[In this, the first part of a two-part series, Gamasutra takes a look at whether indie developers can get the money they need from crowdfunding, speaking to successful and unsuccessful developers, as well as investigating whether popular site Kickstarter is the only viable option.]
Funding a game isn't easy. And that's especially true for small, independent developers. Unless you happen to have a nest egg of savings laying around, manage to catch the eye of a publisher, or are lucky enough to live somewhere with readily available government funding, your choices are limited. And one of those choices is to ask for donations through crowd-sourced funding services like Kickstarter and 8-Bit Funding.
These services let creators of all stripes, including game developers, list their projects, a funding goal, and a deadline. Potential donators can browse these projects and decide which, if any, they want to donate to and how much they want to give. If a project manages to reach its goal by the deadline, the creators get to keep the funds.
But even though this option is freely available, not every project manages to successfully score enough funding. Different factors determine why people will decide to donate to one game, as opposed to another.
Whether or not a developer already has an audience, for example, can be a big determining factor. As can the project itself: different types of games attract different levels of interest.
Crowdsourcing Saves the World
Zeboyd Games recently managed to successfully fund a project on Kickstarter. After releasing the parody RPG Cthulhu Saves the World on Xbox Live Indie Games to some acclaim, the small studio decided to get to work on a PC port of the game. Problem was, Microsoft pays XBLIG developers on a quarterly basis. And since Cthulhu was released at the end of 2010, that meant that Zeboyd wouldn't see any royalties until May.
So, after a recommendation from a friend, the studio decided to try utilizing Kickstarter to fund the project.
The initial funding goal was $3,000, but in just two days the project managed to surpass the $2,500 plateau. And after a little over two weeks that number more than doubled, with over $5,300 raised.
"I thought $3,000 raised over a month was pretty ambitious on our part," said Zeboyd's Robert Boyd. "I had no idea that we would end up raising that amount in just a handful of days."
Cthulu Saves the World
Boyd puts the success of Cthulhu down to a variety of factors, including the popularity of the character in internet culture, as well as the studio's already existing fan base. But it was also a matter of convincing people that what he was working on was something worthwhile.
"You really need to prove to people that you're worth taking a chance on and not just another wannabe game developer that isn't going to actually finish anything," said Boyd. "A good reputation from past projects helps immensely, but even if it's your first game, you can still make an impressive trailer and garner support that way."
Kickstarter also features a reward system that lets those seeking funding offer special bonuses to potential supporters. Depending on how much a user contributes, the reward is more substantial. In the case of Cthulhu, Zeboyd offered everything from a copy of the game and a signed poster to a short story created by the game's writer.
But in spite of how successful the funding experiment turned out to be, Boyd said that he hopes the studio won't have to test the crowdsourced funding waters again. However, even if the studio isn't in need of funding, he does see one potential application for the service in the future.
"It might be useful to use Kickstarter for gauging demand for a project: use it as a sort of preorder system where if you get enough preorders, you greenlight the project."
A Learning Experience
Not every project ends up being the success story that Cthulhu turned out to be. Last year Brandon Wu -- a former global business development manager at Sony who took the leap into indie development -- decided to give the service a try to fund his studio's debut game Megan and the Giant. But the game only managed to garner $931 of its $3,456 goal.
Wu believes that there are two deciding factors when it comes to the success of a project on Kickstarter: a pre-existing audience and substantial marketing.
"Even though the project was featured on Kickstarter and mentioned on a few media outlets, I failed to have either of these two factors," he explained. "Studio Pepwuper was in its infancy and I was a recent corporate convert still learning the ropes in indie game development. There was no existing fan base to tap into."
Wu also scheduled the funding period to coincide with a three week trip to England, which wasn't ideal when it came to marketing his project. Additionally, the funding period was also just four weeks long, which he believes was not enough time to get the word out.
But even though his first encounter with Kickstarter wasn't a success, Wu doesn't seem to be discouraged about the potential of crowdfunding. Instead, he views it as a valuable learning experience and something he might consider using again for future projects.
Though there are a few things he would do differently.
"If I could do it again, I would make sure I allowed sufficient time to put more effort into getting publicity for the project. I would also reach out to more blogs and online communities, and actively manage the communication with people who are interested in the project. At the end of the day, raising funds on Kickstarter is like raising funds anywhere else, it is a full time job to sell your idea."
One of the drawbacks for Kickstarter when it comes to funding indie games, is that the developers not only have to compete with other games, but also a wide range of other projects; everything from self-published comic books to ambitious new inventions. There are a lot of options for potential contributors looking to help fund something new and cool.
8-Bit Funding is hoping to solve this by offering a similar service that's dedicated entirely to games.
A Place Just For Games
The service was founded by Geoff Gibson, who also created indie gaming blog DIYgamer. The idea for 8-Bit Funding sprang up when Gibson noticed a discrepancy between the amount of money that the average game project was able to earn on Kickstarter versus how much non-game projects were raising. "It got to the point where film and design projects were able to pull in upwards of $50,000 on a regular basis and game projects continued to struggle to acquire even a tenth of that amount," he said.
So he decided to create something similar, but with a focus entirely on games. And Gibson explained that the specialization is not only key -- it's a fact of life for gaming.
"Gaming traditionally has never meshed well with other media types before," he said. "I mean, as gamers we typically get our news from sites like IGN, Kotaku, and Gamasutra, not the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal. Gaming has always been segregated from the mainstream consumer."
In addition to its focus, 8-Bit also has at least one other advantage over Kickstarter: it's international. Because the service uses PayPal instead of Amazon Payments, it's accessible to developers outside of the U.S, unlike Kickstarter.
The other benefit, according to Gibson, is marketing. While, like Kickstarter, the responsibility of marketing projects on 8-Bit is in the hands of the developer, Gibson explained that the sheer fact that the site is focused exclusively on games eases this burden quite a bit.
"It has been my experience that most developers are not great marketers," he said. "A few are, but the overwhelming majority of the ones I've worked with just don't really know how to reach the common gamer. Using a site like Kickstarter puts developers in the awkward position of going beyond trying to explain their game to other gamers, but also trying to explain their game to people who might have never even played a game before."
"How many people outside the gaming community honestly know what an RTS is? Or even the high concept of a role playing game? Starting a project at 8-Bit Funding takes that equation out. Developers only have to worry about appealing to other gamers, people that they can relate to and communicate with on an easier marketing level."
As of the time of this writing, only one game has successfully achieved its funding goal through 8-Bit. Expedition: The New World, a rouguelike about fifteenth century Spanish explorers, managed to surpass its modest goal of $700 in just 10 days.
One of the other early success stories for the service is Cardinal Quest. The Flash-based dungeon crawler developed by Tametick has the highest level of donations so far, and is currently the only game to have topped the $4,000 plateau, though it's still a ways away from its ultimate goal of $6,000. The two-man development team behind the project is hoping to raise enough money to work on the game full time.
And like Gibson, they believe that the specialization of 8-Bit is a good thing.
"People coming to [8-Bit Funding] are coming specifically for games," developer Ido Yehieli said. "That kind of targeted audience is worth a lot to game makers trying to finance their projects."
Both Yehieli and co-developer Corey Martin work full time jobs in addition to developing Cardinal Quest, and their ultimate goal is to earn enough money to take some time off and complete the game in two months of working full time, as opposed to a year or more just working evenings and weekends.
Once complete, they hope to sell the Flash license and then use that money to fund both a desktop and mobile version of the game.
While he initially began using 8-Bit as little more than an experiment, his early experience has convinced Yehieli that the service has a lot of potential.
"8-Bit Funding came at just the right time and if successful I believe it could change the nature of the game for indie developers worldwide," he said. "I think it is important for us to have our own site that focuses on indie gaming. In more general use sites games tend to be pushed to the side compared to other types of work and their community does not particularly care about indie games."
"Of course being open to non-Americans, unlike Kickstarter, was also a significant draw, as I am located in Europe."
But while a few early games have achieved success on the service, Yehieli doesn't believe that 8-Bit Funding or other similar services are appropriate for every type of game. It's not a coincidence that both Cardinal Quest and Expedition: The New World are both browser games, as opposed to something of a much larger scale. He explained that there are two types of developers that wouldn't necessarily fit the crowd sourced model.
"The first are people without a track record of finished games and without a solid base of players who know what they are capable of and can get the ball rolling," Yehieli said. "I think people might be reluctant to support such developers, fearing the games will never actually get made. The second group is people with very large scope projects who might require a lot more funds than [8-Bit Funding]'s audience is willing to provide. We can see it now in the fact that the projects who requested the highest amounts on [8-Bit Funding] are the ones who are experiencing the least success."
Crowdfunding is opening up new opportunities for indie developers, giving them access to financial opportunities that previously didn't exist. For small developers it can be the difference between whether or not a game gets made. But clearly these services aren't suitable for everyone.
For expensive, large-scale projects, it can be difficult to raise the amount of money necessary. And, just like everything else, those creators who are already known and have an audience have an advantage over new up and comers. It can also take a lot of self-promotion to successfully get the word out.
But there isn't really a drawback to testing the waters. It's a lot of hard work, but even if your game doesn't end up reaching its funding goal, the experience will likely be an educational one.
"Even though Megan and the Giant failed to raise the funding goal I was looking for, I learned a lot about my own project from the experience," said Wu. "Through having to market it to people before it was done, I had to define clearly what the project is and who it is for. Most of the work I did during the preparation for Kickstarter has been used again in the design and marketing efforts post-Kickstarter."
"Crowdsourcing is a good way to put you in the real world and it forces you to listen."