Indie Funding: Xenonauts Revisited

Just around Halloween of last year I talked with Chris England, the man behind the spiritual successor to the classic X-Com. He had something of the air of a mugging victim, still shocked and bewildered but able to fill out a police report. It had been just a month since PayPal had burned down his online store. Sure, he’d effectively been selling around their terms of service, sure he’d seen PayPal give the same rough treatment to Minecraft when Notch started raking in obscene amounts of money. But Chris wasn’t doing Minecraft scale business, and it had been worth the risk by his estimation.

Nonetheless, the $4k that got locked up for six months stung, as did the estimated $7k more in missed sales opportunities. He took a step back to reevaluate his options and by November he had moved to the digital distributor Desura. At the very least he had a place to raise money again to pay his virtual team. But he was a bit crestfallen that he’d missed out on the money train, the attention from Reddit in particular. If he’d have been able to keep the interest going and hit just a few more media outlets he really could have had something, but the opportunity passed while he was figuring out how to squeeze any money at all through his Ethernet connection.

He ended our interview wistfully; “I’d love to do some stuff with Kickstarter, but it’s for US citizens or businesses only.”

Since then all hell has broken loose on Kickstarter. The bubble began to form, and if Tim Schafer could take in more than $3.3 million for an adventure game, a genre even more “dead” than the squad-level isometric turn-based tactical strategy game, then Chris had to find a way.

“We ended up registering a US subsidiary of our UK company, and then getting a US bank account.”

Simple, right? It actually was quite the stroke of luck.

“We had a US-based helper who contacted us on the forum who happened to be a corporate lawyer, and I'm a qualified accountant, so between us we worked out how to comply with the US requirements. It took a LOT of time and effort and cost several hundred dollars, but it was certainly worth it!” Chris rocketed through his $50k ask in 56 hours, not the weeks he had been expecting. He had 1,000 backers and $40k in 36 hours. That caught him flat-footed and he had to scramble.

May 11: “I wasn't planning to post an update until we hit 100% funding and I certainly wasn't expecting that to be within touching distance after only 36 hours! The support we've been shown has been incredible, so an enormous thank you goes out to all the people who have backed us or supported us in any way.” The promises started flowing: DRM-free release copies. A digital novella.

“We’re also thinking of stretch goals. The current thinking is that we’ll do a Mac/Linux port … add female soldiers at $200k,” he went on. The message boards went a little batty at that. It’ll take $200k to put new heads on the soldiers? Chris was going to grace his community with a second character model if he managed to reach 5x his initial goal?

The backpedaling began in earnest. “EDIT 2 - just to explain our reasoning. … We think [it is] an ambitious but achievable goal … given the response so far, so we put potentially the most interesting feature there to try and galvanize interest.” It would appear that Chris had a misunderstanding of what his audience thought of as interesting.

May 12: Trying to keep the momentum going, his next step was a survey. But instead of focusing the community on the things they wanted out of his team the survey seemed to bog things down and create more confusion. Chris’ third update had nearly 50 comments, while the previous two each had only around 20.

May 13: As the survey ran its course, Chris developed a logical plan for stretch goals. The first was to hire a level designer, then add indoor missions, then a Soviet tileset. Each of these he attached to a funding milestone that was much more achievable than the $200k female model. But his milestones stretched all the way out to $380k. Each successive stretch goal served only to show people what was missing, in their opinion, from the game already.

“I don't think it was ever a case of us overselling things. It's easy to get caught up in the rush of the first few days and to extrapolate wildly how much money you could raise. … The reason why the stretch goals list was so long is that we provided a list of goals for people to vote on, and the most popular ones would come in at the lower totals (at $25,000 increments). We gave people a wide variety of possible choices to choose from, so the final stretch goals ended up at large numbers like $400k+ (which we never expected to reach — hence the voting). The stretch goals caused a lot of controversy though. … It would have been much easier not to have them, but then that poses an entirely new set of problems as people have come to expect them on Kickstarter projects nowadays.”

Chris was clearly not excited about the stretch goals. It’s hard to blame him. His team had already been at work for three years and he just wanted his $50k to get over the hump, maybe add a little more polish. He had what he came for and wasn’t planning on getting more than that, so it figures he wouldn’t be ready to create more work for himself. But there could have been so much more money in the till if he’d played it right. And that’s his biggest regret.

“The speed at which the project was funded meant that people were asking for stretch goals after about 48 hours. I was already fairly sleep deprived before the Kickstarter launched [and] … things only get worse. … Though my intentions were good, in hindsight it was rather predictable that a whole bunch of people responded with ‘OMG you want $200k for female soldiers? It'll cost you like $1k max!’ and I can see where they were coming from. ... Our redone stretch goals … generally got a good reception but there were still a lot of people complaining about various (frequently contradictory) issues. I guess whatever you do, someone will be unhappy — but I did make the problem a lot worse by rushing decisions in the first few days and then not communicating them to the backers particularly well either. I'm sure just getting enough sleep would have improved things dramatically.”

Hindsight is 20/20. The demo he put up was stable and enjoyable. I think he created something truly evocative of the original demo that was put out for the original X-Com. His only failure was not expecting everyone else to be as excited as he was for his product, his only misstep was not being ready to ride this rocket as it lifted off the pad. Regardless, during the 40 days that Xenonauts was on Kickstarter Chris was able to take in slightly more than the entire sum of money he had so far spent on the project. Kickstarter added more than 100% to his budget.

He’s still excited, and still on track for a release. “I don't think there's anything that we think the game is really missing. The stretch goals were all things that could go in the game to improve it, but don't have to be there for the game to feel ‘complete.’ The things we really wanted to add were either already in the game design document or covered in the $50,000 we raised initially. … However, there's a number of things that I think could add to the game if they were put in it. The most obvious example is more tilesets, but there's also small features like proximity grenades and so on.

“The issue here is that you need to draw the line somewhere, and every feature that isn't in the original design document is one that the game shouldn't feel incomplete without. Again, on Kickstarter there were quite a few people saying ‘but it's not X-Com without feature X!’ and telling us it should be in the game already. In reality, they're almost always talking about one small feature and it's almost always an overreaction — in almost every case, I honestly don't think they'd notice it not being there.

“I think once the beta is going on we'll sit down and figure out exactly what ‘nice-to-have’ features we want to add that are currently missing and not already confirmed. There may be a lot of them, or there may not be many, but we're mindful of both needlessly overcomplicating the game and also the fact we could go on developing Xenonauts forever. ... Happily, though, money shouldn't be one of the considerations when it comes to deciding whether to implement a feature or not and we have our Kickstarter to thank for that!”

And in the end, that’s the goal of a Kickstarter campaign. Money. Filthy lucre. And, rocky as it’s been, Chris sleeps better now knowing that his passion project will not wither on the vine for lack of funding. I’m excited to see the end result. But I don’t mean the game. The end result of this experience is a new Chris England, one who has learned a lot about himself and making games in the past three years and 40 days. He’s the head of a new company that gamers helped get going called Goldhawk Interactive. I look forward to hearing about how well their game is selling when it’s released, how many more people they’re hiring, what other great ideas they have in store for us gamers. And that’s the real purpose of Kickstarter afterall… isn’t it?

Comments

Really interesting story, Charlie. It's remarkable how developers who rely on Kickstarter can end up feeling penned in by their successful campaigns. Chris's responses to his stretch goal dilemmas are a fascinating reflection of the relationship between developer and player, and how crowdfunding is changing that. When you feel like an "investor," you may start to feel entitled to tell the developers how to do their job. I'm happy Kickstarter has allowed a lot of great indie projects to get off the ground, but I do worry a bit about how the site is changing players' expectations.

Very interesting read. I had not heard of that Kickstarter otherwise I would've pledged for sure

This was an interesting read - it's refreshing, to be honest, to read something that details the things that can actually go wrong with a Kickstarter, at least in terms of stretch goals. I think it was ludicrous to make "women in the game" a $200k stretch goal, but I'm not entirely sure Chris understands that the issue may extend beyond the issue of replacing heads and tweaking body shapes - you'll never find good PR in the inclusion of an entire gender as a stretch goal.

I do feel like indies often make mistakes that are, realistically, not ones that would happen to anyone who knew their business or their PR, and I think that's part and parcel of being a group of independently owned and operated creatives. The Kickstarter money wasn't going to keep going at that pace (it's rare that it does, I think), and I'd have budgeted stretch goals that went no further than 25% above the target amount, just to be safe. I'm glad the game is getting made, though, and I'd like to see you revisit the Xenonauts project a few months down the line to see how a Kickstarted game project is coming along, and what the specific challenges are there, during development.

I was an early Xenonauts pre-orderer a couple years back, so of course I'm thrilled that they've done so well on Kickstarter -- better product for me! They're even going to release a native Mac build! I actually haven't played the pre-order build yet because Windows is inconvenient for me.

It's easy to see how funding and marketing / social management quickly become their own jobs. Indie devs seriously have to wear a lot of hats.

Very interesting read! I've never thought about the downfalls of kickstarters before, but now I have read this I understand why the penny arcade stretch goals didn't quite seem to sit right with me.

Existed to play UFO's till the games trailed off. Hope this one is as good. Cut WAY into study time. Actually had a wife of mine break the disk to Apocalypse, once.