The Player-Funded Development Process

Artist's interpretation.

    How many times have you applied to participate in the beta testing for a game you were excited about? How many times have you actually been chosen? If you have my luck, the answer is zero. What if all you needed was a credit card to get into the beta testing for Blizzard’s next MMORPG? It sounds crazy, but I’m noticing a new form of funding being used by independent developers that could very well be the future of beta testing and preorder bonuses for AAA and indie devs alike. Several independent developers have taken a new approach to getting the funding they need by allowing players to pay to play early builds of the game before it’s released. It’s basically alpha/beta testing that requires a credit card instead of an application with your computer specs attached.
    I bring this up because it turns out if it’s fun and playable, players are absolutely willing to pay to play a game that isn’t finished. Think about all the beta testing opportunities you’ve submitted an application for. Chances are they were for a game you just couldn’t wait to play. Would you have paid ten bucks to guarantee your spot? I know I would have, especially if that was ten bucks off the final price when the game was released. That’s certainly a better preorder bonus than a piece of in-game content you’re probably going to forget to download. I still haven’t downloaded the armor that came with my Halo Reach preorder.
    Then there’s kung-fu bunny brawler Overgrowth from Wolfire Games. Anyone who preorders it (for the full game price of $30) is given a code to download and play the game in its current alpha state throughout the development process. Every week preorderers can download the latest build of the game and fool around with what is basically a set of placeholder environments with some characters to run around and fight with freely complete with a set of basic mod tools. Why would anyone pay for that? Well, Overgrowth has some very impressive mechanics in place. Having preordered myself, the hand-to-hand (with some weapons thrown in) combat system is very fast and fluid and unlike any other game I’ve played. It’s surprisingly fun to just drop into my favorite level and spawn some enemies to cripple with my mad martial arts skills.

Amazing artwork by Aubrey Serr.

My point is that Wolfire Games has given its customers a mighty delicious taste of what they’re working on in exchange for their support in funding the game’s development. Over 7,000 preorders have been sold and it’s popular enough that the weekly development diaries end up on Gametrailers. Over $200,000 is a damn good budget for an indie game.

Developing an independent game is tough. Your average indie dev probably has a day job and spends his evenings chanting “Minecraft” over and over again while he cracks away at his unique game about a sentient, self-propelled flyswatter on a morally ambiguous quest of fly genocide. When done right, player-funded development can be exponentially helpful. You get constant player feedback, you’re basically getting free testing, and with the right management development costs can be covered. This kind of transparency is exactly what modern-day gamers want. We live in a world where the relationship between player and developer is becoming progressively more personal. With message boards, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds players can communicate directly with the magicians that craft the magical experiences they spend their hard-earned money on. For the most part, this is a good thing.

Of course, this method won’t work for everyone. If this gets big we’re most certainly going to see projects with paid beta options that don’t really have much direction, but if you pay just $1.99 you can move the placeholder gradient sphere around the placeholder gradient environment before anyone else! Or worse yet, a promising concept that has had enjoyable alpha builds for several months could lose momentum and end up in vaporware hell. There’s also the debatable issue of whether this will put test teams out of work once more people discover that people are willing to pay to perform duties they used to pay other people to do. The danger is there, and until there’s a more structured and streamlined way to develop in this manner there will always be people attempting to take advantage of this rising phenomenon.

Oh hello Kickstarter! Didn’t see you there. This wonderful website is actually one of the best outlets for developers that need funding from interested players. It’s also a much more organized way to gain funding for a game or any other creative project. Kickstarter has all the bells and whistles set up for budding creative minds to set a funding goal, create incremental rewards based on the amount of money pledged, and post updates on the project’s progress. All obligations are called upon only if the goal is met, so it helps weed out any dubious attempts to scam people out of their money. I wouldn’t be surprised to see future game projects on this site offering early builds or beta keys to their more dedicated supporters.

As a quick aside, here’s a few games that have become a reality thanks to Kickstarter:

If you’ve ever been on Newgrounds, you know who Bitey of Brackenwood is. Did you know the little satyr is getting his own game? This project is actually still looking for extra funding in spite of meeting its quota way ahead of schedule for the sake of rebuilding it from a free Flash game to a console release.

This little gem is a gorgeous platformer about little creatures that must venture deep into the forest to rescue their friends and save their home.

Orion: Prelude
Dinosaurs. Jetpacks. Mechs. I haven’t played this one myself, but it looks awesome.

And what about the AAA developers that are going to take notice of this practice eventually? This is where things get negative. I love me a good high-budget game like Halo Reach and Mass Effect, but these developers don’t need support from their customers. They have good relationships with their publishers. So unfortunately the idea of charging for the priviledge to play an incomplete game is going to be seen as, well, wrong by the gaming community and industry both. I think positive execution is possible here, but it will have to be handled in a completely different way. How? I’m still working on that. How about we talk about it in the comments?



  1. Alex R

    How do you feel about games such as Star Wars: The Old Republic that have preorder but only a limited time of play (I think for standard pre-order is 3 days?) before official release instead of paying for Beta-testing? I don’t know how much substance your response will have, so just tell me how you feel about SW: TOR from the previews.

    • It’s a good idea, especially since it’s a preorder bonus and not something you’re paying extra for. It’s the only way I’ve come up with that AAA developers can award players the chance to play a game early.

  2. David

    Another method that has less of a potential to be a ripoff is the episodic release model. For example, Dead Cyborg has one episode out, but the second will only be released once enough people donate for their copies of the first episode.

    • That’s definitely another way to look at it. The only thing that worries me is that this can create a sense of withholding. It might give people the impression of, “You don’t get to play the next episode unless enough people spend money on this” leaving some players feeling cheated.

  3. Kevin T

    I know Capcom tried something like this with Mega Man Legends 3 recently. They were going to release what they called the “Prototype Version,” which was basically a beta that you could buy for about $5. Then they added a condition to it: if not enough people bought the beta, they would cancel the game. If that wasn’t bad enough, they ended up canceling the game before they even released the beta, and didn’t give a clear reason why. There goes my one reason for buying a 3DS in the near future.

    Okay, now that you know where I’m coming from, Jordan, here’s the question: if AAA developers want to involve players in the development process, what do you think is the best way for them to go about it? Also, how could they learn from the whole Mega Man Legends 3 fiasco and the mistakes Capcom made in handling the situation?

    • Kevin T

      Just so you are aware, Capcom did more than just ask players to fund the development. They also asked players to be a part of the development process by holding contests for character designs as well as designs for parts of the game. When I said “involve the players in the development process” I meant it in a broader scope than just funding. When you answer the question, keep this in mind.

      • The big issue with Mega Man Legends 3, based on the coverage I’ve read, is actually a huge lack of transparency in my opinion.

        After promising a paid beta and involving them with character design contests and whatnot, they cancelled the game due to what they called “lack of fan support,” but we still don’t know what the real cause was.

        To truly involve players in AAA development, there needs to be complete transparency. I’m not saying the average gamer should know every little detail about an upcoming game, but communication needs to be clear and as often as possible.

        • Kevin T

          Yeah, I don’t really buy the whole “lack of fan support” thing either. If you scope out the internet, it’s pretty obvious that there was QUITE A BIT of fan support. The support started coming immediately after the game was first announced. They did something similar to this with Mega Man Universe, a Little Big Planet-style Mega Man game that would have been based on user-created levels, bosses, and weapons. Unfortunately, Capcom canceled this one when it was late in development and just months away from being released. Like with Legends 3, they didn’t give a clear explanation why. I know this is a little off-topic, but it kind of annoys me how Capcom seems to be using most of their resources on 2D fighters these days, while giving very little thought to anything else. Still picking up Ultimate MvC3, though, but only because I don’t already have the original. If the price actually ends up being $30, and the game has more in it, why not? Of course, the minute they announce “Super Ultra Mega Ultimate MvC3 with very minor changes,” I’ll be doing my best to ignore it.