Benefits and risks of crowdfunding adventure games

Posted by Mark Agerholm.
First posted on 20 October 2013. Last updated on 20 October 2013.
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In spite of the commercial and critical success of Telltale Games' The Walking Dead, big publishers today still seem wary of the adventure genre when funding game development. Perhaps this is because the occasional success of an adventure game title is mechanically unquantifiable. An uninformed publisher may take notice of a game like The Walking Dead and imagine how it can make the game more like Call of Duty. The publisher then surmises to scrap the storytelling, add in some shootings, slosh patches of grays and browns across the color palette, and, in the end, winds up with a badly distorted derivative unrecognizable from the game's original premise. By contrast, developers with true vision have been increasingly stifled by the demand from publishers to shoehorn in certain gameplay mechanics that are currently in vogue. As technology in game design grows, the minimum required budget to produce a commercial game becomes astronomical. Consequently, big publishers' willingness to take risks in backing certain projects diminishes in the face of the need to appeal to a broader audience.

The irony is that some of the most forward-thinking and critically successful games in recent years are those that have been developed on a fraction of the starting budget of an average AAA game title. The adventure genre is the poster child of this irony. This is because point-and-click adventure games do not require an advanced physics engine or artificial intelligence programming compared to games from other genres. Rather, a great adventure game only requires a compelling narrative and coherent visuals. What big publishers perceive as a risky project may actually be a much safer investment when compared to developing yet another bland shooter that will inevitably be overlooked because it cannot compete against Call of Duty.

This fear of risk-taking has become a well-known gremlin in the upper echelons of the games industry. With fewer big publishers to back smaller scaled projects, developers are turning to self-publishing as a way to get their games to market. The rise of digital distribution has made this avenue a possibility, by eliminating manufacturing costs for retail boxed copies and by allowing the entire budget to be poured into producing the game itself. Still, without a publisher, the budget, smaller as it may be, needs to come from somewhere.

An answer to this dilemma comes in the form of crowdfunding. On the surface, it seems to be the best way for an independent developer to deliver the purest vision of a game without any meddling by a publisher. Crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo provide developers a platform to present their game ideas to the world. If the idea sparks an interest in the gaming community with a willingness to back the project, it can be a great success for the developer. The benefactors are not looking to turn in a profit—their goal is to simply assist in putting a quality game to market. Such grassroots endeavors actually benefit from being separate from mainstream funding drives, since those backers who intend to pour their own money into such games are actively seeking what big publishers are unwilling to fund. This is because there is simply no incentive to back a project that may or may not reach its fundraising goal if big publishers will eventually rise up to fill the void instead.

However, like traditional funding, crowdfunding is far from being foolproof. A failure to deliver on a promise to a large group of prepaying backers is potentially more damaging to the developer's reputation than a failure to do the same to a publisher. The massively successful crowfunded project from Tim Schafer, Double Fine Adventure (recently retitled Broken Age), shows both sides of the coin on the benefits and risks of crowdfunding. With the initial goal of $400,000 USD reached within the first day of its campaign on Kickstarter (1), the project eventually managed to garner over $3,000,000 USD by the end of the campaign. Based on the original estimated budget, the game could have been produced from the ground up half a dozen times by the end of the fundraising campaign. Yet, in July 2013, Schafer revealed instead that the project's immense investment had given the game much larger ambitions and would likely take a couple more years to develop to completion. Worst yet, the seed money that had been raised from Kickstarter would not be enough to complete the project. Backlash for this revelation was immediate but surprisingly low thus far, most likely because of Schafer's credibility as a beloved game designer, having been involved in the development of many of the adventure genre's most critically acclaimed games, including The Secret of Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, and Psychonauts.

Understandably, backers are wary of what may become of Double Fine Productions' overreaching ambitions. Will the wait be worth it? More importantly, will the continued backing be worth it? The developer claims that it is determined to release its crowdfunded game and promises that the end result will far surpass the original idea. Talk of a pre-release build on Steam to give initial backers a playable version seems to be keeping the backlash at bay. Still, if the game is to be later canceled, the impact on Double Fine Productions' reputation will likely be cataclysmic. Outside the adventure genre, there have been a few notable games projects succeeding in achieving their crowdfunding goals but failing subsequently to deliver on the game or communicate with their backers. These fringe cases often result in lawsuits and permanent black marks on the developers' reputation. Regardless of how a game is funded, it is the consumer base that makes the game profitable. Failing to deliver or communicate after a successful crowdfunding campaign is viewed as the worst form of disrespect to the backers who are most interested in buying the game, which in turn causes both consumers and publishers alike to be wary of funding such unreliable developers in future projects. For Double Fine Productions, Schafer has been openly communicative with production updates on the project and offers ideas to maintain high hopes for the game's eventual release. Many of the backers are not thrilled, but they are not ready to call foul either—perhaps because there is still a great deal of work and heart going into the project by the developer.

Even if the fundraising goal is not reached, the end result is often similar. Backers who have initially agreed to fund the game may still feel cheated that their expectations have not been met. The developer gets a reputation for failing to raise interest in its project. Developers interested in crowdfunding must be wary of these consequences. Some developers, such as Bill Tiller and Jim Walls, who have not been successful in their initial campaigns on Kickstarter (2,3) have explored other avenues to raise funds for their projects. In spite of these earlier failures, they continue to communicate their passion to finish their projects, which has thus far kept their reputations from being tarnished. Indeed, adventure games belong to a genre that requires a certain level of passion on the part of the developers in which the desire to produce fine art seems to override the potential for profit, and those developers willing to take the risk have proven among the most dedicated to their work in the games industry.

Of course, not every crowdfunded adventure game comes with such a caveat. Many such games have been successful at raising seed money to develop the game and eventually delivering the game as promised. Sierra alumni Al Lowe was successful in his campaign on Kickstarter (4) to remake the cult classic Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards that was subsequently released as Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded (now available for purchase). Another Sierra alumni Jane Jensen was also successful in her campaign on Kickstarter (5) to raise funds for her own studio Pinkerton Road. Lastly, Chris Jones, cofounder of Access Software, raised nearly $600,000 USD on Kickstarter (6) to develop a brand new game in the Tex Murphy series, now titled Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure.

If a crowdfunding campaign succeeds but the initial fund raised is not enough to finish the project, even delivering a broken or subpar game is preferable to delivering no game at all. The developer must take every step to raise awareness of its game and then to continuously provide updates on the project's progress. Even if the development is thus far unsuccessful, providing updates of any kind will show care and passion for the project by the developer that may, in turn, spark more interest in the gaming community. For developers of adventure games who have succeeded both in launching their fundraising campaigns and in delivering their finished games, crowdfunding appears to be a preferable avenue to secure funds for projects rather than approaching big publishers—just remember to communicate to the backers who are supporting the project or run the risk of having it swallowed whole by the gaming community.



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