Interview: John Smedley on Hero’s Song crowdfunding and the future

Following the abrupt cancellation of the Kickstarter for Pixelmage Games’ sandboxy OARPG Hero’s Song, we chatted with studio CEO and MMORPG veteran John Smedley about the campaign, crowdfunding, and the way forward for the game. He’s even addressed some gamers’ argument that the game didn’t belong on Kickstarter at all. Read on for the whole chat!

Massively OP: I know you said you thought you made some mistakes in your Kickstarter. What would you do differently if you had it to do over again?

John Smedley: We made some mistakes with the Kickstarter that in hindsight should have been obvious. First off, we didn’t price the initial tiers right. We needed a $15 sku and it should have been there from day 1. Next, we didn’t have physical goods. That was also a mistake, although a well-intentioned one. We’ve seen physical goods be one of the biggest problems with people delivering what they say they are going to, and we wanted to be 100% sure we could deliver everything we said when we said it.

We also lacked enough interesting stuff for the higher tier structures. We did do quite a bit of research and talked to friends in the industry that had succeeded and some that had failed prior to launching it. It was a good learning experience. I also think in hindsight we probably asked for too much, although we asked for what we actually needed. I’ve been doing this a long time and didn’t want to promise we could deliver something on a budget that wouldn’t have allowed us to actually do it. Last, but certainly not least, I think we needed to show more gameplay to explain our game. It’s a pretty unique game in the way we’ve mixed Dwarf Fortress, Diablo III, and Ultima Online in a pixel art style. Showing more would have been smarter. My hindsight is 20/20… but I’d rather not try to spin it as anything other than avoidable mistakes because that’s all it was.

Are you planning another Kickstarter or are you just going to go forward with your investors and a custom pre-order sale on the website? And speaking of that, when do you think we’ll see those preorders/founder packs live?

We are considering a few options right now: Either pre-orders on our site or possibly going with something like indiegogo, which has a different funding option that might lend itself better to what we’re doing because they have an option that isn’t all or nothing. Either way we will be doing it, and likely in the next few months. We’re getting a great build together that will showcase our AI which is (I hope) really going to blow people away.

Does the cancellation of the Kickstarter have any impact on the game’s development timeline and anticipated launch this fall?

In terms of funding, we’re good. We secured the additional investment and we are full speed ahead for an October 5th, 2016 release. This didn’t slow us down at all, so we’re all good! We’ll start showing the game in the next month or so, and hopefully people will like what they see. We’re also going to be streaming design sessions with us and Patrick Rothfuss… those are so incredibly fun that it would be great for people to see how a brilliant creative mind works. He is one of a kind for sure and is just a blast to work with.

One thing our readers ask over and over is why a studio that can easily acquire outside funding would use Kickstarter — some folks see it as a sort of cheat because, as they see it, Kickstarter is meant for “indies.” And when they say “indie,” they seem to mean “two guys in a garage,” not the vast majority of indie studios in the zone between “two guys in a garage” and “Activision.” So what do you think about using Kickstarter to supplement smaller studios? What do you say to people who think Kickstarter isn’t meant for people with “connections”?

It’s very simple: We wanted to avoid taking money that came with strings beyond delivering a high-quality game. If we give up distribution rights, it usually means losing control of aspects of your game and frankly losing a large percentage of profit. If you give distribution rights to someone, you usually end up with 30% of the profit in that region instead of 70%. Steam is fantastic, but isn’t as widely used in some countries that can actually generate a lot of revenue. In addition to the money side, we also like the community building aspect of Kickstarter. It “kickstarts” a community of likeminded people in a way that’s super helpful to our kind of game. We want to be a super open developer and show our work as we go. Having a community of people that we’ve made promises to and that have expectations of us is a great thing IMO.

The arguments about what things should and shouldn’t be on Kickstarter are pointless IMO because it’s a self correcting thing. It works exactly as intended.

Thanks as always to Smed for answering our questions!

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60 Comments on "Interview: John Smedley on Hero’s Song crowdfunding and the future"

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carson63000
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carson63000

I thought the biggest problem with the Kickstarter was that there was no hype prior to the campaign opening. First I heard was the day it started, same with all the bloggers I follow.

You need to have people clamoring to throw money at you before the KS campaign opens. Day one momentum is so critical.

carson63000
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carson63000

KevinSmith11 Particularly when you combine “we don’t need your money” with the fact that the initial offerings were more expensive than just waiting for the game to launch and buying it then!

“We don’t need your money.. but if you want to pay us now, it’ll be discounted” flies better than that.

Archebius
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Archebius

ashfyn Bannex19  You actually can, they just hide it from you – it defaults to the updates page, but if you click “Campaign” it shows you everything, even who backed it at which tiers.

TimothyTierless
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TimothyTierless

vinicitur Bro its not like I named my cat “Star Wars Galaxies” and got a tramp stamp of my game box code…I named her “Chewbacctina” and I have the tattoo on my upper back, like a boss. I like to think of myself as the kind of fan that still yells at Mick Jagger to sing Satisfaction on stage. ;)

And I was joking in my first comment too :D 

no not really, 

ok yes I was 

(between us no I wasn’t)

PaganRites
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PaganRites

I’ll will back this game a second time as soon as I am able.  I loved the original project.

vinicitur
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vinicitur

TimothyTierless I think you need help man.   :)

ashfyn
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ashfyn

Bannex19  Is it?  Just curious.  Because when you do Google successful kickstarters, they don’t actually show you the tiers or the rewards.  And once a kickstarter is closed, you can no longer view the tiers or rewards, even if you contributed.

TimothyTierless
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TimothyTierless

Is it ok that I read the whole thing then purposely retained none of it so I can gleefully assume he said a bunch of stuff about a plan to make a true spiritual successor to SWG by hiring Raph? I think it is.

Xijit
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Xijit

Having trouble finding the source, but I am fairly certain that, as part of the Xbone development, they are going to be selling the regular Dayz sandbox/survival game plus an action/fps type thing with DayZ’s gameplay being given the Comsolitis treatment to turn it into a team based shooter.
… Maybe I am wrong though, since I can’t find the source for where I read it.

Ironweakness
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Ironweakness

Great interview, it was especially nice to see John’s thoughts on Kickstarter and why studios of different sizes might choose to use it. I don’t know that I’ll preorder this game but I’ll certainly be watching for its launch. It’s a unique idea and if it is executed well I think it will do well as a niche title.
And as a side note, John Smedley would make a terrible politician; that’s why I think I like him so much.

Sorenthaz
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Sorenthaz

Xijit DayZ is doing the same stunt?  I thought there was just ARMA III and then DayZ which uses ARMA III’s engine or whatever.

Bannex19
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Bannex19

Still playing the “amazing ai” card…

FacelessSavior
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FacelessSavior

I have never been on the fence about backing something, or which tier I was going to pledge, and had a physical reward influence me at all. Never seen the appeal. Test access, rare in game trinkets, stuff like that will occasionally get me to cough up more, but I really don’t need more obscure crap to clutter my desk.

picks86
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picks86

KevinSmith11 Teomcdohl It’s pretty straight forward. If you wanted to do a project, would you rather get your money from a loan shark or directly from your customers and make it alongside them. I’m using a hyperbole here but the concept is exactly the same.

All Smed did was say “Hey if we don’t get the money raised, we can still turn to these sharks for money but we’d obviously rather not” and the community went into a derpy uproar.

SteveJackn111
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SteveJackn111

Guys can we call a spade a spade here and get to the nitty gritty? Pixilated games look like absolute shit, end of story. And this is going to be one big pile of shit

agemyth
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agemyth

Wild_Phil Archebius Here we have a person showing how little they know about the cost and difficulties of web development and, by extension, how little they likely know about game development.

Serrenity
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Serrenity

Woebringer  I think you overstate Smed’s negative influence.

Xijit
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Xijit

Woebringercomment image

KevinSmith11
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KevinSmith11

Serrenity KevinSmith11 The part you missed was what I had posted below this comment.  Before the kickstarter every went up he was saying that they were good to go to do the game that they didn’t need any funding that the game was going to be made no matter what.
Its funny that they are looking at going Indiego now instead of trying kickstarter again.  That way they keep whatever is pledged no matter what.  That is one of the good things about kickstarter if you don’t make your goal you don’t get the money, protects investment to a degree.

I believe in making a profit and supporting devs who I think deserve it, I do it by subbing in any MMO I play whether it is F2P or not.  I do it by buying a game period.  I am a huge gamer been playing games since pong.  I have even worked as a beta tester back when that was an actual real thing.

I have had my eye on this game since he came public with it looks like a nice idea.  Not a huge fan of going backwards in development to pixels but will give it a look.  Will probably buy it when it releases.  So this isn’t some random I don’t like Smed thing.  Its the problem with releasing a video that says we are funded and making the game now then releasing a kickstarter not long after that looking for money.

Woebringer
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Woebringer

The mistake was John “I Love Carebears” Smedley getting his name attached to the project.  It damages the project and the hard work of the team.  For a portion of the community Smed involvment makes a game highly suspect.  In terms of Crowdfunding with no guarantee of delivery, pulling the “Do Not Buy” lever was easier than it should have been.

Serrenity
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Serrenity

Archebius Wild_Phil  Agree with all of this – to add a fully-featured crowdfunding tool would likely cost you between 10-20k, depending (and whether that’s in man-hours if developed internally or dollars paid if oursourcing).  
You aren’t likely to come out much building your own solution – and plus it doesn’t come with the same protection (for both dev & gamer) as Kickstarter does.  
As a general rule, if you can make an out of the box experience work, it’s going to miles cheaper than trying to recreate the wheel.

Xijit
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Xijit

But DayZ is pulling the same stunt, SC is separating the MMO & story sections into two diffrent purchases (but IMO that was expected from about day 1) and there at least two other titles (who’s names I can’t remember) that are following the same trend.
Funcom is at least developing new titles, but The Park & the new Conan title are basically close cousins to this new trend for how they are really just concepts from their MMOs being spun off.

Sorenthaz
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Sorenthaz

woolydub Yeah for Kickstarter projects it seems to be either “This is an idea that we want to see become a reality, but no one else is willing to help us fund and publish this,” or “This is an idea that we want to see become a reality, and we don’t want to deal with the strings attached to getting it funded/published by other sources.”

Sorenthaz
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Sorenthaz

KevinSmith11 Tbh I think they should’ve simply been upfront and blatantly addressed the issue in their Kickstarter page.  Aka stated “While we have private investor funding ready if needed, succeeding in this campaign will mean we don’t have to risk compromising the integrity of the game or what we want to do with it due to the strings that will be attached to such investor funds.”

breetoplay
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breetoplay

Serrenity <3

Sorenthaz
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Sorenthaz

Xijit To play the Devil’s Advocate, though, they had previously expressed plans to monetize Battle Royale in some way and have an entry free.  Initially the idea sounded like it was going to be a ticket-type thing that you could get from gameplay or cash shop purchases, and that would’ve turned a lot of people off from it I imagine.  So making it require a $20 entry fee as a standalone title isn’t the worst that could’ve happened with it.

Sorenthaz
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Sorenthaz

If they put it up on Indiegogo I’ll totally back it with a similar amount that I was willing to pledge to the Kickstarter one.  It was pretty clear that they wanted to use the Kickstarter in order to avoid the attached strings of private investors, so it’d be nice to see the game made the way they want it to be rather than have it be stifled by whatever conditions they have to agree to in order to get it funded.

Sorenthaz
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Sorenthaz

Ironwu Welp you heard it here folks.  One person thinks the design is flawed, so might as well start it over!

FacelessSavior
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FacelessSavior

Way to make sweeping generalizations based solely on your own Opinion.

Ironwu
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Ironwu

Smed,
It is not your flawed Kickstarter campaign that failed.  It is your fundamental design for the game that is flawed.  Take a break, drink some coffee, rethink things.
Folks will talk up how they ‘want’ this sort of ‘innovation’, but they really don’t, in the main.

Serrenity
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Serrenity

Honestly, I didn’t back the game because he took it down before I could.  I liked the concept and it seemed new and unique in a vast sea of meh.  He just pulled it down before I could get around to actually paying.

Serrenity
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Serrenity

KevinSmith11 No, it doesn’t.  He could undoubtly get far, far more money from a publisher / outside investor than he could ever hope to get off of Kickstarter.  
Just because someone says “hey, I want to make a profit on my game” doesn’t mean they are automatically the scum of the earth.

Serrenity
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Serrenity

Wild_Phil Teomcdohl KevinSmith11  Just want to point out here ‘profit’ isn’t a bad word.  In fact, our industry exists because of words like ‘Profit.’  
Just because a developer says, “We’d like to see more money back on the time and effort we put into this game without charging the players more,” doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing  It’s intelligent and for an experienced Dev like Smed, putting space between himself and the middle-man publishers makes sense.

Serrenity
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Serrenity

“And when they say “indie,” they seem to mean “two guys in a garage,” not the vast majority of indie studios in the zone between “two guys in a garage” and “Activision.” 

I love the Bree snark :-)

libertylion7
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libertylion7

I didn’t care at all about the tiers.  I just felt the game looked like crap.  Plain and simple.

Kanbe
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Kanbe

There were mistakes made but I do think that if they waited a bit on the kickstarter so we could see a bit of an actual game instead of just ideas on paper that would have been a big help. It makes me think of how project gorgon failed twice on kickstarter and then when they let people actually try the game it went great. Obviously there were other factors in there as well but PG I thought was a good comparison since they both have some really weird stuff going on that we dont fully get until we see.

Archebius
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Archebius

Wild_Phil Archebius Even if you could add a fully-featured crowdfunding tool, that included such things as email addresses for all backers, the ability to send out and easily view updates, managed pledges and rewards for you, and simultaneously advertised your brand new site for your brand new company, then you would STILL have to pay for payment processing fees, which is included in KS’s 10% and usually runs somewhere between 3-5%, depending on the card company.
Additionally, you would have to ensure that you had sufficient security in place to house any of that information that went to your personal site.

You would also almost certainly need another employee just to manage the amount of data that came in from that. In fact, a lot of big campaigns completely outsource the crowdfunding process, not only using Kickstarter to begin with but then using BackerKit to help with fulfillment.
They are choosing these services because it’s easier (and cheaper) to outsource this kind of thing than to manage it all yourself.

Bannex19
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Bannex19

I’m shocked. I always thought of smed as an excellent manager first and a gamer second.
From this interview if I was an investor I’d run far far away.
Any half brained fan of the industry wouldn’t make the mistakes he did on kickstarter. I mean how hard is it to do 35 min of research on successful kickstarters and emulate those tiers. Sometimes middle management takes the recognition for others successes, this whole saga thus far has proved to me he’s a board member puppet with no board.
I mean cmon man try googling and a little common sense.

Wild_Phil
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Wild_Phil

Archebius Wild_Phil How much does a crowdfunding tool cost to add to a website…. couple hundred maybe?

It makes little sense for a well-known developer to use Kickstarter at this point when the initial investment is already there.

KevinSmith11
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KevinSmith11

Wild_Phil Teomcdohl KevinSmith11 you hit the nail on the head.  It has nothing to do with creating a game for people to love.  It has to do with how can I get the most money.

KevinSmith11
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KevinSmith11

Teomcdohl KevinSmith11 I am not confused at all I watched a video of Smed saying we are fully funded before he even started talking of the kickstarter or created it.  That this was a game he wanted to make.  I wish I remembered where I saw it I would post it.

I totally understand the part about not having others mixed in with your development as it causes  all kinds of problems with game development such as timelines, etc…

Wild_Phil
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Wild_Phil

Teomcdohl KevinSmith11 Using Kickstarter is great if you’re unknown quantity, but makes little sense at this point (especially when so focused on ‘profits’).

Xijit
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Xijit

Look Smed …. just don’t follow the -other- fad going around and decide to break the game into different parts just so you can try to sell the most popular game mode as a standalone title.

Archebius
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Archebius

Wild_Phil Archebius And how much of a return on their investment do you think those other funding sources want? It’s not a choice between getting $800,000 free of obligation or getting $720,000 free of obligation; they’ve repeatedly said that getting crowdfunded would help them retain their freedom. Whoever’s giving them money, it comes with costs as well.

Teomcdohl
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Teomcdohl

KevinSmith11 Teomcdohl I think you’re confused.  They needed the money, it was a question of whether they needed to tap their investment sources or not.  If a choice arises, as a developer, you avoid giving away parts of your game.  If the company can increase profit while still delivering the game they want, that gives them freedom to bring more to the game.  It means more add ons, more for the gamer.

They were NOT fully funded already: they needed the investors OR the kickstarter in order to get where they needed to be.  Kickstarter would’ve been a preferred method: it allows gamers to support the game while receiving some nice bonuses.

Archebius
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Archebius

KevinSmith11 Granted, I don’t have access to the feedback they were getting, but I think he’s putting too much of an emphasis on the physical rewards. I think there were larger issues with the changing tiers and a general lack of information – putting game updates out on Reddit instead of providing updates on Kickstarter really rubbed me the wrong way.

KevinSmith11
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KevinSmith11

Teomcdohl KevinSmith11 I read it just like I read the other 5 or so articles on this. I can still state that this is my opinion on the matter.

And if you say you don’t need money you don’t need money.  And giving the answer about the distribution rights does not have a thing to do with saying we are fully funded already, and still doing a kickstarter.

Wild_Phil
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Wild_Phil

Archebius Wild_Phil  It’s a terrible, terrible waste for a game that already has funding in the first place.  I couldn’t think of a worst way to spend $80,000+ (based on 800K goal).

Teomcdohl
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Teomcdohl

KevinSmith11 I guess you didn’t read the article?  Because it addresses your very point.

KevinSmith11
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KevinSmith11

I think one of his biggest problems was stating it gets done with or without it.  It makes you think why do you need my money if you are going to do it without it.  Saying that a failed kickstarter had no impact on your development just shows they were trying to get money just to get it.

As far as the physical stuff, don’t need that at all in kickstarter.  It doesn’t help the project at all just incurs an extra cost that now you need the kickstarter to pay for.

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