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“The Long Dark” video game Case Study

“The Long Dark” video game Case Study

Project name: The Long Dark
Type of production/project: Video game (PC, Mac, Linux)
Funding period: Campaign underway since September 2013
Pledges collected: CAN$276,000+ (including CAN$256,217 pledged through Kickstarter and via PayPal)
Number of backers: 7,400+ (in total, Kickstarter and PayPal)
Average amount pledged: $37
Company: Hinterland Studio Inc.

The project

In September 2013, Hinterland founder and creative director Raphael van Lierop, a 13-year veteran of the video game industry, unveiled Hinterland Studio—his independent game company focused on creating mature gaming experiences.

Its first title, The Long Dark, is a first-person, post-disaster survival simulation that emphasizes exploration in the winter wilderness of the North. Players take control of bush pilot Will Mackenzie in the aftermath of a geo-magnetic disaster that renders all technology inert, and everyone must use their survival skills and make hard moral decisions in order to survive.

Also, no zombies…

The funding process

Hinterland received support from the Canada Media Fund’s Experimental Stream, which was enough to begin work on a prototype for The Long Dark. However, the company needed more to achieve its full ambition for the game, as outlined on the Kickstarter campaign page.

The 30-day campaign launched in mid-September 2013 raised CAN$256,217, over 25% more than the initial CAN$200,000 target. Equally integral to crowdfunding was building and establishing a community—a combined result of strong, consistent press interest throughout the campaign (the project was named Kickstarter’s Project of the Day) as well as an existing fan base for the Hinterland team’s extensive ludography. Interestingly, many backers expressed “zombie fatigue” as one of the reasons that drew them to The Long Dark, along with the fresh wintry and distinctly Canadian backdrop—quite the opposite of the ubiquitous deserted urban settings under which most post-apocalyptic games are played.

Hinterland has set up a microsite (www.intothelongdark.com) to continue its crowdfunding efforts. Also, the microsite supports PayPal to further stretch goals.

Lessons learned

Pacing the communication

Many would-be backers claimed they’d only support the project after seeing game play footage—a common request for video game projects. Hinterland released a video just over a week before the campaign’s end, and pledges spiked in the final push.

Would the company have released it earlier? Not necessarily. As van Lierop points out, “if we had launched with that video and didn’t have anything to follow up with, we would have fizzled out,” noting that the last week of the campaign is crucial. Case in point: Hinterland raised 60% of its goal in the campaign’s final 10 days.

“At its heart, Kickstarter is about aspirations and emotions, selling the promise of something to others,” explains van Lierop, adding that nostalgia-based projects (such as Double Fine’s throwback point-and-click adventure game Broken Age or inXile’s sequel to Wasteland) have a bit of a leg up on companies pitching original IP. Retro IP has the advantage of coming with an existing, hardcore fan base.

“Remember, you have to engage people for 30 days and Kickstarter functions on a curve: put some awesome stuff right at the beginning and save some awesome stuff for the end. I really believe you’ll obtain very little return if you spend all your energy in the middle [of the campaign].”

Kickstarter Canada vs. US

During the campaign’s planning stages, news broke that Kickstarter would officially launch in Canada in the fall of 2013. Hinterland was part of the first wave of companies with a campaign in Canada, but in retrospect, van Lierop admits he would have launched in the US instead.

In his opinion, Hinterland may have lost backers as a result of problems with the payment system, as Kickstarter in Canada doesn’t use Amazon Payments. Potential American backers may have balked at the Canadian conversion on the campaign page and had to do the currency conversions themselves, which created another barrier. “Keep in mind that you’ll have people backing all over the world who don’t know what your currency is,” states van Lierop.

That being said, an advantage for Canadian companies launching with Kickstarter in Canada is that the taxation system is somehow simpler, seeing as there are not different provincial taxation systems as there are in each American state.

Choosing your rewards

Plenty of research went into studying both successful and unsuccessful campaigns. Hinterland came up with a list of rewards that would interest future backers most, checked costs and looked at other campaigns and their most popular tiers. Most were successful with tiers under $50. Once the campaign began, Hinterland looked at which tiers were resonating and which ones weren’t.

For example, the company introduced a Founder’s Status part-way through the campaign promising to provide backers at the $1,000 level and up with all future Hinterland games in acknowledgement of their early support. There was also interest in a lower-priced tier to receive just the game and an exclusive backer t-shirt, also introduced mid-campaign. “We tried to figure out what our weak point was: content or pricing,” explains van Lierop. “Keep in mind: as soon as you have a backer in a tier, you can’t change the text or value anymore. If you have a limited amount [set for a specific tier], you can change that number.”

Community and communication

Hinterland’s community was engaged from the onset, and the team was actively responding to comments and questions, both in the comments section of the campaign page, and through Twitter and Facebook.

“I’m surprised to see how little emphasis we see on community (in some other campaigns),” points out van Lierop. “Anyone can jump into the comments, and I know people who weren’t backers who came in. Based on the way we answered, they became backers.”

Hinterland was praised for its quick and constant feedback and active engagement—thanking every person who mentioned the game on social media, spread the word about the campaign and “recruited” others.

“If [your team isn’t] sitting in the comments section [on Kickstarter], you’re missing something,” contends van Lierop. Members of the Hinterland team took turns fielding questions and were in constant communication with each other so as not to respond at the same time, while another assigned team member managed a slew of interview requests and social media accounts. “It’s really the only way you have to communicate with prospective backers.”

Partnerships

It may sound like a no-brainer, but van Lierop stresses that smart partnerships can make a big difference in your crowdfunding and community-building efforts.

In Hinterland’s case, kicking off the campaign by announcing Canadian actors Mark Meer (Mass Effect) and Elias Toufexis (Deus Ex: Human Revolution) as part of the voice cast for The Long Dark early on helped build momentum. Toward the end of the campaign, Hinterland announced that fellow Canadian actors Jennifer Hale (Mass Effect) and David Hayter (Metal Gear Solid) were also on board.

“We knew we were going to announce additional voice partners and we were careful about where we announced them,” explains van Lierop, adding that the stellar voice cast was complemented by each actor’s extensive community and fan base.

Looking ahead

Crowdfunding efforts are ongoing at www.intothelongdark.com, which launched shortly after hitting the Kickstarter goal. The site is PayPal enabled (via Ignition Deck) for those who were unable to back through Kickstarter because of limited payment options. For example, many Europeans expressed fervent interest to support the game through PayPal because they didn’t have credit cards.

At the time of publishing this article, Hinterland had surpassed its post-Kickstarter stretch goal set at $275,000, unlocking translation into French, Italian, German and Spanish as well as a radio play with the game’s all-star voice cast. Crowdfunding will continue indefinitely, and additional stretch goals will be announced.

The Long Dark is slated for a fall 2014 release.