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Commentary: Straight to the Source

Posted on September 7, 2013 AT 04:14pm

Game Designer, Obsidian Entertainment
Chris Avellone

How Kickstarter has shattered the wall between players and developers

I’ve been involved with four successful Kickstarter projects: inXile’s Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera, Obsidian’s Project Eternity, and Wayside Creations’ Web series, Fallout: Nuka Break. I’ve backed other initiatives, too—both those tinged with nostalgia for particular mechanics or franchises (Shadowrun, Dreamfall Chapters: The Longest Journey) and those revolving around new art or design concepts (Unwritten: That Which Happened, Forsaken Fortress).

Until Double Fine took the first step with their Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter, though, I didn’t realize how much the crowdfunding service would impact my life—or the studios I work at. I’m not talking the funding model itself—although I believe it’s revolutionary to the industry and long overdue. It’s all about what Kickstarter means for us as developers. It’s been a welcome trade-off of management challenges, camaraderie among Kickstarter companies rather than paranoia, and an unheard-of level of creative freedom.

But most importantly? You can talk with the fans and share materials with them right from the get-go—which has worked out from a pragmatic sense, as well as boosting morale.

At times during Wasteland 2’s development, I did an emotional 180 that made me realize how much I’d been conditioned to fear sharing. I did a lot of work with inXile on the vision document for Wasteland (about seven or eight drafts, at least). All that time, I was quietly terrified about its reception—as developers, we’d been trained to not share things like this, ever. I felt equally terrified when we showed early screenshots of Wasteland 2. Wouldn’t gamers tear it apart? Wouldn’t they hate it if it weren’t 100 percent perfect? We’d been trained not to release anything that hadn’t been meticulously polished and scrutinized, often selected from a pool of hundreds of images gathered by QA, marketing, and interns desperately stabbing the print-screen key to capture that perfect moment that would generate millions in sales.

The reaction to the Vision Doc and the screenshots surprised me. The backers loved seeing it. Sure, they had comments and questions, but the reception was positive. At that moment, I realized there was a new way to engage our audience—and, contrary to conditioning, it was a positive experience.

This level of sharing with Kickstarter broke my conditioning and showed me there’s another way to develop games that can inspire your team, inspire the audience—and, to my management brain, is a smarter way to approach game pitches.

This level of sharing has its practical benefits as well. One of the biggest issues with working for a publisher is the gamble: You’re creating a product you hope people will want, and you reveal it six to 12 months before its ship date, after which it’s undergone considerable assumptions and work devoted to it among a small, select group of people at the developer and the publisher. At that point, if it doesn’t match a wide range of consumer expectations, the goal is to hype as many people interested as possible into buying it. And when I say “12 months,” often that 12-month mark is to showcase little of the game itself other than a teaser. When it comes to systems, player movement, or the core of what the game is about, that’s later down the road. Once you release info on that, often there’s no turning back or time to iterate on something that doesn’t resonate with the public.

So, this leads publishers to stack the probabilities of a successful release by falling back on comfortable franchises and mechanics, a wide range of platform releases, and a frighteningly large marketing budget. Sometimes, it works. It definitely leads to titles that have a certain sameness, with slight art or design improvements from year to year.

With Kickstarter, the nature of sharing helps to prevent a lot of these problems; it’s more efficient. You present your high concept within 30 days, and if your target audience doesn’t care or if you can’t make a compelling case, it doesn’t get funded. That’s it. Compared to a two- to three-year cycle, 30 days is nothing.

If it does get funded, nowyou have direct access to your core audience; you can share the design and art principles stage by stage so that people can see how the game is being built—and why. While it’s ideal to get sales beyond just the backers themselves, the fact you have the funding and built-in audience allows you to make the game for them and know who “they” are. Your target audience is right there with you.

This level of sharing with Kickstarter broke my conditioning and showed me there’s another way to develop games that can inspire your team, inspire the audience—and, to my management brain, is a smarter way to approach game pitches. Pitch to your players. You have to answer to them, regardless of the development model, so why not go to the source and ask them what they value?

Seems smart to me.

—Chris Avellone loves role-playing games and has been GM’ing them on paper and computers since junior high. He’s the creative director and one of the founders of Obsidian Entertainment. When not being a human stretch goal on Kickstarter, he can be found on Twitter @chrisavellone if you want to ask him, well, anything.

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