CEO Feargus Urquhart on crowdfunding, publishers and failed projects

Shattering records: Obsidian’s Kickstarter

Obsidian recently shattered the record on Kickstarter with its in-development title Project Eternity for the highest funded game ever to hit the crowdfunding site.

Backed by a constant stream of updates and stretch goals to entice more contributors, the title accrued nearly $4m from a hugely impressive 73,986 backers.

We spoke to Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart on how the studio took the crowdfunding site by storm with its ‘old-school’ RPG, and also discussed the controversial issues of publishers and failed Kickstarter projects.

Why did you take to Kickstarter for Project Eternity?
We wanted to make it, that’s the first and most important thing. We made a lot of these games back in the late 90s and early 00s and they were a lot of fun to make and people really enjoyed them, but they just stopped being made for some reason.

I think a lot of it had to do with when Black Isle went away, BioWare moved onto console games and so this style kind of disappeared. I don’t think it was for any reason that people didn’t want to play them anymore, it was just happenstance.

So we looked at that and decided these games are fun to make and we like to make them, so could we make one?

I’ve been asked a lot did we actually go to a publisher and do a full-on pitch, and I’ll be honest we didn’t. We kind of floated the idea past a couple publishers about doing something like this, and not it’s like the reception was ‘this is the dumbest idea ever’, but I think the best way to explain it is that this game falls a little bit into no-mans land when it comes to funding right now through the traditional channels.

Either there are the mobile/tablet at $0 to $1m games and then – to exaggerate – you have Call of Duty at $100m. So for the independent developer there is this no-mans land for these kind of games, so we were thinking, how can we do this?

I talked to a couple venture capitalist investors and they were having a challenge understanding it because I didn’t have any numbers to say ‘no really, there are still a ton of people who want to play these games,’ and so Kickstarter just seemed like the right way to go.

Is this going to be your only source of funding? Or was this a way to receive further funding?
It’ll be the primary funding, I wouldn’t say it would be 100 per cent of it, but it’ll be primarily the funding we get.

We’ll look at some other things. I guess the way to look at it is because it’s ours and our IP, we’re going to want to do things for it. We’re going to want to write source books and do all these things that are maybe not exactly what the game is and maybe not exactly what people are paying for through Kickstarter.

So that’s how we look at it. The money we get from Kickstarter is to make the game and we’re still going to work on what the world is because it’s ours and it’s something very worthwhile for us to invest in.

You cited this no man’s land, is this the only reason you didn’t want to go to publishers or were there other reasons?
To be honest the other reason is if we’d gone to a publisher and gotten the money we wouldn’t have owned the brand. And even with the licensed products that we’ve created, we’ve created awesome things within the licensed products that we’ve done, like Darth Nihilus for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, he’s a super popular Darth character, and that was a great game to do and we totally appreciated doing it.

But again it’s our creativity that’s going to someone else, and its just very cool to go and make our own thing that we get to own, and not just for the sake of owning this product, but to be able to have control over its destiny and be able to do other things with it, things other than traditional computer games, and do more of these and do a whole series.

That’s what role-playing game are all about, long series’ of projects and it would be great to be able to do it.

Did you want to go on your own specifically because of previous experiences with publishers?
No not the actual experiences with publishers, I wouldn’t say that. Our publishers have given us a lot of freedom on the games we’ve done. What I would say about Knights of the Old Republic 2 is LucasFilm came back with three to five changes.

That’s also how we approach licensed products, we just to really try to get into it and understand it and make something that really sits within the license. That’s what fans want. Fans of a license don’t want you going off and making something that doesn’t feel a part of it, people want you to build on it, not change it.

It was the same with Bethesda, they were great to work with on Fallout. That was kind of weird in some ways from the standpoint that it was something a number of us had created and then it went to Bethesda, and now we’re creating it for someone else who now owns it.

But the guys at Bethesda are great and Todd Howard is great and there were very few things, nothing substantial, that they really wanted us to change about what we were doing.

What makes Kickstarter ideal, is it that creative freedom and making a game you know people want?
Yes, that’s what’s cool about it. Also I was talking to Tim Cain, so we had this thing going on where there’s a Reddit thing on which people ask a ton of questions and covered the top five in an update and video. And he was saying what’s cool about it is we can actually talk to people about what they’d like to see in the game.

A lot of the time, by the time we announce the game and show it off, there’s some things we can change, but not a lot. I would say yes trust us, we’re the experts, but I think it’s great to hear what people say.

And it’s not like we’re going to change everything we’re doing based on what people want to see, but it’s really fun to be able to interact with people and you can tell them why you’re doing things a certain way.

Sometimes you can say this is why and they get it or they’ll say ‘we still don’t like it because of this’, and it changes how even we look at our own game.

Is there a temptation for developers who go on Kickstarter to take what the community says too seriously and to stray away from your original vision?
I think it can, that’s just where you have to have a core of what you’re doing, you have to have goals for what you’re trying to do. For instance, while we haven’t settled on the exact races we are going to do for the game, what we have said, and what we’re sticking to, is that say half of them are going to be fairly traditional but with slight twists.

And then there’s going to be another segment that are different but very much in tune with the world and probably one that’s just – on my whiteboard it’s called the weirdo race – something that’s not strange, but different then what you’ve seen in a lot of other RPGs.

So that was our goal and as we talk to people and hear what they think, so what those races could actually be might change a bit but still follow the goal of what we set out to do.

Would you recommend more developers going onto Kickstarter or other crowdfunding websites?
Yes. I think they have to go into it understanding it – we did a lot of research and we had some things going for us, we had names from the standpoint of people who had heard of us before, both as a company and individuals. And I think that helps give us credibility and helps people believe in you.

Some of it is, if a developer goes in to do it, is understanding the story they need to tell to people to get them excited and so people feel comfortable and believe in the game and the team, I think that’s really important.

I think that any developer out there that is looking to do this, we’re happy to talk to them because we’ve learned a ton in just the last six-to-eight weeks about how to do this.

So I’d recommend it, but just go into it with a good story – and I mean a story that’s real and not made up – and just do a lot of research.

Would you say not to rule out other routes though?
Oh absolutely not, and as a developer we’re not. We’re still actively talking to publishers all the time. It’s not that we don’t still love making big console RPGs, we do, and maybe that’s something that Project Eternity could have a version of years down the road, but for something like what it is, I still think that’s a little harder to get funded.

I think the funny thing now is though that by having it done in Kickstarter – and this is just speculation – that by it being successful on Kickstarter it’s possible it will be easier to have a publisher fund something like this now.

Do you think contributors are protected enough on Kickstarter? For example if there is a failed project then they’ve lost their funding and they don’t have any equity either.
You know, I don’t know, I’ll have to be honest. I know the way that Kickstarter focuses a lot is its donations and pledges, you’re not purchasing anything.

I know there have been failed projects. I think most the people round here at Obsidian who have given money on projects, while they’ve maybe sometimes taken a bit longer, have generally gotten everything that they’ve pledged to.

I haven’t been through the process myself, so it’s hard to say.

Should there be other ways to do that, maybe in stages?
That could be an interesting way of doing it. That’s possible, there could be something like an Esco account that just releases funds over time, I think those are things that could be possible to do.

It’s possible, before trying to put more controls on it, having more information about whether Kickstarter stuff generally succeeds. Because if they have an 85 or 90 per cent success rate, more controls might not move that needle much at all.

A few weeks ago you commented that publishers were trying to get developers to take to Kickstarter for them, could you clarify those comments?
I don’t think that publishers, the people that talked to me about it, were trying to be nefarious or mean-spirited or anything like that. I think publishers are under a huge amount of pressure right now, and as you can see by their stock prices, they’re not doing very well.

Some individual are things do very well, World of Warcraft is still making lots of money, League of Legends makes a ton of money, World of Tanks makes a ton of money and Call of Duty is still doing well.

But as a whole the publishers aren’t doing great and I think that creates pressures like ‘we still want to be successful and we want to make money’, so sometimes they think ‘okay how can we do this’, and ideas come up.

I don’t blame them for it, but I think another way to look at it is to say, look at it from our perspective before asking a question like that. That’s the best way I could say it

I think there’s just a lot of pressure on publishers right now, and ultimately they’re people asking you those questions with a lot of pressure on them and so we all say things that maybe we haven’t thought through completely well and that’s kind of how I take it.

Is there a problem with big companies trying to get in on Kickstarter?
I think ideas are important. And however an idea gets funded, if that’s what makes it awesome, I don’t think it matters where that money comes from. As long as a good game gets made and people get it and have a blast with it I don’t think it matters.

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