Dabe Alan / American McGee
If a game is almost done, why a Kickstarter? American McGee learns the challenges of crowdfunding
American McGee faced an unexpected backlash during the launch of the Kickstarter for Spicy Horse’s Akaneiro. The game was said to be almost done, but the developer was also asking for $200,000 to make the game better. Critical articles were written, and gamers didn’t seem to understand what was going on. Was the developer in trouble? “We should have been a little more cautious. We took on a familiar, friendly tone and said we’re out of money, out of time, and of course as you saw that was misinterpreted to mean I personally was bankrupt and the company was going under,” McGee told the Report. “Neither of those things being the case.” The money is needed to make the game better and, while they don’t need the funding to launch the game, they certainly want to expand the game’s reach and features. Kickstarter offers a nice opportunity for established developers in this area, but it also brings with it a large amount of risk.
Where the funding will go
Asking the public for money to finish and refine game isn’t a new idea for Kickstarter. FTL: Faster than Light was another game that was all but done when the Kickstarter campaign launched, and the extra funding was used to polish and the improve the game. McGee and Spicy Horse are hoping to bring more content to Akaneiro, as well as port the game to Android and iOS tablets, add co-op play, create a system for crafting, and hire someone to help with community support.You can, in fact, play the game’s open beta right now to check out how things are coming along. I put in a few hours while writing this story, and enjoyed my time in the game’s world. If you’re a fan of Diablo-style hack and slash titles, it’s worth checking out. Spicy Horse has released two other free-to-play games: Big Head Bash and Crazy Fairies. Both of them have done well, and the team has learned much about how to do free-to-play, but neither has “gotten their heads above water.” Akaneiro is the third game they’ve tried with a free-to-play model, and Spicy Horse is bringing the lessons learned on the previous titles.
The perils of monetization
Of course, a high quality game doesn’t mean you’re going to make money, and free-to-play is a model that the industry is still trying to figure out. “I think the players… we can tell they love it. The retention rate is currently high, but it remains to be seen if they’re willing to put money into it,” McGee said about the game. The economy is based on karma, the game’s single currency. You earn karma in the game, or you can buy it directly, and this allows you to unlock new areas, abilities, and weapons. It’s very easy to understand, and the single currency keeps things simple. The karma system is easy to understand and friendly to gamers. It’s simple to keep track of how much karma you’re earning in the game, and if you want to pick up an item but don’t have quite enough, you can simply buy some extra funds. When, or if, co-op is added, no one will complain about fighting next to players who purchased that nifty sword instead of paying the iron price. Also, areas and equipment will also be limited by level, so you won’t be able to buy your way through the game; you’ll still need to fight through each section and earn your levels to unlock the ability to use the best weapons. “It’s hard for me to be in the business and see games that are very successful and use energy systems, or the multiple forms of currency, and create a lot of confusion for the players’ perception of how the economy works,” McGee explained. “What’s frustrating is seeing those games make money hand over fist. The games that are most exploitative are oftentimes the ones making huge amounts of money. For us the trick is to figure out how to be fair to the audience while making enough money to keep the studio going. This is another experiment on the way to figure it out.”
We're all in the dark
McGee talked up his studio's ability to deliver content on time, and with a limited budget. He's used to efficiency, and those working for the studio trade a little bit of autonomy for a sane work schedule. “We focus on quality of life for our people, but we do that by adherence to process,” McGee said. “The deal is we tell people that this is the way the project is run, it’s actually micromanaged to a large degree, but in exchange for that micromanagement you’re going to have a lot more free time, and we’re going to avoid crunch.” He claimed that historically the studio’s products have avoided crunch, and they have stuck to a schedule that allows those working on the games to have some life outside of work; this can be a rarity in the world of game development.The game may not go under if the Kickstarter isn’t funded, but it’s certainly a black mark against the game. It’s harder to go ask for alternate sources of funding when it’s easy to make the argument that the game already failed to catch the attention of players. On the other hand, the game has been talked about in a number of outlets, and that exposure may not have happened without the Kickstarter. I asked if the open beta helped to drive support for the campaign, and McGee corrected me. The Kickstarter campaign has helped bring exposure to the beta. “What we’ve noticed is the Kickstarter is driving a huge amount of press and market coverage, and engaging the customers in a really amazing way,” he said. “I’m starting to think this is more like a Kick-launching. We’re launching the game, and you want to go in there and participate in that launch.” The risks are many. If the game isn't funded, it may already look like a failure in the eyes of gamers and the press. When Akaneiro launches it could be hard to attract players. If the game attracts players it may not have a tuned economy, which causes the tragic outcome of a game people love made by developers who can't make a living off their success. Getting funded, creating a game, and fine-tuning a monetization strategy that makes players happy while also supporting the developer is a tricky thing, and even industry veterans admit the difficulty of the new world of crowdfunding and free-to-play releases. The good news is that Akaneiro is fun to play, and the economy treats the player with respect. That already puts the game far ahead of much of the competition. The Kickstarter is live if you'd like to back the project. I'm hoping co-op is added sooner rather than later.