Sean Cargle spoke to DarkForge Games lead designer Scott Thunelius to see exactly how development is going for Nekro, one of last year’s first Kickstarter successes.
Nekro is an indie PC game that mixes Dungeon Keeper, Myth and Giants: Citizen Kabuto into a fantastic mess of diabolical micromanagement, strategy and action. It’s been a significant amount of time since the Nekro Kickstarter was successfully funded and not much news has rumbled fourth from the gates of DarkForge Games, so I decided to bother Nekro lead designer Scott Thunelius about where the game’s at now and how he saw Kickstarter through the eyes of a developer.
Kickstarter boomed in 2012, raking in over $50 million for game projects. DarkForge Games had been keeping a keen eye on the site long before that boom started, though, and were patiently watching for the best possible time to present Nekro to the community: “Then Double Fine came, breaking all records by miles,” Thunelius explained. “We knew that was the one we were waiting for: a company that raised the bar for what the baseline Kickstarter project could make.” Double Fine had cleared the way, making $100,000 a reasonable target for videogame Kickstarters, and a couple of months later, Nekro launched a campaign of its own.
Nekro’s Kickstarter wasn’t about circumventing the publisher, it was instead more about getting connected to the community: “I think the Kickstarter process is amazing and how it’s been playing into the development process is great,” said Thunelius. “I can connect directly with our fans, and give them exactly the game they want.” Thunelius and DarkForge Games did Kickstarter so they could be interconnected with the people directly funding development. People they could talk to on the forums, stream development to every day and give them details on every aspect of the game in order to get feedback.
It’s their game, but it’s also the backer’s game, and that is something unique to Kickstarter. Having such a strong community from the get-go is always a bonus, and DarkForge Games are determined to make sure they capture as wide an audience as possible. Having no publisher also gives them a sense of freedom, and allows the studio to feel more connected to their own game: “Having no publisher is also a nice change,” said Thunelius. “Our milestones are internal and understood by the team as being personally set. I feel a different kind of drive to achieve something I know I’ve set for myself as opposed to an arbitrarily picked publisher date.”
While the Double Fine Adventure allowed DarkForge to believe in their own chances for Kickstarter success, they weren’t the only ones, and it opened a gap that suddenly everyone was surging to fill. According to Thunelius, being an unknown company amongst this sudden Kickstarter saturation “definitely added a layer of difficulty to our efforts”.
“When we ran our Kickstarter, the craze was just getting in full swing, so the media outlets were dealing with the dilemma of what to report on and what not to,” he added.
For Nekro, DarkForge sent out thirty emails to websites and only received responses from three, they posted on message boards, they did an AMA on Reddit. In short, they did everything they could to promote the campaign. Thunelius took on the role of PR, regardless of whether he was an artist, programmer or designer, and he explained just how he dealt with disappointment: “Prepare for ridicule, hate, trolling and people telling you your Kickstarter will fail and your idea is crap. Not everyone will ‘get it’ and that’s ok. Appeal to the ones that do, and ignore the ones that don’t.”
He told himself that as long as the game got above 30% of the funding then it would succeed, for statistically 82% of projects that got over that succeeded – and he was right to be confident. Nekro struggled along against these difficulties, but eventually they found support from some of the big names in the press capable of delivering huge numbers of fans towards a campaign, and they ended up exceeding their initial goal by 58,000 dollars.
So far, Nekro is turning out to be the unique action-strategy game that Thunelius imagined; a game that has you conquering villages, fighting off the king’s forces, dealing with vicious werewolves, crafting numerous items, controlling hordes of minions and fighting your way across a randomly generated map waiting to be explored. It is a game that will be deep, but also accessible: “Making Nekro accessible is one of my top priorities,” explained Thunelius. “It’s a vastly complex game that I want to run on essentially 3 buttons. I want people to sit down and know exactly what they are doing without any boring tutorial.” Certainly, that isn’t something easily done, but Thunelius is confident it can be done and they will be trying to showing it in motion in March with new gameplay videos set to emerge.
During the Kickstarter, and since then as well, Nekro has been constantly compared to the much-loved Dungeon Keeper series. Thunelius finds it flattering that people compare Nekro to one of his favorite games, but he explained to me just how similar and dissimilar they really are: “You are an over-mind controlling lesser minions, you influence their behavior, but at times cannot directly control it. You raid ‘hero’ villages much like the campaign map in Dungeon Keeper. Many of our influences are drawn directly from Dungeon Keeper. But don’t get me wrong, though similarities are quite prevalent, Nekro is very much its own game. I’m leaving the remake of Dungeon Keeper to War for the Overworld.”
As a backer I’ve always wondered if Kickstarters were easy, especially for those that just racked in the cash like Double Fine or Star Citizen, but according to Thunelius, anyone thinking about getting involved with one should “prepare for one month of no sleep, wrecked nerves and hard work. It was an absolute emotional rollercoaster.” It’s a point not many people consider, and looking back at other campaigns such as the Project Eternity one, you realise just how much extra work alongside regular development has to go into them. Project Eternity, for instance, had twenty-seven huge updates during the Kickstarter and another thirteen in three months since then.
DarkForge’s experience paints an interesting picture of the Kickstarter process: the worries, the struggles, the hard work, and the ultimate reward that greets you when it all pays off. Despite Nekro’s success, though, and despite the continued success of the crowdfunding platform, Thunelius couldn’t help but express pessimism for future projects and left me with a lingering question of his own – how long will Kickstarter last until it burns out?