How Kickstarter Resurrected Gaming's Long Dormant Genres

By Julian Benson on at

In the past 12 months alone we’ve seen the release of isometric RPGs like Pillars of Eternity and Wasteland 2, point’n’click adventures like Broken Age, and even a Total Annihilation successor, Planetary Annihilation.

This gaming renaissance is all thanks to Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform that lets developers cut out publishers from the development process.

Launched back in 2009, Kickstarter immediately made waves. It lets creators fund projects by sourcing money, not from big investors or trusts, but directly from fans. Instead of large lump sums, they gathered the funds necessary to complete the project in small donations from many different donors, or backers.

All a creator needs to do is set up a campaign page on Kickstarter that details their project, who they are, and how the funds they hope to raise will be spent. That, and set a funding target. This target is particularly important because if, after a month of crowdfunding, a project hasn’t hit its goal Kickstarter doesn’t take the funds from backers’ accounts.

In its first years Kickstarter funded a lot of smaller projects, artists needing a few thousand pounds to run an exhibition, musicians needing the funds to produce an album, and, well, then this happened:

In February 2012, Double Fine announced they wanted to fund the development of an “old school adventure game” exclusively through Kickstarter. The studio is headed up by Tim Schafer, the creator of Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, and co-designer of Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle. Alongside Ron Gilbert, he’s one of the most famous adventure game developers in the world.

However, since completing Grim Fandango in 1998, Schafer had moved on from Adventure Games, not, he says, because he didn’t want to make them but because – as he says in the video above – “If I were to go to a publisher right now and pitch an adventure game they’d laugh in my face.”

As far as publishers were concerned the point’n’click genre was dead. Without publisher backing, no big studio could make an adventure game.

Schafer took to Kickstarter asking for $400,000. It made $3,336,371. It was the highest funded project in Kickstarter history and the second to have broken $1 million (a record that had only been set hours before Double Fine smashed it).

Double Fine did more than show developers it could be done, it showed developers how it was done. “The conversation won’t just be a one way street,” Schafer says in the video above. “This is a game for adventure fans, funded by adventure fans, and we want to make it with adventure fans.

“You’ll be able to talk back to us in an exclusive online community of people who funded the game. You’ll give input on the concept art and the music of the game and your input will actually affect the direction the game takes. It will be like a collaboration.”

Throughout the campaign Double Fine updated its campaign page with interviews with the team, Q&As with fans, and posts on how the Kickstarter community was promoting the campaign.

Even after the campaign had ended Double Fine continued giving the fans and backers updates on the game’s progress. The documentary series, initially only available to backers, gave an unprecedented inside view of a studio.

To encourage backers to donate more to the campaign, Double Fine set up different tiers of investment. A $15 donation would get you a copy of the finished game and access to the backer forum and documentaries. For $60, though, a backer would get all that and 100-page art book. $250 would get you a signed poster on top of the other rewards. $1,000: a mini portrait painted by the game’s artist. And, finally, for $10,000, four backers could visit the studio and have lunch with Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert.

Within weeks of Double Fine launching their campaign Brian Fargo and his studio, InXile Entertainment, launched a campaign to fund Wasteland 2:

Fargo, the founder of Interplay Entertainment, the studio which created Fallout and published the Baldur’s Gate series, had managed to get the rights to Wasteland back from Konami in 2003. In nine years of scratching out a sequel to the RPG which inspired Fallout, despite the success of Fallout 3, he couldn’t get a single publisher to fund the game.

In a process he parodies in the video above, Fargo found big publishers weren’t interested in funding a top-down, turn-based RPG. Even though the genre had found massive success in the '90s, publishers weren’t interested.

“This might be the last chance for Wasteland 2,” Fargo says in the pitch video. “This didn’t exist as an opportunity even a couple of years ago. I’m hoping this sort of fan funding brings back a genre that I love to play and I love to make.”

And, boy, did it.

Wasteland 2 went on to raise $2,933,252, smashing its original $900,000 target. After hitting its initial goal, InXile spurred on further funding by introducing what would come to be known as stretch goals. The team said that at $1.25 million it would make “the world bigger, adding more maps, more divergent stories and even more music” and if backers donated more than $1.5 million then, as well as growing the world further, Wasteland 2 would be ported to Mac and Linux.

While Double Fine’s success spurred on a few other point’n’click developers to run campaigns, most notably Gabriel Knight’s creator Jane Jensen and Broken Sword creator Charles Cecil, it was Wasteland’s success that revived an entire genre.

Since Wasteland we’ve seen Obsidian kickstart a new Infinity Engine-style RPG: Pillars of Eternity; Larian funded development of its Ultima-like Divinity: Original Sin; and Richard Garriott funded Shroud of the Avatar his spiritual successor to Ultima Online. Each of them taps into a different style of RPG which had, for more than a decade (or, in some cases two) had sat untouched by publishers.

It’s a trend that’s showing no signs of slowing. Most recently we’ve seen Underworld Ascendant, a successor to Ultima Underworld (the first first-person RPG), find funding on Kickstarter. And, Fargo is returning to Kickstarter to fund Bard’s Tale IV, a dungeon crawler RPG, a genre which, besides Legend of Grimrock, hasn’t been seen in 20 years.

It’s glorious to see not just a single type of RPG finding funding on Kickstarter but an entire spectrum of RPGs being brought back from the dead.

Though it’s not just RPGs that have been revitalised by Kickstarter, it’s spurred on a new wave of space games.

In june 2012 a two-man team called Subset Games looked for $10,000 to complete development of their top-down space roguelike FTL. They raised more than $200,000, proportionally making it one of the most successful Kickstarters ever run. The game itself looked – and is – excellent but it was the setting that a lot of fans latched onto.

Shortly after FTL’s success, Chris Roberts, creator of the Wing Commander games, started a crowdfunding campaign for Star Citizen. A successor to his earlier series, Roberts wanted to make a fully realised space fighter using the power of modern computers. From the initial pitch video it looked simply stunning:

Star Citizen expanded the scope far beyond the original Wing Commander games, though. Roberts and his team hoped to fund a full space-sim, with a galaxy filled with populated solar systems, reactive AI, and bustling trade routes. He raised more than $2 million towards Star Citizen through Kickstarter but has continued crowdfunding it through his own site and, so far, has raised a ridiculous $83,033,791.

As Star Citizen’s funding grew the team expanded the scope of their vision through stretch goals. The team’s added new ships, new star systems, a first-person shooter ship-boarding mechanic, planets you can land on and explore, and much, much more.

Roberts success brought David Braben, creator of Elite, to Kickstarter where he funded a new Elite game, the first in a decade.

Besides RPGs and space games, we’re seeing a spiritual successor to Bullfrog’s Syndicate games in the form of Satellite Reign, a Road Rash-like in Road Redemption, Mighty No. 9 is a spiritual successor to the Mega Man games from its creator Keiji Inafune, and, most recently, Koji Igarashi, producer of 13 Castlevania games is making a successor: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.

What we’ve seen in the past three years is a rejuvenation of the games industry. Suddenly we’re seeing talented, experienced developers working on a wide spread of genres long-thought dead.

Better still, these games don’t play like nostalgia projects: Wasteland 2 might be the sequel to a 27-year-old game but it plays like a thoroughly modern RPG; Broken Age is one of the most charming point’n’clicks ever released; and players are still exploring the depths of Elite: Dangerous’ simulated universe.

There’s no sign of this new life slowing down and, with the creation of storefronts like Steam Early Access, we’re seeing more and more avenues for developers to make the games they, and we, want.

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