Late last week, I wrote up a reaction to a Gamasutra piece by Aaron San Filippo, on the “lessons” he learned from going free to play. Even in the era of me being JAAWAB (Just Another Asshole With a Blog), I like to follow-up with people and get their feedback on things I wrote about them; it’s not only good “journalism”, it’s polite, whether the tone of an article is negative or positive.
When I went to the Flippfly site to find contact information, I saw their post – now a week old – explaining why they were going away from F2P. It’s more concise, and worded more strongly, than the Gamasutra article, which is good as they’re addressing their own customers instead of a wider audience. It was the second half of the post that really got my attention: an announcement of the Flippfly Votes system which, if it works, could once again change how crowdsourcing works.
FLIPPFLY VOTES: TAKING CROWDSOURCED FUNDING IN-HOUSE
Looking at the nuts and bolts of this system is like seeing Frankenstein put together with the bits and pieces of other funding models. For their next game, the PC title Race The Sun, there are tiered funding portions, just like Kickstarter. $5 allows a 50% download of the alpha version of Race the Sun, with an upgrade to the full version for free (like Minecraft), as well as a “vote” on certain items to put into games (Greenlight). Higher tiers give more goodies, until they get to the Founder’s Club, which adds a public ownership-like feel to crowdsourced funding. Founders – a basic and Gold level – have more votes than everyone else (10 and 14, respectively), all of the benefits of the lower tiers, and biggest of all, they get what is called lifetime access to Flippfly’s games; free versions of all of their PC games for life, as well as mobile ports for Gold members.
Such high access is nearly unprecedented; Kickstarter’s always offered good perks for its members, but never the next best thing to an ownership stake in the entire company. Such a plan is a risk, both for prospective buyers and the company itself. I asked Aaron why, after determining that the risky F2P system was deemed a failure, they would want to trod on completely foreign ground. His answer made some sense: “We’ve been talking about funding models for some time. Really what it was born out of, was a desire to not chase the Free-to-play trend that’s sweeping the industry right now, because it felt like a bad fit for us. But at the same time, we realize that the traditional “buy it once” business model is scary as well.” To prove that point out, he pointed to a Google+ blog by Spry Fox’s Daniel Cook, who went into great pains to explain why he went with the less popular freemium pricing scheme for Triple Town, a game so popular that 6Waves copied it. That entry is a must-read in itself, but for Aaron and his brother Forest, the main takeaway was that the “buy once” model was too risky on its own merits; it’s a hit-based system, and those hits stop earning money after awhile. Beyond that, the pressure builds: keep making hits, or die. This funding scheme, therefore, provides the Filippo brothers some flexibility. “I want to be making games for a long, long time too, and I’d love to hit a point where we can survive a few failures because we have a vibrant community who just wants to see us keep making more. So the lifetime subscription was a way to balance out our revenue stream and provide a true sense of value to motivated players as well – and we’re trying to think long-term with it, rather than just a ‘help us make this one game’ kind of thing.”
Such a system doesn’t come without risks. For one, there’s always the possibility that alternative funding is necessary; Aaron wouldn’t rule out using Kickstarter or IndieFund, which would cause a potential PR issue the way rumours of Ouya seeking outside funding did. Secondly, when buying access to a company’s games for life, funders are gambling that “life” will be longer than just “one more game”; Flippfly’s current project, Race the Sun, is being charted out for 1.0 status, and Aaron hopes to have it “done” – his emphasis – in about a month, and he was unable to tell me anything about future projects beyond that. A skeptical gaming public is also a concern: “As we speak (last Thursday), I’m having a Reddit discussion with someone who thought it was rather greedy of us to only give ‘votes’ to people who paid for higher tiers.”. People are already demanding more for their $250.
The biggest risk, however, is just simply that the money will go to waste. I broached the question to Aaron: what protections would funders have in case something goes wrong? “It’s a fair question. To be honest, a lot of Kickstarters don’t really have a guarantee either. There was a recent project in the news that was fully funded, spent all the cash, and failed to ship anything1. So in a sense, we don’t guarantee anything – we’re a two man company and we could be hit by a bus tomorrow.” He’s right in one sense; Kickstarter itself gives no guarantee that people aren’t funding lemons. Further, as Kickstarter has become more ubiquitous for getting games funded, campaigns are getting shadier and shadier2. Compared to some of those stories, Flippfly’s program almost seems naively innocent.
THE ULTIMATE CUSTOMER + VENDOR RELATIONSHIP
Aaron San Filippo was under no illusions as to the hurdles such a project entails. “There’s a certain comfort in Kickstarter now – the platform itself lends some legitimacy I think, and the funding goals just kind of put people into a “help these people out” mindset. Whereas, on Flippfly.com, nobody’s really heard of us, and I think we come across as a bit of a storefront right now.” Further, indies – both on and off of sites like Kickstarter – are a dime a dozen nowadays, in a highly competitive market that is getting tighter by the day.
However, when I see and hear about ambitious initiatives like this, I’m swept away by the potential. The drawbacks are noted, but on the off chance it works, it’s the type of thing that could revolutionize funding for smaller video games. Imagine if, for example, a company like WayForward, who have been established as a developer for hire for years, gave people who paid to help fund their work the ability to influence future work? Such a model would never work with larger publishers – they already have systems like this, they’re called the Tokyo Stock Exchange and NASDAQ – but with AAA gaming getting more banal and more restrictive by the day, many of them using the same predatory F2P systems in their paid products that the Filippo brothers learned to despise, the alternatives are getting more creative and more interesting. If such a system could succeed, and Flippfly was able to continue to put out games heavily influenced by a dedicated and engaged fanbase, the potential is limitless.
One thing the brothers behind Flippfly are not short of is enthusiasm. Responding further to my question about “protections”, Aaron made it clear what was at stake for him and his brother. “We’ve put everything we’ve got into this company. Forest and I have quit our day jobs and burned through much of our personal savings to build this – and even if we run out of cash, we’re just going to keep cranking on our games in our free time and delivering as much value as we can every month. The cool thing is that we’re pretty lean – we both work out of our homes and have a pretty low overhead, so it shouldn’t take that much in the way of funding to keep us at it full-time.”
1 – That would be the sad story of Haunts: The Manse Macabre, which is detailed here.
2 – About 80% of the spam I delete from Gaming Bus’s Facebook site is for Kickstarter projects, including one I deleted while writing this piece.