These past few weeks haven't gone so well for Game Developers Conference founder and veteran game designer Chris Crawford. Like many other developers in the industry, he recently turned to Kickstarter
to raise money for his latest project, but with less than four days left in the campaign, he's nowhere close to his $150,000 goal.
Crawford hoped to raise money to create Balance of the Planet
, a serious environmental simulator that would teach players about sustainable energy, pollution, and other world issues. With his funding, he planned to make the game available for free on the web, and Crawford suspects that's one of the main reasons why his campaign went down in flames. After all, why would backers pledge money for a product that'll eventually be free?
"As it turns out, my model was only right for what Kickstarter used
to be," said Crawford. "That is, Kickstarter used to be a semi-charitable operation in which people could assist worthy creative projects that might not make it commercially, but still ought to be done. But in the area of games and comics, this is no longer the case.
"What's going on now, which I did not comprehend at the time, is that Kickstarter is a marketing channel [for games], so instead of buying a game after it's made, people just pay for a game before
it's made. It works in that context, but I had entirely the wrong context in mind, so Balance of the Planet
's Kickstarter became a dismal failure."
At this point it's very unlikely he'll raise his goal, but Crawford says this experience was still helpful for his game. Throughout the campaign, he directed prospective backers to a a simple-looking, in-progress build of Balance of the Planet
, and the players who tried it offered plenty of feedback that helped him tune and refine the title. Assuming the Kickstarter fails, he plans to launch the updated game as a standalone product on the Mac App Store.
Appealing to the wrong audience
While the public demo was useful for generating feedback and helping Crawford improve his design, he wonders whether showing the game too early just put another nail in his Kickstarter's coffin.
"In my case, I had a working game that was only halfway finished, so everybody saw a zillion flaws. There's an interesting question there: Is it better to show a half complete thing to give people an idea of what it is, or do you keep it all hidden until it's ready?"
He pointed out that most backers on Kickstarter aren't developers, so they're not used to looking past the rough edges of an unfinished game. While a designer might be able to ignore a few bugs, an average player will likely see little more than a broken piece of software, making them even less likely to pledge any money.
Crawford suspects that even if he had a polished demo, he still would have been at a disadvantage, as Kickstarter backers don't tend to show much enthusiasm for unusual or experimental projects -- particularly when they're focused on education or serious world issues.
"There are a great many unconventional games on Kickstarter, but very few of them are funded. The only ones that get funding -- regardless of the price -- are fairly straight forward ones," Crawford said.
"An interesting exercise is to read a brief sentence or two of the description, and every single one says something along the lines of, 'This is a platformer – with a twist!' or 'Here we have an RPG with new rules for magic.' They all describe themselves as, 'It's this category of game, with these changes,' and that in itself bespeaks how set in its ways that community is."
Crawford's not sure if he'll ever give Kickstarter another shot, but he told us that if he did, he'd only use the platform to raise money for ports of existing games. If he ever needs to attract funding for another new, experimental project, he's convinced he'd have better luck trying something else.