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Indie Developers Reveal the Secrets — And Drawbacks — To Funding Videogames on Kickstarter

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Just over a year after the videogame Double Fine Adventure set records on Kickstarter, talk about the crowdfunding leader is in the air at GDC, the Game Developers Conference being held this week in San Francisco.

On the conference’s first day, ICO Partners CEO Thomas Bidaux laid out “real numbers and trends” he had researched for indie game crowdfunding. He hastened to say upfront, though, that when he said “crowdfunding,” he really meant Kickstarter: “It’s so big, it’s basically the thing that’s relevant. … This is where it happens at the moment.”

However, being big and popular also means that it’s noisy.

“Being on Kickstarter is no longer unique,” Bidaux said. “You need to have good [game] concepts.”

To date, $45 million has been raised for videogames on Kickstarter, vs. $2.4 million on rival site Indiegogo and $690,000 on European crowdfunding site Ulule, Bidaux said.

He noted that the “Double Fine effect” benefited all games trying to crowdfund (indeed, AllThingsD’s Liz Gannes noted at the time that projects like Double Fine Adventure indicated Kickstarter had come into its own). Games raised $39 million out of their $45 million total in 2012 alone.

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It’s not all good news, though. At both Bidaux’s speech on Monday and a panel session on “Kickstarter Lessons for Indie Game Developers” on Wednesday, the speakers indicated that leaving potential games at the mercy of the crowd has some little-talked-about drawbacks.

That crowd, for instance, has successfully funded less than a third of all game projects on Kickstarter. And the ones that do succeed are often the result of an effort that lasts longer than the built-in 30-day fundraising window. At the “Lessons” panel, Sportsfriends game designer Douglas Wilson said pre-campaign work was vital to his project’s eventual $152,000 success.

And Double Fine Productions — the poster boys for game crowdfunding — spent five months on preparation before its $3.3 million-raising campaign, said producer and brand manager Greg Rice. Despite their triumph, it’s not “free money,” he noted.

“Running a Kickstarter campaign eats your life,” fellow panelist and Drifter developer Colin Walsh said. “I wouldn’t say it’s harder than making games,” he added, but managing backers and worrying about the momentum of money flowing in imposed a significant work and psychological toll.

photo-main-1That said, it’s not as though other paths to getting funded are necessarily quicker or easier. Although not a participant in the crowdfunding sessions, Ouya CEO Julie Uhrman praised the upside-down nature of seeking money on Kickstarter.

“Especially with a hardware product, you’re behind closed doors for two plus years, you build something, you put it out there with a ton of marketing dollars and you say, ‘Here it is. It’s great. It’s wonderful. Buy it. Love it. This is the best thing in the world!'” Uhrman said. “But you never know how it’s going to be received.”

In his Monday speech, Bidaux (who left the outlier $8.6 million-raising Ouya console out of his study) explained that crowds’ appetite for games follows a regular, paradoxical cycle: Developers need to have “everything that’s going to excite people at the very beginning” because projects do best when they first launch, but new developments and announcements are needed to “keep the momentum going.”

In yet another GDC session, “Pitching Secrets Revealed,” Kickstarter community director Cindy Au echoed Bidaux’s point, adding that that excitement also has to be conveyed quickly. “You’re competing with the entire Internet for attention,” she said.

Bidaux’s research showed a clear U-shaped funding graph, with many backers pledging their money upfront and at the end of a campaign, with days or weeks of middling progress in between.

urlTo deal with that intermediate time, Au said her top advice to developers is “don’t panic,” followed by posting regular updates for backers to keep them engaged. Meanwhile, the “Lessons” panelists praised the power of social media, especially Twitter and Reddit — on the latter, developers can solicit questions from users in the “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) interviews that have increasingly become media stops for celebrities and even President Obama.

Bidaux, however, said formal PR outreach trumps what social media could do for campaigns. He and the panel session also split on the value of Kickstarter’s site and apps, which can recommend new projects to back. Walsh told the panel audience that more than half of Drifter’s funds came through the recommendation engine, while Bidaux insisted that “Kickstarter is not a discovery tool,” and not where many people actively look for new games.

And what about the future? Bidaux predicts that crowdfunding will leave its current “early glory” phase and pass into “inevitable misery” as projects face delays and accountability becomes crucial. But after that, he said, the process will bounce back to reach new heights.

Bonnie Cha contributed to this report.

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