Is it game over for Kickstarter?

Power to the people,” John Lennon sang in 1971.

It’s unlikely he was referring to video games – Pong wasn’t released until the following year – but the games industry certainly seems to have taken Lennon’s philosophy to heart 43 years later.

Kickstarter is now synonymous with the crowdfunding trend it brought to the fore in 2009. The service saw more games campaigns surpass their targets in 2014 than ever before; 465 projects, compared to 438 in 2013. In total, $29 million was pledged by consumers to games software and hardware.

We’re just five months into 2015, but this accomplishment is still in full flow. Former Castlevania producer Koji Igarashi recently launched a campaign for a spiritual successor to that series. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night has raised over $2.3 million so far. Meanwhile, earlier this month, Playtonic Games’ Yooka-Laylee was named as the highest-funded UK games Kickstarter ever – at the time of writing, more than 1.6 million has been pledged.

A spiritual successor to the 3D platforming games of two decades ago, Yooka-Laylee serves an ideal example of Kickstarter’s strength.Search through the pages of campaigns and you’ll notice a distinctive absence of military first-person shooters. Instead, it’s the habitat of niche RPGs, old-fashioned platformers and simulation titles. These genres may not boast the audience numbers of their peers, but they still have the passionate fanbases required to strike it lucky via crowdfunding.

Games creators can get projects funded on Kickstarter that publishers aren’t interested in,” observes Luke Crane, community manager for games at the crowdfunding giant. If you look at the games funded in 2014 alone, you can see that we’re involved with nearly every aspect and type of title.”

InXile Entertainment is one publisher that has harnessed the power of a smaller, yet highly dedicated, audience. The firm counts two of Kickstarter’s most successful games projects of all time among its catalogue: Torment: Tides of Numenera and Wasteland 2. Both are so-called ‘cRPGs’ – a complicated form of PC RPG that saw its heyday in the 1990s with franchises like Baldur’s Gate and has since waned in the mainstream. But demand for these types of game is clearly still there.

Crowdfunding was the perfect option for us as it proved there was viability for the concept and gave us the creative flexibility to ignore the worry about any mass market considerations,” recalls CEO Brian Fargo. There isn’t much benefit for large triple-A publishers, but it has created opportunity for the more diverse and mid-size ones.

A successfully funded project has been vetted by the fans, and that has value for the right publisher. Players are going to get games made that they never would have been able to before.”

Gavin Price, studio head at Playtonic Games, adds that the fervent reaction to its campaign has allowed the team to up their ambitions for Yooka-Laylee.

The original plan for the game was PC-only and at a far smaller scale, all backed by private investment,” he says. But we were convinced that crowdfunding was something that our fans were interested in and could result in us putting out a far bigger, more polished experience. Now, our fans’ incredible support has given us the resources required to aim for the stars; this could genuinely end up being the best game this team has ever made.”

Andrew Walker, head of production at Godus developer 22cans, adds while that games like Yooka-Laylee can certainly benefit from inciting a sense of nostalgia, it doesn’t assure success.

Kickstarter projects may be more likely to get backed if people have something to compare them to,” he says. But Kickstarter is really best suited to great ideas that the public believe in.”

"Games creators can get
projects funded on
Kickstarter that publishers
aren’t interested in."

Luke Crane, Kickstarter

Godus, Yooka-Layle and Bloodstained are all examples of iconic developers returning to the genres that made their names. But this is no assurance of success.

Day For Night Games was formed by a group of developers who helped create BioShock and BioShock Infinite. It pitched an ambitious spiritual successor to those titles, The Black Glove, to Kickstarter, but fell short of its $650,000 goal by more than half.

Success on Kickstarter is never guaranteed,” warns Crane. Even when all the elements are in place, things don’t always go according to plan.”

Fargo agrees: Some concepts just don’t resonate. Beyond that, there are other issues that come into play, like timing of the campaign, formats or even some features that turn gamers off. It’s a tough crowd.”

Walker echoes the sentiment that crowdfunding flops can’t be distilled down to a single factor.

Kickstarter projects can fail to reach their goals for many reasons: lack of publicity, lack of special rewards, lack of faith in the product to meet its goal or just disinterest from the public,” he explains.

Crowdfunding is always going to be a gamble and it can turn out that there aren’t enough people interested in your idea.”

Price sees the sporadic success rate as nothing to worry about.

We’re still seeing a natural ebb and flow to the platform, which will always be unpredictable due to the many factors beyond backers’ control,” he comments.

Despite this, creators can take efforts to minimise risk.

I advise developers to have shipped a title before they turn to the crowd,” Fargo suggests. It is critical to understand and go through the entirety of making a game. Only then do you have a real idea of time and cost estimates. I also recommend they study other campaigns and back into the numbers by being pragmatic about how many backers to expect.”

Even if the very worst should occur, there’s always hope.

One of our most-funded projects to date, the Coolest Cooler, was unsuccessful the first time it launched,” highlights Crane. Creators learn from the experience, and often come back with stronger ideas because of it.”

Walker offers a reminder that crowdfunding isn’t the be-all and end-all: Just because there isn’t an audience that wants to back a product from conception doesn’t mean there won’t be an audience that wants to play the product when it’s completed.”

Even when a project successfully surpasses its target, there’s still reason to be vigilant. Perhaps more so, with backers’ money on the line.

Godus recently came under fire after 22cans admitted it wouldn’t be able to fulfil a number of pledges promised during its campaign.

People who crowdfund need to be aware that they aren’t preordering, they’re backing a business decision,” Walker retorts.

Being able to see all of the highs and lows of development can be interesting and exciting to some people, but a lot of people may not enjoy the fluid nature of it.”

However, he predicts that this backlash may be avoided in the future: As Kickstarter has evolved, people have gained a much deeper understanding of what it means to back a product.

All crowdfunding attempts should be open, honest and explain the risks to the consumer.”

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