Crowdfunding Games

By Michael Mendis

One common refrain from long-time gamers is that the game industry is becoming stale and risk-averse; big publishers don’t want to risk millions of dollars on new franchises and ideas that might not become huge successes, so they mostly only finance sequels to the games that have already proven themselves on the market.  Whole groups of gamers feel left out as they don’t see many of the games that they like being made and marketed, particularly by the biggest gaming companies.  If only those executives could see that there is a market for the games we like, they’d find that we’d be willing to pay for these experiences!

Enter crowdfunding.  Websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo offer aspiring creators the opportunity to advertise the products they have in development, and ask people to give money to help complete their work.  Those who agree to help finance these projects (often referred to as “backers”) would receive a copy of the game, and possibly other goodies if they gave higher dollar amounts; if the goal is met before the campaign is complete, the game creators could also incentivize people to continue giving by creating stretch goals that will add new features to the the project.  In February of 2012, game developer Double Fine Productions launched a campaign on Kickstarter; Double Fine is made up of people who worked on some much beloved point-and-click adventure games from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and their pitch to gamers was that, with some financial help, they would be able to make a new adventure game, one that they couldn’t get publishers to support.  They asked for $400,000; within eight hours after the campaign began, they announced that they had already met their goal.  By the time the campaign ended a month later, they had raised over $3.3 million.

The whole game industry took notice; before long, scads of developers both big and small were launching crowdfunding campaigns, seeking to circumvent the process of working with a publisher in favor of getting their financial backing from potential customers.  Some developers saw their Kickstarter campaigns lead to great success; Double Fine’s game (which became known as Broken Age) was well received upon release, the Oculus Rift VR device raked in almost $2.5 million to help get development kits into the hands of game creators, and the tiny indie game Undertale (made almost entirely by one guy) got over ten times the original funding goal and was ultimately hailed as one of the best games of 2015.

But not every story coming out of crowdfunding has been a success.  Over twice as many games-related Kickstarter campaigns have failed to reach their funding goal as those that have succeeded (according to their stats page), and not every project that met its goal has turned out to be a good product.  Some games, such as Mighty No. 9, received far more money than they originally set out to make, yet turned out to be disappointments upon launch.  Still others, like the now infamous Yogventures, were never completed, leaving backers with nothing other than lighter wallets.

So what are the lessons to be learned from all of these examples?  What can we take away from the successes and failures of crowdfunding, especially for those of us who are considering becoming the backer of one of these types of projects?  I think there are several things we can learn here:

  • Backing a crowdfunding campaign is an investment on an unfinished product.  When you put down money on a campaign, you not paying for a final product; you are paying for a developer to complete what they are working on, and there’s no guarantee that it will ultimately come to fruition.  And as long as the developer can show that they put in the effort to complete the game, you are not legally entitled to a refund.
  • Expect delays, especially for games that hit lots of stretch goals.  When a developer puts forth an estimated time frame for when the crowdfunded game will be finished, it is not set in stone, and it is based on the amount of work they expect it will take to finish the what was promised based on the original funding goal.  Delays are common in the game industry, so don’t freak out if it doesn’t meet its initial release window.  This is especially true for games that hit multiple stretch goals; those stretch goals usually mean that the developer promises to add more features to the game, which means more development time.  A good developer will be open about the development process with their backers, so that the backers can see that progress is being made, even when it takes longer than expected.
  • Research the developer(s) you are considering supporting.  Developers with a proven track record of completing games (and more specifically completing good games) are a safer bet than developers with little-to-no experience with the game industry.  Just bear in mind that there are never any guarantees.  Double Fine is a well-known developer...but so is Keiji Inafune, who headed development of the disappointing Mighty No. 9.  Winterkewl Games was completely unknown and failed to produce Yogventures...but Toby Fox was largely unknown too, until he completed the critically acclaimed Undertale.

Lastly, I’ll share my small amount of personal experience with crowdfunding.  I’ve supported one Kickstarter campaign so far, which is Shantae: Half-Genie Hero.  Shantae is a series by developer Wayforward, who has a long history of completing high-quality games for many different gaming systems over the years.  I’ve played a little bit of their previous Shantae titles, so I have a good idea of what to expect in this upcoming game.  Their Kickstarter campaign hit a lot of stretch goals, adding tons of new content to Half-Genie Hero; this meant that they weren’t able to come anywhere close to their initial release window of Fall 2014.  However, their many years of experience in the game industry seems to be paying off, as they have continued to provide updates showing real progress in the game’s development, and as of this article they hope/expect to release the game in November.  A less experienced developer might not have been able to stay afloat with a project that expanded so much in scope.  My final judgment of the game (and of my first crowdfunding experience) can only be made when I have the finished product in my hands, but suffice it to say that as of right now, I am satisfied with how things have gone.