Many studios, especially larger studios, prefer to share nothing publicly, rather than an unfinished game. Concept art and pre-rendered representations are staple marketing methods when you want to say something, but nothing at the same time. Presumably there is a risk in showing a game publicly, too early. Misinterpretation and consumer fatigue tend to be the primary concerns. As with many developers seeking crowd funding, PixelFoundry takes a different approach to their development, they believe exposure and transparency is key to their chances for success.
“At EA we always closely guarded our work; leaks were a big deal and a very serious faux pas,” explains PixelFoundry creative lead and co-founder Jerry Phaneuf. “Marketing was a large part of our project and mostly we were encouraged to stay out of it. Though it’s understandable; in a company that size, you can’t have everyone sharing whatever bits they think are good whenever they like. Exposure there is a highly calculated, coordinated and focused effort.”
Small studios are notoriously more candid with their work. PixelFoundry’s recent offering on Kickstarter, Blackspace, follows this approach to the letter.
“We are always interested to hear the responses of the prospective consumer,” notes Phaneuf. “I think the key is information. You have to give them all the information they need to make an informed decision. When showing unfinished work, we can’t just show some pictures and assume everyone gets the idea. Time in front of the consumer is very limited, so you have to share as much information as possible, caveats and all, without being boring. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you deliver it, and it had better be honest.”
PixelFoundry, a three person team, has recently launched Blackspace on Kickstarter and shares some insights from their initial experiences.
“We’ve only been online on Kickstarter for a couple days,” Phaneuf continues, “but in that time we’ve had a chance to get some fantastic feedback and ideas from some really informed gamers. It’s not like trolls on forums, these people generally want to see you succeed and seem very engaged in the experience that we all are facing.”
“Kickstarter is a great way to get in front of an active consumer and get a bunch of their time, to listen and to be heard,” explains Volga Aksoy, PixelFoundry’s technical lead and co-founder. “We have nearly a 9 minute video explaining our game, and according to Kickstarter it has over 17,000 views in 48 hours, 16% of people let the video play to the end. The number isn’t astounding, but implications are that people have spent at least 425 hours of time with us, not to mention the half plays and skip-throughs, which admittedly, is my preferred method as well. 9 minutes of someone’s time is an incredible opportunity; not only to share an idea, but to show more than you would otherwise, because you actually have the chance to explain it.”
Blackspace is one of those games that is hard to categorize. It could be called a Tower Defense/RTS, or an Action game with tactical elements, but it also has bits of an Arcade Sim/Shooter. It’s hard to put a finger on this game and fit it neatly into a genre.
“Game genres, are bite sized information packets that allow us to make broad range decisions quickly,” Phaneuf explains. “The drawback is that they also help to coax consumers into nicely separated demographics that look good on a spreadsheet. I’m all for knowing your audience, but pushing them into categories is bad practice, it limits exposure to new things and forces the creators to compromise on ideas. Blackspace is a bit hard to define, though we do lean heavily on traditional RTS strategy, there is also flight and active involvement in the action, which kind of stretches that definition. We also are focusing on defense in this game more than offense. You’ll only be attacking if you are attacked. What may seem like disparity in direction actually comes together quite nicely in practice. The problem isn’t that we haven’t chosen a hat, its more that a single one doesn’t fit, and we don’t plan to change the game in order to make one fit.”
The game consumer demographic is broadening and the average age is getting higher. Game studios are trying to appeal to this maturing audience in different ways. Some games target more mature themes, some allow for greater social connectivity, others offer retrospective of their childhood video game experiences. The Blackspace team is taking yet another approach.
“We recognize gamers are getting older and more mature, we see this as an opportunity to trust their ability to make sound, informed decisions. My daughter might choose her video games, toys and even food simply by color, but she’s six. Game enthusiasts are looking for ways to cut through the plastic wrap of marketing and get right to the meat. They want to understand how it all works and, when convenient for them, to offer two cents that actually amount to something. That is the person we are after and who we are finding on Kickstarter. We have a long way to go, but so far it has been an encouraging and surprisingly positive experience.”
PixelFoundry is working to make something big. They are trying to create a game that really has no business coming from a studio so small. Instead of cutting back the game, their solution is to expand the studio. They have struck a partnership with NVIDIA that will allow them to advance their game to support even higher end graphics technologies like 3D Vision and SLI. They also have announced their support for the recently buzzing, Oculus Rift. They have a long road ahead, but their ambitious game and appealing visuals are, so far, drawing some much needed attention.