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Phosphor On Project Awakened's Life After Kickstarter

Down, But Not Out

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There are some things you can’t do, even with all the powers. Those things include healing a broken heart, parallel parking anything larger than a clown car, and evidently, solving the puzzle that is Kickstarter. Phosphor – whose crime-fighting slice of sky pie, Project Awakened, sadly went splat well before its Kickstarter crossed the finish line – knows that all too well. But it’s not ready to give up just yet.  So then, what’s the deal with its allegedly Greenbay-Packers-influenced “part owners” program? And, if crowdfunding failed to swoop in and save the day once, what makes Phosphor so sure it’ll respond to the giant dollar signal in the sky this time? Moreover, even if fans can muster the needed cash, what happens after a bunch of it goes into a robust prototype intended to get backers more involved in the development process? Where will more money come from? Use every power in your arsenal – yes, even smission – to get past the break for precious, precious answers from studio director Chip Sineni.

RPS: The Kickstarter fell slightly short of its goal, which is a shame. What do you think went wrong? Based on what you’ve now seen, how can you improve your campaign? Was a simple lack of wider-spread awareness to blame? Did it come down to not offering something playable? What were the biggest contributing factors?

Chip Sineni: We think there were a variety of factors, some we anticipated, some we didn’t.

[pullquote]We went into it without a famous or nostalgic brand of any kind.[/pullquote]

We went into it without a famous or nostalgic brand of any kind – a well known designer of past hits, a studio with a history of success with a specific genre, or a direct or spiritual prequal to point to. It was a total ‘cold start’ for us in terms of building awareness. We expected that, and hoped we could have overcome that faster, but it took a while till the news really started to spread, and then the campaign was winding down. A lot of people from all sources said “we just heard of this a day or so ago, others need to know, please extend the campaign!” But you can’t on Kickstarter. This is one major reason we are trying this novel new idea – to see just how true it is that there was a bigger viral wave growing that hadn’t hit yet.

Something that was in our control to a point was how to describe the vision to someone with no exposure to it before. It’s a very unique concept, and that isn’t always easy to get across. We love crafting good stories, and there will be a compelling world and plot, but we didn’t have story content to show, we have all the proof of concept demo work to show, and that can come across as a tech demo with no ‘heart’ I suppose. We will try to remedy in the future, but until we start adding actual story progression to the game – which would mean we have the funding to really go full speed – that will be a challenge.

Something that we did not anticipate was all the people asking for paypal. We have had the ability to turn it on for a little while, but it’s a catch 22 because you let those people now pledge outside of Kickstarter, but if any of them could have pledged via Kickstarter, you actually just hurt your ability to get the rest of the Kickstarter funds if the campaign is close to the line. All the cries for Paypal is another one of the reasons we are trying this. If there are lot of people out there that would prefer that method, then they may come to pledge now. We’ll see!

RPS: You’re letting fans decide Awakened’s fate, which is noble, but is it almost a little unnecessary? I mean, they’re fans. They obviously love what you’re doing and have expressed as much in the past. Why not just launch the new site and get a move on funding again?

Chip Sineni: They are fans, and since most of them only found out about this a few weeks ago, we are staggered and humbled by just how supportive they are! But, we have always been very cautious about the idea of outright accepting people’s money before we know it will add up to a significant enough sum to really give them something of value for it. It’s easier, we suspect, for people to pledge to a Kickstarter knowing that if it doesn’t make its goal, their credit card is never charged.

Just as with the Kickstarter campaign, we are looking for funding to open a path forward to getting the game onto player’s hands sooner, but people may feel differently about pledging that same money without the Kickstarter safety net. If so, we totally understand and can’t fault them. We have been making this game for nearly seven years, and will keep making it, but everyone will feel different levels of security around that. So, we decided to be open and just ask them what they would do. That is the survey. We trust they will give us an honest answer, and they will then trust us that we’ll deliver if we move forward. We’re all in it together.

RPS: What happens to proposed stretch goals now? Will they still be part of this new funding plan? If you only get to around $350k again, what happens to, say, robust mod tools and things of the like?

Chip Sineni: The stretch goals are the same. If this new plan somehow sparks a fire and we go above $600K in the next six weeks or so, those stretch goals are all back in plan for the beta launch. If we don’t hit those totals, we just get to those features in the future with either more money we don’t know about now, or time spent after beta launch. We want those features SO BADLY, just like the fans, so we’ll do our best to figure it out!

RPS: So you’re planning to put resulting funds into an Unreal Engine 4 prototype, which you’ll then allow fans to play and provide feedback on. What happens after that, though? I imagine you’ll have used up quite a bit of your money. How will you get more to finish the game?

Chip Sineni: If we are able to move forward, yes, we will have a cool prototype later this year. We are still quickly evaluating if that should be in UE3 or UE4 to be honest. The closer delivery date of a build into users hands means UE4 will not be as mature, and we don’t know Epic’s full plans and timing for support, so we’ll have to make the call on engine choice if all this works out and we get the prototype going full speed in seven weeks. If we do go with UE3 for the prototype, it opens up lots of features that would be great like Mac and Linux support, command line MP, and modding via UDK. The players would get these features they wanted for beta, even sooner. So, lots to weigh.

As for money to move forward past prototype, unless we raise at least as much as we were asking for in the Kickstarter, we are pushing out closed beta launch to later next year, to make up for less money with more time. Which is, by the way, how the game has slowly made it this far. To be clear though, unless we see a path in the survey data to both doing the demo for late this year, and a closed beta for sometime next year, we won’t start taking people’s money. The demo doesn’t take away from the full beta launch, it’s a stop along the way that we want to clean up enough to share with people. It will in fact help the game to get players input and feedback sooner, and we are excited about it.

RPS: Can you explain how the Greenbay-Packers-like “part owners” system will work for Awakened? In real, tangible terms, how does that benefit backers? What do they get out of it? And how does it benefit you, the creators?

Chip Sineni: The way we see the gamers out there as having part ownership is in a significant creative influence over the core experience we build. We were going to have players in the closed beta really helping guide the game. Now, if we do this new plan, we will have them playing and helping even sooner, with that demo. That means even more influence on what direction the game takes, what abilities get made, how the tools shape up, what features we enable first, etc. They are becoming more and more a part of the design team. If we can make that demo later this year moddable – even more power for the players.

RPS: Will backers be making money off Awakened’s success? If so, will that amount vary based on how much they originally “invested”?

Chip Sineni: We don’t have a model that complicated in mind at the moment. If we can do this new plan, fans will get to influence the game vision as we mentioned, and they will get the rewards for their pledge tiers, but we don’t have any set plans to do any direct profit sharing.

But, in the future, who knows? We want to have a ton of player created content. Valve, with games like TF2, is showing how there is a whole new relationship evolving between a developer, a fan base, and members of the fan base that want to create and sell their own stuff. That model could be quite applicable to Project Awakened some day. Imagine if, instead of a TF2 hat, someone has lovingly crafted the coolest whole samurai outfit ever, or made some custom visual effect for your favorite special ability, or the perfect recreation of Times Square as multiplayer map, and now you can buy those creations from them. It would be a whole new world of player interaction and gaming, and we’d love to facilitate that some day.

[pullquote]We don’t have any set plans to do any direct profit sharing.[/pullquote]

RPS: Kickstarters like yours and Death Inc failed in the same week Torment rocketed past its goal in six hours. Do you think large-scale success (read: multiple hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars) on Kickstarter requires some kind of pre-established brand at this point? I mean, devs like Phosphor, Ambient, Eerie Canal (Dreadline), and even Gas Powered Games found only middling reactions with original ideas.

Chip Sineni: As we mentioned, bringing some sort of known successful brand – a person, a game, a style of game you have success at, a historied studio – means the hard first part of people knowing and trusting you is over. We’ve been lucky to have a solid amount of critical acclaim and our first two games as a studio were nominated for Game Of The Year in their category by the Academy of Arts and Sciences. We’ve also been helping Epic build their Unreal Engine 4 and have done contract work on a number of triple-A titles, but we are still relatively unknown to the mainstream. A Kickstarter campaign is a pretty short time to get people to know you, help them understand your vision, and get them excited and trusting enough to give you money, starting from scratch like we did.

RPS: One last one, more on the subject of the game itself: the Unreal 3 videos you’ve released have displayed very third-person-shooter-esque viewpoints and mechanics. Do you plan to implement more specific combat systems for, say, melee attacks? Lock-on targeting, a different camera view, etc?

Chip Sineni: All the content in the vids is prototype. We’ve experimented with a lot of different things over the years, including cameras. We don’t have the final settings, but we can safely say we will definitely optimize the camera view for the different styles of play people want.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

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