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Posted by Marc Soskin on Apr 18, 2012

Kickstart My Gaming Heart

In the two months since Tim Schafer and friends launched the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter campaign, which went on to raise $3.45 million, there’s been a lot of buzz about how Kickstarter is changing the landscape of game development. Is crowd sourcing here to stay? Are we witnessing a true movement in the gaming industry and can it possibly last?

As wonderful as it was to see Double Fine Adventure succeed, one success does not a movement make. For Kickstarter to mean anything in the grand scheme of things, it has to keep the ball rolling. Further, it can’t simply rely on projects headed by universally beloved developers like Schafer or sequels to cult classics like inXile’s Wasteland 2 or Harebrained Schemes’ Shadowrun Returns. While these franchises are not what publishers would consider mainstream and faced difficulty in finding funding, how much of a movement is it really if all the games being funded are relying on name recognition? As indie game designer Ian Bogost recently tweeted, if that’s the case, they may as well “change Kickstarter’s name to Sequelstarter.”

As it happens, that’s not the case. There are indeed completely original games from lesser known developers that are succeeding on Kickstarter, though you may have missed them in the buzz about the aforementioned Kickstarter campaigns. No, they’re not cracking seven figures, but they’re exceeding their goals and that means they’re getting developed. They’re the foot soldiers of this would be movement, the ones whose success determines whether crowd funded games are going to last two months or two decades and they shouldn’t go unheralded. So today, we’re going take a closer look at three of them – Takedown, FTL: Faster Than Light and The Banner Saga.

Takedown

After the success of the Double Fine Adventure campaign, the game development community looked a little like the kids at a junior high semi-formal, awkwardly looking around to see who else would be brave enough to step onto the dance floor before they tried themselves. Some other campaigns started during that time span, but none had goals anywhere near the bold $400,000 mark that Double Fine had set. Finally, in early March, veteran game designer Christian Allen – the lead designer of Ghost Recon 2 and Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter – and Serellan LLC stepped forward with what was then called Crowdsourced Hardcore Tactical Shooter, which had a goal of $200,000.

As with Double Fine Adventure, Takedown is an attempt to revive a genre publishers thought was dead and gone but was near and dear to the hearts of both the developer and niche fans. Allen himself had wanted to make a game like CHTS for “over a decade” but hadn’t found the means to fund it. “I’ve pitched this type of game on and off again for years,” says Allen. “And then when I founded Serellan LLC late last year, first to do some consulting work, I started getting emails from people asking if I was going to make a tactical shooter, even though all I had done was posted up a splash image of the company logo.”

Then along came Kickstarter, and suddenly Takedown seemed closer to reality than ever before. However, Allen knew a game like Takedown couldn’t be funded from Kickstarter funds alone. So instead, he used Kickstarter to not only get the initial funds for the game, but as a way to prove that it would have an audience to secure funding from venture capitalists. “I was talking to a group of VC investors who were questioning how they could be sure there was actually a market for this kind of game,” Allen says. “I had been looking at Kickstarter for a few months, and decided to give it a go.”

However, as the first big campaign after the success of Double Fine Adventure, Allen and Serellan were working without many examples to follow and were taking quite the risk. According to Allen, “It was very possible if the campaign had failed miserably that Takedown would have not seen the light of day.” The eyes of the development community were on Serellan, waiting to see if they would succeed or fail. Did Allen feel at all like the canary in the coal mine, like people were watching Serellan’s campaign to see if someone besides Tim Schafer could pull off such a big coup? “I do think that was the case,” Allen confirms. “A lot of people had negative things to say or predicted our demise […].”

As it happened, those predictions came close to becoming a reality. With only 17 days to go, they were over $150,000 short of their $200,000 goal. The canary had stopped singing, and across the blogosphere they were murmurs of Kickstarter being a dud. “Not everyone is Double Fine,” declared a blog on Gamasutra. Still, Allen and Serellan weren’t about to quietly let go of their ambitions. They were able to separate the constructive criticism from the useless negativity and formulate a plan.

“We realized that our initial presentation just wasn’t up to par, and because we were getting the same questions over and over, we knew that we weren’t getting across the information that people needed to make the decision to support us […],” Allen explains. “With less than two weeks to go, we decided to reboot. We partnered with a production company, Anderson Live Media, who developed the concept of the interrogation and secured a film location in just a few days. We shot the video in a day – a very cold and miserable day for me.  Then we hooked up with Spliced Media to do the editing the next day. We finished the video after the guys worked all night on it, and we posted it up early Monday morning with six days to go.  It was a monumental effort for everyone involved, but I truly believe it made the difference.”

A screenshot from Takedown's second Kickstarter promo

The game was also given a proper name and logo, something that Double Fine had been able to do without, and suddenly new life flowed into the Kickstarter campaign. When it finished on April 1st, it had raised $221,833 – ten percent above its proposed goal. Takedown was in business, and the Kickstarter floodgates had officially opened. For Allen, success was sweet.

“The excitement generated by Takedown has spread to the team, and especially the support we’ve gotten from other developers, both in the industry and indies, offering their time and support to make this project a reality,” Allen says. “It really is motivating to see something that you have wanted to do for years start off with such a bang.”

FTL: Faster Than Light

When Takedown succeeded, it helped prove that a new era had started on Kickstarter. Games with high funding goals could get funded during the pre-production phase, allowing games that publishers were wary of to still get the green light. However, in the days before Takedown and Double Fine Adventure, games being funded on Kickstarter had a different modus operandi. Video games with successful campaigns were typically ones that were nearly finished, and only needed a small boost to get pushed to completion and distributed. FTL: Faster Than Light started its Kickstarter campaign under this older model. It was the brainchild of two former 2K Games employees, Matthew Davis and Justin Ma, who had quit their jobs at 2K Games last year to work on FTL. After earning an honorable mention at the 2012 Independent Gaming Festival at GDC and getting a preview in PC Gamer, the pair decided to start a Kickstarter campaign.

“We had been getting a lot of positive press out of our participation in the IGF,” they said in a joint email correspondence. “It appeared that the project had the potential to be a success, so we wanted to get the funds we needed to be able to finish the game.”

Initially, their goal was set at $10,000. In the pre-Double Fine Adventure days, this was considered a reasonable sum, and so their expectations were well tempered. “We really had no idea how difficult it would be to reach that goal,” say Ma and Davis. “Having good previews in IGF and PC Gamer did give us some confidence that it would be feasible, but we were never fully confident. The number was chosen with the mindset of ‘how much do we need to finish the game?’ rather than stress too much about how much we could potentially raise.” It turns out they needn’t have worried. “The campaign exploded nearly as soon as we put it up. Within 12 hours we had passed our $10,000 goal and we were blown away. Within a day it was already considerably larger than we were expecting. Even just days away from the end, 2000% seemed unrealistic.” Yet that’s exactly where they finished. The final total was $200,542, over twenty times their initial goal.

A screenshot from the current version of FTL: Faster Than Light

Like Takedown, the story of FTL provided a sign that the Kickstarter movement was real. While Takedown was proving that the new Kickstarter model could work, FTL proved that even games that started campaigns under the old model were being swept up in the moment. Was the momentum from the craze that Double Fine started part of the reason that FTL was so successful? “Definitely,” agree Davis and Ma. “The Double Fine Adventure campaign brought a lot of publicity to Kickstarter and helped legitimize the concept of crowd funding for a lot of people.” They admit that their success at IGF and the PC Gamer mention certainly helped as well and their effect can’t be ignored. That said, if Takedown proved that the Kickstarter movement had direction, FTL proved that it had legs.

Such unexpected success does not come without side effects, of course. With an enormously successful Kickstarter campaign comes the burden of fan expectations. “There wasn’t too much pressure before the Kickstarter campaign. We were making a game that we thought would be cool, but did not stress too much about the financial viability of it as a product,” say Ma and Davis. “Now that the Kickstarter campaign is over, there is definitely a new and different type of pressure. There are a lot of people that are excited about the game and have trusted us with their funds, which is amazing, but it brings a lot of pressure with it to make FTL the best it can be. We’re working very hard to live up to those expectations.” As part of that, they’re being careful not to stretch their newfound funding too far and staying focused on their mission, a sentiment Christian Allen had also shared when discussing Takedown. “Our goal is still to make the game we’ve wanted from the beginning,” they confirm. What’s exciting to us is what comes after the initial game is complete.  FTL’s success means that we will be able to continue working on FTL and future games, which is of course the ultimate ambition of any independent developer.”

The Banner Saga

As the campaigns for FTL and Takedown were getting started, the developers at Stoic watched with interest. Stoic is a development power trio composed of Arnie Jorgensen, a veteran artist with tours of duty at DC and Image Comics before working at Retro Studios and Ion Storm, John Watson, who started as a programmer at NASA before jumping into the games industry at Sony, and Alex Thomas, the trio’s only lifetime game developer who began his career at Wolfpack Studios before they changed their name to Kingisle in 2005. The three met at BioWare, where they worked on The Old Republic together. Jorgenson and Thomas also worked on several side projects with BioWare’s blessing, including an iOS children’s book called DinoBoy. After The Old Republic shipped, they recruited Watson and they soon left BioWare began work on The Banner Saga. The timing couldn’t have been better. By coincidence, The Old Republic launched last December, and Double Fine’s Kickstarter campaign started shortly afterwards in early February.

“Truth be told, Kickstarter was part of the plan back at the formation of the company,” says Thomas. “At that time the highest games could make was roughly $30k. Our friends from White Whale – currently working on God of Blades – had a successful run and encouraged us to go for some extra funding since we’re paying for production out of pocket using our own personal savings. Then Double Fine and inXile blew the doors off the Kickstarter thing, which was pretty surreal to watch, knowing that we were working towards the exact same goal. Suddenly we weren’t sure how to approach it. Ultimately it became obvious that the right thing to do was to ask for the real amount that we could use toward making the game the biggest we could while still manageable for three people.”

How did they come to this conclusion? They did their homework. With a handful of campaigns either completed or in full swing, the Stoic trio had enough material to formulate a solid plan. The first part of this plan was to avoid going in cold. “We did a lot of research when we were planning out our campaign but the best advice we got was to talk about the game early and often, pre-launch,” says Thomas. “By the time our page was ready to go we had a lot of people already interested in the game, which got us to our goal quick, in turn generating a lot more media attention and so on and so forth.” They also took special care when it came to the different rewards Kickstarter backers would receive at different levels. “One of the things we’re most happy with is the extra time we took to show all of our prizes at the start of the project,” Thomas elaborates. “As far as I know we were the first to really go all out with [it] and I think people have really connected with that.” Finally, they made sure people would get a preview of the game itself. “Another top priority was to make sure we had an actual game to show and make sure it was an accurate representation of the final product. Without a big name backing us we knew we’d be relying on the quality of the game itself to get people interested and the sincerity of how into it we truly are.”

After doing their due diligence, Stoic’s initial goal for The Banner Saga was set at $100,000. Were they still nervous about a goal like that even after planning so carefully? “Yeah,” confirms Thomas. “So to elaborate on that more, we were pretty nervous about reaching $100k. Unlike [Double Fine Adventure and Wasteland 2] we didn’t have any high-profile names supporting us, just our reputation as leads from BioWare and a game concept. We even considered playing it safe with a lower target with a whole whiteboard full of pros and cons. One of the pros to sticking with $100k was ‘It’s what vikings would do.’” Like the FTL team, their worries were for naught. The Banner Saga currently sits at roughly $570,000 with time still on the clock as of the writing of this article. “To be at over 500% funding now without even asking for future milestones is pretty mind-blowing and encouraging,” summarizes Thomas.

A screenshot from The Banner Saga's announcement video

And what of the factors that come with success? Does Stoic feel like such success in their Kickstarter campaign relieved some pressure, or did it add pressure of a different sort like it did with the FTL team? “That’s an interesting question, we’ve recently been talking about this because you’re absolutely right on both accounts,” Thomas answers when asked about the topic. “When there was no expectation we were planning to market the game as more of a grass-roots effort, like the trend with games to come out in alpha and grow a fanbase over time. With all the attention we’ve gotten recently that’s probably not the right approach anymore. We’ll be keeping fans up to date on our progress but I think there’s a certain expectation now that didn’t exist before. Plus, as we add top shelf talent to the project there’s the pressure of making sure everything meets that high standard.” Still, Thomas has a hard time being picky. “I can’t complain though, it’s the kind of pressure we’re happy to deal with and clearly it’s given us a lot of breathing room to give us a chance to make the game we really want to make, not a compromised version. I think we’re in a better position now than we ever could have hoped for.”

Like both Christian Allen and the FTL team before them, Stoic is also being careful not to overextend itself. “One of our primary objectives throughout this whole thing has been to run the campaign with quality and integrity. Sounds like corporate speak but it’s true,” Thomas says. “We’ve gone out of our way to avoid exaggerations and false promises. Basically, we never set out to make the game bigger than something we could handle with a small team, which has become an interesting problem because our backers are really interested in what we’re going to be doing with all the overflow donations. We’ve decided to keep the scope the same but up the quality everywhere that we can – animations, sound, music, additional programming support, QA, playtesting, writing.” Being level headed and realistic clearly doesn’t exclude being excited, though. Thomas adds, “When we started working on the game we knew it was something we were way into but we couldn’t be sure other gamers agreed. More than the funding. what Kickstarter has done is told us beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are a lot of people interested in the game. Nothing could be more inspiring.”

The success of The Banner Saga seems like the culmination of the lessons learned during the dawn of the Kickstarter movement, when Takedown and FTL were among the first to follow in the wake of Double Fine Adventure. The lessons on presentation that Serellan learned and implemented during Takedown’s campaign, to the effects of both FTL’s positive press and the surprise pressure and momentum that it gained all seem to ring true. Was the success of The Banner Saga at least partly due  to this? If so, does that mean that it represents the future of this Kickstarter movement, beyond long awaited sequels and campaigns led by big name developers?

What’s Next?

Each of the developers featured over the course of this article were asked what the future of Kickstarter funded games as they related to their own projects. To Serellan’s Christian Allen, what did the future hold? Could traditionally AAA games be somewhere down the line? “I think in the short term, you will continue to see smaller projects or games that have a strong dedicated audience that have not been well served by the traditional publishing model be the ones that are successful,” Allen predicts. “Something along the lines of a GTA or a Fallout still require huge budgets and highly experienced devs to pull off, but I am excited to see the future and how it shapes out.  We are proud to be at the beginning of something that can only grow from here.”

The FTL team were asked how much Kickstarter could help smaller indie developers. They responded, “Kickstarter has massive potential to help out smaller development teams. Independent developers often create really unique and interesting games that have very small markets.  Kickstarter can help connect developers to those fans.”

Asked more generally about the future of Kickstarter, Alex Thomas of Stoic answered in depth. “We’ve been talking about this a lot lately,” Thomas reveals. “The way I see it, Kickstarter is an incredible good-will generator and if you really hit the right note with an audience that feels abandoned by the current games market they won’t hesitate to support you. Interestingly, models that are popular with publishers right now like mobile games, micro-transactions, Facebook titles, MMOs and generally online or social aspects in a game are the kiss of death on Kickstarter. Since Double Fine’s success we’ve also seen a flood of old-school known developers looking for support.” All sound observations, but what does it mean for Kickstarter? Thomas goes on. “It seems to me that Kickstarter’s lasting success is going to depend on holding tight to that good will and making sure that the backers don’t feel betrayed or become cynical or burnt out over time, which is going to be tricky without any real barrier to entry. The second backers become cynical about the process the whole thing falls apart. That’s not to say I’m all doom and gloom about it; on the contrary I’m mostly concerned because it has been so amazing to see all these amazing games coming back from the past that I really, truly hope the whole thing becomes a new staple of the industry that gives some of that buying power back to smaller but passionate groups of gamers.”

Certainly something that’s so positive couldn’t be a prophecy of doom, but Thomas’ point shouldn’t be ignored. The consensus seems to be that Kickstarter has the potential to be a golden goose of sorts, a tool that could allow fans and developers alike to reap rewards they never could have had before. That said, we live in a world where James Bond is getting a twenty-third movie and the spinoff of the thirteenth game in a popular Japanese RPG series is getting new DLC almost monthly. Takedown, FTL and The Banner Saga prove that Kickstarter could be a fantastic resource in the future, as long as we don’t exhaust it in the present.

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