This article is a collaborative piece written by several Novaquark teamates, including:
Jean-Christophe Baillie, Jean-Baptiste Franjeulle, Ludovic Serny and Rick Heaton.
Developing and Crowdfunding the Ultimate Sandbox MMO Experience:
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
We’re Novaquark, an independent game development company that started in 2014 with just ten employees. We’re at almost thirty in mid-2017—and still hiring.
Last year we initiated a Kickstarter campaign for our first game, Dual Universe. In 2018, if everything goes as planned, we’ll release the game, having exceeded our funding goals. Our Kickstarter campaign for Dual Universe concluded on October 11th, 2016, having raised a total of 565,983€ (roughly $650,000), the equivalent of 113% of our project goal.
Successful Kickstarters for games usually involve a known studio, famous IP or famous game creators. We had none of those - so then how did we do it? The key factors which we will discuss in detail were to build a community early on, establish communications and PR channels and the careful orchestration of the Kickstarter itself. These, along with the originality and boldness of our idea, allowed us to reach a big and enthusiastic audience.
The campaign’s success showed us that we were on the right track, offering something the community wanted. Of course, we didn’t do everything right. Like every studio that chooses to go the crowdfunding route, we learned a lot during the campaign. Since crowdfunding for video games is currently more challenging than ever before, we wanted to tell our story to the game development community and share our experience and the lessons learned. And since we recently reached the first anniversary of the game’s reveal at E3 2016, the moment seemed right. Buckle up!
What Is Dual Universe?
With this game, we envisioned a more flexible and immersive game experience than any that had been achieved before. Dual Universe is a sandbox MMORPG taking place in a vast sci-fi universe. The game focuses on emergent gameplay—what happens is determined by the actions of players across the world, not pre-ordained by the devs. Our in-game world features a vast array of planets, and real people will be free to interact through player-driven in-game economy, politics, trade and warfare.
One very important aspect of our concept is that we wanted to let players not just explore worlds, but build them to the limits of their imagination. Players can freely modify the voxel-based universe by creating structures, spaceships or giant orbital stations, giving birth to empires and civilizations and then watching and tinkering to see how they play out. Crucially, this creative activity all takes place on one unique server. No instances, no zoning, no loadings. Because players all share the same persistent world at the same time, collective stories and histories will emerge as events shape the universe over time.
From day one, Dual Universe was envisioned as a project for the best gaming platform in terms of technology and ergonomics: the PC. But using existing PC technology and game development platforms quickly proved too limiting. To make our dream of emergent gameplay come true in a centralized unique server, we had to develop some innovative proprietary technologies. In particular two very challenging problems had to be solved: developing an innovative Continuous Single-Shard Cluster (CSSC) server solution, as well as a state-of-the-art voxel engine coupled to a range of procedural generation tools.
“Ambitious” is an understatement when it comes to our project. The vision that drives Novaquark is not at all something new, it is some kind of Grail for many gamers: To create an in-game experience where almost anything is possible; a sci-fi sandbox MMO where you and your friends can build, craft, explore, trade, fight and conquer as your imagination dictates. And we wanted it all to take place in a persistent universe without any loading times, transitions, or boundaries.
Dreams are a powerful motivator and have always pushed art, culture and entertainment forward. When Jean-Christophe "JC" Baillie founded Novaquark in 2014, he wanted to make this unfulfilled dream come true for both himself and players. JC has always been passionate about science, technology and video games and is specialized in theoretical physics, computer science, evolutionary linguistics, AI and robotics. This technical background allowed him to start working on a prototype of the key underlying technologies for Dual Universe, and when the first tests showed that he was on the right track he decided to create the company. With some initial investment from him and some funds from private investors, he went searching for an all-star team. Finding the right people—veterans from Ubisoft, Sony, Apple and Aldebaran Robotics—took time, but the project vision and ambition was a driving force for some very talented people, and soon the team reached a critical mass of 10 people and the process of turning the prototype into a real game could begin.
Industrializing the technology took time. As we worked away on building our voxel engine, CSSC tech and procedural generation for our planets, the company stayed under the radar until June 2016. It was then, two weeks prior to E3, that we released the first screenshots of the game. The feedback from supporters and game lovers was overwhelming, but best of all, four days later we were contacted by PC Gamer asking if we would be interested in making a presentation on stage at the PC Gaming Show during E3 2016.
This was a huge win for us at this stage of the project. It was the first time we had worked with the press, and hiring a PR agency, Home Run PR, undoubtedly helped us score this publicity.
Home Run did a great job securing the opportunity, but it left us with a challenge. We had just ten days to put together a video presentation for our first major public presentation. The team were caught by surprise and worked at double speed to put everything together. We worked like crazy, trying to develop the right tools to create video footage of our game. We were at a very early stage of development (the very first screenshots had just been published in mid-May), so we had no proper tools to record in-game footage yet. Making that first video was quite challenging, to say the least—but we knew missing the deadline was not an option.
When it was done, we were proud to show that first teaser for the game, which featured construct building possibilities, our fully editable single-shard voxel universe and emergent gameplay. After the release of the teaser, we were no longer in the shadows. The audience loved what they saw, and we were greeted with a big boost of traffic on our website, forum and social media channels. This public debut was the first step, and what we jokingly referred internally to as our "marathon-sprint" was only beginning.
The next step was adapting our funding model. Our project had been community-driven from the beginning, and at some point we knew that we would go down the crowdfunding path with a Kickstarter campaign. Running a successful Kickstarter depends on offering something lots of people want, and we figured we had that covered. With the space-sim genre more popular than ever thanks to crowdfunding darlings like Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous, and gamers hungry for a new breed of MMO, what could possibly go wrong?
Actually, a lot could go wrong. We knew from the start that fundraising wouldn't be a smooth ride. In 2016, asking for 500,000€, even for a buzzworthy game, was bold—especially for a young studio like Novaquark without any track record, nor a famous IP, and no big-name gaming veterans to give us instant credibility. We knew we’d need to boost our name recognition and show we were legit.
Another issue was how, exactly, we’d make a profit. We had opted for a subscription-based business model—not the most popular choice in a world filled with “free-to-play” games. The gaming industry is a world of incredible passion and incredibly tough competition. So we had to be realistic in our fundraising goals. The amount of money we were asking for was high for a video game crowdfunding campaign, but quite low in relation to our ambitions. Of course, that is something that lots of savvy players noticed, but we'll come to that later.
With all these potential roadblocks, we knew we couldn’t just write up a Kickstarter page and wait for the money to come rolling in. We want to say it clearly (as many other devs have in their own crowdfunding campaign postmortems): a Kickstarter should be the apex of your marketing effort, not the beginning.
We had to market to the right people, at the right time. Since we're developing a MMORPG, it's obvious that Dual Universe is made to bond with people and to showcase social interactions (friendly or not). So, aside from developing the game itself, the community is our top priority. That’s why early on (in July 2014), we hired a Community Manager to start building a player base around Dual Universe.
At the time, the game was only in pre-production, but the core idea of the project was exciting enough to get fans on board. Slowly, patiently and consistently, the team shared its progress via our forum and social media. Fans didn’t just hear about us once and forget about our project; they received regular updates and were treated like important stakeholders. We also built a double opt-in email database via our monthly newsletter in the summer of 2014. That was one of our best initiatives, and it has been critical to our success.
In June 2016, we made another important step: We launched our Community Portal. Having a forum is key, but it was also very important for us to allow our community to gather in a dedicated space and to interact with us and each other. Even though the game wasn’t ready, we provided a space where the community could create customized profiles and begin creating their Organizations (Dual Universe’s version of a Guild) well in advance of its release. This whetted potential players’ appetites and helped the as-yet-unreleased game feel more real to them. Our portal has helped us establish a core community that will continue to grow through launch and beyond. Even though still in a basic form, it is a key pillar for us as developers and for the players to help them make the game “their own”.
During this time, we had a lot to keep our newly hired Community Developer busy. A key goal was making sure lots of people heard about our Kickstarter campaign. Growing the email database before the campaign launch was one of the first tasks assigned to our Community Managers. In order to collect email addresses, we earmarked an acquisition budget for advertising via Facebook. Nobody on the team was an expert on user acquisition, but through small steps and a trial-and-error iterative approach, we managed to steadily grow the newsletter subscriber base. That paid off later.
We also knew that cross-promotion would be important, so we contacted several studios and industry veterans. We received positive feedback from Brian Fargo (inXile Entertainment), whom our Founder and CEO JC met during E3. Chris Roberts (Cloud Imperium Games) was also very kind to us too. We also received support from ArtCraft Entertainment (developer of successfully Kickstarted MMO Crowfall), Portalarium (Shroud of the Avatar) and Obsidian Entertainment! Receiving support from industry legends was an incredible memory that we remain very thankful for.
Audience was key, but so were the specifics of our pitch. We paid careful attention to the design of our pledges, studying various crowdfunding post-mortems (successful or not) to try to get as much experience on the subject as possible. Every Kickstarter needs to set up an array of support levels and reward offers, and we wanted to get it right. We took advice from qualified experts like ICO Partners' Thomas Bidaux, who helped us to offer something coherent and fair to our backers.
Well, we tried to do this, but we could have done better on this aspect and should have known better (we were warned before, so we have no excuse). Some of our rewards were far from perfect. One cause of grief: Once a pack is live, it's forever live the second a backer puts money into it. That Kickstarter limitation can cause issues since, to our knowledge, it was not possible at the time of our campaign to erase a pack or replace it with a better one if you had second thoughts. Some backers objected to some of our packs, but we had to keep them up on our page while adding new ones that better met users’ wishes. We learned that the hard way, and community feedback was essential here (we'll come back to that later).
Another very important point: we knew we would need to update the community very regularly, both with planned content and with ad hoc, responsive content to cover all the unanticipated stuff that just comes up. We had a social media plan, blog posts and video roadmap ready to provide news to the community every 24 or 48 hours. This is important, as a crowdfunding campaign needs to have a real rhythm to maintain interest and engagement from actual and potential backers. We think we succeeded on this count. Basically, half of the Kickstarter updates were planned in advance on our roadmap, and the second half were more improvised, responding directly to the most common questions from backers. Kickstarter updates have to be lively, and written in large part in reaction to feedback. It's a half-planned, half-improvised dialog.
We also tried to respond to backers as quickly and openly as possible across all of our engagement points: Kickstarter, our forums, social media, as well as through customer support. Building trust through an open and honest dialog with the community is vital to us.
In all our community engagement, we tried to stack the deck in our favor, giving our fans reasons to tell their friends, families and the whole galaxy that Dual Universe was worth their attention, time and commitment.
Our crowdfunding campaign was in part based on rather bold promises. With those big promises comes big responsibility, including the need for honest communication. That’s the approach we’ve taken from the start and will continue to follow in the future. It’s healthy, and we think it’s the right thing to do. And industry experience bears out that when it’s absent, things can go wrong. We can all think of several high-profile titles that disappointed or angered fans by failing to deliver on what was promised.
We never want our fans to feel shortchanged. And so far, we have been, and continue to be, amazed by their passion and enthusiasm.
So why did we choose Kickstarter, and what advantages and benefits did we expect from that mode of fundraising?
Games have become cheaper to make over the past decade thanks to the democratization of game engines and middleware for the majority of releases. But when you talk about making an MMO, things are way more complicated and costly. Games of this type inevitably take a lot of resources to create. That’s especially true for us, since we faced the challenge of solving technical questions that, to our knowledge, nobody had solved before in any released video game.
Finding a traditional publishing deal might have been one way of obtaining those needed resources, but for us, it was hardly an option. We weren’t yet very well known in the industry and didn’t have the kind of connections that might have allowed us to land such a deal. Looking at our options realistically, we knew that the newer and less conventional crowdfunding route was more promising for us.
Another reason for turning to crowdfunding was the nature of our business model: subscriptions. In the PC gaming space in particular, except for a few veteran titles, the standard subscription model (along with the physical “box copy”) has all but vanished in favor of an on-demand, “always open,” 24/7 digital distribution model. Free-to-download, “free-to-play” microtransaction-based models have been in the ascendant for years. But making their games “free” often forces developers to rely on deceptive tricks to make their games profitable, like artificially altering the game flow to create unnecessary needs, take away basic comfort elements and charge for them, or deliberately slowing down players’ progression to sell boosters… (the list is long). We knew that wasn’t right for us and we posted our thoughts about that on our DevBlog long before our campaign to inform our community.
With a subscription model, we could make a fair profit from our game without compromising our vision or making any false promises. We knew adopting such an “unpopular” payment model would make publishers even less likely to take a risk on us. That made it even more logical to take our pitch directly to the public via crowdfunding.
We know that fortune favors the bold. When players get excited for a new experience, they want to participate. By being bold in our efforts, we hoped to tempt players into taking a calculated risk on us. That was where we were a year ago—a totally unknown indie studio still some three months away from launching our Kickstarter, self-funded by visionary investors, with a revolutionary concept, a new IP, and bold new technologies—about to show our game to the public for the first time on one of the biggest stages imaginable: E3.
We’re happy to say that the community recognized our ambition and shared our vision. Reactions to our project since E3 2016 have been great.
The Roller Coaster
We launched our Kickstarter on September 7th, 2016, with almost no name recognition beyond our growing community of fans. We were featured as a “Project we love” by the platform, though. The whole experience was a crazy roller-coaster ride.
Despite strong support from our incredible community, we kept an anxious eye on the money counter. As the clock started to tick, we wondered if we were going to make it. We knew exactly what a successful Kickstarter campaign would mean:
- Help finance the production and hire more people to deliver the best MMO possible
- Grow and reinforce the community through word of mouth and PR
- Demonstrate to our investors that the market wants Dual Universe
- Get precious feedback about the business model
- Secure new funds from our existing shareholders to stay as independent as possible
- Be in a better negotiating position if we ever had to sign with a publisher or any other partner later
With all of this in mind, it made sense to ask for the maximum amount of funding we could realistically aim for. We tried to push our luck as far as possible, but the context of crowdfunding in 2016 wouldn't have allowed much more than our chosen target of 500,000€.
We were cautiously optimistic. We knew the potential of Dual Universe, but the context was so challenging that nothing was certain and doubt never really left us until the last few days where we finally hit our goal.
The experience was as exhilarating as it was exhausting. Kickstarter campaigns tend to have periods of rapid growth, and periods of seeming stagnation. We knew we'd probably have a "U-shaped" curve of player investment and that’s just about what happened.
Investment levels were promising for the first few days and trailed off to a steady rate following that. We were funded 4 days before the end of our goal. With such tight timing, hitting our 600,000€ first stretch goal seemed touch and go, to say the least. We ended up at 565,983€ ($650,000, approximately), and to thank our backers, we decided to swap two stretch goals to reward them, as explained in an Update that we published to announce our success.
Despite these good results, we must remain cautious. We knew the size of the task that awaited us, and the need to manage things with care to stick to our plan and deliver results.
As intended, our success proved our point: lots of MMO enthusiasts, sandbox lovers, building aficionados and sci-fi fans want Dual Universe. As a result, our investors’ belief in the project has only deepened, and they are eager to support us even more. Our community trusts us too, and we continue to collect the needed funds for the game via our own crowdfunding portal (we'll come back at that later too). Despite all the good news, we're not "rich" and must keep an eye on every penny, every day to manage our funds and stay on track.
Other benefits from the campaign:
- +8,000 new Facebook fans (from Sep. 7 to Oct. 11 2016); +15,000 (from July 18 to Oct. 11 2016)
- +2,000 new Twitter followers (from Sep, 7 to Oct, 11 2016); +3,200 (from August, 1 to Oct. 11 2016)
- +100-150% increase in www.dualthegame.com average visits (from Sep. 7 to Oct. 11 2016)
- 24,000 new newsletter subscribers (from June 1 to Oct. 11 2016, with some acquisition between the beginning of August and September, mostly by Facebook Ads)
- +860 new Organizations created (from July 8 to Oct. 11 2016)
- +5,300 new Dual Universe accounts created (from June 13 to Oct. 11 2016)
What Went Right
We've never stopped being amazed by the passion and commitment of our fans for our project. Being at the center of such a community is surreal in a way, and we feel vested with a great responsibility here. As a designer, you create games not only for yourself, but mostly for others. Dual Universe started out as the dream of Novaquark's Founder, JC, true enough, but it's a dream that has become shared by so many people. Fans and backers alike showed incredible love and support by spreading the word, advocating in favor of the game when we hit a few bumps in the road, and giving us useful and actionable feedback. They were the first to support Dual Universe on Kickstarter, giving us much-needed "day-one momentum.” Our current progress is the fruit of more than two years of patient work and conversation with the fans.
We know trust is always fragile, so we're really grateful to our loyal community and backers, and eager to keep earning that trust.
E3 2016 reveal
The E3 first splash was decisive to our success. Or so we think. Our game is not known by everybody (yet, hopefully), but that exposure gave us enough traction to properly engage what was coming next. Media coverage is important, and we'll talk about that in a moment.
Flexible content roadmap
To win people over, you need to release the right information, pitched to their needs and interests. We had a good general idea of what our updates would be about. We knew we wanted to focus on tech at the beginning because, although we know it’s nerdy and geeky, discussing tech was crucial to convincing people we were for real.
We're working on stuff that, to our knowledge, has never been achieved before. Doubt and skepticism are real, and we try to show players that our technology is robust. Tech videos give a glimpse of what we're currently working on and the questions we're trying to solve or have solved already.
This being said, there’s always the unexpected, and when it pops up you have to react. So thanks to community and backer feedback, we changed our plans when needed and provided more explanations about what we were doing when necessary. For example, when our subscription-based model was not well received or understood, we published a dedicated Kickstarter update (our very first one, actually). While our business model makes sense (subscription + tradable monthly sub tokens, à la Eve Online before its recent changes), it’s not easy to explain without context and an actual system in place to demonstrate. Who said we took the easy road?
Rewards were another key aspect of keeping fans happy. When the community asked for digital rewards instead of just physical ones, we created new packs and explained our action (that was Kickstarter update #2).
When we saw that more questions from fans were starting to appear, some with a skeptical or defiant tone, we decided to throw an open-door event and to invite people to come play the game at our office.
To accompany more scheduled content like our videos, devblog-style updates and campaign status-related posts, we also launched a Reddit "AMA" session, which went well. And we made a video that addressed some of the questions and concerns that seemed important at the time.
During E3 in 2016, JC had the opportunity to meet with great people like Brian Fargo, an advisory board member of the video game crowdfunding platform Fig. We considered Fig as well as various other platforms, but after weighing their merits and discussing our options with these industry heavyweights, we decided to choose Kickstarter for our campaign.
We were excited to get public support from some of the people we most admire. Brian is a gaming legend and he agreed to be quoted on our Kickstarter page to support us. During Wasteland 3's crowdfunding campaign, we gave a shout out in return, talking up the guys at Brian’s Studio, InExile Entertainment, and their game via our newsletter (Kickstarter Diary #4).
Beyond the quotes on our Kickstarter page, other kinds of support from industry veterans were important. Chris Roberts (Cloud Imperium Games) wrote a Note from the Chairman that said lots of good stuff about Dual Universe. We almost immediately saw a bump in backers in the following days. Since it arrived in the "desert phase" of the campaign, it was a relief and gave us a much-needed morale boost.
We also received support from ArtCraft Entertainment, the maker of crowdfunded MMO Crowfall, from Portalarium, makers of Shroud of the Avatar, and from Obsidian Entertainment, makers of Pillars of Eternity and Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire. We're professionals, sure, but first and foremost we’re passionate gamers, and seeing that so many talented studios backed us or tweeted about Dual Universe was an immense joy!
It’s awesome to see that developers can encourage each other to make crowdfunding and the whole industry grow and become better. When we support each other, everybody wins, professionals and gamers.
Our meet-up in Paris
With all the questions people were asking—and, let's be honest, the suspicion towards indie devs these days—we decided to organize an open-door event at our office in Paris. We invited backers and non-backers alike as well as the media to come play a Pre-Alpha build of Dual Universe and to talk with the team. We expected around thirty people, and we ended at roughly seventy in total (despite relatively short notice)!
A few days later we released a video with player interviews in a dedicated Kickstarter update (#10). The video showed the positivity and enthusiasm of those who attended. It was really nice meeting people that way. One backer even came from Germany just for this event!
We think that this helped us demonstrate our commitment to talking with our fans, and crafting our games as we say we do. This has contributed to a strong level of trust within our community and it’s reflected by fans’ willingness to take us at our word. We’re very humbled by their trust and approach each day with the knowledge that we have to work hard to maintain it.
The appropriate funding goal and pledge structure
We've mentioned before that we think asking for 500,000€ was the right choice. It was a challenge, for sure, but it was the right balance between too much and not enough. There were times when we were worried, of course, and we're still amazed to have succeeded, all things considered.
One tricky strategic question was how much to ask per pledge for backers to receive rewards. Compared to many similar games, we had a low cost of entry: 12€ ($13.50). That means that despite trust issues and hostile context, the risk was relatively low for interested gamers. It was a way to allow many people to invest without risking too much.
There was also the question of where to set the higher pledge levels. We deliberately fixed the Alpha access at a high point, 100€, but with a good reason. The way we see things, Alpha access is something very different from Beta or Early Access. Alpha members, from our point of view, are people who have implicitly agreed to help us improve the game by giving detailed and actionable feedback to the team. Alpha is not intended as a "first look" or for people who want to "have fun before others.” We think of Alpha almost as a responsibility. It’s a very important one that we take very seriously, and that helps us make the best game possible for everyone.
For that reason, we see the Alpha Tester status as intended for players wanting to support and help the dev team to improve the game, beyond just the desire of “having fun.” Of course, we are also granting Alpha access to highly engaged members of the community—those who consistently provide the team with constructive feedback or contribute to the positive growth of the community in other relevant ways.
The main takeaway of our experience with setting a crowdfunding goal? We thought carefully about picking an achievable amount, and we believe that paid off. Our calculation that 500,000€ was just barely within reach proved correct. But the process didn’t end when the Kickstarter campaign was over. Demand to back us continued to emerge from players. For example, lots of people were not able to pledge because PayPal isn't supported by Kickstarter. So a few weeks after the end of the campaign, we developed and launched our own crowdfunding portal. Players were happy to be able to pledge via various payment methods or to upgrade their Kickstarter packs. As Dual Universe is more visible since the Kickstarter, newcomers are able to jump on board and back us, which is awesome.
What Went Wrong
Too many packs
We wanted to offer the right number and type of reward packs. We tried to be thoughtful, but we could have done better here. Once you create a pack on Kickstarter and a single person pledges for it, it's impossible to suppress it (at least it was in 2016). We suppose this measure was put in place to prevent shady project creators from removing perks from packs without warning those who already backed the project. More generally, it's totally understandable that once a backer has pledged, they expect the specific list of perks they were promised, and it wouldn't be acceptable to change it afterwards.
The problem we encountered is that we had to add additional packs, while also keeping the ones we originally envisioned. We underestimated demand for digital-only rewards. So we ended up "converting" the physical items we designed into what we thought were fair digital equivalents. It made the number of packs balloon to a ridiculous number - twenty-eight packs were now available! The offer was flexible for sure, but hardly readable in the end, and hard to manage on our side via Kickstarter’s tools.
Why did we struggle with this aspect of the campaign? We could have been more thorough in our thinking here and should have listened more to recommendations we got from specialists prior to the campaign. Even submitting our proposed packs to a select group of ultra-valuable community members prior to launch didn’t help us avoid all the possible headaches.
In hindsight, even if we had done everything “right,” we would still likely have had to adapt our offers on the go as the community provided feedback (though we probably wouldn’t have ended up with twenty-eight packs). Fortunately, the process as a whole went relatively well, but dealing with the many rewards and questions surrounding them cost us some unnecessary and unwanted extra work. It added stress in an already stressful time! It would probably have been easier to manage things if an add-on system had been available.
No playable version accessible to public
To quote ICO Partner's Thomas Bidaux on his piece on GamesIndustry.biz in the end of 2016: "As John Romero discovered in April, it is not possible anymore to get funded if you don't have a demo, or at least some gameplay to preview.” Well, we proved him wrong. But even though we managed to succeed anyway, this statement is still very relevant.
It's complicated to give access to an MMO at such an early stage, and offline/solo projects clearly have an advantage here. We saw that dynamic in place with System Shock, for example. Releasing a prototype for free for the campaign was smart, and surely contributed to Night Dive Studios’ success.
Not having a public version at the time didn't help us with streamers and other content creators. Many were super interested in streaming Dual Universe. Unfortunately, we couldn't give them that at the time. What we did instead was offer them an interview with JC via conference call. Since the majority of streamers focus on a “show and tell” experience rather than a Q&A presentation, we didn’t have a lot of takers.
Looking back, being able to offer streamers and backers pre-alpha access would have helped us, but that was just impossible. We had to deal with it. That's something that surely didn't help with regard to the issue discussed in the following section.
PR coverage: Crowdfunding Scandals and the No Man's Sky Controversy
Wait, didn't we say in the "What Went Right" section that PR coverage and the E3 reveal went well and that it was decisive to our success? Yes, we did and it was, but just as we got things rolling we bumped into an invisible wall.
The interest people have in the project is real, but the problem is that we're now in an era of suspicion. Generally speaking, people are more suspicious than ever of information and the source of that information. This is not unique to the video game industry. The concept of truth is harder to define now that the Internet is so prominent in all our lives. Information is everywhere, but who to trust? Developers? Publishers? Media outlets? Streamers? Who’s virtuous, honest, and on our side? We’ve seen many scandals and controversies in the game industry over the past 15 to 20 years. So players have become increasingly wary of giving their trust, and their money, to anyone. It’s understandable.
Recently we’ve seen a number of reports implying that gaming outlets, independent developers, publishers, streamers, gambling portals, crowdfunded games, and others are failing to deal with their audience in a fully honest and open way. The media stance has become one of default skepticism. The positive stories about crowdfunding are largely a thing of the past. Now, negative and shocking news about crowdfunding and the companies that use it seems to emerge more and more frequently, or at least are covered in increasingly negative ways. All of this leaves many with an overall negative opinion of what crowdfunding is. Even if only a minority is involved in shady practices (or practices that some view that way), the majority gets punished. What you often hear is: "your game looks awesome, go get your funds, deliver, then you'll get coverage."
We understand why media can sometimes be reluctant to cover crowdfunded games, even if said games desperately need to be covered to maximize their chances of being successful. But it's a very real challenge for indie studios to exist in such an environment. Still, we had to finance our game. We’ve already talked about the "desert phase" in the middle of the campaign. After a great start, a strange trend appeared in the comments around week 2: the "wait and see” attitude. Potential backers didn’t want to commit until the game was already out and successful.
The influx of such comments was probably due to the fact that many of our loyal community members had already pledged to support us, and we had begun to appeal to a broader audience. This was an audience that hadn’t yet developed that same level of trust and understanding our existing community possessed.
Of course, we were also affected by what we can call “the No Man's Sky crisis”—despite having nothing to do with it at all. No Man’s Sky initially dashed a lot of hopes when it failed to fully deliver at launch. So much promise, so much potential—a "dream about to come true"; the game that would be the ultimate space sim. Unlike our game, No Man’s Sky wasn’t designed to be massively multiplayer from the beginning. But with space exploration and procedural generation in common, it was inevitable that gamers and journalists would make comparisons. Doubts, skepticism and cynicism started to spread through the comments on Kickstarter and across social media. Some gamers would now take a brief glance at the project and quickly pass judgement: "Another No Man's Sky, huh? No thanks!" Or they’d take a wary approach: "Seems cool, okay, but come back with a finished game and you'll have my support. Bye." All of this, coupled with our subscription-based business model that many players didn't understand ("Whaaaaaaat, it's not free to play!?") had begun to cause us sleepless nights.
We had to fight against these preconceived notions each and every day to convince players to pledge. To convince media outlets that we were worth considering despite a growing “no coverage for crowdfunded projects” attitude in the industry. And to convince potential backers to take the leap now, not wait until it was too late. In short, the “wait and see” attitude became a threat. Without wanting to be too dramatic, it could have killed us.
So how did we react? While some other crowdfunded MMO projects failed outright or adopted some questionable or controversial business practices, we chose to stay true to our original principles of openness and communication, honesty and transparency.
Making games is hard—we all know that. Managing expectations and communicating effectively with your audience is also hard when people are more and more game-savvy and have "AAAxpectations" for everything, limited wallets, even more limited time and dwindling attention spans. To complicate things further, crowdfunded games sometimes share parts of their community with other crowdfunded games. When a game announces some bad news to its community, these overlapping community members start to worry about a similar thing happening to you—concerns they hope you’ll be able to quickly alleviate. Of course, this all happens at one of the worst possible moments: during your Kickstarter.
That’s one potential danger of the process that we learned as we went: Despite all your efforts to be transparent, you're still held accountable for actions and events that you were never part of and that were never part of your plans. This issue didn’t sink our campaign, but it’s a hurdle on the personal and emotional level. Though it may feel like you’re on trial every day for things others have done, you still have to manage the questions from your own backers honestly and openly. It can feel like consistently demonstrating your goodwill isn’t enough. We all have our own biases. We judge quickly. We understand that.
Anyway, we're engineers and rational guys (and big dreamers, too) and we didn't take anything for granted. Oh, and during that "desert phase," we also lost a Kyrium backer (7,000€). That was a tough blow, because there was little positive news about the game at the time, so the loss of a major backer didn’t go unnoticed. When something like that happens, regardless of the reasons, it doesn’t send a good signal to the community and other backers. It can be difficult to navigate the fallout, but once again, dealing with it honestly and transparently served us well.
Overall, trying to get the right type and amount of coverage was a challenge. When we finally did secure some coverage, we were often compared to No Man's Sky and we're not sure if this awareness didn't do more harm than good. But the press wasn’t all bad. JC gave some interviews and we had some cool exclusives that we're grateful for.
This issue with media also partially explains why we did the open-door event we previously mentioned. We had to dismantle suspicion with facts: We have a game (at least a playable prototype at that time), we have the tech, it's working.
In the final days of the campaign, exhausted like the whole team, JC talked about our PR issues openly in an interview with Eurogamer back in October 2016. It's a good piece we can quote: “Dual Universe is an exciting prospect, then, but it's got a big problem. After player expectations around No Man's Sky were brought crashing down to earth, it's hard getting people excited for another space sim. It's not really advisable to promise too much, lest you find yourself setting up the same traps Hello Games sprung after the release of its much-anticipated game. It's a problem that developer Dual Universe is currently wrestling with right now as it tries to get the Kickstarter for its game over the line.”
JC is further quoted in this article: “No Man's Sky has hurt us, very clearly," Jean-Christophe Baillie, an impeccably smart looking Frenchman, tells me as he finishes his short demo of Dual Universe in action. "This is a post-No Man's Sky era. People cannot do the same thing. There's a huge amount of distrust in the community. As you know we're doing a Kickstarter, and half of the comments are like “this is just No Man's Sky all over again.” We're struggling. We're not quite there yet because of that. Our statement is we totally understand what's going on, and our policy is to be totally transparent.”
Let’s be clear. All crazy hype aside, when you take No Man’s Sky only for what it is, it’s a fine game that can appeal to many gamers—especially with some recent updates by Hello Games that brought some new and relevant stuff. We’re not attacking the game here, we’re just talking about the controversy that arose around it and how the fallout impacted us. It's worth mentioning that Hello Games have been working hard to release significant updates and additions to their game. It’s a positive step that will benefit all indie developers in the long run.
You can't focus on keeping the hype train going at all costs. We all know that, especially in today’s environment. Making an MMO is hard, both technically and financially. We thought for a long time about what business model would suit us. We talked about it with the community on our forum and social media. We opted for a more difficult path (subscription-based), but the only one we felt would be able to sustain our dream game.
Dealing with a double-edged sword of PR coverage andhaving to make people conscious about what was at stake is stressful. To quote JC in the Eurogamer article one more time: “The game's not yet here, so there's a risk—there's the risk that we can't deliver, there are all sorts of risks—but there's the risk that it's this great game that it’s innovating and bringing something new. What we want to say to the community is don't throw everything into the No Man's Sky thing. You have to increase your level of demand, on which you're be able to base your decision to back the game. If you say no all the time, we won't be able to innovate. There's an age of maturity that is approaching, people are realizing they have to be careful about what they support, they shouldn't take words for granted. We're okay with that, and we want to be transparent and open.”
Business Model and the Essence of Crowdfunding
For players, how they’ll access and pay for a game is as important as the gameplay itself. Choosing a subscription model in 2016 for a game that will be out in 2018 (if everything goes as planned) is not easy to explain. Some players would have preferred something else. But to operate a single-shard server and maintain a motivated and dedicated healthy community, we believe this is the best approach.
We cannot overstate the role a supportive and engaged community has played in funding the game. We’ll continue to rely on that support to make Dual Universe a reality. This is why we opened our own crowdfunding portal in November 2016. Even with a successful Kickstarter under our belt, and support from investors, we will also need continued support from players.
Crowdfunding is not like pre-ordering. There is a risk associated with every pledge. It’s closer to a form of activism in a way. The community is supporting the development of a game that otherwise might not be made. With crowdfunding, players are "voting with their wallet," literally. By funding indie devs via platforms like Kickstarter or Fig, a player makes a statement. They’re not just a gamer; they become a sponsor.
Why invest? You're supposed to do it for the interest you have in the game itself, sure, but also for the love of being a patron to the studio and to help passionate people achieve a goal. Most people just don't get it, but it means accepting a certain amount of risk. We, as the developers, try to mitigate that risk as best we can by not over-promising, and by setting realistic goals based on the financial support at hand.
Our studio, Novaquark, is partly financed by investors, and their trust helped us to launch the Kickstarter campaign and make it this far. Now that we’ve showed them we can be successful, they want to support us more. We have always made it clear that we plan to remain as independent as possible. With private investors and crowdfunding, we can develop the game we want, the game our fans want, without having to compromise too much of our vision for Dual Universe.
At the time of our campaign, we were many months ahead of a big Kickstarter MMO success of 2017: Ashes of Creation. One of the numerous interesting points with Intrepid Studios’ game is its subscription-based business model. This project raised more than 3.2 million dollars from almost 20,000 backers and doesn’t even feature any subscription-token system. From our perspective, this reinforces our trust in the subscription business model as a healthy solution.
An Unwise Ending
When choosing our end date for the campaign, we tried to be smart and to follow advice from professionals. It's generally accepted that you should never end your campaign at the end of the month. People are often waiting for their next paycheck and, if low on funds, they shift their priorities accordingly. Of course, the shift won't be in favor of a video game when the fridge is empty, even if they really want to support you. So we fixed the end date for a Tuesday, the 11th of October. That ended up not being very well informed! As most of the team is French, but our audience leans American, we were not aware of Columbus Day. Traditionally, weekends and days off are not good for pledges. Even though we were funded a few days before that, it was a risky choice. It cost us several thousand dollars and if we really had been at the extreme limit of just being funded, the consequences could have been disastrous.
Concrete Lessons Learned and Advice
- Be passionate and real—people appreciate it
- Start gathering your community as soon as possible (several months before your crowdfunding campaign, if possible)
- Do your homework and be humble about designing your pledges. If possible, work with a specialist and think carefully about what to offer
- Physical goodies are popular, but do not underestimate digital-only rewards: Many players do not necessarily want physical stuff or to pay the extra shipping costs. You should consider giving the choice to your backers as to which they prefer. Try to offer equivalent value in your digital vs. physical pledges
- Try to evangelize and educate your audience (on crowdfunding, on development constraints and realities, on your business model if needed). Be forthright and transparent with your backers: Crowdfunding is not a pre-order but more like being a sponsor
- Don’t underestimate marketing. Invest time and planning. Of course, in a small studio, that time is "stolen" from production, but the truth is, it's a wise investment that can pay off tremendously later on
- Be careful not to get run over by your own hype train and lose the trust and support of your fans
- Try to plan your cross-promotion throughout your entire campaign to maintain momentum, especially in the dead middle “desert phase" where almost nothing happens and you're really worried
- Give tokens of gratitude: for example, we swapped two missed stretch goals to reward our community anyway
- Don't say "yes" to everything. With the exception of relevant feedback that shows the need for changes, stick to the script. When explained properly, "no" is a perfectly valid answer
- Accept the idea that even with the best preparation possible and even if your company’s future is at stake, you can’t control everything. Some things are totally out of your hands.
- Be prepared to deal with unrealistic expectations. Players tend to expect AAA quality and 10 years’ worth of content at launch. Even from indie studios. We aim for "Triple III" quality, and if we succeed, it will be a huge victory
If you’ve read this far, congratulations! Now you should have a better idea of how we planned and lived out our campaign.
Our experiences are inseparable from the state of the industry at this moment. The gaming world always evolves rapidly, and we should see interesting transformations in the coming years. Crowdfunding is becoming more mature, and building a community of passionate gamers that help you develop your ideas is not only possible, but necessary. It requires lots of time and energy but, hey: worth it!
Of course, we don’t pretend to have the magic recipe. Your personal recipe for success depends on your project, your vision, and your market. We have to explain our vision and method almost every day, since so many people doubt the crowdfunding path. We think an open approach is a great model—one where you can offer your vision and then crowdsource ideas and money to achieve better games by working closely with the community. While others have succeeded with different approaches (Double Fine, InExile Entertainment, Cloud Imperium Games, Obsidian Entertainment, Frontier Development, Amplitude Studios, Supergiant Games, Klei Entertainment, Red Hook Studios, and the list goes on), we would like to offer our own contributions too. Or at least try.
People have dreamt for many years of what we are trying to achieve. Everything has a cost, though. Dreams have a cost. Backing Dual Universe means making a statement. It means taking a reasonable risk by backing an indie studio that wants to bring something new to the table—something that probably couldn’t have been financed or greenlighted otherwise.
We’ve been very open about our goals. If we can entirely crowdfund Dual Universe with players’ money, that’s great. We'll stay as independent as possible and avoid compromising our vision too much. If reality catches up and we need further funding, our success with crowdfunding will make us stronger in our negotiations with third parties. It's better for the project and better for the players.
We want a bright future for the gaming industry. Good games. Innovative games. Crowdfunded. Publisher funded. Either way, it needs to be bold and ambitious.
When we look back, the last few months have been crazy. We came out of nowhere and suddenly had a lot of pressure on us. More than 9,000 backers to date (and counting) have put tremendous faith in us. We'll try to be worthy of that by working with them even more closely, and with the same passion as we always have. Our doors are open. Let's trust each other. Let's bet on intelligence for the future of MMOs and the future of gaming. In this overcrowded market, there are still things to experiment with, and new ways to define the independent studio model of tomorrow.
That’s our story and we hope you enjoyed reading it. We’ll remember these experiences for a very long time, and we hope hearing about them will help a few devs out there with their own crowdfunding attempts! A huge thank you to you all!