David Board: From Kickstarter to Xbox One / 27th of August 2014
Last month I reviewed Stage 2 Studios debut outing Lifeless Planet, an ambitious indie game created, almost singlehandedly, by David Board. A game which had a lot going for it, and at times really captivated me. And although it wasn’t perfect by any means, it’s still an excellent example of what can be achieved regardless of limited resources, so long as you have a clear vision and the willingness to commit to a project. Funded through Kickstarter, Lifeless Planet’s campaign requested $8,500 in order to help fund development, and by the time the campaign closed in October 2011, LP had smashed its funding target, eventually racking up $17,236. After such success - and the E3 announcement that Lifeless Planet will be making its way to Xbox One in the near future - I caught up with David Board for a chat about his experiences developing his very first game, the merits of crowdfunding, and the transition to a major console.
HRG: First of all can we ask why you decided on taking a crowd-funded approach for developing your very first videogame?
DB: Honestly, fear was why I went to Kickstarter. I wasn’t sure if my idea would be interesting to other people, so I posted it with the hopes that people would see it, like it... and support it. Looking back, I’ve learned to trust my ideas a little more. It’s been a huge success, and I wish I’d had more faith to develop it a little further before I announced it. Instead, I found myself with a successful Kickstarter that people were really anxious to play, but I had so much more work to do than I realized.
HRG: And did you ever consider approaching specific publishers with the concept or attempt one of the more traditional route towards game development?
DB: Although I didn’t seek publishers originally, once I got on Kickstarter, they came to me! I ended up signing a distribution deal thanks to Kickstarter. I'll absolutely be using Kickstarter again in the future, and as you've seen even bigger studios with big publishers are using it too. It's just such a great place to get feedback and a measure of how much interest there will be in your game.
HRG: Once you hit that launch button, how did you find the process of seeking backers and submitting a concept for public approval on Kickstarter?
DB: Well as I say it was great for getting feedback because people are actually pledging financial support for the game, and that means a lot. Apart from that, there was an explosion of press coverage for Lifeless Planet. My project was posted before the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter, so while my goal was low by today's standards, what I got for being a Kickstarter pioneer was lots of attention. It's harder to get noticed on Kickstarter these days, you really have to stand out. I'm glad for how it worked out.
DB: And the Kickstarter experience didn't end with the funding. For nearly three years I've been in close contact with hundreds of fans. I was amazed at how patient and supportive they were. The key was staying in contact regularly and letting them see the process of creating the game.
HRG: Did the final version of Lifeless Planet change much over the development cycle, how close is it to what you had in mind when you first thought of it?
DB: It's quite close to the vision I had, though if I had unlimited resources and time it would've turned out more polished, I suppose. But when I started the project I created a sixty-odd page design document because even though I was working alone I realized I needed to write everything down and scope things out. This actually saved me big time. There were a few extras that got added, but I also cut a few things out. I knew I had to work hard to keep the scope under control. In the end, it still took me almost two extra years to release, but it would've been worse had I not tried to be organized.
HRG: As you said you were fortunate enough to find a publisher through your Kickstarter campaign, an alternative could have been to use Steam’s Greenlight service instead. However Greenlight has come under a lot of criticism recently for not regulating games that it promotes. As an indie developer what are your thoughts on implementing some measure of quality control within a public approval platform such as Greenlight?
DB: I actually think Greenlight in general is a good thing for indie games, and I'd rather see less control than more. Sure it has plenty of problems, but before Greenlight it was frankly quite difficult to get listed on Steam. I think it's at least moved things in the right direction. I also think Greenlight will become more open over time and it seems will eventually get replaced with a total free-for-all. But all this will really do is reveal the hard truth of game marketing; you will always have to do the hard work of promotion, and if you're an indie, you'll have to do most of it on your own. At least with Valve opening up Steam somewhat through Greenlight or whatever else comes along, there's a way for indies to do that promotional work, and if they do it right, get noticed. Just like with Kickstarter, the platform alone won't sell your game. But having that platform is key.
HRG: After development was complete you had to get out there and promote your game, how have you found attending trade shows, such as E3 or PAX Prime?
DB: PAX Prime and E3 are very tiring. I always lose my voice after the first day, and there's very little time to relax. However, it's also always a great experience to show people your game for the first time and actually see them play it and get excited about it. Usually I'm working in my home office completely disconnected from people playing the game, so that's big. And then there's typically those one or two press or platform connections that may the entire show worth it from a marketing standpoint. It's always a grind, but it's a good grind.
HRG: Just after Lifeless Planet made its debut you went to E3 and it was announced that LP is now on its way to Xbox One, how much support have Microsoft been able to give you?
DB: Microsoft has been very good about promoting Lifeless Planet, and I'm so glad they're excited about it! They even gave me ‘green carpet’ access and a second row seat at the E3 Xbox press briefing. Amazing experience.
HRG: How are you finding making the transition to the Xbox One from a development standpoint? And will this latest version boast any platform exclusive features or content?
DB: Lifeless Planet was built in Unity so the good news is we're not having to get too low level to make the transition to Xbox One. It has its share of challenges still, but we're getting close to a playable build and I hope to show off at least part of the Xbox One version at PAX Prime this month. I'm definitely planning some visual upgrades for the Xbox version. And of course we'll be refining the gameplay based on feedback from the PC and Mac versions. This will be the premier Lifeless Planet experience.
HRG: The dust has settled, Lifeless Planet launched on PC a couple of months back now, so lastly can we ask how do you feel with the reception it’s received?
DB: Depending on the day, I'm either my biggest critique or my biggest fan. In the beginning of any idea, I feel like it's amazing, exciting, and new. By the end I look at it for the hundredth time and only see the imperfections. That said, I'm very happy with the final game, and I've also been very pleased with the reception. The critics have mostly been fair and there have been some extremely positive reviews that help to balance the mixed or negative ones. I was just hoping for my first game that it wouldn't be universally disliked. I'm really happy that it got a very positive review from Rock, Paper, Shotgun. That meant a lot since they were following the game from the very first days.
DB: But more important to me than the critic reviews is the user feedback. Here again, some people just don't like games that aren't shooters, or they just don't connect with the concept. But about 80% of the Steam user reviews have been positive. I've also had dozens of people email me to say it's their favourite game of all time. That's just amazing, and it means that at least for a few people I was able to create something truly wonderful. After working so hard for three years, that brings me tremendous satisfaction.
Special thanks to David Board for taking the time out to chat with us