Will Make Games For Food… Or Funding

Republished from Kotaku Australia.

You want to make a game. You don't have a publisher. The government won't help and your bank account is full of tumbleweed. It might be time to look beyond traditional funding options… it might be time to look to the crowd.

The game Battle Command is in a position that would give most traditional developers the panic sweats: no milestones have been set, there's no release date, no publisher or venture capital, buyers have already committed money to the game but have not seen or played it yet and, perhaps the most sweat-inducing of all, the project hasn't been completely funded. Where most developers would be crying fat tears over this situation, the Adelaide-based studio behind Battle Command, Mighty Kingdom, is cucumber cool. They are right on track.

Crowd-funding is the source of Mighty Kingdon's vegetable-like coolness. They don't need a publisher, they don't need a big budget in their bank account, and they don't need to wait for a government grant that might never come. They set a funding goal, pitch directly to their potential customers by showing their concepts and ideas and, if interested, the crowd funds the game.

"I think it's genius," says Mark Riley, lead designer at Mighty Kingdom.

"It allows us to speak to our audience for funding and gives us validation on our projects.

"If people think the game sounds cool, they'll back it. It puts the power in the hands of the people we're trying to reach and gives them a chance to own a piece of the pie."

Securing The Kingdom Through The Crowds

Mighty Kingdom is a small app development company founded by Jindou Lee and Philip Mayes. It's a tight-knit indie team made of experienced game developers: both Lee and Mayes worked at Midway Games (formerly Ratbag Games) and Krome Studios; their combined portfolios include titles from Stranglehold to Gauntlet Legends, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Lightsaber Duels and Clone Wars: Republic Heroes. Seeing a huge market in mobile apps and an even bigger demand from clients wanting apps for their businesses, they left Krome just before its closure to form Mighty Kingdom.

While the studio has been able to grow and support itself through business app development, everyone on board is still a game developer at heart.

"Game development has been, and always will be, our passion - it's something we wanted to be able to do with Mighty Kingdom from the get-go," Riley says.

Will Make Games For Food… Or Funding

"Every man and his dog wants an app for their business - we have no shortage of clients in that regard - but when it comes to games… it's a different story."

They looked into various funding options, but few of the conventional models suited what they wanted to do.

"Government grants take a long time to apply for and there is no guarantee you will get them," says Mayes.

"They often require you to tailor your business in a certain way to even be eligible. It would have taken too much of someone's time to keep track of the progress and we wanted to run a lean operation."

Cue Appbackr, one of the many crowd-funding services that have recently emerged to put the power in the hands of the people - not men in suits, government officials, or large publishers.

"Crowd-funding is a great early barometer for validating your ideas - if your idea is crap, no one will fund it! Grants don't provide that kind of validation," says Mayes.

Mighty Kingdom launched their Appbackr campaign in November 2011 and has since attracted 43 backers who have contributed a total of $5,531. The backers are regular folk who came across the project and decided to pledge any sum of money to help the project come to fruition. Mighty Kingdom still have a long way to go before reaching their goal of $10,600, but their reserve has been met, which means if they do not meet their ultimate funding goal, they will still walk away with a few grand to complete their project.

The Success Story

"Eight months ago, if you'd looked in the spare room of my house you would have seen ugly brown carpet, a big red couch and a guy sitting at a computer hatching plans for a game development studio," says Tim Cove, the producer and game designer at Electric Mammoth.

"Today the brown carpet is still there but on it rests six work stations and a diverse team of game developers all passionately pursuing their dream of making games."

Electric Mammoth is a crowd-funding success story. Brought together by their love for making games, the developers were willing to work on their game, The Island of Funk, for free in their own time. The game would be released as a free-to-play title and the team behind the game wouldn't expect any form of payment. But even a passion project needs money to get off the ground. They turned to the Aussie crowd-funding service, Pozible.

"The target we set for our Pozible campaign was not set because it was ‘what we needed', it was set because that's what we thought was an achievable target," Cove says.

The Electric Mammoth target was set at $2000, a goal that 31 backers helped them meet. Cove says that while this amount of money could not possibly pay the development team, it helped them purchase hardware and software so that they could make the game. They spent money on basic motion-capturing technology and they hired a professional dancer. Why? Because The Island of Funk is about dancing and, according to Cove: "We've discovered that being good at programming does not make you good at doing the ‘rumpshaker' or the ‘wiggly worm'."

An Imperfect Model

Like any funding model, crowd-funding is not perfect.

"Pozible works on a ‘all-or-nothing' basis," says Alan Crabbe, a co-founder of the Melbourne-based Pozible.

"This means if the project creator does not reach their funding target in their set timeframe, the funds will not be collected and the project creator will not receive anything."

Crabbe says that crowd-funding is a very low-risk way to fund a project because services like Pozible do not charge a fee from projects listed unless they meet their target funds. If you fail to meet your target by even a dollar, all the donations go back to the people who pledged the funds. If you meet your funding target, the service takes a small percentage of the funding and the rest can be used as you wish on your project.

So is there a chance that a developer might just take the money and never deliver? How big is the risk for the backer?

"When it comes to pre-selling a good or service, there is always a risk that the project creator will not follow through on their promises," Crabbe says.

"As a platform, we screen all new project proposals and only invite project creators that have clearly demonstrated the project outcomes and their commitment to see it through. There is also an element of trust required by project supporters."

Developers can also offer to give something back to supporters. In the case of Electric Mammoth, they offered those who donated $1 an animated e-card as well as access to a member's only section and the game's beta. The rewards increased with the donations, with those who donated $200 receiving special packs, personalised art, posters, invitations to the game's launch, and the original game design document. It is up to the project creator what they want to give away. You could offer sandwiches or hugs for donations, if you felt so inclined to.

It' Ain't Easy Making Money

Beyond the risk of not meeting a funding goal and receiving nothing as a result, crowd-funding can be quite stressful for developers.

"The most difficult aspect of the whole experience was overcoming that slightly sheepish feeling you get when you're spreading the word about the campaign because when it comes down to it, what you're saying is, ‘Give us some money, please,'" says Cove.

"Some people may have no problems doing that but for me and most of my team of nerds, it's a slightly awkward experience.

"In terms of stress, it certainly can be a little bit tense watching the days slip away as you approach your funding deadline," he says.

"We had a few dry spells during our 50-day campaign when no pledges were made. But if you genuinely believe in the product you are seeking funding for and can confidently network… then it's not too hard to keep the momentum up."

Many projects often fail to meet their funding goals and even more go completely unnoticed, but the method does open up many exciting opportunities for developers.

"When talking to people about crowd-funding, I like to paint this hypothetical scenario for them," says Riley.

"What would happen if Joss Whedon came into Kickstarter and said, ‘Oh hey guys, can all of your give me like… $10 each in order to buy the rights to Firefly so that I can make a new season?' He'd have hundreds of thousands of dollars in a matter of days.

"As studios accrue larger audiences and fan-bases, this type of model will become increasingly viable to finance their projects. Give people what they want and they'll do what they can to keep you in business," he says.

A Risk Worth Taking

For Riley, this funding model might seem precarious compared to what he's used to at the big studios he has worked for, but he welcomes the change.

"The development models between the mainstream game development scene and the indie scene are vastly different, but I'd never say that developing games for a large studio felt ‘stable' as it really wasn't," he says.

"There was the benefit of a fortnightly wage, but it felt like the floor could fall out from beneath you at any time. Publishers supplied the money at every milestone, and you had to deliver. It didn't matter if the milestone was impossibly soon or if the game was in no state to ship. You had to meet it, no matter what. Often it felt like you were a cog in a machine, working crazy hours to get something out the door that you were in no way proud of. There was simply no alternative."

Riley says that the indie and crowd-funding model has its own stresses, but it's a different kind. While he doesn't have the financial certainty of working at a big studio, he also no longer has to meet a publisher's demands. Crowd-funding leaves the game in the developer's hands, and that is something he feels is worth making a few sacrifices for.

"It feels so much more genuine [taking this approach] and has rekindled my love for making games," he says.

"The creative control is back in our hands. Each member of our team is absolutely vital to the development and we're doing it fundamentally because we want to, because it's our passion.

"It's can be frightening, but the buck stops with us. There are no excuses, no publishers to blame, and no big studios to hide behind. The responsibility is entirely ours."

To back Battle Command, you can visit their Appbackr page here.

Tracey Lien writes for Kotaku Australia. You can follow her on Twitter!
Republished with permission.