Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Returns Returns!

We got another one! Harebrained Schemes has launched a new Kickstarter campaign for their new expansion to Shadowrun Returns. It’s looking really, really good… it’s set in Hong Kong, which is a perfect location for the cyber-noir vibe of Shadowrun, and the information they’ve shared so far about the setting, story, and characters all sound really intriguing.

As excited as I am to see the campaign, I’m almost more happy to see the way they’re approaching this Kickstarter. Attitudes towards crowd-sourced funding are much more mature now than they were a couple of years ago. There’s no longer that magical sense of, “Here’s a lever we can pull to get free money to make awesome games that will be perfect in every way!” We’ve seen enough successes, failures, and blowbacks that canny observers like HBS can predict the likely shape of their campaign, and plan accordingly. A few particularly interesting things caught my eye:

Lack of physical rewards. This was initially disappointing to me, but it makes a lot of sense. In almost every video game kickstarter I’ve been involved in, one of the major things the companies talked about at the end was how the physical rewards took more time and money to distribute than they had initially planned; in multiple cases this ended up meaning the difference between a planned slight profit and an actual slight loss. This time around, they only have two options for physical rewards, both of which are at higher tiers of $150+ and thus will have fewer claimants (and, notably, are not personalized at all). So I get it, even as I regret it; the T-Shirt and Doc Wagon card from the first campaign might be my favorite premiums from any Kickstarter I’ve been involved in.

Focus on the PC. This seems more unique to Shadowrun than crowd-funding generally. HBS’s very first goal (before the initial SRR kickstarter) was closer to a casual game, similar to their Crimson Pirates title, which would run on pretty much anything. Thanks to the runaway success of the Kickstarter, they got the funding to make a more featureful engine with 3D elements, particle effects, and a bigger scope. They kept their tablet goal in mind, and eventually released for tablets as well, but it’s a stripped-down affair there. So, the Hong Kong campaign is declaring itself PC-only up front. This is smart sense financially and technically, since it lets them focus in on a particular target and create the best game they can for that without needing to worry about constrained devices. But it’s also a smart move socially. The PC gaming community is an intense and loyal one, and a strong declaration like this will reassure a lot of potential backers and encourage more to join in. (There are still a large number of tablet gamers, but they don’t seem to be as strong a presence.)

Up-front about project status and finances. HBS teased this campaign late last year, and there’s been some grumbling from malcontents in the community: If the franchise is doing well, why go back to Kickstarter again? Why not act like a big boy and sign on with a traditional publisher? To me, this had seemed like a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation: companies who haven’t done Kickstarters before are looked at with suspicion since they haven’t proven they can deliver, while companies like HBS which have run successful Kickstarters before are looked at with suspicion since they should presumably have all the money they need forever. So I think it’s not only nice, but wise, for HBS to highlight what’s going on with Hong Kong and why they’re doing another Kickstarter. The game is happening no matter what, and will come out even if the project were to somehow fail. (Spoiler: It won’t.)

Unlimited backer slots available. This actually surprised me a little; most of the campaigns I see make use of a restricted number of backers allowed at particular levels. Typically, the lower levels (like "Pay $5 to get on our mailing list and receive a free digital wallpaper!") take all comers. At the higher levels (like "Pay $5000 and get a producer credit, plus a hand-crafted bust of your face from one of our artists!"), only a handful will be available. Recently, many projects have started using a large but limited number of slots at lower levels to help drive early commitment to a project:  inXile has used this, for example, perhaps offering a $20 "early bird" package with a free digital download to the first 5000 backers at that level; after it fills up, they'll create a new $25 level which offers the same thing. That seems like it gives incentives for people to join sooner, which in turn helps speed up the funding drive and create more buzz for the project. Anyways, Hong Kong has none of that, at either the low or the high end. I'm sure that HBS has good reasons for it, but I'm a bit curious as to why. It might be that, if you misjudge a tier's popularity, your project could suffer: perhaps a ton of people like the rewards at $500, but if you artificially limited it to 10 backers, and people didn't want to increase to the $1000 tier, then you're potentially leaving a lot of money on the table when those people end up making $100 pledges instead. On the flip side, if someone comes to a project late, it looks bad if they scan the rewards and sees that only 3 of the 1000 slots at the $500 level have been taken. I suppose the best approach is just to make sure that the marginal cost at each tier is low enough that it always makes sense to add one more person. That said, I am curious what that will mean for stuff like the e-book; as of this writing, 58 people will be added as characters in the ebook, so it seems like at some point they're basically going to end up with a big list of names to fit them all in.

Varying fulfillment dates. This is one aspect of Kickstarter's interface which isn't great. Each tier has an "Estimated delivery". This is a good idea in general, since it gives backers a general idea of when to expect their stuff. For the Kickstarters I'm usually involved in, though, multiple deliverables are involved, each with their own timelines. In the case of Hong Kong, some early PDFs will go out next month; the game itself is tentatively scheduled for August; and the eventual e-book is scheduled for December. Which all makes sense, and is much better than them holding stuff back until everything is ready, especially if it meant that people pledging at lower levels got their stuff before higher pledgers did. The other wrinkle for video games, though, is what happens to that ship date. Often, if a video game kickstarter is very successful, stretch goals will result in adding more content and features to the game. That's a great thing, but does mean that the originally-announced release date ends up slipping, just due to the nature of how software development works. That seems to be less of an issue for Hong Kong; since they're working on top of an existing engine and have already delivered two campaigns, they probably have a clearer idea of how long this will realistically take. Still, I'm going to treat that August date as a very rough goal, and won't be disappointed if it takes them longer to release the game in the condition they want.

All the strong advance work by HBS has paid off, along with the devoted Shadowrun community (a sprawling affair, stretching from decades-long pen-and-paper players to neophytes who recently picked up Dragonfall on a Steam Sale) and other supporters, and so the campaign has started off with a bang. They asked for a modest $100k up front, and must have known that they would get it. They were funded in less than two hours and continue to rocket higher as time goes on. They've been gradually unveiling additional stretch goals as they knock out earlier ones, and it's looking like a strong set: upgrades to the cyberwear system, new types of summons, Foci for mages, and an overhaul of the Matrix. Folks in the community have also been chattering about some other stretch goals they'd like to see which seem pretty plausible, like an Astral system (which seems like it could fit nicely alongside their existing Matrix system) and upgrades to the editor.

So, we'll see where it all goes! It's a long-duration Kickstarter, and will be going on for more than a month. If you've previously played and enjoyed Shadowrun Returns and/or Dragonfall, consider pitching in! You're basically pre-ordering the game for a very reasonable $15, and getting some nice bonuses for doing so. Personally, I'm taking advantage of the opportunity to go after one of the higher tiers: after SRR successfully shipped, I kicked myself for not springing for one of the higher levels that would have actually inserted my presence into the game itself in one form or another, and thus gotten a taste of sweet immortality. Back then, there was a lot of excitement but also a lot of uncertainty around Kickstarter and how reliable companies would be at delivering on their promises. As far as I'm concerned, Harebrained Schemes have proven themselves, and I feel the confidence I need to stretch a little further in helping them reach their goals. 

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