Kickstarter, Video Games, and Stretch Goals
Last week Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler posted on his blog about the inherent risks with adding stretch goals to a Kickstarter campaign. Although the website caters to any and all creative projects, limited only to its creator’s imagination and willingness to put themselves on the internet, Strickler’s post specifically mentions games as his example of projects that are in danger of abusing the system, “trading long-term risk for short-term gain.”
For a typical stretch goal a creator will promise to release their game in additional formats or add extra functions if certain funding goals are met. But expanding a project’s scope can change the creative vision and put the whole project at risk. We’ve seen stretch goals leave some projects overwhelmed, over budget, and behind schedule.
The elephant in the room that immediately comes to everyone’s mind is the original trendsetter of the new wave of highly successful and vastly over-funded video games – Double Fine’s Broken Age. Originally asking for $400,000 (with half of that going to produce a Making Of documentary), the then untitled Double Fine Adventure reached its now laughably modest goal within the first eight hours of the month long campaign, eventually landing at over $3.3 million in funding.
Broken Age’s campaign had seemingly caught fire, and Double Fine was just as shocked as everyone else in the industry. While no official stretch goals were ever conceived, they quickly realized that more money = better game: “All money raised will go to make the game and documentary better. Additional money means it can appear on more platforms, be translated into more languages, have more music and voice, and an original soundtrack for the documentary, and more!”
The original goal was to create a simple, retro-style Point and Click adventure game using a small development team over a six to eight month period, and document the whole process as a way of giving back to the community. Beyond the desire to make a niche genre game, however, Double Fine Adventure lacked even a basic concept or pitch. Who knows what that $200,000 game would’ve looked like, but plans (if any) were immediately thrown out once the numbers started coming in, and a new idea was born.
Broken Age promises to be a full length adventure game with voice acting, music, dozens of puzzles, and a beautiful, unique art style. But with more money comes more responsibility, and Double Fine quickly reached beyond the scope of the project. The news finally broke in early July when Tim Schafer posted a heart-felt update to Kickstarter backers, placing the blame of the game’s ballooning production and cost squarely on himself: “Even though we received much more money from our Kickstarter than we, or anybody anticipated, that didn’t stop me from getting excited and designing a game so big that it would need even more money.” While Double Fine never specifically utilized stretch goals to increase their funding, the project ended at 834% of its funding goal and necessitated a vastly larger game than Tim and Double Fine had imagined making when they started the campaign.
Returning from Exile
Many game companies were quick to jump onto the Kickstarter bandwagon after Double Fine’s unprecedented success, but none more prepared than Brian Fargo and his team at InXile Entertainment. The day Double Fine Adventure ended, InXile launched their campaign for Wasteland 2. While InXile’s name is not nearly as recognizable as Double Fine’s, Brian Fargo still remains a beloved figure in gaming from his role as CEO of Interplay throughout the 90s, bringing the world classic games like Fallout and jump starting the career of several major developers like Blizzard. Wasteland 2 was a fully realized game concept – a turn based CPRG sequel to the 80s original, and backers came out in droves, proving that a relatively high funding level was not a deterrent to fans.
Fargo’s first promise was to pony up the final $100,000 should the project only barely meet its $900,000 funding goal as a way of proving his commitment and passion to the project. He was also prepared for a rush of over-funding as was seen with Double Fine and included a section on if the funding goal was exceeded: “But we’re looking ahead to what we can do if you all back this project in force. At $1.25 million, the money will go primarily into making the world bigger, adding more maps, more divergent stories and even more music. At $1.5 million, the world gets even bigger. You’ll have more adventures to play, more challenges to deal with, and a greater level of complexity to the entire storyline. We’ll add more environments, story elements, and characters to make the rich world come alive even more. We will even be able to bring Wasteland 2 to OS X and Linux! And after $1.5 million the sky is the limit.”
The stretch goals remained nebulous; other than multiple platform support the game would simply grow bigger and better with additional funding. It wasn’t until the game’s funding really exploded that updates were given and stretch goals were discussed. Most famously, at $2.1 million InXile would bring aboard the talents of veteran RPG writer and game designer Chris Avellone (Fallout 2, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment). Knowing the campaign catered to a hardcore PC gaming crowd, dropping Avellone’s name was a brilliant marketing move and helped drive the project’s funding even further. Finally, full mod/editing support was promised if the project reached $3 million. The final Kickstarter tally was $2.9 million, 326% of its original funding goal.
Other developers quickly followed suit as their projects were funded within the first week (or sometimes day) of the campaign, adding stretch goals within the first few updates. Shadowrun Returns created a nice little graphic for hitting what would become their first stretch goal of $1 million, including an entirely new setting and story that would eventually evolve into a full blown expansion pack (Check out our review of Shadowrun Returns). Planetary Annihilation took half the campaign to reach its funding of $900k, but developers Uber Entertainment knew that stretch goals could help drive the funding in the remaining weeks, and used Youtube videos to explain new game concepts like the Galactic War as well as adding a full orchestral score, and taking a cue from Double Fine and creating a Making Of documentary as stretch goal rewards.
The Second Wave
Well-known RPG developer Obsidian Entertainment revealed their latest project on Kickstarter in the Fall of 2012. Project Eternity promised to be a glorious homage to the old Dungeons and Dragons Infinity Engine games of the late 90s and early 2000s (Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, etc). Eternity was their chance to create their own world, using their own ruleset, crafted in the same style and similar engine that PC RPG enthusiasts yearned for. Although Project Eternity had the highest funding goal ever seen for a video game on Kickstarter ($1.1 million), gamers and fans could barely contain their excitement, funding the project in just over 24 hours. Obsidian wisely prepared, and the next day had detailed stretch goals leading up to $2.4 million, including new playable races, classes, companions, and a player owned house. As funding kept coming in, entire updates were devoted to additional stretch goals with new game mechanics, modes, and yes even more races, classes and companions. While I find the ability to quickly monetize how much adding a companion to a game that has yet to be created fairly odd, gamers for the most part enjoyed seeing those numbers go up and Obsidian kept the stretch goals coming.
Obsidian also devised a different variation for a typical stretch goal: A Mega Dungeon called The Endless Paths of Oda Nua. The dungeon started with three levels, but with every 2,500 backers an additional level was added to the depths, creating further incentive to bring in your friends, co-workers, twitter followers, and dog to step up and add their pledge to the pile. Obsidian expanded on this concept by adding another level after 20,000 likes on their company’s Facebook page.
By the end of the campaign The Endless Paths had reached a whopping 15 levels with support from over 73,000 backers on Kickstarer. The extra incentives and stretch goals pushed Project Eternity to nearly $4 million on Kickstarter pledges alone, far more than Double Fine Adventure achieved despite actually having less backers (DFA had 80,000). While stretch goals were certainly the new hotness, Obsidian also filled each new Project Update with an overwhelming amount of information about the game – lore, characters, game mechanics, character classes and races, as well as introducing new members of the team and keeping the backers well up to date on current stretch goals. It all culminated with a massive six hour long live stream of the final hours of the campaign, as Obsidian brilliantly took over twitch.tv with unscripted antics, informative Q&As, and copious amounts of drinking and partying (to the extent you can get away with at a work party). Chris Avellone even pledged to play through co-worker Tim Cain’s Infinity Engine game Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura should they reach $4 million, essentially creating last minute stretch goals. Including Paypal backers they did reach their final goal, though Avellone’s streaming playthroughs have been slow coming. Considering they were able to amass another $300,000 during those final hours, the stream was a successful way to cap off the massive campaign.
A year after successfully funding Wasteland 2, and it knee deep in development, InXile returned to the Kickstarter well to pitch their next project, a spiritual successor to another beloved CRPG – Planescape: Torment. Much had happened with Kickstarter video games in the space of a year: several high profile developers had gone to Kickstarter to successfully pitch their ideas and earned millions in funding, using their own resumes, solid game concepts, and increasingly organized and well thought out stretch goals to drive their campaigns into some impressive numbers (see above).
Fargo responded with the most comprehensive set of stretch goals we’ve seen yet, clearly laying out what InXile will add to Torment: Tides of Numenera as each milestone is reached, including reusing Chris Avellone as a stretch goal despite his company’s involvement in their own Kickstarter project, Project Eternity (seriously does this guy sleep?). Other game designers and fantasy writers were added as stretch goals as well, including George Ziets (Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer) and Patrick Rothfuss (The KingKiller Chronicles).
With the backing of an established intellectual property, the well-received work-in-progress pictures and videos of Wasteland 2, and clearly organized stretch goals built upon the ideas set forth by previously kickstarted video games, Torment would go on to become the highest funded video game ever, reaching a finally tally of $4.1 million, blowing right past every stretch goal set forth save the final $4.5 million player stronghold (which was later reached after Paypal backers and affectionately named “slacker backers” were added in).
While pitching a sequel to a beloved classic franchise, tapping into a hardcore niche crowd (apparently with lots of disposable income), and having an impressive resume of said niche or classic games certainly helps in reaching those multi-million dollar funding goals, having concise and organized stretch goals planned out early helped keep these projects on track to reach those lofty goals and continue raking in the funding even after reaching their funding goal within the first week, or in some cases, the first day. Many games vastly under targeted their funding goal, knowing the importance of the psychology of backing a sure winner rather than a project that’s struggling to get off the ground, and stretch goals became a clever way to get funding up to where the developers really needed to make the proper game that they pitched.
Stretch goals should not be an automatic marketing tactic for every game, however, as the creator must be responsible and have a laid out plan for the increase in budget. Many additional funding goals make immediate sense: additional platform availability costs licensing fees and dev kits, musical scores and voice acting requires paying the suitable talent to bring on board, as does the obvious salaries for any additional writers and game developers you add to the team. Other goals are left far more vague like “deeper story and reactivity,” and a large amount of trust is placed in the creator that they’ve done the homework and can properly monetize just how much adding another companion to their epic RPG adventure or more planet types to their intergalactic RTS will cost.
Before the big news dropped about Double Fine’s woes with Broken Age, they launched a second Kickstarter video game project, this time to be headed up by a second team within Double Fine led by Brad Muir (Iron Brigade). MASSIVE CHALICE (properly spelled with all caps) reached its now relatively modest goal of $725,000 within the first five days, and in Brad’s first official update after reaching the goal he addressed the stretch goals:
A lot of people have asked us about stretch goals. MASSIVE CHALICE is still in the pre-production phase of development. We’ve got a TON of ideas around Double Fine HQ that sound awesome, but as with every game, not every idea can make it through production. And now that we’ve announced the game and shared the idea with you guys, we have another TON of ideas! So that’s two tons of ideas we’re trying to fit into a modest budget!
The exciting thing about taking the game to you guys at this early stage is that some of your ideas are even better than ours. As we go through pre-production into production, some of these ideas are going to trump ours, leading to a game that’s more in line with what our community wants! That’s amazing and we love having you involved in the process!
Ultimately it’s about making the best game possible with the total amount we receive. We’ll be using any amount of extra funding to add new features and iterate on the ideas generated not just by us, but by you—the community!
Instead of laying out a fancy graphic of stretch goals, Brad simply acknowledged that any additional funding will go toward making a better game. While it could be argued that the game was still too early in production to be able to create stretch goals with specific rewards and game features, over 30,000 eager gamers flocked to the concept of a game that was much more open to suggestions and that would be iterated upon throughout development. Ultimately MASSIVE CHALICE reached 170% funding at $1.2 million, with the only stretch goal being a biweekly “Teamstream”. These live streams allow backers to peer into the process of game development as MASSIVE CHALICE was brought to life, further cementing the bond between developer and backer.
Could it have reached the heights of Double Fine’s previous effort or the likes of Obsidian and InXile’s numbers had it used more stretch goals? Probably not, but it almost certainly would’ve increased the funding even further. But in the immortal words of Dr. Ian Malcolm (paraphrasing): Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Brad and his team didn’t want to ramp up cost and production beyond what they had envisioned, and while no doubt happy that the game’s campaign was successful enough to bring in extra money, were satisfied to not over-promise or commit to any features or ideas in the form of stretch goals, freeing them to make the game they want and produce new ideas and game mechanics organically, instead of being beholden by too many Kickstarter promises.
Strickler’s worry about the growing usage of stretch goals as powerful marketing tools is understandable; ultimately until we see the end results of the larger multi-million dollar games we can’t pass judgment on whether it was a brilliant strategy or a debilitating commitment. As with any Kickstarter project, the campaign relies on a large amount of trust in the creator, and stretch goals are no different. Without any strict system of checks and balances, it’s up to each creator to have a clear plan in place should a project reach funding relatively quickly. No doubt the biggest games like Project Eternity and Torment: Tides of Numenera were expecting their campaigns to catch fire and had the planning, resources, and project scope to introduce stretch goals to mold the game towards the proper vision they had, rather than the game they would have settled for with minimum funding. Of course, a crowdsourced game’s budget can easily balloon out of control even without the use of specific stretch goals, as was the case with Double Fine Adventure. Since all but one game mentioned here as yet to be released, all eyes, from backers, industry veterans, and future Kickstarter hopefuls will be turned toward these hugely successful projects as either the paradigm to adhere to, or a cautionary tale. As a fan and backer of these games, I wish for nothing but success for all of them, but also respect that numerous stretch goals and massive over funding should not be the end goal for every developer and Kickstarter campaign.