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How Can It Succeed with Such a Small Budget?

Shawn Schuster Posted:
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One understandable question on the minds of eager Crowfall fans is that of the game's budget. Kickstarter, and crowdfunding in general has certainly been a blessing for indie game developers in recent years. It also means that these developers need to take on more of a business role and be more transparent about exactly where every dollar is going in relation to the game's development.

Executive Producer Gordon Walton tackled this touchy subject in a recent blog post entitled, "The Crowfall Budget Question." In it, he explains more about where the raised money is going, and he addresses ArtCraft's plans to make such an ambitious game with relatively little money in the grand scope of video game budgets.

Walton explains six main points to answer this question, so I wanted to touch briefly on each of those because I think they're important for fans to understand.

First off, PvE is expensive. With Crowfall not being a PvE game, it allows the developers to focus their resources on something other than an elaborate storyline and everything associated with that. Of course, that's not to say that the main plot of the game isn't deep, but it's just not the main selling point -- it's an ingredient. Walton points out that "70%+ of the overall cost (and time it takes to build) of an MMO project" is dedicated to PvE content. This estimate is in his experience (we're guessing he's talking about SWTOR here), and that's something the team is hoping to avoid.

Secondly, procedural generation will create random worlds, so there's no need for someone to come in and custom-build maps. That saves both time and money in the long-run and ultimately allows for easier expansion based on a set of assets that could mean an infinite number of future worlds. You just can't get that with custom work.

Next, the archetype system for characters allows for a more linear and predictable set of variables. But at the same time, Walton says that customization is still a priority, and the race/class sets actually allow more time for customization without spending the tens of millions of dollars on "combinatory avatar systems" found in other MMOs.

Another great way to save money in game development is with pre-existing backend technologies. Walton says that he hired an engineer (Todd Coleman tells us it's Thomas "Dreadflame" Sitch and he's a principal server engineer ith ACE.  Thomas worked for Todd at Wolfpack, KingsIsle and now at ACE... in fact, he is the only person who has been employed at each of Todd's game studios). Thomas developed his own proprietary tech, and the use of Unity 5, PhysX, and Voxel Farm have all come together to mean less time writing from scratch and more time customizing the fun parts, including "multiplayer, responsiveness and improving the visuals fidelity and performance."

And the final point in the article talks about outsourcing. Normally a bad word in the tech service field, Walton says that outsourcing some of the production work has allowed the core team to stay small. Doing so also avoids that horrible practice of laying people off after launch.

And with all of this in mind, Walton says that he expects the core game only to cost around $6 million to build. Granted, the Kickstarter campaign only raised $1.8 million so far, but he further explains from where the rest of that money is coming.

The initial funding source came from an equity sale that raised $2.35 million from investors. This windfall allowed ArtCraft to start the company and get all the ducks in a row for a full year before presenting the Kickstarter campaign. Those two together equal $4.15 million, which leaves almost $2 million still to raise.

From there, the team plans to gather a few bucks from foreign rights licensing, which is already in the works for Europe. If those options don't gather together the remaining money to continue past the core game, Walton mentions that they still have more equity to sell off, and some Kickstarter backers have already begun asking about further investment opportunities in the company.

"We like the idea of having backers as investors, as they are 'pre-filtered' to believe in the Crowfall vision and won't want to change the design or the business model," Walton writes. "We don't feel that we HAVE to raise this money, but we do feel like we could put it to good use to both reduce our risk and make the game better -- if we can find individuals who are a good fit. It would also put us in the best negotiating position for the overseas rights, meaning we can wait for the right partners and deals."

Now the real test will be to see if they can pull this off. Even the best-laid plans can fail (especially when it comes to funding an MMO), so ArtCraft's design may work and it may not. But the question is if it's something that will satisfy both the game's budget and the game's players. Will you be happy with automated and randomized worlds with fewer character customization options for the sake of potentially more innovative gameplay?

I find it interesting that here we are almost exactly 10 years (this weekend!) after ArenaNet shook up MMO funding with Guild Wars and we're still trying to find that perfect business model that will hit the sweet spot for both players and developers. But if trimming the fat to keep costs down will prevent mass layoffs and closures, I'm all for it.


Shawn Schuster

Shawn Schuster is the former Editor-in-Chief at Massively.com and founder of the indie gaming review site Shoost.co. Shawn has been writing professionally about video games since 2008 and podcasting about games since 2005. When he's not leveling yet another alt, he's running his organic farm with his wife and four kids.