Benched for Poor Sales, Could Kickstarter Get Niche Sports Titles Back Into the Game?S

Tim Schafer's Double Fine Production team (Psychonauts, Brutal Legend) wanted to make a new point-and-click adventure game.

Knowing that major game publishers would be hesitant to fund a new release in what's considered a "dated," arguably "dead" genre, Double Fine turned to its fans to subsidize some of their development costs.

Enter Kickstarter, "the world's largest funding program for creative projects." Kickstarter allows game developers to pitch an idea, set a fundraising goal for how much money it will take to get the project released, then see if fans on the Internet are willing to donate money to get the game launched.

For their support, backers—the Kickstarter term for donors—typically receive a free copy of the game, interaction with the game makers during the development process and other perks like getting their name listed in the game credits.

Double Fine's financial goal for their new point-and-click adventure game was to raise $400,000 in 35 days—$300,000 would go to covering the internal development costs, while $100,000 would be spent on a professional video documentary crew to film the project.

Only 24 hours into the Double Fine Kickstarter project, the funding reached over $1 million—more than twice the original projected costs. A month later, and Double Fine has raised a whopping $2.25 million for their new IP.

Where did all these point-and-click adventure fans come from? Looking at the donation totals, there actually are only 65,000 "backers," meaning the average donation per backer is $35—about half the cost as your typical new retail game.

How many people would be willing to pay $35 for, say, a new football game from Visual Concepts? Or a new hockey game to compete with EA Sports' NHL? Or some kind of college basketball game? At the $35 pledge level, it would only take 60,000 supporters to bring in over $2 million worth of funding. Surely there are 60,000 sports fans out there willing to endorse some of these projects that gamers want but game publishers refuse to fund?

Would you be willing to pay $35 for a competitor to EA Sports' NHL?

Six of the 20 most-played Xbox 360 retail games are sports titles, according to Microsoft's Major Nelson. The sports of soccer, basketball, football, motorsports and hockey are all represented in the top 20, leaving baseball as the only major sport without a representative.

This data, along with yearly sales totals in the millions for long-running franchises like FIFA, Madden NFL, NHL, NBA 2K, et al., suggests there may be a market for more sports games that are currently being green-lit by publishers — just not on retail shelves.

Retail sales for dead franchises like All-Pro Football, NHL 2K and College Hoops 2K were simply not profitable. But could these games reap some financial success in the digital space?

Visual Concepts' last football game, All-Pro Football 2K8, sold a meager 100,000 copies in its first two weeks. NHL 2K10, two years after its release, fell just short of 250,000 units in Xbox 360 and PS3 sales combined. College Hoops 2K8 places a bit higher at right under 300,000 combined Xbox 360 and PS3 sales.

All three franchises were canned for under performing at retail, and used copies of these games and other failed sports franchises like Backbreaker and Blitz The League take up much of the space in video game bargain bins across North America.

But Double Fine's most-recent adventure game, Psychonauts, sold just 100,000 copies in its first week, and only 400,000 units in two years after its release. Poor sales kept publishers from backing a Psychonauts sequel, despite fans' requests and Double Fine's internal desire to make a new one.

It's clear that game fans are reluctant to purchase these niche titles for $65 when they're stocked alongside AAA brands like Madden or Call of Duty, whose production budgets are in the tens, if not hundreds of millions.

By moving a niche game like Double Fine's Adventure into the online marketplace, and giving its buyers the ability to name their own price, Double Fine found a way to turn a project that game publishers deemed "untouchable" into a financial success.

There is one notable Kickstarter sports game already in the making, the Tecmo Bowl-inspired Gridiron Heroes. With 96 backers and $7,613 raised (an average of $80 per donor), Gridiron Heroes achieved it's goal of raising $7,500 to cover development costs.

While gameplay in this sidescrolling football MMO is currently limited to "coach mode," the developer plans to add on-field control and human vs. human online gameplay as soon as possible.


Originally appeared March 20, 2012 on Operation Sports. Republished with permission