Atomp Discusses: Crowdfunding, Early Access and Gaming Part 1

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Tom Hooper aka Atomp
For the next couple of weeks there will be an article that I have divided in two for readability that discusses the crowdfunding and early access trends in gaming in recent years. These are significant trends in gaming currently and the changes that they are having upon the industry are profound. We are now seeing shifts that would previously have been unimaginable as new tools and models are being used to make the games that people want to play and not the games that the publishers want to sell. Despite the rampant scepticism and nay-saying throughout the internet these trends have a great deal to offer bother gamer and game developer and they are absolutely worth discussing.
No doubt one of the most successful early access games to be released was Minecraft. Before the whole crowdfunding and early access initiatives really took off Markus ‘Notch’ Persson released the alpha of a small game he was working on based upon Infiniminer. This alpha quickly gained popularity with word spreading not through the traditional channels preferred by a thousand advertising executives but instead through word of mouth, Youtube and web-based communities. This alpha was of course early Minecraft and the popularity continued to grow as the game developed with even beta releases gaining widespread attention in the gaming press. The popularity was followed by money, lots and lots of money. Minecraft is an interesting example of early access and whilst it was wildly successful, proved the concept and ultimately spawned many repeated attempts at emulation it wasn’t really the ideal crowd-sourced development. Later refinements of the method have brought a much closer relationship between developer and community as development of the project integrates community feedback, a community that has in theory provided the upfront funding for the project. Notch had a habit of pushing Minecraft development in strange directions which was fine before when it was a very small indie project but with an ever expanding community of paying customers to satisfy that became problematic. This is really a double edged sword of crowd-sourced and early access development, unless the community is managed there is a great risk that it could become a hindrance rather than a help as an ever more rabid community makes desperate demands.
Another project that has a surprisingly long history and quietly plodded along on an early access programme long before it hit Steam is the quite astounding Kerbal Space Program. Developers Squad had their own store based early access from the start (or at least once it left the free alpha version). Squad again have been good about providing their early access to customers and the updates has continuously brought new content and improvements, especially now that the popularity is so that update are featured news stories on major gaming websites (or at least PC Gamer and Rock Paper Shotgun, the ones I frequent). Squad have generally been quite focused on creating the updates and content that they want rather than opening a fully two way developer-community communication channel, however their continued stellar mod support often means that much like Minecraft if the community wants something in the game they’ll add it themselves. Kerbal Space Program is one of those really nice success stories where the gradual increase in attention and popularity has gradually driven sales up and thus continues to provide Squad with the money they need to continue the development of the game. Importantly this development is done on their own terms or in negotiation with the community and no on the terms of a publisher or shareholders.
With Minecraft having proven the potential for smaller studios to gain funding for projects that might’ve been scoffed at by publishers and Kickstarter displaying itself as a potential platform for pre and very early development funding it was only a matter of time before something really took off. That something turned out to be the pitch of a new adventure game by industry veterans and PR maestros Double Fine. Responsible for well known games like Grim Fandango, Stacking and Psychonauts, Double Fine have done weird and wacky before and gotten funding, however they reckoned that they wouldn’t get the funding that they wanted for a new adventure game and therefore took the idea to Kickstarter. In retrospect the pitch wasn’t particularly strong and actually relied very heavily on coasting on reputation over a concrete project pitch. Personally I didn’t contribute towards this particular project as I’m never really gotten much out of Double Fine games however it was wildly successful, raising a frankly enormous sum of money. Double Fine Adventure was also something of a warning and become one of the first high profile projects to cast doubt on to the whole Kickstarter idea. The problem came with the money which turned out to be a double edged sword. Double Fine received a huge amount of funding for the project, far in excess of what they had been expecting. This evidently led to some feature creep on the game which rapidly grew into a money eating monster, forcing Double Fine to release the game in parts in order to gain enough money to fund continued development. The project became a hugely over-target Kickstarter that eventually led to a hugely over-budget game. Whilst the game did eventually get completed and released the whole debacle became a cautionary tale on crowdfunding games, even and perhaps especially the successful ones.
Around this same time another successful Kickstarter appeared in the form of Brian Fargo’s Wasteland 2. The original Wasteland was released in 1988 and the story goes that Brian Fargo had been attempting to pitch a sequel to publishers for some time, however he had gained little traction in these attempts. The issue was that the publishers had their own perception on what was likely to sell and after the likes of Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas the potential for an old-school squad-based tactical post-apocalyptic game was limited and not likely to show great return on their investment. This shows the real weakness in the current big-games model as those who ultimately have the say are not the gamers that want to play the game or the developers that want to make the game but instead are shareholders that don’t give a damn about anything but a return on their investment. The Wasteland 2 pitch was fairly strong with the right people making the right game and with a solid plan of action. It eventually raised over three times the initial goal of $900k which unlocked every stretch goal and gave the studio some fairly significant funds to throw around in making the game, although it’s probably still short of a publishers’ money-with-strings. So far Wasteland 2 appears to be progressing nicely with inXile and Obsidian making good use of modern development streamlining tools such as the Unity engine and the Unity Asset Store. Another point of interest on the Wasteland 2 front is Brian Fargo’s Kicking it Forward campaign which is an informal honour system whereupon successful Kickstarter campaigns pledge to donate some of their funds to other Kickstarters. This is not specific to gaming but is still a really interesting idea and seems to gained some traction within the Kickstarter community.
The early Kickstarter days were not just bigger titles though as the likes of FTL: Faster than Light, a small two man indie project also gained some significant success. FTL really was the perfect early-Kickstarter pitch as they already had much of the game in place and just needed the cash to finish development. This proved to smaller indies, not just the larger indie studios but also one or two man teams, that Kickstarter could be a way of buying enough ramen to finish their game without starving. FTL also proved another of the potential positives of using crowdfunding; publicity. Being crowdfunded took a small indie title and shoved it front and centre into the public consciousness, turning it into a massive success with widespread critical acclaim. They could even afford continued development culminating in a free update including more content created in collaboration with industry veteran Chris Avellone. FTL was also the first game I ever Kickstarted and the return on that payment has proven the potential of the development model to me personally ever since.
This article continues on to discuss early access games and reach conclusions next week.

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