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Blockbusters, Board Games and Billion Dollar Industries

When it comes to developing a game, the big problem facing many smaller developers can simply be summarised as money, money, money.

In the rich man's world of top tier game development, smaller studios have traditionally struggled to find the necessary capital from publishers or investors to turn their game idea into a commercial release - killing many ideas before they've had a chance to prove their worth (or otherwise).

Kickstarter has, however, changed that dynamic for game developers. Since its launch in 2009, it has helped game creators to pitch for funding directly from individuals: allowing successful campaigners to receive funding to create their projects and maintain full control over their property.

How though has the Kickstarter market for funding games shaped up? What opportunities are there for game developers? And what role does the platform hope to play in the future.

Ahead of his appearance at the Develop Conference in Brighton, I caught up with Luke Crane, Head of Games at Kickstarter, to find out.

2015 was a bumper year for games projects on Kickstarter, with the platform helping dozens of creators to successfully raise $133.6m in funding - breaking records along the way.

"Last year was our biggest year ever by a wide margin, both with backers (the number of people backing projects) and the amount of money that was pledged to those projects," Crane explains. "All of those numbers were up last year and this year we're matching last year, which is pretty amazing."

Big name titles played a big part in that success. The Banjo Kazooie spiritual successor Yooka Laylee was funded by the platform successfully, while Shenmue 3 rode the E3 hype train to funding success when its Kickstarter was announced on stage at Sony's conference last year.

This year, however, the blockbuster titles aren't really coming out to play. Aside from System Shock, there have been few big name titles seeking backing on the platform.

That has significantly reduced the amount of funding for digital games through Kickstarter. According to a report from ICO Partners, released shortly after our interview with Crane, funding for digital games on Kickstarter was down from nearly $20m in H1 2015 to $8.2m in H1 2016 - a year on year knock of $11.8m.

How then do we square Crane's assertion that we're on course for another bumper year at Kickstarter games with the research indicating that funding for digital titles appears to be considerably down?

First, Crane identified an uptick in the number of developers seeking less funding that could make a dent in the funding deficit. Corroborated by the ICO Partners report, which suggested record numbers of smaller campaigns were succeeding on the platform, Crane was quick to celebrate these successes on Kickstarter.

"The shift this year has been to mid tier projects raising less than $500,000," Crane said. "These are really benefitting small creators who are heading to Kickstarter and finding an audience, money and support to make their games."

Second, Crane believes that there is a cyclical nature to when Kickstarter blockbusters drop that has to be accounted for. Having been at the company for four years, Crane thinks that the time taken to prepare a high profile campaign naturally spreads these releases over time.

"I just think it comes in waves. I think it takes time to assemble a team, build a community, prep a game, launch a project," he explained. As a result, big name Kickstarters tend to come every other year.

"And y'know in 2012/2013, we saw a bit of a mix. 2013 was really strong in that mid tier area, even though there were a few blockbusters. 2014, we didn't have any blockbusters. Then 2015 comes around and it seemed like every month another project is breaking records."

Still, barring a sudden surge of big name titles in the second half of 2016, it is very hard to see digital games bridging that $10m gap and supporting Crane's predication that we will continue to see "a gentle undulation upwards" in the overall games funding market on Kickstarter.

So where is the extra value going to come from? Some of it might well be leaking to other platforms, as was the case with Psychonauts 2's crowd funding campaign.

But the main way Kickstarter will probably hope to bridge that gap isn't from digital games; it's from good old-fashioned table top titles. And they're looking most likely to be the major driver of funding growth on the platform in the near future.

Digital games are, all things considered, a small slice of the game funding pie on Kickstarter. Though they generated $41.3m in funding on the platform last year, table top games generated $84.6m. And though that may seem a stand out figure, according to Crane it shouldn't be seen as unusual at all.

"You're just looking at the highest mark of the trend," Crane explained. "I got to watch the table top community go "oh really?" that's nice [to the Kickstarter option]. And slowly, like starting a locomotive and getting this engine revved up, it started moving this tonnage down the tracks."

By 2013, table top funding was just behind its digital counterpart. It then overtook digital in 2014, before powering ahead in 2015. It's therefore conceivable that the shortfall in digital could be made up by table top games, particularly when the likes of the Dark Souls board game attracted huge user interest.

But why has table top proven so big on Kickstarter? For Crane, the key lies in how hard it is to get good table top games - turning consumer demand into a funding opportunity.

"With digital games I can get a game on Steam, go to the App Store or a PC gaming store," says Crane. "There are so many outlets to get a digital game - GOG, Humble etc. But there's nothing similar for table top games."

Of course, table top players can buy board games through an e-commerce site like Amazon. But without a digital storefront that doubles up as a community space, a la Steam, the process of backing a Kickstarter for a tabletop game and talking about it in the community has acted as an acceptable alternative in the meantime.

"What I see is an incredibly active and enthusiastic community that exists both on and off Kickstarter. They're gathering on Kickstarter to rally around what would be in digital games small projects, but in table top games are quite significant. But you also have that community going offsite to Reddit, Boardgaming.net and these other online communities to continue the conversation there."

As a result, table top fans have become one of the most active backers of Kickstarter campaigns across all demographics and categories. And even Crane can't totally get his head around it.

"[Tabletop] Backers are still coming back and backing four times as many projects as the typical backer - that's a huge stat, it's not one and half or two and a half it's four time. I don't know exactly what's going on there, but it's happening."

So while digital titles are still placed reasonably well to benefit from a solid Kickstart, it appears that table top will be providing the majority of the growth in the space.

Finally, we moved on to discuss the overall hopes and dreams of Kickstarter as a platform. Though it's traditionally been seen as a platform for developers starting out or for a big name to work on a niche product, bigger companies such as Square Enix has used Kickstarter as a way to fund their own internal projects instead.

Is this evidence that big companies are commandeering Kickstarter for their own risk reducing purposes? For Crane the answer is an obvious yes. But he was quick to point out that the major benefits of the platform are still reaped by smaller developers.

"I have way more small creators coming up to me saying this has changed the industry," Crane says. "Rather than investing my life savings into something, making thousands of copies of it and having them sit in my garage hoping someone will order them, now I can take this straight to the community and see how many they want, collect the money there and make the game."

"It's an amazing subversion of the previous model of making things blind and hoping. So digital games companies are using Kickstarter like that, but I can tell you that it makes sense to even the smallest table top creator."

At the same time though, the Kickstarter model doesn't mean risk is removed. Instead, it's transferred to the consumer. And though major failures are rare, the recent furore surrounding Mighty No 9, a poorly executed spiritual successor to the Mega Man series, showed that when these occur that they can damage individual confidence.

Crane is aware of when Kickstarter goes wrong, principally because he's been on the receiving end of it. Calling these failures "regretsies", which I doubt is official teminology but I like it all the same, he told me about a time where he backed an unnamed table top game and then realised he had made a big mistake.

"I was at a show and I saw a demo of it and then I was like 'ooh, I don't know if I'll play that.'" So if even the person running the games programme at Kickstarter can accept that he will fund things that end up failing to deliver, it's a warning to individuals that any campaign comes with risk attached.

Nevertheless, Crane was keen to emphasise the positives of the platform - the biggest of which was the Oculus Rift. Though he admitted that the team wistfully have "what if" conversations about what they would have done if its Kickstarter success had translated into share options for them, Crane and the gaming team's pride in allowing independent creators to thrive mostly overrules that.

"We're happy for the Oculus Team, we're proud to be a part of that to provide a springboard and to have helped trigger this industry wide conversation [about VR]. That's great and that's where we should be in that initial sparking stage."

Because ultimately for Kickstarter, it seems the long-term goal is to always be there to support independent companies and allow them to keep control of what they've created. And though the Rift is the biggest example of that, it seems clear that is the cherry on the top rather than the whole cake.

"The great thing about Kickstarter is that process of having us there as this partner early on helps protect independents. Because we're not an incubator, an investor, a publisher a VC, these teams get the money and can do with it what they will. They own it, it's theirs and that's so important."

And though that might not mean they'll always have a slice of the pie when the biggest break out successes happen, it appears that Crane and Kickstarter plan to support independent creators for a long time in the future.

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