Stories of 2012: How Kickstarter changed game funding for ever, and why devs still have much to learn

It’s difficult to recall a time before Kickstarter’s game industry prominence, but just twelve short months ago the crowdfunding website had a considerably lower profile. Given the empowerment it has brought to developers, then, it’s ironic that the website kicked off 2012 at the centre of controversy as it became the source of a report that Atari was threatening legal action against developers it felt had infringed on its IP rights.

But it was Double Fine’s campaign for a point-and-click adventure helmed by Full Throttle and Grim Fandango creator Tim Schafer that truly catapulted Kickstarter into the public consciousness. As we all know now, Double Fine Adventure flew past its goal of $400,000 to raise $3.3 million, opening the floodgates for more high-profile games to follow and causing many to question the continued relevance of traditional publishers.

Brian Fargo’s Wasteland 2 subsequently netted nearly $3 million, Replay Games’ Leisure Suit Larry closed at $655,182 and Ryan Payton’s Republique raised $555,662. And as they did so, an unwritten Kickstarter best practice guide began to coalesce.

Strong brand identity, clear explanation, differentiation, promotion and tempered funding goals (both before and after the initial target is reached) seemed key to success, but all of the early Kickstarter successes were able to stand out in what was a rather empty field compared to the  ensuing gold rush. It’s worth noting, too, that these early campaigns traded on little more than concept art and promises – a tactic that often fails today, but more on that in a minute.

Stainless Games, whose own Carmageddon Kickstarter raised $625,143 in June, warned of impending Kickstarter fatigue, saying that developers would need to evolve their approach to crowdfunding in order to offset the challenges an increasingly crowded – and possibly over-exposed – market would bring.

“Kickstarter has starting a new funding model and that model needs to evolve,” Stainless’ Patrick Buckland said at July’s Develop conference. “Some projects will fail and people will start to get pissed off. If I put my money in this all I’m getting is a promise right now”.

It was a prediction of remarkable accuracy as the previously rock-solid foundations of this perfect new funding model began to look less firm. There was another broken record, courtesy of Project Eternity which raised close to $4 million, but elsewhere things were less rosy.

Brenda Braithwaite and Tom Hall cancelled their Kickstarter campaign for the “old school RPG” Shaker with 13 days left on the clock fearing their pitch – based on concept art and theory – wasn’t strong enough. The campaign for Illo – Birth Of The Cool, a puzzle game from little-known indie dev Raylight Games, was also cancelled when it failed to attract enough interest (charted in this Edge-exclusive developer diary). Dizzy Returns, meanwhile, one of several nostalgia-fuelled projects that followed Kickstarter’s UK launch in October, raised just £25,620 of its £350,000 goal despite the “legendary” status of its ovoid hero.

Trading on nostalgia and reputation alone, then, is no longer enough to guarantee success – though such tactics are by no means worthless, as shown by 22Cans Populous successor Godus, David Braben’s Elite: Dangerous and Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts’ Star Citizen. Even so, developers wishing to take advantage of Kickstarter are rapidly having to revise their strategies to give their projects the best chance of reaching target. Campaigns like those for the Android-based console Ouya and virtual reality headset Oculus Rift continue to demonstrate the power of crowdfunding, but the cracks are beginning to show elsewhere.

The creators of Code Hero, an early campaign that ran alongside Double Fine’s, recently came under fire for not meeting the goals it set out at the time, and while the high-profile failure of Dizzy Returns will certainly be a blow to the Oliver brothers, it also highlights the dangers of getting your strategy wrong. Crowdfunding is almost certainly here to stay, then, but this year has demonstrated that 2013′s successful campaigns will look very different to the ones that burst into view just a few short months ago.

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