Post-Kickstarter Finance By The Numbers; A One-Man Studio Postmortem

Full disclosure is the primary purpose of this post. The backstory – in March of 2013, I ran a 30 day Kickstarter for my cyberpunk 2d shooter ‘Contract Work’; it finished just over it’s goal of $5000 with 110 backers. Although the campaign was a success, the initial public release was a dismal failure, selling only 3 copies (though many more people did play the game). This is a breakdown of the money numbers and thoughts on what worked, what didn’t, and what happens now.

Final Kickstarter Total: $5086

Cost from Kickstarter/Amazon/failed pledges: $4627 (-$459)

Taxes (rough estimate after deductions applied): -$500

Personal Development Costs (I only count costs for 2 months @$1000 a month for living expenses, see note below): -$2000

Material Costs, broken down as follows:

  • Subscription to (7 mo at $20/month): -$140
  • Asset purchases from -$40
  • MediaLoot & TextFX licenses (GUI assets): -$70
  • Replacement Video Card: -$110

Hosting ( at $13/mo): -$234

Marketing (hiring a marketing firm, at discount): -$1440

Customer Acquisition (via Facebook): -$647

Freelance Artwork (multiple pieces): -$300

Freelance Content Creation (LetsPlay video): -$50

Total Cost through Sept, 2014: $5990

Total Revenue Post Kickstarter: $9.99

Note –  I only count April & May of 2013 as time I spent working full-time on Contract Work while funded. I was laid off in Jan of 2013 and besides a little freelance work (~$1000 worth) I paid all my development & living costs out of pocket while planning & executing the Kickstarter. At the end of May 2013 with I started contracting which turned into a full-time job. I don’t the cost of my developing Contract Work while working full time (there is probably some associated opportunity cost).

The $1000/month figure for cost of living is very conservative. My rent alone is more than $1000, but I admit that I could have found cheaper lodgings (it would have taken time & money, and I hate moving). For that reason I feel that taking $1000 as my own ‘salary’ while using the Kickstarter funds is reasonable (the rest of my costs being paid out of pocket).

What Didn’t Work

Let’s start with the unhappy stuff. First the obvious – the marketing spend and customer acquisition didn’t result in the sales I was looking for. Importantly, I don’t blame the company I hired for my marketing campaign; they really did their best to raise awareness, even getting several articles published on bigger sites. But there was some serious cart-before-horse syndrome, as the game I was selling didn’t have good marketable points. Graphics? Meh. Concept and environment? Fuzzy at best. Gameplay? Disjointed, confusing at times.

DivX Plus Player 2013-07-20 12-44-55-51

Good marketing won’t save a half-baked title (in retrospect, the game really needed another 6-9 months of development time to shine). Ultimately I think the unreasonable time frame I set for myself (zero to commercial product in 9 months) doomed the marketing campaign from the start. Given the knowledge I have now, I would have avoided a traditional marketing campaign altogether.

The customer acquisition is more interesting. First, the Contract Work page has over 1,300 likes, which is not a bad for the spend ($0.50 per like). However, the likes have not translated to engagement or sales; it’s hard to determine whether that’s due to the quality of the fans or the quality of the game. The same goes for sales – the game has a decent number of plays, so the issue with converting plays to sales may lie more in the game/ purchase process than the quantity or type of player being directed to the site.

This has also created a standing community, albeit a quiet one. I remain hopeful that users can be engaged through quality content sharing and outreach, and am planning to try expand the community in the future through organic and paid ads. Another upside is that I’ve collected an e-mail list of about 300 addresses from players of the game that I hope to engage as well. There is definitely potential.

If I could do it all again, I’d wait until the game was in better shape to start my community, then spend a lot of time refining the purchase process before asking people to buy the game. I always feel the first part of good marketing comes from having a good product to sell.

A last note on some of the unhappy realities of Kickstarter – it sucks seeing 9-10% disappear instantly, but worse is not accounting for the taxes on the money later. I believe just about every state Kickstarter counts as personal income for tax purposes, so plan as such.

What Worked

In terms of ‘bang for buck’, the clear winners were artwork & assets. This will differ from team to team, but my skillset is primarily programming with some knowledge of art. Good art takes me a long time to create and therefore it’s almost always worth it for me to pay for art and focus on development. I feel I’m lucky in this regard – I can always move forward with placeholder art, while it might be more difficult to make progress without a reliable coding resource.

The GameDevMarket assets were the best value, but I’ve utilized the most assets (in term of raw numbers) from GameTextures. Both GameTextures and GameDevMarket are new resources that (to the best of my knowledge) did not exist when I finished my Kickstarter, but I’d expect more sites like them in the future.

My collaboration with a couple great art contractors (Pui Che and Tyler Johnson) has been nothing but delightful. Not only does it save me time but boosts my motivation every time they deliver a cool new asset. Many thanks to Robert Lockhart for referring me to these talented folks; obviously not everyone will be as good as these guys, but I feel that using personal recommendations goes a long way to finding like minded and talented people you want to work with.

The final combination of purchased & contracted art assets - much prettier than what I could do!

The final combination of purchased & contracted art assets.

I’ve also just started contracting with the talented team at P1PR to start generating content. They’ve finish an excellent first look ‘LetsPlay‘ video which has gotten good responses. Again, this is an area that requires a lot of effort and time on my part to generate quality content, so it’s a good investment in my opinion.

In general – figure out your weaknesses and use your resources to counteract them. For me the biggest time sink was art; investing more early could have saved me a lot of time and effort in the long run.

What Now?

I’m working on fulfilling my backer rewards now. Even though I didn’t offer any physical rewards, I did not budget enough time to finish the rewards in my original plan. I’ll also be co-ordinating with my contractors for the artwork tied to these rewards, so expect the cost for contract artwork to continue to rise. I’ll continue to utilize my team at P1PR to generate quality content to try engage my existing community, and use some ad spend to grow. Long term I plan to work on getting the game on Steam Early Access/Greenlight (if it still exists) as well as additional portals for distribution. But, as I’ve learned, it’s important not to get ahead of myself; the primary goal right now is to make Contract Work a great game to play.

I’ve had the enormous luxury to be able to get a head start on my game through Kickstarter funding and survive a bad launch by having a full time job. The time commitment sucks, but it has given the runway and resources to put the game into a state where it has a better chance to succeed. I also feel fortunate that I planned this as a one man endeavor; no one else was ruined by a terrible launch or bad planning. On the bad days I don’t have to worry about a crazy high burn rate. It can get lonely, but I know that as long as I stay motivated that Iterative Games won’t die.


Winston Churchill is quoted as once saying “Success is going from failure to failure without the loss of enthusiasm”. I might add that includes going from failure to failure without bankrupting yourself (too badly). So at the end of the day, even if I didn’t make a cent from my first release – Contact Work is still alive, I’m still getting the chance to do what I love, and I really can’t ask for more.

Many thanks again to my loyal and patient backers. I wouldn’t be here without you.

The Flow Path: How I beat burnout and started having fun making games again

This is a response to my post Mistakes Were Made, which covered some of the missteps I made while releasing my first title, Contract Work. I was surprised how many developers this resonated with (thanks for your kind feedback, everyone!). Since a few have asked what I’m doing differently now, I’ve been working on some follow-ups posts.

There are tactical/marketing things that I’d like to share, but this post focuses on what’s been helping me on the emotional/mental side. I will introduce some new/somewhat unproven concepts, so I understand if you choose to TLDR; please take these words with a grain of salt and a dash of patience.


It was the end of September 2013, and I had spent the entire year creating and releasing my first indie game ‘Contract Work’. I had also finished two expensive ad campaigns; one to drive reviews, the other to build Facebook presence. I logged into Paypal for the umpteenth time to check the net return of my effort & investment. 3 copies sold over 2 months. It was a crushing moment, when I saw the full size of the re-work iceberg. Tired and discouraged, I walked away; it was the last time I touched the code for 4 months.

Our ‘Death March’

I really enjoyed Benjamin Quinteros post on crunch. He talks about the work-hard-or-get-out culture of the games industry:

There is too much at stake as each person on the team takes the world on their shoulders.  If everyone isn’t working to their fullest potential (translated to some ratio of a 24 hour clock) then clearly that is the point of failure.

He’s speaking as a member of a studio team, but the same struggle applies to indies (maybe more so). You put yourself under relentless pressure to work more, and when things aren’t working, you blame it on your lack of effort. If only you’d tried harder, slept less and ignored more of your friends – then you would have succeeded. Promises made during an optimistic Kickstarter campaign added to my weight. I told my backers that I would release in the game next month, and I can’t let them down. But the thing I learned is that my game – and my life – only started to improve when I allowed myself to step back and rebalance my priorities.

Know Thyself – Understanding Flow

During my time away, I stumbled upon the book, “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance” by Steven Kotler (I’m sharing a couple concepts from it, but it’s worth your time to read the whole). The central theme is ‘flow’, described (from Wikipedia) as ‘The mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity’.

It’s likely you are already familiar with flow. You could probably recall at least one time when you were so immersed in work or an activity that you completely forgot yourself and all perception of time (flow actually shuts down these areas of your brain off for max efficiency). Accessing this state allows us to become, in Kolters words, ‘Supermen’:

“Researchers believe flow responsible for most athletic triumphs, major scientific breakthroughs and significant progress in the arts. In business, a ten-year McKinsey study found executives in flow five times more productive than their steady state peers.”

In conjunction with enhancing productivity, flow produces chemicals in the brain (dopamine, anandamide, seratonin) that makes us feel really good (How good? One of the primary effects of cocaine is increased production and hindered absorption of dopamine). Flow makes us more productive, more creative and happier. So naturally we should just be in flow ALL THE TIME, right? Not quite…

Understanding the Flow Cycle

According to the research Kotler has put together, flow operates as a cycle in four stages.

  • The first stage is struggle, where you build up (extrinsically and intrinsically) information.
  • The second stage is release, which preps the brain for flow by severing prior thought and emotional patterns.
  • The third stage is flow itself.
  • The fourth stage is recovery, where the body replenishes and the brain absorbs the new memories from flow.

You can’t stay in flow permanently – flow literally drains us to the point where we have to recover. The harder we force ourselves back into flow (when we should be in recovery), the harder it becomes to achieve.

“In today’s world, rarely do we give ourselves permission to recover; rarely does anyone else. Finish one project and there are always a dozen more deadlines to be met…If we want to flow from cycle to cycle, we need to take full advantage of recovery to regroup and recharge…you have to go slow to go fast.”

Without the time to release/recover, we short-circuit the cycle; the longer we sustain the forced march (crunch), the less time we spend in flow. The less time we spend in flow, the less happy and productive we become. We drift straight into the unhappy cycle that ends in burnout.

Going with the Flow

The good news is that we can stop this spiral and get ourselves back to flow. Kotler suggests simple hacks for the flow cycle:

  • For struggle, novel/new stimuli help prime the brain to take in information; things as simple as brushing your teeth with your off hand or taking a different route to work.
  • For release, doing something completely different than the task at hand makes it easier for the brain to move into flow, such as taking a walk or watching a movie.
  • For recovery, taking a short nap is a great way to speed up the cycle.

If I may phrase it more simply – live the rest of your life. Find new things that excite you – try a new restaurant, start playing a sport, travel to unknown locations. Take some time during your day to read a book, play a game or watch a funny clip. Nap when you’re exhausted. Worry less about  ‘trying’ hard enough – flow is a powerful intrinsic motivator and will naturally draw you back into your work. Understand the time you take off is as important as the time you put in.

The Path Back

I’m certainly no scientific authority on flow and I can’t guarantee results from this advice. But I can tell you that I discovered, quite by accident, that taking time to recover and learn was exactly what I needed. I spent my hiatus reading, re-connecting with long neglected friends, playing some new games (Risk of Rain being a great inspiration) and spent a week in the Dominican Republic learning to surf and hand-fish in the ocean.

When I returned to Contract Work again, I felt a similar excitement as when I first started. Design choices, coding, art…everything felt easier. Development no longer felt like a burden, but (once again) an opportunity to make something amazing.

It’s still a struggle for me to keep myself in flow and out of crunch, but I’m working to be better at it; I take little breaks during my work cycles to clear my mind, I’ll give myself a day off on weekends to watch a movie and try a new restaurant, and I schedule big chunks of un-interrupted time so I can enjoy the hell out of my time in flow.

I don’t know if Contract Work will ever be the game I dream it can be, but the passion and the love has returned to my work. There’s no longer any need to lie when I say “I’m living the dream”.

The difference a little time off can make – transforming .gif of the Contract Work release and the in-development Contract Work: First Day


Mistakes Were Made

After the Kickstarter Lights Go Out

It’s been about a year since the Contract Work Kickstarter and while things are good, they aren’t exactly what I hoped. Let me say first that I’m incredibly fortunate to be where I’m at right now: A successful Kickstarter campaign completed, good health, a stable job, and a great circle of friends; it’s more than a lot of people have and more than I probably deserve.

With that said, there’s definitely some disappointment – Contract Work barely sold any copies, received mixed reviews (at best) and I’m back in the cubes instead of being the next indie gaming success story. Mistakes were definitely made – here’s my short list.

Not Making a Great Product

I’ve worked long enough in software to understand that it won’t be perfect; shipping a product is hard enough. But Contract Work utterly failed the ‘Is this game worth your time?’ test. Things that I really screwed up on:

1. Art & Style

I’m not a great artist, which from the beginning meant that I should have been smarter about the Contract Work art. At some point I tried to transition away from pixel art to taking advantage of my 3d rendering knowledge, but I didn’t finish the transition. I also brought in some outside assets to help fill some gaps. Take a look at this screen:

DivX Plus Player 2013-07-20 12-36-53-59

The security stations are in a pixel art style. The enemies are 3d renders. The floor tiles are outside assets. There are multiple types of disjointed lighting effects. There is so much text on the screen! As Adam Smith from RockPaperShotgun writes:

The graphics, taken as a whole, lack character, even if some of the robot designs are attractive in isolation. It’s all too busy, which added to my initial sense of disorientation and difficulty. The screen presents too much information, the camera is a little too close, and the character feels beset from all sides, even before the real action begins.

What I needed to do was clean everything up, take more time to establish a consistent style, then make sure that style was used in every part of the game. It retrospect, it was a hot mess.

2. Complexity Over Polish

This is a personal bad habit: making things too complex. In this case, my desire to provide enough ‘feature flair’ caused me to end up with many half baked features and not enough refined systems. As Michael Westgarth from IndieGameHQ writes:

Citing Contra as an inspiration, it then seems odd that Kee-Won Hong has gone for a more complicated control scheme. The A and D keys move the player left and right, S lets players drop through specific platforms, W jumps and double jumps, R reloads, Q switches weapon, the shift key must be held to sprint and E is held down to hack. This is all carried out while aiming and shooting with the mouse. If Contract Work’s control scheme sounds cumbersome, that’s because it is.

And he’s right! Somewhere along the line, a simple side scroller grew into this mess of keys and controls. Perhaps Steve Jobs said it best: “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple”. And I don’t think I worked hard enough.

3. It’s boring

The dreaded b-word. I don’t know if there’s an easy fix, but the answer isn’t to add more features! For Contract Work, I think the answer may lie in ‘juiciness’ – making every jump, shot and movement feel good. If you want an example of a game that does this well, check out Towerfall. These guys also do a pretty good job showing how juiciness makes a game better: Juice it or Lose It!

The Business Things

For the past almost 10 years I’ve been building software, but I’m totally new and awful at selling it! Here’s just a couple things I did badly:

4. Demo zzzzz

To start playing you have to register an account (booo!). Then you get to play the ‘demo mode’, which starts with the training level and sloow basic levels…not a good way to sell the excitement and mystery of the full product.

5. Why should I buy? How do I buy?

Contract Work’s demo mode is also too long. Based on the stats, lots of people have played Contract Work, but not many choose to buy it. So besides the previous ‘bad product’ issues, playing the whole demo satiates or bores players. Also not helping – the buy process is only through Paypal, which isn’t everyones cup of tea.

6. Unsocial Media

Until very recently, I had about zero understanding about how to use social media to build real fans. What I did instead was throw a decent amount of money to purchase a lot of likes…of people that weren’t that interested in the game. My social media was fake marketing, and I got fake engagement in return.

7. The Personal

I’m can’t capture it all here, but Jan-Jun 2013 were some of the toughest months of my life. I know there’s no perfect time to start your dream (I was laid off in Jan of 2013), but I was definitely not in the best financial situation when I started. Straight after that I made a month long, $5000 bet on myself that left me utterly exhausted physically and mentally (I lost over 10 lbs over the course of my Kickstarter). Which doesn’t mean that it wasn’t an awesome experience! I’m still deeply grateful to everyone who helped me (seriously, thanks forever backers!). But I lived in a state of almost constant anxiety for 4-5 months, which eventually started causing small panic attacks. Even with friends all around me, it was one of the loneliest times I can remember. It’s hard to be creative when you’re that scared…a lot of the fear was manufactured, but it began negatively impacting development. Things that should have been simplified, re-done or thrown out were kept because I felt I couldn’t afford the time or effort to make the change. Which is exactly what the game actually needed – some time for me to step back and re-assess, experiment, simplify and polish.

Continuing Forward

In retrospect I was tremendously lucky. Lucky to get funded. Lucky to find work that kept me afloat, lucky to have a great network that continues to support me, lucky to have a second chance to do at something I love doing. Hardly anyone finds that much luck! I now have the luxury to continue my updates to Contract Work without constantly worrying about where rent is going to come from, and I think it’s helped. I have time to fail and learn from the failures. Time to do crazy experiments. Time to learn and connect. Time to understand myself better. My final thought is this: becoming a great artist or businessman takes great patience, effort and failure; you have to be willing for all of them.

Announcing Contract Work: First Day

First Day is the demo of the upcoming major Contract Work re-design. First Day is a short-form experience, designed to allow you to play it painlessly and to let me to make quick updates and design changes. I’ll be releasing more information on First Day soon. Thanks for reading!

Creating Contract Work

Hey everyone, if we haven’t met, I’m Kee-Won Hong and I’m a one man Indie game team. I’ve developed a few commercial mobile titles and I’m running a Kickstarter for my first original game, ‘Contract Work‘. I heard some of you might be interested in how I ended up with this concept, so here’s a little insight.

First, thank you to all my collaborators and my Kickstarter backers! This project would never have made it here without your support, input and help. You all have my deepest gratitude.

From the beginning I knew there were a few key mechanics I wanted to include: unique customization, emergent gameplay and open narrative. I knew I wanted to build a HTML5 web game, so I chose the Impact engine for my prototype. Finally I decided that I wanted to do a side scrolling shooter, a genre that is easy to play and one I’ve always loved:


Ok, not technically a side-scroller, but I wasted ALL my quarters at summer camp on this.

I started with really simple artwork (the first prototype had a smiley emoticon as the hero and red-eyed angry emoticons as enemies) and added really basic functionality (move, shoot). Then I started adding extra toys, mostly to mess around with. A terminal you could hack. A generator that enemies would attack. Now I had a group of actors that I could start putting a game around.


This was our hero. One cool dude. The games title was ‘SpaceTower’

The next ‘phase’ was lots of iterating, and involved throwing out a lot of ideas. Like the elevators that connected each ‘floor’ on a level, which were replaced by jump pads and escape vents. I played/watched lots of shooters (Megaman, Contra, Intrusion) to learn from them. Once I added the final basic ‘game’ requirements – win/lose conditions and a barely functional interface, I started beta testing and thinking about the games theme.


Robots are badass villains

Since the early prototype, I had always pictured the enemies as robots, so they ended up that way. I thought about what would drive our hero to fight them. As I was going through a somewhat exhausting job search at the time, the idea of our hero as a freelance gun-for-hire appealed to me. They answer only to themselves. They have a unique, valuable skill – destroying robots. They could work as highly sought after contractors for rival corporations. Money from those contracts would give the freelancers freedom to customize their gear and leverage to create their own narratives. All of which supported my original goals (awesome!). So now – powerful corporations with robot armies? Smells like cyberpunk to me…


Optic Camo…all the cyberpunk hipsters are wearing it

Creating the universe details ended up involving a lot of immersion into cyberpunk source material, like the TV Tropes cyberpunk database, Deus Ex and Ghost in the Shell. Taking a lot of notes on how things operated, how they were visually displayed, what kind of colors existed…this all became part of the universe of the game, a consistent set of rules by which everything operates. Art and design become much easier once you have this framework to utilize, and everything begins to fall into place.


Freeing the statue from the stone

So now you know the origins of the cyberpunk rpg shooter Contract Work. Is it going to be a success? I can’t know, but I do have a hunch about when things are working. I get the feeling that I don’t have to do all the creation; rather I’m just revealing the game, ‘freeing the statue from the stone’. The players will tell me if I’m right, but I’ve been having more of these ‘aha’ moments recently, so I think Contract Work is on the right track.


Thanks for taking the time to read, and please back the Contract Work Kickstarter!


Contract Work Kickstarter


The Kickstarter for my new game ‘Contract Work’ has launched! Contract Work is a player customizable, cyberpunk 2d shooter where you can create your own unique gun-for-hire. Contract Work is a HTML5 game, which means no installing or downloading plugins; just go to the website and play the game on your browser!


Set in a future dystopia where corporations control the world through massive robotic armies, your freelancer is one of the last truly independent humans. Even the most powerful corporations still depend on your expertise to handle delicate ‘situations’. This contract work is high risk but higher reward, and for those with the right skills there is unlimited potential.


In this dark future, every action has consequence. You must find your own balance between your place as a free human and the bottom line, whether you will seek to be an asset or a liability to your corporate financiers. Every dollar in your pocket helps you customize your deadly mercenary, but there is almost always an opportunity cost for the contract that put it there.

Contract Work is less about me telling a story and more about your narrative. It’s a game that anyone can pick up, play and have a unique story to tell. Maybe your freelancer will be an alpha level hacker, shutting down an entire base and walking in without a scratch. Maybe they will be a master sniper, a hard boiled gunslinger, a deadly explosives expert or a mad pyromaniac. Maybe they were a corporate lackey, a ruthless two timer or a dark hero. The story can be yours to write.

Please check it out, back and share!