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Kickstarting A Serious Game

I'm making an indie game set in Iran during the post-election riots. I've put up a page on Kickstarter & I'll detail my process using Kickstarter here.

Borut Pfeifer, Blogger

September 12, 2009

5 Min Read

After 9 years or so in the game industry, about a month and a half ago I decided to go it on my own. I've blogged (at http://www.plushapocalypse.com/borut) about trying to make games with more meaningful themes and impact for over two years, and it was time to put some money where my mouth was.

I'm also trying to put some of your money where my mouth is - I've put up a Kickstarter project for the game I'm working on to gain additional funding for the game I'm making. You can check it out here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1566255659/video-game-set-in-iran-during-the-post-election-ri-0

I thought it might be helpful to other indie developers to detail some of the process I'll be going through with Kickstarter. As with the game, this is obviously a work in progress, so what I suggest in one post I may come back and correct next time with more experience. 

Unlike they guys behind Fig. 8, Intuition Games, with their game Liferaft (also on Kickstarter, that GameSetWatch profiled), my game tackles a more serious topic, and is based on current events. The game is set in Tehran, Iran, during the post election riots of this summer.

While it's obviously a politically charged situation, the game's main storyline revolves around a father and mother (who you play as) that are looking for their daughter who has been lost in the crowd. It's simple but emotional story that is meant to keep politics as subtext (where they most often should be if a game is attempting to both entertain and provide meaning/depth, and where they can still have plenty of impact). You find out more about the game at Kickstarter (yes I'm going to pimp the link AGAIN): http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1566255659/video-game-set-in-iran-during-the-post-election-ri-0

(As an aside, if the title of the post confused you, it's not a "serious game" in the sense it would be for training or explicit educational purposes. It's just a game about a serious topic, and hopefully one day those will be common enough that simply applying the adjective serious to the word game will have less strings attached.)

One of the major chunks of work in putting up your project is thinking through your rewards. At a basic level you want to give people something for their money, but the more you make backers personally involved, the more they'll help spread the word and help market your project for you.  Things to consider:

  • Physical items - while chances are your game is downloadable if it's on Kickstarter, it's worth the effort of making a physical copy for backers. Then there's signed copies, signed prints of art from the game, the soundtrack, t-shirts, anything. Know somebody with a 3D printer? Make toys out of the characters in your game!

  • Behind the scenes - it's always fun for someone interested in a project to see behind the scenes, what kind of techniques are used, but more importantly, what drama there was. Prototypes that fail, interesting or tense decisions made, any struggles that made the final product what it was.

  • Events - I noticed a lot of films and music projects doing this, but it's a lot more common to have a premiere or CD release party than it is to celebrate a game's launch. So I haven't really come up with a good use for this category yet, but everybody *does* like a party.

  • Incorporating backers into the game - sadly here it is much easier to use someone in a film than to make them a character in a game. The cost I put ($400) will probably barely offset the cost of the sprite animation needed for a unique character in a 2D 3/4 view game. But even so, it's worth it because those people will enthusiastically spread the word about the game they're in. Other elements include naming characters, using their voice, having their still image in the game, or just their name (and a link) in the credits.

I was originally thinking of including royalties as the top tier reward (pay $1000 get 1-2% royalties on the game's profits), but that headed into shady territory as Kickstarter stated investment offers were not allowed. They use Amazon Payments for the donations and you can check out additional details on their policy here: https://payments.amazon.com/sdui/sdui/about?acceptableuse. (But I'll be honest I don't get it 100% because they say you can't do donations which is obviously what Kickstarter does with them... I suspect that's for non-profit corporations and not individuals, but I'm going to assume they've worked that out between them, as IANAL).

It was also tricky to decide on the goal dollar amount. I'm committed to making the game regardless of the success of the Kickstarter project, and I had already earmarked some savings to pay for art. However my plan previously required having to do more freelance work elsewhere to help finish paying for animation, sound and music. Which I thought was pretty doable - so my initial thinking was to put a larger figure on the project (like $20k), that would let me take the game to another level in terms of production values.

Since you don't get the funding if the goal is not met, that makes setting a higher goal a big risk. If I set it at $10k, I'd probably have enough for most of my art/sound needs all told. But it would also be nice to not have to do contract work for a little and focus more time directly on the game, so it started creeping back up. The problem is this isn't free time either - the time it takes to put together and build awareness of your Kickstarter project has to be worth it to you in terms of your final goal amount. I split the difference at $15k, to make time spent getting word out about the project more valuable, while lessening the risk of not getting anything at all back.

So, stay tuned, I'll write more here about how it goes. I hope this has been helpful to anybody considering using Kickstarter - I also have 4 invites left if anybody wants to claim them in the comments.

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About the Author(s)

Borut Pfeifer


Borut is a designer-programmer-writer-entrepreneur. After that he stopped adding hyphens. He cofounded and worked at White Knuckle Games until 2003, and since then has worked on Scarface at Radical Entertainment. He currently teaches in the game design program at the Vancouver Film School, and has a variety of articles published in industry publications such as the Game Programming Gems series and Secrets of the Games Business. He can be reached at [email protected].

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