Game Development Marketing/Business

Is Asking Customers to Pre-order a Bad Thing?

A month ago, there was a post on Reddit asking what people thought about indie developers asking for money up front.

Some people are fine if they get a good quality playable build for pre-ordering, but no one seemed to be happy with the idea of funding basic engine development. It seems the general consensus is that people are getting tired of the so-called “fad” of funding a game before it is finished with no guarantee that they will see a payoff.

Minecraft‘s wild success through pre-orders aside, it’s not really a new funding tactic at all. Lots of indie developers have tried to ask for money before their games are finished, and some have seen more success than others.

The Indie Game Development Survival Guide by David Michael mentions how Samu Games started selling Artifact when it was in the beta testing stage, complete with perks for early customers. And this was in 1999.

Today, sites such as KickStarter and 8-bit Funding have enabled a number of high-profile projects to get funding from fans. Of course, a lot of projects don’t get funded and therefore don’t become high-profile.

So if you don’t have a big name to leverage like Notch or Andy Schatz or Derek Yu, are you doomed to obscurity?

No, but obviously an existing name brand helps. Otherwise, success at crowdfunding requires hard work to get your name out there. In other words, marketing. And you have to be able to demonstrate you can deliver the goods.

I started taking pre-orders for Stop That Hero! late last year, and I’ll admit feeling a bit anxious about it at the time. I didn’t have the game in a playable state yet, and here I was asking people for money in anticipation of the initial release.

While I didn’t get many pre-orders, it was definitely a nice feeling to see people actually spending some money on my game. It showed some interest, and it gave me a productivity boost to know I had existing customers to satisfy.

Now, when it comes to how I marketed the Stop That Hero! pre-order, I’m sure I did a lot of things wrong. Perhaps I should have had more videos of game play as I continued work. Maybe I should have been posting more screenshots. I could have chosen to prioritize work on certain features in the hopes that they would excite players more than the features I did work on. And maybe I wasn’t very assertive with asking for pre-orders in the first place.

At the time, I was struggling to get the alpha build across the finish line, but I kept getting good feedback from playtesters. Since the game was good enough to provide some enjoyment to players, it meant it was good enough to ask for players to pay for that enjoyment.

Now, of course some people weren’t happy with the idea of paying up front for a game they couldn’t see. And it’s hard to blame them. Since many game projects don’t get finished, it’s asking a lot to essentially gamble the cost of a pre-order on an unknown. Especially when indie developers don’t necessarily have the offsite backup solutions of larger studios when disaster strikes. See the Project Zomboid burglary for an example. All of their code was gone when someone stole two laptops, so it was a huge setback for the developers who had to rely on outdated backups to continue.

And it didn’t sit well with some of their customers, judging by the Reddit thread. It seems this experience turned some people off of pre-orders and paying for early builds in general.

All that said, it seems that making pre-orders work requires regular, quality content. Basically, if you stop talking to your customers and prospects, they’ll stop caring.

But if all you do is talk and never produce anything, no one is going to stick around. Whether you’re taking pre-orders or pledges, you have to be able to show that you can deliver results.

If you can do both, then pre-orders are worthwhile. Otherwise, you’re wasting your customers’ time as well as your own.

10 replies on “Is Asking Customers to Pre-order a Bad Thing?”

Dirk Dashing 2 is the first game I’ve offered a pre-order for, as well. It’s been a good learning experience. Granted, I already have an existing customer base from the first game that has been begging for a sequel, so my experience is a bit different from yours.

One thing that many of my pre-order customers have said to me is that they would like to see more frequent builds. I’ve been releasing updated betas every other month, with new levels and features (it takes me an average of about 1 week to build a single level). Some would like updates more often. Customers understand that by pre-ordering they are getting a game that isn’t finished yet, but I think they expect to be more included in the development process because of it. They want more frequent builds so they can provide more feedback and suggestions, and thereby feel like they are contributing – especially when they see some of their input make it into the game, and bugs they report fixed quickly.

Good insight, Troy!

Perhaps by developing too slowly, I’m not engaging my customers as much as I could. When it takes more than a few weeks to implement seemingly simple changes, and especially if they don’t hear from me during that time, it probably looks like I’ve disappeared.

What worries me is that “pre-order” and “donation” are becoming blurred. If I pre-order a game then I consider it a binding contract to release that game (on schedule if one is given). If the game doesn’t get made, I want my money back. If it’s later than promised, then I should be able to get my money back. If it’s terrible or not what was offered then I’d expect to have the same rights to a refund as someone who didn’t pre-order.

Unfortunately there seem to be an increasing number of people looking at “pre-orders” (or “rewards” in Kickstarter terminology) to fund developments when they have little to no experience of finishing the product. I often read posts on forums from prospective game devs who are looking at “crowd-sourcing” as the place to start a project rather than a strategy to fund something that is already well defined and underway – “We’ll do a couple of screen mock-ups, write a blurb and get a Kickstarter going for $20K so we can become indies over summer break!”. Fortunately most of these never get the funds but it’s only a matter of time before there’s a major failure to deliver.

A failure to deliver and rights to a refund are some of the things that most new indies probably don’t think about. They’re running a business, and they need to treat it like one.

I’d agree with Damian in saying that pre-orders are viable for projects that are well under way. A down side to this approach that I’ve considered in getting potential funding, is the lack of revenue that you will receive once the game is completed and released. Perhaps the game will sell more copies, but what happens in the event that you have already tapped your market, and the game fails to sell outside the pre-orders? If you are relying on pre-orders as a sole source of funding and then expect the game to sell, it is putting all your eggs in one basket. If however you are looking to merely supplement a project, help with over head, or are simply passionately working on something that isn’t supposed to be a main source of income, then the risk isn’t any where as heavy. As mentioned there is also the risk of not being able to deliver, and essentially you’ve ruined your name, (personal, or business), or at least will have your players having sour grapes and thinking twice about supporting your endeavors in the future.

It’s definitely a case by case basis and something that should really be weighed before pursuing.

Good points, Damian! I probably wouldn’t have done a pre-order if I didn’t already have several other finished games available on my site to demonstrate that I could finish a project.

One other thing I thought about, Gianfranco: I also have a monthly e-mail newsletter that I publish that shows my progress on my current game project. Some people probably don’t read it, but I’ve had e-mails from numerous customers/subscribers who have told me that my newsletter is one of the few they enjoy reading. I always try to include screenshots or images of some kind to show what I’m doing. My newsletters are available here if you want to take a look:

Of course, I already have an existing customer base that is interested in sequels or similar games, so it’s easy to engage them with the regular newsletter.

I agree with what Will C said.

Another reason to consider doing a pre-order is because your customers ask you to. In my case, I had requests from dozens of Dirk 1 customers who wanted some new levels to play. They asked for a pre-order option, knowing the game wasn’t done yet. They had been reading about the game in my newsletters and were eager to get their hands on it.

So for me, it wasn’t a monetary need that drove my decision to do a pre-order. My other games still sell fairly decent. Because of that, I haven’t really advertised Dirk 2 much yet. I put an ad in IGM and a banner up on Game Tunnel for a little while (mainly to generate interest), but that’s about it.

But one of the side benefits of doing a pre-order is that I now have several hundred dedicated beta testers (who paid for the privilege). And many of them are very vocal about changes they like and don’t like, and many of them offer good suggestions for improvement. Obviously I have to pick and choose which suggestions to implement, but I think overall the game quality is going to be a lot better because of it.

And it seems that sour grapes expands beyond your own business to the general attitude towards pre-orders, if the Reddit thread is to be believed. So by failing in meeting the expectations of your pre-order customers, you’re also letting down your industry at large.

That’s a lot of responsibility!

Kickstarter definitely seems like the way to go to me. If you get close to your goal, you can always fund the rest of it yourself to get the money that was raised. If you don’t get close, then something’s probably wrong–either marketing-wise or just with your project in general. The real problem with them, though, is how selective they are with what projects they’ll allow in. Also, The Indie Game Development Survival Guide is my favorite book!

I have been selling pre-orders at a 50% discount if people pay in advance, and it has been working rather well. We have a few games under our belt, so that helps.

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