In an age where publishers chuck out sequel after sequel, and it takes bedroom hackers to prove that gamers do want new ways to play multiplayer games, Kickstarter seems to promise a gaming revolution.
It’s a virtual market where gamers can connect directly with the creative geniuses behind them, no suits allowed. It’s how the legendary Tim Schafer raised $3.3m (£2.5m) to create a point and click adventure game, and a whole new console, Ouya, was born with the help of $8.6m (£5.4m) straight from Joe Public.
But not every retro game meets it target on the site. Last week, the developers at UK-based Silverball Studios failed to close on their goal of $400,000 (£250,000) to resurrect Pro Pinball, the multi-million selling pinball game from the 1990s. It wasn’t for a lack of publicity, or for a lack of fans: 1,296 backers raised $175,010 (£106,000) between them.
But it’s all or nothing on Kickstarter: if you don’t make the goal you set, you get squat. So what happens when a big name game campaign fails on Kickstarter?
The Timeshock table from 1997 still holds up surprisingly well.
In the mid to late 90s, Pro Pinball was a global gaming phenomenon. The series of four tables (The Web, Timeshock!, Big Race USA and Fantastic Journey) had no digital comparisons. With a myriad of settings, they were more pinball sims than arcade hits, but the fans loved them, and they stood the test of time remarkably well: in 1997 the 1600x1200 resolution (Sharper than HD) visuals were nothing short of spectacular.
But fifteen years went by, and times changed. The team behind the series, Cunning Developments, transformed into Silverball Studios, working mostly on pinball games directly for Nintendo, starring the likes of Mario, from a converted farm building near Burford in the Oxfordshire countryside.
Pinball fans kept clamouring for a Pro Pinball comeback on forums, but the boom in mobile gaming meant more casual players than ever were flipping virtual ball bearings on their phones instead, with games like Zen Pinball and Pinball HD for iPad.
Adrian Barritt, Silverball MDand project lead on the series since 1994, was keen to revive the game on modern platforms, but there was a big problem: they didn’t have the rights to the name. And acquiring them would leave no money to then, well, make it. Enter Kickstarter.
“We first had the idea back in April 2012,” says Barritt. “We had been getting a steady stream of emails asking for Pro Pinball on iOS (iPhone) and were keen to find a way to make it happen. We had been negotiating the rights for some time and were hopeful we could get them back, so when we came across Kickstarter that seemed like it could be a great way to fund the project.”
So, they got the rights, and got to work. On paper, Pro Pinball had all the ingredients for Kickstarter success. It had a respected team behind it - many of the ten at Silverball had worked at Cunning Developments on the original - and a pitch that tugged perfectly on the nostalgic heart strings of the gaming fans on Kickstarter old enough to have credit cards.
They were going to make it available everywhere, from PC and Mac to Kindle Fire tablet. They had Pat Lawlor, creator of the legendary Addams Family pinball table, signed on to make a whole new table. And it wasn’t just a wishlist either: the team showed off their stunning new lighting engine for iPad in a tech demo. The gaming media trumpeted Pro Pinball’s return.
Barritt also tells us that by the time the campaign was underway, they’d begun working on remodelling one of the tables as well. But it soon became clear that it wasn’t getting the traction they’d dreamed of.
It became “clear fairly early on that it was going to be a big struggle to hit our goal,” says Barritt. “We tried numerous initiatives along the way, some with decent results, to improve the number of pledges, but in the end we simply couldn't get the word out to enough people...As you can imagine we were all very disappointed.”
Kickstarter kicks back
One of the renders of the new table the team had worked on before the campaign failed.
For every storming success on Kickstarter, there’s a failed plan that doesn’t get the backing. Or more. Of 46,902 projects monitored by one academic, just 22,462 met their goal, a success rate of around 47 per cent.
But it’s even harder for video games. At the time of writing, of the last 60 Kickstarter video game campaigns, only 13 were funded - a success rate of just 21.7 per cent.
By another metric though, Pro Pinball didn’t do badly: the same study found only 10 percent of failed campaigns get more than 30 percent of their target amount: they fly or they fall, hard. But Pro Pinball got nearly half, with a massive average of $134 (£84) per backer. Three people even pledged over $10,000 (£6,240). Not that that’s much consolation, given that you don’t get any funds at all from Kickstarter unless you reach the initial target goal.
Barritt says one mistake was to promise Kickstarters the chance to vote on the theme of Lawlor’s new table - a nice idea, but one that leaves less locked in content on the Kickstarter page to begin with.
“The next time around I think we'd choose a theme in advance as that would enable us to create concept artwork and give the backers something much more tangible,” he says.
Barritt’s not put off by the experience though - and he says Lawlor is still on board with the project. “Although many projects won't hit their goal, many projects that otherwise wouldn't see the light of day will make it. I don't think crowdfunding for games is going anywhere.”
Flip To The Future
The team at work at the Burford studios.
The team’s not giving up. In fact, Barritt says, they’re planning on giving Kickstarter another go before they turn to something like venture capital backing.
“We’ll probably start with a smaller goal that offers less, but with stretch goals if we exceed our starting goal,” he says.
That almost certainly means ditching some of the wide platform support the team had planned, including PS Vita and Android: Barritt says they’ll focus on iOS, PC and Mac first now, so you can forget about playing it on your Ouya just yet.
Just in the nick of time, perhaps, this week Kickstarter announced it will begin accepting UK campaigns in pounds sterling from 31 October. Barritt’s not sure if this is a blessing or a curse though.
“I'm concerned that this will make UK based projects less appealing to those in the US, where the largest number of backers are,” he says.
“On the positive front, £250,000 might on the surface look much more manageable than $400,000, or £10 more affordable than $16. So in some cases things listed in sterling might look better value.”
If that doesn’t work though, the team are just going to have to roll up their sleeves and finish the game out of hours: they’re currently working on a puzzle game for Nintendo Wii and 3DS, Mensa Academy, as well as an iPhone app based on a prime-time TV show Barritt won’t say more about.
“We’d probably just work on the project a little bit here and a little bit there until we've got one table ready for release. That would then hopefully bring in enough income to prioritise the remaining tables and create a new one,” he says. Barritt has also pledged to give backers of the failed campaign some of the rewards they paid over the top for - not something many failed Kickstarter project teams do.
So thumbs at the ready with or without crowd-funding, Pro Pinball is coming back.