A Place in the Crowd

Crowdfunding has taken off as a financing vehicle for a variety of projects, from music albums to software. Websites such as Kickstarter and IndieGoGo bring the funding appeal to the Internet public, and they sometimes even offer rewards to people who pledge support.

Crowdfunding may sound like an apps-to-riches story. But executing a crowdfunding campaign isn’t as simple as it may sound. Here, Scott Steinberg, CEO of strategic consulting and product testing firm TechSavvy Global and co-author of The Crowdfunding Bible, explains why.

What do you see as the most dangerous misconceptions regarding crowdfunding?

Scott Steinberg: The most common mistake is that people expect crowdfunding to be very straightforward, very easy and right for any type of project. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to run a campaign --  30 to 45 days is standard. We call it a marathon, not a sprint.

Crowdfunding tends to work best for projects that are easily communicable visually and can be summed up in a sentence. For a crowdfunding campaign to be effective, you need to capture the viewer’s attention very quickly and provide a strong call to action. You need to create a sense of urgency around the campaign and get people to dip into their pockets then and there.

How should an app developer -- or other funding seeker, for that matter -- set the tone for his/her pitch? Is there such a thing as creating a video pitch that’s so professional it puts some potential investors off?

S.S. There is no hard and fast metric. You need to be both compelling and authentic. You don’t have to have a professional or polished video, but lighting and audio have to be of sufficient quality. Short, snappy and to the point is always good.

Also, keep in mind that someone needs to be the face of the movement. People need to be able to empathize with the individual in question. They are buying into you as much as the end concept. A lot of people are pitching concepts and ideas, but they are not putting out a lot of hard and fast business data. You are asking people to buy into your vision. You have to convince them why you are the right person for the job and, to that extent, you need to be believable and enthusiastic.

And you don’t have to sound like someone in an infomercial. Be yourself. What we are talking about is people connecting to people to bring an idea to life.

Should app developers have an alpha or beta version of their offering before launching a crowdfunding effort?

S.S. Certainly, crowdfunding campaigns can and have been successful pitching concepts and ideas. But whenever possible, you need to be able to show a tangible end product. You need to convince people you have the ability to pull off the idea you are trying to execute. You need to convince them of the project’s value and reassure them that their money is going to make a difference and the project is going to come to fruition. It’s one thing to ask someone to dip into their wallet for an idea that may or may not yet exist, but it’s another thing to say, “There is tangible, hard proof. You can see it running for yourself.”

Providing some reassurance that this is real will enhance your chances of success. It doesn’t have to be the finished product. It could be a minimum viable product, a sample. It doesn’t have to be super polished, but it absolutely, positively helps to have something to show.

You mention in The Crowdfunding Bible that crowdfunding lets people gauge consumer interest in, and test the validity of, new concepts. For a mobile app developer, does this also provide an opportunity for ongoing evaluation as the product evolves, and could a developer recruit investors for usability testing?

S.S. Fans provide the best focus group money can’t buy. You absolutely should, whenever possible, receive feedback and integrate it into the end result. You should get feedback on the apps and also on the surrounding marketing and messaging campaign.

In the software business, once upon a blue moon people would create a sample, mockup or vertical slice and either announce it online to gauge reaction, conduct a public beta, or take it to the press in an attempt to generate interest. And if it didn’t get enough interest -- if it wasn’t good -- they would never move forward with the product. I would fully expect that many app developers will create a prototype of a product and the rewards of these crowdfunding campaigns could include an opportunity to go hands-on with it. The app could be in beta while the campaign runs concurrently. You’re getting feedback as you go.

Does it seem feasible or useful to incorporate crowdfunding into an agile development method?

S.S. At the end of the day, there are many facets of the campaign that map to agile development methods. For crowdfunding, you want to have as much to show as possible in a very tight slice. You want to get your prototype up and running fast and then iterate.

Any tips for a small app developer looking to do marketing or promotion successfully and on the cheap?

S.S. Successful crowdfunding campaigns don’t necessarily have big advertising dollars. They use the lever of social media, they leverage communities and leverage traditional press channels as well.

Before you begin, you need to identify the key influencers. Those could be developers, community websites, press, Twitter personalities. Find out where they live online and how to reach them. Think about how you can activate all of them to rally to your cause. You will also need to have specific inflection points when you make key announcements on new features and special rewards. You should stockpile information and announcements.

App developers, even indies, play on a level playing field with the giants. Anyone can conduct a successful marketing and PR campaign. But plan ahead.

Looking at crowdfunding from a wider economic perspective, does it provide any checks against excess “irrational exuberance” and bad investments?

S.S. First and foremost, it is pretty Darwinian. The best ideas bubble up to the top and a bad idea is seldom going to make it through. Crowdfunding democratizes investment. You are taking a product and putting it out there in the court of public opinion. You will know pretty quickly how they voted.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/alxpin

Chair Entertainment’s Donald Mustard Discusses the Future of Multiscreen Gaming

Chair Entertainment -- based in Salt Lake City, Utah -- has catapulted to the top of the mobile game development business thanks to the success of its Infinity Blade franchise. In a little more than a year’s time, they’ve spawned a full sequel, a new iPad prequel (Infinity Blade: Dungeons), a digital book from bestselling author Brandon Sanderson, a hit soundtrack and a stand-up arcade game (Infinity Blade FX). The mobile franchise has also generated more than $30 million for Chair and its parent company, Epic Games.

Epic Games -- based in Cary, N.C. -- is working with Chair on a brand-new prequel, Infinity Blade: Dungeons, which has been designed to take advantage of the new iPad. That game, just like Infinity Blade II at the iPhone 4S press conference, was featured during Apple’s recent new iPad launch event. Chair continues to expand its Infinity Blade II experience with new gameplay through regular updates. Donald Mustard, creative director and co-founder of Chair Entertainment, talks about the multiscreen future of gaming and how mobile, PC and console experiences will interconnect in this exclusive interview.

How has Infinity Blade evolved beyond just a gaming experience?

One of the unique things about tablets and mobile devices is that not only can they be with you on different screens, but they can be with you in different ways. The first step in what we’re thinking about: How can we make the Infinity Blade franchise more than just an interactive experience? Where you can literally be playing Infinity Blade and be experiencing the universe and the story, then you can shut the game application, open the digital book that’s written by Brandon Sanderson, start reading about the universe and continue the story on the same device, but in a totally different medium. Then you finish the book and start playing Infinity Blade II, and the story continues. It’s a way that we can start to have these more unified media experiences on one central device or multiple screens, but that it expands the story and the universe -- all in the palm of your hand.

How has Unreal Engine 3 technology opened the door for your cross-screen approach?

Using Unreal Engine 3 to develop this game is a huge advantage because of just that: the ability to have an engine that is not only super-cutting-edge, but also able to be cutting-edge on all the big platforms. It allows us to still create very cutting-edge gameplay that can translate across devices.

If you look at some of the people that license the Unreal Engine -- from BioWare with Mass Effect to Rocksteady Studios with Arkham City -- they’ve made these console games and have all these assets that now, if they choose to, could be pretty easily translated to other devices and experiences.

Infinity Blade II’s latest update, Clash Mobs, connects mobile devices to Facebook social networks. What are your thoughts on the future of multiscreen gaming?

This is something that we’re starting to think about a lot. I think Clash Mob is a good first step in showing that that’s what we’re starting to consider.

I’m very interested in the idea of being screen-agnostic. I want you to be able to experience Infinity Blade on different screens and to have them be shared experiences across multiple screens -- not limited to whatever screen you happen to be in front of at the moment. Infinity Blade can be with you wherever you are. Not just Infinity Blade, but games in general can be with you.

How have you seen the mobile gaming space evolve since the introduction of tablets?

This market is changing, evolving and growing at what seems like a crazily rapid rate. When I think back on the types of mobile games I was playing on my phone a year and a half ago when we first started thinking about Infinity Blade, I was playing games that I thought were amazing, but they were games like Angry Birds, Texas Hold’em, or simple tower defense games. Once these devices really started to get powerful and we were able to make a game like Infinity Blade, I think that it just skyrocketed. Since the first Infinity Blade came out in December 2010, we’ve had three very major hardware updates from Apple alone with the iPad 2, the iPhone 4S and the new iPad.

How are the regular releases of these more powerful devices impacting games?

Basically, each one of these Apple products almost doubled the graphical and processing capability of the previous device. Now with the new iPad, it’s just amazingly powerful, and that’s just allowed games to offer even bigger, more immersive and more entertaining experiences. It’s allowed us to make games like Infinity Blade, and even more recently Infinity Blade II, that really just set the new benchmark for what a mobile game can be.

How have you seen the audience for the Infinity Blade games evolve since launch?

What’s really exciting is that Infinity Blade is appealing to not just the more traditional gamers, but also to this new crop of gamers that maybe don’t identify themselves as gamers, but actually are because they’re playing all these games on their tablets. When I think of more traditional or hardcore gamers, they really like seeing a game like Infinity Blade, but it’s offering a different, unique experience on a touch-screen device that’s different from what they can get on their console or PC. I think that’s helping people see the potential of what these devices can be.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/hanibaram

Firaxis Goes Back to the Future With XCOM: Enemy Unknown

It’s been 18 years since PC gamers took on an invading alien force in the original XCOM. A lot has changed since then. But 2K Games has enlisted Firaxis to update the classic strategy game using Unreal Engine 3 technology and designing it for today’s powerful PCs. In this exclusive interview, Jake Solomon -- lead designer of XCOM: Enemy Unknown -- talks about what’s in store for PC gamers in this new take on a classic.

How close do you stick to the original game?

XCOM is pretty heavily inspired by the original one, so the heart of that game is that transition between taking your soldiers into combat, fighting it out and then the additional strategy layer over the top of that. After combat, you return to base, where you make a bunch of interesting decisions and control the entire war. I think that’s the unique thing about XCOM.

What’s the PC gaming experience going to be like for those who turn up all the sliders and see the full visual fidelity?

I actually work on a 30-inch monitor when I play; I max it out and it’s just amazing. There’s the additional resolution that PC gamers will get. But we also have a completely separate UI for PC gamers and a different way to interact with the experience because it’s more tactical. We have different zoom levels designed for PC gamers.

How are you scaling the game for PC players who don’t have the most high-end laptops?

That’s one of the great things about Unreal Engine 3. The minimum specs are decent enough that gamers don’t need a dedicated gaming laptop to play XCOM. Obviously, we have the ability to scale down for that experience as well. There are a lot of things the game does -- with destruction and things like that -- that are pretty high-end. But it runs pretty well on some of our lower-spec machines.

What are the challenges of developing this game for a new generation of gamers while also remaining faithful to XCOM fans?

That’s definitely been the challenge: to take something that is sacred to a lot of people, myself included, but also introduce this game to a new audience. The industry has changed. Plus, we’re not remaking the original; we’re reimagining it for ourselves. I really am one of the biggest fans of the original game, so I know what things are important there and certainly want to stay true to that.

There’s still no game like XCOM, where you’re making all these epic decisions on the strategy layer. Then you’re going and making all these intimate decisions, turn by turn, with these individual soldiers on a combat layer. The hope is that if we make it accessible and add these new design elements, then that magic that was in the original game can translate to a modern audience. We don’t want to get rid of the core tenants of the original game, because we think that’s what made it special.

What’s something that today’s technology has opened up for your team?

One of the hallmarks of the original game is destructible environments. And we’ve been able to push that forward with Unreal Engine 3. Our environments are completely destructible: More than just being visually appealing, when an alien breaks through a wall, that changes the very dynamic of the gameplay. Shoot out the front wall and part of the roof of the diner and the dynamic fire will spread. Your strategy will evolve based on how the environments change.

This also ties into another key component to the game in that once your soldiers die, they are gone forever. There are real consequences for actions in this game. We’ve been able to add another layer of depth to the game through today’s technology.

What role will XCOM HQ play in this new game?

We’ve completely redone headquarters; it’s now a detailed 3D building that’s completely expandable and customizable. There’s a barracks, where your soldiers hang out. XCOM is a combat game, but it’s very open-ended, so the player can choose what to research in the lab. There are only three research options at the beginning of the game, but many more open up as the game progresses. Engineering is where all the theories from the labs become practice. This is where the player can now build any new items they’ve researched. And there are the hangars, where the jets await orders to go on strikes.

Photo: XCOM.com

Epic Games’ Cliff Bleszinski Gets Unreal

Epic Games put on quite a show at this year’s Game Developers Conference. Every day, designers and publishers checked out the technology behind the new Unreal Engine 4 game development framework. Meanwhile, journalists watched demos of games powered by Unreal Engine 3, including the new Infinity Blade: Dungeons and the pumped-up version of Mortal Kombat. Not to mention that some of the most popular games at GDC 2012 were running on Unreal Engine 3, including Hawken, the free-to-play PC shooter, and TERA, the massively multiplayer online action fantasy game.

Cliff Bleszinski, the company’s design director, is at the heart of Epic’s new game development. DIG caught up with him before he went on to host the 2012 Game Developers Choice Awards.

Can you explain what it is that you are doing now that you’re involved in so many different projects at Epic?

Cliff Bleszinski: I’m trying to maintain productivity while having my fingers in many different pies. As a person who’s slightly ADD, that can be tricky at times. Thankfully, I have a good management staff to help keep me focused.

What I do the majority of the time is I bust out work on Fortnite. I have a lot of meetings, but I also try and make time for free play. So if Donald Mustard -- the co-founder and creative director at ChAIR Entertainment, Epic Games’ award-winning studio -- comes to town with a new Infinity Blade idea or proposal, I can make time to see his stuff as well. And hopefully sprinkle a little bit of that fun magic on top of it.

What excites you about the game industry today?

C.B.: The fact that if you’re a 17-year-old kid right now and you have an Internet connection and you’re somewhat dev-savvy, you can go get something like Unreal Development Kit and you could be the next overnight sensation if you are smart and play your cards right. Now, with a fully connected Internet and developers checking out indie games and the Independent Games Festival going on next door, the chance for visibility is higher than ever. I always say the brass ring is there, and it’s up to you as a young gamer to seize it.

Speaking of the Independent Games Festival, what opportunities does it offer to developers?

C.B.: There’s actually a real-world instance where a game, which years ago was called Narbacular Drop, got picked up by Valve. I think Kim Swift, now chief creative officer at Airtight Games, was one of the developers. That game ultimately evolved into Portal, which of course is now the beloved global sensation that we all adore.

I’m going to be there Tweeting about games that I think are cool. I’m going to be spreading the word to my 150,000 followers, and maybe somebody else who’s a developer is over there talking to his followers. This is such an organic world where the good stuff can rise up more than ever and the bad stuff sinks away. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago. You had to really fight, kick and claw your way to the top of the heap back then.

What role does the Unreal Development Kit play in this new gaming ecosystem?

C.B.: Well, UDK is the toolset for a young developer to really get cracking. I’ve told many people before that if I could go back in time and have UDK when I was 17, I would have killed for it. One thing Tim Sweeney (the founder of Epic Games) realized very, very early on is that by empowering creatives who may not necessarily be that tech-savvy, he can get a lot of great results and also have developers be more efficient. That’s something that’s carried out through Unreal technology all the way through Unreal Engine 4.

Photo: @Getty.com/Mark Davis

Electronic Arts Expands Medal of Honor Franchise With Warfighter

Electronic Arts used the Game Developers Conference this month to offer an initial look at its first-person shooter sequel, Medal of Honor Warfighter. Danger Close Games, its developer, is expanding the fight against terror by taking its Tier 1 Operators on a contemporary globe-trotting adventure to such exotic locales as the Philippines and the Somali coast. The game also features new vehicles on players’ new missions, like an on-rails boat ride through a monsoon-stricken city.

Here, Rich Farley, creative director at Danger Close Games, talks about what’s in store for PC gamers and gives his take on the move to modern warfare in this exclusive interview from GDC 2012.

What were your goals heading into this game?

Rich Farley: We were really happy with our transition out of World War II and into the modern arena. We wanted to take our guys out of that microcosm that was just Afghanistan and then take it to where the fight is now. We wanted to focus in more on the Tier 1 Operators and how they work around the world right now dealing with these terror networks.

How did you work with actual soldiers in the development of this sequel?

R.F.: We had a lot of guys from that community on the last game helping us out. When we shipped the game, a lot of guys went, “Wow, these guys at Danger Close really got it right.” They brought more guys that were interested in talking to us and helping us portray their community in the right way, and in a way that more accurately depicts what kind of people they are. It’s really helped us having these guys available, almost daily, to be able to come in and assist with things like mo-cap, equipment, weapons, how they talk to each other, the settings and the storylines.

Can you explain how the multiplayer combat now encompasses more than just U.S. Special Forces?

R.F.: With our multiplayer, we’re honoring the international Tier 1 groups, just as we honored the American ones in the last game. Gamers will be able to play as different groups from around the world. We have 12 units from 10 countries, including the Australia Special Air Service Regiment, the Special Air Service from the U.K., the Polish GROM (Operational Mobile Reaction Group) and the German KSK (Special Forces Command), to name a few. We’re introducing multinational “blue vs. blue” team play, where the world’s best-of-the-best warriors go head-to-head in online competition.

How are you connecting the fiction of this game’s story to the real world?

R.F.: Everything in our game has a dotted line to something that actually happened, or to some story that was told to us by one of our consultants, or a combination of those things. It really lends a feeling of authenticity, and it paints a picture of what the current fight is for these guys right now.

Can you give an example of a “ripped from the headlines” mission that players will encounter?

R.F.: If you read up on that region of the Southern Philippines, Basilan and Sulu Islands, there’s a group called Abu Sayyaf. It’s a bunch of very bad people that over time kidnapped a lot of people, aid workers and such. And in some cases, executed them or captured them for ransom to further whatever their causes are. It’s a very real thing that’s happening down there that people don’t hear a lot about, and Tier 1 guys are there helping the military from that country deal with that threat. That’s what the hostage rescue level in the game was about.

What’s new in the gameplay department for Warfighter?

R.F.: We’re rolling out a few different things. We have a new door breach mechanic whereby players can enter and breach a room, just like Tier 1 guys would. They’re going to approach a door, assess it and see what’s going on with it. Is it locked? Is it not locked? What’s behind that door? They’ll be able to choose their method of entry, whether they want to kick that door down, breach it in some other way with an explosive, or throw a flash bang in or a grenade. It’s really going to change what happens on the other side of the door when they go inside.

How are you utilizing the Frostbite 2 engine to enhance the PC experience?

R.F.: It’s been great working with that tech. Just the visual fidelity of the stuff that we’re doing has increased so much. The lighting is amazing. The ability to have the amount of destruction that we featured in the demo; it’s not that it wasn’t possible before, but it’s made it so much easier. That’s what the techs built around for us to be able to dial in to: this micro-destruction. It’s just a beautiful engine, and the scale that we can represent in that engine is really well-suited to what we’re doing.

In developing the last game, you guys worked the single-player experience in Los Angeles and the multiplayer at EA’s Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment in Sweden. What’s it like having everyone together working together in Los Angeles this time?

R.F.: It’s amazing. You create the game with a really singular vision. It’s easier for us, as developers, to really keep track of it all and make sure it’s all on point in terms of parity on features, and making sure that it feels like one game and not a bunch of disparate parts.

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