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Why InXile,  Wasteland 2  are better off without a publisher
Why InXile, Wasteland 2 are better off without a publisher Exclusive
April 9, 2012 | By Tom Curtis

April 9, 2012 | By Tom Curtis
More: Console/PC, Exclusive, Design

The wildly successful Kickstarter campaign for Wasteland 2 has changed things quite a bit for developer InXile Entertainment. The sudden popularity of fan-funded projects has given the team the chance to break away from industry standards, and make games that aren't about reaching the largest possible audience.

As of press time, role-playing game sequel Wasteland 2's Kickstarter campaign stood at $2.2 million, more than double its $900,000 goal, and it still has a week left. InXile CEO and Interplay veteran Brian Fargo told Gamasutra he's happy to be able to sidestep traditional publishers and raise the money for a throwback RPG that isn't built for what he calls the "mythical mass market."

"The great part about this game being funded by the fans is that I don't need to figure out how to get to a different audience," Fargo said. "I've had a lot of people ask me, 'Well, what will you do for the console crowd?' But it doesn't matter!"

The basic premise of a Kickstarter campaign is that if a project reaches its funding goal within the set time frame, the project owner receives that money and it develops the project. If the project misses the goal, the project owner receives none of the funds.

Now that Fargo has a chance to make games for a niche audience, he believes he can satisfy players that have been somewhat ignored by today's latest and greatest titles. The original Wasteland RPG, developed by Interplay, released in 1988 and was published by EA. Wasteland's successor, the Fallout series, might still be going strong, but Fargo noted even that classic franchise has changed quite a bit to suit a broader audience.

"For Wasteland 2, the PC is the root of the product. The Fallout series, at least for now, is focused more at a console group, and for me, there's a major difference. There's a lot of people that loved Fallout 1 and 2, and Fallout 3 just isn't what they want. To me, Wasteland 2 is for those people," he said.

And since those nostalgic players are providing the funding for the game, Fargo said he's doing everything he can to ensure that their voices are heard. Fargo pointed out that Kickstarter backers won't have a final say on the game's content, but InXile wants to keep communication channels open so the team doesn't miss any key feedback.

InXile has already taken some cursory surveys about Wasteland 2, and Fargo said he's been surprised by what his backers are looking for.

"As an example, we asked fans what they'd like to see once we hit a certain funding level. More audio? A bigger world? And almost universally, people said, 'Please don't waste my money on audio.'"

Instead, players wanted InXile to include more text, giving the game a more robust, branching narrative. Adding voice-overs would only limit the game's scope, as dialogue trees would be bound by the game's audio budget. "It was an interesting thing to hear from [the fans], and I'm glad I heard that," Fargo said.

He was quick to note, however, that InXile can't put complete faith in this fan feedback. Fargo said that while the backers have effectively taken the place of a traditional publisher, InXile isn't willing to give up any creative control.

"When I get feedback from the users, I know a good idea when I hear it, and I know a consensus when I hear it. I'll make that decision myself. Now, if I'm working with a publisher, they can tell me what to do, I can disagree, and they'll say, 'we don't care.' There's a huge difference," he said.

While he chose not to delve into specifics, Fargo said he's had some rough experiences working with publishers, and he's glad to be moving away from that model.

"I don't want to come across as negative, but my experiences with publishers were 100 times worse than what you might have seen in our Kickstarter video," he said.

Sustaining post-publisher success

Fargo said that given his past experiences with publishers, he hopes to continue working independently as long as he can. The fan-funding model has worked out well for him so far, and he plans to stick with Kickstarter for the foreseeable future. In order to ensure that's a possibility, Fargo said he's doing everything he can to maintain the service's momentum.

That's why he recently introduced the Kicking It Forward initiative, which encourages successful projects to invest 5 percent of their profits into future Kickstarter campaigns.

He said, "I think this Kickstarter thing has so much potential to be powerful... But how do we keep this economy going? I thought, why don't we agree -- all of us, if possible -- to throw back 5 percent of our profits to give those other projects a better chance."

Fargo believes that as long as the successful projects throw some money back into the system, Kickstarter can remain a viable funding model. Even if some projects falter, Fargo said that Kickstarter will be here for the long haul if developers support the ecosystem at large.

"If we keep this up, someone will eventually come along that blows me and Tim Schafer out of the water sales-wise, and then I want that guy to put something back too. That will ensure the independence of development that we're all trying to seek."

Shafer, founder of Psychonauts studio Double Fine, launched a Kickstarter campaign in March this year that raised $3.3 million -- substantially ahead of its $400,000 goal -- for an adventure game. It's now the highest-funded Kickstarter project ever.

Fargo said he's already enjoying much of that independence, as cutting publishers from the mix has allowed him to dedicate his time to making games, rather than worrying about the minutiae of lining up future business deals.

"The good thing about this whole process is that I can wholly focus on the game. Even if we worked something out with a publisher, I'd still have to spend a good chunk of my time lining up the next product so when the team finishes, they can keep working," he said.

"With this, when we ship the product, our revenues don't go to zero the next day. We'll still have sales. Now I get to wholly focus on the product, and it's wonderful. I haven't gotten to do this in decades. I couldn't be happier."

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Michael DeFazio
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As giddy as a schoolgirl at the resurgence of the throwback turn-based RPG video game. (The success of Wasteland 2 and Shadowrun on Kickstarter shows I'm not the only one.) Over the years, I've come to accept the limits of my reflexes and manual dexterity (which were adequate for 2 button + dpad mario, but lacking for the design of modern real-time games). As a result, I shy away from popular games of the day like COD, or SW:TOR.

RPGs which had previously always been my fallback have recently taken a turn towards being "action-based" and focusing on delivering cutting edge graphics/physics rather than creating systems, scenarios, and enemies that provide challenge and make you think and strategize.

Listening to Mr. Fargo has been a breath of fresh air...what the Wasteland 2 team has been planning should be right in my wheelhouse.

Kyle Redd
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And Quicktime Events. Don't forget Quicktime Events. QTEs occupy a unique space in today's titles, in that older players will actually be physically unable to complete certain tasks like hammering on the A button as fast as you can dozens of times per game.

There should be a warning label on the cases that says: "No one over 40 will be able to complete this game. We had to make our game feel intense and making you go ballistic on the controller was the only method our limited imaginations could come up with. Sorry."

Jeremy Reaban
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Indeed, that's one of the reasons I've been gaming less as I get older - not that I don't want to, but my reflexes aren't up to it anymore

Eric Schwarz
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What I do think this whole affair demonstrates, and very importantly so, is that the publisher model simply does not work for certain niche markets. Publishers are interested in maximizing profits, and that necessarily leads to the homogenizing of genre and gameplay for the sake of mass appeal. There's nothing wrong with making popular games, of course, and there's just as much art and science in it, but that model of thinking also excludes portions of the market which are still viable. Of course, publishers themselves are partially responsible for defining mass appeal as "simple, big, loud and expensive", not necessarily gamers or developers, but that's a discussion for another day.

I think it's interesting where Kickstarter will go next. It can't last forever - after the current hype dies down, the developers who have found success with it will need to be able to sustain themselves. Already we're starting to see Kickstarter campaigns gradually lose steam, and that's going to get worse over time. I'd love to see more smaller, independent studios who are able to make the games they truly want, but of course, we always have to keep in mind that even small studios can get big fast - and this leads right back into the same publisher/shareholder problem.

It's interesting to draw parallels between the current iOS development trend and Kickstarter. Both work for developers with smaller budgets and team sizes, as well as those who appeal to niche markets. In both cases we effectively have different digital marketplaces both driving creativity and innovation in different ways. I suppose I just can't see Kickstarter being the one that stands the test of time.

And yes, for the record, I've put my money down on Wasteland 2. Not only do I like the original, but I love what the game represents, conceptually and within the modern games industry. Like Legend of Grimrock, I think Wasteland 2 is living proof that old ideas are just as viable today as they used to be, and that technology does not necessarily need to make game creation more complex and expensive, or push game design towards mainstream ideas. I've scoffed at the technological fallacy for years, and it's vindicating to see it finally laid to rest with my favorite genre.

Joe E
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While super excited about this and Double Fine's project (both of which I'm backing), the fan-funded model is not answering the orignal question that publishers came to address: risk. What happens when Brian Fargo's or Tim Schafer's or the next guy down the line's project either tanks, goes obscenely overbudget, or underdelivers (or all of the above)? And with the recent popularity of the model, the amount of poorly thought out projects must be on the rise, hence it's only a matter of time before the bust comes. I'd love to be corrected on this.

E Zachary Knight
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Publishers never really addressed that risk either. All they did was throw out enough projects to ensure that at least one of them was successful enough to cover the rest.

If Double Fine or InXile's games fail, that is a risk that those funding it have made and accepted. However, instead of a single publisher losing out on $2.2million we have 46,238 investors risking an average of $47.78. That is a far less risky investment than that of a major publisher.

Will people be less likely to risk another $50 on another game after a failure from a developer? Sure, but such a risk is on the minds of every gamer that hits up Gamestop looking for a new game to play. If the game they paid for last week sucked, they will steer clear of that developer in the future. They will instead take that $50 and invest in a new developer.

Joe E
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While you make a good point, I don't think a finished product on Gamestop's shelf is comparable to the promise of one 12 months down the road. My point being: thinking as a consumer, if I'm already down $100 on promises of products, I will be a lot less likely to spend my next $50 on another promise, when I'm wanting to play something right now. And if one of those projects completely fails, in my consumer mind the whole model will lose credibility, not only that particular developer.
I think I'm just stating the obvious: fan-funding won't replace traditional publishing any time soon.

E Zachary Knight
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There is certainly room for both kinds of funding. I am not saying that there isn't. I am just saying that the risk analysis of both kinds of funding is very different.

For a lot of people, there is relatively little risk going into a Kickstarter game, especially if it is from designers and developers that make the games they love. They do recognize the risks associated with that type of funding, but are willing to accept it.

How multiple failures will color the funding model itself is yet to be determined. Kickstarter has been around for a few years now and it has yet to be harmed by a project that has failed after funding. Most Kickstarter failures are failures to reach the funding level.

Even if a project failed after funding, there has never been any funded to these levels before. Most funded projects were along the line of a few thousand dollars and a few going up to tens of thousands. So the risk of failure was even less an issue then.

Ron Dippold
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I'm sure there will be a spectacular failure at some point, but I think we, the backers, are also doing a certain amount of risk assessment. I think all the games I've backed so far have a very good chance of shipping something good.

- Double Fine Adventure - We know these people can make games and are working on something they love and we've been waiting over a decade for it. I'll give them $100 no problem.
- Wasteland 2 - Ditto.
- Shadowrun - Honestly, I'm not sure of the technical chops here, so I backed a bit less than the first two, but I'm willing to bet some on Jordan Weisman.
- Banner Saga - They quit Bioware to make it and what they've already got looks good.
- FTL - The playable demos convinced me.

Instead of a single publisher you've now got to convince 10,000+ backers that you've got something and have a good chance of delivering. This isn't the complete list of things I've backed, but there are plenty more I've declined to back for various reasons including lack of anything to show yet - you still have a bit of a bootstrap problem. If I don't know your reputation and you don't have /something/ to show already I'm unlikely to back. Which I think is as it should be.

James Youngman
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@Ron: I worked at Harebrained Schemes on Crimson Steam Pirates. The team there is very talented and very dedicated. I'm not concerned in the least about their ability to make the game.

Glenn McMath
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Joaquin, you definitely make a good point, but I think there are circumstances that could mitigate the loss of faith in the model. Certainly I think there is a risk of a bad project turning those who contributed away from the model (particularly those who contributed at higher funding levels), but a lot of the people who have given to one kickstarter project wound up supporting others as well. The odds of all of the projects they've backed failing spectacularly is fairly small, and just like one bad project can sour a backer, one great one can redeem the service in their eyes. At the end of the day I think a failed project would only serve to make people more critical of the projects they would back in the future.

I think the more substantial risk is on the shoulders of the developers themselves. If their project is an abject failure, they're alienating all of their core fans. Even worse, the more someone contributed to a project, the more put out they'll feel if it's a failure. So not only are you running the risk of pissing off your fan base, the amount you piss them off is in direct proportion to how much they loved you in the first place.

Interestingly enough, I think the "Making Of" documentary that Double Fine is doing could help mitigate that risk to a degree, since if things go wrong, you can see exactly why they did and have a bit of warning leading up the the game's release. It humanizes the development struggles in a way that most people don't consider when they wind up spending money on a shitty game under regular circumstances.

Alan Wilson
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We've been independent developers from the start - and our own publisher since 2009. Wouldn't have it any other way...

Mike Griffin
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k s
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Great article!

I'm all for kickstarter funding as it will allow niche genres to flourish again after publishers focused on mass market appeal. I enjoyed Fallout 3 but I don't consider it a true Fallout game, I feel there are only 3 of those (1, 2, and Tactics).

Once the transfer to my paypal account finishes I plan to toss these guys a couple of bucks to support this project.

As a side note I like how the fans care more about a quality game over voice overs. The mainstreamification of gaming has been bothering me for years and finally someone is able to do something to preserve traditional gaming.

Adam Bishop
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"And almost universally, people said, 'Please don't waste my money on audio.'"

I hope this is a reference only to voice-overs and not to high-quality audio in general, or I'd be very sad. Great audio can add so much to a game. It's a shame that major developers often overlook audio because it's so hard to sell a game based on great sound, but I'd hate to see independent developers choose to cut back on audio quality not because they couldn't afford it, but because fans just don't want games that sound good.

E Zachary Knight
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The context led it to be just about voice-over work. I don't think people would want to have ambient sounds and sound effects to be horrible. It really does break the emersion when you are greeted with horrible sound effects.

David Holmin
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Yeah the context for that is voiced dialog. The have Mark Morgan so I don't think they plan doing sloppy audio work.

Jeremy Reaban
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I think great sound is one of those things that a few people are really , really into, but most people don't care about at all.

Heck, the first thing I do when I play a gain is turn off the music and usually lower the sound effects - generally when I play games, I'd rather listen to some other music or in the summer, a baseball game.

E Zachary Knight
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I am a bit different when it comes to audio. I usually turn the music down to 50% and the sound effects up to 100%. Unless I am playing a browser game, then it is music and sound off.

David Holmin
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"There's a lot of people that loved Fallout 1 and 2, and Fallout 3 just isn't what they want. To me, Wasteland 2 is for those people," he said.

Music to my ears. Much kudos to Fargo!

Gonzalo Daniel
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Mr Fargo, you keep preaching, we are listening to you!Now, if only Bioware used kickstarter instead of EA to create their games. That day will be the truliest best day in my life.There`s a game by ex Bioware employees called the Banner Saga on Kickstarter, and it looks great. They have also made what they needed, so we are seeing great things going on!

Joshua Darlington
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"Instead, players wanted InXile to include more text, giving the game a more robust, branching narrative. "

"Adding voice-overs would only limit the game's scope, as dialogue trees would be bound by the game's audio budget. "It was an interesting thing to hear from [the fans], and I'm glad I heard that," Fargo said."

Maybe fans should kickstart new tech tools for narrative designers. Better quality speech synthesis, is an important part of the puzzle.

Mark Ludlow
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The interesting thing is going to be seeing what happens after the project is complete. Currently there are a lot of interested people paying up front for the game and funding the project by doing so. When the game is complete though, will there be enough people left with interest in the game that held back on pledging to continue generating profit, or has the lightning already struck?

Jeremy Reaban
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I would suspect so, at least based on anecdotal evidence - a lot of people I've mentioned this to (and Shadowrun) says they'll just buy it when it comes out, as opposed to pledging now.

But who knows?

And will they just use kickstarter for their next project, too? (Which I would hope would be an old school fantasy CRPG like Bard's Tale)

Glenn McMath
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I definitely agree that most of the financial support of these projects will be front loaded. But the other thing to keep in mind is that any sales that they do see upon release will be pure profit. And when you consider how rarely developers see royalties under the publisher model, I don't think the front loading of support will be terribly detrimental to developers of kickstarted games.

Brian Fargo touches on this briefly in the interview, but usually when development wraps up on a game, the developers revenue dries up at the same time. This means that they have to have something else lined up before their project finishes (or shortly thereafter) or risk going under. With the kickstarter model, all revenue from sales of the final game go strait to the developer (minus a cut for distribution usually), so I'd think since most of these devs are small teams, they should be able to sustain themselves on even relatively modest sales.

Jyri Jokinen
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I would actually like to know how InXile plans to distribute the game. Is it going to be Steam or or will they ramp up a service of their own? I'm not particularly fond of setting up new accounts so that I can purchase new games, but on the other hand, how is Valve going to handle these Kickstarted projects? (Like, how many "free" codes is the developer allowed to give out to the pledgers?)