Is Kickstarter Heaven for Indie Games Developers?

Kickstarter, the US crowd-source funding website, has been opened up to UK projects for the first time. With the government considering tax breaks for one of the UK’s fastest-growing industries (digital and media) – the largest in Europe – Kickstarter’s move might just be the best thing that ever happened to British video games developers. Is it?

In a word, yes. Kickstarter’s unique model – a model that hasn’t really been possible before now, excepting very large social enterprise funding schemes – works like a good old staple of the written publishing industry: the advance. Back in the day, when the written word was king, a publisher would offer a writer an advance – a sum of money based solely on a proposal –  to go ahead and support his or herself while writing. With the growth of publishing and distribution agency models (like the Amazon Kindle Store and Apple’s iBookstore), advances have started to squeeze. Publishers are happier to offer a cut of any potential proceeds rather than stump up money at the beginning of writing. As a result, starting up writing is difficult. No publisher is willing to pay you a fee while you write.

Take a look now at the games industry. In a way, video games have always been agency-managed. Before large agency distribution systems, like Steam and Apple’s App Store, individual retailers acted as agencies on the behalf of the publishers. They sold the product and took a cut of the profits. Online distribution is no different, except that the volumes are larger. When the volumes are larger, the cuts are slimmer. That means that any starting developer has to gamble quite a lot on investing time making a game – there’s a high chance that they’ll see no returns whatsoever.

Advances have never really existed in the video games world. Publishers have either tended to absorb promising studios and have them work as salaried in-house employees, or negotiate distribution deals (now rarer as developers can typically ship directly to the ‘retailer’, or digital distribution portal). Very, very rarely would a publisher provide funds for a small studio to work on a project.

Of course, this is where Kickstarter radicalises the video games development industry. Advances are now a thing. Indie developers can have an idea and pitch it to a crowd. That crowd could then provide an advance to keep them clothed, fed and housed while they work on the idea.

But the industry disruption goes deeper than just the advance. Marketing, outreach and sales are no longer handled by the publisher – they’re handled by the Indie dev team themselves. Kickstarter provides marketing – not least to your immediate backers, but also to friends and families of those backers – as well as direct sales (‘pledges’ of financial support are typically rewarded by games licences, as well as novelty items such as T-shirts). So what we have is a no-strings advance that carries satisfied customers from the word go. It’s a massive change.

So that’s why Kickstarter is so exciting for Indie developer studios. Now add to it the growing simplicity of video games programming overall, with most games development environments now able to run on modern travel-friendly laptops instead of static desktop machines or specialised gaming computers. Devs don’t need to whittle away at a game locked indoors, with little hope of financial reward or recognition. Kickstarter’s streamlining of fundraising is complementary to rapid indie games development – it removes uncertainty. As we’ve known for years, the threat of uncertainty is a serious barrier to creativity. And that’s why Kickstarter, along with all the other awesome technology cropping up right now, is heaven for indie developers. Get over there and start supporting projects you fancy, right now.

the author

Natalie Smith studied International Relations in Glasgow, and currently works for a digital consulting firm in London. She writes tech and web design articles in her spare time, and also loves trying out new gadgets and reading the entertaining prose of P.G. Wodehouse and David Sedaris, her two favorite authors.

  • Will Johnston

    It’s been really interesting to watch Kickstarter become a part of the videogame industry. I really enjoyed the first game to release off of a kickstart – FTL, even if it was a bit short.

    I remember reading some quote from Gabe Newell talking about how players should pay for development of games and thinking that that was the most ridiculous thing in the world. Now with millions of dollars flowing to games on Kickstarter, it’s still a bit hard to believe.

    I still find it hard to believe that Kickstarter is going to last for very much longer. I think the layman is going to lose interest over time or if more scams(although I don’t think any have ever gone through) arise.

    We live in interesting times

  • Evil Tactician

    That’s the danger indeed Will. If one really large project funded with several million pounds invested in it totally flops and leaves some large funders with nothing to show for it – it’ll open quite a big can of worms.

    Still, there’s some really interesting stuff going on there and I’ve actually funded a couple of projects myself. Especially concepts I really want to succeed. That’s the charm, rather than relying on publishers, if there’s enough interest in a game an indie studio can actually find the funds to make it happen.

    Interesting times indeed.

  • Jon Draper

    Great little article. I’ve been doing a tonne of research on what makes and breaks a kick starter project in the hope of running one my self. Stormy studio is a small indie game and animation studio run part time by myself (code, graphics, animation, marketing) and my wife (accounts, tea, realistic outlook).

    I’ve started filming a few bits for the potential video… I’d love to get funding to finish a project thats been going on for the last year, only to be stopped a regular intervals when I run out of time and energy to work till the early hours.

    The funding really would mean I could make a great game for lots of platforms and enjoy the whole process and share it with the world.

    Fingers crossed I get a good kickstarter package together …. it wont be started till its 110% ready….

  • Evil Tactician

    Let us know about it when you launch it on Kickstarter and/or have more to show, Jon. If it’s any good and within our sphere of interests, we’ll be happy to give you some coverage.

  • Jon Drapwr

    Many Thanks Evil Tactician…

    Its a unique horror point and click adventure. I’ve spent the last 2 nights filming the embarrassing bit of talking to a camera, currently editing, and yet to mix in gameplay footage etc etc… Fingers crossed it turns out alright and have the nerve to post the project. Lots to do before I press the big go button, if you’d like access before it goes live maybe there’s a way to do that…. send me an email if your interested. Thanks Jon

  • Jon Draper

    Hi again…

    Well today its all come together. I’ve pressed ‘submit for review’ on my kickstarter campaign, put the pitch video up on a game developers forum and starting to try and get interest with the local media. I’ve emailed you a preview link to the official kickstarter page. but in the mean time for others. Please check out my hopefully successful KickStarter campaign for indie point and click adventure ‘Dark Asylum & the 7 Lost Souls’.

    Enjoy… and stay tuned as it should go live on KickStarter in the next day or 2.

  • Michael Bujtas

    Is Kickstarter a good place for indie developers? I don’t know the answer to that really, you certainly hear a lot of success stories of small companies putting together the game they wanted. But how many of those games actually are well known? I think Chivalry did pretty well, but I can’t name many other games.

    I really hope Kickstarter is a good avenue for indie games, considering I’m trying to get my card game set around an assassination party game published ( Wish me luck!