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Kickstarter?

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This is a question I’ve wrestled with for some time now: Should I take the popular crowdfunding route to support Cogmind development? I’ll use this post to lay out the situation and my thoughts both for and against that route.

Platforms

First, a caveat. As a non-US citizen (no, not UK either) it’s not easy for me to do a Kickstarter.

Certainly there are international alternatives, e.g. Indiegogo. While I wouldn’t completely rule out IGG, it is without a doubt an inferior option with its poorly-designed site/UX compared to KS. As a company it has very questionable practices in its failure to vet projects that are clearly scams, all in the name of driving up their own revenue. Its smaller scale and lower in-site traffic also result in reduced visibility, equating to less funding. Overall, assuming all other factors are identical, the same project on KS will bring in more than on IGG.

So in an ideal situation without barriers Kickstarter is preferred. In my case it’s not absolutely impossible to get Cogmind on KS, it would just be more difficult because I would have to run it through someone else.

There are a few other options, like smaller crowdfunding platforms (meh) or an in-house solution, though the latter is not possible in my country due to rather tight rules governing payments and money.

Analysis

I’ve been following a number of crowdfunding campaigns in recent years, and digesting the many Kickstarter “post-mortems” generously shared by other devs, so I’m very familiar with the market and what it takes to succeed. The question is whether or not the effort will be worth the benefits.

Exposure

Combined with a game’s actual release, the attention received during a fundraising campaign is akin to another release in terms of hype generation. Traditionally a game only gets “one shot” at major publicity, and that’s release day. Any number of factors can conspire to ruin that opportunity (calendar holidays, other game releases, short-term trends in gaming…), so naturally the more “big events” the better.

As long as a game is ready for it, the added exposure from a crowdfunding campaign is also a great opportunity to gauge public reception. If the response is underenthusiastic you’ll definitely want to think twice about the project’s direction. I’m pretty sure the core roguelike community is interested in Cogmind, but I have no idea what portion of other gamers closer to the mainstream the game might attract. Not that I’m developing a game targeted at the latter segment, but certain features are obviously geared towards appeasing the less hardcore players out there. Maybe we’ll convert a few people ;)

Risk

Spreading the word about a game early strengthens the community around the game and enhances player-developer interaction while reducing the risk of development by sharing it with that very community (financially). It’s great to know in advance exactly how much support there is for a game/project before investing the months or years necessary to see it to completion. Assuming the developer(s) is qualified and capable of completing the project, the chance of success is much higher once funding is secured. Living on savings to complete a game that may or may not cover its costs (most don’t) is doable, but less stable and the more unknowns introduced into the development process the more a game is likely to suffer. Not having money is a pretty big unknown. While I have plenty of savings to see Cogmind to completion without any support, it would be a better game if I could know in advance how big a potential audience there is in order to pace development and include features accordingly. This is where the idea of stretch goals comes in. I have a pretty clear idea what of what Cogmind should be, but there are some time-consuming features that would only be added if the extra support is definitely there.

Marketing

There’s the argument that preparing and running a campaign takes lots of time (it does), time that could otherwise be allocated to development. If money isn’t an issue, why bother? It all comes down to the unfortunate necessity of marketing. You can spend all the time you want developing a game, but if too few people are aware of it or how to support it, it’s unlikely to go anywhere. So crowdfunding does double duty as a marketing tool and a way to raise money. It’s extra time-consuming, but extra-beneficial, too.

Another benefit is that raising money for incomplete games is even easier than a complete one, because when presented the right way backers tend to fill in any information gaps with their own dreams, desires, and imagination; it’s dishonest to take advantage of this by selling a “dream game” with little to show for it, but this effect does nonetheless benefit just about every project out there.

Rewards

While they may be a staple of crowdfunding campaigns, I don’t much like the idea of backer rewards. The benefits are apparent, but as a developer dealing with rewards is another of those “why am I doing this instead of making a game?” things.

Physical rewards are nice, but end up diverting a chunk of the funds and eat up time with organizing, packaging, and sending. The benefits only start to outweigh the costs at higher tiers, assuming they can still attract backers at that level. The size of the campaign can matter a lot here, too, since economy of scale is quite meaningful compared to spending the same base time handling a physical reward for a handful of backers who donated at a given level. I have a few ideas for potential physical rewards, but would have to do more research into the logistics to see if they would be worthwhile. The obvious ideas for physical rewards:

  • Poster: ASCII guns w/logo
  • T-shirts: Cogmind logo and/or ASCII guns

Non-physical rewards have their own drawbacks even though distribution is less of an issue. Common rewards like alpha/beta access and forum access for developer discussions seem like they should ideally be available to everyone interested enough to participate, even those don’t have the money to donate during the campaign. Feeling that charging for these “privileges” is wrong is probably my non-business free-games-for-all indie side talking, but that kind of thinking generally leads to failure if the goal is to continue developing games in more than a hobby capacity.

One of the other most common and varied non-physical rewards allows players to add/determine game content like weapons, enemies, or even levels. As a game designer who likes tight design with a purpose for everything, it would be difficult for me to open up this area to control by others. Of course developers still hold ultimate control and veto power, but finding a middle ground by both reigning in a backer’s creativity and relinquishing some control over the game experience seems at odds with satisfying both parties. This type of reward is perhaps best suited to sandbox games, which Cogmind is not. I can revisit the concept once the pieces of the game start to come together and the flexibility of the system and world become more apparent. Basic content is certainly easy to add to the text files, but deciding what to add where can be a function of a wide range of variables unknown to anyone not familiar with the inner workings of the game. At the same time, it’s important to consider that content-related rewards can get the player base even more “invested” in a game.

For fun, part of my list from brainstorming non-physical rewards:

  • Various wallpapers: Logo / ASCII art / procedural ASCII / generated maps
  • Name listed among backers on website
  • Early/beta access
  • Extra copies of game
  • Copy of 7DRL design doc
  • Design a weapon (melee/ranged)
  • Design static map locations
  • Design a robot and its ability/theme
  • Design a dungeon branch

Media

A good video is generally the number one key to a successful campaign. One problem with ASCII or similarly fine pixel-perfect visuals is that compressed videos look terrible. Cogmind gifs looks great, but miss out on the powerful effect of sound; videos include sound, but almost want to make you stab your eyes out--not exactly prime bait for piquing the interest of anyone who may be on the fence about a text-heavy roguelike. Of course, KS or not this is an issue that will have to be addressed eventually in order to sell the game.

In case you’re unaware of the effect I’m talking about, take a look at this:

cogmind_video_vs_gif

On the left is a screenshot of a 720p (high definition!) YouTube video (the Cogmind prototype)--that blue thing towards the bottom is supposed to be the ‘@’… HD my… never mind. On the right is the ideal crispness which can be replicated perfectly in an animated but sadly silent gif.

Quality

Cogmind is definitely not ready for a campaign at this stage. At minimum I’d want the sprites (still simple but less esoteric than ASCII for some), proper map generation (currently still handled by the old mapgen system), music for a trailer (need to hire a composer once there’s something to show), and a demo (fairly easy, since the core gameplay is complete).

Alternatives

The alternative is to continue along the non-crowdfunding route, which probably enters closed alpha funding at some point in the next few months before a normal release further down the road. These two paths are not mutually exclusive--a campaign could lead right into alpha funding.

Conclusion

In the end, a fundraising campaign would definitely slow development, but could result in an even better game. Based on my observations, I’m fairly confident that Cogmind could raise at least $10,000 to round off development, and any extra could be used for the handful of stretch goals I’ve thought up.

I still haven’t decided for sure either way, so I thought I’d write out what I’d been thinking about and see what others have to say.

In the meantime I need to be working towards a more complete product! I’ve been unable to work for much of the past month, but in a few days I’ll be returning home to start up the old IDE and begin putting this thing together.

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8 Comments

  1. Hawkeye
    Posted June 2, 2014 at 3:35 am | Permalink

    As you say, a kickstarter campaign may have its benefits and risks :).

    Maybe you let users in some game forums, which have strong connections to roguelikes and non-mainstream games (like bay12games) vote if they would participate…then you may get a better gut-feeling.

    If you think you can finance Cogmind by yourself, maybe kickstart your next game (x-com?) because then you have already somewhat to show and persuade people that you can actually manage it.

    So, regardless how you decide, all the best!

    • Kyzrati
      Posted June 2, 2014 at 5:17 am | Permalink

      Well, based on my experience over the past couple years, I know there’s plenty of support in forums like Bay 12; it’s outside the niche communities I’m not quite as sure about. I also believe my reputation is strong enough to convince anyone remotely familiar with my work based on previous steady and stable releases of X@COM, and generally doing what I say I’m going to do ;) Backers are also generally easy to convince as long as there’s already a playable demo and not just some concepts.

      While I can technically finance the game through to release, the question crowdfunding can help answer is how much can I realistically afford to put in? That’s really a question of specific demand, which I can only guess at and that’s a risky proposition! In that situation I may have to err on the side of caution, or push decisions beyond some alpha funding program.

  2. Kaeoschassis
    Posted June 2, 2014 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    As I said before, if you crowdfund I’ll pitch in, no questions asked. But as you pointed out, it’s not dedicated roguelike fanboys like myself that are the question.

    I dunno if I have much more to add in that department, but a silly little idea popped up when I was reading about your problems with videos vs animated gifs.

    I’m struggling to find a way to phrase this, not being particularly net-savvy myself, but could the same sort of demonstration be achieved on a dedicated webpage? Some sort of… online rolling demo that gives an indication of what the game will look, sound and feel like, without suffering the (and I agree here) awful quality of compressed videos, or the lack of sound of animated gifs. I have absolutely no idea how one could go about that or if it’s even possible -- I might be sounding like such an idiot right now. But it came to mind so I thought I’d share it.

    • Kyzrati
      Posted June 2, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      No, no, that could be a good idea, though probably beyond my own technical capabilities. Trying to get sound to sync with gifs seems like the best solution, but also a difficult one.

      The main issue in this regard is actually marketing (yes, once again… how annoying!). The benefit of using YouTube is that *everyone* uses it and it’s so ubiquitous on the web that it’s far easier to share than anything else, thus it gets to more viewers and thereby increases exposure better than any other service or option out there. For example I’ve heard that Vimeo has options that can make compressed ASCII look better (greater detail), but compared to YouTube a video over there just won’t garner as many views! There’s always more than one factor to consider once development gets serious :/

      I’ve received a good suggestion for upscaling a video before feeding it to YouTube for compression, so I will be trying that first and we’ll see how it turns out.

      In any case, I’ll generally be using gifs to show off the game where possible. Aside from a primary trailer where viewers can get a taste of the audio, the rest of the media can rely heavily on gifs since animation is one of the more unique features and the game can look kind of boring in static screenshots. Unfortunate, but a necessity to keep the interface clean and focused.

  3. Posted June 3, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    From what you’ve written, it sounds like there are far more benefits than drawbacks. It will slow down development but force marketing time, which is valuable in it’s own right.

    • Kyzrati
      Posted June 3, 2014 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

      I got the same impression from reading my own post ;)

      That’s why I’m leaning towards doing it, so long as it’s logistically feasible. Have to get to a stage where the game is good enough first, anyway, so that’s task #1!

  4. Phasma Felis
    Posted June 13, 2014 at 2:45 am | Permalink

    Some random thoughts, which may be obvious enough that you’ve already thought of them. :)

    Have you tried asking about ASCII-friendly video on the Dwarf Fortress forums? They’re certainly the largest online group with an interest in that, and I believe I’ve seen discussion of the topic before. I think there was actually an ASCII-specific video service at one point, although being DF-targeted it might not support audio or multiple fonts.

    Does YouTube work better in 1080p, maybe? I think they might use less-lossy compression at higher resolutions.

    Vimeo won’t get you as many clickthroughs from random YouTube videos, but I don’t think it’s any harder to share and embed. It’s a shame to miss out on the extra advertising, but you could still use it for trailers and blog posts.

    I would totally buy a Cogmind T-shirt. Especially one with ASCII guns. :)

    • Kyzrati
      Posted June 13, 2014 at 6:54 am | Permalink

      I’ve gotten some useful tips on TIGSource about using the highest resolution possible, as you suggest. I believe my previous videos were 720p, so maybe I can pre-process them to upscale even higher (the standard interface is only 800×600, so I can’t really do it in-game without using larger fonts).

      I was thinking the other day that also putting the video(s) on Vimeo anyway is of course worth it if they actually look crisper (as I’ve heard), being an additional outlet. YouTube would still be preferred for embedding and general use since it’s easier to reach a broader audience.

      About the T-shirt, a couple weeks ago I designed one online just to see what it might look like and… now I really want one, too ;) ASCII guns on the back and a logo on the front. Wonder how good they would look once actually printed. I’ll do a test run at some point.

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