The biggest revolution in gaming right now may not actually be virtual reality, the rise of mobile or new hardware. According to some industry watchers, the most exciting change is in how games are getting funded.
Game developer Tim Schafer of Double Fine Productions, which has raised money on Kickstarter for its games, said as much in a podcast in June with venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. "Lately I've been most excited about how things have changed as far as business goes, which sounds weird because I've always been on the creative side of things," he said. "But what happened with us and crowdfunding has allowed us to have so much more creative control and a more natural relationship with people who we make games for."
The assertion caught the attention of Tristan Handy of RJMetrics, a data analytics firm, who decided to have his team scrape the data from Kickstarter's Web site and crunch some numbers to look at just how much crowdfunding is going on and what are the leading factors for success.
So what's the big factor that gets you funded on Kickstarter? Experience.
Handy said that, far and away, the best predictor of a game campaign's success is having a big name behind it. Developers with proven track records — and sometimes their own fan bases — were far and away the most successful fundraisers. In terms of total game funding on Kickstarter, developers from inXile Entertainment have raised more than $8 million for their titles; Castlevania creator Koji Igarashi comes in second with $5.5 million. Double Fine has raised $4.5 million for its games.
"The way to break out on Kickstarter is by building up years of credibility and doing good work," Handy said.
So, based on Handy's analysis, Kickstarter isn't necessarily the best way to break into the industry. Yet while the bulk of funding isn't going to amateurs who are designing games in their spare time, he still maintains that Kickstarter is a democratizing force in funding for games — particularly for smaller studios. Fifteen games every quarter raise at least $100,000, he said.
"This is not just every once in a while this is happening; this is happening once a week," he said. "That's 15 companies that are able to build something every quarter that they would otherwise not have been able to make."
That also means that fans get to see passion projects and sequels from their favorite developers, Handy added. It also, he said, helps game developers play with other genres and bring them straight to the players who want them. That's good for types of games that may have fallen out of favor at major studios but still have an audience, Handy said.
"What is interesting is that anecdotally looking through them, most of them are single-player and more story-driven games, which are the kinds of games you saw exist before online gaming was such a big thing," he said. "It's interesting to see storytelling reemerge as a part of gaming."
One thing that players-turned-funders should keep in mind is that investing in a gaming campaign, as with every Kickstarter campaign, can be a risky proposition. Even established developers have their problems; Double Fine went through some rocky patches after it met its funding goals for "Broken Age," running over its projected time frame before ultimately releasing its game.
Over time, Handy said, Kickstarter backers seem to be getting better at picking winners, putting fewer dollars in projects that ultimately go bust. Meanwhile, games that get funded are increasingly finding themselves raising far more than they ask for — consistently 150 percent to 200 percent of their goals, Handy said.
"It seems like people are developing a sense of what is good and what is not,' he said.