Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Akaneiro: Demon Hunters

Welcome back to another Kickstarter Conversation!  Today I am very pleased to be joined by the well-known video game creator American McGee.  Thank you for joining us today.
Very excited to be here talking about our game and our Kickstarter campaign!

Why don’t you tell us a bit about your first Kickstarter Akaneiro: Demon Hunters.  The tagline description is an Action RPG with a Japanese art style telling a twisted version of Little Red Riding Hood care to expand on that?

“Akaneiro” has been in production at our studio since early 2011. The original idea for Akaneiro came from my reading of a book called “The Lost Wolves of Japan,” which details the destruction of wolves in Northern Japan around 100 years ago. This extermination came at the hands of Western cattlemen who had introduced beef consumption and cattle farming to a people who were vegetarian – and who lived in relative balance with nature. This history seemed to invite further exploration and expansion – with my idea being to illuminate the man vs. nature aspects present in the reality and fairy tales we create.

My initial work on the concept was later expanded upon by the project’s Creative Director, Ben Kerslake and his design partner, Matt Razzano. They’ve also received writing support from my long-time creative partner R.J. Berg, who has been involved with both of the “Alice” projects (and is a co-founder of Spicy Horse). Our developments are always highly collaborative like this.

Not to sound too much like a fan but you are American McGee! You’ve released games with your name in the title!  Why did you take this project to Kickstarter?  

Though I’ve had a highly visible history in the industry, I’m still an independent developer of limited means. My studio doesn’t have the sort of deep pockets or wide reaching marketing machine needed to compete with large publishing entities who dominate Western gaming. Kickstarter provides a channel for us to achieve several critical goals at the same time without having to give up our independence to a big publisher.

First off, the campaign puts our priorities and development planning in the hands of backers – they get to tell us how important a Linux port is relative to an Ouya port, for example. If we had unlimited resources and time, then we could pursue development on new projects (critical to our survival) in tandem with full-time feature development on Akaneiro, but that’s not the case. Beyond that, we’re offering backers a chance to access discount Karma (our in-game currency), campaign only virtual items (like Spirit Helper Pets) or design direction on things like weapons and armor.

Lastly, the campaign has given us incredible access to our audience. We’ve seen a level of excitement and engagement that goes beyond any pre-launch campaign I’ve ever been involved with – even bigger than the response we saw with the Alice games. I think that has a lot to do with the “horse race” nature of Kickstarter. It’s very difficult to maintain long-term excitement about a game development – and typical marketing efforts focus almost exclusively on “launch week.” With Kickstarter we get a really fantastic month-long “race” where our backers are engaged and rewarded in an interesting new way.

So the Kickstarter funds aren’t for initial development or majority development but more for the iOS, Android, and Linux versions along with polish and final feature set?

Yep. Development of the core game is done. As I’m writing this we have 24 hours until Final Release (scheduled for 30th, January @ 4PM PST). Funding from Kickstarter would do one simple thing: keep the entire development team focused on the game post-launch. Our “Plan A,” which we established when we started development, was to maintain a small support staff on the game post-launch, then put the other half of the team on a new project. “Plan B” emerged when I got the idea to use Kickstarter to launch the game – and then use funding to keep the entire team focused on development of goals like tablet support, Linux ports and the additional of co-op multiplayer.

I understand your initial launch met with some critical complaints from the gaming media along with some Kickstarter watchers.  Why is that?   

Seems there were a few sites who decided to ignore a critical part of our Kickstarter pitch. We outlined the additional things we wanted to add to the game via the KS funding, then said “but we’re out of time and money to do so.” (Emphasis on “to do so.”) When I read that it sounds like lack of time/money are clearly related to some goals we’d like to achieve. Certain sites decided that meant I personally was bankrupt and that the company was also out of money.

Why would they do this? I can only imagine it’s because drama sells. It also speaks to a deep lack of respect these types of news sites have for the developers and industry upon which they make their business. Does news of a person going bankrupt or a studio going under deserve to be handled in this fashion? Wouldn’t sympathy and concern be a more appropriate response? Apparently, those things don’t generate clicks – so it’s the low road and “kick ‘em while they’re down!”

Do you think that was a fair reaction or just a sign of a maturing Kickstarter marketplace?  

It was a complete (and perhaps unintentional) misreading of our message, so no; I don’t think it was fair. Probably answered this more fully in the previous response ;)

How different is Akanerio from other action RPGs?  Why should we want to play it?  

We feel there are many aspects of the game which set it apart – the setting, art and story being the most visible and obvious things on first glance. Once you get into playing the game you’ll find the experience is highly streamlined – meaning you can enjoy shorter more manageable sessions of 30 to 40 minutes. Gameplay is driven by missions, which is a slight departure from the typical ARPG genre. And we’ve built an in-game currency system with Karma where everything is linked together – from your health and abilities to unlocking new content or purchasing weapons and armor. We’ve also added a twist to the F2P model, making it possible to access ALL the content for free via grinding, giving players the option to mix grinding with a few special purchases or to simply hit a “buy it all” button and unlock all the maps along with a chunk of in-game currency so that the F2P aspect can be skipped altogether.

Is Co-Op not in yet?  How will that work?  I ask because I’m always on the lookout for games my wife and I can play together and I hope I’m not alone in that desire!

 It's been in the design from the start, and a functional "stub" for it can be found in the game at launch this week. Check out the "Summon Ally" feature – using it, you'll engage with an A.I. controlled co-op Ally who can be brought into battle. What remains to be done now is connecting control and other bits to allow that Ally to be another live-player. It's not a giant leap – but it is one we planned from the start, both in terms of initial design and the manner in which we're developing it post-launch.

As with any core feature in the game, it's also important to keep in mind that these things can and do evolve over time in response to feedback we get from players. That's one of the great things about developing online games – that we can constantly update and improve them in all aspects. Co-op will be no different.

Who thought of this art direction?  It’s very striking and fits well with the Japanese story elements which are another interesting part of this project.  Did the art follow the story or did the story follow the art or did they all evolve at the same time?  

I detailed in a previous response where the narrative inspiration came from. As for the art, it was during the development of “Alice: Madness Returns” that we stumbled upon the idea of presented an “Asian Realm” inside of Wonderland.

I’d been scouring Victorian news from London, reading the stories to understand the type of world Alice would have lived in. We had a rule during development of A:MR that Alice could only imagine things based on something she would have heard, seen or read. China and Japan were often in the headlines back in those days, with royal families getting married in Japan and British explorers making their fortunes in China. That provided a foundation for us to build an Asian inspired landscape in Alice’s mind. And that development experience gave us the confidence to tackle an entire game which utilized that style.

Akaneiro is special in many ways – it brings together the aforementioned development experience and a narrative perfectly suited to the style. It’s not likely we’ll build another game like it for a while, but we do have plans to continue expanding on this story and setting into the foreseeable future.

So this is Red Riding Hood, you’ve already covered Alice what’s next?  Wizard of Oz?  Hansel and Gretel?  

While fairy tales are definitely of interest to me, it’s hard to say what we’re doing next. Our studio tends to pursue development based on a collective desire to get something made. We can’t force the process – and no one person here has (or would use) the power to dictate a development direction without getting buy-in from the entire studio.

“Wizard of OZ” is something I’ve worked on in the past – and it’s brought up very frequently these days. What I’ve been thinking is: if this current Kickstarter is successful, we can take the lessons we’ve learned and apply those to a new campaign built around “OZ.” It seems the desire from customers is there – we just need to prove we can make Kickstarter work for us, and then explore how we might use it to get OZ brought back to life.

How did you discover Kickstarter?  What made you consider using it?
As a professional designer who’s been in the business as long as you have, what do you think of your first experience with Kickstarter?  Do you think it’ll become a viable alternative source of capital or is it better suited for indie development?  

Not sure I recall the first time I saw it or used it, but I’ve been engaged with it since early 2012. In that time I’ve backed quite a few projects – and not all of them related to gaming. I’ve also watched gaming evolve on the platform and been really impressed with the way in which developers have embraced and utilized it as a means for securing alternate funding.

A majority of comments I read from gamers seem to indicate a large disconnect between their understanding of how games get funded/made and the realities faced by independent developers. Investors and bankers DO NOT put money into video game development. They back “sure things,” which means they put money into businesses, not ideas. Game publishers have long been the sole source of development funding – but the burden they put on a developer’s ability to earn real profit is so great that most indies die before they ever see a dime in royalties.

We’re using Kickstarter because it offers one of the only true channels for direct customer engagement and backing without all the publisher-related “evil.” It breaks the monopoly. The more successful it becomes the more interesting content we should expect to see flowing from game developers.

A key part of successful Kickstarters is backer participation and how to convert a potential backer into a full backer.   What was your plan to bring people to the project, and once there convert them into a backer?

For us, it’s been mainly about direct engagement. We’ve maintained a schedule of frequent, content heavy updates and have constantly added new rewards and incentives to the campaign. We’ve also taken a lot of direct feedback from backers and integrated that into the campaign or the game.

Our “plan” from the start wasn’t very exciting. We simply leveraged our existing social channels and press contacts to create as much awareness as possible. In the time since the campaign launch we’ve also worked with Evolve PR (our PR Company, to secure coverage and interviews. PR is an affordable and effective tool I think Kickstarter users should use from the start if they have the means and a project the press might be interested in.
Are you using Kicktraq to track your progress?  
Yep! We watch it every hour of every day!

Do you have any tips/advice would you give to anyone looking to start a Kickstarter?

Watch, listen and research for a while before jumping in. We studied and discussed other campaigns for months before finally making the leap. Present something on-par with other campaigns in your ‘genre.’ Maintain lots of communication and provide frequent updates to your backers. Structure your tiers and add-ons carefully from the start (this was really painful for us!) Lastly, remain positive! Running a Kickstarter campaign is really demanding and you’ve got to be your own biggest cheerleader.

Thank you for spending your time with us!  Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

We’re going to release the Launch version of Akaneiro on SpicyWorld and Kongregate tomorrow! Our KS campaign has only 3 days remaining. Please check out both, right now! and

You’ll find myself and our Marketing Manager Ophelea are online and accessible 24/7 – we’re happy to answer questions, hear feedback and even just say “hi!”

Thanks again and I hope to hear good things from your Kickstarter!
Thank you! The team and I really appreciate you giving us a chance to talk about what we’re up to!

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