Long read: Who is qualified to make a world?

In search of the magic of maps.

If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

Is Kickstarter for video games dead?

An investigation.

Do you remember the excitement? It was like an air horn went off in the night. Games we only dreamed about suddenly looked like possibilities. A new point-and-click adventure game by Tim Schafer? A new Wasteland by Brian Fargo? An old-school role-playing game by Obsidian, a spaceship game by Chris Roberts? Honk!

From everywhere came yesteryear's finest names sifting for a share of the gold, and as the excruciating wait for new consoles scraped on, Kickstarter overflowed with opportunity. But when was the last time Kickstarter made headlines like that? When was the last time a video game raised multiple millions there?

A couple of months ago, Kickstarter reached 10,000 games funded, a wonderful milestone. How far we've come since Steve Jenkins managed to convince 36 people to back his 12-bit adventure game High Strageness in August 2009. More than 10,000 games, nearly two-and-a-half million people and close to $170m. Staggering.

But cracks are starting to appear. In 2016, video game pledges on Kickstarter were by a clear margin their lowest in five years - their lowest since the Kickstarter fairytale really began. Nearly $18m compared to more than $43m the year before, according to numbers supplied to me by Kickstarter. And the knock-on effect was a first ever year of decline for Kickstarter overall.

It begs the question: are the glory days over? Is Kickstarter for video games dead?

"It's the mood..." Brian Fargo tells me - he whose Wasteland 2 Kickstarter campaign was a key success of 2012. "You go back to 2012 and 2013 and the atmosphere... it was very exciting. A lot of the titles were being driven not by what they were offering but more based upon what people were being denied. Whether it's the point-and-click adventure or me bringing back the classic isometric role-playing game: those things were truly being denied by publishers. They were not being financed, there was no support, there was no way these things were going to get made."

The floodgates opened with Tim Schafer's Double Fine Adventure (now named Broken Age) in February 2012, which raised $1m in less than 24 hours and $3.3m overall. It was unheard of money for Kickstarter at the time and it brought 60,000 people to the site who helped spend more on video game projects in the following weeks than in entire years previously. Such was the impact Kickstarter even thanked Double Fine publicly.

The multi-million-dollar video game success stories kept rolling in. Wasteland 2, Pillars of Eternity, Star Citizen, Elite: Dangerous, Oculus Rift, Ouya, Torment: Tides of Numenera, Mighty No. 9. Hit after hit after hit; it seemed like anything could work - and so everybody tried. Approximately 300 games struck out on Kickstarter in 2011; in 2012, approximately 1400; a year later, 1800. Graphs that look like houses next to skyscrapers.

But how long could it last? How many nostalgic holes were there left to fill? As Brian Fargo puts it: "How many franchises can we go back and say, 'Well if that one were to cut free...?'" Maybe a Baldur's Gate 3 still could, he muses, but "the velocity has changed forever".

People started getting fed up of hearing about Kickstarter campaigns, and press got tired writing about it. It's hardly remarkable when hundreds of games are doing the same thing. "In 2013 we would do an update, just a simple update to show off a screenshot or a music piece, and you guys would cover it!" says Fargo. "We would get coverage constantly throughout the campaign. Flash forwards to now and from a press perspective Kickstarter is fingernails on the chalkboard."

Some games also inevitably didn't work out, which bred scepticism. There was the realistic swordfighting game Clang helmed by author Neal Stephenson and there was the messy Yogsventures affair, and many more.

Even those that did work out managed to inadvertently dull the shine. Ouya, for example, wasn't very good - a huge success as an idea on Kickstarter but mediocre in reality. Broken Age didn't change the world either. No one said it would but when it bust open the gates on Kickstarter it looked mighty indeed.

The headlines Kickstarter used to have, they still exist - but they exist today on Fig. $3.8m for Psychonauts 2 in January 2016; $3.1m for Wasteland 3 in November 2016; and $4.4m for Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire in February 2017.

They exist on Fig because Fig does things differently. Fig offers equity, which is to say it lets people invest in the games, buy shares and therefore earn a portion of the money made when the game goes on sale. You can still buy Wasteland 3 game shares at $1000 a pop, and Fig offers this in addition to the kind of rewards that campaigns on Kickstarter have.

Fig launched in August 2015, spearheaded by Fargo, Tim Schafer, and Feargus Urquhart, the boss of Obsidian. In other words, the people behind Wasteland 2, Double Fine Adventure and Pillars of Eternity, which were so successful on Kickstarter five years ago.

"The [Kickstarter] heyday was over," says Fargo, "and I could feel the mood shifting in the room. That's why I shifted over to Fig. I knew if we could make people profit from my games that would never get old, that that was a sustainable business model."

Cover image for YouTube videoWasteland 3 - Fig Campaign Pitch

The numbers seem to back him up. In 2016, there were only six funded projects on Fig compared to 300 on Kickstarter, but they raised nearly $8m - roughly half what video games on Kickstarter managed. And more than half of that figure came through equity investments. The question is simple: why doesn't Kickstarter follow suit?

"We've said we have no plans to get into the equity crowdfunding market," Kickstarter's communications director David Gallagher tells me. "It just doesn't really line up with our mission and what we do."

"I don't think their success is necessarily indicative of Fig's success," adds Luke Crane, head of games at Kickstarter. "Fig puts up the big numbers because Schafer, Fargo and Feargus go over there. Honestly if they put up a lemonade stand, they're going to raise a couple of million dollars."

Offering equity is also a double-edged sword. It may raise you more money to begin with but you will have a bill to pay at the end.

"Economically speaking [Kickstarter is] the best deal around," admits Fargo. "At the end of the day everyone just gets a copy of a game, or their name in the game, or whatever. Whereas with equity funding you're taking a loan and you're paying interest on it. It's not free money any more. Given those two options of course you'd want to choose number one - but the question is whether you can get [your goal in the first place]."

People trust Kickstarter, too - the game creators and game backers alike. I ask Swen Vincke, founder of Larian Studios - maker of Divinity: Original Sin, a series that has had great success on Kickstarter - whether he'd consider Fig because he sounds keen. "It really depends on what it would be for," he says. "Kickstarter has been really good for us, and the community we get out of it is our core community, and we get a lot of back and forth with them. I'm 100 per cent sure Original Sin 1 and Original Sin 2 wouldn't be the games they are if not for those guys. I consider them almost part of my development process."

These are among the reasons people still turn down Fargo's Fig advances. "I'll say, 'You might want to consider Fig because you get a second class of investor, you get to double your audience up.' I give that pitch and they still want to go to Kickstarter," Fargo says. "There are still people wedded to that."

But for how long? "Once a Fig game goes out and people can say, 'Hey I just got a 40 per cent return on my money...' That's going to be a real game-changer. You'll have a group of people saying, 'I don't even care what type of game it is, I just know I make money on the darned things.'"

"This isn't what Kickstarter is for! Kickstarter is not for big projects like this!" Luke Crane has heard the cries before. But it's a "fallacy", he says. "It's an open platform, it's for projects of all shapes and sizes, and honestly, big projects actually help the system overall. This idea that they suck all of the oxygen out of the room isn't true."

But these big projects are also not in the majority, and perhaps they're also not the point. In 2013 more than 21 projects raised over $500,000, according to ICO Partners' Thomas Bidaux, who has followed Kickstarter statistics closely for years. "It's significant," he says, "but compared to the 400 projects that were financed that year it's not most of the projects. The visible things might go away but it won't mean it's not still there for a big chunk of people who are meant to use that platform."

"Without those projects? The system still works," says Luke Crane. "When the tide rolls out what you get to see is all of the beautiful, teeming little hermit crabs. The life of the indie is so vibrant right now. It's one thing to be obsessed about the money but really it's about the little communities that are coming together on Kickstarter to make these games, and there's just so many of them."

The Banner Saga 3 by Stoic and Sunless Skies by Failbetter Games are two recent Kickstarter successes I am confident will be very good video games - just as The Banner Saga 1 and 2 were, and just as Sunless Sea was. They're poignant not only because they're high quality smaller successes, hovering around the $500,000 mark, but because their histories and Kickstarter's are entwined. The Banner Saga (1) was a relative no-name in 2012 but was swept along in the crowdfunding hysteria, and two Eurogamer Recommended games-and-counting has been the result. Sunless Skies, meanwhile, was preceded by Sunless Sea, which only raised a modest £100,000 but by golly was it good.

For them, and for many others, Kickstarter represents something more than just a website. It's a kind of movement, one people trust and remain active within. There's a community there. Hannah Flynn from Failbetter tells me approximately a third of the money the Sunless games raised on Kickstarter came from people browsing and discovering the games internally there.

"One campaign I worked on," adds Thomas Bidaux, "identified a guy who - and it was 2013 - had already backed 2000 projects! I don't know how many he has now."

Luke Crane continues: "A lot of the shine has worn off, the novelty has gone, but in its place is a community of really dedicated, hardcore fans who are passionate about seeing cool games be made. That's who's left on Kickstarter. You might not put up the giant numbers that you were putting up in 2012, 2013, but it's still possible to make fantastic games."

"Journey with me in my time machine," says Crane. "Let us go back, wachoo wachoo wachoo, to 2009, 2010, 2011, when Kickstarter games were just getting started. What's missing as we're here walking through this old tiny, sepia-toned, past landscape? Steam Early Access is missing from this landscape! And that has changed the world."

The success stories we've seen! DayZ, Ark: Survival Evolved and Rust to name a big few. The kind of money they bring in makes Kickstarter sums look puny. More than five million people own Rust at £15 a pop, for example, according to SteamSpy, totalling a colossal £75m! It's a back-of-the-napkin calculation but it gets the point across: this is serious money we're talking about.

Which isn't to say Steam Early Access and Kickstarter are mutually exclusive. Many Kickstarter projects have Early Access launches, such as Richard Garriott's Shroud of the Avatar, Divinity: Original Sin 2, Wasteland 2 and more. It can mean a top up in funds near the finish line and the difference between rushing a game out or polishing it.

But whereas Kickstarter used to help raise money to make something playable, now backers demand something playable from the start. "It's absolutely essential that you have something that is up and running," advises Andy Robinson, who ran the UK's most successful video game Kickstarter, Yooka-Laylee, in 2015. The strongest example of a developer falling foul of this golden rule recently was John Romero, who suspended his struggling Blackroom Kickstarter so he could make a playable demo.

Yet if you have something playable why go through the Kickstarter rigamarole at all? "It's not all plain sailing," says Robinson. "It can be very, very challenging." Pitching, convincing, reassuring, updating... Even if you are as successful as Yooka-Laylee and raise £2.1m, how far does that money really go?

"It's still a very small budget for the sort of game we're making," says Robinson, "a very small budget. And you lose a chunk of that immediately to Kickstarter fees, to credit card transaction fees; the taxman will take a big chunk of it; and we've just had to send out 2000 T-shirts - get them made, ship them out. That's not cheap. By the time you get through all of that stuff, the non-games stuff that comes with Kickstarter, you're left with an even smaller budget to make the game."

It's not hard to see how Steam Early Access can look a tastier proposition. "It's less work, it's money that goes beyond one month..." says Thomas Bidaux. "It's lots of work to be able to go through that 30 days of campaigning; it's time people, honestly, don't spend making the game."

Then again, not all games work well on Steam Early Access. Story games suffer because they have limited replayability, unlike systems-based games. Kickstarter campaigns also, by design, create a buzz. "Kickstarter is amazing for marketing, for word of mouth," says Failbetter's Hannah Flynn. "Without it a lot fewer people would know about Sunless Skies. Where would you find that if you weren't able to use Kickstarter?"

Kickstarter can even offer something of a soft launch for your game. "If you fail at that you only fail at your crowdfunding campaign," says Bidaux, "you didn't fail at launching the final version of your game. Every week I look at Steam games I've never heard of that do no sales whatsoever because people aren't good at finding their audience. For some projects - not all - Kickstarter is a really good path to launch your game."

"The other thing that's missing in our sepia-toned picture of the past is publishers," says Luke Crane. "Publishers were gone from the scene at this point or playing a very different role, and now Adult Swim is a huge publisher, Devolver is a huge publisher. What are they publishing? They're publishing indie games, many of which were made on Kickstarter."

Publishers take on all kinds of roles for Kickstarter games. Yooka-Laylee signed with Team17 to handle the "boring-but-necessary business stuff"; Pillars of Eternity signed with Paradox in order to "hand-off duties not related to development"; and Torment: Tides of Numenera signed with Techland for localisation and distribution purposes. Just today, Paradox signed Harebrained Schemes' Battletech, which raised nearly $3m on Kickstarter in November 2015. There are many more.

But it's a sensitive issue, signing a publisher for a crowdfunded game. The rallying cry in 2012 was anti-publisher, anti-interference - gamers and game-makers only. But Kickstarter never said publishers weren't allowed. "That was the pitch for Double Fine Adventure," recalls Bidaux, "it was never the pitch of the platform."

Indeed, there's great potential for publishers to be a part of crowdfunding. Look at what happened with the Indivisible campaign on Indiegogo - by far one of the biggest successes there. Lab Zero already had a publisher but wanted more money from 505 Games than the half-a-million dollars already invested. The deal was if Lab Zero could raise $2m on Indiegogo, 505 would throw in another $2.5m. In other words the publisher wanted reassurance, and got it.

"That's a refreshing approach," says Bidaux. "The publisher acknowledges crowdfunding could be something that helps build confidence in a product or helps financially, because even big companies have to be careful with their cash."

Cover image for YouTube videoIndivisible - Indiegogo Campaign Video

Kingdom Come: Deliverance did a similar thing on Kickstarter by running a £300,000 campaign, not to outright fund the game - as if - but rather convince a wealthy investor the game was worth the risk. Kingdom Come also has a co-publisher in Deep Silver. It is using multiple means to make a big, multi-platform role-playing game a reality - it has to. Games are expensive projects; most Kickstarter pots alone cannot fund them.

Some games begin crowdfunding ventures on Kickstarter and continue them for years after. Shroud of the Avatar and Crowfall both raised approximately $2m on Kickstarter, but - through regional publishing deals, offers of company equity and sales of in-game property and goods - now have totals of more than $10m.

But even the big successes are drops in the ocean next to budgets of blockbusters, the Destinys, Mass Effects and Assassins Creeds. Only Star Citizen with a staggering $149m raised can go toe-to-toe with them - but it is a phenomenon unlikely to be repeated ever again.

"Things are cyclical," says Kickstarter's Luke Crane, "and I believe things will come around. We went through a similar quiet period in 2014 where everybody was freaking out because a couple of big blockbusters failed."

Kickstarter could bounce back. Even as I write, an MMORPG called Ashes of Creation strides towards $2m with three weeks to go. Yet with Fig and Steam Early Access and publishers and fatigue, it's never going to be the same as it once was. Striking it rich out of the blue first time around? "That type of Kickstarter is over," says Failbetter's Hannah Flynn.

"It's never going to be like 2012 or 2013 again," adds Brian Fargo.

But Kickstarter is not dead. Changed maybe, matured, but not dead. In the grand scheme of things, crowdfunding is very young and we're still getting our heads around it. We're not used to playing a kind of publisher role; we're used to seeing a game announced at E3 and then it coming out with a marketing campaign later.

"You don't get to see right at the beginning when there might have been features that completely changed or got scrapped or whatever," says Andy Robinson. "That's game development, and that's good for game development, because if you're making a game you need to be able to, as creative people, foul, and to be able to learn from that because that's where good stuff comes from - learning from mistakes and being able to try new things that might not work."

All of a sudden we're tracking games for three or four years, be it on Kickstarter or Steam Early Access, and getting snappy about why they can't hurry the hell up. But with every completed release we learn a bit more, all of us do - game makers and game players. These are big, complex things being made, not finished board games gauging production runs. Perhaps what we're seeing is simply a settling down into a rhythm to run for many years to come.

"The founders did this wonderful accidental thing where they created the Games category on Kickstarter," says Luke Crane. "'Are games the equivalent of film or music or theatre and dance?' In 2009 this was still a conversation.

"But Yancey [Strickler], Perry [Chen] and Charles [Addler] shrugged their shoulders and said, 'Yeah sure why not?' They put them on this equal playing field on this platform and opened the door - but I don't think they quite knew what they invited in."

What they invited in helped change the conversation. Fig, Steam Early Access, publishers: they're all in their own ways offshoots of the Kickstarter revolution. If the numbers drop for Kickstarter as a result, so what? The work it has done opening doors is priceless.

"The mission here is to help bring creative projects to life," says Kickstarter communications director David Gallagher, "to essentially be a tool for creative people to make things. We would love to have a thriving video game category but if creative people are finding other ways to make video games then that is fine with us too."

"We are a public benefit corporation," Luke Crane adds, "we are not a profit-driven organisation. Our mission is to do good in the world."

And it has.