Have you ever heard the story of pu’erh tea? No? Well it goes something a little like this:
A long, long time ago, tea was transported from the Pu’erh region of China where it was grown to the capital via caravans. The route took the team through swamplands (where the moisture would cause the tea leaves to ferment) and then through deserts (where the dry heat caused the fermentation to stop). By the time the tea reached its destination, the environmental hardships it endured gave it a distinct flavor and potential medicinal properties that was unique to any other tea in existence. (For more about pu’erh tea, read the writings of James Norwood Pratt)
I bring up this story not only so that you too can now impress your friends with your knowledge of ancient tea cultivation, but also because I think it serves as a nice metaphor for the journey so many creative passion projects experience. The journey of Nevermind, our biofeedback enhanced psychological thriller game released for Windows and Mac on 9/29/15, is a great example of this. Taking it from a student project started in 2011 to a fully released game in 2015, Nevermind’s development has gone through metaphorical swamps and deserts and has emerged much better for it. It has undergone a journey of creative fermentation and maturation that can, perhaps, be best told through its crowdfunding campaigns.
Many folks may be familiar with Nevermind’s two Kickstarter campaigns that happened in 2014. However, few people know that Nevermind has actually undergone four crowdfunding campaigns. Each campaign helped the project evolve and grow and, while technically three out of the four were “failures” by traditional assessment, they all were ultimately critical parts of the ultimate success of the game.
March 2012: The First Campaign – Crowdfunding? What’s Crowdfunding?
Nevermind began in 2011 as my MFA thesis project at the University of Southern California in the Interactive Media and Games Division. As a student in this program, your thesis year is an opportunity to work on a project of your choosing – to interpret everything you’ve learned the two years prior (and beyond) and manifest it in a game (or interactive project) in the course of an academic year. I wanted to take a shot at creating a game that would be both beneficial and entertaining, used biofeedback technology, and embraced a horror aesthetic. With those three goals in mind, the concept that would become Nevermind was born. From there, I dedicated myself to researching all aspects of what would go into the game functionally and narratively – namely the state of biofeedback, PTSD and psychological trauma, and a heavy dose of surrealism. After a summer of dedicated research and planning, I – along with a team of about 10 students from throughout USC – began the intimidating process of trying to prove that this crazy idea is something that could actually become a reality.
As you can imagine, the time and financial cost of trying to build an immersive game experience from scratch while integrating a brand new technology started to add up. While we made progress slowly but surely throughout the fall of 2011 into the spring of 2012, it was incredibly challenging and, given the accumulation of sensor and development costs, we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to reach the finish line when it came to creating a fully functional single level proof of concept. Earlier in the project, one of our team members suggested that we look at this crazy newfangled thing called crowdfunding. I was only a little familiar with the concept of crowdfunding at the time and, frankly, was a bit skeptical. I couldn’t help but see it as a somewhat uncomfortable way of asking friends, family, and the universe at large for money that we didn’t necessarily earn. However, the team convinced me that we should give it a shot if it meant being able to secure the resources needed to confidently finish the academic proof of concept. So, on 3/5/12 I – somewhat begrudgingly, to be honest- launched Nevermind’s very first crowdfunding campaign: a month-long Indiegogo campaign asking for $2000.
“We want to release one full level of the game
(about an hour’s worth of gameplay) in Summer 2012.”
This sentence is from that first campaign. We of course didn’t know it at the time, but this very humble goal was essentially the foundation upon which so much would be built in the coming years. But we’ll get to all that later. At this point, we just wanted $2,000 to support our ability to – at that time – “add final art, music, sensor research/behavior, gameplay testing and refinement to the level.”
To be perfectly frank, even though the team and I had done some research on crowdfunding campaigns, the extent of our research was limited mostly to just what was out there on the internet. Way back in early 2012, what little discoverable knowledge existed was fairly limited. Everyone was still trying to figure out what this crowdfunding thing was all about. This was before some of the big crowdfunding hits in gaming such as Double Fine Adventure, Star Citizen, and Oculus Rift. Furthermore, at that point in time, I didn’t personally know anyone who had run a crowdfunding campaign. So, while we didn’t do as much of our “how to run a campaign” homework as we perhaps should have, there also weren’t nearly as many resources to draw upon at that point in time.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that we were pretty lame when it came down to running this first campaign. We didn’t know what we were doing. Really. We had 19 backers – most of whom were very kind and generous friends and family and a few brave individuals who must have simply believed in this completely unproven, crazy idea. We had a total of 683 page visits (this includes multiple visits from the same person). Last but not least, we had only 8 referrals (visits to the page from a link from something like Facebook or Twitter). In the end, we raised $1,325 – which is actually quite impressive if you consider the aforementioned numbers. We didn’t meet our funding goal, but with Indiegogo’s flexible funding option, we received a good chunk of that money and were able to stretch it far enough to successfully complete the one-level proof of concept. Admittedly, having fallen short of our goal, we weren’t able to take it quite as far as we had hoped, but we ended the academic year with a roughly 45-minute experience that demonstrated both the storytelling and aesthetics aspects and biofeedback functionality of the title.
It goes without saying, but given all of the inherent challenges of the project, we were super excited and proud of this massive accomplishment and incredibly grateful to everyone who helped us make it happen.
However, with the academic year coming to a close, much of the student team, myself included, graduated that May and went our separate ways. Bit by bit, I spent almost the entire summer fulfilling the pledge rewards from that campaign, including dealing with a host of counterfeit sensors (about 1 in every 3 orders) that I’d have to test and return before sending off to our backers. Needless to say, it was a long, exhausting, and frustrating process. After which I solemnly vowed that I was done with the whole crowdfunding thing for good.
…a vow that stuck for about a month.
August 2012: The Second Campaign – Sharing our Proof of Concept with the World
I had started a full time game design job that August. While Nevermind was always close to my heart, I figured that it was the kind of project that could only survive within a university setting. I had student loans to pay now. Reality to contend with. It was time for the game to be put to bed.
It was my first or second week into that new job when I heard from the 2012 Unity Awards. That one-level proof of concept of Nevermind had been selected as a finalist for the Best Technical Achievement category and the Best Student Project category. To be recognized in this way was eye-opening in that it was one of the first non-academic validations of the concept. I, of course, thought Nevermind was pretty neat, but I wasn’t sure if it was something that would have a place beyond an MFA program. Inspired and encouraged by the nomination, I started submitting Nevermind to more and more festivals.
It was chosen as an Official Selection at IndieCade and then a finalist at the Serious Games Showcase & Summit. Our small prototype was getting increasingly more positive attention and having it be recognized by these festivals was an incredible honor and only further motivated me to try to spread the word about it even more.
Press started to show interest and wanted to try it with sensors. We were invited to demo it at various events. Even as early into that process as August 2012, the team members who were still involved and I could see that the costs of festival submissions (most being between $50 – $150 each), purchasing sensors (each being about $90), postage, and travel in some cases was going to add up incredibly quickly. Without any dedicated project funding, all those costs essentially had to come out of my (admittedly small) pockets. It was clear that wouldn’t have enough to support all of the potential opportunities we wanted to explore.
So, at the urging again of some of the members on the team, we launched another Indiegogo campaign in August of 2012. In the words of that campaign:
“This fundraising campaign is to help us get the game (in its current state) out there! Every contribution will help us submit Nevermind to shows and festivals and will allow us to stock up on sensor hardware to send to press and other interested and influential parties. The more we can get Nevermind out there, the better a chance it has at one day becoming a full game that can fulfill its full potential (with over 10 unique levels and many hours of gameplay).”
For this, we set the campaign at a $3,000 goal and the duration to just under four months.
Having had several months to reflect on the previous campaign, we went into this one with a little more savvy. I had a slightly (albeit still developing) understanding of media outreach and social media and a little more confidence in the overall running of a campaign. However, there were still several missed opportunities that, admittedly, were likely due to my shortsightedness of the potential of crowdfunding and inability to run the campaign as a full time endeavor (as I had a “real job” that took up much of my focus and energy at the time).
The campaign ended with $1,161 raised, 41 contributions (most of which coming from brave strangers this time), and 781 visits to the page. Even though we actually raised less during this campaign, I nonetheless see it as a vast improvement over our earlier effort. Sure, mistakes were made (I know now that a four month campaign is a bit excessive and a total of three updates over that span is pitiful), but by the end, I feel like I was at last starting to get a better feel for how crowdfunding should work. I could now understand where my gaps in knowledge were – something that would become incredibly important only a year later.
In the meantime, with the funding we were able to raise (once again, we received a portion of the $1,161 through Indiegogo’s flexible funding process), we did our best to get that one-level proof of concept into as many influential people’s hands as possible while staying within that budget. As a direct result, Nevermind was accepted into prestigious festivals and conferences such as ESCoNS, Games for Change, and SIGGRAPH. The honor and validation that came from our small student proof of concept being recognized by these organizations inspired me to eventually make the ultimate commitment – to leave my job at the time and continue to pursue this crazy idea head-on. In the words of the second Indiegogo campaign:
“The more we can get Nevermind out there, the better a chance it has at one day becoming a full game that can fulfill its full potential (with over 10 unique levels and many hours of gameplay).”
So, fueled with hope and encouragement from the festival and media response to our proof of concept, it was time to take that terrifying and exciting plunge toward the game fulfilling its full potential.
In the fall of 2013, I left my job, started a company (Flying Mollusk), and started preparing for my next (and biggest) campaign yet.
February 2014: The Third Campaign – The Greatest Failure
Expanding our one-level proof of concept into a full game was not going to be cheap or easy. It needed a full time team of developers, resources for continued sensor research, supplies for the team (such as a dedicated workspace, hardware and software, etc), and many more things that would probably make for a pretty boring list. It didn’t take very long before we knew that crowdfunding this effort was, hands-down, the right choice. Not only would it provide us with an opportunity to get the funding we needed, it would be a great way to share the project with the world – but on a much larger scale this time. We had received so much helpful and insightful feedback from people we met at the festivals that we hoped that a larger crowdfunding campaign would lead to more people becoming involved and – at the end of the day – to finding out if this crazy idea is actually something that enough people would be interested in seeing out in the world.
With a year to reflect on and learn from the previous Indiegogo campaigns, all the advice and feedback we’d received over the course of the previous year, and the ability to focus entirely on a new crowdfunding campaign, we started planning out a much larger Kickstarter campaign. This time, we did our homework – we asked the right questions, reached out to folks who had run crowdfunding campaigns before, spent hours looking at other projects, made an embarrassingly large number of spreadsheets to help us wrap our heads around all the data now out there, put together a video, got feedback early and often on our page draft and, after several months of planning and preparation, launched our first Kickstarter campaign in February of 2014 with a goal of $250,000.
This is perhaps the crowdfunding campaign that Nevermind is most well known for. We were absolutely shocked, delighted by, and overwhelmed with the response the campaign received. According to Kicktraq.com, there were over 9,000 shares of the campaign. It was covered by a diversity of outlets including Kotaku, Wired, Huffington Post, Fox Business News, and many, many more. Some of that coverage was arranged by a PR consultant we had the great pleasure of working with, but much of it was entirely organic. However, most importantly, the backer response we received was absolutely incredible. So many people from around the world with a broad range of interests, gaming background, and crowdfunding experience supported Nevermind by not only backing the project, but also enthusiastically sharing it with their friends and colleagues, sending us notes of encouragement, and more. It was a truly phenomenal experience.
Alas, the month-long campaign ended with only about 51% of the goal achieved. Which, with Kickstarter, means that none of the backers were charged and sadly we didn’t see any of that funding. On the surface, it would seem that we failed yet another campaign. However, I saw the campaign as a wonderful success. With 2,466 backers, we learned so much about Nevermind and, with the amazing amount of encouragement received, I was as optimistic as ever about its future.
As fate would have it, it turns out Intel heard about us through the campaign and ended up reaching out as it was coming to a close. We met with them shortly after the campaign was over and learned that they were working on some (as of then) secret technology that could read a player’s pulse without them having to wear a separate device. This technology sounded incredible in its own right and, furthermore, as a biofeedback game that only supported one sensor at the time – a chest strap that had to go under your shirt, ideally with a glob of goo for extra conductivity – we were beyond excited to potentially start working with this amazing new sensor technology. It was a perfect fit and not too long thereafter, we were offered the extraordinary opportunity to partner with Intel to help fund the next phase of development. This partnership would allow us to transform the single-level student proof of concept into three professionally built levels for PC while leveraging the new Intel® RealSense™ technology as our new primary biofeedback input device.
To recap, our first crowdfunding campaign enabled us to complete a fully-playable proof of concept. The second crowdfunding campaign enabled us to share that proof of concept with key figures in the media and industry – the direct result being the inspiration and confidence to pursue developing that proof of concept into a full game. The third crowdfunding campaign brought Intel to us which ultimately led to a partnership that would not only enable us to build it into the game we always wanted it to be – but also connected us with people and resources that would enable the game to become far better than it would have otherwise.
So, this leads us to Nevermind’s fourth campaign.
October 2014: The Fourth Campaign – Success!
One thing we learned from the third campaign is that there seemed to be significant interest in bringing Nevermind to platforms such as Mac, Oculus Rift, and Xbox One. Although the partnership with Intel was focused on PC development only, the team (which had grown to four full-time developers since the previous campaign) and I wanted to bring Nevermind to all these additional platforms as well. Furthermore, we also wanted to expand the number of sensors Nevermind supports, and (ideally) increase the amount of content that would be found in the game at launch.
So, with these ambitions in mind (and after confirming interest with many of our backers from the third campaign), we launched yet another Kickstarter campaign in October 2014 with a much more conservative goal of $75,000. We were very pleased to see that there were many others out there who were also enthused about these goals and, once again, we received an awesome amount of support! It was a nail-biter of a campaign, ultimately getting successfully funded in, quite literally, the eleventh hour. However, it happened – we did it! Alas, we didn’t hit our stretch goals, so we weren’t able to create as much content as we had originally hoped, but as a result of the campaign’s success, we had the ability to take this crazy idea and make three levels, support multiple sensors, and bring it to a variety of platforms.
September 2015: Launch!
From that point forward, our small team got to work to make the best game we could. At last, after 4 years of crowdfunding blood, sweat, and tears on September 29th, 2015 the Windows and Mac version of Nevermind finally launched on Steam! If I went back in time and told Erin of 2011 this story, she most certainly wouldn’t believe it. Although, frankly, she’d probably have more questions about the time travel than the launch. But I digress.
It’s been an incredible, exhausting, and rewarding journey and with each “failed” campaign (and the final “success”), the project and team emerged better for it. If it weren’t for those campaigns, Nevermind may have never even made it out of the student project phase of development – and it certainly wouldn’t have evolved to what it is now. Furthermore, we may never have met the amazing community that grew around us along the way. Would I go back and change anything? Believe it or not, aside from maybe doing a bit more research prior to the first two campaigns, not a thing.
As of this writing, we’re still working on the Oculus Rift and Xbox One version of the game (due to be ready by early 2016), have a handful of physical backer rewards still to fulfill, and already have our sights on what’s next for Nevermind. In character with its journey thus far, where it goes next will depend on the response the launched version received. With every dollar going right back into development, we’re optimistic that this will be yet another opportunity for the game to get better and become even more robust and interesting with each passing day, a living reflection of its long, varied journey – not unlike a fine pu’erh tea.