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Kickstarting a Serious Game, pt. 2

I go into more detail about my experiences so far using Kickstarter to help fund my serious game. I'm also happy to announce that at least 5% of royalties from sales of the game will be going to two charities.

Borut Pfeifer, Blogger

October 8, 2009

6 Min Read

It's been a little less than a month since I put my serious game up on Kickstarter to see if that was a viable means of funding for the project.

To recap, the game is a PC, and most likely Xbox Live Indie channel, downloadable game. It's set in Tehran in during the protests that immediately followed the election in Iran this past June. You play a father and mother who have lost their daughter in the crowds. It's essentially a character puzzle game where you have to swap back and forth between both parents using each one's differences to get past obstacles particular to each character, where the politics serve as subtext to a more emotional storyline. I started detailing my experience using Kickstarter in part one of this blog post series.

As I discussed before, setting the funding goal ($15k) was a tough decision. You don't get any of the donations pledged if you don't reach your goal. Ultimately, it seemed like the point where funding would be worthwhile to me. I was concerned if it was significantly less (to reach the funding goal easier), donations would taper off once the goal was achieved, making it less cost-effective a strategy to pursue.

This was also affected by my perhaps idealistic logic that extrapolated my behavior onto others - I'm very passionate about games that explore mature topics, and I will typically (well, more typically when I had disposable income) purchase any small games that do so. Even if I only play them for a short time (because I'm too busy or because the game is too frustrating), I want to help encourage those creators to continue making that kind of game. Given the opportunity to pre-order such games I would, knowing I'll probably buy them anyway, regardless of negative reviews, just to experience them & support their creators.

By offering a $10 pre-order for the game, surely, I thought, there must be enough people in the game community that follow indie games to make that a reasonable goal? Not so much, at least so far. What surprised me was the overwhelming support I've gotten from friends and colleagues. While intellectually I might have understood I had their support, seeing it the form of all their donations has been incredibly heartwarming and humbling at the same time.

The average donation has actually been higher than I expected. It's at about $68 (with 34 backers), including both people I know and people who found the project via Kickstarter or the internet. It leads me to believe there are perhaps fewer people interested in seeing such games, but those that do would really like to see them. The two most popular reward groups are still the $10 pre-order, as well as the $75 behind the scenes reward (which includes access to prototypes and design docs).

Yancey Strickler, one of the cofounders of Kickstarter, blogged that projects reaching 25% funding have a 94% chance of success, based on their first three months of data (thanks kindly to Mike Boxleiter of Intuition Games for the link). Strickler argues that your closest fans spread the word to further tiers of fans (in accordance with Kevin Kelly's essay 1000 True Fans). Once you reach a certain point the spread of information has enough momentum to sustain getting backers to reach the end goal, essentially.  

As of today (10/08/09), the game is 16% funded, with about 2/3 of the donation time left to meet the goal. It's been written up a number of places: Simon Ferrari wrote about it on the Georgia Tech's News Games blogL.B. Jeffries wrote it up at PopMatters, it was covered by GamespyGamePoliticsGameSetWatch, and Gamasutra (in the news section outside of this blog). While it's not easy to have an accurate idea about how many people are influenced to back a project by a particular news story, you can try to correlate the number of backers you get the day a story is published.

I was hoping mention on some sites, especially GamePolitics, whose audience frequently discusses serious games, would lead to more backers. Surprisingly, by my rough estimate, it only led to one or two. It's also disheartening for other reasons; bigger game news sites like Kotaku seem more willing to lend space to what I often find to be useless discussion of whether or not games can be more meaningful, rather than highlighting games in progress that have more serious goals. If this was hesitation because the game is unfinished I would completely understand, aside from the fact that the majority of their stories are about games that are unfinished. Nonetheless, any frustration pales in comparison by positive feelings from the support of everyone who has backed the project, friends and strangers alike.

The funding goal does seem to be a large limiting factor. Indie adventure game Resonance got over 10 times the $150 needed to enter it in the IGF. Intuition Games' "Metroidvania" style game, Liferaft, is at 51% of its $5k goal. Messhof Games' intense FlyWrench has achieved its $5k goal. For a small game concept that's novel or appealing enough in the $1k-$5k range, Kickstarter certainly seems like a viable funding approach. More complex games, and therefore more costly games, may still be out of luck - we'll see. 

Lastly, I wanted to mention that I've picked two charities that will receive at least 5% of royalties from sales of my game: Children of Persia, an organization that provides health care, education, and social services to Iranian children in need, and the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, which aims to record and educate about human rights abuses in Iran to encourage a culture of human rights within Iranian society. In retrospect, I wish I had included that information when I announced the project to make my intent clearer. I was a bit too engrossed in early design work on the game, and lining up potential collaborators. Not to mention I have an inherent skepticism of large organizations that claim to be charities but often use donations primarily for administrators pay. Thankfully there are now services like GuideStar that exist to do your own research on charitable organizations, and I've found two I'm quite happy with.

Next up, I'm going to try to chat with other indie game developers using the site and/or patronage funding. I'll leave you with musician and artist Amanda Palmer's wonderful rant about artists attempting new models of funding their work.


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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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