At heart, Kickstarter is about taking a big idea directly to the people who might be most interested in it, and hoping they'll give you the money you need to get the project off the ground.
Joe Ybarra and his new studio, Joe Got Game, have a big idea: a modern, connected turn-based strategy title set in a crater at the south pole of the Moon, a near-future game based in real science called Shackleton Crater. Ybarra is one of the co-founders of Electronic Arts and has held design, production and executive positions over a career spanning more than three decades in the gaming industry.
It's not just that the game itself is a significant undertaking; Ybarra has grander aspirations for Shackleton Crater, which he hopes will help shine a light on space exploration and show people "why it's worth investing in the space program," he told Polygon during a recent phone interview.
Joe Got Game launched an ambitious Kickstarter campaign for Shackleton Crater earlier this week, asking for $700,000 and presenting stretch goals from the start that are many times that amount. The studio is pitching a combat-free strategy game that begins in 2030 and unfolds in four discrete stages over the course of a century.
Some of the segments are based on games that Ybarra worked on. In fact, he said the original concept came from fans who kept asking him to remake Ozark Softscape's seminal 1983 strategy title M.U.L.E., one of the earliest multiplayer games. Ybarra, who was a producer on the game, was skeptical of the idea for two main reasons.
"I don't know if anybody ... would care," he said. But if he were to try it, he thought, "There's so much more we could do." Instead of ending after the establishment of a colony in space, a modern game could let players keep going and maintain the settlement. And it could retain M.U.L.E.'s multiplayer framework.
The first stage of Shackleton Crater plays out similarly to M.U.L.E., challenging you to make your colony on the Moon self-sufficient with limited resources in a harsh environment. It's a quick segment: It runs for 12 turns or so and takes about an hour to complete, since it's "just trying to get the users comfortable with the game design and the play mechanic," Ybarra explained.
Stage two is a construction stage that resembles city-building titles such as the SimCity games. At this point, you've established the colony and now have to build it out to ensure its continued survival. You'll likely choose a strategy of maximizing a resource or two, and trading with other players for the rest. This stage would take approximately four to six hours.
Now that you've got an infrastructure built up, you can go off to explore the Moon in stage three. This section of the game is similar to The Seven Cities of Gold, another Ozark Softscape title that Ybarra produced. Here, you'll go on expeditions across the crater with the fog of war around you. Those missions have objectives related to elements like discovering technology or expanding your knowledge of the lunar surface, and Joe Got Game estimates this part of the game would last another four to six hours.
In the final stage, you're bringing the resources of your long-running colony to bear, accomplishing massive construction projects that would be impossible on Earth — like a space elevator — and building commerce between the planet and the Moon. Stage four would last anywhere from one to four hours.
All of that is based on real science, according to Ybarra and Joe Got Game vice president Josef Shindler.
"We are actively working with academics and professionals to make this game as realistic as possible," said Shindler, adding that Joe Got Game has "done piles of research." The studio is keeping track of its sources in a bibliography that's available on its website. At the $3 million stretch goal, the developers would be able to model the entire surface of the Moon using data from NASA's Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter.
"We don't even have to invent anything," Ybarra explained. "This is technology that we already have; we just can't do it at scale." And NASA has already identified the rim of Shackleton crater as a potential candidate for a lunar facility.
go on expeditions to explore the lunar surface
But just like NASA's plans for a base on the Moon, Joe Got Game's vision for Shackleton Crater is aspirational.
Ybarra told us that a lot of the project's Kickstarter backers, or potential backers, have been asking Joe Got Game for all kinds of details about Shackleton Crater. They're questions the studio can't answer yet, since it would be using the Kickstarter funds to actually make the game. According to Ybarra, the studio's 14 or so employees are split almost equally between marketing (to put together the Kickstarter pitch) and development. If the funding drive is successful, Joe Got Game will shift the majority of its resources to making Shackleton Crater.
That's one of the main points of the Kickstarter campaign, Ybarra and Shindler pointed out: not just to raise capital, but to find out if people want a game like Shackleton Crater and engage with that community.
"We're gauging our interest here with the Kickstarter," Shindler explained.
"Why don't we find that out up front?" added Ybarra. "I like working with my customers."
When asked if they're frustrated that some fans may not be aware enough of the realities of game development to understand the nature of their Kickstarter pitch, Shindler and Ybarra dismissed the notion, saying that it's not the consumer's responsibility to understand the process and cut developers some slack.
"I can't hold some of these perspectives, these views on game development, against these people," said Shindler, since ultimately, "the amount they need to know about making the game is kind of minor." However, Joe Got Game does want to be transparent with its fans about the development of Shackleton Crater — "it makes too much sense for all of us to just sit down and have that dialogue with our consumers," said Shindler.
The Shackleton Crater Kickstarter drive has pulled in a little more than $20,000 so far, 2.9 percent of its goal, with 26 days to go in a 31-day campaign. Shindler said that Joe Got Game has "a number of production plans," depending on how the Kickstarter turns out.
We pointed out that since Shackleton Crater is an original game, it's already at a disadvantage compared to some of the video game projects that have rapidly raised gobs of money on Kickstarter. And while Ybarra has a long, storied career in the game industry, he's not a well-known figure like a Tim Schafer or a Brian Fargo — he even acknowledged as much in the Kickstarter pitch video, saying, "You may not have heard of me before, but you've probably heard of Electronic Arts, a company I co-founded."
Ybarra told us that if the Kickstarter drive fails, "There are several different possibilities of things that we might consider doing." If it gets relatively close to the $700,000 goal, then Ybarra believes he could use that level of interest in an attempt to go out and attract funding from a more traditional source. But if the campaign sputters, said Ybarra, Joe Got Game would likely take it as a lack of interest from the gaming audience, and wouldn't bother trying to raise capital.
"We dare to be great," said Shindler. "We are here to build this game because we believe in it." Now we'll find out if players do, too.