Kickstarting Indie Gaming

There is a potentially decade-defining revolution happening in gaming right now, and not many are noticing. The iPhone, flash games, Xbox Live, Playstation Network, Second Life, Facebook widgets, and even Foursquare haven’t just moved the bar for gaming development —they’ve completely redesigned and re-purposed it.

We’ve gone from game development as an artistic/programming pursuit to the past five years, the age of the blockbuster game. Like Hollywood, anything that doesn’t fit a predetermined market requirement is cast aside. Big console and PC development takes years of work and ginormous sums of money, and as a result, the gaming studios play it safe, releasing sequels, retreads, and other swill. Sound familiar?

But just as there’s more to film than Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer, there’s more to gaming than Mario Kart and Mortal Kombat. Indie game developers have always been around, but they’re now finding friendly outlets and eager gamers thanks to the iPhone, Xbox, and Playstation’s relatively open platforms. For many, it’s the first credible outlet they’ve ever had.

But still, there is money — a lack of it. And for some developers, that’s where Kickstarter has come in. We’ve had games like High Strangeness, Liferaft, and Resonance — all excellent. Another set in the post-election demonstrations in Iran (we’ll be posting an interview with its developer tomorrow). Also a documentary on competitive Street Fighter 4, a Halo-based talk show, and a new video game journal, among many others.

The rewards are often great. In addition to the games themselves, creators have offered to base characters after backers and use them as in-game voices. And for the creators: I don’t know the ownership stakes normally given to game developers, but I can take a guess. On Kickstarter creators always keep full creative control and intellectual property.

If you aren’t a big gamer you probably don’t think of these people as artists in the same way you do filmmakers, painters, or musicians. And considering what’s out there, you aren’t wrong. But a good game developer or designer’s work can be just as profound and just as serious as anyone else’s. Visit a couple of the projects above and I bet you’ll agree.

Creator Q&A: Michael Hearst

That bizarre thing above is called the Magnapinna squid (filmed earlier this year deep in the Gulf of Mexico), and it’s one of several unusual creatures that Michael Hearst wants to write a book and make a record about for his Songs for Unusual Creatures project. Rewards include Theremin lessons, pet portraits, and this, the single worst reward that we have ever seen:

Unusual Creatures is the latest in a string of inventive projects from Michael, including Songs for Ice Cream Trucks and the band One Ring Zero, where he collaborated with Paul Auster, Margaret Atwood, Dave Eggers, and Neil Gaiman. He also podcasts with Rick Moody. Well done, sir.

Michael’s Kickstarter project has done well, with $2,000 raised thus far. And its rewards — barring the above — are particularly strong. But needing $3,000 with eleven days to go, the pressure is on and Michael is feeling it.

We asked him how the experience has been so far, and he responded:

Incredibly stressful.  But also very enlightening.  I really have a hard time asking people for help, especially my friends.  And with Kickstarter, there’s simply no way around it.  But it has also really opened my eyes.  I’ve never contributed more money to other people’s projects than I have in the past month.  I now realize how difficult it is to raise funds, but also how important it is.

It’s a really great point. It might feel awkward asking friends and coworkers about your project, but it’s a must. Those are the people who always care the most and will work hardest to spread the word.

We asked Michael some more questions about his project and its progress, and you can read our exchange below. For more on Michael’s project, click this. And New Yorkers, note that he’s playing Joe’s Pub this Thursday night.

Can you tell us about your project?

I’ve gotten good at this question, thanks to you guys!  The project is called Songs For Unusual Creatures.  It will be a book/cd, which celebrates some of the lesser-known animals that roam the planet.  Things like the Magnapinna squid, the Dugong, the Horned Puffin, the Saddleback Caterpillar, and the Aye Aye.  When I was a kid, I loved Camille Saint-Saëns’ Le Carnaval des Animaux. (Still do, actually.)  Of course, those songs are mostly about common animals like the donkey and the elephant.  I thought it would be fun to do unusual animals.  To boot, I’m using a lot of bizarre musical instruments, including the claviola, the theremin, the stylophone, and a bunch mechanical musical instrument robots (provided by the guys at LEMUR).  The idea of releasing this project as a book/cd seems ultra important to me, kind of a essential that it should include pictures of the animals, as well as some fun facts.

What are some of your favorite animals you will be writing about? Why?

The Chinese Giant Salamander!  Thing is absolutely disgusting and totally amazing.  It’s the largest living amphibian, measuring up to 5 feet in length.  All it takes is one look at picture of the Chinese Giant Salamander, and you’ll see.

I also love the Bilby, which is a small nocturnal marsupial found in the deserts of Australia.  The female Bilby has a pouch, which faces backward, helping to keep dirt from falling in while it burrows into the ground.  It hops around like a bunny rabbit.  In fact, there have been movements to popularize the Bilby as an alternative to the Easter bunny.  The Easter Bilby!

You’ve had a great music career and you’ve recorded for a number of prestigious labels. What made you decide to give Kickstarter a shot?

Well thanks.  And yes, I’ve certainly bounced around from one label to another. Most of my projects fall into very different categories from one another, thus making it difficult to stay with any particular label.  For the One Ring Zero author CD, we released it with Soft Skull press, for Songs For Ice Cream Trucks, I released it with Bar-None records.  For most of One Ring Zero’s worldlier albums, we’ve released them with Barbes Records.  Really though, the music industry has changed so much in the past few years that one begins to question the whole need for a record label, especially when the record labels don’t really have money for album production.  I still think labels can be super important, and there’s definitely something to be said for being part of a roster of like-minded artists, or even just being on a reputable label, but there really just aren’t advances for album production like there used to be.  And although I’m still very interested in fining a label or publishing house to work with on this project, I still need to find the money to make the album.  That’s where microfinancing is really fantastic.  Kickstarter has made it much easier to say to your friends and fans, “Hey remember when you used to spend $15 a week on new music, and now you don’t?   Well, we musicians and artists simply cant continue without you.  Help!”

How has the experience been so far?

Incredibly stressful.  But also very enlightening.  I really have a hard time asking people for help, especially my friends.  And with Kickstarter, there’s simply no way around it.  But it has also really opened my eyes.  I’ve never contributed more money to other people’s projects than I have in the past month.  I now realize how difficult it is to raise funds, but also how important it is.  And I’m so incredibly appreciative of everybody who has invested in my project.  Even the people who just put in $3 are Saints.  Seriously! I was lying in bed last night thinking, even if I don’t make the goal and get the money, I’m still going to find a way to make this album, and I’m still going to give each of those people a free copy when it comes out.

What’s your most popular reward? And what’s your best reward?

Well, my most popular reward is the $35 signed copy of the album with a special thank you in the book.  I mean, its really no different than placing an advance order of the book/cd, but you get your name in there too!

The top reward is the opportunity to have me write an original song for your pet (or a friends pet).  Of course there’s also the theremin lesson, or the “guided tour” of the Brooklyn Zoo, or even Sea Monkeys delivered to your house!

Any closing thoughts?

I suppose this is the perfect opportunity for me to plug my show at Joe’s Pub on Thursday Sept 17th (7pm).  I’ll have a five-piece band, plus about 30 musical instrument robots.

Also, if you ever get stung by Saddleback Caterpillar, use scotch tape to quickly remove the urticating hairs, which cause the stinging.

Film on Kickstarter

From LaPorte, Indiana to Geoff Edgers’ Kinks movie to film debuts to an Andrei Tarkovsky doc, there have already been some excellent film projects successfully funded through Kickstarter. This is no surprise to us — the IRS, Stonecutters and the movie industry run neck and neck for Most Byzantine Organization — and today we wanted to highlight a few current film projects that deserve some attention. In no particular order:

Live Radical and Change the World: I’ll admit: after watching the pitch video to Matthew Lessner’s new film, I wasn’t sure what to think. Hipsters playing Lord of the Flies in the woods of the Pacific Northwest? But then I watched the second teaser clip, which reveals a satire/farce that I would pay $12 to see, no question. I also like the $5 reward: “A black and white reproduction of Che Guevara shaking hands with Ralph Waldo Emerson.”

For Thousands of Miles — A Documentary About Leaving Everything Behind: This is the second film project from Mike Ambs; his first was the enchanting Project Pedal, whose video I adored with its somber tones and Malick feel. Thousands of Miles is part two of that project, a very personal effort by Mike to document both the events of and his reaction to a two-month bike trip that changed his life. Watch the clip and get sucked in.

Lake Beast: Lake Beast is an animated short from Vance Reeser, and it is spectacular. If you have a spare five minutes, walk don’t run to Vance’s project video, which unfolds his film in its working stages beautifully. It’s a genuine work of art on its own — no kidding. As a backer of the project, it’s been a particular treat. Vance’s project updates have been fantastic, including a post explaining what visuals inspired the film and a very personal post detailing what inspired the story in the first place. Vance is really giving it his all.

Mister Rogers & Me: I will let Christofer and Benjamin Wagner begin the pitch for this film. It’s hard to put it better:

I first met “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” creator Fred Rogers at his summer home in Nantucket, Massachusetts, in September 2001. My mother rented the cottage next door, so Mister Rogers really was my neighbor.

My brother and I have been working on our documentary, “Mister Rogers & Me” every since.

The Kickstarter project will help finish production on the film, which includes an appearance by the late Tim Russert talking about Mister Rogers’ importance. With eight days to go and $1,300 to raise, they’re in the home stretch, but they need some help.

Please Allow Me to Terminate Your Shirt: Based on a ludicrous premise reminiscent of Patrick Stewart’s Extras appearance (“I can see everything”), Steve Macfarlane’s project is amateur filmmaking at its finest. Whatever it means, I also like this reward: “You will get a high-five in the mail. Don’t ask how!!”

March! The Movie: There’s an understated charm to March!, a very New York film about real estate, greed politics, and self-righteousness. But it’s a comedy. The work of five East Villagers, it details what happens when a landlord kicks out his tenants to build himself a mansion. Worth a look.

The Horror: And finally, there’s a small handful of horror films up on the site worth checking out.

Always a Bridesmaid is a horror-comedy short that’s overflowing with ridiculousness — rewards include props from the film (like that idea).

Dr. Bonesaw is another, this one with a much bigger budget: $63,000 is its goal. While a bit pricey, there is an amazing reward: the film has five victims, and they are selling off the victim parts for $2,000 each. They’ve had one taker to date. Very creative.

And finally there’s Night of the Punks, an ’80s-style horror flick in the Evil Dead vein.

Good luck to everyone!

Creator Q&A: April Smith

Last night, one of our most popular projects for quite a while now came to a close: April Smith’s quest to make a new record. Led by an excellent pitch video that several projects have imitated, the project racked up over $13,000 during its run.

April was very creative with her project. She set several mini-goals: help me hit this threshold by Friday and everyone gets a free song, that kind of thing. And it always worked for her. Perhaps most inventively, recently April tweeted that the next three pledges would automatically get bumped up a reward tier: even if you only dropped $50, the $100 tier would be yours. Smart.

While her Kickstarter project was ongoing, April had an incredible run of big shows and attention. She played Lollapallooza this year (and Rolling Stone loved it). Billboard did a video interview with her. She’s played some big headlining shows in New York. The timing of Kickstarter’s launch and April’s ascendancy couldn’t have been synchronized better.

We sent April a few questions last night about her project. We’d like to congratulate her on her success

Please tell us about your project and background.

My Kickstarter project was a fundraiser to make my next album. Basically, I wanted to make a really great album without a label. I knew I’d have to pay for the production, studios and musicians myself. So I figured out a reasonable goal that would help me make the album I wanted to, the way I wanted to. I set my goal at $10K, and then I launched. When my project was over, I raised $13,100! So I guess 13 is my new lucky number.

Did you have a strategy with your project?

I handed out flyers at every show we played, tweeted about my Kickstarter project a bunch and I posted updates on Kickstarter too. I would blog on my website and always mention my project on radio and in interviews. I just tried to get the word out to as many people possible. My fans and friends were really instrumental too. I’d tweet about it and then they’d all retweet… I could never have done it on my own.

What was your most popular reward?

The $50 level was my most popular. My fans get a signed physical copy of the album a week before it’s released, an April Smith T-shirt, a digital copy of the album before it comes out, their name and link on my website, a free download of “Terrible Things,” and exclusive video updates from the studio.

Did anything surprise you?

Even though I know, and have always known, how wonderful my fans and supporters are, I was overwhelmed by their generosity. They were always retweeting about my project, telling their friends and spreading the word any way they could. Giving their time and helping me promote was just as valuable as a pledge.

What advice would you give a new project creator?

Use all of your social networking tools! Twitter, Facebook and Myspace were great for me. Send emails to your fans and keep them updated.

Any closing thoughts?

Kickstarter was truly a blast… I realized that I have the best fans I could hope for! I’m definitely going to donate to other Kickstarter projects too. I promised my invites to some other talented people so I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with their projects.

Kickstarter NYC Meetup

Next Thursday, September 17th, there will be a Kickstarter meet-up in NYC at Le Poisson Rouge in the West Village from 6-9pm. We’d love to see you there.

The event is the culmination of the New York Makes a Book Kickstarter project, a collaborative, 100-page book made by 100 New Yorkers. Copies of the book will be handed out for the very first time to all of the authors, who will each wear a nametag bearing their page number. Picture a yearbook signing: this is what we’re imagining. Additional copies of the book will be on sale as well. (The book turned out great.)

Both Perry and I will be on-hand, as well as many Kickstarter project creators and backers. The event is open to everyone, so come out and say hello. See you there.

Announcing Fees

In Kickstarter’s first four months, more than 100 projects have been successfully funded and more than $500,000 has been pledged. Through our creators’ hard work and the incredible generosity of their backers, adventures have been booked, art has been created, and records have been pressed. It’s been a great start, and we want to continue growing Kickstarter: adding new features, increasing our server capacity, and generally making things awesomer. Our goal is to build a sustainable business that will support creators for a very long time.

Since launch, Kickstarter has been completely free. Now that we’ve hammered out our early kinks, we’re getting ready to charge for our service. Here’s how it will work:

Projects that launch on or after September 15th will be charged 5% of their funding total if — and only if — they are successfully funded. Projects that don’t reach their funding goal will have no fees, and launching projects and backing projects will still be free. Tying our fee to a project’s success aligns our interests with those of project creators: if your project succeeds, then so do we.

To clarify: This fee only applies to projects launched on or after September 15th (after midnight EST b/w September 14th and 15th). All currently active projects, regardless of end date, will be unaffected. This means that any project launched in the next two weeks will also be exempt; take advantage of the grace period while you can. If you launch a project on September 14th that ends in December, it will still be free.

The "Awesomeness" of Not Making It

Yesterday, a writer named E. Christopher Clark tweeted the above. His project was Help Me Finish My Second Book and Share It With the World, which came up short of its $1,600 goal. Christopher worked hard on his project, it just didn’t catch that spark.

But Christopher’s story doesn’t end there. His original project was looking for funds to purchase a computer and microphone, and as Christopher details in the first couple minutes of this video posted on his site, some incredible supporters donated what he needed when the project didn’t reach its goal.

Christopher’s project is a reminder of something we don’t talk about enough: just because a project’s funding failed doesn’t make the endeavor unsuccessful. Launching a project builds community — it’s an excuse to spread the word and rally people around a cause — and brings valuable feedback whether your project is successful or not. Plus, you have those backers to call on in the future.

Congrats to Christopher, and we tip our caps to your especially generous supporters.