At the expo show floor at PAX East last weekend, one could find all kinds of games; some big, some small, some finished, some not quite there yet. One could also find games in a conference room located on the second floor, alongside their creators. And these people had one key distinction: they all found success via Kickstarter.
The crowd-funding resource was invited by the show's organizers to help share insight and advice to would-be game makers in attendance. They brought with them a few of their favorite success stories, to provide additional color to the commentary.
Michael Consoli, creator of "Against The Wall," a first-person adventure game that has the player navigating a realm that is one infinitely expansive vertical surface, was among those speaking.
Consoli is like many who tap into Kickstarter: he had an idea for a video game and needed financial assistance to make it happen. Most of these indie games are made by one person, although in Consoli's case, he also had the help of a sound composer. Consoli's campaign took place last fall and called for $6,000, but managed to earn him $8,500 when all was said and done.
When asked if he would do anything differently, despite surpassing his goal, he said yes: "I wish I had done it right now," said Consoli, referencing all the newfound attention that Kickstarter has gotten, due to the wildly successful Double Fine Adventure fundraiser. "Because even more folks would be looking at my game."
For Consoli, it's less about money itself and more about exposure. More important was how meeting his goal was a sign to proceed forward. "It's a great way to test the marketplace. If I make a portion of the game, and it fails to generate any kind of excitement, I just saved myself the time and energy that would have been wasted if I had just finished the entire thing."
In the very beginning, Consoli created a very bare-bones version of "Against The Wall" to earn the confidence and trust of backers. As explained, if his drive had not been successful, he would have abandoned the project. But not everyone's approach or even background was the same, as is the case with another game that was in attendance, "Guns of Icarus."
"Guns of Icarus" is not the product of just one person, but a studio. Granted, Muse Games, an independent publisher based in New York City, is diminutive when compared to a BioWare or Irrational Games, but it's a studio nonetheless. As a result, much of "Guns of Icarus" was developed before Kickstarter was even in the picture.
The game takes place on steampunk airships and features competitive, multiplayer gameplay. Players assumes different functions, including captain, gunner and engineer, who must all work in tandem to take down opposing aircraft and stay afloat.
Despite the vast differences in infrastructure behind both games, Howard Tsao of Muse Games mirrored many of the sentiments that Consoli had: "Kickstarter is more than just funding, it's reaching out and connecting with fans. It gave us increased awareness that we would have either never gotten, or would have been harder to achieve. Sure the money helped, but all the beta players we got was the real benefit."
The goal was $10,000, and final amount was $36,000, which was certainly nice, but even better is how it managed to net the studio 16,000 beta players. One of the key incentives, or rewards, for lending support is exclusive access to work in the progress build of the game.
The drive began last year and wrapped up a few months back, and enjoyed a steady pace throughout, until things things skyrocketed at the very end. Why? Because, coincidentally, that's when the Double Fine drive had kicked into gear, and bringing with it a flood of new people to Kickstarter. Coined the "Tim Schafer effect," Double Fine's success means different things to everyone in that room.
Unlike Consoli and some others, Tsao's game would have been completed without Kickstarter ultimately. But because of it, "there are now more players willing to be part of the creative process, to playtest the game, to help suggest new features, all critical parts of a game's evolution."
Just a few feet away was Jordan and Justin Coombs; the two brothers are responsible for "Star Command," one of the first-high profile Kickstarter success stories of late last year for mobile games. Their spaceship management title for iOS got a decent amount of buzz due to it playful art design, which taps into classic Trek. Players create starcraft and assemble crews that must explore the galaxy and occasionally deal with hostile aliens.
The "Star Command" drive took place last fall, and the goal was $20,000. The amount earned at the end was close to $40,000, an unprecedented amount at the time. If given the chance, the brothers say they'd do it again, but differently. While they said they appreciate the funds they received, not only would more be nice, it's actually necessary. Because everything was new and different to them, not just making a game but also raising capital, the brothers did not properly account for the cost of producing incentives. Approximately $10,000 to be exact.
If there's any advice they'd give, it's "Don't give physical rewards. Even if you'll be less attractive to some and miss out on some donations, you'll still lose that amount anyway due to cost and loss of time."
As Justin Coombs recalls, "I remember being at the post office, trying to ship 200 posters and going 'What the hell am I doing?' " In the end, the Coombs' have spent $50,000 of their own money to fund the "Star Command," and their Kickstarter success has only managed to offset only a portion of the costs.
There were additional expenses that they simply did not anticipate, including audio production and even legal matters, such as copyrights, which is why they are considering a second Kickstarter. "It would be an emotional appeal," explains Justin Coombs, "this is our first game and we had no idea how much it would be!"
When asked about getting negative reaction from people being asked to donate twice, the Coombs are aware of that risk, "which is why we would make it very clear where the money would be going towards exactly, and not be guys going 'Gee, I bet we can make even more money off of this thing!' " said Justin Coombs.
The brothers are concerned about bigger, more-established companies becoming too much of a presence in the Kickstarter world. "It's kind of strange. I understand why Double Fine turned towards Kickstarter, and I'd certainly would love another point-and-click adventure," said Justin Coombs.
"But they're, you know, established. And I always figured Kickstarter was for small two-three person teams who were not able to get their feet in the door. I'm not knocking them, but my fear is that it'll be mutated into a pre-sale thing and become a store instead of funding platform."
Cindy Au, a representative from Kickstarter, was at last weekend's event, and said concerns like those of the Coombs brothers are not uncommon. But, she said, "Kickstarter has guidelines. You just can't be a business and set up shop with us.
"Sure there are big companies who use it, because even they need an alternative outlet, to bring certain things to market that need additional, direct support from the public. We have an ecosystem in which large projects and small projects can be side-by-side with each other. And it's up to the public to pick and choose what will succeed."
Matthew Hawkins is an NYC-based game journalist who has also written for EGM, GameSetWatch, Gamasutra, Giant Robot and numerous others. He also self-publishes his own game culture zine, is part of Attract Mode , and co-hosts The Fangamer Podcast . You can keep tabs on him via Twitter , or his personal home-base, FORT90.com .