Why Did the Hero’s Song Kickstarter Fail?

Well crap, I just wrote this whole post last night and they cancelled it this morning literally as I went to check to see where it stood.  But I am not wasting all these words!  I will be validated, dammit!  Most of this is still on point, and I am not re-writing it simply to tune it for what just happened.

“Whoa, whoa, hold on there Hoss!” I hear you say, “That Kickstarter campaign has like 22 days left to run.  How can you say it failed?”  Well, because of this:

HerosSongCancelled

But let’s just pretend that didn’t happen for the moment.

I must admit that this is true.  There is a long stretch of time left, leaving the campaign plenty of time to recover and make its $800,000 goal, and maybe even a stretch goal or two.  Hero’s Song might yet make its money.  Stranger things have happened.

Nor am I trying to root this campaign into failure.  I have no particular problem with it nor with Smed himself, who seems like a decent person, somebody you could have a beer with and talk about video games.

What I am running with for this post is what I shall declare here as “Wilhelm’s First Hypothesis on Video Game Kickstarter Behavior,” based on observations I have recorded on this blog, which indicates that if you don’t hit the 20% funding mark in the first 48 hours, the campaign is lost.  I was on this two years ago.

Here we are past day seven and the Hero’s Song campaign is sitting at 18%.  It needs to bring in more than $27,000 a day to succeed, something it only did on day one.  The average take per day is up to this point is just a little over $17K, according to the data at KickTraq.  Unless there is a miracle in the offing, things look grim.

Kicktraq Status - Jan. 25

Kicktraq Status – Jan. 25

Miracles, however, tend to be thin on the ground here in reality, and while Massively OP is clearly in Smed’s corner on this one, even they seem to be running out of things to say.

So why didn’t Hero’s Song make that 20% mark?  Why do I think it isn’t going to make its final goal, much less any stretch goals.  Well, as usual, I have a list… a list of reasons that I think may have had a negative impact on the whole campaign.

Confused Presentation

I happened to see Smed’s Tweet about the campaign starting just as it went out and immediately went to see what was going on.  Much to my chagrin, I couldn’t figure out what platform the game was even running on.   I assumed it would be on Windows, but the screen shots looked like it might be slated for the Nintendo 3Ds.

That eventually got straightened out, but I am still sort of lost in what the game they are pitching actually is.  It is hardcore, online, action RPG, so it seems in the Diablo vein perhaps, but then they say it is a Rogue-like at one point, and then it has so many classes and different magics and shared worlds  and the ability to host it yourself and a bunch of races and too many classes and no main quest and… hrmm…

It isn’t like I am against all of that.  I like a lot of it.  But I am still not sure what to make out of it.  It all sounds very MMORPG-ish.  Is that right?

And I am somebody who has gone back and re-read sections of the description and even skimmed through Smed’s AMA on Reddit.  What will somebody just passing by make of all of this.  It just doesn’t have a simple hook.  I mean, Lord British could say, “Remaking Ultima!” and Mark Jacobs could say, “Remaking DAoC!” and even Brad McQuaid could say, “Remaking EverQuest!” and you got what they were about.

I am not saying it has to be easily pigeon holed, but word of mouth is a lot easier if you can describe something simply and work from there.  I don’t know how I would describe this fairly yet accurately. Graphical Rogue? Pixellated Diablo? 2D Ultima Online?

Bad Tiers

Another item that was wrong right out of the gate were the tiers.  Or, to narrow it down, the base tier.  You had a game that was going to go to retail for $19.99, but the minimum you could pay and get a copy was $25.

When you’re asking people to front you money for some software down the road, also asking them to pay more now than they would later is a bit of a punch in the gut.

Yes, they fixed that before the end of the first day, but how many people came, looked at the tiers, did the math, and said they would check back when it was done, never to return again?

Meanwhile, there isn’t a lot of compelling reasons to pay more than $15.  The digital sound track… well, Syp is probably there for that.  There is no discount for the Collector’s Edition, so no reason to jump on that.  Wallpapers and strategy guides are non-starters while early access might rake in some hardcores who really, really want in, but that isn’t much of a mass draw.

They did throw in T-shirts and hoodies as an option, and that actually got a bit of a spike in the total on Sunday, but it seemed to be mostly from people going up a tier to get something, as the number of new backers was fairly small.

So far they have just over 3,000 backers, which is impressive.  But the average pledge is just $45, which is even less impressive when you consider that somebody is in for that $10,000 tier.  70% of the backers are in for $25 or less.

Low Price

Part of the problem here is that the price of the game is going to be $19.99.  You have to sell a lot of units to get to $800K.  Furthermore, I am a bit worried about how they plan to run servers and such with no cash shop or what not and just the base price to keep things going.  I know he wants to keep away from the monetization tar baby, but I hope they have some additional revenue plan, like expansions.

Hardcore

Why did Smed have to run with this word?  Seriously, I think if you’re in tune with the gaming news sufficiently to have even heard about the Hero’s Song Kickstarter campaign, you qualify at some level as hardcore.

But Smed’s been on this divisive “hardcore” kick before.  Just last year he had that quip about those “disgusting PVE carebear servers” for H1Z1 which, while done in jest, still managed to annoy a fair share of people.

In the end, the word itself is mostly meaningless, serving only to divide players.  Those that don’t see themselves in the mold of the hardcore will turn away from the project, while those who self-identify as hardcore are as like as not to question whether or not Hero’s Song is hardcore enough.  Just having PvP doesn’t make something hardcore.

The Smed Factor

Smed has a name in the industry, people know him.  But his name also comes with a lot of baggage.  Not all of it is his fault, but he was the boss at SOE for a long stretch, and when you’re the boss, everything is your fault.  Hacking in PlanetSide 2, broken raids in the Planes of Power expansion, the NGE, letting Vanguard stagnate and die, closing FreeRealms, the failure of The Agency, the confused state of EverQuest II at launch, holding SOE Live in Vegas so many years running, forgetting to pay for the domain name that one time, you name it, somebody will blame it on Smed.

That’s a lot of potential grudges smoldering out there.

And on top of that, while he has a reputation based on running SOE, the games that SOE created tend to be associated with other people.  Brad McQuaid and the TorilMUD combo made EverQuest and he had Raph Koster there for Star Wars Galaxies and EverQuest II, Scott Hartsman there to rescue EverQuest II, Holly Longdale there to CPR EverQuest and EverQuest II back to life yet again, plus a few other names in the mix.  But I don’t really associate Smed himself with any particular game, except maybe PlanetSide, and only because he declared it his favorite at one point.

Which isn’t to deny that a lot of people, both inside and outside the industry, like him.  I like him.  And, to paraphrase Gag Halfrunt, Smed is just this guy, you know?  His name will get attention for the project, but not all of it will be favorable.

Development Timeline Credibility

This is more a reaction to my own career and the way almost every video game related Kickstarter has played out, but I have serious doubts about their October 2016 launch.  Another Kickstarter hypothesis I am working on is a standard multiplier for such timelines.  I started with 2x, but I think that may too optimistic.

Anyway, this one may be more of a matter of previous campaigns poisoning the well for Hero’s Song, if it is a factor at all for people.  I appreciate the detailed timeline, I just think that backers may have been burned too often on that front.

The Need Question

I’m not sure why they need my money up front.  I know Smed has said they are in for a million so far and believe they need another $800K to finish the game up, but do they need it from this Kickstarter campaign?  If they campaign fails, are they still going to make the game or are they going to fold up shop and go home?  Are we going to get fewer classes, fewer features, no self-hosting?  What is the downside of this campaign failing?  What is the compelling case for supporting this game with money up front nearly a year in advance?

That part of the tale should be very clear, in writing, on the campaign page… and it isn’t.

No Pre-Campaign Ramp Up

This is the part that really grinds my gears.  This was just plain dumb.  Smed literally announced his new company and its Kickstarter on Twitter the morning it started.

Yes, he had a couple of gaming sites ready to cover the launch.  But you know what would have been better than absolutely zero pre-launch news… literally ANY pre-launch news.

“Hey! Surprise!” is not the hallmark of a good marketing campaign.

Look at past successful campaigns.  Lord British had his big count-down and announcement before the Shroud of the Avatar campaign.  Mark Jacobs was talking about a Kickstarter campaign for Camelot Unchained weeks in advance.  The Crowfall team was in the news and getting people hyped up weeks before their campaign launched.

This is what successful campaigns… two million dollar campaigns… look like:

Shroud of the Avatar

Shroud of the Avatar – 55% in the first 48 hours

Camelot Unchained

Camelot Unchained – 35% in the first 48 hours

I am too lazy to go get the Crowfall chart, but they made almost 80% of their goal in the first 48 hours.  That is what success looks like.  17% at the seven day mark has the stink of failure all over it.

In my opinion what Smed should have done was have the big reveal and news stories and the AMA about two weeks before the campaign, during which time the team could gauge the feedback, clarify points of confusion, and generally get the word spread so that the opening day would be a big success.  Because success begets success, and when a campaign opens up and gets a huge spike, people will jump on board even if they aren’t sure because everybody else is jumping on so there must be something there.

The SOE Curse

I’m not sure if this is really a factor, but I find it amusing to trot out.

You see, almost exactly two years ago another well known SOE name launched a Kickstarter with very little warm-up, had a confused yet ambitious sort of “it will do everything” message, appealed to the hardcore, and was asking for $800K.  Yes, we are at the two year anniversary of Brad McQuaid and his Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen Kickstarter campaign.

Okay, the parallels are not exact and a bit silly, but it is one of those things that makes you go, “Hmmm…”  We shall see if Hero’s Song can match Pantheon’s take.  Brad

What Next?

So I think the campaign is a forlorn hope at this point.  So what?  What should Smed and his team do now?

Well, they should either go for that double-secret backup publicity plan that will send pledges through the roof or they should fold up their tents and go home for now.

And I since I doubt they have such a secret plan, I will focus on folding.

There is a HUGE reluctance to call it quits in such a situation.  I have seen campaigns literally 99% shy of their goal ride it out to the bitter end in some sort of hope over reason play that the word will get out at the last minute and the campaign will be saved.

That isn’t going to happen.  The first day of any campaign is almost always the biggest day.  If it isn’t, then you’ve really done something wrong.

This is reluctance seems to be especially true if there is some response and you get some pledges.  How can you just walk away from $136K?

Except, of course, if you don’t make your goal you get nothing at all, so you aren’t walking away from anything because it was never yours.  And you cannot cut your funding goal once the campaign has begun, so there is no way to just get the money.

So in my limited perspective, amateur Monday morning quarterback point of view, Smed and company should just pull the plug.  They should get together a nice explanation of their shortcomings on the campaign, admit fault where it is true, and announce that they will be back for another run once they have addressed their issues.

There is no winning in letting this run out to the bitter end and letting people see just how far short the campaign ended up.  And there is no shame in admitting mistakes and coming back for another run.  I mean Project: Gorgon had to have three Kickstarter campaigns to get its extra funding.

Anyway, that is where I stand.  But just to be even more of a nuisance, I am going to make two polls to finish up this post. (Also, AdBlock seems to remove polls, so if you don’t see them, that might be why. Or it might just be FireFox.)

The first is what factor do you think has most hurt the Hero’s Song campaign the most?


And then, of course, what do you think the Hero’s Song team should have done this point?

 

We shall see what happens.

Okay, we saw what happened… so I suppose we’ll see what comes of it.

18 thoughts on “Why Did the Hero’s Song Kickstarter Fail?

  1. Dave Andrews (@proceduraldave)

    Interestingly, this is the second San Diego kickstarter to fail prominently in the last little bit…

    If you’re looking for common threads as to why TMC’s Fountain War and Smed’s Hero Song kickstarters both failed, perhaps start by examining the similarities with an eye towards the fact that Smed is very much a part of the TMC Greater Business Circle, centered in Poway/San Diego.

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  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Dave Andrews – Well, I think some of what I wrote above applies to the Fountain War campaign, such as almost no ramp up, confused presentation, bad tiers, issues with the leading personality, and justifying the ask amount.

    But I think The Fountain War also had some special issues as well, such as much smaller potential audience… EVE players is a small base, and those that care about the Fountain War is a small subset of that… in addition to the legit question as to why somebody would want that book when the Empires of EVE Online book is already coming.

    Still, it does feel like both campaigns got bad advice from the same source.

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  3. Joe Birdwell

    I tossed in at the $25 the first day with a lot of doubts that it would ever be collected.

    One thing that got me was the long term funding plan at that price point.
    I get literally where he is coming from and how cash shops no doubt have left a very bad taste in his mouth. However, I think a Cash Shop can work if the game isn’t crippled to where you NEED it to play. Even if it was just cosmetic only there are people that will drop a couple of bucks for extra sparkle.

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  4. harperbc

    “The Vision” ™

    I have no faith in anything Smed or Brad touch. I never even looked at the Kickstarter page for this project, the negative association with his name is too strong.

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  5. Fenjay

    I think that’s a great analysis. I don’t understand why people don’t lean heavily toward setting a low funding goal and adding “stretch” goals. If you have something that’s not a slam dunk, I really think you want to set a low bar to getting it funded, though you can tack on as many higher bars as you want after that. Or is there something in Kickstarter that keeps you from doing that?

    I also sort of think that the game suffered from some thematic issues. Are hardcore players really into the retro look? Or was that an attempt to save money? Is the word “song” really that attractive to people whose self-concept is that of a hardcore gamer?

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  6. Jenks

    In fairness to Smed regarding Vanguard, it was on life support when he saved it. He may not have been as big a hero as he could have been but I couldn’t call him the villain of the story either – that’d either be MS or McQuaid and his dealer depending on who writes it.

    I haven’t played it and probably never will, but if I had to associate Smed with 1 game it’d be H1Z1. Sorry Smed.

    For the actual topic, I voted other, that the game just looks uninteresting. Sometimes a game fails simply because it doesn’t look good. None of the other listed reasons really bothered me. I actually like John too so its failure brings me no pleasure.

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  7. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Fenjay – That is one of the parallels with The Fountain War Kickstarter, the idea that they needed to ask for enough money to do EVERYTHING they wanted to do. I might have made some of those classes and maybe half those races stretch goals for the campaign and extra cost options later if they didn’t make it. But then we get to the “no cash shop” idea, so maybe a post launch expansion?

    You can, to my knowledge, add as many stretch goals as you want. Only the basic funding level is pre-set and locked.

    @Jenks – I think I can dig up a post from 2007 where I point out that SOE was going to be the hero for saving Vanguard for a while, and then every problem would become their problem and a failure to fix it would be their fault once that wore off. That is arguably a very unfair way to look at things, but judging from the way fans of the game responded over the years, fairness doesn’t enter into it.

    (Ah, here is the post I was thinking of.)

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  8. Syp

    Totally agree on the lack of build-up for the campaign. The only thing we could think of is that he didn’t want to give his DDOS foes prep time to shut down his website on the day of the kickstarter launch.

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  9. bhagpuss

    The campaign had multiple major issues as you explain most convincingly. It surely can’t be a surprise to many outside of Pixelmage Games that it failed.

    The real question, though, is what the heck did they bother doing a Kickstarter for in the first place? I think Kickstarter is a great resource for the people that need it and for whom it was designed – individual creators and very small teams operating on extremely limited budgets, trying to produce very specific products either for the sake of their art or to please a specific, known, interested audience. I’m all in favor of that.

    It’s not nearly so obvious what the advantage is for medium to large studios making commercial products aimed at a speculative sale to an undefined market. Somehow Kickstarter has become almost a routine part of the promotional process and it really isn’t suited for that.

    Smed is going to make his game anyway, so he says. He clearly didn’t need the $800k from pledges and the utterly ludicrous pledges he came up with show he’d not even thought about them. It looks for all the world like something that was thrown together in an afternoon because someone said “Hey, let’s do a Kickstarter – everyone’s doing them”. If the team really DID take a good deal of time and effort preparing then that’s even more terrifying!

    I think it’s about time Kickstarter got a revamp. Firstly, is it really appropriate for large commercial entities to be using it at all? Secondly, why does it have to be set up like a carnival game? Why shouldn’t goals and targets be adjusted during the campaign? Pledges are.

    Who benefits if a campaign makes 70% of it’s funding and therefore gets none of it? Not the pledgers, not the people making the game or movie or whatever. Maybe there does need to be a Fail criterion to protect against fishing for free ash but it surely doesn’t need to be set at 100%.

    There are other funding platforms with different methodologies. Perhaps it’s time they got a slice of the action. And perhaps it’s time professional games developers with funding already in place stopped coming round with the begging bowl just because.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Sylow

    I find it amusing how you rate “The Smed Factor”. While it for me is a big reason why the thing failed, nothing of what you listed is my issue with him.

    The actual reason i dislike him is his utter lack of respect and manners. During all his SOE time, and apparently to all i picked up still after that, believed that he is Gods gift to gaming, and we all should be grateful if he bothered to insult us gamers.

    Luckily by now there are enough alternatives on the market, operated by developers who respect their customers and have manners. I vote with my wallet, with Smed being blacklisted as long as I don’t notice an improvement of his behavior.

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  11. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Sylow – Well, I didn’t want this post to become “The People vs. John Smedley” or anything. I just wanted to acknowledge that, for some people, he is a problem. The reasons are many and varied.

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  12. Klyith

    Another factor: Audience Fatigue on Big Kickstarters
    Kickstarter isn’t a novelty anymore. You can’t get a zillion dollars with just a name and a cool-sounding game. You need a solid-gold reputation, or prototypes, or something else that makes the risk seem smaller.

    Psychonauts 2 got just $3.8m, on an ask of $3.3, and that includes the investors in fig’s weird revenue share plan. For PSYCHONAUTS _2_! Only the most-requested sequel that people have talked about since crowd-funded games started. It was successful in that they got enough money, but not successful like wow pop the champagne and celebrate. And while Shaefer has taken some dings recently, he’s still regarded with way more affection than Smed.

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  13. Halycon

    I thought it sounded most like an odd graphical mashup of Rogue and Dwarf Fortress.

    My reason for not backing it is going to sound really stupid. Patrick Rothfuss. He’s popped up in a few things over the last couple years, and I’ll back none of them. Untill The Kingkiller Chronicle is done I won’t be giving him any money for anything else which may pull him away from his already glacial pace of writing. It’s already been 5 years since book 2 and I don’t want him finding any more distractions.

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  14. Jenks

    @Wilhelm

    Scary how on point you were on that, almost 10 years ago. Great stuff.

    Now with hindsight, what was the answer? How long were they the hero? (Looking back that far, it feels like it was about 5 seconds)

    Like

  15. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Jenks – Overall, SOE probably got a longer grace period than they could have reasonably expected in part because they initially tallied up a bunch of things that needed to be fixed and were pretty clear, if I recall right, that those were required to stabilize the game and make it manageable and supportable. And those fixes got in, things like reworking the character models. But then the big era of neglect hit when those fixes didn’t yield any real population boost.

    I am still surprised that they thought putting in the effort for the F2P conversion was going to pay off. And then there was the moment in time when they rehired Brad to work on it. Vanguard survived a lot longer under SOE than it would have anywhere else. They were the land of misfit MMOs for a while.

    That post of mine also demonstrates why I try to quote or summarize things I link to more often these days. Nearly everything I linked to in that post is gone now, aside from an article at WarCry, which I honestly didn’t even know what still a thing. That article contains a quote that goes back to today’s post, “…John Smedley, the sometimes controversial CEO of SOE…”

    Yeah, that’s our Smed.

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  16. Pingback: Hero’s Song Kickstarter Cancelled – Me Vs. Myself and I

  17. SynCaine

    So many unnecessary words. (It’s a great post in terms of Kickstarter for Dummies)

    Why Song failed. Smed. The end.

    Nice to see gamers can only be fooled oh so many times before most people finally catch on to what Smed is really peddling. Because I think even if they run a proper Kickstarter campaign, the Smed factor dooms the game anyway. Maybe they get a few more bucks out of those who still bought in, and maybe a few more people who don’t really know Smed throw in some money, but Smed is the last person who should be trying to appeal to ‘hardcore’ gamers, because that’s the group most likely to know the real Smed.

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  18. Jeromai

    Smed factor definitely for me. First thing I think about in a Kickstarter or Early Access or other “pay me first, get goods later” scenario is, “But can they deliver?”

    Trust and reputation are built up over consistent, long term fulfilment of promises, and ability to make good if something unforeseen occurs. I don’t back unknowns, let alone people with pre-existing dodgy track records.

    The whole Kickstarter premise/presentation is a pretty close second though. I read the whole thing, and the impression I got from it is that they’re essentially selling a procedural generation engine where your slider choices are based on answering lore questions. Instead of Oceans: Less – More on a sliding scale, it’s… did you pick the Ocean Goddess, yes/no?

    Exactly where is the -game-? Why shouldn’t I just run the Don’t Starve, Terraria, Dwarf Fortress and Minecraft worldgens over and over instead?

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