UK developer Edge Case Games is certainly no stranger to crowdfunding.
The studio’s debut title Strike Suit Zero hit Kickstarter in 2012, having already secured backing from an investor.
“There’s a couple of reasons for that,” explains COO Chris Meher. “The product slipped slightly and we openly said at the time it was more of a 'Kickfinisher'.
“We needed just a little bit more money to make it what we wanted it to be, rather than launch it unready we wanted to launch it complete – or as close to complete as anything is these days.”
Born Ready Games, as the studio was known then, raised just shy of $175,000 to complete Strike Suit Zero and bring the game to PC and console. Meher credits the move as partially responsible for the game’s success.
“The Kickstarter campaign for Strike Suit Zero was a revelation,” he recalls. “It's ordinary now, but this was back when Kickstarter was really a thing. Simply by being on Kickstarter, we got a lot more traction with the consumer press. Suddenly, we're new and interesting – two months ago we were less new and interesting, but the game hadn't changed.
"More importantly, it was a real eye-opener and confidence booster when you say to the gaming public or fans of the genre or whatever: 'We're making this game, we would like your help to help finance it so we can get it out.' Just that positive reaction: 'You're making something worthwhile and I'll pay for it even though it's not released yet.' That sort of support was really a boost for the whole studio. Suddenly, you're not just making the game as individuals for your boss or your producer or whatever, there's these guys out there that are putting money in even though they've never played it. It was a huge boost and obviously the beginnings of, in our minds, going: 'Well, this open development thing could be really good.'”
Meher adds that the community aspects of crowdfunding allowed the fledging studio and its sci-fi dogfighting title to quickly build a passionate following – but adds that its investment in community management similarly had to adjust.
“Kickstarter is like an addiction almost,” he says. “You've got to almost stop yourself pressing F5 on a half-hourly basis, just checking back in to see how you're doing. Then obviously you've got people feeding in comments and all of that going on, so our community management skills were honed in that time as well.
“It's a 24/7 job answering to, catering for and understanding these people that have given you money before you've even delivered them something – you've got a sense of responsibility towards them. That really made us appreciate them even more. Somehow it's different from just a paying customer, who has brought something that you've finished. They've paid beforehand and therefore you appreciate them more and look after them more, I think.”
"A Kickstarter backer is different from just a paying customer, who has brought something that you've finished. They've paid beforehand and therefore you appreciate them more and look after them more.”
Chris Meher, Edge Case Games
When it came to Born Ready’s second game, Fractured Space, it was time for a new name – Edge Case Games – and a new platform: Steam Early Access.
“As Edge Case Games we took our learnings from the Kickstarter campaign and went: 'Right, that was a highly motivating, invigorating experience of working with fans who bought in early’,” explains Meher.
"What we effectively did was go very, very early on Early Access. The first playable stable – ish – build of Fractured Space went live. Ships had no textures, there was placeholder art; you had what effectively looked like giant potatoes in space. It's not pretty, but because we'd spent the time prototyping and we'd had some closed sessions with users beforehand, the core gameplay– in order to test that, we effectively had initially just boxes in space.
“We honed the gameplay with no art. It was shocking, but in terms of nailing that moment-to-moment gameplay, the art's almost a distraction from the experience. Well, that's not true – it definitely adds to the experience, but when you're really trying to hone you can iterate really quickly, but can change things on the fly and you don't have to worry about what it looks like at all. You can hack it together and all the rest of it. In terms of prototyping, that's exactly what we did, and then we started dropping in art.”
Meher credits Edge Case’s honest communication with its player base – so-called ‘open development’ – as allowing the developer to succeed where so many other studios have fallen flat.
“We went all-out, super early with what was basically a pre-alpha build and were being open,” he says. “At the time we were charging $10 and saying 'This will be a free-to-play game, it's really early but we're genuinely working with our community here.'
“There's always the risk that the Steam community, a bit like the internet, will turn around and hate you: 'What the hell are you doing?' 'This is totally unfinished.' 'This is going to be free-to-play, but you're charging $10.' They could really just pour scorn on you and kill you in a day. But instead, we were like: 'This is genuine, look at the game we made previously, this is us, this is just how we're working – it's totally open development.'”
Working with early fans of the game also allowed Edge Case to refine Fractured Space’s mechanics in line with direct feedback from those actually playing it.
“Even at that stage, not only were we interacting with the community through the usual forums and so on, but we had a TeamSpeak server, and every Thursday night we would boot the game up and invite them to come and play and talk to us,” Meher reveals. “You, as someone who has paid $10, can have a chat to the creative director about why it is that X has happened or what the design decision for Y was. It was that open, almost one-to-one conversation.
“It's not like we had thousands of people, it was 10, 20, 30, 40 people coming in – it takes a certain type of player to want to have that interaction – but rest of the community was aware it was happening and appreciated the fact that we were genuinely engaging with and talking to them.
“Although we always had a clear vision for what we wanted the game to be, the impact the community has in terms of that fun factor and tweaking it. It wasn't as if the community would say: 'I know, let's make it within atmosphere instead of being in space' and we'd go: 'Okay, if that's what you want, we'll do it.' That's not open development, that's crowd design. We were really clear: we have a vision, but our player base absolutely had an impact on how the game evolved and what was defined as fun. What is a good win condition? Is that fair? We want to have the ability to turn the tables on the opposition – does the rule set allow that? All of that stuff, you can't do it in a vacuum.
“The alternative was to raise a lot of money, knuckle down for 18 months in a darkened room and then release something and hope it's fun. It just made much more sense to get the real player interaction from the beginning.”