Alexis Kennedy made the alpha of Cultist Simulator available to the public in January 2017. He felt a drive to get the game out into the world as quickly as possible not just because he was in search of exposure, but because he started to worry that he might be running out of time. As a game developer who came to the industry much later than others, this drive kicked in hard, and he wanted to get things moving fast.

Instead of reaching out to the press, he opted to quietly announce the game on his blog and make the game a free download on itch.io, a small and considerably more experimental storefront for games. Soon after, a writer from Kotaku whom he had never met or spoken to before covered the game positively. They celebrated the way the game lets you behave like a cult leader, as well as the way that the game paid homage to HP Lovecraft’s ‘Mythos’ stories and the specific monsters that have informed and defined geek and gamer culture for decades.

In Lovecraft’s Mythos, cultists serve these monsters to achieve their dreams of self-destruction. In the game, Kennedy leaned into this influence far more than he did in Sunless Sea or Fallen London, where he had always taken objection to what often felt like a lazy comparison in the context of those games. He was willing to call the game Lovecraftian when he finally started to market it, and the work already had a focus on dream universes, forbidden books, and secret organisations influenced by the occult, making this a sensible, intuitive comparison. Though he avoided referring any of the actual creatures that make up the Mythos, the influence was there – and felt profoundly enough to make an impact.

To take things to the next level, Kennedy decided that it was time to launch a Kickstarter. In August of 2017, after wrapping up his contracts at BioWare and Telltale Games and despite having a potential publishing advance from Humble coming his way, he wanted to ensure that the money would be there to realise his vision in a way that could work – and that he could get the word out. Most crucially, he wanted to know that there would be an enthusiastic, wider audience ready to embrace what Cultist Simulator was becoming as it took shape, as well as what a realistic, tenable budget for the game could (or should) look like.

Kennedy created a detailed budget, aiming to make the game in eight months and for £30,000. If he exceeded that goal, he could use some of the leftover funds with to help cover his living expenses. If the Kickstarter failed, he could make a scaled back, cheaper version of Cultist Simulator, and both were acceptable outcomes. That said, at times, he doubted whether or not there would be an online audience to fund the game. Though he’d used Kickstarter to successfully fund a number of games in the past, that was when he was part of a studio.

Because he was acutely aware of his own predisposition to procrastinate, as evidenced by how long it took him to send his initial pitch to Humble, he knew he needed a team to craft a more substantial presentation and produce a trailer, something he couldn’t do. He hired a freelance artist to create highly detailed Tarot cards that represented a number of the Hours from the game, as well as a video editor, who used that work, along with footage from the game’s alpha, to create a visual that was something like a silent film trailer, moving very slowly and with a grainy, haunted energy.

As he approached the Kickstarter, he played out several different “what if?” scenarios. He knew that if the Kickstarter failed, he’d briefly look like a fool and be out a few thousand pounds. When thinking about the funding goal, though, he had to take the fact that Kickstarter backing is all or nothing into account. This encourages some creators to set low goals, but this often begets an even more devastating problem – failing to have the necessary budget to complete a project.

The next major issue with Kickstarter that Alexis Kennedy needed to address was the fact that many people who back games really, really like physical rewards. He didn’t have the resources or the time to produce substantial ones, as he was in essence a one-man operation, so he kept them minimal, offering only his design notes on a USB stick and “a Thing suitable for display in a cabinet” for those who pledged £300 or more. Eventually, these backers would receive a very large statuette of a crow, complete with feathers, more than ready for display in cabinets of their very own.

To take things to the next level, Kennedy even went so far as to offer a pledge at £5,000 that allowed the backer to tattoo any piece of art from the game onto his skin. He also offered a unique pledge at £70 allowing users to include their name, or a pseudonym, in some form within the game – something that 225 people ultimately opted to do, requiring him to potentially create a number of new cards, characters, or other additions to fulfill this challenge.

As he prepared to launch this, his fourth Kickstarter and first since leaving his previous studio, he found himself circling back and forth, rereading and rewriting his pitch, and questioning whether he had taken the good or the bad advice from the people he shared his early versions with. In retrospect, he sees much of this as irrelevant, as so many prospective backers spend at most two minutes with a Kickstarter pitch before making a decision. Few people even watch the pitch videos, and you’ve probably made a sale if someone is noticing typos. Regardless, this was a major moment. At 10 am on September 1, 2017, he launched the Kickstarter, not knowing how things were going to go or what might possibly happen.

Learn more about Alexis Kennedy on his personal website or connect with him on LinkedIn, Twitter or Youtube

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