Kickstarter was founded in 2009 as a public crowdfunding forum where consumers could financially support their favorite ideas from budding entrepreneurs in exchange for a small reward and the chance to get in on the ground floor of what could turn into the next great invention. Over the last few years, the website has become a haven where aspiring artists, musicians and inventors could get their shot at funding their next big idea without having to worry about dealing with big-money middlemen. Like it has with many entertainment sectors, Kickstarter has found a new place within the gaming industry as a way to give independent developers more leverage in the market than they’ve ever enjoyed before. Kickstarter is ushering in a brand-new business model for video games that could mean a permanent shift in how games get made. But with this new unique paradigm comes an equally unique set of obstacles that developers and consumers are still getting used to.
Kickstarter made its first big impression with the gaming community in early 2012 with the launch of the Double Fine Adventure campaign. Veteran game designer and LucasArts alum Tim Schafer announced to the Internet the plan to fund a new adventure game entirely through Kickstarter along with an accompanying documentary chronicling the game’s development. The project’s fundraising goal? $400,000 in just more than a month — a modest budget for game development, but an ambitious target by Kickstarter’s standards. The campaign exploded. Within several hours, the project had easily reached its goal. Total pledges hit $1 million in the first 24 hours of funding. By the end of the month-long fundraising period, the project had raised an astonishing $3.3 million, reaching its original goal eight times over.
The community was thrilled. They, the audience, had successfully financed an exciting new game from an industry pro, a game that doubtless would have foundered were it left up to the publishers. It felt like a big victory for gamers. For what seemed like the first time, the consumers felt like they could control what games hit the market, and a very romanticized view of Kickstarter and the crowdfunding process developed. It felt like we were on the cusp of a new era in games.
That feeling didn’t last long. Fast-forward to earlier this month. Double Fine announces that their Kickstarter project, now titled Broken Age, is not only behind schedule, but overbudget, and the plan is now to split the game into two parts. The game that was once an idealized exemplar of the wonders of crowdfunding was now having some trouble, and not every response took the situation lightly. The illusion was shattered, and consumers, now more than ever, experienced the bitter taste of development hell. Double Fine Adventure so far might not be living up to the high expectations its early and quick success inspired, but it did serve as proof that the idea of funding a full game through the community itself is actually a viable one. So where does the future of Kickstarter and games lie?
American McGee is a seasoned game designer, well known as the mind behind the macabre Alice franchise, and CEO of the Shanghai-based developer Spicy Horse. McGee is no stranger to Kickstarter, having just launched his third campaign last week. His first Kickstarter, an ARPG based on the tale of Red Riding Hood titled Akaneiro: Demon Hunters, successfully reached its funding goal. His second project, an alternate look at L. Frank Baum’s Oz universe titled OZombie, was cancelled early when the company saw that their funding goal would not be met in time. Apart from having Kickstarter experience, McGee also has experience with big publishers after having worked with EA on the Alice games, so he’s familiar with the differences between both methods of financing.
“At least in my experience, let’s say we’ve had one success and one failure [on Kickstarter],” McGee told me. “That’s a 50 percent hit rate. When you go to pitch to a publisher, you might be lucky to have a 1 percent success rate. And that’s based on my experience of having pitched publishers on game ideas not dozens of times but hundreds of times, and then told ‘no’ dozens of times.”
One unique quirk about Kickstarter is that the funding goal has to be met entirely for the project to receive even a cent of the pledges. So if an aspiring game developer is asking for $50,000 and receives only $45,000, they wouldn’t even have the option of continuing the project with the lower budget. The campaign is deemed a failure by Kickstarter and the community backers don’t pay anything.
This policy — doubtless meant to protect investors from spending money on an ultimately incomplete project — may seem harsh when a project ends its funding period just shy of it’s goal. But money might not always be the most important part of a Kickstarter campaign.
“The first time we used it, it was really about marketing and generating awareness for the product,” McGee said. “Certainly, our thinking has been different each time we’ve approached the platform. It’s sort of been very specific and different reasons, which is one of the things I think is so cool about the platform, the number of ways that you can extract value from it that’s not necessarily about the money alone.”
One of the reasons Kickstarter works so well for marketing purposes is that the audience can be involved with the project from day one. They can see the funding increase over time and are kept in the development loop via updates from the designers themselves. As we’ve seen with reactions to updates from Double Fine Adventure, consumers are getting a firsthand look at what actually goes on behind the creation of a game, and it’s not always pretty.
Alex Thomas of Stoic Studio wrote an impressive letter at the end of a Kickstarter update for The Banner Saga that goes into the realities of having your game’s audience watching the game being made in real time. This developer/consumer relationship is a brand-new aspect of the game industry brought on by Kickstarter, and it’s an aspect that all parties still have to get used to.
“I think having them [the consumer] be more in the process will probably give them a better appreciation for understanding the dynamics of the publisher/developer model,” McGee said. “I think it’s great. I think it’s healthy. But I also think we’ve seen examples where there’s a learning process. I think the audience might be sometimes surprised by the realities of getting a game made.”
Though audience involvement in Kickstarter development certainly poses some challenges, it also leads to what McGee calls a more “democratic” pitch process. Whereas a big publisher might have a policy to only finance a certain number of games from a certain genre in a year, Kickstarter games get funded based on audience interest. So when campaigns aren’t successful, like the OZombie project, developers can know that the idea simply didn’t connect with their audience instead of being shut down by publisher politics.
“What we saw here was it didn’t resonate,” McGee said about OZombie. “People didn’t spread the word. They didn’t get behind it, and that’s because there wasn’t something there that really sparked their imagination or that made the thing go viral. For me, that’s going to be on the shelf, and we may come back to it. The Oz concept I tried to do 10 years ago, and that development got killed by the publisher. We just tried again, so maybe 10 years from now, we’ll try once more.”
Of course, veteran developers aren’t the only people who turn to Kickstarter to make games. One of the site’s best properties is its ability to give fledgling game companies the opportunity to claw their way into the industry. Stormlight Workshop was officially founded in March of this year by four people who met online through World of Warcraft. Their breakout online game Flight Rising was beginning to pick up steam, and the team realized they would need more server power than they had.
“Between the four of us, we had already invested a lot of money into the project, and we didn’t have the money to get the servers we wanted for the period we needed,” said Darren H, a programmer at Stormlight. “So we saw Kickstarter as a great option to get the people who were so interested in playing the game to see if they would be willing to financially support us in launching it.”
The team asked for a scant $3,500, hoping to buy space on a small server for a few months. By the time the campaign was over, they walked away with $38,000. Because of their Kickstarter, Stormlight was able to not only buy space on two, more powerful servers for a full year, but they were able to pay off a handful of the project’s other debts as well. Now, Flight Rising is enjoying an audience far larger than they had anticipated. Thanks to Kickstarter, truly independent teams like Stormlight have an unprecedented amount of opportunity to become established developers.
There is one more aspect of Kickstarter that has huge implications for game developers, though: property rights. When a game developer goes through a publisher to create their game, the publisher owns the rights to that property, and they’re able to keep any profit the game makes as well. The developer receives enough money to make the game, but not much else, in what McGee calls the “standard publisher/developer advances-against-royalties model.”
At Kickstarter, every project leader retains full rights to what they fund through the website. Kickstarter earns a small percentage of the funds raised, but other than that, the property rights stay with their creator. This means they also have access to any and all profits their project makes. For game developers, having the profits from a game go back into the company instead of to the publisher can mean more options for funding future games, creating a rare break in the dependent relationship developers have traditionally had with publishers.
“Kickstarter can, I think, break [developers] out of that cycle,” McGee said. “There’s an opportunity to build something with the support of the audience that you’re then able to go on for some years to come and not only own the brand — which you wouldn’t in the case of the publisher — but you have the opportunity to get your head above water and actually profit from your efforts.”
McGee’s current Kickstarter differs a bit from the previous two game-focused projects. He has the opportunity to purchase the film rights to the Alice franchise and gain control over that aspect of Alice media (The decision to make a new Alice game still resides with EA, though McGee says that he and the publisher maintain a “positive relation” and “ongoing conversations.”). The plan is to then let several different directors make a series of short films about Alice’s adventures through the minds of Victorian Britain’s best and brightest. The current campaign is meant not only to raise funds to purchase these film rights, but also to build an audience and spread the word about this project, titled Alice: Otherlands.
McGee said that encouraging audience involvement is a big part of this newest Kickstarter. People interested in the project should feel free to get involved and ask questions through the project page. It’s this kind of attitude and focus on developer/audience interaction that underlines a lot about what makes Kickstarter such a unique and exciting new forum for game development.
“That the beauty of Kickstarter,” McGee said. “You know, here’s the idea. If you see a problem with it, come over and tell us. Or if you’re interested, come over and support it. We’d love that as well.”