Kickstarting the future of gaming

It all started on February 9th when legendary (is it ok to call him legendary?) game designer Tim Schafer decided to turn to Kickstarter to fund a new Double Fine Adventure game. A lot of old-school gamers have very fond memories of the games Schafer created while working at Lucasfilm Games in the late 1980s and 1990s. Titles like Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle. Witty adventure games: the kind of game that you don't often see these days; they're just not a good investment for the big development houses.

So Schafer started a project on Kickstarter, a site that lets enthusiastic fans kick in some money towards development of a future project. Think of it like pre-ordering something that hasn't even been created yet. Schafer set his goal at a more or less unheard of (for a Kickstarter project) $400,000. He had roughly a month to collect pledges towards that goal. If he made it, everyone who pledged would be charged. If he didn't make it, the pledges would vanish. That's how the system works.

The project made its goal in about 8 hours. And the pledges kept rolling in. When the project finally closed on March 13th their total was $3,336,371.

Suffice to say, other game developers took note of the success of Schafer's Kickstarter campaign. The next really high profile project came from inXile Entertainment's Brian Fargo, who has been wanting to do a sequel to his 1988 RPG, Wasteland. Fargo set his goal at $900,000. It took about two days to make that goal and as of the time of my writing this post the project has passed $2,000,000 in funding. It has 11 days to go so it isn't too late for you to get involved.

I think this second success story really busted things loose, and now there are all kinds of game developers hitting Kickstarter for funding. Are you interested in a new Shadowrun game helmed by the original creator of Shadowrun, Jordan Weisman? They needed $400,000 and raised it in 28 hours. They've got 23 days to go. The more funding they get, the better the resulting game will be (in theory at least).

Maybe you think this only works for long-established names? It seems not. As evidence, take a look at The Dead Linger which bills itself as a "first-person zombie survival sandbox." They need a modest $60,000. They're not there yet (closing in on $40K as I write this) but they still have 24 days to go. If you think you'd enjoy that kind of a game maybe you can help them hit their $60K.

Or how about The Banner Saga, "a role-playing game merged with turn-based strategy, wrapped into an adventure mini-series about vikings." Goal: $100,000. Current pledges: ~$375,000. Days to go: 15.

Anyway as you can probably tell, I'm pretty excited about Kickstarter-funded games. I could go on and on listing interesting projects. (Here's my profile in case you want to see everything I've backed. I've got a couple of wacky non-game projects in there too. I also have a personal blog where I've been talking about these projects in a little more depth.)

So who are these people backing these projects, and what makes us willing to hand over cash for a product that hasn't been made yet. We have no idea how good the resulting game will be, after all. Why risk it?

I can only speak for myself and assume that I'm not a complete outlier when it comes to gamers. The short answer is, I feel like the gaming industry is in a bit of a rut. For every Skyrim we get a dozen generic games that we'll forget about a week after playing them. We get games that are run through the marketing mill over and over until they're so over-processed that they lose whatever was originally special about them.

For me, what's exciting about Kickstarter is allowing game designers to create the games they want to create, without having a publisher pressuring them to change. In a lot of ways it's like the Indie Game movement, but thanks to Kickstarter funding their production values can be higher.

At least, that's my theory. We haven't really seen the end result of any of these projects yet. If Tim Schafer's Double Fine Adventure Game is a flop (not that I expect it to be) what impact will that have on the Kickstarter movement? Let's hope we never find out.

I keep thinking Kickstarter's audience of backers will run out of spare cash to give to game designers but so far it hasn't happened. Of course it's only been a few months, so it remains to be seen if this is just a blip on the graph or if this is the start of a new movement to cut out big publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision in favor of paying the designers and developers directly.

I'm hoping it's a movement. We need more variety in our games!

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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