The soaring successes, surprise endings and abject failures of crowd-funded video games

Kickstarter is no longer untested water for game financing. Since the website's inauguration in April 2009, 3,843 projects have launched in its games category. But what happens to these projects after they leave Kickstarter, either through funding success or funding failure?

Unfortunately, Kickstarter doesn't track the successes of funded games once a project's deadline hits. Instead it is up to project creator to decide what they want to share, where they want to share it and with whom they want to share updates.

Polygon tracked down five game designers to talk about their soaring successes, surprise endings and abject failures through Kickstarter funding and beyond. We found the biggest challenge developers face comes not from seeking money, but from how they spend it.

The poster boy for Kickstarter cautionary tales

According to Rick Dakan — head of California-based Mob Rule Games, a studio that successfully funded a stylistic gothic title by the name of Haunts: The Manse Macabre — he is "the Internet's poster boy for Kickstarter cautionary tales." Before Dakan and his team first brought their dark role-playing game to Kickstarter, the studio made an initial attempt to raise $20,000 and allow contributors to vote on one of three possible titles that would later be designed as a fully-fledged game. In retrospect Dakan understands why this did not go to plan. "You weren't going to get a lot of people signing on to a strange new company with strange new ideas," he says, adding the studio raised merely a fraction of what they initially asked for.

Moving forward with the project, the studio relied on investor interest to continue development before eventually hitting Kickstarter with a new funding goal of $25,000. By July, Haunts reached its goal, raising $28,739; However, according to Dakan, "the fear, the dread started to rise" in September 2012.

The project hit delays. Dakan was aware the studio's lead programmer, who wrote Haunts using a programming script not widely used in development, planned to eventually leave the project. But by the time the team began implementing online play, he says, complications arose causing the system to take roughly "three times" as much time as was allocated for it.

'It was an incredibly stressful and depressing time for me.'

"And it didn't really go over the top until the second programmer who was working on the single player scripting and AI and stuff decided that he needed to move on to another job opportunity earlier than anticipated," he explains. On Oct. 18 Dakan wrote a post announcing the team would halt production.

"It was an incredibly stressful and depressing time for me in the weeks coming up and the nadir of it was the day of the announcement," he says. "It's weird, it's a hard lesson to learn. You look at it and you figure it out and you think I can do this! But I don't know any projects that don't end up getting heavily delayed but I don't know why everybody always think, including me, this time it will be different."

On Thursday morning Dakan says he woke up with the expectation of refunding thousands of dollars.
"So far I've had to refund $40," he says. "I offered and still am willing to pay back anyone's money out of my own pocket, anyone who wants a refund."

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Despite his initial fears, Dakan says the result of his announcement was a coming together of the community that backed him. He received over 30 offers from programmers to help finish Haunts, including a number proficient in the obscure language used to script the game, and is in the process of developing a plan of how to begin distributed open source development to work with those who have offered, while compensating them out of his share of the revenue he is owed as one of the partners of Mob Rules.

"So now my real aim is to be the internet's tale of the comeback kid," laughs Dakan. "The tale of the community coming together. That's my current goal."

Going back on promises

Kickstarter was similarly only the first step for narrative fitness game Zombies, Run! Despite being one of the website's early success stories - the project raised $72,627, tens of thousands of dollars over its initial $12,500 funding goal in October 2011 - U.K. studio Six to Start eventually spent more than what it originally acquired through the crowdfunding site.

"We ended up spending more than what we made," says lead writer Naomi Alderman, explaining the process of financing the game that would become the most highly funded Kickstarter project prior to the appearance of Double Fine. "We thought $60,000 was so much more than $12,500, but you don't want to be in the position to be like 'Oh, we'll just spend this amount of money but actually we want to be dead cheap.'

'We had promised our backers to get a copy of the game....'
"We did this very quickly," says Alderman. "It was six months from having the idea to having the money, which is incredibly fast for this sort of thing, especially since we hadn't actually made an iPhone game before."

However, the function of crowdfunding is more than finance, says Alderman.

"We would do Kickstarter again because it's not just the money; It's a foundation," she says. "If you put it on Kickstarter and it works, then great. If it doesn't then you live to fight another day. But it's about getting the community together, that's incredibly important. I don't know how Zombies, Run! would do if it had just kind of come out. It's hard to know how you would build that momentum for a basically unknown game. Kickstarter was invaluable."

'I don't know how Zombies, Run! would do if it had just kind of come out.'
Kickstarter games are supported by a high number of repeat backers who form the crowdfunding site's community. Since the website's launch, 162,665 users have backed at least two games projects. In 2011, $3,616,530.88 was pledged to game projects between 45,622 individual backers. In, 2012, more than $79 million was pledged between more than 52,000 backers. While Kickstarter has been vocal about its hands-off approach to policing its campaigns, Alderman says a developer's reputation relies on staying true to its backers.

Those who pledged $10 or more to Zombies, Run! during its funding campaign were promised a copy of the iOS title as part of their pledge reward, says Alderman, who adds that "how you handle problems in Kickstarter is part of the process."

Zombies-run-app


"We did have our one problem that we had promised our backers to get a copy of the game. but Apple quite suddenly let us known there was a mistake in telling us that we could do that on the App Store."

By the time of receiving this news, the makers at Six to Start had already given backers a version of the game, she says.

"They were playing it," says Alderman. "And we had to send out the awful email saying Apple were making us take it out of the store. It's the double edged sword of Kickstarter where you have people who are really committed to your product and a lot of people who are annoyed with you if things don't go well."

The good, the bad and the stats

The difficulties of Kickstarter projects are numerous, and as Kickstarter increases in popularity as a platform for games funding so do the number of projects whose campaigns come to an end, both successful and unsuccessful. The website's games category is broken into three sub-categories: video games, tabletop games and a generic 'games' heading. In 2011, 557 projects within the games category out of 809 projects failed to reach full funding through the website - a failure of roughly 69 percent of games projects - while a mere 252 projects were successful. Projects in the video game sub-category made up 87 of these successfully funding titles, with tabletop games making up 108 and projects added to the site's overall "Games" tab making up the remaining 57 funded projects.

'In 2011, 557 projects within the games category out of 809 projects failed to reach full funding through the website'
Comparatively, from the beginning of 2012 until Dec. 10 of that year, 1,866 out of 2,677 games projects failed to reach their individual funding goals in 2012, roughly 70 percent of games projects, while 811 projects were successful. Video games made up 255 of the successfully funded titles, with tabletop games taking up 385 and general "Games" seeing a success of 171 titles.

Speaking to Polygon, Brenda Romero, whose own crowdfunding attempt - Shaker - was cancelled by its developers mid-campaign, acknowledges the likelihood of success for "established" developers "with a solid, recent history in [their] genre/platform" who hope to develop a sequel or spiritual sequel to a beloved game. However, she says, "It brings with it some new challenges that developers may not be experienced at, though, including community management, distribution, COGs for boxed copies and things like that. Those things are traditionally handled at the publisher level."

Canceling Shaker 'made sense.'
"We didn't create [Shaker] with a plan to pull it later on," she said. "However, when faced with the decision of iterating this pitch rapidly OR creating a new one, the latter made the most sense. The "two game" stretch goal was at the core of the pitch, the world and the video, and it not only failed to resonate but actually confused people. It felt like the only correct decision."

According to Muse Games' CEO Howard Tsao, whose Kickstarter-funded titles Guns of Icarus Online andCreavures are examples of crowdfunded titles that have become fully-developed and distributed games, even within his studio's Kickstarter campaigns themselves "there were things that we didn't expect."

"For example," he says, "while we managed the costs of fulfilling physical gifts well, keeping it at about 9 percent of total pledges, I for one grossly underestimated the time and effort involved in producing and shipping them. We wanted to add as many personal touches as possible, and we offered a lot of unique things like customized USB keys that looks like bullets with our logo, signed posters, and signed artbooks.

Mmo-games-guns-of-icarus-online-airship-screenshot

"The most time intensive offering was a leather bound notebook with a unique sketch in each one. Getting all this ready took time, but we were doing a lot of it on nights and weekends. But on top of all this, I underestimated the amount of work it took to pack, mail, and administer everything. After a few trips to mail a hundred plus items each time, I send shivers down the spines of the ladies at my local post office every time they see me with my big bags walking through the door."

Faster Than Light designer Justin Ma describes similar feelings regarding the difficulty of anticipating the challenges brought forward through crowdfunding, telling Polygon: "When we received 2,000 percent of our requested funding we were very concerned that expectations would be similarly increased. Unlike some projects that could simply hire more people, we did not have the option to increase our scope greatly since we also committed ourselves to a deadline only a few months away. We tried to walk the thin line between using the extra funds to increase the quality of the final product while trying not to delay the release too long. In the end I think we were reasonably successful.

'I personally wouldn't want to pitch a game through Kickstarter or other platforms.'
"Post funding we had to throw our plans out the window due the the overwhelming support we received," he said. "The first priority was figuring out how to support 4,000 beta testers rather than the 200 or so that we were expecting. Valve agreed to host the beta and we used GetSatisfaction for managing bugs and suggestions. Once the beta was moving smoothly it was just a matter of getting some additional help polishing, organizing the distribution and finishing the game in a timely manner."

However, he has no plans to use the platform again.

"As much as I believe mainstream crowdfunding is an important milestone in the videogame industry, I personally wouldn't want to pitch a game through Kickstarter or other platforms," says Wa. "I feel like I would not be able to work as freely or with such agility as we were with FTL. We prefer to work from within a cave until we have something we feel is worth showing. I'm not sure how some developers are able to publicly show their progress at every stage of development; it just adds a whole new layer of stress."

Ftl_6


According to Wa, "the democratizing of game publishing will have extremely positive effects on the industry." He explains that by allowing some developers to create games without needing to prove to publishers why they will be successful, it allows for the creation of titles that would otherwise not see the light of day; However, he is skeptical of Kickstarter's ability to continue funding large-scale, multi-million dollar games.

"I don't feel like Kickstarter is the ideal structure for this form of crowdfunding," says Wa. "It seems to work better for small grassroots campaigns and wasn't designed for the multi-million dollar projects we've been seeing recently. I hope that another model that is designed and optimized for game development funding will be made in the future."

Surviving the future of Kickstarter

Looking to the future, as Kickstarter continues to grow there are more success stories from developers funding their entire game budgets through the power of the crowd. At the same time, there are many more projects on Kickstarter, increasing the level of saturation.

'Kickstarter has seen a 231 percent increase in games projects since 2011.'
Polygon found that Kickstarter has seen a 231 percent increase in games projects since 2011. While 3,724 projects in the games category have launched since the website's inauguration in April 2009, 2,677 of these hit the crowdfunding platform in 2012 alone - a leap from the 809 that went live on the website in 2011. Of projects that launched since 2011 up until Dec. 10, 2012, 1,063 successfully reached their funding goal.

To put this into perspective, prior to 2011 a total of 115 game projects saw full funding out of a mere 295 projects that were launched through the site in 2009 and 2010.

Muse Games' Tsao states this puts the onus on Kickstarter to support smaller developers that can become hidden amidst the whirlwind of projects on the site.

"I think this means that Kickstarter will need to continue to support indie developers and to feature them so they have the opportunity to be discovered," he says. "But I think that teams themselves should also look at Kickstarter as another platform and medium to promote, which means that we as indie developers will still have to set reasonable goals and do our best to get the word out. At the end of the day, it is an open marketplace, and teams have to distinguish themselves. In the case of Kickstarter, the projects are not finished, so the backers are also looking for legitimacy in addition to differentiation and innovation, and it is up to the developers to convince potential backers that they have the commitment to finish the project."

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