The Shochu Handbook

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Christopher Pelligrini of japan eats has put together a Kickstarter project to fund his new book: The Shochu Handbook.

I’m a big fan of shōchū. If you like whiskey or vodka but you’ve never had shōchū, I’d recommend giving it a shot instead of nihonshu (regular sake) the next time you’re out at a Japanese restaurant. I prefer it on the rocks or with water: it can be fiery to take down neat. Because most shōchū is clear liquor, you really get a sense of the underlying fermentable – barley, sweet potato, rice, or buckwheat. I’ve been to a few distillery tours since moving to Chicago, and these craft distilleries have recently been trying to promote “white whiskey” (also branded as “moonshine” or “white dog”) as a vodka substitute. I have to say, though, that none of them have even close to the level of flavor that shōchū has: it’s not a liquor that needs to be a mixer to be successful.

One of my favorite memories in Japan is buying a premixed bottle of potato shōchū and water at a train station when I was traveling in Miyazaki, Kyushu (famous for potato shōchū). I kind of stunk up the train car (potato shōchū has an infamous odor), but it was a nice, relaxing way to spend the vacation.

If you’re looking to learn more, really there are only two ways to do it: 1) buy this book or 2) drink a lot of shōchū. 2 might be more difficult here in the States, so it might be worth your while to do 1 before investing in a bottle. (Shōchū is very reasonably priced in Japan, but I imagine it’s pricey abroad.)

I funded the project at the $10 e-book level, but I kind of wish the paperback option wasn’t quite so expensive. I think I’d be willing to spend up to about $25 for the paperback. I imagine that launching the project from Japan has made pricing things somewhat more difficult for Chris – you can see on the rewards that he’s still manually asking for shipping outside of Japan. Hopefully Kickstarter will launch in Japan sooner rather than later and make the entire process so much easier.

And, damn, I kind of can’t wait to see what kind of small projects come out of Japan when it does launch there.

 

Bloom: Third Time’s a Charm?

Screen Shot 2013-12-09 at 7.06.02 PMI kind of can’t wait for Davidgaames to do a breakdown when Bloom ends up being a really shitty game. I saw their project pop up on the “Popular” screen at some point and ended up watching the video. As I was watching, I noticed that they’d already created two other projects. Oh wait, they are both Bloom. The first iteration raised $6000 of the $150,000 goal and was canceled. The second raised $34,000 of a DEEPLY discounted $50,000 goal. The third and final version has successfully funded its even further discounted $40,000 goal.

If you’re a real masochist, you might try watching all 5:58 of the pitch video for the first iteration. That’s basically the equivalent of a 3-hour feature film, and a really shitty “artsy” film that’s super slow and makes you want to have cyborg eyes that you can manually turn off.

And the game footage all looks super yawn-worthy. Basically there are really obvious-looking 3D models bouncing around on high-res background images that all feel really narrow. The footage alone makes this game look like one I have no interest in playing.

That’s all the time I’m willing to spend on this. As I said, I hope David digs deeper and follows them a little longer, because I’m pretty confident there will be 2300+ disappointed backers.

 

The Second Most Fascinating Kickstarter Pitch Video Of All Time

One of the most important parts of being a writer is being able to judge the reaction of a reader. Often you can’t even see the person reading your work, so usually this is an exercise in imagination and empathy. Writers need this skill on many levels: on the sentence level (CAN YOU UNDERSTAND THE WORDS COMING OUT OF MY COMPUTER?), on the page by page level (Do the actions of a story flow naturally?), and on the big picture level (Is this actually a good idea I have?).

Gregory Scott has the advantage of having a potential reader directly in front of him during the Kickstarter pitch video for his novel “The Oldest Sentury.”

Scott needs $30,000 to publish is book The Oldest Sentury. He needs the cash to pay his aunt (a romance writer consultant), an editor, a cover illustrator, and himself for marketing. But the biggest thing he needs is the ability to read Amber’s reactions.

What results is the second most fascinating Kickstarter pitch video ever. (Second only to TERESA SERENITY HANDS ARE FOR LOVING.)

Amber seems pretty excited to help out with this project at first. She hasn’t heard anything about the book yet, and Scott is about to introduce it to her and us at the same time:

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And then Scott mentions what the book is about: “It’s a fictional story about the centurion soldier who stabbed Jesus Christ while he was on the cross.”

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Apparently the Bible says that when the soldier stabs Christ, “blood and water” came out of the wound. In Gregory Scott’s fictional retelling, the soldier is covered with the blood and water, ends up ingesting it, and becomes immortal. Fast forward to the present, and the soldier is 2035 years old:

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Here Amber struggles valiantly to express support and interest, while her eyes to the side and forced smile reveal exactly how uncomfortable she is.

The only thing that can kill the soldier, apparently, is the spear itself. It’s a cursed spear.

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That’s the moment when Amber realizes she’s made a terrible decision.

Scott continues. The centurion accumulates wealth, and by 2013 he has over $40 billion dollars and is one of the wealthiest men in the world.

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He buys up failed pharmaceutical companies “on the cheap,” mixes his blood and some water with bad medicine, and the medicine starts healing people. Any questions, Amber?

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Negative.

Scott then goes on to give a summary of the first chapter, which involves a massacre at a pharmaceutical company. 15 people are found slaughtered in a warehouse but there are no bullets (even after the cops hear massive gunfire) and two people are left alive.

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One is the multi-billionaire and the other is his personal doctor.

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The billionaire bleeds out. The doctor survives.

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Turns out, the doctor is the centurion.

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And the dead billionaire?

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He’s the centurion’s 375 year-old son.

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O.M.G.

The cops then tell the doctor he has some ‘splaining to do. We got 16 dead bodies.

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So the doctor sits down and says wait, wait, wait. I gotta tell this story from the beginning so that it’s real long, long enough to be a novel.

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And THAT’S the novel. The CENTURION IS the NARRATOR. So whaddya think, Amber?

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Yeah, my thoughts exactly.

And when it’s all over, look how happy she is to go home!

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OH THANK CHRIST IT’S OVER.

As you can imagine, the response has been tepid to say the least. Just one backer so far. But there’s still time…and as we all know…miracles do happen. Womp womp.

Oh, and if that pitch video wasn’t enough for you, check out an additional four minutes of footage Scott had to cut:

Is This An Actual Thing?

Having never worn a pair of women’s panties in my life, I am not the best judge of how feasible “Baba Invisible Panties” is as a Kickstarter Project, or even as an actual thing that could exist in this world. All I know is that I was amazed when I saw the lead graphic:

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This may be a perfectly viable Kickstarter project…although I sort of doubt it. Is this really a thing? Would this be convenient? It seems to me a complicated way of allowing women to go “commando” when they are on their menstrual cycle.

I dunno…maybe this would be a thing. As the project creator notes, “Usual underwear cannot keep a pad not smashed for a long time, especially at night, that cause absolutely uncomfortable sleeping.” So, yeah…there’s that.

So far two people have jumped on board, but I’m going to go ahead and say that the project will probably not raise the $10,000 it is seeking.

Interview with Brent Joseph, Director of Mirza the Miraculous

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Brent Joseph has been making a movie for 14 years. His initial plans to turn lo-fi footage into a sci-fi cartoon didn’t quite work out because the visual effects were too taxing at the time, but now, after the footage has aged like a fine wine, he rediscovered it and came to appreciate the aesthetic. He’s also spent the time in between working in editing rooms of feature films in New Orleans.

So basically he’s met his movie in between: He’s increased his own abilities but also lowered some of the technical requirements for the film (he’s no longer planning to convert it to a cartoon). And in those 14 years, technology has also advanced.

The result is Mirza the Miraculous, which he’s now trying to fund on Kickstarter.

Brent told me about his plans to fund the film on Kickstarter the one time we met in person, so I looked forward to seeing what he put together, but the pitch is solid and far more crafted than I ever expected. The text on the project page is flawless, which is good, but the video also does a lot of things right, which is what you would expect from someone who works as a film editor. Here are some things that struck me:

Length. The video is only 3:30, which is under what I consider the 4-minute magic number. Any longer than that and people will tune out. Brent also does a great job of concisely summarizing the story behind the film and what his goal is in a compelling way.

Quality. The original footage is definitely lo-fi, but when the pitch video cuts to Brent, it’s clear that he’s using an HD camera and a mic. This really surprised me (in a good way) and made it clear that this is a professional endeavor. Great job of creating credibility here.

I thought it would be interesting to ask Brent a few questions about the Kickstarter process. Check out his responses here:

I know you’ve been putting together this project for a while. How long do you think the planning stages took you? And how long would you say you spent crafting the page and the pitch video?

Brent: I hadn’t thought about Mirza the Miraculous in a while and last year while going through my old hard drives, it dawned on me that Kickstarter would be the perfect way (if not only way) to resurrect the project. I made notes here and there, but wasn’t able to dedicate a lot of time to the campaign until this summer. It’s hard to pin down the exact amount of hours it took to put it together, but it might come in around 2 full weeks if you put it all together. Maybe more. I actually shot my pitch and cut it together twice. It didn’t quite work the first time. I’m not used to being in front of the camera and I don’t think my excitement about the project came through. I’m an editor by trade and I have to say it’s a pretty odd experience editing yourself. When you cut together your own image and voice you can sorta get stuck in a feedback loop second guessing yourself. My usual radar went kerplunk. At some point, you just have to say it’s done and move on.

The Kickstarter page looks polished, so I’m impressed how quickly you put it together…although in terms of calendar time, it sounds like it took a couple of months over the summer? Is that the case?

B: Yes, over a couple of months. So maybe my two week estimate is off. Really hard to say. 3?

You got off to a fast start and raised over $3000 in your first two days. What kind of work did you do to promote the Kickstarter launch?

B: Most of my initial funders are the result of an email I sent out. I briefly explained the story and why I was returning to the film, but I made sure to not duplicate too much of what was in the video. I mainly wanted to get people to watch the video. I knew that watching the actual footage would get people to consider donating more than just describing it.

What kind of promotion do you plan to do to help sustain the campaign over the next month?

B: I plan to highlight the footage as well all the people who are associated with the project. For starters, I will be posting stills from the movie on Facebook with descriptions of the actors and the roles they played. It was a lot of fun to shoot the movie and I think that if people see all the characters and hear about the people that played them, that sense of fun will come through and lead them to watch the video and donate. I also plan to approach art and music bloggers to highlight the two main stars and the composer. They each have a following from their own work and I want to let their fans know about this project.

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I’ve just noticed that the project has been selected as a Staff Pick. Has that surprised you? Have you seen an uptick in pledges due to that after the initial rush settled down?

B: The staff pick happened on Day 2. I was indeed surprised, but in all honestly, I can’t really say it has really affected the number of donations, yet. As of today, about 90% of the pledges are from friends or friends of friends. That, of course, might be related to the nature of the project. The old footage I’m going to recut and process has an admittedly amateur feel. I think the people that know me trust that my subsequent 15 years of experience will be put to good use transforming that material. People who don’t know me might be more skeptical. Perhaps if a more contemporary project got the same attention it would yield more immediate contributions, but perhaps not. I can tell you that in my initial email, I asked people that if they thought they were going to eventually contribute to go ahead and contribute in the first three days. That initial influx of support may have grabbed the attention of the Kickstarter curators, but there’s no way to know. The real benefit of the “Staff Pick” may be from indirect means. I’m currently drafting letters to contact bloggers who might be interested in different aspects of my film. I am making a point of letting them know that the project is a “Staff Pick.” I’m guessing that might make them more willing to click my link. Perhaps that’s a more realistic place to find value from the “Staff Pick.” It could lead to more visiblity from external sites.

I notice that you’ve backed quite a few projects yourself – what do you look for in a project to support?

B: People that I want to see flourish.

Based on Brent’s answers to my questions, there are a lot of things going right for this project apart from the video. Some other thoughts:

Time. He’s put a lot of time into the project. This isn’t something that came together over a weekend. I think the more time spent planning, the better, but as Brent mentions, at some point you have to make a decision and move on to the next step, whether that’s with editing the pitch video or putting together other aspects of the project.

Fast start. It’s easy to get buried on Kickstarter if you don’t build some momentum, and that’s something that Brent addressed in his initial email to backers.

Rewards. I think last year I would have commented on the number of rewards, but after having run one myself, I’m of the opinion that (especially for smaller projects run by one or two folks) less is more. Mirza the Miraculous has a nice range of rewards that should be relatively easy to fulfill.

“Synergy.” I put that term in quotes just because it’s often bandied about meaninglessly, but what it really means is kind of a coming together of different energies, a confluence of influences, and I think that Brent has that – the video does a great job of highlighting all the different actors and artists involved. That makes it easier to tap into different networks when promoting the project – Brent can reach out to Quintron fans, fans of Iva Gueorguieva’s art, and fans of Paul Soileau/Christeene. That’s all on top of his immediate and indirect network of friends, the ever growing group of filmmakers in New Orleans, and the target market of lo-fi sci-fi film enthusiasts. This is a really important element to consider before starting a Kickstarter – what kind of people will I be approaching with this project?

The project’s top image has me really curious! It looks like Brent replaced the green screen with some of the planned background. I’m a sucker for making-of documentaries, so maybe there will be some of that in Kickstarter Updates.

I look forward to seeing how this develops, and I hope it gets funded! It’s 40% of the way there after five days, so things are looking good. As of writing, you can see from Kicktraq that there has been a small uptick in funding, perhaps due to the Staff Pick (or maybe even just the delayed reaction to Brent’s initial email).

Massive Updates + Japanese Kickstarter?

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I’ve long made it clear that I appreciate Kickstarter projects not only for their content but also for their execution. I’ve pledged at low levels to follow along with ideas or to see how the process went. (One example of this was the Veronica Mars movie, although I was somewhat interested in the content there; still, my pledge didn’t earn me the movie.)

I think my writing (either here or in comments on other blogs/projects) also revealed my initial enthusiasm for stretch goals. They seemed like a fun part of the project, a way you could interact with an audience and really push the limits of what you could make with a project. (I think Project Eternity was the project I most enjoyed following, the project I spent the most on, and the project that was most successful at using stretch goals to raise cash.)

So I was a bit confused when Massive Chalice declined to stretch their goals (although they did offer to do more “Teamstream” livecasts once they hit somewhere around $1 or $1.5 million, I think).

It all makes sense now that Mighty No. 9 has come to a close. The constant updates have really deflated my interest in each individual post, so much so that I have yet to watch the first few episodes of the documentary or listen to any of the podcasts…and those are two things that I normally love. The 2PP documentaries for Broken Age are instant appointment viewing whenever the project updates.

For those that didn’t follow, here’s how the project worked: each day they added a different “type” of update each day. Video updates on one day, fan art featured another, podcasts on the next. One for each weekday, and occasionally weekend announcements. And these were not short updates. They were very lengthy. I generally scrolled through them to see what was up, but they definitely began to grate on me as the project went on. Surely, I thought, this is not going to be an effective way to raise money.

I’ve been proven wrong. The project managed to raise $3.8 million, over $4 million if you add PayPal contributions, putting it in on the Mt. Rushmore of Kickstarter video game projects with Torment, Project Eternity, and the Double Fine Adventure. (I’m not including Ouya and Bones, as they are games but not video games.)

The moral of the story is that this wasn’t a project for me. I’ve just never been a huge fan of Mega Man, but I do like following projects and I have an interest in video games/translation/Japan/Kickstarter IN Japan. There was clearly a market for updates at this torrid pace, and they succeeded well. They knew their fanbase and Kickstarted appropriately. Perhaps a less enthusiastic fanbase would have been turned off by such frequent updates. Interesting to think about.

Another interesting thing to note about this project is how they approached the Japanese audience. The Mighty No. 9 team did an INCREDIBLE job here. If you haven’t seen it yet, here are images:

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As you can see, they basically recreated the Kickstarter page in Japanese on their own website and explained, in Japanese, how to pledge. They even replicated the right-hand sidebar with pledge levels:

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I’m impressed. They had a lot of really excellent help on the English side of things (notably 2PP and 8-4, Ltd., a really solid translation/localization studio), but they were slightly handicapped by the lack of a Japanese version of the site and they totally overcame the difficulty.

I think this shows the incredible potential for Kickstarter in Japan. I would be surprised and disappointed if there is not a Japanese version of Kickstarter within the next few years. It’s a huge, huge market with lots of creative types and interesting payment systems. Just a quick example: I used to make payments for Amazon Japan purchases at my local 7-11 or other convenience stores by printing a payment slip or simply by providing the cashier with an order number. I’m not sure if that would work in this case—the Kickstarter model depends heavily on being able to “swipe” a credit card and ensure future payment—but they are definitely worth looking into.

I can’t wait to see what happens, and it makes me viscerally ecstatic to think about backing the creative projects of random Japanese people. I have a slight interest in Japan, you see.

Thoughts on Running a Kickstarter Project

Apologies for the huge gap in posts on this blog. I haven’t been able to write for most of the past six weeks for a variety of reasons. The main reason is that I’m unemployed and anything not related to the job hunt has felt incredibly wasteful and unproductive. As a writer, I probably shouldn’t think about it that way, but them’s the facts. The good news is that I have a few prospective jobs on the horizon. I hope they pan out.

Still, I need to write something on this blog to mark a significant accomplishment: We’ve finished sending out most of the physical and digital rewards for the Storyville Kickstarter project. However, this is only the first step of our project: Now we need to create Storyville itself, and we’ve been working on that.

So here are a few of my thoughts on the Kickstarter process:

– It would be hard to do alone.

The project was my professor Richard Goodman’s idea, and I came in to help with Kickstarter, but I don’t think either of us could have done it alone. Not only were two people necessary to maintain a sense of momentum and movement, but the give and take in the revision/editing process was critical to ironing out the kinks in our pitch video, thinking through our reward levels, and preventing either one of us from overthinking ourselves along the way.

A good example of this is the reward level tiers. I wanted to go with a relatively simple set of tiers with rewards that could largely be fulfilled digitally or physically without much trouble. And I think we accomplished this, but Richard was insistent that we offer some higher-level rewards. I initially wanted to top out at $150, but we offered a few higher rewards and ended up getting one $1000-level donor, which is a third of our total goal. If I’d done the project on my own, that’s not something that would have happened.

The pitch video is the best example of our revision process. I think we created upwards of ten different versions of the video and finally settled on the final product you see on the page. It was frustrating at times—as revision always is—but it was necessary.

We also needed the help and support of the other students in the program. We reached out to everyone, and a core group of folks were extremely willing to throw in their energy and commitment. They are in the process of writing pieces for Storyville right now.

– Fully source and price all rewards before you launch.

We did offer a few physical rewards, and I tried to keep them simple and source them all before we launched so I would know how much they cost and how easy they would be to fulfill. This might seem like an obvious step, but I wonder how many folks do this for their projects.

Of course, physical rewards can become exponentially more difficult as the number of rewards ordered increases. I capped most of our physical rewards to prevent that. In the end, our physical reward fulfillment is nothing compared to the big projects, but it was still a lot of work for just two people.

The physical reward that took the most time and effort were the “original stories and poems” written for our backers. I sourced these by contacting my classmates and getting them to commit to the activity before we launched. Once the project ended, all I had to do was email them to get started writing. It took some effort to coordinate and edit all the pieces, but in the end, I’d already done much of the work before the project started by getting everyone in line.

I’ll talk more about rewards below – our project is a beast of a somewhat different animal since we weren’t trying to make a thing.

– You need to get beyond your initial audience of friends and family.

Basically, you can’t cannibalize your immediate community. Both Richard and I were a little surprised at the lack of support from our immediate UNO community. We were hoping many of our classmates and coworkers would chip in, but not as many did. In retrospect this makes sense. People are constantly being asked to contribute to causes, so these often get tuned out.

Before we launched, I wondered if Kickstarter would work as a funding mechanism for other university programs, but now I’m not sure. Imagine if other university-related Kickstarters started popping up. People would soon get tired of having to contribute, and you’d be out of funding sources. You have to do whatever it takes to get beyond the immediate local community and tap into other resources.

This is true for all projects, even the really big ones. Take MASSIVE CHALICE for example. At this point, I’m sure the audience for large video game projects has been drained to a certain extent. Yes, they made a lot of money, but it didn’t rocket to success nor did it hit the peaks that Project Eternity or Torment did. You either have to be the first to ask your community (see the Double Fine Adventure), to look for different markets (like the Wii did when it first launched), or to have a really incredible pitch.

We were lucky. We had one very large local donor who found us through one of my classmates who shared the link on Facebook. That bumped us up really quickly. Richard also made use of his audience of readers that he’s been building for a long time. This gave us a notable spike after the first few days as well.

This leads to my next point…

– Estimate how many of each item you will have to sell in order to meet your goal.

Before we launched, I looked down our list of rewards and estimated that we could raise $1500 if we sold all of our capped items (all of the magazines at the $10 and $15 levels, all of the manuscript critiques at $50-$150, all of the copies of Richard’s book at $60, and all the original stories and poems at $75). I knew that we needed more than that and hoped that the $25 thank-you notes would fill in the gap. Either that or we would have to uncap the rewards and offer more midway through. So I looked into providing more supply if we needed it.

We ended up being very lucky and getting funded after three days thanks to a couple of very generous people, but I think we were still on good track to fund the project even without any major donors—we had two donors that accounted for $1800. As you can see, we were still on a slightly upward slope before we got bumped up.

I think we would have gotten more sympathy support over the long haul if we hadn’t hit that initial bump. We only sold 15 of the $25-level, and we only had 77 backers total. Before we launched, I estimated that we needed at least 100, which means that the average pledge would have been a very do-able $30. As it is, we ended with an average pledge of $56.

– Are you making an item or a program? Are your rewards the item itself or something additional?

I don’t think I’ve worded these questions correctly yet. Lemme try this way: Are you trying to fund a cause or the creation of a new item? I think of Storyville as a cause of sorts rather than an item. We create all of the items in our rewards (which is part of the Kickstarter guidelines), but the project as a whole is to create something beyond the rewards. This is different from projects whose goal is to create a physical item (an iPhone dock, a deck of cards, a graphic novel, etc).

Often those projects have the physical item for their reward. For them, the hard work ends once they fulfill all the rewards. With other “cause” projects like Storyville, the hard work only really begins once the rewards are fulfilled. We received all the money and now we have to make good on what we set out to create. What we are making is intangible and will be free to access. And if we don’t create it, then we will have failed all of our backers.

This is a key reason that I wanted to make our rewards easy to fulfill. Not that I wanted to shirk any of the backers; I think we did great work on all our rewards and that they were reasonably priced: there was definitely value for everyone. But the real work is only beginning. Now we have to maintain the program and produce what we promised.

This is just something else to think about in terms of work load but also in terms of goal. This is important because…

– With a “cause” project, your audience may stop giving once you meet your goal.

As you can see from Kicktraq, our funding stopped growing as rapidly once we met our goal. This might be another reason why we didn’t get as much contribution from the community. People did contribute, but it didn’t seem as urgent as it might have had we still needed $500 or so with a week to go. I think this is a sign of a few things: 1. Our rewards weren’t all that exciting. If they were better, there would have been more demand for them and they would’ve kept selling even after we met our goal. It would have taken more effort on our part to make them better, and I’m not sure if the tradeoff would have been worth it. 2. Our stretch goals weren’t all that compelling. We managed to get enough money to squeeze them in without affecting the overall quality of our project, but we didn’t end up getting to $5000, which is what we initially estimated. 3. “Cause” projects are more difficult to fund and their funding goals need to be as low as possible because the “carrot” just isn’t as tasty as the “carrot cake” a “thing” project can offer.

I like to think that we could have eeked our way to $3000 had we stayed on our initial course. We raised nearly a third of our goal in two days, without large donations, and I think that would have put us in a good position to call more aggressively for donations from friends and family, but fortunately we didn’t have to do that.

– You can’t assume that your audience will be savvy to Kickstarter lingo or even the Kickstarter website itself.

And this is an important final point. You will teach your audience about Kickstarter as you run your project. I used to hate on all the project runners who explained the nuances of the site in their videos (we don’t get any money if we don’t raise our goal, the rewards are on the right side of the page, you can pay with your Amazon account, etc), but now it makes sense: not everyone is a Kickstarter enthusiast, and many people actively dislike using computers. These people are still within your audience, and you will be teaching them how to use the site. You have to be clear and concise with every aspect of your project page and pitch video, and I’m really happy with how Storyville looks. (This is something important to remember: your project will be on the Kickstarter site forever. It’s a representation of your self and your work that can either haunt you or help you from here on out.)

This is also the reason why it’s important to take outside donations. I have no problem with this. Large projects do it with PayPal once they’ve met their goal, but we did it with checks directly to WWNO. I think we took in an extra $500 on top of our Kickstarter take, which ended up being around $4000. These were folks who either didn’t know how to use the Amazon payment system or couldn’t be bothered to. They knew about the program, though, and that’s what really counts.

Whew. That was more than I planned on writing, and I think I could write more, but I’ll wrap it up there. Is there anything else you’re curious about? I think the overall message should be this: Balance. Is your project balanced with its goal and reward system? That is the most important question for project runners.

Kickstarter Takes the Reigns

Kickstarter responded to the fervor surrounding commercial Kickstarter projects (naming Veronica Mars and Zach Braff in particular) on their blog today. Here’s the money quote:

We’re a tool available to anyone (in the US and UK, currently) to fund and build a community around their creative project. Big or small, established or indie, serious or fun.

I think this is in line with what I wrote yesterday, which is basically that Kickstarter is flexible and it’s a medium of sorts. “Tool” is the word that they use specifically. I can dig it.

This Kickstarter Project Isn’t For You

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Penny Arcade launched their second Kickstarter project yesterday (third if you count Paint the Line), this time for their Downloadable Content podcast, which was a huge fan favorite. Judging from the pitch video, PA seems to have thought that DLC would become obsolete once they launched PATV in 2010, but this has not been the case. Fans clamor about it at conventions, and I myself even felt compelled to write two separate emails to Gabe and Tycho, once in 2008 and again in 2010. I backed before I could even watch the video—I knew what this was from the title alone, and I knew it was something I wanted. This was a project for me.

As of writing, they’ve raised close to $60,000. But there has been an intense backlash from a number of different sides.

As with Zach Braff’s new movie, “Wish I Was Here,” and as with a lot of projects started by folks who are famous (and perceived to have deep, deep pockets), some wonder why they even need Kickstarter. PA has a ton of cash lying around, right? Just use that, you fuckers! That’s one part of the backlash.

But others have focused their fury on the goal of the project, which was only $10. Take, for example, this backer who pledged $1 just to have the privilege of yelling at the team in the comments section:

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I love that he’s threatening to withdraw that single dollar. That just kills me. Not that dollar?! How will they make the podcast without that one lousy dollar that you’re going waste on a Three Musketeers bar later today?

I was a little surprised by how low the goal was, but to be honest, I didn’t care. I was too excited at the prospect of enjoying new podcasts on jogs and drives to think about it all that much. They do mention how the money is going to be used (equipment, salary for editor, etc), and I’ve been following these guys for over five years now and have watched them run hugely successful gaming conventions on different sides of the country (and soon on a different continent), start a goddamn television station, revolutionize the critical coverage of video games, and raise millions of dollars for sick children: I know that PA has the ability to execute a project like this.

But then I started to see Robert Khoo’s tweets in response to the backlash, which is when I had to jump into the conversation.

I’m sure my opinion on this issue is already pretty apparent, but I want to take a moment not only to explain why the haters are wrong but also to examine why they are reacting the way they are, and why that’s a really, really good thing for Kickstarter in the long run.

The first thing to note (and this is important) is that Kickstarter has only two guidelines. Here are quotes from the website:

Everything on Kickstarter must be a project. A project is something with a clear end, like making an album, a film, or a new game. A project will eventually be completed, and something will be produced as a result.

Every project on Kickstarter must fit into one of our categories. Our categories are Art, Comics, Dance, Design, Fashion, Film, Food, Games, Music, Photography, Publishing, Technology, and Theater.

There are, of course, a few other restrictions (notably, things that you can’t make projects for, rewards you can’t offer, and certain limitations on types and quantities of rewards), but these are the two main commandments that form the core identity of what Kickstarter projects are and how the site functions.

One commonly used term for a type of project that is not allowed is a “fund my life” project. This prevents projects that would, for example, let people raise money for tuition or bills. This is a little tricky since it often gets interpreted to mean that you can’t use Kickstarter funds to cover the salary of project creators or to make a profit. (This is going to come up again later.)

In my opinion, the first Penny Arcade project walked a fine line between a Kickstarter project and a “fund my life” project. They wanted to raise money to make the Penny Arcade website ad-free for a year. They had a number of stretch goals that added certain more project-y things to the project (one of these is the Strip Search television show), but the bulk of the project already existed (the web comic and the website itself); they just needed the money to run it without ads.

But as with the podcast, I didn’t really care. I didn’t back it as quickly or as fervently as I did the podcast—it took me a day or two to come around and pick a lower level reward tier, although I did briefly dream of having Jerry read one of my manuscripts (one of the higher levels)—but I did eventually support it.

The podcast was a stretch goal of the first project that was not reached, but it became clear as they moved forward that it made more sense for DLC to be a Kickstarter project on its own. And it is a more tangible project, in my opinion. It doesn’t really exist. (It used to, but there are plenty of projects that aim to revive something, whether it be a genre or an actual item.) It will be completed, and something will be produced as a result. So you might expect that this project would be received more favorably than their first, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

I think I’ve already laid out a pretty good case for why DLC is a project. That’s not a big deal. I think I’ve also made a pretty good case for why the goal doesn’t matter: Goals are important in Kickstarter projects because they are inextricably linked with a creator’s credibility and ability to complete the project. A project with a low goal doesn’t have as high stakes as a project with a much higher goal; no one is going to lose all that much money.

Penny Arcade has the credibility and the talent to pull this off, and most importantly, they know they have the audience and the demand for it. It doesn’t matter what they set the goal to be because they know they want to do it and they know they’ll be able to pull it off no matter how high the funding level goes.

And here’s the killer point: It makes economic sense for them to do it this way. Rather than trying to estimate and guess what their audience wants and build something that may or may not fit that demand, they can use Kickstarter to get a sense of how big and badass to make the podcast and not waste money making it bigger (or smaller) than it needs to be. (Making it too small would lose them money that they could have earned.)

If this were a no name group wanting to start a podcast (or some assholes who wanted $50,000 to go to Japan), I’d expect them to spend more time telling us how they’ll use the money, but it’s PA, so I don’t. The goal is moot.

And now we get to the really fun part of this post. Why are people reacting this way? What is it about Kickstarter that makes people become so violently opinionated? Why have I spent an afternoon writing over 2300 words about this phenomenon when I should be revising the stories in my MFA thesis?

Here’s the answer: Everyone wants ownership, and Kickstarter projects provide it.

People don’t just want an adventure game. They want to follow its creation and influence decisions. They want to be able to hold on to that insider feeling they get as they become part of the process because it makes them feel good. Having control feels good. Knowing that your decisions matter feels good. Affecting important things for the better (as you see it) feels good.

And this extends beyond individual projects to the entirety of the Kickstarter site. Once you’ve created your individual conception of what “Kickstarter” should be (and often this happens the minute you back your first project), you want to be able to affect things. That sense of control is addicting and powerful and is the whole reason why the site is viable in the first place. This is why you see so many people getting outraged when they see a project that doesn’t fit into their personal definition of what Kickstarter should be.

And I know that Kickstarter employees think about this kind of thing, too.

Back in March I attended the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Boston. Kickstarter moderated a panel entitled “How to Build a Successful Kickstarter Campaign for Your Publishing Project,” and they held a happy hour later that evening. I’m basically obsessed with Kickstarter and had a great time talking with them. I had a lot of questions, but the two I was most interested in were 1) Why is the front page designed the way it is? (i.e. Why is there no easy way to see an unaggregated list of Kickstarter projects?) and 2) What do you think about the large million dollar projects?

It was a really interesting moment to talk with the company: Torment: Tides of Numenara had just started and set a new record for the fastest million (which would be broken a few days later by the Veronica Mars movie). Basically, big game projects had matured and big movie projects were about to get started.

The first question they didn’t really answer directly, although it became clear that they see Kickstarter as “curated” whereas something like Indiegogo is not. There is an aesthetic to Kickstarter projects that they would like to promote, although they did seem interested when I mentioned presentation was the one thing I would change about the site. (I’d like to see a fuller representation of projects.) As for the large projects, they said that they often prefer the smaller, more creative projects. Projects with very small funding periods, like a few days or a week as opposed to a month. I think this includes projects with very small goals as well. They are open to all sorts of projects. In both cases, their answers to my questions showed that Kickstarter employees are thinking deeply about what the company is and how it should work: There is a malleable, changing sense of ownership of Kickstarter even at the highest levels.

This creativity shows in the types of projects on Kickstarter if you look hard enough. When I got into an argument about Penny Arcade yesterday on Twitter, I used Andrew Nicholls’ projects to show how small projects could work:

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He’s turning 50 this year and to celebrate he wants to paint 50 paintings. It took him a while to find the right business model (he’s got a couple unsuccessful projects), but the one that finally worked had a goal of only 12GBP (the cost of a single portrait and shipping). This is perfect for him: It lets him respond to demand for portraits. In order to get closer to 50 total paintings, he started another project for paintings of pets. The goal was 44GBP. He could have afforded the goal himself, but he didn’t have the audience. Kickstarter helped him find it.

A slightly different example is Max Temkin’s Werewolf Kickstarter project:

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His goal was only $200, and he raised over $40,000. He only offered a single reward—the game itself for $10. Clearly he could have afforded the $200 “goal” without Kickstarter, but Kickstarter is a powerful platform for connecting audiences who appreciate creative creators with the creators themselves. Temkin clearly had some sort of audience (or more savvy to connect with them than Nicholls did), and this was a way to make the sale. True, Penny Arcade is working on a much larger and more commercial scale than Temkin and his very simple, elegant project, but in the end it amounts to the same thing: They both wanted to make something, to make it the best they could, and to get their product into the hands of the most people possible.

There is no single archetypal Kickstarter project, and this is a good thing. Haters need to realize that either 1) this project isn’t for them or 2) they have an unreasonable sense of ownership of Kickstarter.

Zach Braff has a new interview in which he discusses this first point. He basically tells the haters to fuck off: If you didn’t like Garden State, then his project probably isn’t for you. You don’t own it (or Kickstarter), and you don’t get to decide. But if you liked it and Scrubs and his other work, you might have a lot of fun going along on the ride and enjoying a limited sense of ownership of the project. The project itself (updates posts, etc.) is valuable content for the right audience. I know this is certainly true for the Double Fine Adventure and I’m hoping it will be for the Penny Arcade podcast.

The second point is one of the reasons Kickstarter has been so successful: They’ve found an amazing mix of creation, commercialism, and presentation. People are going to get involved in this Kickstarter thing and want to be part of it. In short, they care. They care how people are using the site, whether they are profiting from it, what kinds of things are getting created, how their investments are being used, etc. This is great for the website.

My personal opinion of Kickstarter has changed over time. Initially I was very hesitant to see money used to pay for salaries and I thought that every project should be a labor of love, but I’ve started to think this is unreasonable. Now, I look mostly for reasonability. Is it a reasonable project? Is the goal reasonable? Will they be able to complete it in a reasonable manner? Are the rewards priced reasonably? Is there a reasonable value in it for the backers? This is my own sense of Kickstarter, but I recognize that it may shift.

I’ve read in places that people think Kickstarter will last until the next thing comes along, but I’m not sure I believe it. I think what Kickstarter is will evolve and projects will continue to creatively work within (and to stretch) the two main guidelines (and additional restrictions), but I think it’s around for a while. Independent creators have known about the site for a while. Game studios discovered it last year. Movie studios are discovering it as we speak. What will be next?

So for those of you hating on the Penny Arcade project, just note that this Kickstarter project isn’t for you. I was really happy to see the following comment, from a backer who has a very flexible sense of ownership:

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Journey Across Failure: Don’t Be an Asshole

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These “Journey Across Kanto” guys want $50,000 to send three guys to Japan so they can pretend to be real life Pokemon trainers. I see a couple things wrong with their plans and pitch:

  • Nowhere in the pitch video or on the project page do they demonstrate their ability to produce a documentary. We get voiceover on top of some smoothly edited Pokemon footage (which they probably don’t have a license to use). It just makes me want to ask the Samuel L. Jackson question: “Who the fuck are these assholes?
  • No budget breakdown. $50,000 seems insane, but let’s see how it might breakdown. Let’s estimate $5000 for airfare (roughly $1500 x 3 + tax), maybe $2000 for equipment (a camera and mic), another $3000 for production afterward (this is a total guess…I have no idea what it would really cost), which would leave $40,000 for travel costs in Japan, which would be $267/person/day for 50 days in Japan. That seems like a reasonable per diem, to be honest. Japan is an expensive place. So their budget is okay, but it does show the one HUGE flaw in their plans:
  • They are asking for everything and the kitchen sink. I don’t see any investment on their part. I feel like a project like this could work if they were more conservative with their request. If, for example, they were to ask Kickstarter to provide airfare alone ($5000, as mentioned above) and to cover the rest of the costs themselves, I feel like they would come across as more realistic, more invested and therefore more credible and persuasive. Instead, they are asking for everything and (in my humble opinion) seem like giant assholes.

The lesson: Don’t be an asshole. Think hard about your funding goal and strive to see it from a random reader’s perspective. Asking for too large a goal will only make you seem like a jerk.