Kickstarter. It extends funding for those who are tired of catering to publishers. It creates a lasting bond with your "backers,” leading to tons of press coverage, adulation from gamers worldwide, and financial freedom. It will change the world as we know it.
Hold on a minute. Let's back off a bit. There's a lot of buzz around Kickstarter and game development ever since Double Fine's Adventure created a huge splash back in February. Adventure is regarded as Kickstarter's poster child thanks to almost 90 thousand backers and $3.4 million in funding.
After Adventure, it was Wasteland 2's chance to shine. And it didn't disappoint: almost 62 thousand backers, $3 million in funding. Wow.
Those two games led to a veritable gold rush. Independent studios and amateurs alike suddenly realized they didn't need to bootstrap in order to make a game. They didn't need to go begging to a publisher either. Getting funded on Kickstarter would mean getting a project fast-tracked to success with full creative control and a horde of "backers" ready to help spread the word. It seemed too good to be true, and in a way, it still is.
Tim Schafer's Adventure got the ball rolling
Winter is Coming
Stealing from Game of Thrones is fun. Do you know what's even more fun? Watching history unfold in real time. My day job, promoting indie and mobile games, allowed me to observe (and learn) a lot in the past few months. In HBO's hit series, "winter" is when the White Walkers may return once more to wreak havoc on the Realms.
In the Kickstarter world, winter would be:
b) Failed projects
We already had our first scam. Uncovered by Reddit, Mythic: The Story of Gods and Men was quickly outed to the whole world as a shameless attempt to scam Kickstarter users. Since no one's credit card gets charged unless a project is fully funded, financial loss was avoided.
There are hundreds of failed projects. They are no fault of Kickstarter nor the project owners. Like the App Store, the sheer number of new projects -- increasing every day -- will make getting noticed and therefore funded much harder than in the halcyon days of 2011. Such failures should be taken as learning opportunities, high quality feedback before the game is actually in the market. Seen in this light, failing to get funded on Kickstarter might actually be a blessing in disguise.
This is what a Kickstarter scam looks like
Best Laid Plans
It pains me to see quality projects fail to generate enough excitement to get funded. As an independent games supporter, I want creative ideas and concepts not only to get funded, but to get made. I want to read about them -- and play them. Still, a huge number of projects fails to take off or crashes right before landing. After months of careful observation, I concluded the problem is fourfold:
(1) Developers without a "following" fail to gain traction
(2) Projects without playable code scare away possible backers
(3) Lack of a high concept or "big idea"
(4) Journalists tired of Kickstarter pitches limit the amount of coverage devoted to Kickstarter projects
As seen in Adventure and Wasteland 2, well-known studios/developers have a much better chance of getting funded. Gamers recognize that such developers have a track record; that they have shipped dozens of games in the past, often much bigger projects than the one currently hosted on Kickstarter. Of course, no one takes a minute to consider that a huge number of well-known developers has failed to ship titles before, or that even publisher-supported AAA titles may get cancelled (sometimes mere months before release). Nonetheless, being a celebrity -- or even a minor celebrity -- pays off if you need to fund a game via Kickstarter.
Playable code. We're all used to open betas where an almost-finished game is stress-tested by hordes across the planet. Few of us have access to alpha builds and an even smaller number to prototypes. In Kickstarter, concept art and videos are a given, but real prototypes are hard to come by. Well, I can share with readers right now that in the near future, you will need a prototype to get funded. A backlash against prototype-less titles is already evident -- see this Reddit thread for the supporting evidence. Concept art, music, videos will not be able to assure possible backers that a project is healthy. The same goes for the press: it's much more newsworthy to try a new Kickstarter project, share your own particular impressions with readers, than to write about yet another new project.
Everyone knows a big idea from a generic, OK one. Big ideas have reach. They make us look at the world in a different way. The personal computer was a big idea. Same for the App Store and the creation of Android. In Kickstarter, big ideas inspire gamers to become backers. They are more viral and more newsworthy to the press. A big idea spreads via social media, provoking oohs and aahs on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ -- and therefore driving funding. Picking a niche genre in Kickstarter, something smaller, is a big risk instead. You would think that gamers would welcome an approachable, doable concept but the opposite is true: they shrug their shoulders and move on to the next game. Another problem is that a niche genre like casino games or music has a smaller pool of fans than something big like first-person shooters or even the Phoenix-like adventure genre. From a small pool of fans, you'd need to convince an even smaller pool of Kickstarter users or sympathizers to support your project. That makes things exponentially more difficult.
Promoting SRRN's Always Outnumbered last week, I encountered three different reactions from journalists. The first one was support -- they know SRRN from Ash and Ash II: Shadows and helped us with a small post or tweet. A site even gave us free advertising (!) The second one was silence. No reply, which is expected and part of everyday life if you work in Public Relations. The third reaction was one of frustration. The journalist in question told me he gets such pitches, dozens of them, day in and day out. That other journos have filters set up so by merely mentioning the word "Kickstarter" an email gets moved to a particular folder, or deleted forever. He told me that there are way too many developers jumping on the bandwagon and flooding journalists with pitches in the process.
I understand why he reacted this way. I share some of his misgivings and can certainly imagine how annoying it is to get 20, 30 Kickstarter pitches every day. Where you can click on a link and download the game featured in a real pitch, that's not an option with Kickstarter. There's no way to know how good -- or how bad -- the game truly is. Journalists are forced to trust the studio, believe in all the promised features, have faith in the release date. And that's IF the project gets funded. No wonder so many are burned-out.
I still have hope that projects like SRRN's, full of potential and with innovative gameplay, get fully funded instead of yet another zombie game. But I don't have that power. What I can do is list a few directives that may help developers in their quest for crowd-funding.
- Wait for the right moment. Invest some time and money in order to have a prototype ready by Day One
- Be careful with niche titles. Unless you're really, really famous like Tim Schafer, a niche title will be much harder to fund
- Consider your rewards carefully. Make sure to include high dollar rewards for those who can afford them. Avoid expensive-to-manufacture rewards -- you should spend your budget making the game, not designing/creating/shipping rewards
- Try to include experienced developers in the team. Ideally one or all of you will have shipped multiple titles in the past
- Kickstarter is no place for amateurs -- if you're making games for the first time, it's best to create a mod or even a small mobile game. Getting funded implies real responsibility for shipping an actual product
- Invest in a great camera and microphones. Enlist pros to shoot your videos, even if they're still in film school. Production values are becoming a huge deal -- some (unfairly) see them as an extension of your talent as a game developer
- Finally, have fun with it. Understand that it's cheaper to fail on Kickstarter than on the marketplace. If your project didn't get funded, regroup and start anew
A period of euphoria tends to follow the introduction of every new technology. In gaming, we saw it with CD-ROM drives in the 1990s, in-game advertising in 2007 and now free-to-play. In its current incarnation, Kickstarter is a truly disruptive development for the game industry, one which no one knows where it will take us. It will be worth your while to take a few deep breaths, then make the best possible decision(s) for your project.
Feel free to share your opinion/experience in the comments. And if you feel like this is a worthy post, please share it with colleagues, friends and family.