The Most Successful Kickstarter-Funded Indie Games
Launching an indie game and considering Kickstarter? In this article Travis Taborek explores the most successful Kickstarter-funded Indie Games (and What They Did Right).
It’s every indie game developer’s dream.You’re sick of the 9-5 grind. You’re wasting your talents and potential in a job that doesn’t appreciate you. You have a mind bursting full of creative ideas for games.
So you stick it to your stuffy corporate job and strike it out on your own to pursue your passion: making video games. And not the AAA-schlock that comes out year after year either. No, you want to make games that are interesting, engaging, and unique. The kinds of games that you always wanted to play.
And so, full of ambition and with a heart full of hope, you march forward into your destiny to make a hit indie game that people will talk about for years.
Sadly though, it doesn’t always work like that. The truth is that the odds are heavily stacked against your success.
You’re often given limited resources to work on a project that can take months or more likely years. It’s only you and maybe one or two other team members competing against AAA games studios with hundreds of game designers and millions of dollars of revenue at their disposal.
And even if you do finally finish your game, there’s still the small matter of getting people to actually play it. That in and of itself is a monumental challenge, and one that will doom your game to obscurity if you don’t do it properly.
It’s not all gloom and doom though. Success IS possible.
It’s difficult, and much of it is outside your own control, but you can help improve your odds by making smart choices about your game and its promotion.
How do you do that? Well, the best place to start would be to look at games that have successfully pulled off what you’re trying to do, and make hit games without relying on investors, publishers, or the funding and resources of a AAA studio.
Let’s look at some of the games that achieved the impossible. The most successful Kickstarter-funded Indie Games (and What They Did Right).
When you think of hit indie games with successful Kickstarter campaigns, Darkest Dungeon is often one of the first games that comes to mind.
Darkest Dungeon is a very grim and challenging game. The gothic art style and setting, writing influenced by the works of H.P. Lovecraft and the infamous affliction system come together to ask the poignant question: how much one endure the psychological strain of adventuring before they finally break?
The original Kickstarter campaign, which began in Kickstarter 2015, had 9,369 backers and raised a total of $313,337 from a modest original goal of $75,000. It was one of the Kickstarter campaigns that popularized the crowdfunding platform as a way for independent game developers to raise the funding they need for their projects.
So how did they make it happen? Well, part of it might be because of clever casting. Darkest Dungeon’s narrator is voiced by none other than Wayne June, who horror buffs will recognize as the voice actor who voices the works of H.P. Lovecraft. He was the perfect choice for the role of the Ancestor, who narrates the story as you battle the scores of eldritch horrors and shambling abominations you strike down on your quest to restore your ancestral Hamlet.
“I had listened to his Lovecraft readings prior to starting Darkest Dungeon, and I felt like he’d be a great voice for the trailer,” said Chris Bourassa, Co-Founder of Red Hook Studios, the creators of Darkest Dungeon. “I wasn’t sure he’d do it, but he said O.K., and once we heard the music, his voice and saw the art all together, we knew we had to have a narrator in game”
So that might have been part of the equation. However, Tyler Sigman, Red Hook Studios’ other co-founder, put in his two-cents in a Darkest Dungeon post-mortem.
He attributes to the success of Darkest Dungeon’s Kickstarter campaign to a number of factors:
- Building a fan following in the months leading up to the Kickstarter
- Channeling as much interest into the Kickstarter as possible to make it newsworthy
- Offer value in the Kickstarter in the way of pre-order bonuses
So, what are the takeaways here?
Darkest Dungeon Takeaways
This is something that’s going to come up again and again: building an engaged community is the best thing you can do to position your game for success.
Many game developers embark on their projects with the thinking that if their game is good enough, word-of-mouth will happen on its own. This is a common assumption, but a flawed one.
Your game will not succeed on its own. It just won’t. That’s not how it works.
You need to nurture a following over time that will help evangelize your game.
The other thing that Darkest Dungeon did right was that they had something unique to offer.
The reason why the indie game market is so over-saturated is that so many of the games on the marketplace are shlock. Mass-produced, copy-pasted garbage.
So to stand out, you need to bring something new to the table: something that people can pay attention to, that subverts their expectations or does something different.
Undertale is an offbeat little game, that’s for sure.
Undertale is a game made by solo developer Toby Fox. Except for a handful of artists, Fox did the art, programming, and music all by himself.
Prior to working on Undertale, Toby Fox was known for doing a lot of the music behind Homestuck, the longest webcomic on the internet. Fox is quite the composer, and the music was one of the best parts of Homestuck apart from the quirky characters and utterly bat-guano storyline.
The crowdfunding campaign had a total of 2,398 backers and raised $51,124.
While the Kickstarter did reach its funding goals, when it released in September 2015 Undertale sold like gangbusters. To date, the game sold 500,000 copies on Steam in the three months after launch alone.
How did he do it? Well, there were a number of factors that played into Undertale’s massive success:
1. A creative premise that goes against traditional gaming norms
One of the unique selling points of Undertale is that you don’t have to fight a single monster. The Fight/Act/Mercy system gives you different ways to interact with the monsters you encounter and lets you change the outcome, depending on the choices you make. This system subverted the popular tropes and conventions of RPG’s and subverted your expectations.
2. Old-school Graphics
Undertale’s 8-bit graphics were reminiscent of the NES-era and lended itself to a nostalgic feel.
The elements of games beloved and cherished by millions were given a new and fresh feel when contrasted with the game’s quirky story and characters, which featured cute little flowers that turned into Lovecraftian monsters and skeletons who first try to capture and then take you out on an awkward spaghetti date.
Undertale’s soundtrack was killer. The chiptune soundtrack once again harkens back to an era of gaming in its nascent adolescence and appeals to a core demographic of gamers who grew up with Nintendo games.
The soundtrack ranges from epic, blaring fanfare to demure, subtle music for more quiet moments, and reflects the game’s important plot points and atmosphere.
Having a hook that turns the traditional conventions of gaming on their head helped Undertale appeal to a broad spectrum of gamers while offering something new and different at the same time. It’s worth taking some time to consider how you can do the same thing with a different genre.
The Banner Saga
In many ways, The Banner Saga trilogy of games is emblematic of the indie game developer’s dream: starting off dirt poor and working out of a dusty, broken down office space with just a handful of programmers, artists and writers, who shoot their way to super-stardom and blaze the trail for game developers who come after them.
It worked for them too. The Banner Saga crowdfunding campaign had a total of 20,042 backers and had raised $723,886 in funds.
The Banner Saga was one of the early trailblazers of indie game crowdfunding success. So how did they stand out?
One of the cornerstone elements of the game was its art and animation style which made use of rotoscoping: a technology that involves drawing sketches over real-life motion-captured models. This technique was used by beloved animators like Ralph Bashki and Don Bluth – which is also reflected in the game’s striking visual style inspired by nose Viking mythology.
It also helped that Stoic Studio, the team that made The Banner Saga, had a respectable professional pedigree. Each of them had worked at major game studios prior to striking out on their own, so they had the experience and skillset to back-up their ambitions.
Most of all though Banner Saga was a game with a unique design in an underserved genre. The gameplay was built around turn-based strategic combat with a top-down, isometric view, which hadn’t really been done since Final Fantasy Tactics in the PlayStation era.
The Banner Saga Takeaways
John Watson of Stoic Studio hosted a Banner Saga post-mortem where he explained what the development of The Banner Saga looked like, where the game succeeded, and where the pitfalls were.
One of the highlights of the post-mortem was: don’t go into game development expecting to have a hit game on your hands. Most of the factors that go into whether or not your game is successful are completely outside of your control. Humility and realistic expectations are key here.
Another takeaway from The Banner Saga: don’t neglect your community. The reason why the Banner Saga did so well during the Kickstarter was that they had an engaged following willing and eager to spread the word. When the team took a break after the release, the community had atrophied, which made getting the sequels off the ground that much more of a challenge.
FTL: Faster Than Light
Talk about a success story. FTL: Faster Than Light was one of the first case studies that proved that Kickstarter could be a way to fund indie games.
It began when two former 2K Games employees living in Shanghai set out on an experiment: could they make a game on their own, and was it what they wanted to do with their lives?
They were completely unprepared for what happened next. They had started with an original goal of $10,000, and doubled that within 24 hours of the campaign. By the time the campaign ended, the team had raised over 20 times that amount, a total of $200,542.
So what’s the lesson to be gained?
Here’s another recurring lesson that will come up a lot in this list: offer something that no one else does.
FTL Developer Justin Ma said in a Polygon interview that he credits some of FTL’s appeal to the fact that they were trying to do something no one else seemed to be doing well. Developers Justin Ma and Matthew Davis had wanted to make a game designed like the board games they both played in their free time, most notably Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game
He also noted that FTL offered a short-form experience that provided the depth of an epic space saga with the instant gratification of casual games. It was fun, fast, and addicting, and an average playthrough takes no longer than 30 minutes.
If indie games were to form their own nation, then Double Fine Productions President and CEO Tim Schafer would be on the postage stamp.
Broken Age was a game borne of Tim Schafer’s desire to make a traditional point-and-click adventure time of the kind he became known for as a game designer at LucasArts a la Day of the Tentacle.
The problem was that point-and-click adventure games hadn’t been popular or commercially successful for years and were widely regarded as a dead genre. This meant that coming across publisher funding would be next to impossible.
“If I were to go to a publisher right now and pitch an adventure game, they’d laugh in my face,” Tim Schafer said in the original Kickstarter video.
The solution? Cut out the middle-man and get the support he needed straight from his fans.
And lo and behold, it worked. After asking for an initial goal of $400,000, the Kickstarter raised a whopping 3.75 million in funds from a total of 87,000 backers. The Kickstarter was so successful that it was held up as proof that game developers could use the platform to fund their projects instead of going to publishers or investors.
So, how did they pull it off?
Broken Age Takeaways
Schaefer’s longstanding association with adventure games certainly didn’t hurt Broken Age’s chances. The adventure games he made at Lucas Arts and later as the head of Double Fine were already beloved by a generation of PC gamers.
There was also the documentary of Broken Age’s production “Double Fine Adventure”, showcasing the Double Fine Team as they went about the process of building a game from the ground up. It was a clever way to build publicity and start generating interest in advance of the crowdfunding campaign.
Coming up with clever and creative ways to generate interest in your game is a great way to get the word-of-mouth engine going. Free pieces of software. Social media contests. Auxiliary games or mods. Easter eggs. Or even something no one has thought of yet.
Broken Age had some smart budgeting behind it too. Schaefer put the Kickstarter goals at the minimum amount it would take to make a product (game development, believe it or not, is actually very expensive and requires a lot of sophisticated equipment and very smart people.) This made investing into the campaign seem like less of a risk.
It worked too. Within days of the Kickstarter, Broken Age made enough money that it exceeded Day of the Tentacle’s budget.
The real takeaway here though is that Broken Age was a game that touched on a trend. People had thought that adventure games had faded into obscurity. Turns out, people wanted them again.
Is there a genre you grew up with that’s close to your heart, but no one seems to care about it anymore? Well, maybe it’s time to bring it back. You never know.
This one is definitely a controversial choice as an example of the most successful Kickstarter-funded Indie Games.
While it undeniably had one of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns in history, Star Citizen is also a cautionary tale about being thwarted by one’s own ambition, and that of the perils of over-promising and under-delivering.
Star Citizen was announced in 2012 through a Kickstarter which had raised over $2 million dollars, in which Cloud Imperium Games CEO Chris Roberts stated his intention to execute a vision that began with his previous games like Wing Commander and Freelancer: to create a living, breathing universe. At one point in time, it had made more money than any other video game on Kickstarter combined.
As of today, Star Citizen has raised a total of $300,000,000 since the campaign ended. Star Citizen benefited from a highly engaged community that were fans of Chris Roberts’ previous games in the Wing Commander series.
And it’s still not finished. It very well may never be.
The development cycle of Star Citizen abounds with rumors of mismanagement, deceptive, or misleading marketing. Although the team working on Star Citizen is highly capable and talented, the fact remains that development was hampered by the lack of focus and mismanagement from the Cloud Imperium’s leadership.
So how has it kept going all this time?
Star Citizen Takeaways
For all of the problems with Star Citizen’s development, the money they generated from their Kickstarter and after is evidence that they did something right. Among other things, they were at least transparent about their financials and showed their Kickstarter backers where the money was going. So that’s good.
Moreover, Star Citizen was also a test case for viral marketing.
One of the ways that Star Citizen was able to raise so much money and keep the production afloat was by selling in-game assets, namely space ships. Most of the ships on offer were specifically requested by Star Citizen’s community.
“Nobody is obligated to buy more than just the starter ship,” said Cloud Imperium Spokesperson Sandi Gardiner in an interview with Forbes. “All of the marketing is done by the fans virally, and a lot of those ships are because the community has asked for them.”
Think about how you can incorporate viral marketing into the promotion of your game. How can you incentivize your intended audience to spread the word about your game?
Then again, Star Citizen also has plenty of takeaways of what NOT to do.
Keep your fundraising tactics ethical. Selling digital goods for a game that may or may not ever be released is questionable at best.
Ambition is all well and good, but keep your vision contained in scope. Have realistic goals for your game’s development. Get the core mechanics and gameplay out first, then continue to add features.
Build the foundation first. Then give it paint.
Star Citizen made by a talented team of people who were hampered by their own egos. The ship just never seemed to be steered in the right direction.
As a counter to this, have systems and processes in place to help ensure a smooth development cycle. Have checklists for the same routine tasks so you can do them quickly and efficiently, the same way every time. Have weekly team meetings so that everyone is on the same page about what needs to be done.
Elite: Dangerous is the third game in the Elite series. They were one of the most successful games of the 1980’s, and were one of the first series to popularize the open-world format.
The Elite series also has many technical achievements to its credit. Frontier: Elite, created a universe where one hundred billion star systems could fit on a single floppy disk.
Elite: Dangerous lets you explore a galaxy of billions of star systems, and carve a name for yourself as a trader, a pirate, a bounty hunter, an explorer, or whatever other play-style you choose.
David Braben, the founder of Frontier Developments, asked his backers for $2 million to fund the latest installment in the Elite series.
Braben wanted to make a sequel to the Elite series to rival the other game’s achievements, which required a high-quality production and resources. Elite: Dangerous makes use of a technology known as procedural generation, in which in-game assets like planetary systems are generated automatically in real-time.
Kickstarter was his way of pooling together the resources he needed to make Elite: Dangerous possible.
“One of the joys these days is being able to sell directly to customers,” Braben said in an interview with Games Industry Biz. “…the route to market was very much owned by the big publishers because of the bottleneck of retail.”
By the time the campaign was over, $2,079,729 was raised by 25,681 people. At the time the campaign started in 2014, a Kickstarter spokesperson said that it was the highest successfully-met Kickstarter goal.
Elite: Dangerous Takeaways
Similar to Star Citizen, Elite: Dangerous had a lot of fan interest from people familiar with the series, which formed the backbone of an engaged fan community to help keep the project afloat through publisher doldrums.
The Kickstarter campaign benefited from a huge fan base that had played the earlier iterations of the Elite series, back to when they were still hosted on cassette tapes and floppy disks.
Not every indie developer is going to have legions of fans waiting for their next game to come out. But another thing the Elite: Dangerous team did was to provide in-game bonuses like higher rankings and more credits to spend to get a head start when competing in the universe.
Keep in mind, building an indie game is an endeavor that can take months or years. You need to eat. You need to pay your bills. You need to keep a roof over your head and food on your table. And your Kickstarter campaign is one of the thousands that are out there.
So you need to ask yourself: why should your players donate to your Kickstarter instead of the two-dozen campaigns in your genre alone? Offer your backers something that your competition can’t, something unique to the game.
The most successful Kickstarter-funded Indie Games (and What They Did Right).
Indie game development is tough, and making a successful game is even tougher. But it’s not impossible. You can improve your success by learning from some of the takeaways of the indie games that have successfully crowdfunded themselves before:
- Offer something unique
- Offer a new twist on a beloved genre
- Build a community over time and engage with them
- Be transparent with your community, don’t lie to or deceive them
- Have realistic expectations for your game’s development timeline
What are some of your favorite crowdfunded games? What did they do well? Tell us about them in the comments!
Thanks for reading the most successful Kickstarter-funded Indie Games (and What They Did Right). for more from Travis visit Travis Taborek and for more features from indie gamers visit the Into Indie Games Features pages.