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Beyond Kickstarter: Three game devs who crowdfunded on their own

There are possibilities for crowdfunding outside of Kickstarter. Numerous studios are having a crack at their own crowdfunding initiatives, ditching Kickstarter in favor of going it alone.

Mike Rose, Blogger

July 31, 2013

9 Min Read

Kickstarter is a big deal for video games. It allows studios to float a concept or prototype directly with fans (and potential future fans), assess whether or not people are willing to pay money for such a project, and bypass publishers all the while. But there are possibilities for crowdfunding outside of platforms such as Kickstarter, too. Numerous studios are having a crack at their own crowdfunding initiatives, ditching Kickstarter in favor of going it alone. With Kickstarter's architecture already in place, ready and willing to display your funding project, and tested to within an inch of its life by all walks of video games, why exactly would you choose to crowdfund outside of this behemoth? Introversion caused a stir last year when the studio launched a crowdfunding project for its game Prison Architect outside of Kickstarter. Players can choose to pay money to receive an early version of the game, and other goodies depending on how much they fork out. The move has proven rather lucrative for Introversion. In the first two weeks, the game made over $270,000 with nearly 8,000 sales total. Nine months on, and it has now made $5,950,960, with 185,149 copies sold. "Kickstarter is a great service," Introversion's Mark Morris tells me, "but it forces you to answer two critical questions up front: How much money do I want, and for how long do I want to run my Kickstarter campaign?" "Both of these are very difficult to answer, but for indie game devs I think the first is virtually impossible," he continues. "Whenever we have a game idea, it is a live, living project that evolves over time. The final result can look very difficult to the original concept, because things were tried and failed or new ideas presented themselves a long the way." With this in mind, Introversion doesn't create rigid game design documents that can have a monetary cost attached to them. Putting a price on how much it's going to cost to make your game is simply far too difficult a task, reasons Morris. prison architext.jpg"You may like to get £100k, but if you only managed £90k would you give up and go home? Of course not, you'd take the hit and get the game finished," he says. "That's the key issue with Kickstarter - this requirement to ask for X and fail if you don't achieve it." This is one of the main reasons why Introversion decided to run its own Kickstarter-style campaign -- so that the team could shape its own budget based on the success of the campaign. Creating its own crowdfunding system meant that the studio could also tackle that second question: How long do you run a Kickstarter campaign for? "How long is a piece of string?" answers Morris. "What happens if the day after your campaign fails, you get a big RockPaperShotgun article? Or worse, on the same day you launch, Doc Brown proves he can send an apple back in time and asks for money to support his time machine project? The point is that limiting the length of a campaign, forces a lot of risk onto the developer to make a lot of noise during that period of time - that wasn't something we wanted." That's not to say the Introversion team is completely against Kickstarter -- rather, Morris and co. simply felt that the cons outweighed the pros for them. "Kickstarter solves a lot of problems like e-commerce and also helps to get eyeballs onto projects," he says. "It does have advantages, but I think the better approach is to go it alone."

When does going it alone work?

Introversion already had a fanbase before the launch of the Prison Architect campaign, of course, which no doubt helped the studio rake in the cash. But Morris says that, besides having a known name, the studio had more going for it. "The first release was over a year into the development of Prison Architect, and I think that's an important point," he tells me. "From the moment we began we had a good solid game idea that players could have a meaningful experience with and share our vision," he says. "After playing that first version they said - hey this is going to be great you should try this - and that spread virally." Essentially, that first alpha release is incredibly important, as it determines not only whether people are going to spread the word to friends, but also whether they are going to come back again with future updates. If the build you're offering with your crowdfunding campaign isn't fun, you've had it before you've even started. "Our monthly update cycle is important too," Morris continues. "We keep the players engaged, but we also get a press hit every month. Not everyone writes about us every month, but taken on aggregate there's usually quite a flurry." "That engages more people who then tell their friends and we continue to grow," he notes. "Of course, Steam Early Access has also been a massive boost for us." Morris was happy to relay the following advice to studios who are considering going it alone and Kickstarting their game outside of Kickstarter: Have a great initial game experience that players are going to want to talk about and share. Release too early and no one will care. Have a game that benefits from monthly (or weekly, or six weekly or whatever) updates. The game must be replayable, no point in asking a gamer to play the same opening to the story a hundred times, because you tack a little more linear plot on each month. Have a working, monitored, simple to use webpage with a video. Put the word out to journalists and keep telling them what you are doing. But don't spam them!

Alongside Kickstarter

When Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts launched his own crowdfunding campaign for upcoming space sim Star Citizen, he was soon facing the issue of collapsing servers. This is where Kickstarter came into its element. Roberts and co. launched a Kickstarter so that they had a stable and scalable crowd funding platform, and subsequently brought in more than $2 million through the platform. But this is far from the end of the story. See, after the Kickstarter had come and gone, Roberts' own separate crowdfunding platform was still in place, and still taking orders. As of today, the website for Star Citizen has taken around $12.8 million from 185,000 backers. "I don’t think anyone should go it alone unless they've been able to establish a brand or IP," Sandi Gardiner, VP of marketing for Star Citizen's Cloud Imperium Games tells me. star citizen.jpg"Without an established name or perhaps an incredibly interesting idea that goes viral and is well received by your target audience, the waters may get a little rough," she continues. "By going with Kickstarter or IndieGoGo you get the benefit of their marketing and profile to help in getting your message across." She also refers to the server problems that the Star Citizen campaign fell victim to: "Don't try crowd funding on your own unless you have a good web team that can assure that you'll be able to handle the traffic should you have a lot of success." Gardiner echoes similar sentiments to Introversion's Morris: That having a high quality game or prototype to give to players from the get-go is essential. Star Citizen was a good year into development when the alpha build was released. And she adds, "Always keep your fans engaged on a daily basis if possible, and foster a participating community in the process of game development. Provide content which shows detail of what goes in to making the game and offer involvement to your fans. What doesn't work is losing the communication with your fans and keeping the bar at the same level over time." Other than the obvious benefit behind going it alone -- that no third-party company is taking a cut of your campaign -- Gardiner says that you're able to build up a community for your game directly within your own website. "An alternative to going out on your own would be to start with a known crowd funding site like Kickstarter and then convert to your own site after the Kickstarter ends," she reasons. "Growing and engaging your audience is a paramount part of continuing your success."

When crowdfunding on your own isn't the best solution

Phosphor Games has well and truly been through the crowdfunding ringer. The studio attempted to fund its game Project Awakened via Kickstarter, and fell short. The team then tried to crowdfund the game directly their its own website, but this also failed to drum up enough support for the game. "We tried both Kickstarter, and a private campaign on our own site that we built out with much of the same functionality as Kickstarter," Phosphor's CEO Justin Corcoran tells me. "We only had that one experience, but our takeaway is that for a private crowdfunding drive you need to have an even more established brand, and further demonstrable progress with your project, than for the already high bar for Kickstarter and similar sites," he says. Take Mech Warrior Online, for example: It was an established brand, had the nostalgic element, and the team behind it already had plenty to show when the campaign launched. Project Awakened.jpg"You need to have a brand that will make news and draw a following all on its own," Corcoran reasons. "It's a very rare project that can do that in the noise of the gaming media." Looking back on the failed Project Awakened project, both on Kickstarter and the outside campaign, Corcoran has his own theories on why it didn't work out for the team. "We did not do a great job showing a clear vision people could understand right from the beginning, and it was a total 'cold start' on awareness," he explains. "We had a short clock ticking down to overcome both of these challenges, and that's asking a lot when you have as large a goal as we did." He continues, "Since the start of the campaign nearly half a year ago, we have had over 500,000 hits on our YouTube vids and a steady stream of people joining on YouTube, Facebook, Steam Greenlight, and the forums, with lots of positive things to say about the game. Much of that interest actually came in after our failed campaign." These factors, he says, are magnified with it comes to a private campaign. "If people don't already know and trust the brand (you, the game, or both), they are far less likely to pledge in general, but especially if they don't have the safety net of Kickstarter or some other trusted site backing them up," the CEO reasons. So the real takeaway from all three dev accounts is similar to that of a Kickstarter project -- that you need to establish some serious trust with an audience. But the trust factor seems especially pertinent if you decide to crowdfund outside of Kickstarter.

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