To Greedily Go Where No Marketer Has Gone Before

Double Fine advertising Broken Age

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In the still nascent field of crowdfunding, Double Fine used their game now known as Broken Age (the Kickstarter was entitled Double Fine Adventure), to try a new route of advertising. In addition to standard Kickstarter rewards: t-shirts and etc., they promised to make a documentary cataloguing everything about the process of their either creating a game, or failing spectacularly. The catch was it was only for backers. However, they soon reconsidered, and released the first video of the process as an incentive. It is a massive ad for the project, but it is also entertaining and fascinating.

It highlights how (founder) Tim Shafer’s charisma and humor are the heart and soul of the company. His same quirky, intelligent writing, sense of offbeat humor, and lovable personality is what instills the games he works on with such charmed fanbases.

As the documentary progresses however, it perhaps reveals too much. A later episode shows Tim freely admitting he’ not good at managing a company from a business perspective, which explains why everyone at the company is happy, but perhaps why Double Fine is constantly struggling to make ends meet–later 2013-10-23 - blog 03still, episodes show he has hired “a business guy”.

On the other hand, it represents a new advertising strategy, almost unheard of these days: Honesty. A willingness to admit shortcomings, even when money is on the line.

So interesting, granted, but as Broken Age game development and the documentary are both still ongoing, the results are inconclusive. The documentary is high quality stuff though. Upon completion, if they ever put the complete documentary up for sale, chances are good that a lot of people will want watch it.

Another thing it revealed is the renewed possibilities of the soapbox speech in our world where everything is connected online. As demonstrated at the end of the first episode of the documentary, where Tim addresses two crowds: An actual crowd of co-laborers at his company and a second vastly larger crowd, spread out throughout the world, who were watching from their computers and TVs and mobile devices,  watching as the Kickstarter stream counted down to zero, as if it were New Year’s. In a way, maybe it was:

“I don’t want to say that this is the end of the whole games industry as we know it. It’s not. It’s not! [laughter] And it is not like a total replacement of all publishers and publishing games. There still might be a few games made by publishers after today, just a couple games. [laughter] But it does mean, if you’ve ever been told that you’re part of a niche market. If you’ve ever, like, when you were a kid, you had your favorite TV show canceled, or you hear about your favorite band being dropped by their label for not selling enough… We’ve just been like, why does a big company get to choose what music I get to listen to or what movies I watch or TV shows I watch or what games I get to play, now you know they just–they can’t do that anymore. You can choose. So thanks, everybody.”
-Tim Schafer

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Soapboxing used in ads? Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech has recently been used in mobile phone ads on TV, to negative reaction. What if that was a traditional advertising company giving the same concept a shot and failing, precisely because honesty was not present? So how about someone genuine like Schafer, who actually means it, who actually believes in what he’s selling? Ads like that might actually go somewhere, and there are a lot of passionate people like him turning to crowdfunding.

Star Citizen

On October 10, 2012, at the annual Game Developers Conference in Austin, Texas, Chris Roberts started a new kind of advertising campaign. It wasn’t obvious what he was doing at the time. One year later, it is. Still not clear is where the advertising campaign ends up, because so far the twists and turns have been unexpected, successful, and continuing.

Mr. Roberts was a video game designer, programmer, and producer who had been the public face of a number of famous (and beloved) Star Wars-like and Elite-like (think lone trader adventuring on their own in a ship through a giant galaxy) space combat simulation games in the 90’s and 2000’s. Titles included:

  • Wing Commander (1990)
  • Wing Commander II (1991)
  • Wing Commander: Privateer (1994)
  • Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger (1994, 2013-10-23 - blog 01one of the first games to use extensive video scenes with real actors, starring Luke Skywalker’s Mark Hamill himself)
  • Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom (1996, Hamill returned)
  • Starlancer (2000)
  • Freelancer (2003)

However, after that he quit the game industry, moving to Hollywood where he tried producing for a while. The only movies he produced which survived to the big screen were The Punisher (2004), The Jacket (2005), and Lord of War (2005), with Lord of War being the only one he got an official credit on. After that, he faded from public view.

But on this particular morning, 7 years later Chris Roberts announced he was returning to the games industry. He had started a new development company called Roberts Space Industries, had already put together a team of people, and was announcing an ambitious new game Star Citizen, which they already had a demonstration of, with a brand new funding model.

The game sounded incredibly ambitious. Roberts wanted to combine many different game types: the singleplayer offline branching storytelling (the story would continue and adjust based on whether the player lost or passed each mission) and combat of his Wing Commander space games, the space trading of Privateer and Freelancer, the offline and online hybridization of Demon’s Souls, the jump in multiplayer matchmaking and fights of World of Tanks, and the massively multiplayer nature of Eve Online.

As if that wasn’t enough, Roberts said (and demonstrated the beginnings of) Hollywood production values. He explained that traditionally what would happen is that he would not show a game this early in development to the public. Instead, the proper thing to do was to pitch this project to a publisher, because understandably enough, something this ambitious was going to cost a whole lot of money.

However, those publishers were not interested in space games, nor in a personal computer exclusive Roberts was pitching. So instead, he was trying something new (although surely inspired by the success of projects such as Double Fine Adventure), a hybrid approach: a number of investors who had agreed only to give Roberts money if he could prove that there was demand. He intended to do that by pitching it to the gamers watching it at home. If gamers were interested, they could go to a certain website, and donate money via Paypal, in exchange for various in-game items, such as spaceships, with bigger and better spaceships costing more and more. He was hoping to raise $2-4 million.

As it turned out, Roberts was only getting started. Where we are a year later: The requests for funds continues, with $24 million raised through various sources: the Roberts Space Industries Paypal donations, investor venture capital, and a month-long Kickstarter. New features have constantly been added as pledges have increased, such as first person combat which was promised and delivered after a $20 million goal was reached.

Throughout there has been a steady river of advertising and other attempts to get players buzzing such as livestreaming new features. It seems to be working, word of mouth, and money coming in has grown and grown. Starting in June 2013, they have started doing space “car ads” basically, although not for cars. These are for virtual spaceships which will be in the game.

I almost wish these were on TV as commercials. They would definitely get a reaction.

Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess, but Star Citizen shows no signs of slowing down. Its methods of online advertising are successful so far, but if the actual game isn’t all that and a bag of chips, a lot of people who have given money are going to be… let’s just say, angry.

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