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On Kickstarter, There Are No Guarantees

Double Fine's adventure game and Wasteland 2 make for lovely success stories, but the Kickstarter gamble isn't always full of cheers.

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UPDATE: Auditorium 2: Duet hit its Kickstarter goal last night, building upon momentum from the past few days.

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Crowd funding service Kickstarter has been good to games in recent months.

$3,336,371 went towards Double Fine's new adventure game, far above the $400,000 asking price. There's $1,600,465 and counting for inXile Entertainment to produce Wasteland 2, exceeding the original $900,000.

Philadelphia-based Cipher Prime wants $60,000 to help fund the creation of Auditorium 2: Duet, a multiplayer sequel to its well-liked music game. $60,000 is roughly half, maybe a little less, than the project’s total budget.

“We are mathematically not on track to make it,” said creative director Will Stallwood to me yesterday afternoon, only four days before Auditorium 2: Duet’s Kickstarter proposal comes to a close.

Stallwood is understandably anxious. Auditorium 2: Duet has not experienced the "Double Fine bump” that I've heard mentioned by other video game Kickstarter projects, and the studio is relying on a hail mary pass at the end.

“When we first started,” he said, “someone asked us and our analogy was ‘we basically have a month of waiting to find out if our girlfriend’s going to dump us or not.’ It’s totally how it feels.”

When we spoke yesterday, his Kickstarter was roughly $45,000--most of the way there. With Kickstarter, though, “most of the way there” isn’t enough. You need to reach the full amount, or all of that money disappears.

If Auditorium 2: Duet doesn’t reach $60,000, it wouldn’t be the first game to stumble on Kickstarter. Double Fine was not the first developer to utilize Kickstarter, but it’s definitely helped popularize the concept. Kickstarter was founded in 2008, and since, many have tried using it to get ideas off the ground. Not everyone's a success story.

Pixel Sand is one of several projects that attribute its funding success to Double Fine.
Pixel Sand is one of several projects that attribute its funding success to Double Fine.

Tony Hawk: Ride developers Robomodo tried to help fund Bodoink, a Kinect game for Xbox Live Arcade, and only raised $5,547 of $35,000. Before Borut Pfeifer was a designer on upcoming XBLA strategy game Skulls of the Shogun, he pitched a puzzle/action game set during the post-election riots in Iran. He figured it would take $15,000 to make that game--he got only $2,925.

“The biggest lesson was just that it doesn't actually solve the problems people originally (and still do but to a lesser extent) thought it would,” said Pfeifer over email.

Pfeifer pointed to how developers still have to really, really worry about presenting and pitching their idea, especially if there's not much to show for it, and they still have to answer to a group of invested individuals, which means creative autonomy is somewhat limited. It's not a perfect solution.

Plus, it’s easy to forget designers like Tim Schafer and Brian Fargo have spent a career building a reputation.

“The audience isn't necessarily any more likely to fund an idea because it's risky or innovative, it's really just if they trust you as fans of your work,” said Pfeifer.

As the hours wind down on Auditorium 2: Duet, as Stallwood begins to confront the possibility that his sequel will not get funded, his team has started to examine about what went right...and what went wrong. Even if the Kickstarter idea blows up in their face, Stallwood doesn’t necessarily regret trying it out.

“Definitely our biggest problem over here that we know, and I think we’ve always known, is getting any kind of attention is really hard, and we still don’t know how to do it,” he said. “Regardless of whether the Kickstarter fails or not, I do feel like a lot more people know who Cipher Prime is, which is really cool and super exciting.”

It’s early days for the relationship between Kickstarter and video games, however. While Cipher Prime didn’t see much help from Double Fine’s various financing spikes, another Kickstarter did.

Pixel Sand, a ridiculous physics simulation that involves dumping sand everywhere, probably wouldn’t have made it to its complete $9,000 funding without help from Double Fine, according to programmer Trevor Sundberg.

“We pretty much owe our success to Double Fine for bringing in so many supporters to Kickstarter,” said Sundberg. “All of that traffic seemed to hit right after the Double Fine project became popular.”

A week before Pixel Sand was due to cross the Kickstarter finish line, the project’s funding trajectory suggested it would only make around $2,000. 24 hours before funding closed, the game neared $12,000. 68% of its contributors came from individuals just browsing the Kickstarter website, a mix of people who’d meandered from the Double Fine Kickstarter and others poking around the games section, which Sundberg also attributed to Double Fine.

Pixel Sand's final total? $13, 616.

Between Double Fine and inXile, Kickstarter appears to be fertile ground for reviving long forgotten concepts, genres and franchises. It’s unclear how many more fans will continue to financially rally behind old games, but Big Finish Games will try to revive fumbling detective Tex Murphy starting in May.

Tex Murphy is the latest dead franchise seeking life on Kickstarter, but how long will this last?
Tex Murphy is the latest dead franchise seeking life on Kickstarter, but how long will this last?

Big Finish co-founder Chris Jones, who also happens to play the usually tipsy Tex Murphy, told me this presented itself as the best way to finally, possibly bring the character back. There were chances for Tex Murphy to return in the past, but it never happened, and eventually Jones felt like fans deserved closure. The last game ended on a mean cliffhanger, and fans have been waiting since.

Kickstarter seemed like a way to gauge fan interest, and possibly elevate what Jones described as a “modest” design for another Tex Murphy game into something much bigger.

“When we saw the success of Double Fine [on Kickstarter],” he said, “what that really showed more than anything was there really is an interest in this genre, whether publishers believe it or not, there are a lot of people out there who really have liked this style of game, and enjoy playing the adventure style, and there may be a big enough group out there that would continue to support it.”

If there isn’t, it’s also the best way to find out if it’s time to move on, and possibly let Tex Murphy go.

A full day had passed between writing this and my conversation with Stallwood about Auditorium 2: Duet's fate. Since then, the Kickstarter has earned another $6,000, bringing the total to $52,801. There’s $9,000 to go.

“With the bump last night, we could possibly reach our goal,” he said. “We feel like throwing up in anticipation, but we're incredibly hopeful. Regardless of the outcome, I think we have some of the worlds best fans and an amazing support community in Philly. Getting close to our goal after all this time is giving us a ton of feelings both scary and happy.”

With three days left, here's where Auditorium 2: Duet stands. The countdown begins.

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