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Kickstarter - Dead or Alive?

Proven concepts and long-awaited sequels give way to more innovative concepts as less backer money reaches developers. We look at a selection of recent projects as we consider the evolution of crowdfunded video games.

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The year so far for video games on Kickstarter has been in stark contrast to 2013, as fewer high-profile campaigns have launched on the crowdfunding platform. A recent comparison pegged the amount of backer funds contributed to projects at $13 million for the first half of 2014, where 2013 saw the full year amount to an impressive $58 million - indicating funding is on track to be halved in 2014. But it's not that big of a decline in terms of successful projects, rather it seems that the number of high-profile projects with established fan-followings is in decline.

This is not necessarily a bad thing though. It can be argued that fewer, safe and proven concepts opens up the platform for more innovative and forward-thinking concepts.

"The number of successfully funded video game projects is actually up this year vs. the same period last year. Kickstarter's mission is to bring creative projects to life - so from that perspective it has been a great year so far," says Kickstarter rep David Gallagher.

On the other hand, there are developers who feel Kickstarter isn't what it used to be. Recently the developers of H.P. Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward fell well short of the $250,000 target on Kickstarter (only managing 1,844 backers and $110,666) and Agustin Cordes of Senscape studio, didn't pull any punches in his parting update:

"I didn't want to believe it, because I love the idea of crowdfunding, but there's no way around this: we are experiencing its decline. It would be a whole different matter if our campaign were an isolated case of plain bad luck, but it's not - from small teams with modest goals to high-profile developers with solid track records, we're seeing a very grim scenario where too many campaigns are failing for no other reason than lack of interest. Note that I'm saying lack of interest in crowdfunding, not the games themselves, which generally have received great feedback. October in particular has been a dreadful month for Kickstarter, perhaps the worst I've seen, and it's supposed to be the second month of the Kickstarter year that attracts most pledges."

Kickstarter - Dead or Alive?
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward - a game that will not see the light of day.

Isolated cases of great projects that have failed have always been there, though one could argue and there have been some highly successful projects so far in 2014 including Warhorse Studios' Kingdom Come: Deliverance, that saw backers pledge over £1 million for a realistic open-world sandbox RPG set in medieval Europe, and Harmonix's Amplitude (sure, it's a sequel, but not one with a huge following) that secured just under $850,000. Other successful campaigns that deserve a mention include The Universim, Pathologic and Superhot.

So if we take a look at other recent Kickstarter - how have they fared? There was Uber Entertainment's wonderful Robots vs. Cthulhu real-time strategy offering Human Resources.

Funding was cancelled halfway into the campaign as it was falling well short of the target ($1,500,000). Now, the campaign received a lot of attention, but there were a few things it had against it. There was some negative buzz after Uber's previous Kickstarter Planetary Annihilation (though a good game it had issues and took a long time to finally arrive), and asking a million and a half for something where there's no established fanbase is ambitious to say the least.

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Then we had the wonderfully imaginative Elegy for a Dead World that sees you explore dead civilisation and write fiction about them.

The joint campaign of developers Dejobaan Games (best known for the database loathing title AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity) and Popcannibal was a success amassing $72,339 from 3,666 backers (target was $48,000).

Kickstarter - Dead or Alive?Kickstarter - Dead or Alive?
Elegy for a Dead World - a game that was funded via Kickstarter, and Impact Winter that still has a shot even if things are looking bleak.

British studio Mojo Bones' post-apocalyptic survival adventure Impact Winter still has an active campaign, but it really hasn't taken off. With just 6 days to go a miracle is needed as only 17% of the £95,000 sought has been pledged thus far.

And then there is a couple from teams made up of former Irrational Games employees who went on Kickstarter almost simultaneously - The Flame in the Flood by The Molasses Flood and The Black Glove by Day for Night Games.

The Flame in the Flood reached its target of $150,000 within days and is currently reaching for additional stretch goals in its last few days of the campaign (Endless Mode is within grasp at $250,000 while the $300,000 stretch goal for a PS4 version looks out of reach).

"I think succeeding on Kickstarter is very important for our future endeavors," says Forrest Dowling, lead designer. "Having a high profile Kickstarter succeed means the world of games sees you succeed, which opens up doors which help you succeed more. This could be people stepping forward to offer help, or the press taking interest and covering our games. On the other hand, if you fail, the world of games has seen that, too. The game will still need funding to be made, but the people who can provide it will know you're on the ropes."

Some analysts suggest that perhaps Steam's Early Access program is in some part responsible this change.

"I saw a few different avenues for helping fund development while considering Kickstarter," says Dowling. "Early Access is interesting, but you need a very complete and playable game in order to go that route. Kickstarter is much more welcoming if you have a great concept, and can demonstrate the ability to do it well. I don't think Early Access or Kickstarter are in any way exclusive from one another. In fact, many of our backers are asking for early access as a reward for kickstarting. Kickstarter can be helpful at any point in development, Early Access is really only suitable for the last leg."

Kickstarter - Dead or Alive?
The Flame in the Flood.

The Black Glove on the other hand has not seen the same level of success, albeit with a more ambitious target sum. With under 3 days remaining it has managed $188,095 of its $550,000 target. Described as "an eerie, surrealistic, first-person game experience" set in a 1920s theatre of the bizarre - it does lend more aesthetics from Bioshock than The Flame in the Flood.

The game has a similar problem to that of Human Resources, in that it is an ambitious and highly original concept that seeks a rather large sum of money.

"Coming up with an "elevator pitch" for a game with a strange, surrealistic storyline and unconventional gameplay has definitely presented plenty of challenges," says Joe Fielder, creative director. "Describe too much and you threaten to ruin the mystery. Too little and you run the risk of people jumping to their own conclusions. It's something we've been working on refining constantly over time."

"We have an updated trailer in the works that focuses on mood and the moment-to-moment experience. Those are the two elements that people have told us they want to know most about and we figure it's better to show than explain. Hopefully, that will resonate with potential backers and they'll help us rally to get this weird, original game made."

Kickstarter - Dead or Alive?
The Black Glove.

The future of Kickstarter may be a little different than what it was like during the boom years when the likes of Tim Schafer (Broken Age), David Braben (Elite: Dangerous), Chris Roberts (Star Citizen), Peter Molyneux (Godus), Brian Fargo(Wasteland 2 & Torment: Tides of Numenera), Chris Avellone (Pillars of Eternity), Keiji Inafune (Mighty No. 9) and Richard Garriott (Shroud of the Avatar) used their renown to help grow the platform and finance long-awaited spiritual successors or sequels or simply their return to a genre they were linked to in the past.

Kickstarter - Dead or Alive?Kickstarter - Dead or Alive?Kickstarter - Dead or Alive?Kickstarter - Dead or Alive?
Left to right: Broken Age, Elite: Dangerous, Star Citizen and Godus.
Kickstarter - Dead or Alive?Kickstarter - Dead or Alive?Kickstarter - Dead or Alive?Kickstarter - Dead or Alive?
Left to right: Wasteland 2, Torment: Tides of Numenera, Pillars of Eternity and Mighty No. 9.

"For us it's been wonderful," said Brian Fargo when we asked about Kickstarter. "I was saying earlier that because of the nature of it, especially in contrast to other ways you may be developing through outside sources, whether from a publisher or from an investor, they want results. They want milestones. You have to prove yourself constantly along the way that you know what you're doing.

"We spent 30, 35% of our energy trying to get paid or proving we knew what we're doing. And then you spend 30% of my energy going "what are we going to do next?" If I don't have the next project lined up, everybody doesn't have a job. So you got this much time to spend this much time on the game: that's the reality. With crowd funding, here's the money up front. "We trust you". So I spend 95% of all my energy just thinking about how to make the game better. And so it's been a great experience all around. Early Access, same thing."

Another industry veteran who took to Kickstarter was Julian Gollop of Xcom fame, his Chaos Reborn (a re-imagening of his first game Chaos from 1985) was funded back in April, and he had this to say on Kickstarter:

"I think it's great. It carries with it its own risks and responsibilities, but I still prefer that approach because you are obliged to deliver for a group of passionate and supportive customers who may not be very critical but you've got a direct relationship there with your player base. That's really valuable because they can contribute a lot."

Trust appears a keyword here, and perhaps some of the recent Kickstarter failures (where backers wound up not getting the game they had helped fund) also has something to do the current state of video game crowdfunding. However, Kickstarter remains upbeat.

"Our community of backers has never been stronger, and this whole approach to bringing games to life is still in its infancy. The best is yet to come," says the David Gallagher of Kickstarter.

Whether Kickstarter is dead or alive and stronger than ever, is apparently wholly in the eye of the beholder. We can only say that it's different, for better and worse.

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