Thursday, June 09, 2005


Today I want to discuss the micro-funding model used by independent developers to finance games like Mount & Blade, and how this model will affect PC gaming in the future.

To start with, it’s unique to PC gaming development. It’s not a model that’s possible with the console development platforms. And with so many PC games now being console ports, and with that trend accelerating, the micro-funding model is a unique layer that will distinguish PC gaming from the consoles.

As an example of this model, look at Mount & Blade. I wrote extensively about this game and why it’s so good (check the May archives), and I think micro-funding is part of the reason. The game is being offered for purchase at a reduced rate ($12, instead of $25 when the game is officially released) while it is still in development—in other words, the players are funding the development. It’s a terrific value—half-price and input to the development process. How much is it worth to a developer to have several hundred people playing the game, finding bugs, and making suggestions? More to the point, why don’t more developers do this?

That’s an easy question. Most developers have to contend with publishers, and they have contracts that specify milestone dates. If they don’t hit the milestones, they don’t get paid. So the realities of a conventional development arrangement are that at some point, everything (features, bug fixes, etc.) is less important than shipping the game. Sure, most developers will try to circle back around and put out some patches, but shipping a completed game is less important than hitting the milestone.

I’ve been in several beta tests for a very large publisher who I won’t mention by name. These beta tests are huge—over a hundred testers—and they’re incredibly well-organized. By the time the beta testers get the program, though, the feature set is locked. It doesn’t matter what we want or what suggestions we might make—it’s too late to put them in. We’re just supposed to test whatever’s on our test guide for that build and report back when something isn’t working.

In other words, even if large publishers have sizable beta tests, they still have a severely limited vision of the game that’s been shaped almost entirely internally.

So tell me which game should be better: a game with a beta where testers can’t make feature suggestions and the number of testers is limited, or a game with a beta where there are literally hundreds or even thousands of testers and they are all allowed to suggest whatever they think would make the game more interesting?

Look, games aren’t rocket science. Anyone who likes to play games might come up with a suggestion that could significantly improve playability. In an environment like the one sustaining Mount & Blade, all those people get a chance to contribute—there are no creative constrictions.

I think the results of this kind of developer-consumer relationship are very telling. Mount & Blade, even though it isn’t nearly finished, is much more fun to play than any big-budget PC game I’ve played this year.

This kind of relationship usually extends beyond the beta as well. Once the game is released, the developers will actually be active in the game forums, answering questions and personally seeing feedback about feature sets and how the game could be improved. Games from big publishers (EA seems to be the worst offender to me) just don’t get that kind of support. EA’s all about moving on to the next version, and with few exceptions, that’s how most big publishers operate. There are still a few important developers who interact closely with the buying public (Brian Reynolds and Phil Steinmeyer come to mind), but they’re the exceptions.

So here’s what we have: a limited, narrow version of a game versus a more expansive version with far more feedback. I don’t think it’s an accident that small games have done so exceptionally well this year.

Here’s another reason why micro-funding should work very well. It’s been a long time since I read this interview, but I remember an article with Sid Meier discussing how he made games. He said that they build something that was playable very, very early in the process. Then they played it and played it and played it. They added features but always retained the ability to actually play the game.

That might have been a more relevant model in the last decade than this one, particularly in the era of high-budget games. However, the model makes total sense—build something to play and then keep playing it, and the features that would be fun to add emerge as part of the playing process.

That’s exactly what micro-funded games do. They have to be playable. No independent developer can afford to spend three years building a game where he hopes it all “comes together” in the end. I can’t even begin to tell you how many big-budget games I’ve played where the game never did come together, and I think part of the reason is that actually playing the game comes in fairly late in the development cycle. With a micro-funded game, playability has to be pushed way, way up in terms of priorities.

This is the funding model of the future, I think. It’s going to unearth an enormous amount of new talent, and it’s also going to foster a more personal relationship between developers and gamers, a relationship that I think we’ve all missed as it’s become less and less frequent over the last few years.

By the way, here’s the website for Mount & Blade:

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