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Six reasons why David Braben’s Kickstarter is exactly the right move

By on November 13, 2012

David Braben, one of the two original creators of Elite, the seminal space exploration, trading and combat game first released in 1982, has launched a Kickstarter campaign to create a new version of Elite. Many commentators have been very negative about David, the founder and owner of Frontier Developments, using Kickstarter to fund a game, based on a combination of assumptions of David’s vast wealth, connections with publishers and ability to self-fund the project. The naysayers are wrong, and here is why.

elite

1. Kickstarter is a test-marketing platform

I am a great believe in the Lean Startup school of thought. The principle is to find ways of testing the demand for your product by creating a Minimum Viable Product that will attract early adopters capable of grasping the vision of your product and “filling in the gaps” in the product that have still to be developed. A Kickstarter is a very Minimum MVP. If David can’t pre-sell £1.25 million of Elite, either his marketing sucks (see What David Did Wrong below) or there is no demand for the product. Better to know that now than after you have developed it.

2. Kickstarter is a source of capital

I have no insight into David’s personal finances. He may be as rich as Croesus. He may have ploughed all of his money back into keeping Frontier strong during the lean years that most AAA developers suffer. He may have a compulsive eBay habit or have frittered his Elite royalties on fine cigars and betting on dogs. It doesn’t matter.

There are some people who say that David should have funded the project out of his own money. I genuinely don’t understand that. It makes sense for a company to finding its working capital in the cheapest possible place: for most companies, that is operational income (and riasing money by the sale of pre-orders is basically that). The most expensive form of funding is to sell shares in your own company. Borrowing money against your company or a project, if you can find a bank willing to lend, comes next. Selling products in advance to people who really want to pay for it is a better commercial decision. David is offering people a chance to be part of the journey, to get a product they want and potentially other limited edition rewards. Why is it wrong to do this, rather than funding it himself?

3. Kickstarter exposes the demand curve

Some people would value a new Elite at the price of any boxed game. Some people would value it at more than £5,000 (this comes with dinner with David and the key team in Cambridge as well as the right to have a star system named after you). Others are somewhere in between. Kickstarter allows developers to harness the curve of demand. Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Adventure raised over $3.5 million. Fifteen per cent. of people who pledged pledged over $100. That small minority made up over half of the money raised. Kickstarter’s structure enables players to spend in a very different pattern from that of a “everyone pays the same price” model, and that is good for creators and good for the fans who want to spend money on things they value from a creator whose work they love.

4. Kickstarter is a social and marketing platform

Kickstarter is all about social. It is about harnessing the network of Twitter followers and Facebook fans that all sensible content creators have to make something happen. The site itself makes excellent use of many psychological selling techniques like social proof (showing you how many people have pledged, and on what tier), of scarcity (the countdown) and of likeability (although that depends on the pitch). If it is successful, it will make the launch of the new game much easier from a marketing perspective. Kickstarter will truly have kickstarted the project.

5. Kickstarter is not a publisher

I have seen comments that David should have gone to a publisher “because he can”. While there are good reasons to go with a publisher (marketing support, finance, global distribution, retail channels), that one is a rubbish one. Publishers only want massive titles that will sell several million units. The current troubles at THQ show what happens when you are too small to play with the big boys. Publishers typically finance the game and pay poor royalties. They insert milestones and junior producers to tell veteran developers how to do their job. They sit between the developer and their customer, which is deathly in this world of connected audiences. They are risk averse creatively, because the financial risks of launching a major AAA game are just so bloody massive. In short they probably wouldn’t have funded Elite and if they had, they would have done it on terms that would have been unacceptable to a creator.

(Note that I do believe that publishers can add value, but as the author of a book on self-publishing games, you would expect me to be a little negative, right?)

6. Kickstarter is a great platform for this

I have read comments that say words to the effect of “millionaire developers shouldn’t use Kickstarter at all”. Leaving aside David’s financials, I think this is a flawed statement. Kickstarter is not some social good (although in many ways it is). It is a place where ordinary consumers can participate in a journey of helping people make something.

For some people, that joy is in helping someone make a passion product. (I backed my colleague Zoya’s history of the Dreamcast told via a study of the games that people played on it for that reason). For others, it is to right a perceived wrong (“publishers should never killed adventure games”), or because they love the idea (“a watch where the screen can be anything you want it to be”), or for many other personal reasons.

Kickstarter is a place where you put your project out there to see if the audience you want to talk to cares enough to fund it. That is what David and his team at Frontier have done. All credit to them.

What David did wrong

There are many valid criticisms of the campaign. Launching a Kickstarter without a video is folly. The amount being asked for (£1.25m) is amongst the highest ever asked for on Kickstarter. (Not the amount raised, but the amount asked for. Tim Schafer only asked for $400,000 initially, but raised 9x that amount). The pitch was about past glories, not the prospects of the new game. It failed to excite users about being part of a creative endeavour or artistic journey, but instead relied on nostalgia. It has 60 days to raise the money, when most guidance suggests go short. None of these are existential, but they do make it easy for the criticisers to claim that this is a lazy, opportunistic fundraise, not a labour of love. I’m not sure that I believe that to be true, but I would very much like the Frontier team to take these criticisms to heart and respond to silence the cynics. The new video is a good start.

I believe that you can construct an argument – based on the weak initial Kickstarter page – that this is a cynical cash-in by a developer whose glory days are behind it. I think you can equally well see it as a marketing wobble from a developer who has a passion to make a product that many gamers want.

I’m inclined to think that Frontier just needs a few more marketing skills in house and all will be fine. With 53 days to go and over a third of the total raised, the money is not yet in the bag, but I think Elite has a good chance for a successful Kickstarter. Do you?

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
  • secularsage

    I agree that Kickstarter is the right platform for all of the reasons above. Where the Elite project has done so many things wrong, Chris Roberts and his similarly high-profile Star Citizen has done everything right. No one has seriously questioned whether Chris should be on Kickstarter, even though it’s not the only platform he’s been using for crowdfunding. His pitch video was awesome, his ideas have been on display since day 1 and the stretch goals have been strongly communicated. The Elite project could learn a lot from observing!

  • rupazero

    The criticism would seem to rest on point 4: Kickstarter is a very particular kind of marketing platform. Tadhg Kelly said something very smart about crowdfunding coming along with a particular marketing story. He’s right, if only about crowdfunding in the narrow sense of the Kickstarter model. There are other platforms with different vibes about them.

    The way I’ve been thinking about it lately, when you use Kickstarter (or indiegogo) you become those guys from Cool Runnings (if you haven’t seen Cool Runnings, wiki it). The Cool Runnings story is pre-baked into the endeavour. It’s a personal story – something I learned very late into my crowd-funding experience.

    People who do not personally need an injection of cash can come off as cynical on Kickstarter. The story behind the social marketing there is about, as you said, righting a wrong, be that the wrong of ‘it’s not fair that creative people have to struggle financially’ or the wrong of ‘it’s not fair that great ideas are passed over by gutless execs.’ There’s a scene in Cool Runnings that’s a montage of people in suits laughing in the faces of the guys asking them for funding. That’s the background for crowdfunding.

    Like you said, if you’re going to use Kickstarter or Indiegogo, you need to work with a story like that somehow. Kickstarter shouldn’t be used for pure pre-orders. You should offer people a chance to be part of a heroic story.

    I think it looks like the campaign will succeed anyway though :)

  • Elliott

    Reason 7: Fans and Early adopters get unique rewards for pledging.

    My name will feature in the game! How cool is that ?

  • Jason Schupfer

    It’s picking up now with a really good talk about procedural generation and the cloudscape that one could fly through is so sweet…

  • Mediocritas

    For over 10 years I got excited and then disappointed by the continual promises of Elite 4 being just around the corner. Those of us waiting came to suspect that we were being had and nothing was really being developed. Finally, the saga came to an end with a formal announcement that it was off the cards and the placemarker page was pulled from Frontier Development’s website. Now we get a Kickstarter, one of the laziest efforts, worst pitches, overblown targets and crappy reward tiers I’ve ever seen and, surprise, surprise, after allegedly being a SkunkWorks project for FOURTEEN YEARS, there’s nothing of note to see.

    Not contributing this this one. Elite belongs in warm, distant memories, where it truly was something special. I don’t believe Braben has the resources or know-how to deliver an equivalently brilliant game in the modern era, particularly given that he has no Ian Bell equivalent to stop him making a boring, bug-ridden simulator instead of a game (Frontier anyone?).

  • Drew Wagar

    Good article. First I’ve seen that presents this fairly with decent critique of the approach. Bravo.

  • terry

    Hmmm, the comparison between the Elite project and Star Citizen is an interesting one. If Chris Roberts has done ‘everything right’, what are the reasons for this? Just an amazing pitch video? OR the fact that he utilized other crowdfunding sources, as well as Kickstarter. I would imagine that as a personality in the business, certainly in the US that Roberts has a bigger reputation than Braben and perhaps a bit more marketing nous. Being british and having grown up with the original Elite (on the BBC model B) I really really want to see the Elite project happen, as I trust Braben 100%. I just hope the ‘Britishness’ with which the project has been undertaken so far doesn’t kill it before it starts…

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