Kickstarter as a Subversive Activity
Is Kickstarter Dead?
Kickstarter and other crowd-funding sites such as IndieGoGo have created amazing opportunities for creative developers in many media, especially games. They are also very different from previous ways of financing projects, and that sometimes causes confusion. I regularly see articles questioning whether "Kickstarter is dead", and whether backers are wasting their money when they support a crowd-funding project. So far, they have been wrong every time, and fans continue to fund projects they consider worthy.
Kickstarter is not a place where you preorder games (or other products) - It is a chance for you to support projects you want to see developed. Because project creators are required to list estimated delivery dates for backer rewards, it is easy for backers to make the assumption that they are promising delivery of certain things on those dates. Let's see how this works in the traditional game industry.
Not Exactly Rules – More Like Guidelines
Game development is an exercise in barely-controlled chaos. Major game companies – as well as small indie developers – start and cancel game projects constantly. Everyone is at risk – The company, its investors, the project creators, and other employees and contractors. The gamers have an emotional risk as well, but usually no financial risk.
One effect of this risk is that most game companies rely on "safe bets" – sequels to existing franchises and games licensed from other media. Another is that they are very willing to cancel a game at any point of development. I've read that as many as 8 out of 10 games are cancelled by their publishers during development. At least 98 of 100 game proposals never even make it that far.
As for budgets and shipping dates, "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley". And "no plan survives contact with the enemy." The enemies of game development include the creative nature of the process, the uncertainty of developing new processes and supporting constantly-changing technology, the demands of corporate executives and investors, and the uncertainty of the marketplace.
In practice, this means that publishers cancel most of their games before shipment, and almost every game comes in late and over budget. Much worse is that game publishers often force developers to release unfinished games in order to make arbitrary deadlines; that happened to two of our games. I don't know about you, but I would much rather get a great game six months or a year after the scheduled date than a broken one delivered on time.
Kickstarter is Better... But Not Perfect
How do Kickstarter-funded game projects do compared to ones financed by publishers? Actually, very well. I've read that 90% of Kickstarter projects eventually ship, but that almost all of them miss their deadline estimate. That's a heck of a lot better than the 20% of publisher-financed games that eventually make it out. My numbers may be off, but the conclusion is definitely correct – A game funded on Kickstarter is much more likely to ship than a traditionally-produced game.
As to the missed deadlines, those are almost inevitable. If a project barely reaches its goal (such as Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption), the creators need to scramble for resources and use part-time developers to get the project done. If it makes a lot more (e.g. Double Fine Adventure), the developer is expected to make a much more complex game with stretch goal features. It takes a lot more time to make a big game than a small one.
So when people complain about Kickstarter projects "running late", they are apparently looking for miracles. It's possible for a game to ship on time, under budget, and relatively bug-free – I've managed it on several of my projects – but it's never the way to bet. Big publisher with a big budget, indie developer with a tiny budget – The process is difficult and uncertain for all of us.
The Return of Sierra Adventures
Many of the former Sierra On-Line adventure game designers have used the Kickstarter opportunity to bring back our dreams of making great story-driven games. Let's see where they are today:
- Jim Walls (creator of "Police Quest") is currently running a Kickstarter for his new "Precinct" game at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/precinctgame/precinct. Like Police Quest, Precinct is a police procedural game with a mixture of traditional adventure game play and action sequences. You play as a police officer in a corrupt town, and must do your job while trying to clean up your department. If you liked Police Quest, Law & Order, or CSI, you should think about supporting Jim's game. The funding is moving along slowly, but still has time to succeed.
- A group of filmmakers ("Molotov Angel") is trying to document the classic Sierra. They caught Lori and me on camera in separate sessions last year. Their project is at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/772847014/the-history-of-sierra-on-line-through-a-documentar, but is far short of its goal with one week remaining.
- Make Leisure Suit Larry Come Again, by Al Lowe (creator of the original "Leisure Suit Larry"), Josh Mandel, and Replay Games. This project promised to recreate Leisure Suit Larry 1 with modern standards for audio and graphics and additional text and puzzles. The game shipped this month and lives up to Josh and Al's promises.
- Moebius, by Jane Jensen ("Gabriel Knight" creator) and her new company, Pinkerton Road Studio. Jane offered a "year of adventure", starting with the Moebius game. Pinkerton Road recently released an Alpha build, and it is getting strongly positive reviews.
- SpaceVenture, by Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy ("Space Quest" creators). Lori and I saw a demo at Comic-Con in San Diego, and it looks great! Like us, Mark and Scott are re-examining many of the basic assumptions about how to make a good adventure game, and I think they are going to make a great game.
- Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption, by Lori Ann Cole and Corey Cole ("Quest for Glory" creators). We are working on a playable demo consisting of a short cinematic and a single playable room. This is a true "vertical slice" that plays exactly like the full game, so it is a big step towards developing the rest of the game. Lori and I are excited by what we can do with relatively-unlimited memory – beautiful graphics, great music, and a context-sensitive story and user interface that we like a lot better than the ones we used at Sierra
News and Events
Lori and I travelled to San Diego Comic-Con a couple of weeks ago, and the E3 Expo the previous month. We had a great meeting in San Diego with the SpaceVenture team – Mark Crowe, Scott Murphy, and Chris Pope – and talked about how we can promote each other's games. We also discussed the issues both teams have faced using Unity to mix 2D and 3D art. Their game demo looks terrific and shows that they have learned some new game design tricks since the 90's.
What struck us at E3 was how little the gaming industry has progressed since we were last there 8 or 10 years ago. The budgets keep climbing, but we aren't seeing many real advances in game play, or even in the quality of the graphics. The "uncanny valley" theory suggests that when a game reaches a certain level of detail, we expect it to feel "real". At that point, more realistic graphics actually take away from the player's feeling of immersion. I think that most high-budget games are now at that uncomfortable level where they are too realistic to not be completely real.
The most impressive new games I saw were Thief and Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag. The lead writer and a senior game designer for Thief gave a good talk at Comic-Con about what they are trying to accomplish with the story and game play. They are smart people, and the game sounds as though it will have some depth.
Our final trip of the Summer is this week. Lori and I are travelling to San Francisco to speak at the International Game Developer's Association (IGDA) Summit, and to have some meetings with potential partners. Our topic is "Game Design as a Subversive Activity", and will be at 4:00 on Wednesday, July 31. It's open to attendees of the IGDA Summit and the parallel Casual Connect conference. I'll plan on posting part of the talk (or at least a link) in the next Update.
What's so "subversive" about letting our players be heroes? We believe that the things you do and learn in games can carry over to your non-gaming life. Although we avoid "preaching" in our games, each one has an underlying message about making the world a better place. And that's why making our own games is so important to us, especially when we read messages about how our games have encouraged fans to help people in need and to make themselves better.
Kickstarter is subversive too. By supporting projects here, we are each saying, "I am choosing for myself which dreams I believe in, and which games I want to see made." We are not delegating these decisions to a committee of "experts". Our voices and our choices matter here.
Thank you for sharing our dream!
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Friend: Thank you for your support! Your name will be added to the Hero list on www.hero-u.net/leadersroll.php, a small first step towards immortality.Estimated delivery:
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Freshman: You will receive a DRM-free digital game download, access to discussion forums to help us improve the game, and your name will appear on the Hero list.Estimated delivery:
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Sophomore: Digital Reward 2: Receive everything from the Freshman level, the downloadable Hero-U Soundtrack, and the gorgeous Hero-U Art Book in PDF form. The art book contains production sketches, final art, and insider commentary on the making of Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption.Estimated delivery:
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Junior: Get a head start on your education by playing one of the development team's previous award-winning games. You will receive all of the Sophomore class benefits plus a digital key to your choice of MacGuffin's Curse, Jolly Rover, or the complete Quest for Glory collection.Estimated delivery:
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Beta Tau Initiate: All-Digital reward. Everything in the Junior package, including your choice of one game key. PLUS you get early access to the Hero-U Beta and Combat-Balancing tests. Help us shape and tune the game the way YOU want it!Estimated delivery:
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Senior: Get physical with a high-quality boxed copy of Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption containing the game on DVD and a printed game manual. You will also receive all of the Sophomore benefits (including an additional digital copy of the game). While you wait for your box, enjoy a preview with early access to our Beta and Combat Balancing Tests. All Seniors may add any of the Junior-level previous games at $15 each.Estimated delivery:Add $15 USD to ship outside the US
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Big Man On Campus: (Super Digital Rewards) You're special, and everyone should know it. Your name (or your favorite character's name) will appear in the in-game DIGITAL YEARBOOK along with a brief statement of your/their accomplishments. We will also email you the Secret Thieves' Guild Password. (Other players will need to discover this in the game.) You will also receive everything from the Sophomore level as well as early access to our Beta and Combat Balance tests. (NOTE: This tier does not include any physical rewards. It's highly International-Supporter-friendly.)Estimated delivery:
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Frat Rat: Halloween Special – You love Meeps, and that's why you will get your very own Toy Meep along with your boxed copy of Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption. That's on top of all of the Senior-level physical and digital rewards and eligibility for add-ons. You will also receive your own entry in the in-game DIGITAL YEARBOOK. International Customers please add $15 for shipping costs.Estimated delivery:Add $15 USD to ship outside the US
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Graduate Edition: Unique Kickstarter-Graduate-only Collector’s Edition Box containing the game DVD, manual, a Music Soundtrack CD, your own Varsity Letter, Hero-U button, and everything in the Big Man On Campus digital reward tier including your very own entry in the in-game DIGITAL YEARBOOK.Estimated delivery:Add $15 USD to ship outside the US
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Exchange Student: The *ultimate* all-digital package, perfect for international backers. You will start with everything in the Big Man on Campus edition. Then you will have the chance to follow the development of Hero-U with insider access to developer discussions and Alpha tests. To give you more insight into our games, you will receive digital keys to ALL EIGHT of our currently available previous games (Quest for Glory 1: So You Want to Be a Hero EGA and VGA versions, Quest for Glory 2: Trial by Fire, Quest for Glory 3: Wages of War, Quest for Glory 4: Shadows of Darkness, Quest for Glory 5: Dragon Fire, MacGuffin's Curse, AND Jolly Rover). NOTE: The previous game keys are part of this tier only; we are not adding them to the higher physical tiers.Estimated delivery:
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Research Assistant: You're practically a team member, so you will receive a very-limited-edition Team Meep Hat plus insider access to developer discussions and Alpha tests. You will also receive everything in the Graduate Edition, and your chosen picture (subject to team approval) will appear in the in-game digital yearbook.Estimated delivery:Add $15 USD to ship outside the US
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Alumnus: As a proud Hero-U Alumnus, your chosen name, preferred photo (or other image of your choice, subject to team approval) will appear in the Very Limited Edition physical Hero-U Yearbook. Of course, alumni like to collect signatures from their University friends, so Lori and Corey Cole will autograph your yearbook and Graduate Edition premium game box. You will also receive Research Assistant privileges and a Team Meep hat.Estimated delivery:Add $15 USD to ship outside the US
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Master Rogue: The rewards of your advanced education include a limited-edition art print of the school on Canvas, everything in the Alumnus package including the autographed premium game box and autographed yearbook. You will also receive a Limited Edition Kickstarter Superfan T-Shirt, and digital keys to ALL THREE previous games – the Quest for Glory Collection, MacGuffin's Curse, and Jolly Rover.Estimated delivery:Add $25 USD to ship outside the US
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PhD: You will be immortalized. Not only will you receive all of the benefits of a Master Rogue, your chosen name, hero biography, and picture will appear prominently in-game as well as in the yearbook. Your canvas art print will be supersized, and you will be one of the proud few to complete a graduate school education at Hero-U. We'll also provide you with the secret location and key to the Faculty Lounge. (Other players will be able to break in later in the game.)Estimated delivery:Add $40 USD to ship outside the US
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DFA (Doctor of Fine Arts): You will be featured on an in-game painting. When players click on it, they will see your chosen name, image (this could be you, a favorite character, pet, or other approved image, converted by our artists to look like other in-game portraits), and humorous description. You also receive all of the benefits of a Master Rogue, You will have a listing including your chosen image in the yearbook, and of course will receive an autographed copy of the physical edition. We will send you a canvas art print of your in-game "portrait" in addition to the school art print, and you will be one of the proud few to complete a graduate school education at Hero-U. We'll also provide you with the secret location and key to the Faculty Lounge. (Other players will be able to break in later in the game.)Estimated delivery:Add $40 USD to ship outside the US
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Art Collector: In this extremely-limited reward tier, we will send you an original, one-of-a-kind production painting that was used to create a Quest for Glory game. We only have a few of these paintings available. You will also receive all DFA (Doctor of Fine Arts) benefits, including having your picture and biography immortalized in-game. The Quest for Glory artwork will be shipped separately in January or February.Estimated delivery:Add $80 USD to ship outside the US
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Benefactor: As one of the top alumni contributors to Hero-U, we will name one wing of the University after you or a loved one. The name you choose (with team approval) will be prominently displayed when any student enters your wing. We will send you a customized architectural drawing of your wing. If you send us a suitable video clip, it will appear in the launch video for your wing. You will also receive all benefits of the PhD reward tier. Free shipping worldwide!Estimated delivery:
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Monster Lair: You are so diabolical, you are the master of a dungeon den. We will collaborate with you on designing your own custom monster lair, likely including a sculpted image of yourself or a friend. Your lair, complete with the monsters and traps you select, will be placed somewhere in the catacombs. You will also receive all benefits of the PhD reward tier. Free shipping worldwide!Estimated delivery:
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High-Roller: You're a serious role-player, or just really want to support our game at a high level. In addition to all of the PhD-level rewards, Corey and/or Lori will run a D&D game for you and friends at a convention anywhere in North America. Or add $1,000 for our additional travel expenses, and we'll join you anywhere in the world. Does not include the Benefactor reward – The school doesn’t have enough wings. Instead, you’ll have a large statue in the main wing celebrating your or your hero's accomplishments.Estimated delivery:
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Philanthropist: You really care! And we care about you too! Spend a day visiting Yosemite Park and touring Sierra landmarks in Oakhurst with Lori and Corey Cole. We'll share a nice meal or two and discuss game design or anything else you want. You'll also receive all the rewards of the PhD level and we'll find a prominent place in-game to thank you for your awesome support. We will cover a one-night hotel stay, but you are responsible for transportation to and from Oakhurst, California.Estimated delivery:
- (32 days)