A look back at Neurocracy's Kickstarter campaign

With 376 backers having pledged a little over £12,000, we're beyond thrilled to report that Neurocracy's Kickstarter was successful! We even managed to push on to our first stretch goal in the campaign's final hours, meaning we are now able to contract and work with an illustrator for the visual aspect of Omnipedia.

In this blog post, we'll take a look at why we decided to go with crowdfunding for Neurocracy, the preparation that went into our campaign, and what we learned from the experience. Please note that this is specific to Neurocracy and not meant to be a general roadmap for success! There's no single way to guarantee a Kickstarter's outcome, but there are ways to increase its chances.

Why Kickstarter?

Neurocracy's premise is easy to grasp, but it doesn't slot neatly into a genre, let alone a medium. It blends elements of alternate reality games (ARGs), hypertext fiction, and epistolary novels into something more than the sum of those elements, but it still amounts to an experimental and therefore unproven concept. This was both an asset and a liability when we pitched Neurocracy to indie videogame publishers last year. Most were intrigued by the novel premise, but all ultimately passed on it due to practical concerns over marketability and risk management.

Another stumbling block during our talks with publishers was the fact that Neurocracy plays out entirely on a website, which makes it a challenge to position on distribution platforms like Steam. There were repeated suggestions to retool Omnipedia so it could function as a downloadable app or be explored inside a game-like setting (much like Her Story's interface is embedded in a desktop environment). Matei and I discussed the technical side of such a retool, but ultimately it felt like an excessive step for the sole purpose of labelling Neurocracy as a game or fitting it onto a distribution service.

What struck us was the tendency on behalf of publishers to candidly describe Steam as a necessary evil, an unavoidable pain when it comes to releasing a game. Given that Neurocracy tells a story that critiques monopolistic systems deploying inscrutable algorithms, we became increasingly invested in the idea of forgoing Steam altogether. Using a single purchase via a paywall incorporated into Omnipedia would also avoid Steam's distribution fees and eliminate our concerns that Neurocracy could be review bombed for not sufficiently qualifying as a game.

Conversely, any attempt to qualify Neurocracy as a game at all by listing it on Steam could alienate it to potential markets outside of gaming circles. We approached indie videogame publishers because that's a world we're more familiar with, but we also pitched Neurocracy to book publishers interested in electronic literature and the digital space. There we received mostly boilerplate rejections if there was an answer at all. You don't know until you ask!

When a few publishers went on to suggest that Neurocracy would be a project ideally suited to crowdfunding and self-publishing, we weighed the risks and decided that the idea of sending Neurocracy out to live or die on its own terms was worth owning those risks. We leaned towards Indiegogo for our crowdfunding campaign due to Kickstarter's stance against unions, but when its employees successfully unionised in February of this year, we no longer had any qualms about using the platform.

Campaign strategy

Now we just had to figure out how to Kickstarter. To help us put together a campaign, we turned to Game If You Are (GIYA), a marketing agency geared towards small studios and solo developers. It's run by Lewis Denby, who had previously consulted on Neurocracy's design and sparked the idea to use Wikipedia previews to mimic the sheer expanse of Wikipedia's content without having to replicate it. Given his familiarity with Neurocracy and GIYA's experience with planning crowdfunding campaigns, it was a perfect fit.

After we signed on the dotted line, GIYA delivered a tailored and comprehensive strategy for the marketing of Neurocracy's Kickstarter, conceptualising it as a game without shying away from the unusual nature of the project. In the words of Melissa Chaplin, GIYA's head of client strategy: "Communicating the concept of Neurocracy to the uninitiated was always going to be a challenge. As a team, we spent a long time picking apart terms like 'interactive fiction' and 'game', trying to get to the heart of what Neurocracy truly is and isn’t, before deciding our best bet was to have people try it for themselves."

To that end, we took the Neurocracy excerpt we had slapped together for last year's IntroComp and repurposed it as a demo. Since the campaign strategy also stipulated the fostering of a community ahead of launch, we initially limited access to this demo via a Discord server, which also provided us with an opportunity to test out Neurocracy's ARG-like collaborative storytelling aspect and serialised release format.

Between June and September, over a hundred people jumped into our Discord to acquire an Omnipedia login, browse the articles as they were released across the demo's four episodes, and debate story interpretations. Along the way, we were pleased to find that people started looking forward to the coming episodes as well as the additional lore and clues that came with each new Omnipedia article. The final episode's release was even streamed on Twitch!

We also worked with GIYA to craft a trailer for Neurocracy, which you can view below. It was an interesting challenge to portray 'browsing a futuristic Wikipedia' as a visually appealing activity, so we ended up combining brief shots of the Omnipedia user interface with mocked-up headlines that communicate the history of Neurocracy's near future.

While the trailer was scheduled for release alongside the Kickstarter's launch, we sent it out early when Neurocracy was unexpectedly chosen to be part of the Leftfield Collection, an annual showcase of select games and game-like projects at EGX Digital. Taking place between September 12th and 20th, Neurocracy's presence at the online event was a great help in getting the word out ahead of our Kickstarter.

How things shook out

GIYA had impressed upon us that running a Kickstarter campaign amounts to a full-time job, so we had committed the month of October to doing just that. The suggested launch date for the campaign was September 23rd, which we overshot due to verification issues with Kickstarter. Since we wanted to avoid ending the campaign in November because of the dread election in the United States as well as the release of a new generation of consoles, we ultimately managed to launch on October 1st with a closing date of October 31st.

The first target was for Neurocracy to be 25% funded within the first 48 hours. As per GIYA's strategy, we asked those who had offered to pledge to do so upon launch and reached out to people who had previously expressed an interest in Neurocracy to promote the Kickstarter within their networks. We also headlined the campaign page with an immediately visible link to the Neurocracy demo, which we had previously opened up to everyone for our presence at EGX Digital.

To raise further awareness and mitigate the mid-campaign slump after successfully making our first target, GIYA had recommended for Neurocracy's guest writers to announce their involvement with the project at specific moments across the Kickstarter's duration. This led to a renewed rise in pledges with every announcement and got us noticed by sci-fi fans and authors outside of gaming circles. In addition, we effected constant outreach and follow-up through Twitter and posted about Neurocracy on Reddit, which resulted in members of the ARG subreddit joining our Discord to take part in ongoing story debates.

We made sure to keep the pledge tiers close to the entirely digital nature of Neurocracy by avoiding any physical rewards. Those interested in access to Neurocracy upon launch could choose a discounted preorder tier, with additional reward tiers offering different opportunities to be mentioned in Omnipedia, ranging from an appearance in one of its fictional citations to a custom written article.

When the campaign hit its funding goal with four days left on the clock, we decided to reshuffle our stretch goals and announce the hiring of an illustrator as the first one. Thanks to a burst of activity in the final 48 hours due to reminder emails being automatically sent out to prospective backers, we managed to clear that stretch goal within 83 minutes of the campaign's closing! Here is a brief Twitter thread on what that means for Neurocracy.

So what did we learn from our crowdfunding adventure? With lots of first-time backers and relatively few dropped pledges during and after the campaign, we feel that Neurocracy's premise doesn't necessarily enjoy a wide audience, but it can foster a deep and dedicated one. Embracing that premise to the fullest in both the design of Neurocracy as well as the messaging around it gave our campaign a solid foundation to build on. Or as Game Maker's Toolkit puts it: "Instead of making a game that you hope many people will like, it's sometimes better to create a game that you know a few people will love."


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