"We are always trying to err on the side of caution." says Mike Wilson, co-founder of Gambitious, an equity funding platform that helps independent developers get the money they need to complete their games.
In a time when failed Kickstarters are constantly making headlines as developers underestimate the funds they actually need to ship their games, investors are rightfully nervous.
With a conservative approach, Wilson hopes to steer away from that, creating a platform that brings investors and developers together to create great games to their mutual benefit.
Budgeting can be very difficult for an independent developer who's just starting out. Creating games is enough of a challenge before marketing and sales enter the picture. It's very easy to underestimate just how much certain aspects of shipping a game cost. And underestimating that cost comes with huge problems, especially when you've already promised people a finished product in exchange for their hard-earned funds through a Kickstarter campaign.
Wilson believes that bringing in a business-knowledgeable partner such as Gambitious can help alleviate funding fears.
"The biggest issues developers run into are underestimating what they really need, not having a backup plan for slippage, only asking for what they think they can raise rather than what they really need, and then adding stretch goals that are severely underestimated in their complexity and additional time and cost," he says. "Also, it's very easy to underestimate the time and effort of just running the campaign for the full duration."
"The biggest issues developers run into are underestimating what they really need, not having a backup plan for slippage, only asking for what they think they can raise rather than what they really need, and then adding stretch goals that severely underestimated complexity and additional time and cost"
Wilson has been working on the business side of games since his days with id Software back in the 90's. He briefly worked as CEO of Ion Storm in 1997. In 1998, he helped found Gathering of Developers (Godgames), a publishing group that meant to put more control and money in the hands of game creators. He was one of the original founders of Devolver Digital.
"My partners and I have been in the business of greenlighting, funding, producing, and publishing independent games since 1998, and so we have always been bridging the gap between the business and artistic sides of the industry in one way or another." says Wilson. "We are very proud for having carved out a niche for doing extremely artist-driven deals that still turn a nice profit without compromising integrity or taking advantage of the power position of 'he who has the gold makes the rules' that so often dominates such relationships."
The thought of bringing in investors can stir up unpleasant thoughts in developer's heads. For every failed Kickstarter story, there have been just as many horror stories of publishers and investors taking IPs out from under the developers who created them, drafting deals that turn developers into indentured servants, or infringing on their vision of what the game should be. It's scary to go it on your own, but it can be just as frightening to align yourself with some businessmen who know nothing about games and the passion, creativity, and work that goes into them.
Wilson says that Gambitious isn't about giving devs some money and leaving them to their own devices. "The biggest thing is helping developers (especially new ones) figure out their production plan, QA plan, localization plan, PR and marketing plans, and contingency plans to come up with how much they really need to pull off what they are attempting to do." says Wilson. "While money can be uncomfortable and a bit of a buzzkill to discuss in the early days of any artistic endeavor, once you do it, it provides everyone a lot more comfort and less of the 'fake it 'til you make it' nervousness so common when art meets commerce."
Mike Wilson of Gambitious (via John Gibson Visuals)
Where is the money coming from? Wilson says he is not the sole investor.
"In the early goings, we've really worked with friends and family and our professional networks, and we have invested alongside them at the same exact terms in every project, trying to provide a positive and transparent experience for people new to the idea of investing in projects," he says. " We are now getting more people reaching out to see how they can invest, but we are still only working with accredited investors (or sophisticated investors), which basically means people who can afford to put a minimum of 5k into a game without ruining their lives if the game doesn't earn out."
That group of investors has been steadily growing. "We have a core group of 30 or so mostly-very-happy investors now who are eager to invest in all the new projects, but we are also trying to be diligent about making room to bring in some new investors with each project." says Wilson. "It's a very organic process of growing our professional networks while we wait for the various governments to clearly lay out the rules in a way that makes us comfortable that people aren't getting taken advantage of. The rules are different and still evolving in all territories, and since we're really focused on doing this internationally, we are always trying to err on the side of caution."
Gambitious has already helped studios like Renegade Kid, CreativeForge Games, and Ice-pick Lodge get their games out to the buying public. It has recently announced partnerships with three more studios at PAX South. They will be working with the makers of Hard Reset: Redux, Zombie Night Terror, and Crush Your Enemies, assisting the developers with funds and advice.
"Crush Your Enemies and Zombie Night Terror are both very refreshing takes on some proven gameplay mechanisms with enough innovation to make them feel original and interesting. They are both from new, very enthusiastic and passionate teams; I would say that aspect is what sold us on those two games, in addition to their scope being reasonable for Gambitious to take on at the time that we did." says Wilson. "Hard Reset Redux was sort of a no-brainer as it's a fantastic update of an already fantastic FPS from a really solid team that we've had great experience working with as Devolver."
Should a developer decide they would like Gambitious' help and knowledge, what would they need to do? What stage should you be at in development before presenting it to investors? "With the prototyping tools and game engines being so easily accessible now, I have to say we're getting a bit spoiled to seeing projects at a solid proof-of-concept demo phase. Which, of course, makes experimental indie games a bit of an easier thing to take a chance on, after the basic mystery of 'Yeah, but will this be fun?' is removed. We see games in very rough stages, but we haven't done much of anything at the true design doc phase. Not to say we won't ever do that, but for an up-and-coming team, it certainly helps to demonstrate resourcefulness." says Wilson.
This is not unexpected. It's not easy to get funding for a project from anyone when all you have is some concept art and a few ideas. Knowledge will always make it easier for someone to part with their money to help a developer out. If they can play a demo of the game or see it in action, it's going to provide a lot more confidence in the investor. Not that it's impossible that Gambitious and others will part with some money for a solid concept, but having more than that does make things easier.
It's not necessarily about bringing Gambitious certain types of games, either. Their currently-published works shift across several genres and play styles. It's not about games with huge scope or almost-certain potential for massive profits. "It still comes down to a basic gut-check on whether we think the game has a good chance to at least make its money back and have a decent chance to do well enough to make it worth everyone's time, which with our small team (like the developers) is at a premium." Says Wilson. "Not pitching every platform you've ever heard might be possible for your game when you have no experience on those platforms helps as well. Focus on making one compelling experience first... baby steps!"
Caution and care are important aspects of what Gambitious has to offer developers when they work with them. As such, Gambitious looks at each project and will only offer to help with what the developer needs, rather than offer some blanket plan for every game that comes their way. "We've always believed the key is transparency and only giving the developer the help they need and want, rather than forcing a lot of often costly 'services' that they didn't really need, such as a producer (who very often has never actually made a game) mandating game design or creative decisions." says Wilson.
While working with developers, it's very important to Wilson that they have final say in the decisions about their creations. Gambitious is about helping, not taking over in order to maximize profits. "We believe strongly in checking our egos and giving the developers the final call on all creative decisions, which is easy to say, but you really have to believe in the instincts of the artists to make it happen in practice. We give feedback and suggestions and even debate, but always defer to the people who are killing themselves to make their game. This has been true for my partners and I since the Godgames days, and still works for us today."
With so many different crowdfunding techniques, and with other companies like Fig starting up their own equity crowdfunds, what is it about Gambitious that sets it apart. Again, Wilson points to Gambitious' cautious, patient methods, and their mandate of putting creators first while working within their means. It's about passion for games, but a careful, well-thought out passion.
"We enjoy investing in games ourselves, and see a huge potential for other gamers to invest in something they are passionate about and feel like they understand better than huge public companies or mutual funds or whatever." says Wilson. "So, we've been waiting for this sort of investing to come to fruition for a very long time, and are excited to help usher it in, as cautiously and methodically as possible, to preserve this as a long term golden opportunity for more indies to get their games funded, rather than a short term gold rush to get in 'dumb money' from unsophisticated investors."
Gambitious is a business, and businesses are out to make money. Wilson says it's not about making that money as fast as possible, though, but about sustaining an artist/publisher relationship where both parties can do well over time. He hopes to invest in a handful of projects, slowly building up new investors and clients by being cautious about the scope of what his company, and the games they support, can do. It won't make anyone rich overnight, but it will help artists reach their goals and make a little money for savvy investors along the way.
"I think the fact that we are being more careful and professional in our approach -- really trying to build something sustainable -- helps so that crowd funding (which isn't really what we're doing right now) isn't just remembered as a flash in the pan and a trail of broken promises. I think a lot of developers and fans are feeling crowdfunding fatigue at this point, and don't necessarily want to do the whole public facing pitch videos and putting themselves and their projects out there before they are really ready." says Wilson.
It seems like a risky position to be in, but Wilson and his associates at Gambitious have been involved in games for some time. Despite this fatigue and frustration with crowd funding and publishers, Wilson feels they can provide something to developers to help them achieve their dreams. Through Gambitious, Wilson wants to see developers preserve their visions while getting the assistance they need on aspects of games they might not know about. With some careful planning and knowledge of the industry, Wilson hopes he can bring some unique, fun games to the world that may have otherwise been lost to money and planning woes.
"With Gambitious, we're new as a publisher and had to build the team and get the 'machine' working and prove ourselves as a worthy option for developers beyond funding, so our projects to date have been somewhat conservative in scope, but all had something about the project or the team that made us feel good about giving it a try. For us, it's really important to prove that our model can work for both developers and investors when a game isn't some big franchise or from a famous developer, and doesn't need to sell millions of copies to be a success."