The Year In Review: Kickstarter

It’s December now and the entire industry is closed for business. Well, mostly. With Far Cry 3 having released this past Tuesday and Hawken out on the 12th, things are mostly done. Spike’s annual display is gaudiness and its severe misunderstanding in how to handle live gaming-centric showcases is set to explode all over your television sets tomorrow night. Let’s just go ahead and call this year a wrap.

And what a year it’s been. It’s been 12 months of new beginnings, somber conclusions, and heartbreaking news. Some franchises began anew like Halo 4, others ended in the only way they knew how like Assassin’s Creed, and studios closed around every corner. Every year is a total mix of uplifting stories and beginning-of-Up levels of depression, and every year seems like the best and worst in both regards.

Not least of all thanks Kickstarter. If anything, this was the year of Kickstarter. The number of funded projects quadrupled after 2011 (total pledge money more than tripled up to $99.3 million) with 2012 looking even bigger. 2012 set all top 10 funding records, and only two were non-gaming related. Double Fine Adventure demolished the record at the time with $3.3 million and the Ouya game console currently sits impressively out of reach at $8.6 million. Everyone wants to drag the past into the present with Project Eternity and everyone wants a piece of the future with the Oculus Rift.

Evidence of what the crowdfunding sensation can do has already been brought to fruition. Arguably the first project carried to term was FTL: Faster Than Light, a space flight simulator by Subset Games (PSA: it’s only sale right now for $5.99). Much like how Persona 4 has taken over the industry’s free time, FTL had totally taken over Twitter and Facebook back when it launched in August. Everywhere I looked, everyone I knew was playing it and talking about it. The debate raged over what mode to play it in, stories were shared about where Nick Breckon was found, and tales of intrepidness and bravery echoed through the Internet. It seems like its unforgiving and complex nature, its byzantine systems intriguing more than flustering.

FTL was also a story of not only critical success but funding success. Blowing far past its original goal of $10,000, Matthew Davis and Justin Ma of Subset Games suddenly had $200,542 to work with. Funding closed in April and had an estimated completion of August, but the former Shanghai-based 2K Games employees had already been working on prototypes for close to a year, becoming a finalist at IGF China in 2011 and earning Excellence in Design and Grand Prize nods at IGF proper in 2012. Granted, they missed the August goal by a couple weeks, but no one seemed to mind at the time. They were all too busy playing FTL.

Double Fine Adventure, on the other hand, has had mixed success. While raising over eight times their original goal, both the 2 Player Productions-produced ongoing documentary and the lack of a product have all signs pointing to a mid-2013 release rather than the original August estimation. And now with Amnesia Fortnight and its corresponding activities, you have to wonder if that might be pushed into Fall of 2013. Double Fine, though, being a reputable developer, is more than likely to follow through on its promise. The question is now more a matter of when than if.

But not all projects have been that lucky. Star Command, an isometric view mobile game about building and running a spaceship, was funded in October of last year, blowing past its original goal of $20,000 and hitting $36,967. This was great. The developers had money, potential fans, and a solid idea for a video game with tons of goodies for its backers.

Surprisingly, the goodies turned out to be a problem. In April of this year, they posted an update on their Kickstarter detailing their financial woes. Long story short: they had less than $4,000 to work with. $2,000 was lost to no-shows; $3,000 was given to Kickstarter and Amazon; $10,000 for all those shirts and posters; $6,000 for music; and so on and so on.

While this left the team in dire straits, it was an important lesson to other Kickstarter projects: don’t underestimate how much things will cost. Taxes, Kickstarter cuts, and PAX accommodations are nothing compared to how much it costs to print and design all those backer rewards. As of last month, they were still working on the project and optimistic, but I’m sure the lack of money and the sting of broken pride hurt like hell.

But that is a project that will carry on and, given what I’ve seen from completed portions and the developers’ determination, will be finished. Other projects, however, don’t even get the chance. Take a look at Alpha Colony. Developer DreamQuest Games had already made a run at Kickstarter with Alpha Colony before, asking for $500,000 before founder Christopher Williamson pulled the plug hours before closing at $101,472. This second time around, they only asked for $50,000.

Why the massive difference in goal? Well, Alpha Colony originally had the M.U.L.E. license attached so that they could directly tie in with the 1983 multiplayer classic. However, with the license gone and a downgrade to “inspired by,” DreamQuest would require a lot less money to finish off the project.

Alpha Colony, however, wouldn’t make it. They would fall short by a mere $28. They basically fell short by a date night at Chili’s. It’s supremely frustrating to Williamson since they actually estimated the project to cost anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000 and yet they couldn’t even raise half of the lowest estimation.

That may be better than getting the money and letting down all of your backers, though. The first very public crash-and-burn project took place within Haunts: The Manse Macabre, a turn-based horror game where you can play either as the supernatural denizens of a haunted mansion or the intruders looking for a jolly, scary time. It was successfully funded in July with $28,739, $3,000 more than its original funding goal. However, things soon took a turn for the worse.

Mob Rules Games, the developers behind Haunts, had essentially collapsed. The programmers left for other jobs, leaving the artist and project lead, neither of which knew how to program. Worse than that, the entire project was based on the Go programming language, severely limiting potential engineer replacements. October was looking bleak for the team, but the community reached out and decided to help the clearly broken dream.

Haunts soon switched to an open source project with about thirty or so volunteer programmers doing what they can to see the project to the end. However, given what I’ve seen on the project’s GitHub repository, participation has dwindled somewhat, though the Trac page indicates that some people are still working to the bitter end.

2012 has been a big year for Kickstarter video games. It showed that this is a new and 100% valid way to fund your projects, but it also showed that you can quickly get in over your head. If you’ve never been a producer or lead for a project, you may not know how to properly estimate financial or time requirements. If you don’t know how to properly sell or market yourself and your project, you might not even get off the ground. But most importantly, everyone learned that Kickstarter is not a store. It is a risk and it is a gamble. You are investing and sometimes investments don’t pan out. This could be money down the drain.

But for all the woes and heartache, the money makes dreams happen, fulfilling visions that other publishers and developers wouldn’t bother risking. 2012 proved that, and I’m hoping 2013 keeps it up. It’s been a good year for Kickstarter and video games.

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