A month ago, there was a post on Reddit asking what people thought about indie developers asking for money up front.
Some people are fine if they get a good quality playable build for pre-ordering, but no one seemed to be happy with the idea of funding basic engine development. It seems the general consensus is that people are getting tired of the so-called “fad” of funding a game before it is finished with no guarantee that they will see a payoff.
Minecraft‘s wild success through pre-orders aside, it’s not really a new funding tactic at all. Lots of indie developers have tried to ask for money before their games are finished, and some have seen more success than others.
The Indie Game Development Survival Guide by David Michael mentions how Samu Games started selling Artifact when it was in the beta testing stage, complete with perks for early customers. And this was in 1999.
Today, sites such as KickStarter and 8-bit Funding have enabled a number of high-profile projects to get funding from fans. Of course, a lot of projects don’t get funded and therefore don’t become high-profile.
So if you don’t have a big name to leverage like Notch or Andy Schatz or Derek Yu, are you doomed to obscurity?
No, but obviously an existing name brand helps. Otherwise, success at crowdfunding requires hard work to get your name out there. In other words, marketing. And you have to be able to demonstrate you can deliver the goods.
I started taking pre-orders for Stop That Hero! late last year, and I’ll admit feeling a bit anxious about it at the time. I didn’t have the game in a playable state yet, and here I was asking people for money in anticipation of the initial release.
While I didn’t get many pre-orders, it was definitely a nice feeling to see people actually spending some money on my game. It showed some interest, and it gave me a productivity boost to know I had existing customers to satisfy.
Now, when it comes to how I marketed the Stop That Hero! pre-order, I’m sure I did a lot of things wrong. Perhaps I should have had more videos of game play as I continued work. Maybe I should have been posting more screenshots. I could have chosen to prioritize work on certain features in the hopes that they would excite players more than the features I did work on. And maybe I wasn’t very assertive with asking for pre-orders in the first place.
At the time, I was struggling to get the alpha build across the finish line, but I kept getting good feedback from playtesters. Since the game was good enough to provide some enjoyment to players, it meant it was good enough to ask for players to pay for that enjoyment.
Now, of course some people weren’t happy with the idea of paying up front for a game they couldn’t see. And it’s hard to blame them. Since many game projects don’t get finished, it’s asking a lot to essentially gamble the cost of a pre-order on an unknown. Especially when indie developers don’t necessarily have the offsite backup solutions of larger studios when disaster strikes. See the Project Zomboid burglary for an example. All of their code was gone when someone stole two laptops, so it was a huge setback for the developers who had to rely on outdated backups to continue.
And it didn’t sit well with some of their customers, judging by the Reddit thread. It seems this experience turned some people off of pre-orders and paying for early builds in general.
All that said, it seems that making pre-orders work requires regular, quality content. Basically, if you stop talking to your customers and prospects, they’ll stop caring.
But if all you do is talk and never produce anything, no one is going to stick around. Whether you’re taking pre-orders or pledges, you have to be able to show that you can deliver results.
If you can do both, then pre-orders are worthwhile. Otherwise, you’re wasting your customers’ time as well as your own.