Pixeljam snubs Kickstarter, rolls out own crowdfunding platform

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Dino Run is part of Pixeljam's crowdfunding experiment.
Game developer Pixeljam is changing crowdfunding for the better.
Photo: Pixeljam

Pixeljam is no stranger to making iPhone and Mac games, but now the studio is taking on another challenge: transforming the way crowdfunding works to make it better for game developers and other creative types.

Company co-founder Miles Tillman describes the crowdfunding project as an “experiment” that’s an alternative to popular services like Indiegogo and Kickstarter. Pixeljam’s new platform lets backers donate money just like the others, but prioritizes transparent communication, instant gratification and actually making the game ahead of crowdfunding staples like producing slick videos and stressing out over fundraising goals and deadlines.

“We thought this all-or-nothing, fixed-time model doesn’t exactly fit every particular scenario,” Tillman told Cult of Mac. “It’s great for, ‘I have this awesome idea and I need this exact amount of money to make it happen, please help me.'”

Crowdfunding has revolutionized the way things get built, especially in technological fields, and the Kickstarter model can work out great for an entrepreneur working on an Apple Watch stand. However, current crowdfunding models aren’t such a great fit for game developers — or anybody working on a creative, iterative project.

Pixeljam's crowdfunding roadmap for Dino Run
Pixeljam built its own crowdfunding platform from scratch.
Photo: Pixeljam

Pixeljam has dabbled with Kickstarter in the past with mixed results; one of its titles, Glorkian Warrior: The Trials of Glork (which we enjoyed) raised more than $11,000 on an initial goal of $10,000, but it took five years for the developer to actually put out the game. Tillman tells the entire story in a post on his blog; ultimately, he had failed to manage both his own and his backers’ expectations.

“We’ve been doing this for so long, we’ve been on the roller coaster of indie development, and expectation is one of your worst enemies,” Tillman says. “Expectations of yourself and other peoples’ expectations of you. And when you get a lot of money, the expectations just naturally go up, and then that just creates stress, and that creates problems.”

The company was less successful with its attempt to crowdfund a sequel to its earlier game Dino Run, a Ski Safari-esque runner that has players sprinting to keep ahead of an asteroid-spawned wall of doom that is ending the age of the thunder lizards.

Dino Run 2‘s campaign failed to reach its minimum goal — and Tillman says that was probably the best thing to happen to his company.

“Sobered from our unsuccessful gamble, we stopped dreaming big and got practical,” Tillman writes in his blog post explaining the new platform. “We forged a new direction and focused on simply completing the work we had already taken on. First on our list was to release Glorkian Warrior and make good on what we promised so long ago. Next up was getting all of our existing games on new platforms. Surprisingly, it all paid off better than chasing dreams ever did.”

Dino Run is part of Pixeljam's crowdfunding experiment.
Some Dino Run crowdfunding milestones will get your dinosaur new hats to wear.
Photo: Pixeljam

The new crowdfunding experiment is not another attempt to fund Dino Run 2; instead, Pixeljam is raising money to add features to the original game, which came out in 2008. The crowdfunding page launched August 20, and one of the major ways this campaign differs from a Kickstarter or Indiegogo drive is that if you contribute at least $5 to the project, you receive a copy of the game. Immediately.

“They get the current version of the game, and then it will just be updated as we reach milestones,” Tillman said. “And then if they do any of the higher reward tiers, they will get any of the digital rewards instantly. It’s almost like a public television telethon in that respect because you give money, you don’t get it back, unless you really complain I guess, but we get the money and we give you all of the things in these rewards tiers instantly. And a lot of those things are things we already have to give.”

On Kickstarter, backers aren’t charged until the campaign closes, and even then only if the owners reach their goal. Indiegogo has an open-funding option that lets fundraisers collect any amount people pledge independently of milestones. But in both cases, you aren’t going to get the finished product — if it even ends up existing — until months or even years after you’ve put down your money.

Pixeljam is shaking up that relationship by giving everyone the game as it is and then adding on to it as different tiers are funded.

Dino Run has already passed its first milestone of $5,000. This will let Pixeljam expand its multiplayer offerings, including increasing the level cap and adding integration with popular digital-distribution platform Steam.

Additional tiers will add social features (if the campaign hits $10,000), cosmetic and dinosaur ability updates ($17,500), new areas ($35,000), an Ankylosaurus non-playable character ($40,000), and a custom-level generator ($50,000). The funding page shows the campaign’s progress toward meeting these benchmarks; once Pixeljam secures the funding and starts working on the new features, you can use nested menus on the page to track actual progress.

Dino Run is part of Pixeljam's crowdfunding experiment
When you aren’t busy outrunning the wall of fiery doom, you can rescue dinosaur eggs in Dino Run.
Photo: Pixeljam

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could actually see what the developer’s doing?'” Tillman said. “Like if things go off the rails, people will actually be able to see that. So if we’re saying, ‘Oh, we thought this would take 16 hours, and it really took 40,’ we would leave a little comment that would explain why that happened. We’ve been doing it long enough that we think our estimates are fairly realistic, but y’know there’s no way you can ever really know. Some are going to be more, some are going to be less. Hopefully, the average will be close to what we came to.”

He said they padded the estimates to help avoid disappointing the more-involved backers, who might check the game’s progress frequently.

“In any campaign, there are people who are just like, ‘Here, take my money and let me know when it’s done,’ he said. “And then there are people that are more like, ‘Hey, what kind of progress have you made? I gave you a hundred dollars, and I really want to know.'”

As Pixeljam completes the additional content fans are funding, it will push out updates to the copies people have already downloaded.

Tillman says this isn’t just a one-off experiment for a single game. If it works out, Pixeljam plans to make its platform and tools available to any indie developer that wants to use them. It hasn’t decided yet if the system is going to be open source or whether it will collect administration fees like larger crowdfunders; at the moment, it’s more focused on making sure that the idea itself is sound. And, of course, expanding Dino Run.