This post is a follow up to “Unrest: An Honest Postmortem of a Kickstarter Success.”
I really don't know how it is for your big studio-renting, T-shirt-printing, San Francisc-ing game development studios when their magnum opus wraps. I imagine many of them do schedule a few months to tear through feedback, patch, run tech support, and wrangle the convention circuit. But barring an ongoing investment, like an MMO or MOBA, that's all sideline stuff. You can bet in ninety-nine out of a hundred cases the development leads get together right away, stick another figurative sheet of paper in the typewriter, and start on the next project.
Part of this is a matter of principle. You're only as good as your last good title, and dwelling on success or failure doesn’t help your studio. But there's a much more far-reaching practical side to it than that, and it's one you don't appreciate until you try to survive as a developer: it’s the fact that every month not working on a game is a catastrophic and potentially fatal waste of your precious resources.
You can embrace it or hate it, but the formula is simple: games are profit, profit is time, time is games. Having a smash hit release isn't an “and then they lived happily ever after” success story. It's the equivalent of winning extra time by executing a flawless lap in a beat-the-clock racing game. You've won a buffer–a grace period to work on your next project. And that's if your game's successful. If it isn’t, then you’ve really got to hustle.
This scales naturally to visibility and pay grades. Bigger studios have bigger PR budgets, bigger launches, and (I’m presuming) longer periods of profitability after launch. But they’ve also got a staggering amount of people to pay, and making a few million dollars doesn’t seem so impressive when you’ve got all those award-winning game designer salaries on your books. I’d hazard this is why you see a lot of layoffs after a big release, even a successful one–it makes it easier to stretch your profits over the next development cycle.
For indie studios, the tradeoff is a much smaller team to pay for, but significantly more modest releases and (barring a fluke cult success or meme-worthy premise) a vanishingly small window of initial sales. You get a few weeks where everyone’s buying and playing it, then a steep dropoff until the next wholly unpredictable digital sale brings in another unguessable spike of profit. Which are nice, but they’re nice in a “redeem this stick for a free corn dog” sort of way. A windfall, maybe even a significant one, but not the sort of thing you get to plan your corn dog lifestyle around.
So this is where the fate of Kickstarter games gets interesting.
With Unrest, the question was always, “What happens after release?”
As a rule of thumb, I'd say a modestly successful Kickstarter-backed release can expect to make (after publisher, Steam, and miscellaneous subtractions) about or a little less than they made off their initial campaign in the first few months. We knew it would take a miraculous, one-out-of-every-ten-thousand-indie-releases kind of commercial splash to get enough funding to keep developing autonomously, and that's not the sort of thing a wise person plans for. It was particularly a problem because we couldn’t do it like this again. We would need more resources for some team members to put forward a stirring effort–a lot more.
So we knew there was a great chance we'd come back to Kickstarter. And that's just what we're doing with our next title, a cold war espionage RPG called Late to the Party.
That being said–we’ve changed up our strategy a little. Some of this is a consequence of our greater exposure and modest profits allowing us to front a larger investment. Some of this is a consequence of nothing but hard-earned experience, and the knowledge that if we’re doing this, we’ve got to do this decisively. Our biggest new moves were:
We invested in better art and music from the beginning. How your presentation looks and sounds is the biggest factor to convincing stop-ins to put in an investment. Ask any snark YouTuberâ€"the most common litmus test for determining if a game is worth trying or not is how polished the presentation looks.
We had a list of connections to reach out to for getting the word out. “Connections” are what indie developers have instead of PR budgets. Now, by this, I don’t mean “leading industry figures whose lives we have saved in combat who will do anything for us, anything at all, and have in fact already put us in their will.” I mean “people who know we exist, and trust us a little, and maybe played our last game and know we’re not screwing around.” It’s a subtle advantage, but a significant one.
We asked for full-time pay. This is the big move and by far the most dangerous one. Earlier I said any team can make a better game if key team members don't have to work retail, and I meant it. If we want to break out of a cycle of obligate crowdfunding, this is the step we need to take. But Kickstarter is all-or-nothing, and “whoops we aimed too high let's set our sights lower” retakes have a decidedly low success rate. Time will tell if this was a good idea or not, but it guarantees one thing: there's no possibility of us making a game that isn't all it can be. There's just a possibility of us not making (this) game at all.
It's scary, and it's stressful. But it's a good, useful kind of scary and stressful. Without publishers cracking the whip, this is the part that keeps indie devs honest: the knowledge that anything short of total faith in the project could end the enterprise before it begin, and the understanding that all your success, present and future, depends on the work at hand.
So maybe it’s not all the good kind of scary and stressful. But it beats river rocks.
Artless in Alderaan
People were so worried about the boring gameplay of The Old Republic they overlooked just how boring and amateur the art is.
Crysis 2 has basically the same plot as Half-Life 2. So why is one a classic and the other simply obnoxious and tiresome?
Please Help I Can’t Stop Playing Cities: Skylines
What makes this borderline indie title so much better than the AAA juggernauts that came before?
Silent Hill Turbo HD II
I was trying to make fun of how Silent Hill had lost its way but I ended up making fun of fighting games. Whatever.
Diablo III Retrospective
We were so upset by the server problems and real money auction that we overlooked just how terrible everything else is.