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What if Kickstarter let you profit from a game's success? Fig found a way, launches today

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Justin Bailey, formerly of developer Double Fine, is launching a new crowdfunding solution for game developers. Called Fig, the service will offer rewards-based funding alongside equity investment. Fig's advisory board will include Feargus Urquhart, Brian Fargo and Tim Schafer.

Fig's first campaign, which was sent live moments ago, is for the 2015 Independent Games Festival (IGF) Awards' Seamus McNally Grand Prize winning Outer Wilds, now in production by Mobius Digital, the independent studio founded by Masi Oka, known to fans of NBC's Heroes and Heroes Reborn as Hiro Nakumura.

Polygon sat down with the entire Fig team, as well as Oka, to find out more about this new Kickstarter competitor, one that's been custom-built to fund video games.

What's in a name?

Bailey tells Polygon that Fig's name was inspired by Hotel Figueroa, whose Moroccan-themed bar and pool area has become the social hub for the games industry at E3. He hopes the funding platform he's helped to build will become just as vital to bringing the gaming community together.

At first glance, Fig looks a lot like Valve's Steam storefront. It's been designed with games in mind, prioritizing the kind of information that crowdfunding service Kickstarter hasn't always been good at communicating. Videos live alongside screenshots in a carousel, and a unique slider lets game developers show off what stage of development their project is in clearly and concisely.

Near the bottom of the page, Bailey says that traditional crowdfunding reward tiers will be available, including t-shirts and the like as well as digital and/or physical copies of games once completed. But in addition to these rewards-based options, accredited investors will also be able to dig a little deeper into the site and purchase actual equity in game.

In the coming months, Bailey says, anyone with cash on hand will be able to get a piece of the action — no accreditation required. Their reward? A cut of the game's earnings upon release.

"You get a percentage of the revenue share," Bailey said. "That’s going to be called out pretty concisely on the page. The terms are static. We have lead investors that are involved. ... They work out the deal terms that they’re investing in, and the people investing alongside them get to do it on the same terms.

"We’re only able to do accredited investors for the first few campaigns. It means that you have to have more than $1 million of net assets. We have to verify that. But we have plans in the coming months to open this up to everybody."

Thanks, Obama

Brian Fargo, who has three successful Kickstarter campaigns to his credit (including the alread-released Wasteland 2), sits on Fig's advisory board. He says the service will be a game changer.

"If you look at Kickstarter," Fargo said, "I never saw it coming four years ago. I never would have dreamed we’d have an opportunity to go direct to our audience and say, hey, help us fund these great projects. Now, with equity ... it’s not unreasonable to think these things might start going $10, $15 or even $20 million. Now we can make a different class of product."

The main reason Fig is able to allow for the sale of equity is because of the passage of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, also known as the JOBS Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in April of 2012.

"It’s kind of a huge deal," Fargo told Polygon, "because in the past, only accredited investors could do this kind of thing. Now the average person can start to invest, not just in video games, but in a whole host of things.

"This wouldn’t be as exciting a story, to me, if it were only accredited investors." - Brian Fargo

"This wouldn’t be as exciting a story, to me, if it were only accredited investors. The fact is that anybody can get in. Especially people who don’t know a lot about the stock market, but do know a lot about games. They have a sense of it, so they can invest money in something where they have more of a comfort level."

Fig itself has taken on partners to bring its service to life. It received seed funding from Spark Capital, a venture capital firm that's played a key role in funding Oculus VR, Twitter and Slack.

Fig's own revenue model is simple. As Bailey explained it to Polygon last week, Fig will get five percent of all the money raised through the service, and five percent of each game's sales in perpetuity.

Baby steps

The other key to making Fig successful is not to flood the market, so to speak, with equity crowdfunding opportunities. Part of what makes Kickstarter so challenging, Bailey said, was the sheer volume of projects going live on the service every day. With Fig, there will only ever be one or two campaigns live at any time. It will be up to the advisory board to pick them.

Urquhart, Fargo and Schafer will each be spending time and energy to vet Fig projects ahead of time. Only then will they be allowed to go live on the service. Additionally, all three of their companies — Obsidian Entertainment, inXile Entertainment and Double Fine Productions — will use Fig to fund future titles.

"Justin [Bailey] left Double Fine to startup Fig," Schafer told Polygon. His Broken Age and Massive Chalice campaigns were both successfully completed on Kickstarter. "We've been talking ever since.

"I wanted to do more with crowdfunding, and have it grow not just to be a novelty or something for very, very tiny games but instead something that’s a legitimate way to fund larger-size games. 'Triple-I' you might call them."

Schafer says that equity was something he wanted to offer even to his earliest backers on Kickstarter, but laws and that company's business model prevented him. Fig intends to solve that problem, and Schafer is excited about its prospects.

"If [Outer Wilds] turns into the next billion-dollar game, the people who helped to make it happen should be able to participate in that."

Masi Oka with members of Team Outer Wilds, now at Mobius Digital.

More importantly, Schafer hopes that bringing in investors will help increase the amount of money that goes into making independent games.

"I’ve felt that, even the more successful [Kickstarter] campaigns, they feel like they have hit this plateau," Schafer said. "Maybe the $5 million mark or a little bit higher is the cap, but I feel like it could go higher. And I think this kind of uncaps that."

Changing the relationship

But won't turning game players into game investors fundamentally change the nature of the relationship between an independent game and its backers? Schafer doesn't think so.

"Whether you’re backing or you’re an investor," he said, "we’re still making the game for you. That's one of the greatest thing about crowdfunding. You’re left not worrying about what an independent third party who financed your game thinks about your game. You’re just worrying about the people who are actually going to be playing your game think about the game, because they actually funded it. And now they’re investing in it, so they might have a higher interest in the profitability of it than before, but they still want a great game."

Likewise, Fig's founder and CEO Justin Bailey said that even in the Kickstarter campaigns he participated in at Double Fine, the backers who put the most money forward were generally the least disruptive to the development process.

"Whether you’re backing or you’re an investor, we’re still making the game for you." - Tim Schafer

"We didn’t know what to expect from people who were giving us $1,000 or more for Broken Age and for Massive Chalice," Bailey said. "In the end, those people were the least entitled people. They were the ones that had the most trust in the studio. A lot of them were actually former developers who’d become successful. The ones that weren’t were just rich people who were passionate about those games. They didn’t expect to have creative control.

"The reason why they were coming in and providing that money was because they trusted so much the creative control brought by the developer. We love getting our community involved in these games, but it’s community-informed. I don’t think you want a community-designed game."

What Fig promises to its participants is that they will always remain in control of their intellectual property. Neither the lead investors, the backers or the equity investors will be able to tell them what to do with their game.

The same rules apply, Brian Fargo said, in the stock market: "You can go buy some Apple shares, but good luck getting them to do what you like. It’s no different here."

The final frontier

Fig's first campaign, live on the site right now, is for a game called Outer Wilds. You might remember it from this year's Game Developers Conference, where it won the grand prize at the IGF Awards. So then how did Masi Oka get involved? Turns out that before he was an actor, he was a programmer.

Oka originally came to the entertainment industry creating code for Industrial Light & Magic, where he worked on all of the Star Wars movies — including the prequels and the re-releases. Only later in his career was he cast as Hiro Nakamura, one of the original members of NBC's Heroes. In the intervening years he's remained a working actor. Polygon spoke with him on his way to the set of Hawaii Five-0 where he plays coroner Max Bergman.

In his spare time, Oka launched a game studio called Mobius Digital.

"When I was trying to build my team at Mobius," Oka told Polygon, "I was trying to figure out who I should hire, and I got invited to the USC Interactive Media and Games demo day. and I went there and I was just blown away by the caliber of stuff that people were doing, but in particular Outer Wilds.

"I loved the tone of it. It was just right up my alley."

In Outer Wilds, players have 20 minutes to explore a completely foreign galaxy before its sun goes supernova. They relive the same final moments of that dying game world over and over again, building on their knowledge of the secret systems hidden within it. The exploration puzzle game has a quirky art style, and a melodic theme composed for banjo.

Oka was so taken by Outer Wilds, and the skill of the team behind it, that be began to hire them on one at a time at Mobius.

"We built the company from there," Oka said. "And while we were working on a couple of mobile titles, they won the IGF award."

Outer Wilds will be the team's first non-mobile game, and their first crowdfunded game. But Oka isn't intimidated by Fig's new unproven funding model.

"It’s one of those unique platforms that gives developers the creative control that we need, in terms of owning the intellectual property and shepherding the game how we want it," he said. "There are things that Kickstarter can’t do that Fig does. It’s so tailored specifically for the games market. We can set milestones, and we have a development blog that we can tap into."

Oka is also inspired by the clout of the people on the advisory board — Schafer, Urquhart and Fargo.

"It’s because these people are giants of gaming. It allows them to tailor the site and tailor the experience to what users would expect," Oka said. "So, I think that yes it’s unproven and there's new technology, but the concept is there and the opportunity behind it makes it worth a try."

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