Tim Schafer, one of the most famous game developers in the world, recently joined the a16z podcast to discuss the tech trends that are changing the gaming industry. When asked what he was most excited about in gaming today, Schafer’s response wasn’t about pixel density or VR: his answer was changes in how game developers raise money to develop new games.

Schafer’s perspective on this is unique, he is widely considered to be Kickstarter’s “first blockbuster.” Back in 2012, his game Broken Age generated $1 million in backing within the first 24 hours, and went on to raise over $3 million. These are impressive numbers, but more importantly they marked a distinct shift in how game developers build games and the relationships they have with their customers.

Justin Bailey, CEO at Fig and also on the a16z podcast, compared this shift to the film industry. Festivals like Sundance gave independent filmmakers a platform to find an audience, and their work has enriched the entire Hollywood ecosystem by pushing form and genre. In Schafer’s view, independent game developers have the potential to do the same thing to a gaming industry that has long been criticized for being risk-averse and sequel-happy (picked up your copy of Call of Duty 8 yet?). With new sources of funding, developers are discovering new, paying audiences that free them up to explore new creative territory.

Of course, Schafer’s perspective on this phenomenon is that of an outlier. Being a long-time gamer myself, I was curious whether the trends he was pointing to were larger than his own experience. Is Kickstarter really changing the gaming ecosystem? I wanted to take a look at the data.

To do this, my team helped me scrape every Kickstarter game campaign since 2011, success or failure, to see what we could learn about the platform’s impact on the future of indie gaming.

Just how big is Kickstarter in games?

Since 2011, over 7,100 games have sought funding on Kickstarter.

This activity picked up dramatically in 2012, showing a 700% year-over-year increase in game campaigns. This shift was so sudden that Kickstarter declared 2012 the “year of the game.” Since then the number of new games posted to Kickstarter each year has increased by 35%, and currently averages close to 700 new game campaigns per quarter.

But what we really care about are the dollars. Since 2011, $160MM has been pledged toward game campaigns.

To put this into perspective, the $160MM represents a relatively small slice of the gaming market. Star Wars: The Old Republic cost $200MM to produce, and counting marketing costs, Grand Theft Auto V cost a whopping $265MM. If you averaged Kickstarter’s $160MM out across all games, you’d end up with close to $22,500 per game, a slim budget on which to make a game.

But, as we know, not all games are created equal.

A few mega-hits raise most of the money

As it turns out, there is a small minority of games that raise the significant majority of the dollars.

There have been 243 games that have raised more than $100,000 on Kickstarter. And what’s most astonishing is that these top games, at 3.5% of all Kickstarter games, have raised $121MM, or 75% of the total dollars. The average amount raised by these top games is an impressive $500,000.

Top games are also attracting by far and away the majority of backers. On average, top games have 12x the number of backers per game compared to games that raised in the $1,000 to $100,000 range.

The developers of these top games clearly know what they are doing. While the average funds requested by a game developer is $61,000, these top games asked for an average of $285k. These are industry pros, not kids hacking on a side project.

But this hints at one of the major criticisms leveraged against Kickstarter as a platform for funding game development — that, like the major studios, it still favors the few. Schafer has a unique ability to ignite a passionate fanbase, and his major Kickstarter success, Broken Age, benefited from the press attention that came with its “newness” of it being among the first Kickstarter successes. But can this success be replicated by less well-known developers?

Who are the most successful game developers?

To answer that question, let’s start by looking at the game developers who have succeeded in raising over $1MM on Kickstarter. 227 developers have succeeded in raising over $100,000 on a single title, and 21 of those have raised over the million dollar mark.

Developer Funding Pledged for All Games
inXile entertainment $8,395,643
Koji Igarashi $5,545,991
Double Fine and 2 Player Productions $4,565,386
Obsidian Entertainment $3,986,929
comcept USA, LLC $3,845,170
Ys Net $3,185,530
Playtonic Games $3,164,618
Harebrained Schemes LLC $3,041,173
Uber Entertainment Inc $2,613,702
MS Paint Adventures $2,485,506
City State Entertainment $2,232,933
Cloud Imperium Games Corporation $2,134,374
Portalarium, Inc. $1,919,275
Warhorse Studios $1,833,464
ArtCraft Entertainment, Inc. $1,766,204
Privateer Press Interactive $1,578,950
Red Thread Games $1,538,425
Goblinworks Inc. $1,399,037
Cyan, Inc. $1,321,306
sekaiproject $1,016,416
CIA, Inc. $1,014,600

There are 13 game developers (below) who have succeeded in raising at least $100,000 for two or more titles. As expected, Schafer and Double Fine are on both lists, joined by 5 others. These six represent the best of the best game developers at raising money on Kickstarter.

Developer Number of Games that Raised Over $100,000
inXile entertainment 3
American McGee 2
Corey Cole 2
Double Fine and 2 Player Productions 2
Goblinworks Inc. 2
Harebrained Schemes LLC 2
KING Art Games 2
Midgar Studio 2
Playism Games 2
Precursor Games 2
Stone Blade Entertainment 2
Uber Entertainment Inc 2
sekaiproject 2

If we look at these six game developers, we see a variety of ways in which they achieved success:

  • Mobilizing a passionate following within the gaming community. Like Double Fine, inXile Entertainment, founded by Brian Fargo, also achieved success by building up a passionate following in the gaming community dating back to his high-school years in the early 80s. There he helped successfully found Interplay Productions, and made a name for himself as the designer behind some of the most beloved Role Playing Games (RPGs) of the day.

    inXile’s first Kickstarter success was Wasteland 2, a sequel to one of Fargo’s successful early games. inXile has now raised the most money of any game developer, surpassing $8MM across three games, with their most recent game (another sequel) still days away from closing, but already over the $1MM mark.

  • Launching one massive campaign. Uber Entertainment found massive success raising over $2MM in 2012 for their game Planetary Annihilation, but then were forced to cancel their second project Human Resources due to complications.
  • Launching multiple smaller-scale, but successful campaigns. Seika Project successfully raised funds for six anime inspired game projects, with two more currently in progress. Yet, only two of the eight projects raised over $500,000 and one was considered successful raising just over $25,000.
  • Diversification of games. Harebrained Schemes LLC, which comprises of a small team of developers, has raised over $1MM with two video games, Shadowrun: Hong Kong and the original revival, Shadowrun Returns. But, Harebrained also raised over $500,000 on a digitally enhanced tabletop game called Golem Arcana.

The variety of ways that these top game developers are achieving success points to the promise of the crowdfunding platform. Kickstarter may not be a platform where complete unknowns can find unlimited access to funding and become a breakout success. But it is a place where top-notch, experienced developers that want to maintain their independence can generate funding for bigger budget, high-profile projects.

And all of this leads up to the question I originally set out to answer…

Is Kickstarter really changing the gaming ecosystem?

Since it’s emergence in 2012, Kickstarter has remained a consistent source of funding for top games. Every quarter since then Kickstarter has been the funding source of 15-25 games that get funded $100k+.

And for indie game developers, that’s not even the best news, here it is: it looks like you’re heading back into the heydey. As of Q2 2015, funding per top game is nearing record high levels — close to $1 MM per game.

Kickstarter has been and will continue to be an invaluable source of funding for top-notch indie game developers. The upward trend in more dollars going to higher-profile projects positions this elite group of indie game developers to have a bigger impact than ever on the gaming ecosystem.

I’m incredibly excited about this. Over the past 25 years Sundance Film Festival has been the starting place for director greats like Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and the Coen brothers. If Kickstarter can continue to help indie game developers find the audience and funding they need to get their games into the world, then we can expect the next 1, 2, 5 years of gaming to bring about far more innovation than just Call of Duty 27.