Hey there, this post is a transcript of information that I'm providing in a multi-part series describing our experiences running a Kickstarter game over the last 4 years. I figured this would be interesting to a few people on Gamasutra so I am choosing to share each part here in a written form, as well as a link to the video to check it out.
If you'd like to check out the source material, you can find it on YouTube or watch it here:
If you're more a fan of reading, you may continue below!
In 2014, we successfully Kickstartered an open-world surrealist horror game called Grave. We earned over $37,000 dollars on the campaign and were lucky enough to have the game featured in a huge number of popular outlets, including PC Gamer, Destructoid, Rock, Paper Shotgun, Polygon, Gamespot, Eurogamer, and a host of others. Our title was also played by a huge number of prominent YouTubers, including Pew Die Pie, Markiplier, Jacksepticeye, TwoBestFriends, and a ton of others. Our game was featured in Microsoft’s Press Conference at E3, and we were confirmed for release on both the Xbox One and PS4.
This all seemed great, except for one thing. It’s now 2018, and the game’s not done yet. Not only that, but we still have a ways to go to finish the game. At the moment, it looks like we’ll be in a good position to release the title in 2019, and there’s a lot of content in the game that we’re really proud of. Still, a valid question can, and frequently does get asked; how did you guys fall 3 years behind your projected completion date, and why should we believe that this game is ever coming out
These videos are a bit of an extension to an article I wrote on Gamasutra in 2015, where I expressed a lot of what it’s been like to run our company since the start of the Kickstarter. At that time, we had only been in operation for about 2 years, and it was a particularly low point for us. Some things have improved since then, and some things have still taken way longer than expected. But I felt like we were due for an update.
I also think we owe an explanation to not just the generous supporters who backed us on Kickstarter, but also all the people who have followed us on Twitter, Facebook, and in the news, who might want to ask us “hey, what’s up, where’s the game?”
There’s another reason for doing this though, and it’s a more practical one. When I started our plans for doing a Kickstarter in the fall of 2013, I didn’t really know what to expect and I didn’t find a lot of resources out there that could help me manage some of the larger considerations for going the crowdfunding route. I saw a lot of general tips and suggestions, but there weren’t a lot of people who would be blunt about their experience and the challenges that came from it.
I think there’s a combination of people being worried about revealing their secrets, not wanting to show how the sausage was made, or genuinely just not wanting to be judged negatively for their mistakes or missteps. This is all understandable, but in my personal experience, people tend to privately admit that they have a lot more fears, struggles and insecurities than they ever would publicly. I think this accidentally creates the perception that everyone but you is doing well and that nobody experiences challenges of their own. You only know about what you’re experience has been, and everyone else’s struggles tend to be a bit of a black box.
I prefer to be transparent about our experiences, even though I often stumble on communication. I get the impression that our experiences aren’t entirely unique and might actually be beneficial for other people to hear, be they aspiring project creators, press or audience members. I’ve avoided doing this for a while because I worried that it would be perceived negatively, and I didn’t want to seem like we were making excuses. I know that we got money from people who believed in our concept and supported us, and I don’t want to seem whiny or entitled. That being said, I know that the actions we’ve taken over the last 4 years have been earnest efforts to deliver a product that we really care about, and because of that, I think it’s important to share what the experience has been like. We’re not trying to pull a fast one or cancel the game, and our struggles have been real and contextual. We’ve made mistakes, we’ve planned incorrectly, and we’ve had to shift attention for periods of time to resolve financial difficulties, but we’re honest and hard working people who care about delivering something worthwhile to our fans.
If you watch these videos and you don’t like what I have to say, that’s fine, but it’s a genuine representation of what our experience has been and that’s the best I can do. Hopefully you come away from these videos with a better appreciation for what we’ve been doing and the challenges we’ve faced. If you’re a potential project creator yourself and considering crowdfunding, maybe this will give you some information that will help you decide if this is the right fit for you, or maybe I can call out some potential pitfalls so you don’t make the same mistakes we did. If you’re one of our Kickstarter backers, I really hope this helps explain some of our delays and missteps, and that you feel more confident after this that we’re trying to do the best we can with the cards we’re dealt. If you’re just interested in this subject as an observer, it’s worthwhile to know a little bit about what the experience can be like for content creators, even if you back crowdfunding projects, don’t back projects, or are considering backing projects in the future. Our experience is probably not the same as anyone else’s, but I’m confident that there will be parallels in many other projects to varying degrees.
So with that lengthy preamble out of the way, here we go. Here’s what it’s been like for us during the 4 years following the formation of our company and the completion of our Kickstarter campaign, and why our game is not out yet but we aren’t quitting until it’s done.
Chapter 1. Global Game Jam 2013
This conversation has to start with a pretty obvious, but perhaps deceptively simple question, which is why did we choose to do Kickstarter in the first place? That question requires a bit of background to answer, so I’ll just start at the beginning.
In 2012, I started a long-distance relationship with my future wife, Aby, who was living in the United Kingdom at the time. She came to visit me in the states in January, and because I’m a bit eccentric, I suggested that she take some of that time to participate with me in the Global Game Jam along with a few friends. The theme was “heartbeat,” so during the game jam, I decided to experiment with an idea I had for a more impressionistic survival horror experience based on the juxtaposition between day and night, where the player was safe during the daylight hours but vulnerable to attack from deadly monsters after nightfall. We successfully submitted the game under the title “Cimmerian Shade,” only found out right after the fact that a similar name was actually already used by another title. Because we wanted to differentiate the game, we quickly changed the name to Stygian Shade, which I didn’t realize at the time was nearly unpronounceable for people who read it, and virtually un-spellable for people who heard it.
The game didn’t become “Grave” until a friend invited me on his podcast and informed me that I had to change the name to receive any interest. Thanks Alon!
Chapter 2. Shifting Priorities
Shortly following the Kickstarter, a lot of things escalated quickly. I put the game up on IndieDB, which is a website that allows access to free games for the public. I planned to update it a bit because it was an idea I was interested in, but other things in life started getting in the way of giving it my full attention. Aby and I got married, and I quickly found myself working full time as a designer at a start-up from Palo Alto named Redacted Studios, which was co-founded by David Robinson and a number of ex Namco-Bandai employees, who had worked on a number of titles including Afro Samurai. The job had a combination of on-site work and remote work from Arizona, so I would be able to work remote most of the time and only periodically fly down to the Bay Area to work on site for big pushes. This was my first official position at a company working as a designer, and I had to give it a majority of my attention, frequently working 50-70 hours, often including weekends, to work on the product. It was a really stressful but very satisfying experience.
What I didn’t realize was that people online were actually playing Stygian Shade. My friend Dan Strayer, who worked with me on my day job and had helped with the original prototype, informed me that the game was being played online, and even shared a video with me of someone playing the game. We were both pretty surprised that people were actually playing it and seemed to be responding to the tension and atmosphere. Because of that, I decided to dedicate some off time to building it up, and Dan offered his help on the programming side to get things into a more complete package.
Things went on like that off and on for a while, and I made a few revisions to the game. In a lot of ways, I was experimenting with game design by working on a genre that I love and learning how to produce better level design, objectives and pacing. The 4th major iteration we made featured rudimentary support for the Oculus DK1 VR headset, and was accepted to a month-long university art exhibition, thanks to Theresa Devine at ASU. During this time, the game was massively improving, and was finally getting to where it had a “tone” that was actually interesting.
Chapter 3. Halloween and Greenlight Concepts
For Halloween in 2013, I tried to take some general advice from a couple developer friends and reached out to share a new version of the game, now called Grave, that featured some limited combat and item interactions. The game was really sloppily put together, but I sent it to a bunch of people I had never really heard of who might play horror games in VR, since the game supported that as an option.
I got it done at the last minute and basically forgot about it, because I didn’t have any reason to think there was much chance of it being played. It was just a fun project I was working on that was interesting to me.
A bit after Halloween, I downloaded and started experimenting with the Marmoset Skyshop shader pack that was provided with Unity 4. I made a test scene using the new shaders and really liked the look of it, so I started exploring a few options for getting some feedback and built a Facebook page and Steam Greenlight Concept page to see what would happen.
If you don’t remember how all this used to work, Steam until recently required that any games made from publishers without prior experience had to be accepted on Steam Greenlight in order to get onto the platform. As a way of testing, interest, you could host a “pre-greenlight” page, called a Greenlight “concept” so you could see if there was any interest in your product before paying the entry fee and creating an official Greenlight pitch.
The results of this were pretty interesting. Not only did the game have over 95% positive results on the Greenlight Concept page, but we were also receiving strange comments on our Facebook page, suggesting that many users thought they had seen this game before.
A lot of the time when you show or pitch a game to people, they will say “I think I’ve seen that before,” or something similar, and it’s often not true. They’re thinking of something else that has a similarity to your title, and they aren’t actually thinking of your game. I assumed this was the case and even responded to people saying that I thought they were mistaken. In this case, I was actually wrong. They HAD seen our game, and I didn’t even realize how that happened until they told me.
Apparently, one of the YouTube gamers I’d never heard of had actually played our game without ever informing us that he was going to do so. I found out later is pretty much what happens whenever you send games to YouTubers or Twitch Streamers, because they don’t really have time to respond to the inquiries and usually just play a game if they are interested in it. PewDiePie played Grave as part of a collection of VR titles, and there was a really great moment at the end of the segment where he freaked out after a particularly drawn out game of cat and mouse with a Stranger, one of the game’s main enemy types.
At this point, I was starting to feel like what we had built had some genuine reach. I didn’t know exactly what we could do with it, but I started exploring what our options were.
The deciding moment for us was when a friend recommended that we submit to a festival called The Mix, which focuses on little known indie titles and at that time was running out of the IGN offices during GDC, the Game Developers Conference. The event was considered pretty exclusive, and a quick look indicated that a huge number of press people attend, from a variety of outlets including the aforementioned IGN, Gamespot, Game Informer, and a bunch of others
I decided to submit to the event, because there wasn’t much downside, and if things went well, we’d have a pretty huge opportunity to show the game to press. I was still a pretty big novice at talking to press, so this seemed like a good way to explore that option.
I was still working full time as a game designer at Redacted Studios and had been promoted from junior to senior level in less than a year, so I really didn’t have a lot of time to work on secondary projects. There was a lot of transition happening at work, however, and the project we were working on was starting to come to a close. I was starting to worry about how certain my long term employment would be. I couldn’t really take any action at that time, except wait and see how things panned out, both in terms of my day job and in terms of our submission.
Then something happened that I honestly wasn’t expecting; Grave was actually accepted into the Mix at GDC. Suddenly, I had a little over a month to get the game to a functional state that was capable of public consumption, and I had to make a lot of choices about how I was actually going to do that.
So that's all for part 1! I'll post part 2 tomorrow and then part 3 as soon as I'm actually done editing it. Appreciate anyone who gave this a look and I'm definitely open to comments, feedback or questions.