Crowfall, an upcoming MMO that some have described as Game of Thrones meets World of Warcraft, has already gained $10 million in funding through a combination of a successful Kickstarter and traditional investing but now developer ArtCraft Entertainment is opening another avenue for its players to invest. Thanks to Title III of the JOBS Act, which was put into effect back in May, non-accredited investors now have the ability to invest in companies via crowdfunding.
J. Todd Coleman, CEO and chief creative officer for ArtCraft, explained to GamesIndustry.biz, "We're doing a Title III offering and we're launching it with Indiegogo. They are one of the biggest crowdfunding sites in the world but this is a whole new thing for them. They are moving into the Title III space and they are very likely to become the top player in that space. When they called us and invited us to do this, we were very flattered and we took a really hard look at it and decided that it made a lot of sense for us given that we've got a very passionate community who might like to be involved in our company at a deeper level.
"We actually looked at doing the Title III back in May and decided not to do it because... you have to be so careful about what you do and don't say that we couldn't talk about it enough to get the audience to come in and check it out. The fact that Indiegogo called and asked us if we'd like to be a launch title, that's what really changed the calculus for us. All of a sudden we knew it would get eyeballs and with enough eyeballs and enough attention, it's got a more reasonable chance."
Gordon Walton, president and executive producer, added, "You don't have to be a rich person to participate in a company anymore. That's the real change. We crowdfunded our game and now we're able to crowdfund our company."
He stressed, however, that ArtCraft isn't doing equity crowdfunding because it needs money. "How much more money do we need before we launch? Not a lot. That's not a big consideration for doing this, frankly," he said.
"If you only look at short-term data you could work your way into a terrible place where the game has no challenge and it's just fun, fun, fun and then it's 'I've done it all now, it's over'"
Nonetheless, Walton, who's worked on major titles like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Sims Online, acknowledged, "$10 million is a tiny chunk of change for an MMO. This is not a big budget MMO, this is like a micro budget MMO. It's very challenging to build an MMO on our kind of budget. But it is doable. I've worked on projects that have had many more zeros on the end of them."
While more capital is a nice thing, both Walton and Coleman do not want to deal with traditional publishers. "We've been very reluctant since the beginning to go the traditional fundraising route for our game, which is the big box publishers. We philosophically like the idea of being answerable to our players first and foremost. This decision for us is merely a continuation of that same philosophy," Coleman remarked.
Having a vibrant, passionate player base is absolutely vital to the success of any crowdfunded title. Walton reiterated a bit of his thinking from his GDC 2016 talk earlier this year: "Unless you have some unfair advantage, whether that be notoriety or fame or some radically new idea or experienced people, even normal crowdfunding you have to get a bunch of elements right all at the same time. You can't have just one leg on the stool that's super awesome and the other legs are short. Without doing some community building ahead of time, your likelihood of success is pretty low. You have to bring your own crowd."
Once you've gained a sizable crowd, the trick is to stay engaged and utilize the feedback wisely. Knowing what feedback and what data is actually helpful is an art unto itself.
"Now you're asking for the magic," Walton quipped. "All feedback's useful, whether it's positive or negative or even [a player] just not doing stuff is useful feedback. It's hard to quantify; it is a judgment call on some level because you have to have so much context about what's going on in your head to be able to take that feedback and put it against it right. There's not like a book where I can do some checklist on it. When we put something up we're looking at what people are saying about it positively, negatively and we're mostly looking at what they do. So we're looking at the data about what they're doing in the game because that tells us more about what they say and what they don't."
Sometimes developers have to trust their gut and years of experience. "Quite often we'll do something that people are very excited about but we've played it longer than they have before they start playing and we may know... it's like ice cream, it's super awesome right now but I'm going to get a sugar high and it's going to drop me later. So we're looking not only at short-term benefits but the long-term benefits of a particular change," Walton continued. "If you only look at short-term data you could work your way into a terrible place where the game has no challenge and it's just fun, fun, fun and then it's 'I've done it all now, it's over'."
The other side of the coin, however, is that a select few players are actually incredibly reliable for their feedback and getting to know your community will help you to identify these valuable users.
"These are not just customer surveys anonymously submitted. These are ongoing conversations with individuals who've chosen to be a part of our community, so over time you start to get a feeling for the instincts of the players and I should say some of these players are really, really good and their instincts are spot on," Coleman said.
"I think you're going to see across the industry the pendulum swinging the other way, away from F2P being the predominant model"
J. Todd Coleman
"They could be game designers in another life. So over time you'll start to recognize individuals who have great feedback even if it's really harsh. Harshness to me is just an emotion that's representing their conviction. So I'll reach out and ask them for more information. I've found that it can be invaluable in helping us hone in on issues and find resolutions to those. It is a bit of an art form. I don't believe you can build a great game just by looking at data."
Not only is ArtCraft averse to the traditional developer-publisher relationship, but the studio is also looking at Crowfall's development and eventual release (some time in 2017) very much as an iterative process.
"We'll cook something up, put it in front of our players, see what they think about it and if and when they don't like something we take it back to the whiteboard and we redesign it. We're constantly running play tests; it's just a different approach. The idea of building up to one big launch day is not nearly as important as building a sustainable community that really likes what we do and will stick with us long-term," Coleman explained.
For ArtCraft, the long-term tail is critical, and the company doesn't believe free-to-play, which "so easily turns into either pay-to-win or nagware," is the appropriate model to maximize that tail. Coleman said that customers are tired of "slash and burn tactics of free-to-play where your goal is to get people in and to monetize the hell out of them for days or maybe weeks and then churn them out and replace them."
"There are three ways we get paid," noted Coleman. "Our model is most similar to Guild Wars back in the day; we have a retail purchase price for the game and if you buy it once you don't ever have to pay us again if you don't want to. Then there's two ways we get paid optionally. We have a...membership to give them additional perks and conveniences - not power, but additional value. Then we also sell micropayment objects, from a couple dollars up to thousands of dollars for buildings and castles and things like that which you can put into your own personal world. So far, more than 40% of our backers have elected to buy more than just the base product. I think you're going to see across the industry the pendulum swinging the other way, away from F2P being the predominant model."