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Pressure Drop: From Grim Dawn to a Brighter Tomorrow

How crowdfunding helped Crate Entertainment invert the usual third-party developer difficulty curve

Earlier this month, Crate Entertainment released the survival mode for its action-RPG, Grim Dawn. It was the final remaining stretch goal from the game's Kickstarter campaign, which launched more than four years ago. Crate still has to send out physical boxed copies to backers and has committed to a "making of" book and a proper expansion to the game, but Grim Dawn itself is essentially done.

You might think that delivering on the Kickstarter campaign's obligations three full years after the originally estimated August 2013 reward delivery date would have been a huge relief to the people behind the project. But as Crate founder Arthur Bruno told GamesIndustry.biz last week, the pressure might have hit its apex before the crowdfunding campaign was even a consideration.

Bruno had been lead designer at Titan Quest developer Iron Lore Entertainment when the studio shut down in early 2008. He soon founded Crate Entertainment with an eye toward continuing the studio's work. He acquired the rights to Black Legion, an Iron Lore IP that had received some interest before the studio's closure, and began pitching it to publishers as a AAA action-RPG that would be co-developed with another outfit. But with the industry even more risk-averse than usual thanks to the global financial crisis, it was a bet few were willing to take.

"After Iron Lore, I felt like we really needed to somehow break out of the publisher-funded development cycle. It's just really brutal."

"Ultimately I just felt defeated by it," Bruno said. "After Iron Lore, I felt like we really needed to somehow break out of the publisher-funded development cycle. It's just really brutal. You get an advance on royalties that allows you to hire up a team quickly and put out a game in a reasonable time frame, but now you've got this burn rate. And when the game releases, the paychecks stop coming in and you suddenly have no money but this whole team you're trying to support."

That was when Bruno had the idea to push forward with a smaller scale project, one that didn't need publisher backing and didn't have the same creative risk as Black Legion. So he licensed the Titan Quest codebase (but not the IP, which was still owned by THQ) and set about creating a spiritual successor in Grim Dawn. There weren't really any other action RPGs on the market at the time, it wouldn't need much programming support since the engine was essentially finished, and he had plenty of ex-Iron Lore contacts willing to freelance work on it. He wouldn't even need publisher funding because Grim Dawn was intended to be a "small-scope, not very polished, BBB title." And even then, Bruno figured it could adopt an episodic format and launch chapters through Steam to help fund the game's continued development.

Grim Dawn wears its Titan Quest inspiration on its sleeve--and under the hood.

Grim Dawn wears its Titan Quest inspiration on its sleeve--and under the hood.

But by this point, the landscape had changed a bit. The ARPG torch had been picked up by Torchlight (appropriately enough), and Runic Games had a sequel on the way. At the same time, Diablo III was starting to really take shape and the long-in-development sequel's release seemed almost imminent. Suddenly the bar for action RPGs got a lot higher. Bruno knew he'd need considerably more time--and money--to compete.

"In 2011, I was becoming increasingly desperate," Bruno said. "Development slowed down. Some of the guys who'd been helping us out basically couldn't any more because they'd gotten too busy with their new jobs, or had kids. Life moved on. So as other RPGs were releasing on the horizon, I was feeling ever more pressure to do more with the game, but development was increasingly slowing down.

"At that point, you get into that gambler's scenario. You're at the slot machine, the blackjack table or whatever, and you've put so much money down you feel like you can't leave until you make it back."

"At that point, you get into that gambler's scenario. You're at the slot machine, the blackjack table or whatever, and you've put so much money down you feel like you can't leave until you make it back. I was kind of in that scenario where I'd invested some of my savings and basically a year-plus of my career into making this happen, so it was hard to walk away from."

Apparently unaware of how that scenario usually plays out, Bruno pressed onward. By the end of 2011, he had a working demo in place, but no content. A friend had been suggesting he turn to Kickstarter to raise funds for the game, but Bruno balked at the idea. Even if Crate raised $40,000 through a Kickstarter campaign--and that was on the high end of what game projects were raising to that point--Bruno didn't think it would be enough to make a difference in anything except the pressure he felt to get the game finished.

Of course, Double Fine Adventure changed everything. That campaign convinced Bruno that crowdfunding was "probably the only way Grim Dawn was going to get made at that point." A little over a month after Double Fine raised $3.3 million through its own campaign, Crate Entertainment launched the Grim Dawn Kickstarter with a $280,000 goal. They nearly doubled that, bringing in more than $537,000. Crate would be able to go forward with Grim Dawn development after all.

"But then like, a week later, the burden of what you've promised people sets in," Bruno said, adding, "As much as you try to manage expectations, once you're hyping something on Kickstarter and you start to develop a loyal fanbase, people have their expectations grow over time. So we also felt this pressure from our audience to produce more and go bigger."

"As much as you try to manage expectations, once you're hyping something on Kickstarter and you start to develop a loyal fanbase, people have their expectations grow over time."

He remembers waking up sick to his stomach over what he'd promised people and had to deliver, and having a fixed amount of funding to do it all with wasn't helping. But the real break happened in 2013, when Steam rolled out its Early Access program.

"Once we hit Early Access and got a surge in funding, it was a big relief because I felt it wasn't a finite source of funding," Bruno said.

Early Access gave Crate the wherewithal to spend the time and money trying to realize Grim Dawn's full potential. Development had progressed far enough and the monthly income was strong enough that Bruno felt comfortable reinvesting proceeds into the game, bringing on a couple more employees. If the ongoing revenue started to dry up for some reason, he could always tie the game off and push it out in a respectable state without sinking the company.

Alternative funding models may alleviate financial restrictions, but they can bring other pressures, Bruno noted. Following the Kickstarter campaign, he felt tremendous pressure to get something playable out to his backers. The backers may love that, but Bruno noted that it slowed down development considerably. And perhaps worse, it created more pressure to continue releasing updated builds because he didn't want to let that engaged audience go too long without an update and lose interest.

"But every time you pause development to wrap up a build and playtest it and make sure it's ready for release then put it out there and address any post-release problems, it's like throwing a wrench in the works," Bruno said. "It pauses development for a while. Coders can't check anything new in. You have to be really conservative, even with putting some assets into the game. And then you have to spend some time polishing and bug-fixing instead of just plowing forward and continuing to work on the game and get new content and features in."

It was bad on Kickstarter, but possibly even worse once the game hit Early Access. It seems many customers were buying Grim Dawn through Early Access and expecting it to perform like a finished game. And contrary to what you might expect, the most vocal contingent of people upset with the wait for new content weren't necessarily the ones who'd been waiting the longest.

"We actually had a bunch of pretty high-level backers who backed for $1,000-plus. And it's funny, it was like pulling teeth trying to get people to actually claim their rewards or get back to us on stuff."

"The most loyal backers I feel were the most patient," Bruno said. "It's one of those things that's tough to deal with in the modern age where you're very connected with large groups of people online. Often there's this silent majority that's just content, or potentially just difficult to read. Then you have this very loud minority at times, where it can be hard to ignore the frequency of certain messages you're getting, even though they may only be coming from a very small amount of people. And I think that was the case with people who were impatient."

Many of Grim Dawn's backers--even some of the biggest ones--basically just threw their money at Crate and then tuned out until the game's release.

"We actually had a bunch of pretty high-level backers who backed for $1,000-plus. And it's funny, it was like pulling teeth trying to get people to actually claim their rewards or get back to us on stuff," Bruno said. "One of the rewards was to help design a quest or name some item in the game, and some people never did."

Even so, those backers and the Early Access customers who followed them helped build a stable foundation on which Bruno could build Crate Entertainment. Development on Grim Dawn proper is coming to an end, and Bruno estimates the game's lifetime earnings have doubled or possibly even tripled the money spent making it. The studio is now working on an expansion for Grim Dawn that will launch early next year (probably), and has started work on a "totally different type of game" to launch after that, both of which will be funded by Grim Dawn.

"Working on this project is like easy mode to some extent. We've already got the funding for it. I know how we're going to release, just not necessarily at what point... I think that we have all the funding we need to complete it and whether we release on Early Access or not is more a question of to what extent we want early feedback on the game."

It's not lost on Bruno that Grim Dawn has been an inversion of the publisher-funded development cycle he realized he swore off after pitching Black Legion.

"In some ways, it's a question of where you want your difficulty to be," Bruno said. "With crowdfunding, your difficulty and risk is mostly at the beginning. Just getting something off the ground and getting attention is very difficult. Once you get to release, if you have even a reasonably successful game, it's much easier to stay independent and go on to a next project."

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