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As Kickstarter matures, crowdfunded games find safety in sequels and big names

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Wasteland 3
Wasteland 3

If you take a look at the “most funded games” section of Kickstarter, one major trend becomes immediately clear. You’ll spot a number of spiritual successors, games meant to evoke (and made by many of the same developers as) classics like Castlevania, Mega Man, and Banjo-Kazooie. If a game isn’t a spiritual successor, it’s a direct one, with sequels to cult classics like Shenmue, Wasteland, and Elite filling out the list.

During the initial boon of crowdfunding, the platform was seen by many as a lifeline for tiny studios making weird or risky new games. But as the market has evolved and matured, so too have the games that manage to raise a lot of cash. While smaller indie titles can still do well on Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms, the biggest success stories are titles that sit somewhere in between tiny indie teams and massive blockbusters. Once prevalent, these mid-level games have slowly died out as publishers shifted resources to lucrative free-to-play games and near-sure-thing AAA titles.

For the developers of these games, crowdfunding has proved to be the only real option. Brian Fargo, CEO of Wasteland 2 studio Inxile, explains that crowdfunding “has allowed us to raise millions of dollars to make games that would have never existed. I say that confidently because I tried for years using the traditional routes.”

Inxile is one of the studios leading this charge. In 2012, not long after the breakout success of Double Fine’s Broken Age campaign, Fargo and Inxile attempted to crowdfund a sequel to the 1988 post-apocalyptic role-playing game Wasteland. (Fargo served as director on the original game, as well as producer on similar titles like first Fallout.) The Kickstarter went on to raise $2.9 million, and changed the studio’s trajectory.

Pillars of Eternity II

Founded in 2002, Inxile had previously worked on games for publishers like Ubisoft and Bethesda. In some instances, like the Codemasters-published Heist, the studio’s games were canceled and never released. Crowdfunding provided a different route. It was an opportunity to make the games the studio wanted to without being beholden to a publisher.

“The biggest difference in working with our audience [and not a publisher] is the trust factor,” Fargo explains. “They give us the money upfront to bring to life the vision that we pitched to them. We can be more flexible in our development, allowing us to jettison things that don't make sense anymore and give greater focus to the parts that feel good. Publisher's often overly rely on the contract milestones and can force you to walk a path that doesn't make sense in the changing environment of development.”

All of the titles Inxile has worked on since have utilized crowdfunding to some degree. It followed Wasteland 2 with the old-school-style RPG Torment: Tides of Numenera, which went on to became Kickstarter’s third most-funded game raising more than $4 million. More recently, the studio made its debut on the game-focused crowdfunding service Fig to raise $3.1 million for a third Wasteland game.

Titles like Koji Igarashi’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity, and Playtonic Games’ Yooka-Laylee did much the same, combining experienced developers with a well-known and beloved style of game. As Kickstarter has matured, and many projects unfortunately proved to be disappointments, these factors have become increasingly important. The top 10 most funded games on the platform are all either a direct sequel to a classic game, or some form of spiritual successor. “I think that backers are more discerning now, since unfortunately a number of crowdfunded games did not come out, or did not deliver on all of their promises,” says Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart. Obsidian is currently crowdfunding a sequel to fantasy RPG Pillars of Eternity, and has more than doubled its initial $1.1 million goal.

Backers are becoming more wary of where they put their money, and the comfort of a successful studio and a familiar game means a higher likelihood of funding. In fact, prior crowdfunding success has become a big draw, with studios like Inxile and Obsidian able to consistently fund new projects because they’ve already proven they can fulfill campaign promises. “The initial excitement of throwing money at almost every new project has dampened the hype, leaving us with a more cautious group of backers who are looking carefully at the teams and the details,” Fargo says. “Clearly there is still interest and our audience has continued to be super supportive.”

This is true even for projects that aren’t looking for millions of dollars. Failbetter Games earned itself something of a cult following with the long-running text-based virtual world Fallen London. The team wanted to expand the world with a new title, but a gothic survival game set in a hellish sea filled with cannibals and monsters isn’t exactly the kind of game that publishers flock to. So the studio took to Kickstarter instead. “Fallen London was barely keeping us afloat,” explains Failbetter communications director Hannah Flynn. “It was really the last roll of the dice.”

Sunless Sea

The game, called Sunless Sea, went on to raise more than £100,000 (about $125,000) in 2013. Earlier this month a sequel, dubbed Sunless Skies, topped that by raising nearly £260,000 (about $320,000). For a relatively small team like Failbetter, crowdfunding features more benefits than just an influx of cash. “Without crowdfunding, we could easily be developing something that didn’t excite people, without knowing precisely how wrong we’d got it until an unsuccessful launch,” says Flynn. “Not many studios can survive an unsuccessful launch. Crowdfunding enables us to calculate our risks much more carefully.”

The maturation of crowdfunding for games can also be seen in the projects that don’t get funded. In 2013 Mega Man designer Keiji Inafune made waves with a Kickstarted spiritual successor called Mighty No. 9, which raised $3.8 million. However, two years later, when Inafune tried to crowdfund another game called Red Ash, the campaign was largely a disaster, falling far short of its $800,000 goal. Constant delays with Mighty No. 9, along with a confusing pitch for what Red Ash actually was, led to backer confusion and, ultimately, a failed project.

Similarly, though the recent Apocalypse Now game featured a recognizable name and some experienced developers — including Wasteland 2 producer Montgomery Markland — many would-be backers questioned its scope and viability. The game’s sordid backstory only created more questions. Ultimately the studio cancelled its Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund on its own site.

The sheen of crowdfunding has largely worn off since its glory days four years ago. Instead of splashy campaigns full of big promises, successful games today are more realistic and restrained, with a history to back them up. “Success in crowdfunding seems to be a collection of elements that include the game,” says Urquhart, “but also includes the backer's trust in the developer, belief that the product is the type of game the developer is known for making, and a connection between the backer and the concept of the game — often through nostalgia.”