Crowdfunding has become an increasingly popular tool to finance games made by smaller developers, from the surreal Kentucky Route Zero to the politically-charged Riot. But the process does come with tradeoffs. "I see crowdfunding as a double-edged sword," explains Simeon Saëns, from developer Two Lives Left. "Once your project is successfully backed, you are locked-in to working on that project from start to finish. People can get impatient if deadlines slip and you don't have the option of dropping a project if you feel it isn't working." So when the studio released its iPad game Crabitron, it decided to do something a bit different, and launch a "reverse Kickstarter" campaign so that players can support it the old-fashioned way — by actually buying the game.
The campaign, playfully dubbed "Crabstarter," is a way to be transparent about sales and future updates. After two years of development, Crabitron is complete and has been released in the App Store. The Kickstarter-like page tallies up and displays the sales, letting players "back" the project simply by spending the $5 it costs. Higher reward tiers come in the form of two permanent in-app purchases that let you earn more in-game currency. Of course, all crowdfunding campaigns need a goal, and in the case of Crabitron it's $100,000 — the cost of development. If those costs end up being recouped, further "stretch goals" will let the team add new features, like a harder difficulty level and new in-game items.
"We wanted our players to feel invested in our game, without actually having to risk investing in a product that might not make it," Saëns tells The Verge. "By making our sales public, we can share the story of our game's success — or failure — with players while it's happening. I think this lets our players feel more connected."
"This lets our players feel more connected."
Unfortunately, it doesn't look like the game will be reaching its $100,000 goal anytime soon. Despite being featured in the "New and Noteworthy" section of the Mac App Store, Crabitron is only earning around $1,000 a day — and the studio expects that rate to drop even more once the game is no longer promoted by Apple. While these numbers could always turn around, the relatively low sales are especially disappointing considering just how good Crabitron is.
It's an ideal tablet game, letting you play as a giant space crab by using four fingers — two control each claw — to pinch, smash, and eat all manner of spacecraft. The controls are fun and a great fit for the bigger screen of your iPad, which also gives you the opportunity to really relish in the destruction you cause. The crab will take damage over time, losing teeth, eyes, and eventually claws while you collect coins to buy new abilities. Eventually you'll be firing bullets from your claws and burping fireballs, all while trying to destroy Titanic-like luxury cruise liners and swarms of missiles. It's a satisfying progression system, buoyed by an addictive mission structure much like what you'll find in games like Jetpack Joyride.
"Players are upset on our behalf and want our game to do better."
Part of the reason that the concept of playing as a giant space crab hasn't caught on yet could be pricing — Crabitron is $5, a relatively high price tag in the iOS market. But that price was also part of the reasoning behind the "reverse Kickstarter" stunt. "$5 for a game on the App Store is viewed as pricey by most," explains Two Lives Left's John Millard. "In order to help app store players get over the 'sticker shock,' we decided to be completely open about our sales. When I first saw the $5 figure in the context of the Crabstarter page I said to Simeon, 'Wow, $5 isn't really that much, is it?'"
Whether players agree is another question, but based on reviews so far, the response among those who have purchased the game has been largely positive, and the Crabstarter campaign appears to be accomplishing what it set out to do. "It has led a lot of players to actually express their dismay that Crabitron isn't selling well enough," says Saëns. "We've never experienced that before. Players are upset on our behalf and want our game to do better. That never would have happened without being public about our development and sales through Crabstarter."