Tag Archives: kickstarter

Eclipse Phase disproves the need for DRM

So, I haven’t been around these parts much lately — Kris and I have been busy launching Astrek Association, our Firefall fansite and blog. I’ll have more to say about Firefall later, but for now, I wanted to talk about a very interesting Kickstarter.

A couple of weeks ago, Greenheart Games was all over the news for their indie tycoon game, Game Dev Tycoon. In order to prove a point about piracy, Greenheart’s Patrick Klug seeded a cracked version of the game to various torrent sites, with a twist: the cracked version became unplayable after a certain amount of time, thanks to in-game piracy destroying your revenue. Cute, but ultimately it felt like a bitter stunt instead of a genuine opportunity — it was just an opportunity to lecture people about piracy, instead of looking for a way to convert pirates into customers.

I much prefer the approach taken by Posthuman Studios, publishers of the hit pen-and-paper RPG Eclipse Phase. I’ve talked about Eclipse Phase before, as a setting I’d love to see as an MMO, but it’s also a fantastic (and award-winning) tabletop game. Eclipse Phase is set in a high-tech post-apocalyptic future where humanity has abandoned Earth and spread throughout the solar system, and it covers everything from transhumanism, horror and conspiracy to straight-up sci-fi adventure.

Eclipse Phase, art by Stephan Martiniere

And what makes Eclipse Phase really special, IMO, is Posthuman’s approach to its customers and fans. Eclipse Phase is licensed under Creative Commons, which means that fans can freely hack the game, modify it, post their work online, and even share the entire game with anyone they think might like it. Hell, Posthuman themselves even seeded the full core book to various file-sharing and torrent sites.

And it’s worked. Despite being available for free, with no stigma of piracy and active publisher encouragement to share copies of the PDF, players and fans of the game have been happily handing over their money both for PDF and hardcopy books ever since Eclipse Phase first launched. In the words of Adam Jury, a Posthuman Studios founder,

[N]o publishing company can successfully fight piracy. The RIAA hasn’t, the MPAA hasn’t. Piracy is going to happen unless we say “nope, you can’t pirate our stuff, cuz we’ll just let you give it out!” — and that makes the file-sharers like us and buy from us. I don’t think pirates are evil and immoral people. I know many people who pirate many things and these people also buy many things. They just tend to buy only things they already like. So, of course, giving away your material will only work if your material is good quality!

I’d much rather have someone read our game for free and not like it than buy our game and not like it. In the first case, they’re only out their time. In the second case, they’re out time and money and are more likely to resent us and/or not buy any other games we may release.

Furthermore, Creative Commons isn’t just about “downloading for free;” it’s about giving fans permission to hack our content and distribute those hacks. Permission to do the things that gamers naturally do, without fear of lawsuits or complex legalese or requiring our approval. Our fans have built and distributed complex character generation spreadsheets, customized GM Screens, converted our books into ePub/mobi format, and all sorts of neat things. When they do things like this, that gives us guidance as to what we should be doing: because fans aren’t just saying they want something, they’re putting their time where their mouth is … a strong indication that they and other fans would be willing to pay for those things if we produced them.

This has always struck me as both a smart business decision and a humane one, and Eclipse Phase’s success has proved that it’s the right way to go. Treat people with respect, and it pays off. There is no need for gamers to pay for Eclipse Phase, but they do, because people are willing to pay for what they like.

And this point is proved with Transhuman, the Eclipse Phase Player’s Guide (and next EP release). This is the first Eclipse Phase Kickstarter and it’s been handled with Posthuman’s typical approach to operating their business. Transhuman is in Open Playtesting, so Kickstarter customers can check out the book before they pledge. The pledge rewards packages are generous and well-considered bundles. And one of the early Stretch Goals was to give Transhuman’s freelance contributors a 15% pay raise – a very humane and generous offer in an industry where freelancers (and most creators) earn very little for their work.

It probably comes as no surprise that Transhuman reached its funding goal in twelve hours and is at 530% of its goal as I write this. The success of Eclipse Phase’s business model is a counterpoint to – and lesson for – publishers in any industry. Treat your customers with respect, don’t assume they’re going to rip you off, don’t try to wring every cent out of them, and sell them a quality product: your customers will become fans, and they’ll throw money at you.

As a postscript, I encourage you all to check out the Transhuman Kickstarter. If you’re interested in pen-and-paper games or simply good science fiction, a twenty dollar pledge will net you the Eclipse Phase RPG and the Transhuman Player’s Guide in PDF format, and there are a range of other pledge rewards offering more of the Eclipse Phase product line as well. Frankly, I’d have given them money even if I weren’t a fan of Eclipse Phase, because I strongly believe that their approach to business is the right one, and I think that deserves my support. And the more success enjoyed by Eclipse Phase and other games like it, the more likely other publishers are to sit up and take notice, and accept that you don’t have to treat your customers like criminals to make money.

Note: There’s just over four days left on the Transhuman Kickstarter as I write this, so if you’re interested, don’t forget to check it out this weekend!

Shadowrun Online: when being second hurts

As I write this, Shadowrun Online has a little under three days to go before its Kickstarter-based funding drive ends, and it’s not looking good for Cliffhanger Productions. They’re about two thirds of the way to their goal; although the pledges have really ramped up in the last week, it may not be enough to get across the line.

Shadowrun Online backer banner

Shadowrun Online is, of course, based on the popular and long-lived pen-and-paper RPG Shadowrun, which has had a complicated history. First developed by Jordan Weisman at FASA Corporation (and one of FASA’s two big successes, along with Battletech), Shadowrun was licensed to Fantasy Productions when FASA closed its doors. FanPro lost the license to Catalyst Game Labs a few years later, who hold it now. Mind you, the electronic rights (that is, video games) were first spun off along with all the other FASA intellectual properties to FASA Interactive, which was then sold to Microsoft, who then produced the much-hated Shadowrun FPS. In the wake of that, Microsoft closed FASA Interactive and licensed the electronic rights to Smith and Tinker, a new company established by Jordan Weisman. (I feel I should intone “the circle is now complete”, Darth Vader-style, at this point.)

Now, I have a long-standing love affair with Shadowrun; it was the first game I wrote for professionally, back in its Third Edition era, and I’ve been playing it since University. It’s by far my favourite RPG. So seeing the Kickstarter struggling is sad, for me.

Unfortunately, it’s got a few points counting against it.

First of all, a high-profile Kickstarter for a Shadowrun video game exploded across Shadowrun fandom just a few months ago. That was back in April for Shadowrun Returns, a single-player 2D turn-based RPG from Jordan Weisman’s new company, and it did amazingly well. Over 36,000 backers, and they made over four times their funding goal – they asked for $400,000 and got $1.8 million. By comparison, Shadowrun Online has 3,800 backers and has scored (so far) about $330,000 of its $500,000 goal. It’s hard not to suspect that Shadowrun Returns has already leached out a lot of the money and enthusiasm for Shadowrun video games. (Certainly the Shadowrun fans I know are talking about SRO a lot less than they promoted Shadowrun Returns.)

Then there’s the simple fact that MMO gamers – although it feels like we’re everywhere, thanks to WoW’s phenomenal success – are only a fraction of the gaming market. There are a lot of gamers out there who don’t particularly like MMOs, and don’t want to play them. Most MMO players enjoy single-player games as well; the reverse is often not true.

Next there’s the confusion over Shadowrun Online’s subscription model. Originally the Kickstarter launched as a full free-to-play game, which of course necessitates reliance on microtransactions for funding. There was plenty of unhappiness around this, and Cliffhanger’s people put their heads together and came up with an alternative: they’d also offer a “Campaign” model, where you buy the game up-front and then pay nothing for gameplay, Guild Wars style. So as not to invalidate the pre-Campaign model pledges, they’ll be offering different servers for different game types. It’s actually fairly straightforward, and kudos to Cliffhanger for being responsive to their fans, but I suspect the sudden change created unnecessary confusion, which puts people off committing their cash.

And then there’s the setting differences. Shadowrun Online is set in the game’s “present”, in the 2070s; Shadowrun Returns is set in 2050, the setting of the earliest editions of the pen-and-paper game. That’s a huge nostalgia trip right there for long-time fans, and there’s a lot of nostalgia in the Shadowrun fanbase. The current edition of Shadowrun, 4th Edition, shook up the world and changed the playing field when it was released. 1 Although 4th Edition has done very well commercially, and was critically acclaimed, there’s a significant proportion of the fanbase who’d love an opportunity to run around in the 2050s again, and SRO just doesn’t cater to that the way Shadowrun Returns did.

Whether it’s one of these factors, or more likely a mixture of all of them, it looks like this is more of a handicap than SRO can overcome. And that’s a great shame; although I have my doubts about how well Shadowrun would fit a themepark MMO model, I’d love the chance to be proved wrong.

  1. For a sense of the magnitude of these changes, think of the Shattering in WoW’s recent Cataclysm expansion