My name is Mark Sheppard. Along with my teammates Josh and Glenn, I’m one third of Membraine Studios. I thought I’d write about the path taken to get to this very moment, the launch of our crowd funding campaign for “Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire” on Indiegogo.
Below, I’ll discuss our approach of working within a very specific niche and how it’s working out so far. I’ll also flag some of the more significant obstacles we’ve come up against along the way, and what we’re either doing (or thinking we can do) in order to overcome those obstacles.
“Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire” is a turn-based strategy game for PC and Mac that aims to capture the essence of the miniatures wargaming hobby...
Did you hear that? I reckon half the readership evaporated as soon as I mentioned “miniatures wargaming”. And who could blame them. Miniature wargaming is probably the most niche of niche hobbies. In my experience, non-wargamers find my hobby a little weird; those who somehow happen across a miniatures wargame in progress tend to stand stunned for several moments before they back away slowly with a bemused expression, like they’re unsure how to react to seeing adults play with little army men. It’s like Fight or Flight has almost kicked in, but took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up at Stunned Mullet.
Even so, I’m writing today about miniatures wargaming because these are my people. These are the hardcore strategy fans; armchair generals and commanders of metal and plastic troops. These are people who spend hours upon hours and hundreds if not thousands of dollars collecting, painting and—the occasional Sunday once in a while—fielding their armies against other, like-minded individuals.
People like me spend hours crafting their army lists. We calculate likely win-loss ratios for units based on statistics. We read the lore surrounding our chosen armies. We know our forces intimately.
In short, we bloody love it. But there’s a problem with my beloved hobby—in this busy-busy modern world, I find it hard to make the time to actually do some modelling, or a spot of painting, or (heaven forbid) play an actual game.
It’s okay, though, because there are heaps of computer games that play just like tabletop warga— ... oh wait; no there aren’t! There are plenty of board game-like computer games that work on hexes or grids, but I’m not aware of any that offer anything even close to the tactile experience of the humble tabletop wargame.
You can see where I’m going with this.
An idea is born...or 20
Several years ago, back in the middle of 2009 while I was taking some time off, I had an idea for a computer game that would capture, as much as possible, those things I loved most about miniatures wargames: collecting minis, developing that “killer” army list, and playing a tactically challenging game. Most importantly, the game would need to capture the tactile nature of tabletop gaming, with minis to pick up and move around. This game would eschew the traditional computer-based strategy game conceits of the grid or the hex, and instead allow freedom of movement, like you experience on the tabletop. In short, it would be what I thought of as a “true tabletop game” on your computer.
I put several weeks into the game design of that core concept. I had been playing a lot of “Warhammer 40,000” around that time—which is a game I’ve been playing since 1987, coincidentally—and I had also recently discovered 6mm wargaming in a big way, throwing myself into games like “Blitzkrieg Commander” and “Epic: Armageddon,” so that original game design ended up being a mash up of all those systems and others.
No surprise then that it didn’t work as a game, and I ended up shelving it.
Fast-forward a few months to the period in time where Josh, Glenn and I were coming together for the first time to talk about making games. My miniatures wargame concept came up and had a moment in the sun while we bounced it around and we reworked the design considerably, adding and deleting in equal measure, but it was ultimately decided that it was “too niche” and too complex for our first game, and we moved on (we ended up releasing “Orbital Defence” for the iPhone a few months after that, so in retrospect that was probably the right choice).
Following the release of “Orbital Defence”, which received great reviews from players and press alike, we all took a break for several months to regroup. After that break we returned to making games with a vengeance. We went through a process of rapid prototyping that saw us create more than 20 prototypes, each of which was scrutinised and brutally assessed for its suitability for our next project...before each was summarily relegated to the shelf as “not quite right”.
That process went on for more than a year. It was really only about six months ago that we finally hit gold and found what we were looking for—when, upon review of old ideas, we finally managed to rework my old miniatures wargame design into something that worked! EGAD!
Yes, it took three years and more than 20 prototypes to get there, but get there we did (which goes to show the value of never throwing anything away—compulsive hoarders, I hope you’re taking notes).
Being armed with a game design that we believed in energised us as a team, but we recognised the hard truth of it—that this was still a ridiculously niche design. So what could we do to broaden the game’s appeal?
Luckily, it didn’t take us too long to decide that that was a flawed approach, and we decided to instead embrace the niche-ness and pitch the game directly to the wargaming community.
Enter Exodus Wars
I had been familiar with “Exodus Wars” for several years thanks to my involvement with the 6mm fraternity. Steel Crown Productions (SCP) makes a great range of 6mm (and now 28mm) minis, and has developed a great sci-fi lore around its IP that is a fantastic parallel for the American War of Independence. It’s meatier than most sci-fi wargaming IPs in that the background for the unending warfare is both reasoned and believable, which makes the universe that much more compelling than the average fare.
I reached out to Tom, the owner of SCP, about what we were doing with our game, and asked if he’d be interested in seeing his Exodus Wars IP on computer screens. It turned out he was very much interested in such a proposition, and a couple of months later we had an agreement in place and a project title in “Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire” (EW:FE).
EW:FE and the crowd
By this stage, we were several months into development of game, but it was becoming clear that we would struggle to complete development based on the current trajectory. We started looking for ways to shore-up our revenue streams, namely by increasing our business-IT consulting work, but it was clear that doing so would directly impact the number of hours Josh and Glenn could put into making EW:FE—an intolerable situation.
Fortunately, crowd funding had recently come into its own, and we had the great idea of launching a crowd funding campaign aimed at engaging the wargaming community and getting them on-side. This is what we have spent the past week or so doing—communicating with wargamers about what we’re doing and why, and asking for their support. Ultimately, we thought, if that community doesn’t respond positively, what’s the point?
We were gratified, then, when the community rallied and our campaign managed to bring in more than $1,000 in the first few days.
Indiegogo vs. Kickstarter
I’ll briefly mention one of our biggest bug-bears, which was the decision around which crowd funding platform we should use.
We initially wanted to use Kickstarter because of the large audience base it offers being the market leader. Unfortunately, because we’re not U.S. residents, that option is not available to us—and even if we could bring a U.S. resident into the team or find some other way to get around Kickstarter’s requirements so that we could use that platform, the tax implications are HUGE.
Even worse, as was pointed out to me recently by Jody from The Frontline Gamer (hi, Jody!), there is possibly potential for non-U.S. teams using Kickstarter to be in breach of U.S. money laundering laws. We wanted no part of that.
Fortunately, we found a very good next-best option in Indiegogo.com. Indiegogo is a great platform and offers a very reasonable service—and there’s no ungodly tax burden or nasty money laundering prosecutions to worry about. Bonus!
So we had our crowd funding platform sorted. Sadly, the next obstacle, which is the stage we’re at now, is one we expect will be more difficult and complex—engaging with the gaming press.
Kickstarter vs. Penny Arcade Report
Not too long ago, Ben Kuchera at Penny Arcade Report wrote a great article about the conundrum faced by games journalists with crowd-funded projects; that is, whether or not to cover such campaigns. It’s not an easy predicament. On the one hand, such campaigns are often for games products that do not yet exist, and there are a range of issues surrounding that simple fact; but, on the other hand, crowd funding campaigns for games absolutely depend on the gaming press for the word to get around about what they’re doing—Membraine’s experience is that social media and forum posts alone are not enough.
Because of this dependence on the gaming media, reticence on the part of journalists to cover legitimate crowd funding campaigns has the potential to kill the crowd funding dream.
I do understand the uncomfortable position games journos find themselves in right now with crowd funding, though—and, to be honest, we’re expecting to see a lot of rejections from gaming sites not wanting to cover our crowd funding campaign. It’s disappointing for teams like ours and other legitimate indies who don’t have Tim Schafer on board, but it is understandable nonetheless. You’ll have to forgive me, though, that it makes me cry for the great crowd funding hope we briefly thought we’d discovered but lost all too soon.
Membraine has been fortunate that our Indiegogo campaign was covered by sites like IndieGameMag.com, PlaySciFi.com, Futile Position and TheMiniaturesPage.com, but there are many indies who won’t get that kind of coverage, and that makes me sad.
Worrying just about our project, though, I should mention I have high hopes that our campaign will be covered by the games media, especially given we managed to find some traction even in our soft-launch phase. Either way, I guess we’ll find out in the coming days and weeks of our campaign. :)