Is Your Game Crowd-Ready?

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a game designer with 20 years experience. He is the creator of leading game design blog What Games Are, and consults for many companies on issues of  design and development. You can follow him on Twitter here.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how crowdfunding might help solve the investment gap problem for games. Several people subsequently contacted me and asked whether such-and-such a game would work with crowdfunding, or even whether whole sectors were ready for it. Could educational games benefit from crowdfunding, for example. Or what about game-like projects, or hardware innovations? The answers to these questions have little to do with the game or product itself. They are driven by what I call marketing stories.

A marketing story is a narrativised view of the world that an audience believes in. Often that belief is so strong that it forms a cognitive lens on how its audience regards everything else, leading to a paradigm. Religions are paradigms derived from marketing stories, as are political positions, economic philosophies and even relationships with celebrities or brands. In a marketing story the customer is not just a guy buying a feature, he’s a believer actively supporting or taking part in the story. He tells the story to others, evangelises about it in public and tries to convince everyone else to get with the program.

Every successful marketing story has an origin tale, whether it be the romanticised founding of the United States or the shared folklore of the early days of Silicon Valley. Many also have key characters, often in the Rebel Alliance and Evil Empire archetypes. Most are also driven by a vision of the future, a way that the world will be when the story completes (such as a Rapture, or when humanity finally goes to the stars). However they never really end as such, and the reason why the customer is participating is because the story is in motion and their personal contribution seems to matter.

Video game marketing stories often look like fanboyism. They’re the tussles over which console is best or whether Call of Duty is better than Battlefield. Such arguments are as old as the hills, but they are only the surface detail of something much deeper. Like any form of culture, games are not a mono-market – there are hundreds of tiny niches out there just waiting to be given the means to support their stories and transform into what Seth Godin calls tribes.

This is what the internet has generally managed to do, bringing fans of all games great and small together in communities. Unlike 20 years ago, these days you can go to sites like BoardGameGeek and find resources for all the most obscure games you can think of. In such communities the participants are passionate about the subject and often have diverse opinions on what it means. However for a long time, said communities were just talking shops and found it difficult to rally financial support behind games from creators that they loved. This is the problem that crowdfunding is actively solving (and not just for games).

Crowdfunding has had some great top-line successes like the Ouya or Double Fine Adventure. Those sorts of multi-million dollar projects tap into widely-held deep marketing stories from within the gaming community. There are many thousands of players out there who implicitly believe in the idea of an independent console, and for whom Julie Uhrman’s quest is a cause worth paying for. Likewise there are legions of gamers for whom the death (or decline at least) of the adventure game represented some sort of personal affront, and who believe that games and stories are destined to come together.

However equally (if not more) important are the many smaller successes like Hillfolk. A personal project from designer Robin D Laws, Hillfolk is a tabletop roleplaying game (in the vein of Dungeons and Dragons) focused around Laws’ own DramaSystem rules. The stated objective of this system is to allow roleplayers to engage in the creation of epic tales and involved narratives. To many of you I’m sure it sounds thoroughly obscure. A drama system that mixes narrative and gameplay? Across a dorky D+D sort of thing? For a game about Iron Age settlers living in what looks like ancient Israel? Who the hell cares about that?

Well Laws was only looking for $3000 to make Hillfolk, but so far he has raised $38000 from slightly over 1000 fans. It’s all very fringe, but there are enough fringe gamers out there who believe in the marketing story that Laws himself also believes. They have an origin story about games and narrative, a vision of how the world is supposed to be, and see themselves as participating in making that future happen. At whatever scale you operate, that kind of aligned thinking is what being crowd-ready is all about. Crowd-ready projects speak to the causes that players already care about, stories that they see themselves reflected in and want to see prosper in this world.

Not Crowd-Ready

There seem to be three general failure cases, i.e. marketing stories which are not crowd-ready. The first is the purely nostalgic story. Game design legends Brenda Brathwaite and Tom Hall tried a Kickstarter for a project called Shaker. They wanted to create an old-school computer roleplaying game just because they liked making them, and were looking for a million dollars. They raised about $250,000 with two weeks to go, and since it didn’t look like they were going to make it, they pulled the project.

The audience for nostalgic roleplaying games is real, but it’s not particularly passionate because there are plenty of modern roleplaying games for them to play. Nor does it have a point to prove in the same way that point-and-click adventure game fans do. Adventure game fans seem to be funding every project in that area to a high degree (such as Broken Sword) because they feel as though they are righting the greatest wrong in gaming history (to wit: that adventure games fell out of fashion). However it’s inherently difficult to get enough players to care about a purely nostalgic exercise because it seems like charity, all about the makers rather than participating in a future-forward cause.

The second failure case is the project which represents a potential – but not yet real – marketing story. This story is built with the notion that if only the crowd knew about, or understood, it then they would show up (lean startup fans sarcastically call this “build it and they will come” thinking). So the creator puts his cherished project on a crowdfunding platform, but receives little or no interest from players. Why would they? The players have no idea what the creator is talking about, or why it’s relevant to them.

Marketing stories do not usually spring to life fully formed. They slowly grow and accrete their origin stories and sense of mission over time (in some cases years, decades, even centuries) and it’s very rare for them to be jump-started. Even when they are apparently so (such as the Arab Spring revolutions), there are usually long-held deep-seated reasons for why the dramatic event happened.

Regardless of intent, the potential-story game looks like just another box on a shelf, especially if its creator has no reputation. Hillfolk’s success is in large part because Robin D Laws is the person making it. He has a long history of making games, and has built up a loyal following. Even wildly popular games like Angry Birds would probably not have been crowd-ready before they launched because nobody had ever heard of Rovio, and few had really considered iPhone games as anything serious before they came along. However a new Angry Birds game most definitely would be crowd-ready because it has now earned its following.

The last failure case is the story that resonates, but whose crowd is unaware of the platforms on which it is trying to be told. As is often the case with new technologies, the sorts of projects currently doing very well are geek labours of love, geeky toys like the Oculus Rift, geeky remakes of old school games or genres that they care about. This is because geeks are the ones looking at sites like Kickstarter. Your mom, on the other hand, has no clue.

A lot of educational games probably fall into this category. Their intended market is parents, but many parents are unreachable except through TV. People who believe in the “educational games” marketing story really believe in it (such as Tinkatolli, which raised $30,000 from just 300 people), but the problem is finding them. In a similar vein, I have met many people in academia and game development who care passionately about games-for-change style projects, but the overall marketing story of such games is nowhere near its intended audience. So, despite much industry support, projects in this area often attract few real customers. They may simply have to wait 3-5 years for crowdfunding to become accessible to the same muggles for whom social networking only recently became a known term.

So Are You Crowd-Ready?

The whole crowdfunding thing is not a Field of Dreams. It’s about tapping into stories. Stories that users who know what crowdfunding is care about, in sufficient numbers, at the right time. For many projects this means that the answer is “no”, they are not crowd-ready.

But consider that it might just be a case of “not yet”. What could you do with your project to change that?