Indie Funding: Kickstarter
Tonight my beautiful, talented wife is sitting behind me in our shared office space banging out RAW files, adjusting the curves on the three photo shoots she had this holiday weekend. Her big fear going into this November was not having anything to do, and now here she sits with a glut of clients eager to get their holiday pictures taken in time for Christmas cards to go out. When she quit her corporate gig as a catalog photographer, our family took a big hit, and we wondered if we would make it through the transition without her (or I) having to pick up a night job — or put our nearly 2-year-old daughter back into daycare. But my wife persevered and beat all the goals she had set for herself. Her secret was the combination of talent, networking, and a good credit rating.
Now more than ever, people are looking for alternate career paths, additional sources of income, or second jobs. People are turning to their passions, forgoing the loose attachments of at-will employment and corporate oversight. Many more people than ever are looking to be entrepreneurs.
Luckily for gamers there are people looking to create unique experiences for us. Luckily for them, Kickstarter is giving consumers the privilege to support them.
When Rob Storm graduated from DePaul, he had a good start on his platformer Project Stormos. Initially developed during his time in the Game Dev program, he knew he had a winner. His inspiration came from PS1 and N64 games.
“There are a lot of alusions to those games [in Project Stormos], a dash of Symphony of the Night and Devil May Cry,” he told me over Skype. “A lot of games are 8 or 16 bit era based these days. [Project Stormos] is kinda my homage to 32 and 64 bit era games.” In it you play a Vectorman-like figure, rocketing through space like a souped-up Sonic with a jet pack. The trick is the built-in level editor. Simple but powerful tools allow users to create and share their own levels through a system Rob likens to part Minecraft and part Little Big Planet. The game had upwards of 60 levels before he’d sold a single copy, with some of the best ones coming from his small community of players.
But even as the gameplay began to look promising, his development stalled. Work on Gamemaker quickly slowed. He switched to XNA, and then Unity. Professional contacts got him into Unity Pro, and showed him how it could speed up his development cycle. But you can’t walk into a Best Buy — regardless of your credit rating — and stroll out with Unity Pro.
“I knew I wanted to do [a Kickstarter] for this latest build of the game. I’d read Tim Ferriss about marketing, and he talked a lot about exposure. Kickstarter is one thing where the point of it isn’t just to get money from it, it’s to get exposure from it.”
To Rob, part of that exposure came from Kickstarter’s curator program. There, the Independent Game Developers Association (IGDA) helps to curate the collection of games up for funding. You don’t just raise your game up the flag pole and see who salutes; you are chosen.
The exposure came, in part, from the video pitches intrinsic to the Kickstarter model. “It was really fun. Video editing is one of those things that I love and hate at the same time. The actual video itself was shot at like 4 am at my house. I was extraordinarily tired, but I think that helped me because I couldn’t think so quickly.” The pitch stuck, and Rob met his funding goal in the time allotted, meaning he actually got to keep the money. Kickstarters that don't meet their funding goals fail to take in any of the money pledged.
Today Rob is living in Germany with his girlfriend and his Unity Pro license, trying to find a day job at a larger development studio while he continues work on Project Stormos. Funding gave him the money, and the time, to set up a proper website to promote the game and take payments on subscription copies. Project Stormos lives because of Kickstarter.
While Rob launched out of school on a wing and a prayer, and landed in the arms of Kickstarter, other more established independent game designers are coming to the crowdsourcing company for more pragmatic reasons.
Corvus Elrod, the mustachioed semionaut and narrative designer at Zakelro! (Sole Proprietorship) had a vision for his game Bhaloidam that transcended traditional publishing models and games-industry entanglements.
“There was never any question that we'd be crowdfunding Bhaloidam,” he wrote me. “The amount of funding we needed ($27,900) was more than we had available to spend and we weren't interested in traditional funding models or in selling the IP to a publisher. We did have to grapple with the funding total a bit. We've seen smaller projects bring in much more, but they all started out asking for much less. Eventually we decided we'd rather fail to produce a quality product than succeed in producing an inferior quality one … . Simply put, Kickstarter is the most widely recognized crowdfunding brand. They've put a lot of time and effort into providing their users with the highest level of support. Running a Kickstarter project is marketing, pure and simple.”
Where my wife put her trust in the credit economy, and her ability to repay a significant consumer-grade debt in 18 months, Corvus had no such delusions. “Starting a venture in debt is not the way in which we choose to run our business. An over-reliance on debt is not only a relatively new development, but it’s a huge part of why our economy is suffering the way it is right now.” 10% of his funding (nearly $30,000 total) went to pay Kickstarter and their payment processor, Amazon, for providing the service of Kickstarter itself. For the initial production run of his table-top storytelling game he’ll pay the same production company that prints Pandemic and other board games nearly $24,000 for the manuals, game boards, tokens, packaging, and shipping to the US. “That leaves us with about $1,000 to spend on backer rewards (posters and 3d-printed hexaMine pawns) and mailing several hundred copies of Bhaloidam to our backers.” Running the math is easy from this point, as is the realization that Kickstarter is rarely a way to make an enormous profit. It’s a way to get things moving, and the marketing inertia alone is invaluable.
Over the next few weeks we’ll all be doing a bit of shopping. I have my eye on the Capture Camera Clip System from Peak Design Ltd. as I happen to know a photographer who needs a third hand in order to change lenses during home births. One of the very highest grossing Kickstarters ever, coming in at $364,698 dollars, the Capture Camera Clip system spawned an entire company. I think we all owe it to our hobby, and the industrious creatives who drive it into existence, to take a look around the Kickstarter page and see if there’s anything we can share in the creation of before our holiday budgets are spent. I know there’s a GWJr I’m playing Santa for who is deserving of something no one has ever played before.