Payload Studios' TerraTech: Lessons learned from Kickstarter

The UK studio discusses how it built a community before asking for a penny – and how it kept that community on board
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Vehicle construction and combat game TerraTech is one of the UK's several Kickstarter success stories.

Its crowdfunding campaign last summer raised just short of £40,000 – £5,000 more than the £35,000 originally asked for – generated by over 1,600 backers.

With most Kickstarter campaigns, studios prepare their appeal and then try to spread the message to the gaming community. However, TerraTech developer Payload Studios took a different approach, gathering the audience first before asking them for support.

We caught up with Russ Clarke (below left), founder of Payload Studios, and the game's PR director Natalie Griffith (below right) to find out what lessons the team learned from this experience, and how other devs considering crowdfunding can follow in their footsteps.

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What was your attitude towards Kickstarter/crowdfunding when the campaign began?

Russ Clarke: There was some trepidation over the workload before and during the campaign. The bar continues to raise for games on Kickstarter, and we knew it was a huge job to create a project that hit all the right notes. Some cynicism has inevitably built up after a few high profile projects left backers disappointed, which makes the job still harder. 

Griffith: My main concern was simply Kickstarter fatigue amongst potential backers ,as well as expectations being raised unrealistically high by campaigns like Elite and Broken Sword. Discoverability on Kickstarter as a platform was also a concern – there are so many game projects launched now that making sure we stood out from the crowd was always going to be a challenge.

How did you combat/counter the stigma around this funding model?

Clarke: I wouldn't say stigma, but there is a definite wariness about it now. It's essential that prospective backers can really connect with the team, as well as the vision. We made sure to offer plenty of detail about both, including a playable tech demo, to show that the project was more than just a dream and was being made by real developers who have shipped real games. We framed our language carefully, to avoid seeming to promise things beyond our control – it's all too easy to get carried away in the rush, and commit to something you don't know you can deliver. 

Griffith: I think that being able to clearly demonstrate what had already gone into the game before it hit Kickstarter was vital here. One of the things that impressed me the most when I first started working with Payload – about nine months before the campaign – was the clear, pragmatic plan they had to fund it. This was always about gathering modest amounts of finance in a series of smaller, more manageable stages.

So we could talk convincingly during the Kickstarter about the amount we were after, how it would be spent, and why we weren’t asking for more. I think that goes a long way with the increasingly savvy backers of video game projects and helps give people confidence that you’re the real deal and that you’ll deliver. 

There is a definite wariness about Kickstarter now. We made sure to offer plenty of detail, including a playable tech demo, to show that the project was more than just a dream and was being made by real developers who have shipped real games.

Russ Clarke, Payload Studios

How did you build a community ahead of the Kickstarter and why was this important?

Clarke: Ultimately a Kickstarter project's success potential is limited by community reach. You can't assume you will 'go viral'. Kickstarter's internal discovery systems are powerful – a quarter of our backing came that way – but you need to reach further.

We spent months in advance publicising the game at shows like EGX Rezzed and MCM Comic Con, and we made our demo freely available via IndieDB and Steam to get people talking about the game. We even put a web link to the Kickstarter page in the demo UI, which proved very effective. 

Griffith: The first 48 to 72 hours of any Kickstarter campaign are absolutely critical so without a strong community ready and waiting to pledge, you’re setting yourself up for failure. As Russ said, a huge amount of our pledges came via the platform itself, but visibility on the most-popular charts is controlled by an algorithm that is heavily influenced by a combination of things like number of pledges, number of pledges in the last 24 hours, value of pledges, percentage of total pledged, and so on.

By making sure that we had a community ready to leap into action, then backing that up with a selection of carefully targeted media bursts and our own live-streaming and other community activity, we got off to a great start and could ride that wave of momentum by staying in the charts for a good while.

More importantly, how have you retained that community?

Clarke: Constant interaction and involvement in the dev process are key. We broadcast daily on Twitch, showing development progress and interacting with players. All of us participate in public discussion threads, we respond rapidly to problems, and we always engage positively with detractors. We make a big fuss over our most active players, showcasing their creations and working their feedback into the game. 

Griffith: We’ve worked really hard at engaging the community (and expanding it) via a variety of different channels. It’s important to allow people to find you in a way that suits them, so mixing up what we do and making sure we have a good spread of interesting content has been vital. We’ve made sure to keep showing our backers the love via custom Kickstarter updates, but have made strong use of Twitter, Facebook, Twitch, our own forums, the Steam forums, and our blog and mailing list.

Events haven’t taken a back seat either – we attended at least a dozen shows in the last year. The game’s been updated roughly every fortnight so there’s always something new to talk about and it’s great to see the new fans joining the old guard as things have progressed.

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We’ve also worked hard to empower the community to act on our behalf - we have a number of community forum moderators, some of whom are running language-specific threads as we’ve begun to localise the game.

The first 48 to 72 hours of any Kickstarter campaign are absolutely critical so without a strong community ready and waiting to pledge, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Natalie Griffith, Press Space

What role has social media and particularly Twitch played in spreading the word about TerraTech?

Clarke: Twitch broadcasting has been a cornerstone of our community engagement, since before our Kickstarter in fact. It personalises the team and gives deep insight into our dev process, resulting in a huge amount of support and understanding through the ups and downs of the project. Streaming on the Game Dev channel has got us a lot of exposure.

Griffith: I can’t understate how important Twitch has been, but it’s something that requires time and commitment to make it work. The guys are into a really good routine with it now, streaming daily on weekdays for the best part of a year. We’ve made sure to vary the type of things that we’re showing: live development work, new features, showcasing community creations, running challenges.

We’ve also done cross-promotion with other indies, playing their games on the stream and having them on as guests. Hooking up with other streamers is also well worth doing – joining the streams of already established players is a great way to attract more viewers to your own channel. We’ve appointed community mods on our Twitch channel too and that’s helped reduce the number of team members who need to take part for any given stream.

How successful has TerraTech been and what do you think is the secret to that success?

Clarke: We're still in the early stages. That we're able to sustain a team of this size purely on sales, for a (very) early access project, is a big achievement. I think the game's potential comes across very quickly, and excites people: we have fans who've put in hundreds of hours already, even though the core mechanics aren't yet nailed down. The whole team engages directly with these players, and that's a big factor in keeping them loyal.

Griffith: It’s definitely the openness and transparency that’s carried us this far, aside from the fact that the game was a tonne of fun even in its very earliest form. The key thing though is that we’ve never rested on our laurels - getting a great reaction to one build or one event is brilliant but that’s not sustainable unless you keep listening and keep evolving.

I can’t understate how important Twitch has been, but it’s something that requires time and commitment to make it work.

Natalie Griffith, Press Space

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What makes TerraTech stand out from the plethora of sandbox games that have emerged in the wake of Minecraft’s success?

Clarke: There are some amazing sandbox games these days, but it's true that many look or feel like 'Minecraft but X' or 'Minecraft plus Y'. TerraTech has the advantage of being clearly not based on, or inspired by, Minecraft: the core premises of physics-based vehicle design and of constantly re-modelling yourself (as opposed to sculpting a voxel-based world) set us apart from that familiar pattern.

Also, we deliberately steered our art style in its own direction, going for smooth, clean shapes and surfaces, an almost toy-like feeling. I'm sure every kid who builds a LEGO car imagines it driving around and having adventures – that's the dream we are bringing to life with TerraTech.

What advice do you have for anyone trying to build a community?

Clarke: Start early, get out there with whatever you've got, and don't worry that it's not finished or polished. Connect directly with players – for example, go to game shows in person – and jump on new ways to engage. We were one of the first devs to stream on Twitch's game dev channel.

Communicate frequently and honestly, and you will be forgiven for bumps in the road. Treat your detractors with warmth and humanity; often they will flip round and support you. Be prepared to commit a chunk of your time to this: plan your team and dev schedule accordingly.

Griffith: Be patient – there’s no way to fast-track community growth or social feed follower numbers. At least, not if you want quality community members who are passionate about the game and committed to supporting you.

Organic growth takes time. Empower your lead users as soon as you can, deputising them to moderate for you and spread the word, but make sure you give them guidance and put checks in place to ensure the tone and spirit of your community is consistent. Lead by example in all your teams’ interactions on all channels – then your community will follow suit or, even better, leap in to deal with detractors before you even have to.

Communicate frequently and honestly, and you will be forgiven for bumps in the road. Treat your detractors with warmth and humanity; often they will flip round and support you.

Russ Clarke, Payload Studios

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What advice do you have for any studios considering Kickstarter/crowdfunding?

Clarke: Don't expect to raise your whole dev budget that way. Ideally go to Kickstarter with something already playable and fun. Start community building much earlier. Be careful of 'trigger words' like DLC or IAP: some people have an automatic negative reaction to these concepts. Remember that your team are a big part of the package: put them on display. Build as much fun and personality as you can into the whole experience.

Griffith: Think really carefully about the structure of your reward tiers and make sure you’re offering things that people want but which you’ve accurately costed out. Don’t underestimate the amount of work it takes to run a campaign and make sure you have a full plan of updates to run before you hit ‘go’. You’ll have to be really reactive right through the campaign anyway so banking as much stuff as you can in advance is a must. Don’t be scared of it – it is a lot of work but it’s also a heck of a ride, so enjoy it too!

Clarke: Kickstarter is more than just a pre-sales platform, and Early Access is more than just an extended Beta program. Both of these are stronger when you see them as a window on to the story of your team and game. Make that the centrepiece, and use each platform's tools to showcase it for their respective audiences. Ultimately it's all about getting, and keeping, people excited – you need to have a strong story that people want to be a part of.

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