Crowdfunding in 2020 looks completely different.
Kickstarter as a crowdfunding platforming has been around for just over a decade, and it’s easy to see the influence the site has had on video games. High profile successes like Broken Age and FTL in early 2012 spurred a gold rush towards a platform that promised to democratise the publishing of games. But we all know what came next. Plenty of successes in the indie space followed by delays and even projects being abandoned entirely. Throughout this time, the premise of Kickstarter has remained the same, but the culture around crowdfunding has changed, and the realities of videogame production have come to the fore.
With the 2010s behind us, there’s ample opportunity to look at the rise and decline of video game crowdfunding and the state this part of the industry is in going forward into the new decade.
The issue of crowdfunding is a complex one. It’s an entire facet of the industry with not just one platform in Kickstarter, but sites like Indiegogo and Fig with their share of successes and failures as well. Each project is unique in the community that rises around it, the development stories of delay and feature creep or the collapse of the project entirely.
Since the explosion of crowdfunding campaigns in 2012 with Broken Age and FTL, there was a boom for a few years followed by a steady decline in 2015. Between delays and high profile unfulfillment, backer confidence was lost. However, the opposite trend has occurred in tabletop games where, year on year, the amount of successful projects and level of funding has increased dramatically.
Tabletop games are also marked by the repeated reliance of a studio on crowdfunding as an economic platform. Companies such as Awaken Realms, Mythic Games and CMON consistently raise millions through Kickstarter each year. It’s a risky strategy given that one under-performing Kickstarter can cost the jobs of those working at the studios.
Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games is one of the most successful tabletop game designers of the last decade with titles like Viticulture, Euphoria and Charterstone. After several successful Kickstarters culminating in the monstrously popular Scythe, Jamey stepped away from Kickstarter to explore other lines of distribution: “For me, it was a decision based specifically on Stonemaier Games, myself, and risk management. I no longer wanted to ask backers to loan me money so I could make something awesome. Nor did I want to continue to operate with such high levels of uncertainty in scheduling.” Though Kickstarter excels in being a platform where developers can build a community around a project, there is still so much risk involved in fulfilling projects.
Jamey has written extensively about the Kickstarter process from community messaging to paid advertising to the idea of using Kickstarter as a preorder store. Despite the proliferation of tabletop games in the last decade and their takeover of Kickstarter, there remains a danger for companies relying on crowdfunding as their only source of revenue or method for releasing a game. “I think there’s a lot of risk if a company is relying too much on any one platform or audience… if I relied on a single distributor to sell our games to retailers, if that distributor went bankrupt, I’d be in big trouble. Same goes if I stopped selling directly to consumers and only relied on distributors and retailers. Similarly, I don’t see how it would benefit a company to lean too heavily on Kickstarter—in fact; there are companies that are in the process of failing because of their reliance on Kickstarter.”
Part of what can make game projects on Kickstarter so untenable or elongate the fulfilment time is the expectation from backers of stretch goals. This is designed to keep the momentum of a project going so that it can raise more money. It’s something not missed by Jamey since developing games away from Kickstarter: “I must admit that when I was designing games for Kickstarter, stretch goals were always on my mind… It’s not an objectively bad way to look at game design, as it’s nice to know which elements can be expanded after the core game is complete, but I have to say that I much prefer designing and developing games now (without this constraint in mind).”
Stretch goals are familiar in the video game space as well, with projects like Star Citizen really going above and perhaps beyond what can be feasibly achieved. Star Citizen successfully raised 2 million dollars on Kickstarter and even more on its own website but is unreleased and by some accounts remains in a constant state of developmental unease – to put it mildly.
Interestingly, the developers at Yacht Club Games took a different approach. After the massive popularity of Shovel Knight on Kickstarter, backers had unlocked three playable boss knight characters. After releasing Shovel Knight in 2014, the studio decided to spread these into three full game launches with the full project only finishing in December of last year. “When we developed the Kickstarter,” says David D’Angelo of Yacht Club Games “we definitely didn’t plan to make each boss knight stretch goal into a full game. But after the initial game released, we felt like we had to do something to blow everyone’s expectations away!”
Shovel Knight built on the community that surrounded them during the crowdfunding campaign and the strong release to carry on development of their world, which drew more and more players in with its pixel art aesthetic. With videogame projects sometimes taking years, it can be a dangerous gambit to include stretch goals in the campaign. Even without mismanaged stretch goals, there have been numerous, high profile Kickstarter failures that have cooled interest in crowdfunding videogames.
There are enough stories of audacity and recklessness with Kickstarter projects to characterise the whole decade of games crowdfunding as a mixed venture at best. But there are stories of quiet resilience which should serve to remind folks of what Kickstarter success can mean to independent devs.
The project Yes, Your Grace is one such story where hard times befell the developers only for perseverance to shine through. After the devs realised how ambitious their original plans were, the game was delayed, and a team member dropped out. Signing to a publisher to help push the game forward backfired when promised labour was never provided by the publisher and contracts signed by the developers prohibited communicating the problems to the Kickstarter backers. After a couple of years silently working on the game and learning the skills necessary to progress forward the game has signed with a new publisher and will see the light of day this year.
Publisher support earlier in the decade – whilst providing a supportive ballast to a studio – represented a loss of creative control over a project. David at Yacht Club talked about the idea of losing creative control: “We likely could have made a successful game within the publisher model without sacrificing creative control, but the community of Kickstarter played way too big a part. Without our backers, we would not have made the same game.”
Though publishing in the indie scene has come on in leaps and bounds with companies like Devolver, Annapurna, No More Robots and Modus, there are only a certain amount of games that can achieve funding through these means.
So where does that leave indie games going forward on the funding platform? These boundaries between decades are liminal; January 1st 2020 wasn’t so stratospherically different from December 31st 2019 that the crowdfunding rules have changed. But when viewed as a time period within the industry, the last decade certainly updated a lot of the rules in game development. But the spirit of indie game development flies on, and the premise of Kickstarter has remained largely unchanged.
Dan Beckerton is an indie from Vancouver who is one of the most recent developers on Kickstarter with his game Spirittea. It’s a beautiful cross between Stardew Valley and Spirited Away where the player looks after the wandering spirits of a remote village by tending to their needs in a dilapidated bathhouse.
Living in Korea for a number of years was a big influence on the game as it had a profound impact on Dan: It’s hard to narrow it down to just one experience that had a profound impact on me because living in Korea seemed to be constantly teaching me something new and influencing how I viewed both their society as well as my own. I’d really like to bring some of that excitement and wonder to the players of Spirittea.” Dan had been drawing out maps for his own Zelda game as a child. The seed for game development was planted young, but the encouragement to continue on is drawn from individuals like Eric Barone and Toby Fox.
Part of the preparation for a successful Kickstarter campaign comes with the media attention garnered before the project is even running. “My social media community has been immeasurably supportive, and I’ve typed “thank you” so many times that I worry people will think I’m insincere. But I’m being 100%.” Dan admits that there has been so much to learn throughout this campaign, but the heartwarming words of those connected with through his media engagements have been worth it.
At the time of writing Spirittea is but a few days away from finishing its campaign. It’s currently short of its $18,000 goal. Talking with Dan halfway through the fundraiser, doubts crept up as to whether the campaign would be successful. Despite the looming spectre of an unsuccessful Kickstarter venture, Dan has remained positive in how to look at the whole process:
“Running a campaign with the expectation that you’ll make enough to complete your project will only lead to disappointment. That’s something I’ve only just realised after two campaigns. The real Kickstarter success stories would be the ones where a game studio formed out of small beginnings on Kickstarter. I hope that’ll be a story I can share about myself someday!”
Something that comes up time and time again is how Kickstarter helps developers build a community around a project. That their enthusiasm keeps developers going, it’s not an automatic panacea to the fiscal woes of a studio. It’s not a platform that automatically grants exposure. But crowdfunding does promise a chance of economic freedom. The chance to drop work commitments that pay the bills and work on the thing you love full time.
Despite our collective wariness over the legacy of unfulfilled Kickstarter projects, there will still be those pitching the soul of their work on the platform asking for a chance to realise their dreams. Doubtless, this next decade will have seismic changes in the industry, but there will always be an indie in need of a helping hand.
Ryan Young escaped from the PhD basement in 2017 where he worked on the theoretical links between games, play and narrative. He can be frequently found playing any genre of indie game he can get his hands on and yelling at people on the street about how cool ancient board games are.