Pearls of Wisdom the Third

After talking to Mark I headed to the Drummond to meet up with Kostas Zarifis (alongside his visiting brother Kyriakos) and talk about his experiences in founding Kinaesthetic Games. For the last 18 months Kostas has been trying to raise the money to make Kung Fu Superstar. A journey which culminated in a recent Kickstarter campaign that sadly failed to hit its target. From my point of view, learning from others’ mistakes is just as important as learning from their successes.

During our catch-up the conversation flow was a lot less directed than it had been for Matthew and Mark. I had a list of questions from my first meeting, but hadn’t really asked any of them as we’d discussed a lot of specific instances from Kostas’ attempt to get funding, which were more anecdotes than advice and probably contained a lot of information it would be inadvisable to share. The one piece of advice I’d written down was the following:

“You will not be prepared for the hate” – Kostas was simply trying to make a game he was passionate about, that he thought would be an amazing experience and sell well, but he wasn’t prepared for how personally he would take negative comments about a game that engulfed all his waking hours for 18 months of his life. I’ve been mentally preparing myself to deal with the level of hate that John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory so succinctly illustrates, but I’m sure when the day comes that someone needlessly and unfairly pours hate on a game I’m fighting so passionately to make, then I won’t be as calm and unaffected as I’m currently hoping.  I can still try to prepare for that day though.

After coming home and starting to write up my notes I decided to send Kostas the questions I’d bugged everyone else with and he kindly wrote the following reply (somewhat cut up and re-hashed by myself).

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Did you start a blog and did you feel it was worthwhile for gaining interest in your project?

“For me personally, blogging would take too long and detract too much from the core thing that I set out to do (i.e. make a game, not write about the experience of making a game). During the particularly hard days I was working literally around 16-18 hrs a day (no exaggeration) so fitting blogging in such a schedule would be pretty hard. Of course the practical benefits of blogging (like building some community around you and your work) are not lost on me. However I prefer to try and draw people in with tangible examples of my work rather than just writing about what I do on a daily/weekly basis. The internet these days is a jungle of information so in my case I didn’t feel like simply piling my voice on would bring any value to it or me. I have actually been keeping a journal, which I may look to publish in some shape or form sometime in the future, but as that is more of a private thing I feel no obligation to update it on a regular basis so it doesn’t slow down my more immediate plans.

That said, if you can do it in a way that doesn’t slow you down (when you’re running on your own dime every hour counts) and so that there’s tangible examples of work in there that make you feel like people will genuinely care (and by people I don’t mean your Facebook mates) then by all means go for it.

In fact that’s another piece of advice I left out, which is listen to everyone and listen to no one. Meaning, make sure you get advice from people but it is you who has to make the final decision on what to follow blindly, what to adapt to your needs and what to ignore completely. (Bruce Lee’s approach to martial arts – just to get a martial arts reference in there too ;))”

Did you set up your own website and/or forums and did you feel it was worthwhile for gaining interest in your project?

“Again, similar to the above: I only did it or in time for when we launched the trailer. Meaning I had no intention of doing it before we had anything to show for what we were working on. What was I going to say before? Hi, I left Lionhead and I am going to make a game? Big deal. Also we didn’t do forums, but we did a FB page which currently has about 22K likes. Everyone’s on FB these days and it gives you some really powerful market research/advertising tools so I think it makes more sense to build your community there (at least when you don’t have a dedicated community management person – or when that person is you). Aside: The company website I did set up pretty early but it was just a “shadow” page for a very long time and I only did that because I had to provide a webpage for the company for various things I had to register for (developer programmes/benefits, legal/HMRC things etc.)”

What middleware / SDKs did you use and what problems did they solve for you?

“Again bit of a special case in my case so not sure how much there is to learn, but as you might remember, what I did was I created the very first prototypes using very simple stuff that came with the XDK then when LH adopted Unreal I tried porting my demos to it and found it very easy. It also made my demos look amazing so it was a straightforward choice really. I also received tons of support from them so that made the decision to go with them even easier. If you have even the slightest possibility of brewing a success in your house then Epic like to keep you close, which is of course smart of them. That said, so do Unity from what I hear. In terms of transferrable lessons, like I said yesterday I personally have a bit of a mantra which is if you’re in the business of developing games you should do just that, i.e. develop games, not tech. It’s my personal subjective opinion and I can go into huge lengths why I believe this but it’s beside the point for now. Saying that though, if your game *is* your tech and if you feel you can build that tech at an adequate speed and level of quality then fair enough, feel free to break that rule.”

Did you use advertising and do you think the cost/benefit was worth it?

“When we launched the trailer the Facebook group got to about 13k Likes within a couple of weeks (goes to show, the more you have to show and the higher quality it is, the less you’ll need other means to draw people to it). As it happens the rate of likes started dropping soon after though up until it came to a halt. We then started running some ads which in the space of the next 4-5 months doubled the likes on the page. I spent about £500 on that all in all (ran a campaign for about £5-8 a day which I paused and resumed depending on the promotion needs of the period we were going through – for instance we ramped it up pre-Kickstarter). The whole point was to have a launching pad for the virality to trigger from, once the Kickstarter was live. To answer the second part of your question (was it worth it?). In my case: No, I don’t feel it was. The conversion ratio of Facebook likes to Kickstarter pledgers was abysmal (if you hunt through the campaign updates you’ll find one where I go into a lot of detail about this which is quite interesting). Again though: should you try to divulge any transferable conclusions from this? I am not sure you should. There are so many project specific reasons as to why the conversion ratio was so low that trying to come up with a canonical rule of thumb from this would be wishful. Overall I think it’s great that we managed to raise such a relatively large community and I think even though I didn’t see the kind of value I was hoping for from it on this occasion it doesn’t mean that I won’t see it at a later date (if I take the right steps to leverage it of course).

I think I am over-complicating matters though…in short, is advertising worth it? Yeah I think you can’t avoid it. The way to do it though would be to just use it to make people *aware* of your product and then *instantly* give them a chance to try it and hope it’s good enough so that you can hook them in immediately. Don’t do it prematurely, don’t do it to gain customers if you don’t have an awesome product that people can experience pretty much immediately after seeing your ad/promotion.

Did you try to get a publisher to fund your game and what were the costs/benefits? How did you handle intellectual property rights?

“I don’t think it’s applicable to small iOS type projects (thankfully!). As to IP like everyone says I too am of the school of “hold on to your IP like it’s your baby” but then again it’s all relative isn’t it (what good is an IP if you can’t do something with it?). So applying one’s critical thinking here makes sense.”

How did you get content made for your game? Did you use students or friends for free / profit shared work or did you have to pay?

“Yeah this has been a bit crazy in my case and potentially one of the most (unexpectedly) successful aspects of the project. It all started with people within LH helping out on turning my simplistic prototypes into awesome looking demos for the creative day. Then a lot of these guys kept lending me a hand here and there after I left. Once we decided to do the trailer though and set down the requirements for that I soon realised that we need even more hands on deck. I decided to head hunt hobbyists and/or professionals where possible from online communities like the UDK forums, CGHUB, deviantart etc. Once I spotted people who fit my needs I would reach out to them and pitch to them the plan. Work on the project, use your work on your portfolio when the time came to make it public and also get paid according to the work you put in if/when the project made any money. The demos and the LH background helped a lot and in fact I had many more yes’s than no’s (I actually had to “let some people go”). At one point I had 30 people working on the project this way. It was m-e-n-t-a-l. But it worked. Anything you’ve ever seen of the project was done this way.”

What do you think are the general pitfalls of forming a start-up?

“You tend to romanticise what it’s like before you actually start doing it. The money, the fame, the creative control! Sure, 0.01% of those who set off on this journey will probably experience some of that. However 100% of them also experience this:

- It’ll strain you to a degree that you can’t even begin to imagine
– It’ll strain your personal relationships
– There will be times when you’ll question yourself and be tempted to feel regret (don’t!)

It’s normal and you need to be prepared for it. Keep a level head and always do that internal dialogue where you rationalise your decisions to yourself (you’re here because you wanted to be here and guess what: at the end of the day you were right to want that – persevere through the pain and win or lose you’ll come out a winner).

Other than that I really can’t think of any other major pitfalls. Keep a calm and level head, stay confident, and anything else that crops up you’ll be able to do deal with easily.”

What were major causes for delays? Did the project take a lot longer than you thought?

“When I started, various sources told me expect about 6 months to sign a publishing deal. 6 months in I was at the point where I was redesigning my game because the first pitch was not right for the market and climate of the time (Kinect was dying). 6 months later I was pitching again with the redesigned version and also testing the waters (with the trailer) to see how much traction we could gain with the community. Another 6 months in and still nothing and this time around we’re putting everything we’ve got together and pitching the game directly to gamers on Kickstarter. So yeah, it took me a year longer than what I originally expected. To fail :) So in the words of the lady announcing train departures… “Expect delays” :) This is exactly why it is super important that you don’t add delays in your side of things, especially since most of these delays are actually out of your control (don’t get me started on how long it takes to hear back from publishers once you start the pitching dance with them). So anything that’s in your control make sure you act on it urgently and efficiently because even when you do, you *will* be slowed down by others. Again, potentially less so for an iOS/Android game, but still.”

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Reading through Kostas’ words I agree with him that only so much can be directly applied from a full blown console title to an app-store game with a much more limited scope. However, there were definitely nuggets in there that will apply to me throughout the project, especially as the romantic notion of game development turns to the strain of the reality.of making games. Not that I haven’t done a lot of this before in the safe environment of a larger company, but only having myself to rely on is going to be tough.

Back in The Drummond, Adam and Glen turned up just before Kyriakos had to leave for some clandestine meeting, taking Kostas with him. Tune-in soon for more questions, answers, experiences and advice…

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