Ask Gamasutra is a monthly column that takes issues from within the video game industry, and poses them as a question to the editorial staff.
In contributing to this article, none of the editors read each other's responses. This is not about collaboration, but about the unique perspective that each individual Gamasutra editor offers.
For our latest edition of Ask Gamasutra, we tackled a topic that seems to be here to stay: the rise of game campaigns on crowdfunding site Kickstarter.
Crowdfunding for games on Kickstarter has existed for years, but it wasn't until March this year that Double Fine and Tim Schafer launched a campaign that blew apart any preconceived notions about what's possible on the service with a record-breaking campaign that hit $3.3 million, way above the $400,000 goal.
Since then, we've seen Brian Fargo's $2.9 million campaign for Wasteland 2, and other game projects that got well-past their goals. Games are now a key part of Kickstarter's business. The organization said that in the month before Double Fine's campaign, the video game category averaged 629 pledges a week; after Double Fine's debut, that number jumped to 9,755 (excluding the pledges that went to Double Fine itself).
But with all of crowdfunding's promise, success is not automatic, and nothing is for certain. So the question this month for Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine editors is: I want to make a game, and I'm looking for funding. Under what circumstances should I put my game on Kickstarter? When shouldn't I?
One basic criterion you should meet as a potential Kickstarter campaigner is to be mentally prepared. Be ready to expose yourself -- your passion, your workmanship, your talent -- in front of a bunch of people from whom you'll be asking money. I say this because judging from Kickstarter campaigners I know, or those who I follow, it's clearly a humbling experience, laying yourself bare in that way, whether your campaign is a success or a failure.
Besides that, ask yourself about the game and the pitch. Do people want this game -- is there a demand? Why would someone want to give me money for this? Are there enough people out there as passionate about this project as I am? Will the minimum goal give me the resources I need? Do I have enough of the game ready to show to make a strong impression in the pitch? Is my name "Tim Schafer" or "Brian Fargo"? If you can answer all of these questions positively, you might have a shot. If not, find out ways to remedy those issues or look for other means of funding.
It all sounds obvious, right? Well, take a look at some failed or failing campaigns to see just how obvious it really is.
Right now, there's this bootstrapper's fantasy surrounding Kickstarter. But everyone needs to keep in mind that, currently, all of the celebration around crowdfunding is not about a great new game that now exists because of the passion of many. The celebration and excitement revolves around a new way to get money.
That totally warrants celebration and excitement, but until we see a pile of great results in the form of incredible games, I'll be cautiously optimistic. Because if there's one thing that will pop the Kickstarter bubble and bring us all back to earth, it's a slew of Kickstarter-funded games that suck.
I often feel worried that the Kickstarter boom has inured people to the idea of supporting any old cool project just because the risk is low and everyone feels good about it. I remember deciding on a whim to Kickstart a project that would create mini glass sphere tanks with little individual jellyfish inside, because at that minute I kind of wanted such a thing. I was happy to throw money at developers I liked and just felt in general like rooting for, even if their game wasn't something that I'd ever want to play myself. I wouldn't use Kickstarter like that anymore, and I think increasingly few others would either.
That said, I think there's a really great opportunity for very specific projects to be matched to very specific allies. I see that every dev team, no matter how big or small, thinks their ream project is the coolest or most original idea ever, but I almost feel resentful when I see people trying to crowdfund another fantasy RTS or something like that. The reason publishers didn't give you money for that was because it wasn't original or competitive, so don't ask us! I think if you want to put your project on Kickstarter, you should ask yourself: Is this (like Double Fine Adventure!) something people have been longing for that market conditions prevent from easily flowering, or is it just that you need money and you hope you can convince others to support you?
If you're going to use Kickstarter you should know your specific audience and feel passionate about bringing them something specific that they can't get any other way. That's the real reward I feel from backing projects -- I couldn't care less about incentives.
Sr. Editor Gamasutra; EIC, Game Developer
Kickstarter is an interesting beast. If you're a developer with a big name, like Tim Schafer, or have a property people want to see return, like Wasteland, you are pretty much in the clear. You will be supported, people will get excited. But if people don't really know you, and if you are working on a new property, you need to show a lot of progress before you are going to get much success.
Banner Saga is a good example of the latter. Though the developers are seasoned, they're not "big names." The IP is new - but before launching, they had already created a tone, a gorgeous 2D art style, and, most importantly, a really good video that showed the team knew exactly where they were going, and how they'd get there. The reward tiers were also very intelligent, with something new and interesting at every level, many of which create buy-in from consumers (such as the ability to create a custom emblem in-game).
You should not go to Kickstarter with your game if you're missing any of that. Make sure that's all locked down first. It's also got to be something people want. The Class of Heroes 2 Kickstarter was ill-advised because it was not only backing a sequel to a low-rated game, it's a lot of money to release a special edition of a game that the company plans to release digitally anyway. That kills the hook!
A new Kickstarter from a bunch of ex-Atari guys just came out, asking for people to back Gubble 3D, a spiritual successor to Crystal Castles from the original creators. It's a neat idea, and its heart is in the right place. But it lacks the direction, rewards, and the sense of progress some of these other campaigns have. Think of your Kickstarter as a pitch. Find your hook, find out why people want it (and on what platform!), how much it will really cost, and you'll be there.
Editor, Game Developer magazine
Personally, the recent Kickstarter rush has left me both excited and worried. I'm excited to see what kind of games will get crowdfunded in the future, and I'm worried that we're going to see a lot of people who put money into pie-in-the-sky projects get burned and turn others off from donating. If you don't want your game to be the project that ruins it for everyone, don't start a Kickstarter pitch unless you have experience, moderation, and a damn good hook.
The damn good hook is pretty much what separates a cool Kickstarter project from a cool game ideaThe reason Double Fine Adventure, Wasteland 2, and Shadowrun Returns all took off was because a lot of us played adventure games, Wasteland, and Shadowrun back in the day and simply haven't been happy with how they were handled (or not handled) since.
Experience should be pretty obvious. I've seen some Kickstarters that basically looked like a high school kid wanted to pull in $20,000 for a game built in RPG Maker. Throwing around your team's names (and prior work) can do a lot to assure potential backers and make you look more professional.
Moderation is important because I actually don't want to be promised the moon when I'm thinking of backing your project. I want to be assured that your development team has a strict guiding vision for the game you're making, and that you're not going to indulge out-of-control feature creep in order to try and get more money. One thing you can do to make your Kickstarter seem more responsible is to keep your goals relatively reasonable from the very beginning; the Leisure Suit Larry Kickstarter, for example, isn't about making a new Leisure Suit Larry game, just remaking the original, which is a significantly easier undertaking.
Well, it seems like the easiest path to success on Kickstarter is to be an established name, creating a new entry in a neglected, fan-favorite genre or franchise, and with a fantastic pitch. Yeah, that's not exactly most of the people who will be reading this, but pulling that apart is instructive about what really drives people to contribute to these things.
The fact of the matter is that Kickstarters are flying right and left, and I often merely glance at them before closing the tab. I think it's because to contribute, the pitch has to mean something to me: I have to feel some sort of deep connection to either the game, the creators, or the subject matter to want to get involved. Often I smile and think, "Yes, but would I actually play it?" Too many Kickstarters seem like charities to me.
You definitely shouldn't put your game on Kickstarter before you have something compelling to show people: a pitch movie and great concepts. You also probably shouldn't ask for money until you're at the point where the contributions will carry you to completion on at least one platform, because otherwise it seems like people don't get any return on their investment in you.
Since Tim Schafer showed what having a name that everybody knows can do for a Kickstarter project, there's been a notable influx on developers taking to Kickstarter to fund their projects. Unfortunately, a good portion of these saw how much Schafer made and subsequently set their sights too high, with ridiculous funding targets for relatively unknown teams.
I think there are a wide range of circumstances under which Kickstarter can be utilized, but the real question is: are you sure you are in the right frame of mind to use the service in the first place? Are your expectations of what you could potentially achieve correct? Is your idea or current content for a game solid enough that people are going to care?
If you're a developer looking to fire off a Kickstarter, it's essential that you heavily research past Kickstarters first. Look at Kickstarters for projects similar to yours, look at their targets and their initial content, look at how well known or completely unknown these studios are, then compare all this with your own ambitions, and set yourself a realistic target based on how much it appears that people are willing to pay. If this target doesn't match what you believe you're going to need, then it may well be that Kickstarter isn't the avenue for you.
If you're a developer who's shipped interesting games in the past, whether as an indie or as part of a large studio, and if you have a unique idea that fulfills a niche but no publishers or investors are willing to back, I see little reason why you shouldn't resort to Kickstarter.
But if you haven't put out a game worth mentioning, or if you haven't shipped anything at all, I think you really need to spend time first to prove you can execute an idea, and won't waste the faith and donations that contributors have placed in your project.. And if your idea isn't more than a remix of genres, or isn't something you can define an audience for, it will be difficult for your Kickstarter to stand out from the dozens of other game projects competing for donations each week.
Even if you can't find a publisher or investor, before turning to Kickstarter, it's worth considering taking on contract jobs to self-fund the project if possible. Almost Human (Legend of Grimrock) took that route to fund its first game, and the team noted that it was able to use those jobs as opportunities to learn how to work together and develop their pipeline -- as a result, they were able to put out a commercially successful, polished product with a limited budget and just 10 months of development time.
If you look at the recent success stories on Kickstarter, it seems that the biggest and most successful projects are those with a bit of a pedigree. Double Fine Adventure, Wasteland 2, even startup indie games like The Banner Saga are all examples of hit projects created by experienced and respected developers. Given this pattern of success, it seems to me that Kickstarter works best for developers that have already proven themselves elsewhere.
Of course, that's not to say it's impossible for newcomers to make it on Kickstarter, but it's going to be much more difficult. If you put your game on Kickstarter and you don't have a legacy to build on, everything's going to depend on your initial pitch -- so you better make sure you're a good salesman. But even then, with no past work to examine, your potential backers can't really be sure that you'll be able to deliver on that promise. If you ask me, I'd say Kickstarter is a perfect fit for established developers looking to take their career in a new direction, but if you're just starting out, you might want to consider a different approach.
The generosity that Kickstarter backers have shown game projects lately makes me wonder if ANYTHING that seems to be real quality work is outside of its bounds. I can't say I was surprised by Double Fine, but I'd be lying if I said that I predicted Wasteland 2 would hit its $900,000 goal, let alone more than triple it.
That said, I've seen some really great people post some really misguided projects, so there's still some room for error here. If you were to ask my advice (and I suppose you are), I'd say, bring your "A" game. Bring that project that you feel passionate about, that dream game that you just know would be a success if you could just get it out the door.
The art of the pitch is just as important in a Kickstarter video, except your backers here are looking way more at your passion and drive than they are at your financial model. Believe in your product, and make me believe in your product, and for God's sake, offer a low-level digital download tier.
For every Kickstarter I see that has an established name or fanbase behind it, there are a dozen or more who fall short. And with the successes we've seen, it's getting even harder to stand out from the crowd. It would seem to make sense, then, that Kickstarter shouldn't be the start of your campaign to launch a game, but rather the end of it.
If you've never made a game before, asking people to donate to it is an uphill -- often impossible -- battle. Track records, though, turn heads. Whether you were a key part of a team behind a well-known console or PC title or have a semi-successful iOS game under your belt, show your investors that you know how to produce.
Factor in also whether the money you raise on Kickstarter will be sufficient, even if you meet your goals (after taxes, nonpayments, etc.). Poor business management in this case can be just as fatal to your professional reputation as a bad game.