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!