At the Gates over 200% funded, Jon Shafer discusses the road ahead
As of the writing of this article, there is just over a day and a half left in the Kickstarter for At the Gates, the upcoming, Dark Ages 4X game from Civ V designer Jon Shafer. The team at Shafer's new studio, Conifer Games, has already demolished the original, $40,000 goal. Notable stretch goals already met include full mod support and two new factions. We caught up with Jon in a follow-up to our announcement interview to get his thoughts on how the campaign went, and what we can expect from At the Gates after it's funded.
PC Gamer: The Kickstarter is almost over, and you guys have already doubled your original goal. What has the experience been like, overall? How has the level of success compared to your original expectations?
Jon Shafer: I was pretty confident going in that we’d hit our $40k goal and expected that we’d finish a small bit above that. But you really never know. Hitting our target in under four days was a big surprise, and we had to nail down our stretch goal plans sooner than we’d planned. Based on the number we’re trending towards I would definitely say it’s surpassed our expectations by a fair bit.
Was there anything in particular that surprised you?
"Another surprise was the number of other companies that reached out after seeing the Kickstarter campaign."
Yes, there were a few surprises along the way.
The first was the sheer volume of questions and supportive messages we received. For a couple weeks I was getting over a hundred messages per day, and there were definitely times when I was tempted to waver on my commitment to answer everyone individually. But the activity calmed down eventually and I made it through to the other side.
It was great to see people I’d never met or spoken with take up the At the Gates banner and wave it as their own. When people say that Kickstarter is more than just a way to fund a project but also a marketing campaign in and of itself they’re not kidding. This wasn’t even something I’d thought about before, but based on my experience the effect is very real.
On a related note, another surprise was the number of other companies that reached out after seeing the Kickstarter campaign - many of them through Kickstarter. Investment, distribution, localization, conversion to other platforms, IT, music... you name it, I’ve been asked about it. I’ll probably be sorting through these opportunities for several weeks after we’ve wrapped up. So far nobody’s offered a huge pile of free money, but I’m still holding out hope!
Are you still planning on keeping the team very small, or will some of this new funding allow you to expand a little?
The higher budget will definitely allow us to hire on more contract work. Prior to the campaign I was unsure of how much animation we’d be able to incorporate in the world, but we’re now looking at utilizing it for pretty much all the art. It’s also likely we’ll bring on some help to help with modding tools like the map editor.
"I want to explore new ideas and experiment with innovative features. They might not all work out, but with a small company they don’t have to."
Aside from that, the core team and the goals are the same as they’ve always been. We’re mainly viewing the extra funds as giving us the ability to polish the game more than would have otherwise been possible. The gameplay is still our focus. I feel that many companies that smash through their funding goal and dramatically change their scope lose sight of that a little bit.
What is/are the best thing(s) about making a game through Kickstarter without the oversight of a commercial publisher?
The biggest perk is that you can focus entirely on making the best game possible. Every publisher wants to deliver great games, but large businesses have to be focused on the bottom line. If they’re not, people lose their jobs.
The advantage of being an indie is that you can set priorities for yourself. I certainly need to make enough money to keep doing this, but beyond that my goals are all creative. I want to explore new ideas and experiment with innovative features. They might not all work out, but with a small company they don’t have to.
Have you discussed post-launch content among the team members at all? Might we see some of the stretch goals (if they don't end up getting funded) as paid DLC or expansions down the line?
It’s possible. I’m not a big fan of the traditional DLC model, but the prospect of making the Roman factions playable really intrigues me, as that would require making big changes to the core design. My general philosophy is that as long as there are interesting ideas to explore I’m there.
I wouldn’t hold your breath for any map packs or sequels from Conifer though. If you do right by your community and offer an adequate level of modding then they can take care of that themselves.
What do you feel like you'd do differently, having just about wrapped up your first Kickstarter experience?
"If you do right by your community and offer an adequate level of modding, then they can take care of that themselves."
I tried to prepare as much as possible before we launched and the campaign as a whole went fairly smoothly and has obviously done incredibly well. If I could go back and do it again there are a couple changes I’d make though.
Big, meaty articles are a great way to show potential and existing backers that you’re serious about what you’re doing, and that they have reason to trust in your promises. But each one requires a major time investment, and trying to squeeze those articles in with everything else can be exhausting. “Current me” would be a lot happier with “past me” had I been able to knock those out before hand.
The leadup for getting the Kickstarter out the door was also pretty rushed. In a recent update I shared the story behind the creation of Conifer, and those final couple weeks were pretty intense. Fortunately, next time I won’t also be launching a company at the same time, which should simplify the process quite a bit.
I’d also tweak the reward tiers. I received many comments along the lines of “I’d like to give you more than the base amount, but I’m not willing to go all the way up to a hundred bucks - what can you do for me?” We made an early decision to avoid physical rewards, but there are still other opportunities like digital strategy guides, soundtracks, etc. We added some of these after the launch, but a more organized approach would have helped both us and our backers.
Thanks to Jon for talking to us, and keeping us posted about the project all along the way with some very detailed dev blogs. Those interested in backing At the Gates still can—$25 gets a DRM-free copy of the game.