When publisher Square Enix launched its indie game pitching program, the Square Enix Collective, back in 2014, it did so with the aim of helping small teams get their games to market, whether it was raising awareness through its community of fans, running Kickstarter campaigns or providing support during a title’s release.
Now, as the Collective enters its fourth and most ambitious year yet, change is afoot. Its core goal remains the same, but with just four staff and a slate of seven titles to publish this year, Square Enix’s director of community and indie development, and head of the Square Enix Collective, Phil Elliott (pictured right) decided to suspend Kickstarter support entirely last month, prompting a wider debate about whether Kickstarter, and crowdfunding in general was possibly on its way out.
For Elliott and his team, though, it was simply a matter of refocusing the Collective’s efforts where they’re needed most.
“As we’ve grown our functions, we’re mindful of what we can achieve well as a small team,” Elliott tells MCV. “To that end, trying to support the Collective website feedback campaigns, a full calendar of commercial releases and a number of Kickstarter campaigns too… it’s a lot to manage, so we took the decision to focus, and not risk being spread too thin.”
The Collective just announced it will be publishing Deadbeat Heroes
Indeed, Elliott’s belief in the power of crowdfunding couldn’t be stronger, but he’s still very much aware of its faults and pitfalls: “It’s a very strong, pure form of funding that enables developers to get support as well as resource – and in a way that doesn’t compromise revenue or business shares later on. So while it’s a very hard process, when it works, it can be really rewarding.
“But it’s also a relatively volatile space. In the end, all crowdfunding is a risk, and you’ve probably seen some people only realise that through having a bad experience. I’m pretty confident that crowdfunding will continue to be a viable form of development funding, but video games have a tougher time when compared to, for example, board games – because a campaign for a board game can show off a prototype of the finished product. With a video game, that’s very hard to do, and of course, so much is down to the subjective ‘feel’ of a game.”
The lack of a prototype certainly hasn’t stopped some high-profile titles from continuing to find success on crowdfunding platforms, such as Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire and Stoic’s Banner Saga 3, but the games the Square Enix Collective deals with present an altogether different kind of challenge:
“The projects we’ve supported have almost all been original IP, and have all been with small, likely unknown teams,” says Elliott. “That’s probably the hardest category of campaign to support – but for us, trying to help newcomers achieve their funding targets and go on to be able to release a game has been a big part of our plan to help create sustainable businesses.
Bulkhead’s The Turing Test released last August through the Collective
So what role does the Square Enix Collective play now? “We still help teams to build initial awareness of a project – we do this on the Collective website where we publish one pitch every week,” explains Elliott. “We drive traffic from the Square Enix community, and ask gamers to evaluate those pitches – and whether or not they’d support a project in the future.
“Beyond that, we’re of course publishing more games. That includes a range of elements, from production funding in some cases, to marketing, PR, community, platform relations, QA and sales. Different games need different levels of support, but we believe we can help make a difference with the scale of the Square Enix business.”
Elliott hasn’t ruled out a return to Kickstarter campaigns in the future, however: “At the moment, we’re confident we’ve learned a lot from the range of games we’ve supported in the past few years. We’ve helped around twelve teams raise over $1.2m (£1m) in total, but we’ll continue to monitor how the environment changes, and I’m sure we’ll make some small tweaks in our approach as and when we start to support campaigns again."
Even now, though, the crowdfunding landscape is a very different place to what it was when the Collective was just starting out, with one of the biggest changes coming from how the scene’s been reported on in the press.
“Probably the thing that surprised us the most was how little media coverage actually makes to crowdfunding campaigns these days,” says Elliott. “I think it was different a few years ago, when key media reported more regularly on the sector – but now they’re very wary to write too much.
Laughing Machines’ Undungeon recently completed a highly successful Kickstarter campaign that was supported by the Square Enix Collective
“At the start, we assumed that sending out a press release would result in automatic coverage; and that, in turn, would lead to awareness and backing. It didn’t – so very quickly we realised that our best approach was to focus on marketing more directly to the community. This has been a key pillar ever since. I think it’s partly down to some caution about whether a developer is going to deliver on their promise – what tools do journalists have to be able to realistically judge that, especially if a team isn’t working on an established IP, or doesn’t have a track record to speak of?
“I also think readers started getting fed up with hearing about games that might never even get released. It’s totally fair enough, and I think it just reflects a wider trend that maybe gamers are a little more circumspect about crowdfunding at the moment than perhaps they were. But it’s entirely reasonable to believe that can improve again in the future."
Elliott is also hoping the team’s ‘Collective Approved’ badge will start gaining more traction as a seal of approval: “We’re still proving what Collective is really there for,” he says.
“When a global publisher – a listed corporation – gets involved in areas like indie development and crowdfunding, I don’t think the standard response is to assume the best intentions. I think, historically, publishers haven’t had a good reputation in the eyes of core gamers, and while I think that’s changing (slowly), it means we have to work harder and prove our intentions first.
“That just takes time, and we’ve known that would be the case from the start. This year, we’ll be much more consumer-facing, because we’re ramping up the release plans – and as people see the projects we release, and hear more about how we work, and why, then in the future I think that badge can resonate more.”
“The first step is doing the best job we can for our developers in 2017. That’s going to keep us very busy, and it’s going to be a hugely exciting time. In the coming months, we’ll also be looking to sign projects for early in 2018, and beyond.
“Our broad intention is to publish up to ten games each year, and while I’m keen that we’re always supporting new talent on smaller projects, I’m expecting that we’ll also work on a few bigger games as well in time.”
The Square Enix Collective opens submissions for new game pitches on the 20th of every month, with successful applications going online every Monday for fans to vote on. Here’s the head of the Square Enix Collective, Phil Elliott, on what makes a great pitch:
“The best pitches are the ones which do the best job of communicating what it’s like to play the game in a really efficient way,” he explains. “From my perspective, I’m looking to understand that game – to imagine what it’s like to play, and then to think about who the audience is for that game, how to reach them, and so on. Combine that with strong visuals, and mix in an angle on design that I’ve not seen before (but that I can really imagine playing through), and I’ll be very happy.
“The most common mistake is just not knowing what kind of deals we offer. We try to make sure that kind of information is available, but sometimes it’s a little frustrating to spend time working through a pitch only to discover that the team is looking for something very different.”
We also wondered whether, because the Collective is primarily publicising these games to Square Enix fan communities, certain types of games were more likely to succeed than others?
“I think it’s a fair expectation, although the Square Enix community is split across a lot of varied franchises now,” says Elliott. “We have, obviously, the Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts fans – but also the Tomb Raider, Hitman, Deus Ex, Just Cause, Life Is Strange communities, so we don’t just try to communicate with one side or the other – and we want to support new talent regardless of genre.
“That said, I think there are definitely times that we can take great advantage of our wonderful lineage. Games like Tokyo Dark and Children of Zodiarcs were, I’m sure, heavily supported by the JRPG fanbase – and I think that’s a fantastic strength to have.”