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