[In which I discuss that I like Kickstarter, point out some of the dangers implicit in the model, and urge journalists to publish links to developer’s online stores ]
In a couple of months it will be 10 years since Divine Divinity was released, and as you can expect, we’ve been organizing a little side-project to celebrate the occasion. Part of my job in preparing for this, is delving into the archives of Larian.
It’s something I hadn’t done in quite a while, and I smiled a lot seeing old pictures, like for instance the ones from our old offices being flooded by Kirill, our brilliant but occasionally forgetful composer, who happened to take a bath 😉
Some memories remain sensitive though, and at some point I found myself getting all excited and upset again over something that happened more than 10 years ago.
Surprisingly, it made me think about Kickstarter, online stores and something I think every single game journalist should do.
Here’s the story…
What happened is that I listened to a song I hadn’t heard in a long time. It was the startup music of The Lady, The Mage and The Knight (LMK), Larian’s first really big RPG that was never released. I was the lead programmer on that game, and probably listened to that particular song 10000 times over. Hearing Kirill’s composition again made me reflect on LMK’s development, and how the game eventually came to be cancelled.
I still remember vividly the day I had to tell the team that it was all over, despite some very heroic efforts on their part. The situation was that our publisher ran out of cash and owed us over several milestones. This in turn meant that we were up to our neck in debts, and in the end I had no choice other than abandoning development. Because the aftermath of said publisher’s demise was extremely messy, there was also no hope of salvaging the game, and we actually had to be careful that they didn’t drag us down with them completely.
I’d had some experience with a situation like this before, because I’d gone through it with another unannounced RPG, codenamed Unless. That one was signed with Atari, back in the Jaguar days, and it was cancelled when Atari jumped out of the game business all together, as a result of their merger with some company called JTS, a disk drive manufacturer of all things. That experience profoundly changed my views on disk drives btw.
Since my sole reason for being at that time was making these RPGs, you can imagine what the cancelling business did to me, and on occasion I still curse when I think of what could’ve been.
That Larian survived the cancellation of LMK was nothing short of a miracle, and it only happened because I was lucky enough to bump into a client who needed a lot of work-for-hire games, as in 20 of them.
The work was boring but it allowed us to pay off the debts and eventually lay the foundations for what became Divine Divinity. It’s fair to say that that game was built on the ashes of LMK, but it’s also fair to say that it didn’t do everything LMK was supposed to be doing.
Work for hire has its own problems , and since we used it to pay of debts and fund the initial development of a new RPG (i.e. Divine Divinity), we lost a lot of time on our path to growth (More on the perils of work-for-hire here)
Still, we got lucky this way, and in the decade or so that passed since LMK was cancelled, I’ve seen too many fellow studio founders who didn’t have such luck. When their games were cancelled for lack of funding, that usually meant the end of the road for them. Too often this also involved personal drama, as a lot of these guys often put all of their savings into these ventures. I did the same and I regularly thank lady fortune for steering me away from many potential personal ruin situations.
I’m sure a lot of gaming innovation was lost in these dramas, because some of these cancelled games really deserved to be made. In many cases, the reasons for games being cancelled were out of these guys control. The same was true for LMK and if there’s one game I think should’ve been made, then it’s that one – I remain convinced that it would’ve left a mark on the RPG genre.
Which brings me to Kickstarter and why I think it’s so cool.
Given the hype that existed around LMK at the time (I was told at some point it was in the top 5 of most anticipated games in Germany), it probably could’ve been saved by a microcredit platform like Kickstarter. For Larian, it would’ve meant years saved from doing stuff our talents were wasted on, and by now you’d probably talk about us like the guys who made this particular game.
But then again, maybe we would’ve screwed up in some other manner 😉
There are two big fears I have when it comes to Kickstarter. Given that they’re more or less obvious, I’m probably not the first to air them, but I’m writing them down here because I want to be able to refer to them in a later piece (this particular blog entry used to be a very long one, and I cut it up in several pieces)
The first is that there’s going to be a couple of high-profile failures leading to players potentially abandoning the idea of engaging in this type of very advanced pre-ordering of a game & its associated goodies
For instance, when I heard Wastelands 2 was only asking for 1MUS$ (900K+100K from the fpounder), my first reaction was that that was too low to make a RPG. I’m guessing they’d get something like 150 months of work out of that, perhaps 200, which is the equivalent of around 12 to 16 people for one year. Maybe they’d get a bit more if the team would be really cheap (which I doubt) and they’d get a lot of interns, but it’d still be a low number for a RPG.
My fear was that when it was going to come out, players were going to be disappointed. Or alternatively, I reasoned they’d need a second round of funding, and perhaps fail at that. But since they went way beyond that and got to the level of funding with which you can make a decent modern RPG, that risk is now lower, so they’ll only have themselves to blame if the game turns out bad.
Inevitably however, one of these very hyped Kickstarter games is going to be a flop, and I’m not sure what the reactions are going to be when that happens. Nor am I sure what the reactions are going to be when these projects run very late or go over budget.
We’ve often seen that the higher the hype is, the deeper the fall afterwards if the game doesn’t deliver (except for Diablo 3 I guess, man am I disappointed by that one).
My second fear is that the platform will become oversaturated.
The media attention will fade once the novelty wears off, and this might mean that it’ll become very hard to get noticed on Kickstarter. Developers will need to do a lot of PR & marketing to get some attention, and the smaller developers will have a hard time at that, even if their creation might mean the next revolution in gaming.
I’m not sure if some of the bigger games on Kickstarter would’ve managed on the merits of the platform alone, but I could be wrong in that.
In any case, the success stories I’ve seen, had some pretty interesting & clever PR/ marketing strategies applied. Not everybody will manage to replicate this, and in a certain twisted way, each successfully funded game that managed to get heavily hyped, makes it harder for the next one to use media in the same manner. Perhaps it’d be better if the platform grew naturally instead of getting these adrenaline shots, but perhaps the adrenaline shots are what was necessary to really make it grow. Time will tell.
To compensate for oversaturation, game developers might be tempted to put budgets on Kickstarter that are too low for what is really necessary, under the assumption that that’ll get them quicker access to cash, and that it’ll be easier to ask for more, once they have something more advanced to show.There’s a risk in there that that reinforces my first point, and I hope we won’t be seeing too much of that. But anybody telling you that making a modern game is cheap, is not telling the truth.It takes a lot of people, and these people need more than just food.
Continuing with the Wasteland 2 example, what I found extremely interesting and very clever, was how fast Inxile, the team behind Wasteland 2, tried to convert the attention they had on the platform into getting people to use their digital store. That shows real insight into the aftermath of getting the game funded & developed i.e. selling it at the highest possible margin, something tbh I fear a lot of Kickstarter developers are forgetting about, or at least not bothering with for the moment.
I’ve done some entries on generating revenue and improving the margin of a game on my blog already, but there’s no doubt that the best sale for a developer is one that goes directly through his online shop, not only commercially but also strategically.If you’re a developer, and you don’t have your online shop set up, I suggest you drop whatever you’re doing and make sure you have it set up asap.
The problem with these shops is of course getting players aware the shop exists in the first place, so making the Inxile shop more visible as part of the Kickstarter campaign was ingenious.
It ensures access to microcredit post the Kickstarter campaign in the form of preorders, and the more people who start using the shop, the more sales they’ll be able to do through that channel in the future. Inxile actually did quite a lot of other clever things, which lead to them tripling what they asked for, and I’m sure there’s plenty of write-ups on that already. It looked as some of it was scripted, but that’s ok as it was very well done. I hope they’ll make the game really good, because given the hype they managed to create, their success or failure is going to have an impact on other games on Kickstarter.
Now, this entry is getting quite long, but since I’m on the topic of developer digital stores, there’s one last point I’d like to make.
Imho, one of the best things to be done by journalists who say they carry gaming innovation in their hearts, is the advertising of how players can buy a game directly from a developer. It’s a simple thing for them to do, but it can make a very big difference.
To quantify this, here’s a quick approximative breakdown – a European digital sale of a 30€ game on a digital platform that takes 30% means the developer gets 17,01€ (56%) of the sales price (I took 19% VAT), as opposed to approximately 23€(76%) that he could make on his own store, taking transaction costs into account.
That’s a 20% difference, which means that for his next game, the developer’s team might be 20% bigger. Now 20% may not sound like a lot, but it is – there’s companies that move their entire offices to another country to get a 20% benefit.
I therefore believe that if gaming media people make it a habit to list the address of the developer’s online shop in their previews/reviews., it’ll be good for innovation in games, which in turn will be good for our gaming. (Larian’s shop btw is at www.larianvault.com 🙂 )
Players of course should then buy from these online shops given the choice, but I think there’s a large audience that’d be willing to do that. It’s in a players best interest after all. Inevitably, stimulating developer growth will lead to a world in which players will get better games that aren’t necessarily carbon copies of what’s been played before. There’ll also be a lot of junk, but that they get anyway, so no harm done there.
To end, I think Kickstarter is a fantastic thing and I’m sure that eventually mechanisms will evolve that take care of my concerns. I seriously regret it didn’t exist when we were developing LMK. With it, and with direct digital sales, I think an even better version of Divine Divinity could’ve been released in 1999 already instead of 2002, and the sky would’ve been the limit for what we would’ve developed afterwards.
So may Kickstarter continue to blossom and generate many hits. And may players flock to developer online stores.
And may my baby boy finally decide to sleep at night, please!!! 🙂