Indie Game Crowdfunding 101 (or two)

On June 22, 2011, in Business & Industry, by Steffen Itterheim

These days the game Interstellar Marines is making news. It’s an FPS that rivals top titles like Halo but it started out as a four-man project in 2006 and is entirely funded by the community. The game is available for free as chunk-size bites called chapters that can be played for free. And it’s being developed with Unity, probably the leading game development framework for indie developers.


Interstellar Marines – unbelievable but crowdfunded!

Crowdfunding platforms

The successes seen by crowdfunded games have created a demand that several crowdfuning websites try to fill. The latest addition is GamesPlant, founded by game business experts where projects can be created in any currency and relies on the Paypal platform.

Other indie game crowdfunding platforms include 8-Bit Funding, the Indie Fund (only selected projects) and Playism (Japanese, english version in Q3 2011). Of course there are more general purpose platforms that have also worked for games, like Kickstarter (creative projects), RocketHub (creative projects), Pledgie (general purpose) and Indie GoGo (general purpose).

Should you aim for a crowdfund?

It depends.

One indie developer nails it down to driving traffic. Obviously, just putting your game up on a crowdfunding platform and hoping for the best isn’t going to work. Hope is not a strategy. I cringe when someone uses the “hope” word in a sentence about the future of anything. If you have to rely on hope, you could as well start playing the lottery.

Driving traffic is the core issue, and I believe many developers seem to forget that. You have to have a website dedicated to your project and depending on where you are in your development cycle, it should be a seperate website apart from your personal blog and past projects.

You can have lots of “fans” of your project in someone else’s forum or website. But ultimately you want that traffic to go to your website. And once you have that, you can start thinking about funding your project. If you have a tight-knit community, then donations or pre-orders might work great for you. Or any of the other funding options. Or you could try crowdfunding as your primary option and simply direct your fans and drive your traffic to the crowdfunding website. It’s rarely going to be the other way around.

In any case, you will have to drive the traffic to the desired destination. Traffic does not come by itself, and without traffic there is no funding and no revenue. And for crowdfunding specifically, the more you have to show from your game the more likely it is that you are going to see a return in investment. It’s a constant give and take. Don’t expect to take first, then give sometime later. It’s the other way around, and this may be the ultimate misunderstanding of crowdfunding.

You do have to make payments in advance yourself. Without investing anything you won’t be getting anything back in return. That initial investment doesn’t have to be money though, it’ll be time and dedication that you’ll have to invest at a minimum. And you’ll have to show that with convincing screenshots, trailers, podcasts or vodcasts, frequent blog posts and so on. Convincing in two ways: one, you’ll be able to pull this off and show enough dedication for the project. Two, the game should promise to be fun and exciting and offer something new or refreshing.

Those are the ingredients for starting a game that can’t be completed without external financial support.

Prerequisites To (Crowd) Funding

I believe investments are often misunderstood by those who have never received an investment. To receive investment of any form, you first have to invest yourself. Quite literally: invest your time into the project, and if you can, your money. The more you do the more you show dedication. That’s step 1.

If you can’t possibly finance the whole game and you have to have an investment of some kind, your focus immediately has to shift from programming and creating game content to marketing. Only program and create content that you can show the world in some form or another. Anything that creates interest or buzz. A randomly generated world. A fun-to-watch teaser trailer. Anything you can make a story off of.

You will have to market something that doesn’t exist yet, except in your dreams and in your mind. I think this is giving some developers a bad stomach feeling, after all you’re taking money from others just on a promise. If you have that feeling, please re-consider your dedication for the project. If you don’t know whether you’ll be able to keep your promises and deliver, you may not be as invested in the project and convinced of yourself as you need to be. That’s what I mean by investing yourself.

Of course there will always be phases of doubts, so don’t stop on the first sign of doubt but know when you have to stop. Your best cure will be to keep on working. If needed work on something else that you’re not currently stuck on. I always have something else to work on, and some other website to post on, in order to be able to shift focus and just keep on working on something I feel like working on at the moment.

Make progress as often as you can – contrary to common project management wisdom what you work on does not always have to be goal-oriented or even useful. After all, we’re in a creative business, and creativity can not be had if you strictly follow instructions – whether they’re your own or someone else’s (your boss, your investor, your community). Just don’t piss them off too much. Quick bit of wisdom: it is much easier to apologize afterwards with something to show for than it is to ask for permission with only a promise and potential risks.

Finally, show that progress. That’s step 2. Rinse and repeat step 2 for as long as it gives you enough satisfaction. Notice that I said satisfaction, not revenue – unless your investor(s) call(s) for that. In which case you’ll have to be 100% ok with revenue generation being your central goal from the get-go. Don’t expect to be able to mix pleasure and business – it can happen but you can hardly ever plan for that, and business has a tendency to take away pleasure and fun from a project in the long run.

Luckily, in that regard you’re mostly off the hook if you use crowdfunding. And I believe that’s where its power lies – it requires a good connection between customers and developers from the start.

What’s The Best Investment Option?

Plain and simple: invest in yourself. Everything else follows from that.

Disclaimer

Take a time-out if needed to focus on other things. Don’t feel bad about that. Continuing to work for the wrong reasons and despite growing discomfort will result in the ultimate failure – be aware of the warning signs!

Burnout can happen everywhere, not just in big corporations!

The iPad doesn’t need Flash! Period. End of discussion.

On February 7, 2010, in Opinion Pieces, by Steffen Itterheim

I got into an argument with my colleagues about how much it sucks that the iPad doesn’t have flash. The argument was that most of the web – or at least 50% of the web already relies on Flash. The point being: who would buy that iPad thing if it doesn’t provide a good web browsing experience?

I say, the iPad doesn’t need Flash! And neither does any other mobile device! Only very rarely do i come across a webpage that doesn’t render on my iPhone and yes, typically in these cases it’s because of Flash content. But for some people, especially developers themselves, Flash has become something like ubiquitous for web browsing – but only in their mind aka their limited view of the web and because they know the technology when they see it. So they see, expect and even demand Flash everywhere even though it is far from everywhere on the web and not everything that looks like Flash, is actually Flash (say hello to good old animated GIFs). Besides, what purpose does Flash really serve on webpages anyway?

From my point of view: games, humorous and playful entertainment art, graphic designer homepages, marketing firm websites and flashy (pun intended) advertising product pages cover almost all Flash use. Rarely if ever is one of these sites of daily use, most don’t even encourage nor expect recurring visits. They’re novelties. About the only useful application of Flash on a popular website i can think of is its use on Youtube to play videos, or any streaming video service for that matter. Some websites use it to create polls or an image slideshow, so not the kind of content you can’t go without, it’s barely a nice to have item. I agree that missing out on Youtube’s content would be a major pain in the rear and not something i’d like to do without. But hey, as coincidence (really? not!) would have it there’s the “Youtube” app for the iPhone! Great. And easier to use than the website, too! And if you think about the games, even though at first sight it might be cool to have these on the iPad, most just wouldn’t work. They expect and rely on keyboard and mouse, so with the exception of simple point & click games most games would be useless and it would be a very frustrating experience for an iPad user to find the games that actually work on his device. In contrast, over time specific iPad Flash games would surely be developed but in a similar manner their experience would then be less compelling for a user with mouse and keyboard.

Keep in mind, it’s the website creators who provide the web browsing experience – not the technology used on the web to accomplish that. Which is why i appeal to all website creators (they blatantly refer to themselves as “designers”): it’s your effing business to provide a great web browsing experience! And that goes for mobile devices as well – if you do care for them. If your target audience doesn’t use these devices, then be all flashy and what not, i won’t care. But i suppose even your target audience might sometimes prefer a standard HTML version of your webpage rather than the slow, awkward flash site your designers came up with, right? And since that one already exists, why not make that the default for mobile devices. Oh, it is, already? How neat!

Anyhow: it’s not the device’s fault that it doesn’t do Flash, nor does it matter – it’s the website creator’s fault if they don’t provide a Flash-free website version of whatever content they offer. In the long run it’s them who will lose out, not the iPad user. And let’s be honest: since the dawn of the iPhone, how many websites that you frequently visit on your iDevice has at some point in time started showing you an iPhone optimized or even dedicated version over the last two years? Many. And many more are to come. And i rejoice because it’s time Flash gets that significant counterweight so that web designers use Flash only where it makes absolute sense instead of being an abomination of web designer’s power over web browsing standards (and privacy, for that matter).

To experience what a web without Flash would be like, i’ve installed FlashBlock for the browser of my choice, which is Opera. I’m curious to know how many websites that i use really make use of Flash. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’ll be much less than 5%. In addition, check out the web’s 500 most popular websites, and tell me which of those make use of Flash that you can not go without. You’d be hard pressed to find any besides the occassional streaming video. Why? Simply because they know how to create websites that perform well, meet user’s expectations and needs, provide the content in digestible pieces and in a way that supports all platforms. And that way is still plain, good old HTML. So if Flash were to suddenly disappear from the world, once the initial shock has passed we could all live without it remarkably well.

To partially prove my point, i googled for the “most popular flash sites”. Surprisingly there was just one article in the google search what i was looking for, it is listing the Top 10 Best Flash Websites of 2010 – none of which i’ve ever heard of. And after having looked at each of them, i can proclaim: i don’t need any nor do i wanted to see most of these. Not even on my computer. Don’t get me wrong: they’re all excellent quality and have pretty amazing visuals but they’re just not the kind of experience i typically look for on the web. They’re worth the occassional distraction but unless a Flash site captivates me at first sight, i’m out. Probably just two of these Top 10 Websites would have caught my (short) attention. And the functional websites of these are all but that – at one site i didn’t know what to do or what i was able to do, at two sites what i wanted to do didn’t work (content not loading or no user feedback that content is loading), and one site even got stuck in the loading screen the first two attempts leaving me to guess whether it’ll ever finish loading. Those are just some of the problems of Flash as a web design tool – on an iDevice it would even be worse. If the performance of Flash sites on my Mac Mini is any indication, the iPad let alone the iPhone/iPod wouldn’t handle Flash very well – i suspect many Flash sites would simply be unusable on an iDevice simply due to performance issues.

And so, we should view the iPad in a different light and try to understand it better instead of pointing out irrelevant flaws. Like, for example, Noel Llopis speculating about who the users will be and how they are likely to use the iPad. That is so inspiring! And without even mentioning Flash Ben Patterson expects the iPad will be a killer Web browsing device. From this post it becomes apparent that Apple understands its users better than the users themselves. And once the skeptical but rationalizing gadget geeks (aka early adopters) like him are on board, the rest will follow suit over time.

Btw, i would like to ask the readers to point out Flash websites that are visited regularly, or which are very popular, and use Flash to render significant portions of their content. Between my searches and the people i asked, only the Disney website was a “pure” Flash website. Apparently a 37+ billion $ company doesn’t need mobile users visiting their website, nor do they care enough to at least build a stub site, as you can see from the screenshot. All other websites i visited are using Flash content mostly for ads, streaming movies (again: mostly ads), slideshows (ads), polls (with embedded ads) and a little bit of interactive content (including ads). Ads being so prevalent that complaining about the lack of Flash support for the iPad is almost as if people were complaining that the iPad won’t show all those beautiful ads.

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