How much funding can a videogame studio secure in mere 24 hours? $10,000? $50,000? $100,000? Obsidian Entertainment has proven that – in fact – it’s much, much more. Their newest game, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, a sequel to one of 2015’s most acclaimed cRPGs, has reached its minimum funding goal in less than a day since the campaign was launched, raising Obsidian an astonishing amount of USD $1,100,000; and, with half a month still to go, it’s sure to raise them much more. How is that possible?
In this article, we’re taking a long look at Obsidian’s most recent campaign in search for reasons that made it successful; we’re essentially breaking it down to its tiniest pieces to analyze the strategy that has brought it so much success. If one studio can make it, every studio can make it; read on to find how!
Crowdfunding a Videogame
It’s not hard to crowdfund a videogame. Let’s face it: we live in a world of gamers. My father, he’s a gamer. My mother? She’s a gamer. My boyfriend? But of course! I can tell it for sure that when my child is born, he or she will be a gamer. The point is: games are no longer niche. Funding one is getting easier, easier, and easier. The numbers that could have been surprising in 2007 are completely unsurprising in 2017. $4 mln for the new Torment; $4 mln for the first Pillars. Star Citizen, anyone? ($150 million.)
So. The backers are there, the potential ones; lots of them indeed. And in most cases it’s much easier to convince them to participate in a crowdfunding campaign than anyone else! The gamers are already used to acquiring stuff (namely games) via the Internet. The truth is that they’re one of the pillars of e-commerce. It’s not a problem for them to pay for e-version of the product; they already know it’s all right. Thus, it’s easier to convince them to back a crowdfunding project (compared to, e.g., furniture aficionados, who may not be into e-commerce this much and may require more convincing). For gamers, backing a crowdfunding campaign is not that different from pre-ordering a game; hence, these campaigns are often so successful. The target audience is already prepared.
Furthermore, gamers tend to follow their favorite studios. Just like readers tend to browse the Internet for a rumor that one of their beloved authors is working on a new book, gamers browse it for a rumor that there’s a sequel, prequel, or some spin-off of their favorite franchise in the works in their beloved studio. They look for more of where their best came from; and when they find a mention that there’s an ongoing crowdfunding campaign, they go there to check it out.
These are the three main reasons behind the fact that it’s much easier to crowdfund a videogame than anything else; these are the basics. Let’s have a look at some details now!
The Five Pillars of Pillars Success
My friend has recently penned an article outlining the basic requirements of every crowdfunding campaign. To succeed – he claims – you need four things. These four things are: an idea distinctive enough to be worth following, good promotion (this includes promotional materials like photos, screenshots, or trailers, and all of the campaign’s author’s renown), well-designed stretch goals & rewards, and, most importantly, a plan. Since Deadfire’s campaign is this successful, it’s a safe bet that it has it all; we’ll have a look at each one of these things below. There’s another reason behind its success, though; one that I’ll delve into at the end of this article. This reason is the increased demand for this kind of game. Whether it’s a matter of the renaissance of the classic roleplaying games becoming a fact or something else entirely, the increase of demand remains a fact; there’s no point in arguing – the sales of these games dispel all the doubts.
The basic idea is simple here: to give people a sequel to one of the best games they’ve played. When it comes to the details, however, it’s much more nuanced than that. There are different kinds of sequels and I think that we can all agree that it’s never the best idea to give people “more of the same”. Although such strategy can work in the short run, in the longer it’s bound to fail and disappoint (the Assassin’s Creed series is the perfect example). Thus, a studio has to maintain the proper balance between “the old” and “the new”: a thing that Bethesda does right with its flagship series The Elder Scrolls (and Fallout). In other words, the idea has to be distinctive enough to attract fans attention.
Let’s have a look at examples. The fact that I’m mentioning The Elder Scrolls here is no coincidence. If we look at each of their installments, we will be able to acknowledge two things. First, that it’s obviously the same series; Skyrim may be different from Oblivion, but it’s not all that different as to become unrecognizable. All the defining characteristics are still there, still in place. Our second realization, however, will be that these two games are visibly different – and that it’s not only a matter of some cosmetic changes. Some of them can run deep (sometimes as deep as to the change of engine); deep enough for the game to be called a proper sequel.
When it comes to Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, however, such changes are not possible; though the game will run on the updated Unity engine (namely, Unity 5), it will still be much the same. Thus, Obsidian had to make some other changes; and this is where the thing is getting the most interesting. The main difference between Pillars of Eternity and Pillars of Eternity II will be in the setting: while the first game was set in foresty, medieval kind-of location, the second is to be set in much more tropical scenery; there’s this volcanic archipelago called Deadfire, much of it still unexplored, with plenty of yet unnamed creatures, indigenous folk, and all the mysteries. This is a drastical change of theme; drastical enough to make this game a proper sequel. And yet, it’s still recognizable, and not only because of the mechanics and lore, but also because of something that’s called “art direction”: though the new Pillars does look different, the game strays nowhere as far as, for example, highly-stylized Tyranny. There’s no mistaking it for any other – but similar – game; it stays stylistically coherent with its 2015 predecessor.
If we look at the history of this type of games, we’re sure to notice that the question “How to make it different?” is in no way a new problem. Infinity Engine-based games (to which Pillars are a spiritual successor) also had to face this problem. They managed to do that pretty well; though all of them are based on similar mechanics and set in the same multiverse, there can be no mistaking Baldur’s Gate for Icewind Dale (not to mention Planescape: Torment). In fact, there’s no mistaking Baldur’s Gate for Baldur’s Gate 2; somehow, these games are simply too different, and most of it is based solely on their main artistic themes. If it was enough for BG2 to be set a little bit south (in Amn) of where BG1 was set (Sword Coast) to make it a proper sequel, how can it not be enough for the second Pillars to be set on the Deadfire Archipelago?
The setting has to be interesting, then. Is it? Well: except for Risen 2 (which is, frankly, not the best game ever – actually, it’s rather a bad one) and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, there’s not too many new world-, pirate-, tropical setting-kind of games around; that’s a niche still waiting to be taken. And, since the area was already heavily foreshadowed in the first game (there was even a book describing some of its monsters), it can be very exciting for the fans to finally have the opportunity go there themselves. Speaking of opportunities: the opportunities that Obsidian has here (with all the possibilities of Unity-based RPG) are literally endless; will the studio take them? We’re about to see. What they shown us looks pretty impressive already; my hopes are certainly up for some beautiful volcanic vistas and stuff.
The promotional aspect is just as important; as a matter of fact, even more, since the promotion fuels the income. No matter if it’s a review or word-of-mouth marketing: if there’s no promotion, there can be no return.
Promoting a crowdfunding campaign can be a daunting task. First, the campaign itself has to be prepared adequately; there can be no shortcuts, no cut corners. Preparing a campaign is, in fact, not that different from preparing an advertisement, since – in fact – that is what the campaign is: a way to advertise one’s idea. Thus, every photo, every screenshot, every video has to be top-notch. One slip – and it’s done, all goes for nothing. (And I mean it, since crowdfunding is based on an all-or-nothing funding model: we either get all the funds we need to finish a product – or we get none.) The preparations have to be done really carefully; the better it’s done, the better the chances of funding the project.
But that’s not all. There’s also the second part, and it’s spreading the word, letting people know that it’s there, that there’s something they can back. This part is even harder – and often it also requires some money.
Fortunately, Obsidian is covered here on both of these fronts. As to the second part, the studio is well-known for its past achievements; besides, the game is a sequel. It helps a lot that the first installment was received so warmly; there’s plenty of people willing to write a piece on the second one. Be it a news, a mention, a video, an article, everything that’s written on Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire serves as an advertisement for this Obsidian’s campaign. The interest, the attention, it is already there. And it’s not that important if it’s because of the first Pillars’ success or because of Fallout: New Vegas’ – or even of South Park: The Stick of Truth’s – what matters is that it’s there; and it seems to be working.
When it comes to the first part, however – the campaign and how it’s prepared – there’s more to discuss here. The most important thing here is that it’s not being crowdfunded on Kickstarter. Instead, the developer has chosen to refer to Fig. There are plenty of reasons for doing so, especially if one is trying to raise money for a videogame; even more so if one is a member of Fig’s advisory board (and Obsidian’s Feargus Urquhart is such a member indeed). Fig is a good choice, because it allows the backers to do more than just back the developer with their pledges; it allows them to invest. And I mean it: people can actually buy project-dedicated shares there. It all works kind of like an IPO; the shares are offered to the public – and everyone can buy them (provided they have enough money). If the game sells well, the shareholders can hope for profit (in dividends). And to be an investor is entirely different from being a backer – and far more entertaining! (As a matter of fact, I’m looking to become one later this month – there’s no way I am letting this opportunity slip!)
This is quite a change of pace from the good old Kickstarter. To invest in a videogame – sounds cool, doesn’t it? Apart from that, however, it’s not that much different: not in terms of mechanics. The fact that Obsidian is using Fig (which is kind of new service – and one dedicated exclusively to crowdfunding videogames) can help the studio in terms of image and public relations. Being innovative and staying off the beaten path is, after all, what their target group value.
The campaign itself is extraordinarily well-prepared. Not as well as Banner Saga 3’s (which is a masterpiece of a campaign!), but still much better than the average. Obsidian’s strategy is a clever one here. What is it based on? Let me explain!
First, we know that the game is in pretty advanced phase of production. We know it – because they have told us. They have been working on it for more than a year now. A year is a lot of time, especially if the groundwork is already here; and since it’s a sequel, most everything is here. It has to be. Furthermore, Obsidian has a lot of experience with Unity engine; that much is obvious. My point? The point is that they are sure to have much more promo materials than they are showing us; and that is actually an ingenious move on their side. Why would they show us more? We already know what Pillars of Eternity is; there’s no need to explain. It’s more like teasing: showing a glimpse of the the direction they are taking with their game; showcasing some features, letting us at the premise of the plot; very clever move indeed. Because what we have here can be, basically, narrowed down to these few things: a trailer (albeit quite a long one), game box cover graphic, two character concept arts, two loading screen graphics, and six screenshots. Not much, certainly – but enough to make us want more, isn’t it? Especially because of what’s being shown there (more on this further down the article).
Of course it is. If we’re fans of the first game, it’s enough to show us six screenshots to make us want to see the rest of the Deadfire Archipelago. The studio is playing it safe: the campaign is mostly targeted at Pillars of Eternity’s fans. Which is in no way surprising, since Deadfire is a sequel; and yet, they are reaching out to other people, too, simply because what they’re showing us is so fantastic.
And what are they showing? Enough for the fans to start speculating (and that’s always a great thing when they do, since word-of-mouth marketing is the most powerful way of advertising your product). The old and the new: on the part of the old, there are returning companions (Pallegina and Eder); on the part of the new, there’s the setting, the updated graphics, some changes in the mechanics (like having a party of five instead a party of six, multiclassing, etc.). How very thoughtful of them to give us so little context for what’s being shown; makes us curious, makes us wonder! “What’s this, this thing that looks like melted body parts, there?” “And what’s this, this bloodred adra?” “Are we gonna have our ship?” And that’s exactly what they need; and let us not forget that they simply can’t tell us too much. We don’t want the plot to be spoiled; besides, we can safely assume that it’s only a part of their strategy: whatever they’re going to show us further down the line, it’s already there, prepared to be shown. Don’t ever let yourself believe that it’s a spontaneous decision on their part to show us what’s been shown! It’s more than likely that every update we’re going to be given is already prepared. We’re not being given more because there’s more to gain for the studio by showing us less at this point.
Stretch Goals & Rewards
The stretch goals are one of the most important ways to promote a campaign. Well-designed, they can make you succeed even if the project is not that very interesting; poor, they can sink it – even if it’s great. They are the mean of communication between you and your backers; as such, they are telling, indeed. If a goal is reached, it often is a sign that the community wants what you’ve proposed; if not, then there may be a problem. (The case in which the project has simply reached its funding limits – in which there’s no one else that could back it – is, of course, an exception here.)
When it comes to funding a videogame, the possibilities are simply endless. If it’s this kind of game, the most obvious option is to extend the game horizontally (that is: adding new quests, items, locations, companions, pets, mechanics, etc.). Developers usually go for this option; one should be careful here, however – it’s all too easy to promise more than you can deliver. The most recent case of a developer failing to fulfill his stretch goal promises is that of inXile and their Torment: Tides of Numenera – and it’s a cautionary tale. inXile has promised a lot, set great stretch goals, reached them – and then failed to communicate the changes that were made in the process of production. The community backlash was more than severe.
No wonder Obsidian is playing it safe. They are much more experienced when it comes to working with Unity engine; no doubt they know how much time it takes to add things like new locations, quests, or companions. Let’s face it: it’s not easy to make games larger in terms of the actual content. The amount of work that needs to be done for this new content to be on par with the core game is astonishing; there’s also a possibility of overextending a game (which is never a good thing). Instead of going in this tricky direction, Obsidian is giving us other possibilities: additional localizations (Russian, Polish, Spanish, Korean), additional NPC portraits, doubling the amount of voiceovers, etc. There’s a new companion, too, in terms of the content-focused stretch goals, as well as the raised level cap, but, truth be told, I doubt they haven’t had it planned from the get go; there’s a reason we get all these things at lower stretch goals, not the higher ones.
Are these goals well-designed? Well: yes and no. Some are better, some are worse. It’s not that important; what is important, though, is what they show us. And they show us that Obsidian basically has the whole game nailed down at this point: they’re simply adding stuff that’s easy to add. Portraits, voiceovers – even companion and level cap increase: it’s nothing truly substantial. These are cosmetic changes. (It’s not like the level cap raise is any significant here: from 16 to 18.)
So. To answer the question. Yes, the stretch goals are well-designed. They kind of serve as a bait here; I can’t help but think the studio is giving us what they’ve planned to give us anyway. It simply looks that way. And that’s why “no” can also be the correct answer here. I know that hiring actors to do voiceovers costs money (a lot, actually), but hey, it’s not like they’re changing their design documents anyhow, right?
That being said, it’s better than turning out to be another cautionary tale…
Stretch goals is one thing, backer rewards is another. I have to admit, the rewards here are great. Obsidian sure has learned a lot from their previous Pillars of Eternity campaign (and it’s always good to know that a studio is listening to feedback). What they’re offering looks appealing and substantial. Pledge $750, and you’ll be able to create an in-game item; pledge $1,250 – and get custom in-game portrait for your character based on your actual looks. At $3,000, you get to create a spell; at $5,000 you own an island or create an inn (you basically co-create a location with the developer team). $10,000? You get to meet the team. There are also other options, some more, some less interesting; overall, however, it’s clear that they took some thinking. And it paid off, it seems, since some rewards are already “sold out”.
What can be said – based on these rewards – is that, again, Obsidian is very reluctant to promise new content. Creating an island or inn is interesting, of course, but the islands and inns are bound to be in Deadfire anyway; it’s more about giving backer-designed characteristics to already existing content than creating a new one, it would seem. And that may actually be a good choice; a lesson learned from the previous campaign and the case of backer-created NPCs, which were often criticized for being virtually useless. It’s always better to allow your backers to add something – a personal touch – to the content you have than to let them add something new and then make it (almost) completely useless.
And that’s good, as we can see, since – again – this approach has paid off.
I have already elaborated some on this matter. There’s no doubt that there’s a strong plan behind Obsidian’s campaign. A lot of things point to this: from the specifics of the materials they’re showing to the stretch goals design. But what is their plan?
The most obvious answer is that no one knows, not for sure. This may be true, yet there’s still enough room for at least some speculation. The first thing that comes to mind is that they don’t really need this campaign. They don’t really need to refer to crowdfunding. The game is in production since, when, 2015, judging from what they’ve told us? Early 2016? They’ve been working on it for a year now, based on their own words; it’s unlikely that they ran out of money mid-way through. This would be a sign of bad planning – or misusing funds, even – and that’s simply not like Obsidian. We know them to deliver; and their budget wasn’t always all that big, not exactly. Yet they’ve always known how to use it.
What’s the plan behind the campaign, then? Is it raising extra money? That may be it; but then, the game is in production for a year – and (judging from what I’ve mentioned above) it seems like they’re not going to add too much new content to it at this point. The funding may be what they need to polish it, to make it better – and God knows it’s what most of these games lack, regrettably. I, for one, wouldn’t mind some extra polish to, e.g., Tyranny; the game was great, but it could’ve been perfect. Instead, it was just great. Which in no way is a bad thing.
Whatever the reason, the campaign is now live, and I am eager to see how it unfolds; my estimation, based on what I’ve seen thus far, is that Obsidian is going to make about $4 mln from it. That’s quite a lot (since they’ve asked for one million and some). But then, it’s not like it’s unexpected; after all, I gave them my money myself.
Whatever it is they’re going to do with it, I trust they’ll be put to good use.
The Renaissance of Classic Roleplaying Games?
I honestly don’t know if “the renaissance of classic roleplaying games” is becoming a fact or not. Certainly, there’s more of them; but will there be more? There’s Torment: Tides of Numenera; there’s Tyranny; now, there’s a sequel to Pillars of Eternity. Some may mention Divinity: Original Sin, and some may mention Siege of Dragonspear, too. But it’s still not all that much; we need to wait a little bit longer.
That being said, the demand has increased, that much is obvious. The conclusion comes not only from the number of games, but also from their sales, which exceed the expectations. The first installment of Pillars has sold in 900,000 copies – and, from what we can tell, it’s still selling pretty well. There’s no data on the sales of Tyranny, we can presume they are high enough, though, as the game isn’t getting any cheaper (and it’s not all that recent release). Deadfire is expected to do just as well – or even better. Thus, it’s no surprise that the studio has made so much money on their crowdfunding campaign already; it was rather to be expected.
All in all, I think that Obsidian has done its homework when it comes to market research. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe that they would “research” the market themselves (or hire somebody to do it for them); what I mean is that, being a part of their industry, they follow all the important trends and modes; they know what sells and they know what does not. They also – obviously – know how to sell what they’re selling.
And $1 million made in 24 hours is their reward.