Kickstarter has been an incredible ride. For us at Stoic, we set out to make a turn-based strategy game called The Banner Saga that we thought might be pretty niche. We hoped to raise $100,000 (a rather modest sum for game development) for some outsourcing needs. Within 2 days of putting up the campaign we had made that, and by 30 days we had 20,000 backers who had donated over $720,000. Nobody was more surprised than we were. It looked like our dream would be coming true, and then some.
It has also been an extraordinary thing to manage, for what started as a three-person team of content developers.
When we began the company we spent a lot of time thinking about the best way to get people interested in the game. We had never run our own company before. We knew how to make a good game, but we didn't know how to get views or marketing, and from all the friends and mentors we talked to, we knew that'd be half the battle.
In particular, our friend Gordon Walton gave us some of the best advice: you can't go radio silent for two years while you develop a game. You can't release to no press, and no income and no marketing and expect to do well.
With this in mind, we put together some key points to our plan:
-We're making a story-driven, single player experience.
-As we develop the content, we'll make it playable for free so that people can actually try the game as it’s built, and generate news and excitement.
-We'll keep adding new content made for the single player, like combat, characters and AI until we ship the final game.
When we put together our campaign pitch we wanted people to be excited about getting playable content. The video states "we'll be rolling out a free multiplayer version of the game this summer on PC and Mac". The description on the campaign page included "Play online: Though the single-player campaign is our focus, The Banner Saga provides a deep multiplayer game; build a unique party of characters and battle friends and enemies in multiplayer combat." The game would be available on Steam. We plastered it on our website nearly a week before the Kickstarter campaign went live.
Suddenly we had way more funding than we expected, and lots of people asking what we'd do with it. Even at this point, we got some unexpected responses. In surveys, “Don’t translate the game” was the highest voted option. On some forums we got massive backlash for promising to port the game to consoles, instead of keeping it exclusive to PC and Mac. People were already asking us if the game would be delayed. What did they want us to do with the extra funding? Pocket it?
We added stretch goals, and turned the game from something we could finish in half a year to the sort of big production we felt people expected, and frankly the kind of game we wanted to make.
Imagine an indie film being funded to become a feature film in theaters. We were thrilled! But with bigger scope comes longer production. That same 20-minute film does not take the same time to produce as a 2-hour movie, and the same applies to games. We wrote: “When do we plan to release? We originally estimated the end of the year... we do want to be honest that it could go past this year.”
We kept in close contact with our backers with monthly updates.
Our campaign ended in April. In May, we said: “We're back to real heads-down production as we continue to develop the combat for the game.” In June: "a first release is fast approaching." In July: "In the next few days we'll be pushing hard to get multiplayer up and running as well as expanding our content now that we've got most everything to gold standard." In September: "Beta is looming and you’re invited." In October: "Beta launches tomorrow!" In November: "Over 5 minutes of new footage and in-depth walkthroughs of combat, tactics, and character progression in The Banner Saga: Factions. Everything you see here is how combat is developing for the single player game!"
Production continued non-stop. We developed our riskiest (and most visible) system first: the combat, providing monthly updates not only with videos of our progress, but with a work-in-progress state of the game hosted on Steam, so backers could actually poke around the game itself and see how things were coming along. Hah, we thought! Success! Who else has done so much to involve players in production? Soon, the combat was almost ready for release.
That's when things took an unexpected turn.
We started getting responses from backers with comments like “What is this multiplayer crap?” We’d politely respond. We’d get more comments like “I didn’t fund this just so you could make some free mp garbage”.
Hmm. Alright, clearly some people missed the message. Suddenly backers we had never heard from before were calling us scammers and swindlers and things much less flattering. We decided to do a Q&A session where we laid everything out in a single update and apologized for missing our original deadline. That’s when things really hit the fan.
Some backers were incensed that production was taking longer than our original estimate, back when we hoped to make $100,000. Some were furious that the combat would be free, or that non-backers would get to play it. Some insisted that we had wasted their money by making multiplayer content, despite the assets, code and interface all being produced for the single player game. Many were fuming that the game must be “pay to win”, despite the fact that you only get matched against opponents with equal teams, regardless of how you earned them. Within the game itself, the term “pay to lose” had started to appear, since paying money would only serve to get you matched against players with vastly more play time under their belts.
We also had a lot of backers supporting us, asking the detractors one particular question: “Where have you guys been this whole time?” What we soon learned is that many of our backers never read any of the updates. They had never read the original campaign. According to Kickstarter metrics that went up after our campaign ended, only 30% of backers even watched our campaign video, and they felt very betrayed about all of this, to which we personally felt a resounding “What?”.
For us, it all culminated in an article that appeared on Gamasutra, in which an editor was expressing the opinion that he’ll never back another Kickstarter. In it, he states “the latest move by the development team (Stoic) most definitely goes against what I paid money for. The Banner Saga: Factions was released last week, a free-to-play multiplayer...”
He goes on to say, “For most of my backed projects I've turned email updates off... I honestly couldn't care less if you've put out a new podcast, or got some new concept art to show me -- I want real content! …Don't feel obliged to release an update if you have nothing decent to show me!”
I guess a playable version of the game you backed doesn’t count as “real content”.
We got that “what?” feeling all over again. Here’s a front-page article from a gaming journalist saying that he not only refuses to read any information about the games he supported, but that we had scammed him by doing what we said we’d be doing.
Ironically, if we had not released the free multiplayer game we had promised, there’s no doubt that we would be receiving equal, if not more vitriol. Now that I think of it, that would be actual fraud.
Meanwhile, we’ve gotten a lot of amazing response from people who are playing the free game, and not only that, they loved exactly what ticked off so many backers. Forbes reported that our game is a “tactical PVP Paradise” and goes on to say “If you’re a fan of competitive tactical titles this is an interesting little gem not to be missed. For those waiting for the larger project to launch, The Banner Saga: Factions provides a spicy taste.” That sounds exactly like what we were hoping would happen. The headline on a recent Kotaku article about us reads “More games should release their multiplayer as a standalone, like this indie game”. Apparently they found nothing surprising about our release.
So what happened?
I could certainly argue that we could have talked more about what we were doing, and made it more clear to everyone involved. On the other hand, they didn’t even watch the campaign video. We talked about it every nearly every update. We discussed it on our forums and every comment thread we could find. And ultimately, the response to the multiplayer has been absolutely fantastic, and we’re having a great time working on the game as we continue toward our single player release. There are plenty of things we might have done better, I certainly won’t argue that, but I have to believe we’re doing pretty good for a indie developer. Did we stick to our plan all along? Yeah, we did.
At the end of the day, I think 20,000 emotionally invested backers is just... a lot of people. You’ve now got a monstrous publisher of epic bi-polar proportions, with 20,000 different wants and desires, 20,000 different ideas about what your game is, a huge gulf between those who care and don’t care about what you’re doing, and a lot of wildly different expectations to fill, some of which don’t make any sense at all.
Do I regret going with Kickstarter? Not one bit. If this is the new way to make games, there’s more than one thing “new” about it, but I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
It’s an incredible ride!