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BrightLocker wants to go beyond Kickstarter and Early Access

CEO Ruben Cortez on a platform that will open up the creative process to gamers, and unlock new revenue streams for developers

In an ever more digital world, the "elevator pitch" is an increasingly important concept.

Open platforms, accessible tools and friction-free distribution have resulted in a cambrian explosion of just about every conceivable product. Whether you're an author, a director, a musician or a developer, if you want to pique the interest of your possible audience you had better be able to explain yourself, and to explain yourself quickly.

However, truly ambitious ideas tend to make the elevator pitch somewhere between difficult and impossible; a tendency that speaks to both their potential to intrigue or disrupt, and to the huge challenge involved in effectively communicating that potential. BrightLocker is one such concept, at once loaded with promise and deceptively tricky to grasp.

Ruben Cortez, BrightLocker's co-founder and CEO, prefers to start with the origins of his own idea, which slowly accrued across 17 years working in various roles at Electronic Arts and EA Bioware, all of them around building and operating online services.

"Nobody got to see the game creation process... There are lots of decisions that are made on a moment by moment basis that the player doesn't see"

"At EA, I spent five years in studio, next to the games, seven years in corporate, and then another six years back in studio at Bioware," he says. "I by far loved the studio perspective [more], but as a corporate guy who was responsible for building solutions to global problems around large online games, I could respect that perspective too."

Cortez is not "an artist" by his own admission, but he spent the best part of two decades observing the art and craft of making video games on a daily basis. When he had the opportunity to take a break from his duties, he would often spend it watching designers and modellers and programmers, creating characters and building worlds.

"I was always amazed by the quality of the work, and just how easy they made it seem. Throughout my career, people have always asked me about how cool it was to work in gaming, but nobody got to see that piece of it. Nobody got to see the game creation process.

"But I wished that they could. These people are very talented, and there are lots of decisions that are made on a moment by moment basis that the player doesn't see."

That desire to expose the game creation process was the seed of BrightLocker, but its final form is also built around allowing users to participate in and direct that process. In a company like EA, Cortez says, there is plenty of money available to fund game development, which can be hugely beneficial to the creatives. The negative, though, "is that someone else is going to decide whether or not a game is going to last. The powers that be may cut it, or not spend money to promote it, or whatever."

Cover image for YouTube video

The final piece is funding. Kickstarter gave an emerging class of smaller developers a way to build a community and raise money to pay for development, but Cortez believes that a long line of failed and incomplete projects has soured the public appetite for crowdfunding. The reason, he says, is that while Kickstarter gave developers access to money, at the end of a campaign it was up to them to keep the community engaged with the project. Not everyone handled that responsibility well.

"How do we mend those fences? Can we create a platform with interaction and participation that goes beyond crowdfunding - which is, 'I give you money and I hope and pray and rub my hands together that I'm going to see something in the future.'

"Can we create a platform with interaction and participation that goes beyond crowdfunding?"

"With Kickstarter you're essentially pre-buying the game as a simple package, or a more advanced package with all these digital items or goods or experiences. But once you've bought it, the developer is kind of left on their own to figure out how to service that."

As a platform, BrightLocker will fill and introduce some structure to the gap that currently exists between a Kickstarter campaign closing, and the game's eventual release. I point out that, for many developers, that's the role that Steam Early Access currently occupies, but Cortez insists that not only can BrightLocker be used in addition to Early Access or any similar service, it will also give developers a much broader and richer suite of communication and monetisation options with which to experiment.

"We can fill that gap, and we can enhance that," he adds. "So it's not just a game with a destination page and some text. We have the ability to stream video directly from our platform to your community, you can deliver assets and even full game builds to your players."

In an ideal case, a developer could use BrightLocker to build a community around their game over the course of "two or three or four years" rather than just 30 days (as with Kickstarter), while offering that community a greater sense of engagement and participation than Early Access.

Indeed, one of the platform's headline features is "Guided Choices", a system for letting the community make creative decisions that inform the details and direction of the game. While at EA, Cortez saw teams constantly stop work to debate which of, say, three different lightsaber designs to implement - all of them excellent on a creative level, he emphasises. On BrightLocker, that choice could be assigned to the community while work continued, the result would be received a week later, and a new set of choices could be issued to the audience.

These choices are also key to how BrightLocker opens up new revenue streams, because access to them can be sold in a variety of ways; as a microtransaction for "50 cents or a dollar", or as part of an ongoing, monthly subscription to the project as whole, with terms and pricing set by the developer. A $5 per month subscription could include a free copy of the finished game and access to in-game items (much as you might receive with a donation tier on Kickstarter), but it would also allow you to shape the game on a week to week basis. Higher value subscribers could be allowed to make more significant choices, such as determining the gender of the main character.

"It's about opening development up in a way that's easy to do, and engage the fans, and also monetise to help pay for development costs"

"We created this to allow developers to make those packages in the best way to sell to their community," Cortez says, emphasising that both structure and pricing will be entirely in the control of the developer. "They could decide to give that choice to one person, or have it be like the Supreme Court where there's nine.

"From the developer perspective, it's about opening [the creative process] up in a way that's easy to do, and engage the fans, and also monetise to help pay for development costs. At the end of this journey the developer has learned more about their game, and can avoid mistakes that might be costly later by getting that feedback early. The strategy works for both sides."

BrightLocker is already well populated with game projects, and the two developers on the platform that we spoke to both welcomed it as an addition to (if not a replacement for) ubiquitous platforms like Kickstarter and Early Access. Ultimately, it is a unique new place to generate revenue at a point in time when revenue can be very difficult to find.

Attracting publishers and developers was phase one for Brightlocker, but phase two will bring a significant expansion of the platform's feature set

"We will likely still use Steam Early Access," said Wyrmbyte's Scott Brown. "It should work very well with the community events we run on BrightLocker. BrightLocker is game platform agnostic, so we could also do early access with Xbox, for example, while running on BrightLocker.

"We don't view BrightLocker as an 'either/or' solution. It is supplemental to however we choose to fund our development. BrightLocker is also a product lifetime tool, where something like Kickstarter would only be for 30 to 45 days."

Descendent Studios' Eric Peterson echoed that sentiment, and added that BrightLocker's features aren't as disruptive to workflow as Early Access can be. In fact, the studio pulled its game Descent: Underground off Early Access after a year, "to focus more as a team on development and less on getting a new build out every three weeks. I think we went too early, and that caused a severe slowdown on a small team like ours, where you do two weeks of dev, two weeks of test, then a week to release. Sou are operating only at about 40 per cent capacity at best.

"When I was building the platform I always had in mind that I wanted to take it to a big publisher and pitch it"

"At BrightLocker we are able to consolidate our messaging, and keep up the workflow at a lot closer to full velocity."

However, both Brown and Peterson mention a phrase that will be central to whether BrightLocker fulfils its potential: critical mass. Cortez says that the platform only monetises by taking a cut of the revenue developers receive through microtransactions and subscriptions - at a base level of 5 per cent, but more if a developer signs up for a premium service where Brightlocker can help to design and run its campaign.

Cortez needs users on the platform to make money, then, but BrightLocker also needs a certain amount of users before it can deliver much value to its partners. With enough people, Cortez says, every new game on the platform will introduce more users to the ecosystem, making every other game visible to an ever-expanding number of people. It will be a virtuous cycle, but only after a certain point.

"I never go to Kickstarter and look for games," Cortez adds. "I'm always brought there by a game; because somebody I know is making it, or because I see an ad for it, but I never just go and hang out on Kickstarter. It just doesn't happen.

"We want to create a place where gamers want to hang out, and in the process they begin to interact with the other things on the platform. They can discover games that they never even knew existed."

That is very much in BrightLocker's future, and it certainly has some distance to travel before it becomes more than just an interesting option that can sit beside Steam Early Access. According to Cortez, the company is now entering "phase two" of its strategy, which will bring improvements and additions to the platform's feature set - the ability to use video, sound, gameplay footage and animations for Guided Choices, for example. Beyond that, though, Cortez sees no limit to what BrightLocker could achieve.

"When I was building the platform, constructing the business model and figuring out how to do this, I always had in mind that I wanted to take it to a big publisher, and pitch it," he says. "We want to make it so that, when a developer starts out making a game, right now they have a Facebook strategy, a Twitter strategy, a Steam strategy.

"We want them to say, 'We have a BrightLocker strategy'. And ideally they say that first."

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Matthew Handrahan avatar

Matthew Handrahan


Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.