Fig: ‘I thought publishing was broken’

Katharine Byrne
Fig: ‘I thought publishing was broken’

When we think of industry-defining games, titles like Super Mario Bros., Tetris and Grand Theft Auto V immediately come to mind. No list would be complete, however, without the inclusion of Double Fine Adventure, the game that would eventually go on to be known as Broken Age and be responsible for, quite literally, kick-starting the industry’s newfound obsession with crowdfunding platforms. 

Having been rejected by publishers left, right and centre, Broken Age’s runaway success was a clear warning shot to the game companies of its day, suggesting not only that publishers are out of touch with current consumer demands, but that they might not be needed at all. 

Of course, not all crowdfunded games have seen the same kind of results as Double Fine’s trailblazer, but it proved to the company’s then COO Justin Bailey that something was indeed rotten in the state of game publishing. So in 2015 he left the studio to found his own crowdfunding platform, Fig, a venture that would see traditional rewards-based crowdfunding sit side-by-side with equity investment and the opportunity to get a return on a game once it released. 

“Crowdfunding’s cool... but ultimately unsustainable in the long run.”

Justin Bailey, Fig 

“I thought publishing was broken and wasn’t taking advantage of the new business models and technology quickly enough,” says Bailey. 

“Fundamentally, I don’t think publishing has changed in the last 40 years. Sure, there have been companies that have evolved how we play, like Zynga with shorter experiences, and there have been companies that pioneered the different media we play on, like King, but publishing really hasn’t evolved. It’s the same process of evaluating titles behind closed doors, and then developing them in a vacuum for years and hoping that you have a hit on your hands. Coming out of that process, as you would expect, are a lot of big budget sequels that iterate on existing IP. 

“What Fig is doing instead is building a path for developers to get feedback and support from consumers directly, which we believe will result in fresh and creatively interesting games. It seemed obvious to me that the way publishers were running things was a net negative, and we needed to change that – if people are going to make decisions off consumer behaviour, then we should get these great ideas in front of a large number of consumers. And once a game is greenlit, we should get the money into the creatives’ hands and get out of their way – much like VCs do for companies and founders that they believe in.”

For Bailey, however, it wasn’t just publishing that needed fixing. He also thought crowdfunding as a whole was fundamentally flawed.

“The crowdfunding equation is broken, or more accurately, incomplete. It gives a way for creators to get money from their fans. That’s cool, but ultimately unsustainable in the long run. That’s fairly apparent in how video game crowdfunding has decreased over the last three years. 

“The missing piece, and equalising force, is the opportunity for fans to get money from creators – because even though people may get tired of charity, they will never get tired of getting returns. Since this method of funding allows creators to stay in creative control and retain IP ownership, there’s a lot of incentive to make it a repeatable process.”

SHARED RESPONSIBILITY

The price per share varies from title to title. When Double Fine launched its campaign for Psychonauts 2, for example, shares cost $500 each, with the maximum total being capped at $3m. For InXile Entertainment’s Wasteland 3, on the other hand, shares cost $1,000 each and were capped at a maximum offer of $1.25m. 

That might sound a lot compared to your typical $20 crowdfunding pledge, but Bailey says its investors cover the full spectrum of traditional backers.

“First, [investors] are people who used to participate at the $500 and higher ‘experiential’ reward tiers. Participation in video games for those tiers [on other platforms] has gone way down. There was even some confusion at first about whether giving that money through crowdfunding actually constituted an investment. Another group, though, is people who used to just contribute at the base level, but were unwilling to donate more. Through investment crowdfunding, that group can now get a return, so they are now willing to contribute more as an investment since they have an opportunity to get that money back.”

Surprisingly, Bailey says the only type of backer Fig hasn’t seen is someone investing for the sole purpose of making a return: “Primarily, everyone we’ve talked to has participated in investing because they want first-and-foremost to support a game,” he says.

Regardless of how much shares cost, though, what backers are actually investing in remains the same. Rather than investing in the studio or game itself, backers invest in Fig and receive Fig Game Shares for the title in question. This then pays distributions based on Fig’s right to the title’s sales receipts under its publishing licence agreement with the developer – a point Fig makes extremely clear with each and every campaign it runs so backers are fully aware of the facts. 

“Everyone who’s passionate... should have an opportunity to invest, not just the richest one per cent.”

Justin Bailey, Fig

“Developers need to be more transparent on timelines, budgets, and who their partners are,” says Bailey. “There’s been a lot of goodwill that’s been lost in crowdfunding instances where a community finds out after-the-fact that there was a publisher or other partner who had a financial stake behind the scenes, or that the campaign goal wasn’t actually the money the developer needed to complete the game. Or the reverse, which we’re seeing a lot of lately, where developers say they need money, but actually are just using crowdfunding for promotional purposes. In short, there’s been exploitation, and it’s been to the detriment of everyone.

“Investment requires more transparency and accountability, and I think it’s just what the ecosystem needs to regain its balance and to expand. Just telling people what the actual budget is, being transparent about who the partners are, the stage of development, and the use of funds, will go a long way to rebuilding that goodwill.”

CROWD PLEASER

Transparency isn’t the only issue affecting today’s crowdfunding market, however, as several platforms – Kickstarter included – experienced their first year of decline in 2016 after years of rapid growth and expansion. Fortunately for Fig, its investment structure means it’s better prepared than most to face the market’s upcoming challenges. 

“The backer numbers across all platforms have shown a steep decline over the last few years,” he explains. “If you look at Banner Saga as opposed to Banner Saga 3, the latest campaign only saw around 40 per cent the number of backers of the first one in 2012. But the difference we’ve found has been made up in the larger numbers of people who are willing to contribute through investment. This was the case with Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire getting more money pledged than Pillars did in 2012 even with about 45 per cent of the backers.”

Pillars of Eternity II is particularly significant for Fig. Developed by Obsidian Entertainment, whose CEO Feargus Urquhart also sits on Fig’s advisory board, the game has not only become the platform’s highest-funded title so far, reaching over $4.4m (or over $4.5m – £3.5m – if you count Fig’s slacker backer pledges that can be made after the end of the campaign), but Bailey also tells us it’s had more pledges to date than all the 2017 video game campaigns on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo combined. 

“It was the largest video game campaign since Shenmue launched at Sony’s E3 press conference at the height of crowdfunding in 2015,” he says. 

Investors might have helped bulk up the numbers for Pillars of Eternity II, but just under half of its $4.4m was still generated by traditional rewards-based pledges – a split Bailey says is actually pretty typical across all of its hosted projects.  

“[At first] I thought it would heavily favour investment, so I was very surprised that people were fine just continuing to participate in rewards-only, so that now we are seeing investment and rewards on roughly a 50/50 basis in some instances.”

In the long term, though, Bailey sees rewards-based crowdfunding becoming an increasingly difficult place to raise funds: “For video games, reward-only seems to be in trouble and likely not sustainable in the long run. Other verticals, like board games, I can see continuing and even growing, but there are several different dynamics at play given they are essentially fulfilment and pre-order campaigns for completed products.

“Video games are very different beasts. They change, it’s an iterative process, and backers get involved sometimes years in advance. When people are willing to do that, I think they should have the option to get involved financially through investment crowdfunding.”

VESTED INTEREST

With just under two years on the market, it’s still early days for Fig, but Bailey has already taken significant steps to help further his vision of an investment-led crowdfunding future. In this year alone, Fig has already raised $7.84m (£6.1m) from its first round of venture capital financing – which will “add more publishing functions” and “finance our efforts to expand how we involve the crowd into our curation process,” Bailey tells us – and it’s also announced the Fig Finishing Fund

Running from now until the end of the year, Fig’s Finishing Fund comprises of up to $500,000 to help developers overcome those final hurdles in the run-up to launch, such as marketing and localisation costs as well as help with fees for publishing platforms like Steam Direct. The latter in particular is sure to win it even more fans and admirers as the year goes on, especially with Valve hinting it might cost as much as $5,000 to use. 

Ultimately, however, Bailey’s number one goal is to make investment-based crowdfunding accessible to everyone, giving all fans the chance to make a return on the games they want to support. 

“I feel very strongly that everyone who’s passionate about supporting a developer should have an opportunity to invest, not just the richest one per cent,” Bailey says. “We’re seeing interest in investment growing, and that’s just among the earlier adopters. Once we’re able to do more campaigns and demonstrate the full life cycle [of a project], I think that will increase. Once we’re able to get our share prices down to say $50 and include a free copy of the game, I could see that switch I expected to occur from reward to investment.”


Band aid

Despite hosting some of the biggest crowdfunding successes of last year, there were some titles in Fig’s 2016 offering that simply didn’t make it, including Harmonix Music Systems’ campaign for a PC version of Rock Band 4 and the Rock Band Network. Despite raising an impressive $792,817 (£615,187), it only reached 52 per cent of its $1.5m goal. So what went wrong?

“With Rock Band PC, we had a heat map on the FAQ section and the question about transferring libraries was lit up bright as the sun – everyone coming to the page hit that question. The answer was ‘no’,” Bailey explains.

“Music licensing is extremely complicated. We came to find out that these passionate fans clamouring for a PC version had thousands of dollars built up in their console libraries. So we and the developer got that valuable feedback before development funds had been invested. In theory, the developer could take that to rethink the product or decide not to move forward. I think it’s very much a commercially viable game, but tapping into the existing community was not the right way to fund it.”


Pitch perfect – a marketing dream?

Fig offers a range of services to developers, from publishing and distribution to marketing and PR, so we asked Bailey what he looks for in a developer’s game pitch. 

“First and foremost, we’re looking for people who can deliver a game to the specs they are proposing,” he says. “After that, we look for quality and for fresh ideas. We don’t spend too much time evaluating the content, as we want the community to ultimately decide which titles succeed. 

“To that end, we are evaluating ways we might be able to use Backstage Pass [where private campaigns go to a small subset of people first, to get feedback] so the community is taking a more active role in deciding which projects go live.”

Developers don’t necessarily need to partner with Fig for the long haul, either, with Bailey saying “they definitely pick and choose” rather than opt in for everything. Indeed, despite being funded on Kickstarter, it was Fig that organised the digital marketing campaign for Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter, which produced excellent results given its $1,500 spend. 

“[This] is how I expected it would play out,” Bailey says. “I do think that as we prove ourselves across all our different publishing capabilities, developers will start to opt in to more services, and my hope is that eventually they can just make their games and ask us to handle the rest. 

“The data we gather from the crowdfunding campaign is invaluable to our marketing efforts when a game launches. We haven’t had a chance yet to see a 1-1 correlation, but we used this approach essentially with Hyper Light Drifter and saw close to a 700 per cent return. If we can deliver even close to the ROI [on other games] it could be very beneficial for all involved.”

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