Eric Johnson

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The Limits of Crowdfunding: Big Ambitions Can’t Overcome a Lack of Big Names, Kickstarter Expert Says

snowstormAs noted many times before in this space, Kickstarter has proven over the past year and a half to be a potent fundraising source for games — some games, that is.

The huge successes of projects like “Double Fine Adventure” (later officially titled Broken Age) and Torment: Tides of Numenera are tempered by the reality that about 70 percent of games projects on the site fail.

Trying to pin down why those projects fail, though, is a tricky proposition. Of course, Kickstarter doesn’t hang its project creators out to dry, offering a detailed “Kickstarter School” and hosting educational meetups and events. But often, someone has to miss the mark before a rule that applies to the unpredictability of Kickstarter takes form.

Take, for instance, the example of Project Snowstorm.

The ongoing gaming project has some good things going for it: A team trying to make a sophisticated multiplayer game; an epic, thought-out world that invites comparisons to Lord of the Rings; and a confident mobile-first strategy that gives the game a stronger unique selling point. In order to make that fantasy world a reality, though, the project’s creators, SnowFury Studios, say they need to build a new MMO platform, and are asking for $500,000 to cover that platform and their first game.

However, Project Snowstorm “is quite typical of a campaign that has close to no chance to succeed,” according to ICO Partners consultant — and crowdfunded-gaming watcher — Thomas Bidaux. I asked him for his evaluation of the project when I saw, after talking about the newly launched project with its creators last week, that it wasn’t moving as quickly toward its goal as it needed to with 22 days left to go.

In a thorough email, Bidaux explained all the issues he saw, based on his experience tracking hundreds of Kickstarter gaming projects. I’ve condensed a few of the more broadly applicable thoughts into rough rules:

  • Mobile games are hard for Kickstarter, because “the whole [mobile game] ecosystem is about driving the price close to free (if not free),” but those low prices don’t mesh well with projects that need to raise a bundle of dough. A copy of Project Snowstorm is promised to all backers who pledge $20 or more, but Bidaux called that “a price point unheard of for a mobile game.” The exception that proves this rule is Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which retails for $20 in the iOS App Store, but is a mobile port of a popular and well-received (read: already proven) strategy title.
  • “Stretch goals” are bonuses for projects that raise more than what they ask for, and describing stretch goals in-depth means you’re not asking for enough. Despite its high $500,000 ask, Project Snowstorm spends some 1,316 words on its stretch goals (out of 4,478 words total).
  • Before they commit to a project, many backers need something “more” to hold onto. Pledging hundreds or thousands of dollars to a passion project gets a lot easier if it has an existing community or a big name to signal the game’s value. Double Fine quickly smashed records last year in part because the studio is led by Tim Schafer, a well-liked game designer with an online following. Bidaux cited Clang, a game that “barely made it” to $500,000 last year on the strength of the community of fans around its co-creator, the inventive novelist Neal Stephenson. Only 33 video games have raised at least $500,000 on Kickstarter to date, and many of those prominently appeal to name recognition and nostalgia.

photo-main“Overall, the target goal, for a game that wasn’t expected by an existing community […] is unrealistic,” Bidaux wrote. He also praised the project video’s production value, but criticized that it didn’t show the thing game-playing backers want to see most: real gameplay.

Will Diehl, SnowFury Studio’s founder, said asking for $500,000 is an online realization of the old axiom that honesty is the best policy. Asking for a lot from others, he said, is better than aiming low and hoping the rest of the money needed will materialize in some other way.

“To do this the way you will enjoy it, this is what it will cost us,” Diehl said. “We want to do something epic, and our strategy is not to lowball it.”

Diehl said SnowFury has already sketched out a roadmap and a storyline for three whole games using their under-construction MMO platform. It wants to hire current interns from out of the Laguna College of Art and Design and, down the line, license out that platform to outside developers.

All of this could still happen, of course, and my skepticism about an untested developer’s plunge into Kickstarter has been wrong before. But it seems that in addition to the especially big dreams of this project, its uniqueness comes from just how certain the creators are that it will succeed. Diehl even said that SnowFury doesn’t have a backup plan (at least, not yet) for if the Kickstarter fails.

“Hope is not a business strategy,” he said.

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— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald