to steps that need to happen to get there. In my case, I’ll write out the features I promised in the Kickstarter campaign:

If these were all the things I promised, I’d be done in 2015. After an hour or so of combing through my campaign text, here’s what I ended up with:

A complete chart of all my campaign promises.

The features are organized with respect to their dependencies. The design process always goes in reverse. For example:

Pixel Art Academy is an RPG. To have an RPG I need character creation. To have character creation I need a character editor. To make a character editor I need …

Tasks become more and more granular until you’re down to day-to-day items. You don’t have to break everything down in advance, especially when you don’t know exactly what it will take to get you there. You’ll update the chart later—it’s a living document (I edit mine as a Drawing in Google Drive).

Wrapping it up

I’ll leave it at this, before this whole article becomes its own feature creep. I already feel this breaking down process will take a whole day, so I really hope it pays off. I will have to take it as a strict filter and say ‘no’ to anything that doesn’t check off one of these boxes. Only then will I get to the end as fast as possible.

Hello, you’ve reached the end of the article! If you’re new to Practical Pixels—the Medium publication you’re reading this in—it’s the place where I share lessons learned during the creation of Pixel Art Academy. If you want to follow my journey in general, my Patreon blog is still the way to do it.


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This article was brought to you by patrons including Qinapses, Magnus Adamsson, Jeff Chang, … (dot dot dot), Robert ‘Pande’ Kapfenberger, and Lou Bagel.