Chris Roberts has an atypically successful crowdfunding story -- but then again, as the creator of Wing Commander, he has an atypically successful career. As of this writing, his Star Citizen crowdfunding campaign has pulled in almost 20 million dollars, largely via his site, not Kickstarter.
Roberts did run a Kickstarter campaign -- which pulled in over 2 million dollars. It was, however, never part of his plans. "Basically, we actually started on our own," Roberts tells Gamasutra. "The whole idea was to build a community of space sim fans."
"I think we had about 30-odd thousand people sign up before they even know what I was going to announce," Roberts says. "The idea was to build a community for people that liked that kind of game, and then I didn't feel like they then wanted to have to go somewhere else to log in, give credentials somewhere else to give money. We were always intending to do our own crowdfunding."
Community was always his goal; the problem was that though he'd spent a year prototyping Star Citizen, its website was "hacky crap" and crashed on launch.
Still, he has little to regret now, and it goes without saying that Roberts is a huge proponent of crowdfunding. In this conversation, which took place at this year's Gamescom, he has nothing but positive things to say about it.
You may be surprised to hear that crowdfunding his project wasn't always his goal. Roberts' plans have shifted as he observes and reacts to trends among players and backers. Importantly, he now sees it as the only way he'd want to go, having both worked with traditional publishers and sought outside investment. Why? It frees him from meddling and distraction. He can make the game that he and his fans want.
Of course it's true that his success comes thanks to his previous games -- Wing Commander, Privateer, and Freelancer. But a built-in fan base is far from all that has carried him this far. In this interview, Roberts offers his insights into community building and crowdfunding, lessons useful to developers big and small.
Roberts' Community-Driven Crowdfunding Essentials
Having had so much success, Roberts has some tips on how to do it right. One thing he is adamant about is that since you have to build your own site sooner or later, why not do it from the off?
"Kickstarter is very good for the community right at the beginning, but then afterwards you've got to have a solution, because it's not really a great place to interact. It doesn't have forums," Roberts says.
There's also no way to bring in new fans (and their contributions) if your campaign is over. "Our solution was always to have a place for the community to hang out, first and foremost. For them to get information about the game, to share how it's getting done. They would also be able to back the game, and new people would be able to come into it," Roberts says.
He also thinks that offering many physical rewards is largely an unnecessary complication. "Most people, when you back games, it's not really about the physical goods. It's about backing the game. They're actually quite happy to be backing this game they've missed for awhile, and the money's less of an issue. It's more of an issue of them having fun," he says.
That sense of "fun" is why Roberts goes primarily for in-game rewards. The first piece of the game that Roberts is distributing to fans, the Hangar Module, is affected by pledge level. Those who back at higher tiers get more ships and a bigger hangar.
"I would say that one of the reasons why we've raised this much money is that we've sort of gamified the backing," notes Roberts.
And while many crowdfunded games start from zero, Roberts suggests avoiding that if at all possible. Prepare as best as you possibly can. He spent a year doing a technical prototype -- though this is largely thanks to the fact that he was originally planning on seeking traditional investment.
"I actually wanted to work out all the issues. I wanted to scope it. I didn't want to just say, 'Oh, I can make this game!' I did a lot of my homework it was going to take, what budget, what engine I was going to use."
In the end, however, his efforts in pre-Kickstarter community building and pre-funding scoping and prototyping allowed him to launch his campaign to a massive response.
There's also one other very tangible result of running your own crowdfunding effort: "we're capturing 97 percent of the dollars that come in, because all we do is pay a fee to the credit card provider and PayPal," says Roberts.
...And His Incredible Results
Taken all together, Roberts has managed to build a huge, engaged community and link it into his funding efforts. The symbiotic relationship with his community has fundamentally changed Roberts' plans for developing and releasing his game.
Why? "Because I feel that people have given their money to this dream, helping me make the game I want to make, my dream game," says Roberts. "I think it's their dream game too. So I want to make sure they're constantly updated, seeing it, getting involved. Because that's the spirit -- for me, the spirit of crowdfunding is participation. The power."
Originally, Roberts wanted to pull a page from Minecraft's book, and have players pay for an alpha -- "like two years out," he says. But having an audience created a drive to "constantly show them what's happening. I think everything that's happening is cool, so I like to show it off."
His backers let Roberts build a game on his own terms, and he wanted to give them a peek behind the curtain.