Interview: Chronicles of Elyria’s Jeromy Walsh on post-Kickstarter funding

Yesterday evening, following the news that indie sandbox Chronicles of Elyria hoped to raise an extra $3 million in addition to its Kickstarter funding, we reached out to Soulbound Studios for clarification on that announcement.

Intriguingly, studio founder and CEO Jeromy Walsh told us he was taken aback at the reaction — or more specifically, the “financial” part of the announcement that sparked the fuss.

“We didn’t view this update as any kind of financial announcement,” he told me. “We’ve always said that we put up $500k of our own money, were working with friends and family who’d offered another $500k, were raising $900k off of Kickstarter, and would further work with private investors, angels, etc. to raise the rest of the money. Ironically, we thought people would be put off by the notes on IP policy and refunds. We never imaged people would be surprised by the news the game would require more money to finish. That section of the update was simply intended to remind people that MMOs are expensive.”

Read on for the complete interview!

Massively OP: During the Kickstarter [in the Kickstarter comments, but not on the Kickstarter itself], you told backers that it would indeed require more than $900,000 to fund the game. You said you had pulled together another million from yourselves and your family, and you said you would be looking for additional investment elsewhere once you had enough for the baseline product. Is all of that still true?

Soulbound Studios’ Jeromy Walsh: That’s all still true.

Now you have come out and said that the additional amount needed is $3 million, above and beyond that original ~$2 million from Kickstarter and your own families. What exactly will the additional money pay for? Will it be paying for the baseline product or development beyond that?

What we said in our update was that we were going to need about $2 Million more than the money raised thus far, and $3 Million would be even better. And again, none of that should come as a surprise. If you look at similar games such as Camelot Unchained, Crowfall, etc. they’ve all continued to raise money after the initial Kickstarter closed. In some cases it’s gone toward specific stretch goals, and in many cases it’s gone toward hiring new employees, etc. [Editor’s note: This is accurate for both games mentioned.]

As to your specific question, the original $1.2M we raised is being used for our core development and creation of a minimally viable version of the game, which includes the stretch goals we achieved, and any we achieve between now and January 1st. That includes a majority, but not all of the features we plan in the final game. In terms of deliverables, we view that as our Alpha 1 Milestone. It’s not quite feature-complete, but close enough to give investors high confidence in our ability to close the gap between Alpha 1 and “Feature Complete” and then to release. It’s also enough for our Alpha 1 backers to jump online and play an early version of the game.

Beyond Alpha 1 there will be a bit more development work that needs to be done, but the vast majority of the money we need is for things like hiring QA staff for professional testing, hosting fees for alpha/beta servers, marketing and publishing costs, hiring support staff, as well as several months of adding a ton more content to the game.

That said, during the time we’re running QA, alpha/beta testing, and developing more content for the game, we still have to keep everyone employed. So the time we spend in polishing up the game and making it rock solid, as well as expanding the content is still an ongoing cost.

The key takeaway here is: Yes, the money we’ve already received will get us to a minimally viable, mostly feature-complete version of the game, but there’s still a lot of costs after that to get it out the door.

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How much has been raised or promised from investors to date? How much of the additional $3 million will be covered by investors rather than players?

We’re not able to talk about investor relations right now. It’s not that we don’t want to. We can’t. Of the additional $2M – $3M, it’s our intention that all of it be covered by investors, or at least, not players. When we have more information we’ll release it to the community.

You said multiple times in the past that you would not do a second Kickstarter. Is that still the intent? How exactly will the future “funding rounds” you refer to be carried out? Will there be another player-oriented crowdfund of some sort?

We have no plan to do another Kickstarter. Our time on Kickstarter is done, and we really appreciate the support we were shown from the community. As for the remaining funds, like I said, they will be a combination of equity investments, publishing deals in small and foreign markets, backing from upgrades and people who weren’t able to fund during Kickstarter, and other things we’re currently working on.

What would you say to skeptical players to get them to donate more money in the future or the meantime?

First, I’d say don’t pledge if you don’t want to. Our intention with this update was to let people know why a store was still beneficial to us, as well as give people the opportunity, who were unable to back previously, to get the things they want out of Exposition and our game. Not to ask for more money.

That being said, I’d also say this: We came into the development of CoE with a plan. It involved multiple rounds of funding, including putting up all of our own money – and I do mean all of it, getting support from our friends and family, going to Kickstarter to raise enough money to reach a minimally viable version of the game, and then approaching investors as a last step to raise enough money to get from Alpha 1 to a shipping title. Everything is going according to plan. So while this might have come as a surprise to some people, the vast majority of people knew about our plan, knew that CoE was going to take more money than just $900k and we’re simply executing on our plan.

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If we’ve done the math right, you raised $900,000 in Kickstarter, plus a million in self-funding, and now you’re seeking another $3 million, for a rough total of $5 million?

Not quite. As I mentioned before, we’ve said we’d need about $2M more to get the game out the door, but $3M would be better. Why? We felt it was better to over-state than under-estimate. Again, we’re always trying to set expectations and really didn’t see this coming as a surprise to anyone. However, and this is really important, we’re not seeking any more money right now. A large percentage of the community didn’t get to back us during Kickstarter, and a similarly large group wanted us to open the store so they could upgrade their pledges.

We’re opening the store because it’s what the community wanted. As we said before, we have a plan to obtain the remaining funds we need. This update most definitely was not “Hey, thanks for the support, now we need $2M more money.” It was solely, “Hey all, as you know, MMOs are expensive and we’re still working to raise another $2M – $3M, but anything you want to contribute further will help.”

Is that the total budget for the game?

Yes. That’s what we anticipate is necessary to finish the game completely – including building all the additional content, hiring additional staff, and getting it out the door.

Are you at all concerned that very few other MMORPGs have been able to raise significantly more than that through concerted crowdfunding?

I think pretty much all the Kickstarted MMORPGs have been able to raise more than their initial Kickstarter. At least, those which came in from the beginning with a plan. Crowfall, for example, has raised $7.3M [source]. Of that $1.7M came from Kickstarter [source], another $1.2M was from backers on the site post-Kickstarter [source], and $4.4M was from investments and sales deals. Similarly Camelot Unchained raised $2.2M from Kickstarter [source] and have since raised another $2M from backers on their site [source], plus have discussed other investments up to $3.1M [source]. [Editor’s note: These numbers check out.]

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Is there any chance the game might seek out a publisher? Is that even remotely on the table?

It’s on the table, and we’ve been approached by publishers already – all after the Kickstarter. We had no intention of going to a publisher to fund the early stages of development. The risk involved in an unproven team on a ground-breaking title like CoE was simply too high for most publishers. Not only that, I’d expect most publishers to negotiate hard, charge a heavy premium, and ultimately want to exert more control over the design of the game than we were willing to allow.

However, as the game progresses, a publisher’s involvement becomes less about funding the development of the game and more about funding the marketing and publishing of the game. When that happens, there’s a lot less risk for them, less control required on their part, and just as importantly, many more benefits for us – and for you. For example, publishing to a foreign market requires a good understanding of that market, a legal basis to do business in that market, and in some cases, even localization.

However, licensing CoE to a foreign publisher would allow us to close the gap between where we are now financially and where we need to be, and in exchange would provide a lot more exposure in that market. That frees us up from having to localize the game ourselves, and also ensures much better support for people in that market.

That all being said, it would require a really solid deal, with a really solid publisher for us to pursue it; and we’d want to maintain complete creative freedom.

Is there reason to believe the game will not ship as promised if additional funding is not acquired?

We’re not going to let that happen, but of course that is a possibility. Even if the game were feature-complete with all coding work done, it’ll still require additional resources to get the world fully built, tested, marketed, and the servers brought online. But a better question is, is there reason to believe additional funding won’t be acquired? The answer is no.

We believe in the game we’re making. We also believe there’s many different, effective ways to raise the remaining capital we need. We wouldn’t have pledged to deliver the game to people on Kickstarter if we weren’t confident we’d be able to raise the rest.

We’d like to thank Jeromy Walsh for his answers and MOP commenter Greaterdivinity for inspiring several of the questions. We have additional questions about refunds, the amount required to fund a minimum viable product, and Kickstarter’s funding rules out to Walsh this morning (thanks, Dro!), and we’ll update with those when the west coast is awake and able to answer us. :)

Update: We now have those additional questions answered below.

Massively OP: The sticking points seem to be the Kickstarter FAQ line that states, “The funding goal is the amount of money that a creator needs to complete their project” and the fact that COE’s Kickstarter verbiage itself doesn’t appear to mention that the $900K sought wasn’t the full amount (it’s buried in the 8000+ comments). […] What do you say to those who argue the original funding goal as stated in the Kickstarter was misleading?

Jeromy Walsh: In response to the argument that our original funding goal was misleading, we really believed people were aware we were going to be looking for money aside from Kickstarter, and that the money we raised was all we needed from Kickstarter. As we talked about yesterday, we have it on our company website, we had it in comments on Kickstarter, we’d said we’d ultimately need more than $900k in our Q&A’s with various YouTubers, and we’d even said it in response to questions on our forums.

Putting it in RPG terms, as I like to make analogies. It’s like when you go to a Blacksmith and ask them to make a sword for you and they say “Sure, but you’ll need to provide the mats. I need X, Y, and Z from you.” When you walk away, you never assume that’s all the mats that are needed, you just know that’s all that is needed from you. You assume any other mats needed they’re either getting elsewhere or providing themselves.

Unfortunately, and what this whole thing is about, is we assumed the fact that we were going to be seeking additional funds was common knowledge and somehow it didn’t make it onto our Kickstarter page. It wasn’t intentional. But it happened. While we regret that, it ultimately doesn’t change anything. The commitment we made to our backers is, “you provide us the Kickstarter funds we need, and we commit to delivering you the game.” That hasn’t changed, as we stand by the same commitment today. Regardless of whether other people realized we needed additional funds or not, what’s important is that we did, and we made that commitment to them with that in mind. We stand firm in our commitment.

What about the new refund policy? Will you change your mind and offer refunds to those folks?

First, I want to say it was a complete coincidence that we announced our refund policy going forward in the same update where we evidently made people aware we’re still looking for money from investors, etc. Beginning early September we started telling people who contacted us that we were no longer offering refunds. We felt 90 days from the close of Kickstarter was a sufficient cooldown period and any requests that came in after that our answer was no.

We made it explicit in this update because we’d previously said we would let people know what our refund policy going forward would be, before opening the store. And, making the decision we ultimately did came down to a debate between the stigma and perception behind not allowing refunds, and the risk involved in not having a stable bottom line. In the end, we decided it was better to risk putting people off by having a “No refund” policy, than having people pledge, us make decisions based on our current funds, and then having that money taken away.

With respect to offering refunds again, the answer is no. You see, this whole thing is ultimately an issue of perceived risk vs. real risk. For those people who weren’t aware, or didn’t realize that we were raising additional money aside from Kickstarter, there’s now a perceived risk to losing their pledge money that wasn’t there before. But as I said, we knew that we were raising other money, so the real risk to their pledge isn’t any higher today than it was back in May.

That being said, if people react to this perceived increase in risk, and start requesting refunds, our principle goes down, we’ve got less money to develop with, and that creates *real* risk for everyone – us, the people who knew about our need to raise additional funding, and those who didn’t, but who understand and are ok with it.

In the end, offering refunds to those who have a higher perceived risk today, only creates more real risk for everyone going forward.

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