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Kickstarter crowd-funds game ideas into startups

Decades later and Harebrained Schemes are

still making gaming history

Jordan Weisman, a co-founder of game developer Harebrained Schemes, doubted an “old fogey” like him would have much of a chance in the mix of the creative proposals at Kickstarter.

Jordan Weisman didn’t think his company’s video game would do well on Kickstarter, the online crowd-funding site.

Never mind that he’s a former creative director of Microsoft Games Studio, has founded and sold multiple game companies, and shipped hundreds of video games during his career.

He thought having an established company that he co-founded, Harebrained Schemes, would work against him in the Kickstarter community — known for backing independent creative projects. But $1.8 million later, he’s not so quick to stereotype.

“The fans blew us away,” Weisman said, adding that the initial goal of $400,000 was met in 28 hours last month.

Kickstarter, which started in 2009, has become something of a go-to source of early funding for game companies.

In the Kickstarter model, supporters of a project decide how much money they want to pledge and receive different levels of perks in return. That usually includes a copy of the product itself.

As a team develops a project, they generally keep backers informed of its progress through blog posts or videos on the Kickstarter page.

More than 20,000 Kickstarter projects — ranging from music and art to technology — have been successfully funded, according to the organization’s website.

In Weisman’s case, the project involved a futuristic role-playing game called “Shadowrun,” which he created in a pen-and-paper version decades ago. Last month, he Kickstarted a desktop and tablet version called “Shadowrun Returns” at his Redmond studio (the company is set to move its offices to Kirkland).

Weisman is not the only big name in the video-game industry to set and meet a Kickstarter goal. In fact, creators seem to agree that it takes a strong track record to get many backers on the site.

That, or one hell of a pitch.

Weisman says an advantage of being an “old fogey” in the industry is to have created a game that “people still give a rat’s ass about.” He said the initial Kickstarter funding seemed to come from old fans.

“When you go to buy a product at the store, you can see it, you can read reviews about it, you know what you’re buying,” Weisman said. “When you’re backing a product on Kickstarter, you don’t have that information. … I think it’s easier to put that trust in a team with a track record.”

But he said that culture doesn’t exclude newer studios; it just sets the bar higher for them.

“If you don’t have a long reputation or property that people already have an association with, it doesn’t mean that Kickstarter won’t work for you,” Weisman said. “It just means that you’re going to have to demonstrate your abilities more completely to earn that trust.”

Beyond mainstream

Matthew Burns’ studio’s project fits the more traditional Kickstarter stereotype: “It’s a little bit out there, as far as games go,” he said. The game, “Planck,” lets users create abstract music, and its out-of-the-mainstream nature may have deterred publishers from funding it. “That’s why everyone was like: ‘Oh, Kickstarter,’ because Kickstarter is the alternative way to find that sort of funding,” Burns said.

But he and his Seattle-based team members didn’t go that route, doubting they could bring in enough funds to quit their day jobs in the industry.

“It doesn’t feel right to me to do that, to take people’s money and not work full time on (the game) or be able to say when it will ship,” Burns said.

Burns, a contract worker, has helped with big-name games himself, including “Halo,” but compares himself to a line-level worker, as opposed to better-known creators.

Still, he says, it’s common for workers in the industry to pursue their own games, “kind of like how everyone in Hollywood has their indie movie that they want to pursue.”

Taking the plunge

That was the case for Ryan Payton, narrative designer for “Halo 4,” who left Microsoft to create a mobile rescue game, “Republique.”

“I’m of the belief that this is just the beginning and that we’re going to be talking about (Kickstarter), at least in the games industry, every day for years to come,” Payton said.

His Bellevue studio, Camouflaj, finished a Kickstarter campaign this month that brought in more than $555,000 for the game. The company hopes to supplement other funding it can attract through reputation, experience and the quality of the game.

Kickstarter funding, in fact, may help get the attention of more conventional sources.

Greg Gottesman, managing director of Madrona Venture Group, said Kickstarter can help companies prove customer interest to investors, to find complementary funding.

“We haven’t done that yet, but we would be open to it, as would any venture firm,” Gottesman said.

Big-name interest

Christian Allen used Kickstarter results as a sort of substitute for market research when seeking venture capital for his shooter game, “Takedown.”

His “pedigree in shooters” helped him Kickstart his game from Seattle, and he had conversations with investors before his campaign. He also worked on a version of “Halo” and a variety of shooter games.

Allen wasn’t sure his studio, Serellan, would make its $220,000 goal, but it surpassed it by raising $69,000 in the final 24 hours — partly because several big names in the game industry tweeted about the campaign, he said.

“People got excited about it and gave us a lot of exposure,” Allen said.

The exposure from the campaign also brought him a stack of résumés from industry veterans wanting to be part of his team.

Comeback funding

Allen doesn’t see Kickstarter revolutionizing gaming, noting that mainstream games that cost about $100 million to create wouldn’t get enough funding online. But he does see it as a way to revive abandoned games.

Weisman has revised his own perspective on the site since his campaign.

“I think we’re just finding that really Kickstarter is about things people are passionate about, and passionate enough to put money our way in advance for getting the product back,” Weisman said. “And I think there’s really no top end to that.”


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