Crowd-funding the Underdog

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At the moment I’m writing this, there are 185 live projects for video games on the popular crowd-funding site, Kickstarter. Since its launch in 2009, Kickstarter has seen more than eight million backers fund more than 81,000 projects with over $1.6 billion in the fields of film, music, art, fashion, and gaming. Crowd-funding has boosted the indie developer’s chances at producing top quality products through you: the passionate and supportive audience willing to shell out the dough to help the underdog give it their best shot (and often score some cool incentives). We’ve seen developers excel with the support of the people and deliver some outstanding games. However, crowd-funding can be unpredictable; many projects never come to fruition and the passionate, supportive audience is left thousands of dollars short and without the exciting gaming experience they were promised. Does the risk of giving money to an unfinished product, and many times to an unproven developer, negate the reward of a unique game? Can crowd-funding be an integral part of the gaming industry’s future?

Backing a Kickstarter project requires a lot of thought (unless you’re a gazillionaire which, by all means, support ALL THE THINGS. Take my college debt? No? That’s fair.) if you don’t want to squander your money. There are numerous questions to ask yourself before supporting: Who is the developer? Do they have a history with crowd-funding? Are they someone you trust to make a quality product? Does the developer have a strategic development plan for what they are going to do with your money? Are there any incentives for you to back them, other than receiving the product at a later date, which could be several years from now?If you’re planning on investing a good amount into a donation, these questions are very important. Based on data collected in 2014 for Kickstarter projects funded between 2009-2012, only 37% of the video game projects were fully funded and developed. During that time, $21.6 million was invested in projects that failed to deliver. Unless directly discussed by the developer and individual backers, none of that $21.6 million was refunded to the backers. Kickstarter doesn’t refund anything itself, so if the project you support ends up on the cutting room floor, so does your money. This is why you do your research before backing a game project. Once you know who they are, figure out what they plan to do with your money. Most developers will post at least a brief synopsis of what goes into making a game so you know what your money is going towards. This is good. Look for that transparency. If a developer seems like they’re not telling you everything, they’re probably not and you should take your money elsewhere. Take it somewhere where they tell you what’s going on and say, hey, give us $10 and we’ll give you a t-shirt, too. Be smart with your money not only so you don’t lose out on the cash, but so you can help the developers who have the know how to actually produce a quality game leave a positive mark on the gaming industry.

Chart from evilasahobby.com

For those of us who like our numbers in picture form. Chart from evilasahobby.com

For game developers, Kickstarter and other crowd-funding options like Indiegogo have given them the chance to create the projects that they have always dreamed of creating. As in most creative fields, the money to create these projects comes from large companies and producers. However, very often we will see these companies pass on projects that are too weird, too niche, not marketable. They have that right, since they will be the ones funding the entire production, but it unfortunately leaves the market saturated in the same five or six kinds of games. For game developers who have very small teams and/or unestablished careers, crowd-funding allows them to take their idea directly to the gamers, who can decide if the idea is good enough to warrant their hard-earned or parent-distributed cash. This not only allows developers to get around the hardship of finding funding from a major corporation, but also brings them closer to their audience, allowing for input and participation in the process. Crowd-funding isn’t only for the little guy. Chris Roberts, despite creating the very successful Wing Commander series, was turned away by everyone he took his new idea to because these companies were convinced the audience wasn’t out there, that “space sims are dead”. Roberts didn’t believe it and took his idea, “Star Citizen”, to Kickstarter. It’s success was immense, which I’ll touch on further in just a bit. Said Roberts, getting to make a game “without having EA looking over your shoulder, or Activision looking over your shoulder…it’s pretty awesome.” When developers are free to bring their ideas to the democratic system of crowd-funding, they often find their audience, and their audience is able to find them.

Now that you’ve funded a gaming project, you’re going to have to wait a while. Games don’t happen overnight. A game needs planning and then execution, which can take several years depending on the length and budget of the game. What happens in the meantime? Hopefully, the developer is extremely transparent with you. You are an investor now and you deserve to know what’s going on with your money. Double Fine Productions, an indie gaming company based in California, promised a documentary with their 2012 project, “Double Fine Adventure”. Double Fine came out with the idea that they wanted to create a point and click adventure game, but didn’t have an exact story in mind or planned yet; so, in lieu of a timeline expressing exactly what they’ll be doing with your money, they said your money will go towards our game and a documentary of the entire game development process; which I think is awesome (you can check out the documentary here). The documentary came out in full once the production was complete, but it was filmed in monthly chunks, given to backers to showcase the process. Double Fine’s transparency showed that they really care about the support and want you to know exactly what’s happening with your money. This helped them cross over into the millions again with their second Kickstarter last year for the recently released “Massive Chalice”. Another example of an amazing developer-backer relationship is the one for the highest grossing crowd-funded projects of all time, “Star Citizen”, a space simulator for PC. Cloud Imperium Games and Chris Roberts kickstarted their project and let backers support directly through their website. They made constant updates, stayed connected with backers and fans on gaming sites and forum sites like Reddit, and they added more incentives and stretch-goals as they made more money. As of the day of this posting, Cloud Imperium Gaming has raised over $76 million (only $2.1 of that was on Kickstarter). That’s seven times the budget of the original Star Wars. Their transparency let backers in on the nitty gritty details and it boosted their support and credibility. The same cannot be said for developers who don’t fully develop their projects. Sometimes, projects fail to reach their monetary goal and backers are left wondering where all their money went. Refunds don’t happen unless you harass the developer, but even then, they’ve probably already blown through your money on a project that’s sitting in numerous digital trash cans. I know I’d be less pissed if the developer kept me informed throughout the process and I knew that they didn’t blow my money on trips to Belize or those awesome Barbie/GI-Joe jeeps that I totally wanted but never got as a kid. I understand that “shit happens” and developing a game is hard, but if you keep me in the dark, I’m less likely to cut you some slack – or support your next project.

The project status for "Star Citizen" on their website: robertsspaceindustries.com

The project status for “Star Citizen” on their website: robertsspaceindustries.com

Crowd-funding is probably here to stay. The benefits for everyone involved are too important for us to see it diminish. When projects are completed, we are often given gems that never would have seen the light of day if not for the contributions of passionate gamers. I’ve donated to Kickstarters here and there and it’s a really great way to feel like I’m a part of the game development process, as I don’t have many abilities that would otherwise lend themselves to that kind of work. Crowd-funding can be a really fabulous way to bring indie games to the forefront of the gaming industry, if we all do our part. Developers need to keep us up to date and treat us like big name investors; we’ve given them our money and now they need to deliver. The relationship between developer and gamer can be rewarding for both and improve the process of game creation. I think the boost indie games have seen within the industry can only take us higher. Do your research, stay passionate, and stay supportive, like a great bra or a well-meaning mother.

AlishaSignature

Press F To Do The Thing (An Assessment of QTEs)

Last month, guest writer Tucker Poindexter got us thinking about the effects of film on video game storytelling. One of the points he brought up involved cinematics, or cut scenes, in games and how we as an audience want those scenes to enhance our gaming experience. It all came down to one thing: interconnectivity, or, how game developers get us to move from “a passive observer to an active participant.” One way in which developers get us to be active participants, is with Quick Time Events (QTEs). QTEs are context-based actions played by the gamer after receiving an on-screen prompt. There are lots of incredible QTEs that help the audience stay connected to the game, but lately we’ve been feeling a little let down. Are QTEs still here to keep us actively engaged or are they merely here to make game cinematics less passive?

Pay F to Be Super Lame. This is an example of a QTE.

Pay F to Be Super Lame. This is an example of a QTE…and it sucks.

From a developer’s perspective, I could see how QTEs are extremely valuable. QTEs allow players more control during major events and fight scenes that, in the past, would have delegated them to the sideline rather than having some control over the outcome. The player therefore doesn’t have to spend much time watching the character they have spent countless hours controlling do something without them. That being said, what is required of a QTE in order for a player to feel emotionally and mentally engaged? In “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare”, there is a moment where the player is asked to “Press F to pay respects.” All this does -spoiler- is make your character walk over to a casket, place his hand on it for a moment, and then turn away. Is that really more engaging than not prompting the player, but instead letting them choose to go to the casket (or not)? On Reddit, users felt that on top of it being a pretty basic QTE, it also attempted to force them to feel a certain way – “Press X to feel sad”. Doesn’t that also take away from the “active participant”? Not only does the player not get to move naturally, but they don’t get to feel naturally either. In “The Walking Dead” there is a moment where the protagonist, Lee, faces a dilemma: a young boy may or may not be bitten, and the character’s father is adamant that he has not. Meanwhile, another character insists that he has and that swift action must be taken. You have the choice of whom to side with and, even though your choice has no drastic effect immediately, the game tells you that the character you DID NOT side with will remember that you chose not to. This sort of emotional storytelling allows the player to identify with their character and the characters around them much more deeply than simply giving them a single option with a single outcome.

Clementine never forgets.

Clementine never forgets.

QTEs, when done right, allow the player a level of focus that other game mechanics don’t. For example, major boss scenes with intense button mashing QTEs make me crazy, in the best way. I’m on the edge of my seat, almost sweating, throwing it all in in an attempt to knock out the big boss. I am totally engaged and the victory is so rewarding. Is that what it takes to make a QTE successful? Mechanical complexity and high stakes? “The Walking Dead” is a good example of this not being the case, but many gamers cite sequences such as the one above as being their favorite kind of QTE, so it clearly has merit. Games like “God of War” and “Asura’s Wrath” are great examples of this sort of high stakes, intense QTE. “Asura’s Wrath” triumphs with its “burst” QTE. The “burst” takes on different forms to fit the situation, sometimes amping up the player to perform something powerful or even do something as silly as get drunk in a very NSFW scene. Even though the player does not always know what the burst will accomplish, they know it is at their disposal based on a meter. The player is kept focused and engaged because they know when the meter is finally full, they will be able to perform something truly impressive. Or just, ya know, get shwasted! In either case, the player is no longer passive or participating in something mundane. Perhaps getting drunk isn’t as emotionally engaging as many of the choices in “The Walking Dead” or “Heavy Rain”, but it is entertaining, another necessity when crafting a story of any kind.

Heavy Rain laying the QTEs on pretty...heavy.

Heavy Rain laying the QTEs on pretty…heavy.

Unfortunately, all QTEs aren’t silly drunken escapades or emotionally engaging decisions. They’ve increasingly become nothing more than “press x to not die”. Even inside of stellar games such as the recent “Tomb Raider” re-boot, this trend continues. What’s with the current trend of lackluster QTEs? Are developers basically writing film-esque cinematics within games and then realizing, “Oh snap. We gotta give them something to do here”? Are we as gamers okay with that? Which is better: a long, intense cut scene without any action on the player’s part or a cut scene with a few lackluster QTEs thrown in? Can we have a strong story with multiple, mechanically complex QTEs? Or does story suffer for mechanics? While many of these QTEs are thrown in to give a player a sense of control, the truth is that “control” is a facade, one that has only one outcome and little to no impact on the player.

Clearly, a QTE is a tool and can be used well, but recently we’ve found ourselves with lackluster attempts at interconnectivity. It’s obvious that gamers want sound storytelling and fully realized mechanics so why aren’t we getting them? Are developers getting lazy? Are we too demanding? I think there is a lot more to explore surrounding QTEs, hence all the questions in this post, but I know that right now, I’m not satisfied.

If only there were a single button I could push to fix it all…

AlishaSignature

 

No, we will not host a [insert game] tournament.

It’s not a surprise that with the explosive growth of eSports in the past five years we get asked on a daily basis if we’ll be running a [insert game] tournament.

In short, our answer is no.

Don’t get me wrong we love esports, tournaments, and packing our venue. As I mentioned in a previous entry, I think a largely appealing factor for gamers to play at Ignite is competition. Giving our fans an opportunity to put their skills to the test in a high energy environment is exhilarating, and not only for the participants, but us too. In fact, since we’ve opened doors at our new location (first event held on Feb. 2013) we’ve run roughly 45 unique tournaments in League of Legends, Starcraft II, Hearthstone, Dota 2, CS:GO, Call of Duty, Street Fighter IV, and a myriad of other fighting games. In just two years we’ve distributed over $40,000 in cash and prizes and had thousands of gamers compete from all over the Midwest.

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Our inaugural Summoner Saturdays event held on February 9th. Three hundred-something League of Legends fans ascended to watch forty-two 3v3 teams battle it out in the Twisted Treeline.

Our tournaments helped spearhead opportunities to create rich partnerships with SteelSeries, DXRacer, NVIDIA, and Red Bull. They connected us with the most loyal and passionate gamers that continuously show us support. We believe tournaments are an instrumental tool in helping us raise brand awareness, engage with our fans, and build strong communities.

Great, so you love ’em. We love ’em. What can you possibly mean by no tournaments, Sam?!

I’d like to take this opportunity to offer a transparent perspective on how we view tournaments at Ignite – the process behind producing one, some of the struggles we’ve encountered, and our plans for the future. When we first moved into our new space we tripled in size, both in square footage and gaming stations. We have always been huge advocates of eSports and from the get-go we had envisioned a space large enough to accommodate tournaments and our regular foot traffic. Something we could no longer pull off at our previous location. Our goal was a minimum of 2 tournaments a month.  We jumped straight in by committing to a once-a-month League of Legends tournament dubbed Summoner Saturdays. The response was more than any of us had fathomed with lines forming hours prior to doors opening.  We were starry-eyed. We rushed to bring a diverse set of tournaments ranging from weekly fighting game ran bats to two day cash payout Dota 2 tournaments. By the time our first summer hit, we were running a different tournament every weekend.

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Our June 2013 event line up. Sleep was a tertiary concern.

Man, that sounds like a lot of money and fun!

It was a ton of fun. So much fun that we didn’t get a chance to step back and realize that we were overlooking some crucial factors. After each sold out tournament (really, each one was sold out), we would sit back and talk about how we can bring an even better experience to the players. What we failed to realize was how they impacted our brand identity, finances, and most importantly our walk-in guests. Although we had planned for more of them well into 2014, we began more closely dissecting results and discovered several things:

Not Enough Stations for Everyone

Naturally our goal for every tournament was to sell out. It intensified the competition for tournament participants, padded the prize pools, and brought that energy that we all look for at a live event. Consequently, it also meant that we needed as many stations as possible to move the schedule along in a timely manner. The Freljord Cup, a two-day League of Legends tournament we held back in Jan. 2014, had sixteen teams battle it out in a double elimination bracket. The tournament went from 10am to 8pm each day to determine a victor. Thats 10 hours each day. This meant that for over half of our operational hours those days, all of our PCs were occupied for the tournament. This effectively displaced any patrons that were interested in coming and playing games over the weekend. Now if it were an isolated occasion it wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but when every weekend or other weekend they would have to worry about getting seats because of it , well, you could imagine the frustration. It reached a point where we would get calls each weekend to see if we were running any tournaments. This lead us to discover what this over saturation of tournaments was doing to our brand.

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In the heat of the action during our SC2 Red Bull Midwest Qualifier. Photo cred: Daniel Hauswald

Ignite Gaming Tournaments or Ignite Gaming Lounge?

Digging through our various marketing channel archives we quickly discovered that a predominant focus for us was tournaments. For a period almost anything that came from us was tournament related; promoting and advertising upcoming tournaments,  photos, videos, and media from them, countless Facebook posts and tweets, newsletters. We felt that from the outside looking in, we began resembling more of an event company then a gaming lounge. This permeated into our staff structure too. We had developed a three person team that was working full time on designing, promoting, and running tournaments. Our initial goal to use tournaments as event marketing transformed into somewhat of an eSports league company in the likes of ESL or MLG (albeit at a much smaller scale). The only difference was we didn’t create a foundation to monetize it.

Companies like ESL and MLG monetize their tournaments, both live and online, through major sponsors and ad revenue generated through viewership of their broadcasts. Essentially they are digital eSports content producers that offer advertisers an avenue to reach a coveted young male demographic. In fact, even large companies like these still haven’t quite figured out the surefire way to generate sustainable revenue. If you’ve been following MLG since 2002, you’ll realize that they’ve significantly scaled down on the amount of traveling live tournaments they host. They’ve gone as far as building their own arena in Columbus, OH to offset the costs of producing original content for their proprietary streaming platform MLG.tv. All in all, producing these events is no walk in the park and without a robust strategy to produce premium content that captures ad revenue, it makes tournaments at any scale difficult to sustain.

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Spectators watching live at the newly built MLG Arena in Columbus, OH. Photo cred: xgames.espn.go.com

So does that mean you’ll never run a tournament again? Say it ain’t so!

It ain’t so. Again, we love eSports and thoroughly enjoy the thrill and excitement live tournaments bring to the gaming community. We still plan on hosting some in our space, but we’ll just have to be more picky about the time and size of the tournament. We are being more sensitive than ever to our walk-in guests experience by making sure we don’t inconvenience them. At the end of the day we are a gaming lounge, and its important that we make it as easy as possible for any gamer to walk in and play some games, anytime. Nevertheless, we have been hitting the drawing boards and thinking of new ways to bring those large scale tournaments more consistently to the Chicago community. Who knows, we might even go outside of our four walls to make it happen…

If you have any questions or comments about the direction we’ve taken our tournaments, send them my way, I’d love to talk about it.

SamSignature