Making a game can be an act of blind faith. You pitch a vision for something that isn't real yet to players and financial backers, hoping that somehow the strength of your team and vision can carry it all through to a successful release. But the moment a crack in the façade appears - when you look down and it becomes clear you're Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff - it's hard to keep gravity from crashing the whole venture.
It only gets harder when your players and backers are the same people.
I don't believe a few very public disasters ruin crowdfunding and the Early Access program for the rest of us. But I do think the far greater proportion of projects that quietly fail to fully deliver or materialize for their backers is troubling. That's an expected risk of any creative venture of course, so perhaps the more manageable problem is that no one teaches you how to develop a crowdfunded game.
Our open world, winter sports game SNOW has been in Early Access on Steam for a little over a year now. We are not a breakout success, but we have sustained ourselves, our product and our community month after month on a few key principles that I think other creators using or considering using these new routes to market should consider.
Go in with the Right Motives
I won't say crowdfunding developers should rely on traditional crowdfunding (Kickstarter, Indiegogo etc.) or Early Access entirely - the number of incredible titles that exist because of these options speaks strongly for the platforms' viability for creators and backers alike. But I will echo what others have already said of the platform: it can pervert game design with the wrong incentives. It places an often arbitrary value on a set of features which may not yet even exist, and it tacitly encourages over-promising and distortion when those carrots aren't enough to reach a funding target.
"By decoupling the financial success of your game from the ability for you to continue development, you will be free to be more transparent and direct with your users and ultimately grow a stronger community around your game"
Even the framing of a monetary figure as the "goal" of the project seems contrary to the mindset that should be driving us (producing a stable, satisfying game). That may seem like a high-minded detail to harp on, but your intentions ultimately do matter. Crowdfunding shouldn't be used as the sole means of financing or testing your game's viability. Those approaches foist the risk of failure onto your community and your employees, neither of whom deserves it. These platforms exist first and foremost to tap into an audience that's excited to support, test and improve games, and it's crucial we never take advantage of that passion by making this all about funding and risk transfer.
If there's a strength (and sometimes overwhelming challenge) to Steam's model of Early Access crowdfunding over Kickstarter's model, it's that you will be held accountable for the work you produce immediately. Where crowdfunding websites encourage a few months of hard work and concept pre-visualizations, Early Access demands month-by-month consistency and progress throughout the entire game's development cycle. It's not an easy path for making your game, but by starting from a deliverable product that players can access immediately, it's easier to remain attentive and honest with your audience. It doesn't take them long to figure out when you aren't.
In fact, having a modest, steady influx of funds can help you avoid one of crowdfunding's biggest traps: selling a game faster than you can deliver it. Don't be afraid to set a base price that turns some people away. It's okay to not capitalize on all the interest in your product at once if a low barrier of entry floods your title with negative reviews from those who didn't fully consider their purchase. Focus on developing your game now: you can reach out to those who weren't quite ready to buy later down the road. You can even take inspiration from Kickstarter, as we did, and create different prices of entry for players seeking different levels of commitment to the experience.
In summary, by decoupling the financial success of your game from the ability for you to continue development, you will be free to be more transparent and direct with your users and ultimately grow a stronger community around your game.
Crowdfunding sells a dynamic - an interactive window into how games are made where your output and your backers' input are both important. You are, in many ways, the product of your time on Early Access, and so talking to your community also means being willing to let them talk to you. It's so frustrating to hear some developers assume exactly the wrong lessons from recent failures. Too much communication certainly isn't crowdfunding's problem, just as walling yourself and your game from the press and public isn't its solution.
"We do have a shared responsibility to highlight the games and practices in our community that promote positive development and open communication, as well as to call-out those that don't"
Simply talking to the community, especially when they're upset, can be enough to diffuse even the most hostile situations. Be clear and upfront on your forums and on social media about your plans and intentions - then follow through on them honestly. We've had multiple cases where extremely negative reviews on our Steam page were changed from negative to positive just because their concerns were answered or resolved in later updates.
Moreover, don't make the mistake of thinking the people who haven't funded your game aren't part of your audience. Even the most poorly worded or seemingly misguided and misinformed criticisms can raise valid concerns, and there's tremendous opportunity for teams that don't arbitrarily limit who gets to give feedback.
Crowdfunding will never be a perfect system. Any system that runs on promises and trust will attract projects that fall short on the former and abuse the latter. But the faith and goodwill of the game-purchasing public is a common resource, and it concerns us all when developers - even under uncontrollable circumstances - disappoint their supporters. We're not all liable when that happens, but we do have a shared responsibility to highlight the games and practices in our community that promote positive development and open communication, as well as to call-out those that don't.
Poppermost Productions is the Swedish studio behind SNOW, an early access game powered by CRYENGINE which will launch as a free-to-play title on PC and PlayStation 4 later this year. The game is now in closed beta.