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How Kickstarter is changing gaming

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Leisure Suit Larry

When Double Fine Entertainment launched its crowd-sourced video game experiment on Kickstarter in early February, it was anything but a sure bet. While the funding platform had boasted a number of successfully funded projects, it had yet to chalk up any victories on the big stage.

By now, of course, everyone knows how that story ended. The developer, which had hoped to raise $400,000 to create an adventure game, took in more than $3.3 million. That opened the dam, and it wasn't long before Kickstarter was flooded with game projects, many from well-known industry names.

In just a few months, Kickstarter has become a significant source of funding for some very familiar games. It's a pretty straightforward premise: game developers pitch ideas via the Kickstarter site, which lets consumers fund any project they like by donating to the cause. In return, they'll help a game get made -- and perhaps pick up a few tokens of appreciation from the developer along the way.

Some game industry veterans say it could mark a huge shift in how -- and why -- games are created.

"It's a way for gamers to say 'I miss something' and let the developers create the game [players] want to see," says classic game developer Al Lowe, who is using Kickstarter with to revive the Leisure Suit Larry franchise."I believe it's going to give you a chance to buy things you want as opposed to being given the chance to buy things [publishing executives] think you want."

The list of industry luminaries hopping aboard the Kickstarter bandwagon is impressive. Interplay founder Brian Fargo raised nearly $3 million to develop Wasteland 2, a sequel to a beloved 1988 post-apocalyptic role-playing game. Adventure game legend Jane Jensen is using the service to raise funds for her new studio's effort. Kendall Davis, a designer and producer on Halo 4, earned enough to build his own independent game called The Last Sleeper. And a pair of Bioware developers raised over $650,000 to fund their labor of love, The Banner Saga.

More big names could be coming. The creators of the classic Tex Murphy games have announced plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign on May 15 to fund a revival of the full-motion animated series. God of War and Twisted Metal creator David Jaffe has even said he would consider Kickstarter for his next project, though he admits he'd feel a heightened sense of pressure in doing so.

"I definitely think it's a really cool thing, so I would consider it," he told Gamasutra. "I think I would be really nervous because suddenly now it's not just a publisher's money. Suddenly you have all these peoples' money, and you don't want to let them down."

There's certainly a lot of money flowing into Kickstarter game projects. In March alone, supporters gave $9 million to gaming related campaigns, and another $1 million has already been donated this month, according to calculations by Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

While that level of support is encouraging, it's also sometimes misplaced. Backers are promised various incentives for their donations (someone, for instance, is paying $10,000 to have a meal with Lowe and support the Leisure Suit Larry revival). But if the developer underestimates the amount necessary to make the game or folds for some reason, those backers aren't entitled to refunds.

The makers of Star Command, for instance, are learning the hard way that Kickstarter success comes with caveats. Despite raising more than $36,000, they've taken on another $50,000 in debt to get the game made, due to unexpectedly high expenses for prize fulfillment, taxes and promotion.

Their update, which broke down where the money went in detail, is a fascinating look behind the scenes of game development and a cautionary tale for other game makers.

For most investors, that sort of risk would be a drawback. But Kevin Dent, a former developer and current mentor to game makers, says it should actually act as an incentive. In a wide-ranging talk with the Penny Arcade Report, he notes that there are plenty of red flags potential backers should watch for, but if you do choose to put your money down for a game, you deserve to know the good, the bad and the ugly.

"I dearly want to see studios approach Kickstarter in the exact same way that they would reach out to me," he says. "During the process they should be sharing the dev cycle experience with the contributors, warts and all…I want to know when you inserted a chunk of code that would embarrass your college professors. I want to hear about the cheers and tears. I want to feel like I am watching a reality TV show. Otherwise I can wait until the game hits Gamestop or whatever and buy it then."

Lowe didn't address Dent's theory, but did note that while people are sure to be burned on some Kickstarter projects, the volunteer nature of the site -- and the long memory of gamers -- creates a sort of natural selection among the choices.

"It a wonderful democratic and capitalistic plot to give people exactly what they want," he says. "I think Kickstarter is a great, great concept. It helps eliminate the people who aren't going to produce something — because if you go online and pledge to do something and don't do it (or do a half-assed job) you'll never get support again."

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