A reprint from the April 2013 issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, this article rounds up several mini-postmortems for a variety of high-quality indie titles.
What does the crowdfunding landscape look like for game developers one year after Kickstarter exploded onto the scene? We asked devs behind several major crowdfunding pushes from the last year -- Chris Roberts (Star Citizen), Brenda Romero (Shaker), Greg Rice (Double Fine Adventure), and Jim Rossignol and James Carey (Sir, You Are Being Hunted) -- for their thoughts and advice on what worked for them and what they’d do differently.
Chris Roberts, Star Citizen (Roberts Space Industries)
David Daw: You funded Star Citizen with a rather unorthodox combination of in-house crowdfunding, Kickstarter, and traditional investment. How’d you come up with that mix?
Chris Roberts: Yeah, we’re not typical. Everybody talks about our Kickstarter, but that was just one small part of what we did. In fact, most of our money’s been raised outside of Kickstarter.
I’ve always felt like there was a pretty strong community that were fans of my previous games, and fans of space sims in general. I felt like if I looked at everything going on on Kickstarter, a lot of it was really good -- but once you did the initial campaign, it was done and over, and I was fairly disappointed with what happened after that. I felt like no matter what, you’ve got to have a place where all the people that backed you are going to hang out, listen to what’s happening with the game, and interact, so why wait to do that later on?
So we actually launched a teaser site for what we were doing a month before we started the crowdfunding campaign -- the idea was to aggregate the really diehard fans. We’d gotten about 30,000 people to sign up and register when we launched the campaign, which gave us a bit of a leg up in terms of the initial awareness in crowdfunding.
I think it really just came out of the fact that you’ve got to have your own solution, even with Kickstarter, because a Kickstarter campaign ends at some point. So then you’ve got to have some way that you’re interacting with your community, and everyone always has to have some kind of option for PayPal or whatever, so we figured, “If you have to build it anyway, let’s just build it and do it upfront.”
DD: Why did you decide to continue the campaign on Kickstarter?
CR: Later on, we went to Kickstarter because the one thing we didn’t count on is that it’s not so easy to build a robust scalable site if there’s a lot of demand on it. We spent most of the money on the prototype, so we didn’t have a lot of money to spend on a really big, ecommerce-style robust site; we built on top of WordPress with some plug-ins, and it kinda collapsed under the weight of the initial interest. Basically, we experienced the downside of building our own site, but at the end of the day, I still think it was a good decision because we’re still raising money. We’ve collected over $2 million since we closed the actual count for the crowdfunding campaign, so I think we’re at 8 and a quarter million right now, which is pretty amazing.
DD: How does pitching to a traditional investor differ from pitching to Kickstarter or to fans in general?
CR: It’s very different. Pitching on a crowdfunding campaign is really similar to pitching to your audience when it’s close to done, saying “Here’s what I’m going to build, this is what it is, this is why it’s cool.” It’s like a really long lead time preorder. You read the E3 reveal, and do the exclusive interviews, and people go down to GameStop and reserve their copy. Crowdfunding, in a game sense, is like that, but you’re a year or two years ahead of that schedule.
So you focus much more on the game. If I was pitching to a traditional financial investor, half of them don’t even play the games, so it’s a whole different thing. They just go “Oh yeah, video games, that makes some money.” You’re basically saying “Wargaming.net has World of Tanks, and they’re doing X million dollars per month, and if we do really well, we can become like them and your investment will be worth a lot of money, so you should invest in us.” It’s a very different logic.
I actually much prefer pitching to the crowd because what you’re pitching is what you’re building. When you’re pitching to investors, basically, they’re assuming you’ll make a decent game, but want to know the business reasons for it. It feels more pure and more connected to what you’re doing in crowdfunding as opposed to traditional investment.
DD: Star Citizen had a lot of really impressive visuals ready when the campaign launched. How do you decide what “done” is for your campaign? How do you decide when you have enough content to get people excited?
CR: I think it sort of depends on how you approach it. I looked at everything and I said, “I think I can raise some money from a nostalgia standpoint,” but I thought if we really wanted to hit it out of the park, we should treat it exactly the same way we would treat it if I was funded by EA or Microsoft: At some point, I would reveal it at E3, and then there would be a year of press hype, leading up to the release, and you’re basically doing that to get people excited and hyped. So I sort of viewed going into the crowdfunding campaign with the same level of attention and respect that I would if I was doing it from the traditional funding route.
That’s not normal for crowdfunding stuff. I spent a year on the prototype because I felt like I needed to do something that was pretty ambitious, and I needed to show everyone what it would look like and the feel of it. If you treat it more like you would if you were funded by a major publisher, my guess is you’ll do better on the crowdfunding front, because there’s something more tangible. When you see somebody sitting in front of a camera saying, “Hey, I really want to revolutionize this kind of game and change this,” there’s only so much you can take. If you’re a name, they’ll give you some credit if they’ve seen what you’ve done before and they’ve liked it, but nothing speaks louder than some really great imagery on the scene.
I think you’ll see that the sort of crowdfunded campaigns that are doing well, or will do well, are the ones that are able to show much more up front, show what you’re going to get as someone who’s backing it. I think you’ve gotta treat that really seriously. Last year, at the beginning of this whole craze, you could get away [with] nostalgia, but I think that’s a lot harder to do nowadays.
DD: You said you spent about a year on the game before launching. How much time did you spend on the PR campaign for Star Citizen?
CR: I started lining up the press and the whole campaign about three months before I made the formal announcement, maybe four months. I’ve done this before, with EA, and Microsoft, and Origin before that. I have an advantage because there’s a track record and I have my relationships, so I sort of knew the gig.
I did a press tour for a week before we did the announcement in Austin, where I went to Germany, I went to New York, I went to San Francisco, and I sat down with a bunch of key outlets and showed them my prototype and talked them through what I wanted to do because I just feel like that’s really important to get people excited.
The other thing that was important to me in the year before the campaign was to research how the game’s going to get built, and what the issues are -- how long it would take to build a spaceship or a player with X polys? I wanted to get a good gauge. If I’m promising something to the crowd, I want to really make sure that I’ve done my homework, because when you’re making promises you want to deliver on them.
It’s great when everybody gives you all this money, and when you don’t deliver on it, people will give you a little bit of leeway because they know making something good takes some time -- but you can’t screw up. I definitely think I’ve seen some crowdfunding where I look at the campaigns and I can tell that the people behind them are basically naive. They’ve got the best intentions, but they’ve never made anything that hard to make.
One of the biggest things of the preparation year was doing a lot of R&D on things that I’d need to know for the full production, and any issues we’d see, so once we raised the money we’d be in a production phase instead of an R&D phase. If you’re really going to take it seriously and do it well it’s a bunch of work to get it teed up and ready.
DD: How does having to answer to the crowd change development cycles in terms of deliverables and making sure you hit deadlines?
CR: I definitely feel that with the crowd, I’ve got more pressure to deliver, and if I’m not going to deliver on a date, I need to give them a really good reason, and explain it to them, and be up-front about it. With a publisher, you sort of have this relationship that you kinda know. If they’re into it, you know you’ll be able to say, “I need a few more months,” or, “I need some more money.” Typically, unless the publisher decides to just write you off, you’ll be able to do that to some degree.
I feel like you’ve got less give with the crowd. I don’t necessarily have an issue with that. It’s kind of invigorating, because it makes you focus. To give you an example, on the October 10th GDC Online reveal I did, if I didn’t have that date I’d have probably spent another two to three weeks polishing the prototype and the demo, because that’s just my nature. I want it to look as good as possible. But, I had that day so there was a certain point where I had to get it out there… That side is a little scary but it’s definitely motivating.
I do think that what the crowd does add to the development process is that they help you focus on what’s important in your game much earlier. Having 100,000-plus people who love this game so much they’re giving you money before the game is made gives you a really great focus group in terms of their hotspots, and the top five things they want to do in your game. Too often in a typical development cycle, you go off and work for two, three, four years, and you don’t really have that direct communication.
Brenda Romero, Shaker (Loot Drop)
DD: Do you think that the Kickstarter has shifted? Has the wave of big Kickstarter-funded games passed?
Brenda Romero: Kickstarter in and of itself has become a game. It’s a spectator sport, and it’s super fun to be involved in these projects. It’s fun to watch them succeed, and it’s fun, in a sadistic game, to watch them fail. Watching people succeed and watching people fail, for better or for worse, as humans, there’s something to that.
I think people have a limited amount of funds to spend on Kickstarters, and I think the market is a lot more crowded than it used to be. I also think in the early days there was a lot of press coverage of “Here’s some RPGs on Kickstarter you might like,” and you’re not seeing as much of that these days. So I think there is a bit of atrophy in the community and apathy in the community. There’s not as much money because the money there was to go around has gone around. Kickstarter really is its own social network, and it’s incredibly fun to see what’s on there, but that wanes after a while.
DD: Many devs think we’ve settled on a Kickstarter format where a lot of work has already gone on, and the developer is asking for a little money to put them over the top. Is there a standardized format for successful Kickstarter games we’re settling into, or do you think the model will get shaken up again?
The Kickender, I guess you’d call it, is a possibility, but there’s also the “We’re done, help us get enough money through preorders to actually publish the thing.” So the game is done, but you need the money for community management or what have you, so the whole thing is basically a preorder platform.
You said something about “successful Kickstarters,” and it’s funny to me, because I’ve never viewed the games that didn’t get funded on Kickstarter as “failures.” They’re just not there yet, or there’s some gem of fun there that was interesting enough to make me want to play the game. Kickstarter actually prevents a bigger failure -- an actual failure would be to spend a goodly sum of cash to create a game that wasn’t as fully realized as it could be.
So one can view Kickstarter as milestone zero, just like when you’re passing through a publisher with a pitch. When I meet with a publisher and they say, “I like this element here, and I like this, but how about if we did something a bit different?” I don’t call that a failure -- that’s game design, that’s iteration.
That was my first response [to Shaker]. “What’s not right here? What do we need to do?” and that’s when it became obvious that we were spending more time addressing the weakness of the pitch than we were building the world, so better to walk away and come back with something stronger.
DD: Do you feel like Kickstarter pushes success and failure in binary terms? That Kickstarter has less of a give and take than going to a traditional publisher, for instance?
BR: It’s tough, because when I’m just making a game, for instance, way ahead of my concern for story is my concern for systems, and how the systems are playing and feeling. But with Kickstarter, you have to come out with it all. A year or so ago, people looked at Kickstarter as the silver bullet for game development, but Kickstarter shares some of the same hurdles we find in traditional game development. You have to please the board, whether that board is 9,000 individuals, or backers, or five people sitting around a table, or one person in charge of green-lighting your idea.
If the crowd doesn’t like your pitch, so be it. It’s better to know sooner rather than later. Naturally, it doesn’t feel great, but it also doesn’t feel horrible. There’s this weird, wonderful day of acceptance. Once you fail, interestingly enough, you don’t feel afraid of doing it again, because the world didn’t change. Nobody showed up to take away my game developer card. It’s a wonderfully humbling experience. Failure’s okay. What matters is debugging after the failure.
Greg Rice, Broken Age (Double Fine)
DD: What have you learned about crowdfunding since the campaign closed?
Greg Rice: We actually didn’t run into too many surprises, because we planned out a lot of stuff, like reward structures, really thoroughly before we started… Early on I wasn’t expecting as many support requests from people, say, wanting to change their emails, or change their shipping addresses, or dealing with lost packages, and things like that. But we did hire a community manager and a fulfillment agency to help us out with that kind of stuff, and because of that it ended up going pretty smoothly.
Ultimately, we’ve been pretty successful because we have a very talented, very senior team working on this project and they’ve made a lot of games together here at Double Fine before. They know what they’re doing, and they’ve been able to make a special game. Then, with the 2 Player guys, we’ve been able to keep our backers informed of what’s happening, and they’ve been able to feel like they’re aware of what issues we’re facing (if we are facing issues) and why they should be excited about the game.
DD: Does Kickstarter make you feel any more or less production pressure than normal?
GR: It has been a learning experience. It was difficult for us, because we didn’t have too many touchstones to look at and base our project around. I started working on putting our Kickstarter together around November of 2011, and we launched that next February. So it definitely took a long time to track down answers to all the questions I had, and to make sure we’d thought through everything, from how our reward structure was conceived, to being able to actually get codes and deliver them to backers.
A lot of things that a publisher typically handles on a game, like testing, and distributing builds, and marketing, we’d done pieces of those on our PC games, and we had started to do our marketing before, but now we had to take all of those on. A lot of support issues come out of Kickstarter as well, like having 9,000 backers that we needed to answer to.
We definitely have settled into it, though, and now that we’re deep into production on the game, things are feeling great. It’s really freeing to not have to answer to those kind of strict milestone schedules. On our end, we are still building schedules and working toward all those milestones and dates, but it’s nice to be able to be flexible with them, make changes as we see fit, and make sure the team is working on what’s going to be the most important thing at that moment, without having to answer to a milestone structure that had been set years in advance.
DD: Does crowdfunding change your relationship with the audience in any way? Does it change how you’re developing the game?
GR: That was definitely one of our big worries from the start with Kickstarter. Once we had thousands of fans invested in the game who have already given us money, it was just going to be a matter of figuring out how to continue to keep them up-to-date, on how the projects were going, without severely impacting the project itself.
That was one of the reasons we got really excited when the 2 Player Productions guys came on board. We thought that would be a really nice opportunity to let them in on the process, and see how things are going, and also be able to take part in it a little bit, without really taking resources away from the game. They kinda can just stay in the background, and watch things, and piece that together into a story, and make it entertaining for people to figure out where the project is and what’s going on.
In that sense, it’s been awesome because the backers have been so supportive and every time we come up against something that’s a bit difficult, they’re all just really trusting of us and supportive, and in some cases have even pitched in some ideas that have helped to move us along, so that’s been rad.
DD: Has the success of your Kickstarter changed the way you pitch and green-light projects internally?
GR: I think it has let people get a glimpse of what Double Fine is like, and helped define our brand, but ultimately we’ve always wanted to be more involved with our community. The Kickstarter has kinda forced us to spend a lot more time on working with our community. It’s also allowed us the freedom to be able to do that -- since we don’t have to worry about a publisher, we’re able to speak about a game really early. It’s been nice to be able to do that, and to see how excited fans get about that stuff. Once we saw how much they loved every bit of information they’ve been getting on games, we really wanted to start doing that more on our other projects as well. We’ve tried to put a lot more effort into being more vocal on our website, and blogs, and Twitter, and Tumblr, and trying to put more things out there for our fans to enjoy. It seems like it’s working.
DD: It seemed like that was especially noticeable during the recent Amnesia Fortnight. A lot of things that would normally be small notes to send to the team seemed to be put up on the public forums.
GR: We’ve always had internal forums for people to throw stuff back and forth on the project, and for Amnesia Fortnight we kinda just moved those to the external forums. People were posting music, and concepts, and everything to the forums as we were going, and fans were definitely eating it up. We were doing eight-hour livestreams, and you would see the same people just sitting there all day, every day, for those two weeks. So I think that there’s a lot of people that love video games, and are interested in the industry, and want to find out more about what a job in games looks like. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a good thing for them to look at, and I feel like people are kinda eating this up because it’s such an intimate, transparent look at a day in a video game studio and what that looks like.
DD: What are some Kickstarter problems that you guys maybe sidestepped that you’d warn other developers about?
GR: Think through your reward structure. Make it something that’ll be appealing to fans but isn’t going to waste your budget. Make sure you have a good margin of how much money is going into the game versus how much is going into the Kickstarter. One of the things that I wish that we had done differently was that we lopped a lot of this content off to only Kickstarter backers.
We have dozens of forum posts and hours and hours of documentary footage that’s exclusive to backers, so they’ve been getting a good idea of what’s been going on with the game, and what development is looking like. Outside of that though, a lot of people are kinda clueless about what’s happened. We see a lot of articles about “What’s going on with Double Fine Adventure? It launched a year ago and we haven’t heard anything about it,” because we promised to keep everything exclusive to backers.
Now, as we’re getting closer to our traditional marketing campaign for the game, we’ll start doing things like teasers and trailers, and being at events, and things like that, so people will start seeing it. But it was a little strange, just because this period of the game came way earlier than people usually hear about a game. Usually you don’t hear about a game until it’s in alpha. We announced our game before it was even an idea, or even had a team behind it. So, figuring out how to navigate those waters and show a game to fans in early stages before they’re used to seeing it has been difficult.
Jim Rossignol, and James Carey, Sir, You Are Being Hunted (Big Robot)
DD: Obviously your name’s known around the gaming press, Jim, but I think the Kickstarter is probably the first time a lot of people knew you as a game designer. How do you go about building an audience with a Kickstarter campaign if you aren’t a big name in that space?
Jim Rossignol: We definitely didn’t have to work as hard as some other people. The fact that both James and I have lots of contacts in the U.K. press helped. I had some profile from Rock Paper Shotgun. Although this is our first game with any significant profile, I think we as individuals probably had a bit more profile than some people new to Kickstarter. There are certainly people who have struggled while being really amazingly talented. I was talking to the guys from Moonbot who are doing The Golem. Moonbot is a big animation studio -- 40 or 50 people in the animation world. They’re renowned. They have a couple of guys that are famous animators, a famous children’s illustrator, and in the game world nobody knows who they are. There’s no excitement about The Golem at all. The project looks incredible, the artwork’s fantastic, and the idea is brilliant. It’s an amazing proposition, and yet in the gaming world, these guys have no profile at all. They’re only big in their own field.
I think just the fact that we have some traction in the game sphere did help us and I think it’s helping others, if they come from the mod community, or if they have some kind of profile in indie games. There are other people that are trying to cash in on nostalgia and not getting anywhere.
James Carey: I think that’s sort of shown a bit with the way The Frontier sort of ran the initial part of their campaign -- they had people going “Where’s all the content that all these other Kickstarters are putting up?” I think it was helpful to have a plan for all kinds of videos, and have a plan from the outset for what we wanted to do, and when we wanted to be able to show certain stuff, and we wouldn’t run our Kickstarter until we had that. We were very clear that we wanted to have something to show people before we went on Kickstarter.
JR: Even then, we felt a bit like we didn’t have as much content as some of these more established guys that were able to reel off videos and reel off art. We don’t have an in-house artist. We’re just not big enough for that. So we weren’t able to roll out some of the stuff that these established studios were able to. Those guys have the resources to convince people, and to promise more than we could promise when we’re just a couple of guys, which I think makes a big difference to how the pitch is perceived and how convinced people are at a glance.
JC: We were determined to show a level of professional polish. We said we’re going to try and not show any kind of broken bits or any kind of placeholder UI or broken geometry or things like that. So people seeing it actually get a real idea of what the game’s going to be, and what they’re going to get, what we’re aiming to deliver.
JR: You’re starting to get a little bit of a backlash on Kickstarter now. Starting to get some high-profile names not getting the resources they expect and stuff like that. I think the way we approached it may end up being the way that Kickstarter has to work, even if you’re someone with a name, which is that, “Look, we really are a long way into this. We have committed to it. Look at all the stuff we’ve done.” I mean, we’ve put [in] a large amount of our own money and a huge amount of our time. It was six months before we went for a Kickstarter, so we were fully entrenched at that point, really going for it.
Perhaps that’s not possible for larger studios with bigger overheads, but for us, it was everything. I mean we were already committed to it, so I think there’s a difference between guys who are going to make it work somehow, and these larger studios that have failed to do anything by saying, “This project just isn’t going to work unless we get Kickstarter money,” which is perhaps a shame in some cases.
DD: How do you scope your game for Kickstarter to make sure your pitch seems exciting without overpromising on what you can deliver with the game?
JR: The biggest factor for us was that we basically put our own money into it, so we said, “We have this much, let’s get as much done as we can on the basis of that budget and see where we are.” I mean, we hadn’t done a game like this before, though we’ve spent a few years exploring related technologies. This was the big one for us, our big, exploratory, experimental thing.
We just wanted to see what we could make with the money we’ve got, and that was the sort of deciding factor for when we would go for Kickstarter. I think we realized pretty early in that process that Kickstarter would be the best prospect. It was really coming into its own at the time, plus it gave us full ownership, so all the reasons people usually go for Kickstarter appealed to us as well. But I think the other thing we discussed quite early on was: Given that we had some money and time, the best way to make the pitch really strong was to work out what the game was going to be, and get as far toward that as we could.
So nothing that was promised was out of bounds for what we wanted to get done, no matter how much it would take to achieve it. I think we perhaps benefited a bit from how ambitious we were anyway -- it was just quite an ambitious idea for a game, using some technology that gets a lot of profile, but that you don’t necessarily see being used the way that we’re using it.
DD: How do stretch goals change your scope?
JC: Stretch goals are really weird. You’re constantly in development thinking about whether something is viable or not, and the kind of stuff that you need to do, or if something that you can do isn’t working, or if it’s working so well you want to have more things like it. So you’re constantly testing what you think the balance of the game needs to be.
Stretch goals kind of fall into that for me. They’re kind of stuff that you have on your “nice to have” list but that aren’t really essential.
JR: I had a conversation with Andy Schatz (<