Kickstarter Advice from Corey and Lori Cole

If you’ve ever wanted to run a Kickstarter, take a moment to read Corey and Lori Cole’s advice.

Context
The Coles recently funded a successful Kickstarter campaign for Hero-U with over $400,000 in support, and were generous enough to give us some specific feedback on our current Kickstarter for Var and the Vikings, a puzzle platformer game that teaches you Artificial Intelligence.

The Coles are games industry veterans having worked on many titles and are credited with defining the Adventure RPG genre with the Quest for Glory series in the 1990s. My sister and I played this series endlessly growing up, to the point of inventing live action backyard games based on the content. I suspect this level of fandom helped us win over the Coles to share some time and advice with my team.

 Advice from The Coles

Focus on Higher Tiers

Rewards matter a lot. For most games, your base level backers (typically at the $10-$25 level) will account for only 20% of your income. The Coles identified rewards as both the most important piece of a campaign and our campaign’s key stumbling point. The higher tiers are critical and you have to inspire people with them.

We’ve reworked our rewards with their advice in mind and have had some upgrades as well as more backers in the higher tiers. Our next big push to press will show us just how well that’s worked.

Physical Rewards
Great physical rewards: Successful Kickstarters Rappan-Athuk ($246k/$25k goal) and Nystul’s Infinite Dungeon ($16k/$2k goal) are Dungeon Master scenarios for use with the Pathfinder role playing system.

Rappan-Athuk received $142,000 based entirely on high quality physical rewards and subscriptions for more content. The lower tier digital versions were quite unpopular, with most backers preferring the physical hard cover faux-leather bound versions instead. Contrast this with Nystul’s Infinite Dungeon where the majority of backers preferred the digital version as the physical edition was just specified as “printed” without regard to binding.

My take-away from this, is two fold: firstly, atmosphere matters in pen and paper RPGs and a faux leather bound hardcover delivers that on a level a digital or consumer style print run never can, which is what people expect if you don't tell them otherwise. Secondly, high quality physical rewards matters a lot.

We saw Lori and Corey boxing up their original concept art, and they looked gorgeous. A lot of effort had gone into presentation, and this made a big difference.

We have taken this on board in our kickstarter and opened up a host of high quality rewards with some more coming soon.

Rewards Cost Money
The two most costly are:
Physical - Account for the cost of the rewards, but also the effort in creating and shipping them. Prepare to become a logistics company for a while.
Custom Art - Customised Art makes for popular higher tiers. This will cost a lot of money to produce. Be especially careful about the pricing of private custom art that only one player will get to see.

Understand the Market Perception
Our game is a web game (playable in Chrome). We selected web so the demo would be easier to play (one click, no installation needed). The problem is despite the costs of production being the same, consumers expect web games to be free and installable/mobile games to cost money.

The Coles advised us that because we had a playable demo and we were based in the web, we needed to make it especially clear only backers would receive the full game.

Demos are Good, but keep people on the Kickstarter page
If you include playable demo, people may feel obliged to play it before backing (to do their research). This will take them away from your Kickstarter page. Put up a video of gameplay instead.

After meeting the Coles we surveyed our backers(link), 1/3rd of respondents said that a playable demo was what mattered most to them. We also got our best press based on having a playable demo.

My takeaway from this is to have the gameplay demo on the page, and we’ve just added this. This ensures people can do their due diligence without leaving the page. Having the links to playable levels as well will give users the confidence you can back up your claims. Watching a video and knowing they can click on playable levels may be enough for many backers, but just having the levels may distract them away from the Kickstarter pages. This is especially true if the potential backer has a problem with the demo - For example, ours currently works only in the Chrome browser, so FireFox and Internet Explorer visitors may become discouraged.

I’ve experienced this myself when it comes to the actual project video. I don’t back projects without a video, but I rarely watch the video before backing. Knowing that it’s there inspires confidence.

For Graphics, Focus on Gameplay
People are here for your game and they want to know what it will look like. The average backer cannot imagine your game and needs to see the visuals. This was especially true in the press for Hero-U when they announced their engine. The Coles announced their choice of engine and included visuals of a lower production value game on the same engine. This was a huge mistake as many people expected the graphics to be the same rather than just the game mechanics.

Art effects people strongly. Use only the art you expect to have in game. Prioritise all art resources on producing more of this.

We will be producing more game play footage and more dynamic in game scenarios to get people interested.

Build a Story
We were specifically advised to make the story more interesting. Include some backstory, create some love interests. Help players care about the characters, even though it’s a puzzle game.

We have a backstory and we’ll be writing it up and including it in a future update.

Launch Timing
Take advantage of public holidays. Use Black Friday, Cyber Monday, to offer themed specials during your campaign.

In Conclusion
I’d like to thank the Corey and Lori for their time and advice. It’s not too late to back Hero-U, so show them support and they just may reach some more stretch goals. Visit http://www.hero-u.net/KS-store.php#storetop to join the Hero-U backers. See our current Kickstarter we built with the advice from The Coles at Var and the Vikings Kickstarter

In Yosemite National Park, with Half-Dome (inspiration for the Sierra logo) in the background

In Yosemite National Park, with Half-Dome (inspiration for the Sierra logo) in the background

Educational Games are a Moral Issue

Endorsements for this post


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For me it’s a moral issue. The damage our society suffers due to our ineffective education system cannot be understated -- it’s the single greatest threat to our future.

The world’s facing challenges that clearly need more capability than we have now. Better education is the only path to this capability; it’s the path we must follow to reach the tomorrow we all want.

And now we make the bold claim that Educational Games are the best solution to solve this moral issue. (I fully acknowledge educational games have not yet had the mainstream success needed and I will address this pressing issue in an upcoming post.)

Efficacy

One-on-one tutoring is the gold standard in education. We must aim for this level and beyond. In the absence of 7 billion brilliant tutors to teach the rest of us we need something that can deliver the same quality and games are the only answer.

Adaptability to an individual and ability to inspire creativity and passion are essential qualities of a great tutor and integral component of all the best games.

Patience and Responsibility

Games are the greatest tool to promote patience and responsibility

People claim games promote short attention spans and a demand for instant gratification. This is absurd. The most popular games engage players for hours at a time and have players aiming rewards that can take years to obtain.

The only thing players have no patience for is bad feedback. Players crave instant updates as to their progress. This is a healthy attitude that should be encouraged if we are to have citizens who can make reasoned decisions about their next course of action instead of just following orders.

Slow feedback (anything worse than instant) and a lack of autonomy in today’s classroom lead to students becoming rapidly disinterested, as they should be. The failing is most definitely in the education, and not the student -- why should anyone take an action when they cannot see it’s benefit, cannot tell if it’s succeeded and the only thing keeping them on path is a threat of punishment.

The current education system fails to show students the path to their goals -- because it fails to consider the student’s individual goals to begin with. Games allow players to choose their own path and provide constant feedback on progress, ensuring the player is always aware of the value of their actions.

We have lost the right to whip students and now they make healthy rational decisions to not go down blind alleys. People cry out that this is a bad thing, when really they should be crying out for education that’s as good as games.

Understanding and Retention

Learning by doing is the best way to learn and learning through narrative is the best way to remember.

Humans are story telling creatures -- pan narrans, not homo sapiens, Terry Pratchett would have you believe. Narrative is a powerful tool for aiding memory and games are interactive stories. There is no better way to remember exactly what you need than a custom built story that you have lived through. Games are the greatest mnemonic devices we’ve ever created.

We all value understanding above knowledge. It’s a higher order capability that makes us better humans. Learning by doing is the definition of a game and this interactivity gives rise to understanding. A well built game dispenses with manuals and instructional text entirely, allowing you to increase capability entirely through action. A text, voice or even video based environment can never do this. Interactivity is essential to building understanding and games deliver this in spades.

Teamwork

Working with others is an essential capability of a well adjusted adult. The most popular games rely on tightly coordinated team work. The most time intensive games, World of Warcraft and Eve Online, would be impossible without time management, leadership and a willingness to perform your role in the team. Group work in present education is routinely mocked and derided for being contrived and inflexible.

Individual accomplishment is always the defining metric in education whereas the accomplishments of a team and one’s ability to work in one are what matter in working life and in the most demanding games.

When it comes to teamwork, games are a better match for working life than education has ever been.

Availability

Games are the best tool to reach a wide audience, especially from a disadvantaged background. They scale perfectly with insignificant marginal cost. They are objects of high desire, so disadvantaged students will still fight to get their hands on them even when they have a high price tag - unlike education which all students fight to avoid. If we are serious about delivering education to everyone then we better be serious about games.

A Moral Issue

Education is in crisis. To do nothing is unthinkable. To invest further in the status quo is a recipe for defeat. We need a major shift; a full on revolution. Progress in everything we value depends on progress in education.

Improving education is the most pressing moral issue we face. Educational Games are the strongest answer to this challenge.


Post Mortem from Kickstarter in October 2012

This was a backer only update we sent out after our last Kickstarter. Now we're sharing it with the whole community.

Here's the previous Kickstarter, for reference: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1211458364/brainworth-play-games-that-teach-you-to-make-games
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Thank you to everyone who backed this project. Each one of you has helped inspire us to continue pushing to bring change to education. Please put your email down at www.brainworth.net if you'd like to stay in touch.

Looking Back

It's been a rather crazy month for us, as we've been pushing to get more of the product out to you and reaching out to the community. We have been surprised both with where we got support from and where we didn't. By far our largest support came from Germany, while major Australian and US publications who we'd met with to arrange coverage in advance did not follow through. We did get a some press though, and some of the smaller publications had particularly insightful questions that have helped better frame our message moving forward.

Most community groups welcomed us with open arms, and we've connected with over 100 groups online. We've been to conferences, user groups and college clubs all over the USA and Australia and found support and new volunteers.

What We Learned

  • Make it much more clear what we are offering. Our biggest feedback was that it wasn't clear what people would get for their money.
  • Offer something with wider appeal. Our technology can teach a lot of different things. We love HTML5 games, but a focus on a broader market segment would have helped.
  • Get the community and press engaged earlier. Keeping everything secret until launch is great for Apple, not so good for everyone else.
  • More Kickstarter updates. We needed a plan for updates during the campaign and someone working primarily on communicating with backers. We prioritised other promotional areas, like reaching out to community groups and press and as a result it may have looked to you like we weren't doing much. Next time we'll give clear updates on what we're doing, and share progress every few days.
  • Do the promotional tour before the campaign, not during it. We've met a lot of great people during the campaign - people it would have been great to connect with and get feedback from earlier. And when the campaign is running, you need all the time you can get, so travelling during the campaign is not a good idea.
  • Have product demos better prepared. As always, there were some last minute technical problems. Unfortunately, these were on the larger side and required us making major changes that prevented full demos being ready during the campaign.
  • Kickstarter is great. There are many people we've met and much advice we've collected that wouldn't have happened without starting a campaign with an ambitious target. Trying to reach our goal and failing has taught us a lot more than waiting till we were more ready would have, so thank you so much for helping us learn. We really are better equipped to change education because of running this campaign. We've connected with many people who we'll be working with ongoing to bring about a revolution in education.

Next Steps

We'll be launching a new campaign when we've made all the improvements that we can with our learnings from this one. If Kickstarter allows us to give you updates on the next campaign we'll be in touch, but please put your email down at www.brainworth.net just in case.

Please feel free to contact us with your feedback on the campaign. We've been getting a lot of diverse opininions, but as a backer your support means a lot and we'll definitely take your views into account.

Thank you again for supporting us, and we hope to see you again soon.

Ben Sand and the Brainworth Team.

Brainworth Recommends: Recognising the next decade for what it is: The game decade

Seth Priebatsch outlined an important distinction between the elements laid out in the first decade of the 21st century and the second in a TED talk given at TEDx Boston in 2010.

 

The distinction, he claimed, placed the social framework through which we interact online firmly in the domain of the first decade, and the game framework firmly in the domain of the latter.

2010-2020 will be "the decade where the game framework is built. Where the motivations that we use to actually influence behaviour and the framework in which that is constructed is decided upon."

While full of hope and optimism, Priebatsch laments the thoroughly 'under construction' nature of the gaming 'layer' (as he sees it), evangelising the opportunities present with the next layer of the world being in such an infant stage.

"We want to all be thinking about it consciously now." he asserts. "Construction on the social layer is over. There's still a lot to explore ... but the framework itself is done - and it's called Facebook. When you want to build on a social layer, the framework has been decided. If you want to work on a different API, too bad."

Games are nothing new to our world, but their power is increasing exponentially year on year. While in some sectors games are dominating hollywood, in others they're attracting the attention of government regulators for crossing into the regulatory territory of gambling.

The science of motivation will be the most fundamental influencer of the next decade. Priebatsch points to 'happy hour' as the ubiquitous and preeminent game mechanic. It paved the way for culture to shape itself around rewards based on being in a certain place at a certain time. Perhaps the penultimate example of this is LinkedIn, which gives you a clear path to getting your percentage complete and lets you know precisely what you need to do to have a 100% complete profile and become the most attractive prospective employee on the block.

Rewards for frequent patronage and credit card reward schemes are also utilising similar dynamics, but none of these involve real-time feedback loops from a persistent game world.

Where Brainworth aims to push from educators rewarding students with XP for participating in classes is in this manner, turning the process far more literally into a game.

We very much agree with the notion that almost all of life is turned into ad hoc games, from humour in conversations to ritualised scampish behaviour in the workplace.

"School is a game." Priebatsch continues. "It's just not a particularly well-designed game."

We couldn't agree more.

Creating an avatar for the future: the right kind of space suit.

Meet the avatar which will accompany you on your journey through Brainworth's vast island network. Armed to the teeth with a jetpack and casual hover, our aim was to create a character which could be animated to be given some believable humanity, while at the same time not giving them too much personality.

Our character artist Ray explains: "When Ben and I designed the player avatar, we wanted to build it around the idea of he or she being a (fairly futuristic) planetary explorer."

"We wrestled with the idea of the avatar being a scientist or a soldier (earlier examples of the concepts for both those characters can be seen in this blog post), but in the end we decided on neither. We didn't want the player to look like a menacing soldier, but similarly we didn't want it looking as though they could only survive indoors."

"In the end, we settled on being an explorer - somewhere in between."

Viewed from the rear, the avatar will hover around the screen, floating and flying from one island or challenge to the next, reacting to your successes and failures in a multitude of ways and anchoring the player to a surrogate which can embody their success. The key was to try and create a character which felt human enough that players could establish a link, while not creating them as a specific person so the avatar can relate, albeit slightly, to each and every player.

I used a neutral set of colour palettes," Ray continues. "The ideas has been that at some point down the track, users will be able to customise their avatars including the suit's colours. Going for something less stark made it more malleable."

We'll have moving footage of our avatar out the door in no time at all.

Be sure to sign up for the upcoming beta on the home page if you're enjoying our developments so far!

Brainworth Recommends: Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work

And now for the next in our adamant series of recommendations of various talks, we'd like to point to the illuminating TED talk by Jason Fried entitled 'Why Work Doesn't Happen at Work'.

Fried's theory is that, contrary to the widely held belief that Facebook and Twitter prevent people from doing work (which, admittedly, in some instances is very much the case), over and micro-management and an overestimate of the amount of weight and faith one ought to put in meetings.

Having worked successfully from home for the opening couple of years of Brainworth's existence, we've learned two things:

1) Face to face time between members of a team is a valuable and important aspect of working life, especially when cultivating a working culture.

2) Meetings are great at facilitating this, however are readily defined by their own purpose and the outcomes they achieve.

Weekly meetings for the sake of it have never been part of our philosophy. Being as the majority of people working on Brainworth in the very early days would work from home on their own tasks, communication on that level was scant. The value we placed on people's time was elevated to being at a premium, and we all learned very quickly to spend the time when we were together as efficiently as possible.

Each time we met up, it was because a real brainstorming session was necessary to proceed, whether it was on art style, animations, figuring out an algorithm with two brains instead of one, but one way or another time wasn't wasted.

A healthy mixture of autonomy for Brainworth team members and an acceptance of work which wasn't yet where it needed to be let each team member try new things and learn from mistakes. Nothing was ever so important that it required our CEO to look over anyone's shoulder. On the off chance something didn't work out in exactly the way it needed to, feedback and a second gambit was always the order of the day.

Now, we're in a vastly different situation, of course, but the learnings of our earlier days has left us with a healthy respect for each others' time.

Management is meant to steer a ship, not swabbing the decks. This overarching respect for the contribution each person makes, we believe, will lead to a stronger culture and more productive workforce overall.

Entirely new look Brainworth incoming…

This is just a little bit of a sneak peek for readers of our blog, but the new look Brainworth site (which we've blogged about previously here) is going to be a full redesign ahead of our beta launch, including a brand new logo.

Simple, bold and elegant, our new logo is designed to represent progression, intelligence and interactivity.

Those who aren't new to this blog will recognise the little shapes in the centre of the circle as being rather similar to our in-game islands or 'nodes'. This, as well as their hierarchical structure is meant to reflect the nature of the game world's graph layout, while at the same time pointing distinctly up.

Part of the inspiration from the logo came from an elevator button. The tactile, metallic surface of an elevator button reminds us of something which visually appears interactive.

Our logo is meant to do the same. We want people to feel like it's a pressable button, and that doing so will make them go somewhere.

At the same time, we don't think it's a bad idea to have that subtle nod to our Australian heritage - the node shapes in the circle line up to be starkly familiar to those of you who've ever thrown a boomerang before.

Stay tuned - there's much more to come!

Joining the dots – how to make sure the human brain can untangle our web of vines

Linking each of the islands or 'nodes' together in the Brainworth game world are a series of vines. These each indicate which islands are connected in some way, with vines above depend on you having completed vines below.

Getting these vines right, however, was tricky. After looking at other layouts for educational learning, we found that it was too easy for your eyes to jump from one linkage to another, so you could easily try and follow one linkage and end up on completely the wrong node.

This is a problem inherent in many a graph-based layout, but one we felt we could tackle with some well thought-out algorithmic art.

Thus, Gonz, one of Brainworth's artists, creates each vine in short segments of waves. The wiggliness of the waves helps each vine be more distinct than a straight line, and subtle variations are used to change the 'shape' of the waves in each segment in a procedural manner to ensure that even if two vines are pointed in almost identical directions, they'll never appear to be wiggling along in exactly the same way and you can easily trace one around corners and other overlapping vines without losing track.

Our art is then handed over to Kenni, who adds a purpose-built script which layers each of the vines with some light texturing. By applying these also via a script and not hand-crafting them, we again ensure the most subtle of similarities to keep the eye able to focus on the vine the brain wants to be focusing on, and not drifting off.

Our game world is designed to light up and flourish when you complete tasks. The vines are no exception, so in order to keep them in harmony with the game world, we have them mimic (in their own special way) the growth from brown to green to blue you can already see on our islands.

Finally, for that extra spice of reality, we have a consistent light source from the upper corner of the screen, and run some of Kenni's filters to make sure that each segment, no matter what shape and what orientation, appears lit from the correct angle.

And there you have it: our sun-ripened, completely individualised and uniquely shaped vines can safely crisscross our entire game world with as many or as few as necessary without becoming so entangled in themselves that they become illegible or impossible to follow.

A weekend of filming – 20 online challenge tutorials done already

This weekend, several of us went in to Brainworth HQ to get started on the more playful side of the project - filming in-game tutorial videos.

All shall be revealed in time, but we can say that each 'node' (the islands) will have its own hand-made tutorial video. We had a crew and actors descend upon our green screen room on Saturday and got 20 islands worth of content done (and miraculously it was done on schedule - a feat which any of you involved in film at all should consider awe-inspiring).

It was amazing to see the actors bringing out in-game characters (check out the concept art for them here) to life, with the work on the costumes being particularly cool.

So our first unit, the Snake AI set of islands, is now in post-production and ramping up quite nicely. We've many more places to go with these videos, but as we rapidly approach our first beta, it's incredible to watch each facet of Brainworth come together like this, especially in such a physical way.

Stay tuned, as we reveal more on our characters and story in future blog posts. Brainworth team out!

Brian Schwab from Blizzard talks about the human psychology behind game AI

Yesterday, a couple of us here at Brainworth went along to the University of Technology Sydney to listen to a talk by Brian Schwab, AI Lead on an unannounced Blizzard project and author of the upcoming book 'The Psychology of Game AI'.

Picture this: you're a guard working for an evil megalomaniac and you're bored at your post when you hear a noise. You investigate, but after five seconds, have nothing to show for it. Given that if you have a false negative, the result is that the base is infiltrated, it gets back to your boss just who let the intruder slip through and you get executed for incompetence, you'd imagine that you'd be pretty keen to explore for more than five mere seconds. Especially when you consider that the false negative option carries the devastating result of.... you having wasted a bit of time on a more thorough search.

Extrapolate this to a guard finding their co-worker's dead body, so they know there's definitely an intruder, and the idea of them simply returning to their patrol makes them unfeasibly robotic and moronic.

Such is the usefulness of a simple plot device, such as a phone ringing forcing the guard to run off on some emergency or other, only to be replaced by a fellow guard who was as yet unaware of your presence, Schwab asserts.

Throughout the talk, Schwab went on to discuss in depth the many shortcuts the human brain takes when making decisions, taking the audience through cognitive biases and assumptions made by the brain which are seldom, if ever, represented in AI.

Event the term AI rubs Schwab the wrong way, with him positing 'Artificial Humanity' as a superior alternative.

Of particular note was the fact that most AI will look at all available options and select the most appropriate one logically based on its efficiency and the likelihood that it will result in the outcome which best matches that AI's objectives (including the possibility that they're going easy on the player due to difficulty settings), whereas most humans will have discarded many of the available options, especially in the heat of the moment, without properly considering each of them.

Biases as simple as moving towards a more colourful or brightly lit area due to its intrinsic appeal would require separately programming those 'faults' into otherwise flawless AI logic.

With AI being the first subject Brainworth intends to tackle, it will be interesting to look at the variations people come up with as we beckon each of our players to create an AI to drive a game of Snake.

Beginning with the player teaching the snake to check the direction of the nearest apple and move towards it, and culminating in a complex and multi-faceted Snake which is able to ensure it doesn't block itself in amongst a winding and lengthy tail, along the way we'll likely see variants even we don't expect, and look earnestly forward to seeing our participants' creations.

When we go one step further and look at having two players' snakes compete against one another to see which has the superior intelligence, then we'll really have something worth paying attention to.