Reverse Engineering Kickstarter With Crabstarter

For their innovative iPad game Crabitron, Two Lives Left decided to bypass the standard Kickstarter approach.

Though crowdfunding remains an iceberg whose impact continues to surprise and confound, transcending any and all expectations, it hasn’t stopped many from dipping their toes in its waters. Most have participated in this new form of patronage and emerged relatively unscathed. But Australian indie mobile developer Two Lives Left (TLL) has not been won over by crowdfunding’s guiles. To TLL, its drawbacks trump its benefits, limiting spontaneous creativity in favor of fulfilling specific obligations to donors.   

For their innovative iPad game Crabitron, the Two Lives Left gents decided to bypass the standard Kickstarter approach. Instead, they reverse-engineered a Kickstarter campaign through a spoof they’ve affectionately called a Crabstarter. As with any crowdfunding initiative, users can “back” Crabitron to help its makers reach a funding goal. But in this case, the product has already been completed, and the funding recoups development costs rather than provides seed money. Understanding that this is essentially the same as “just buying the game,” TLL has shared its sales data for Crabitron online in hopes of sparking a wave of transparency and dialogue in the mobile app economy. As of this moment, the game has only collected $11,349 of its $100,000 goal.

Intrigued by Two Lives Left’s creative marketing approach, and what it can spell for future alternative forms of crowdfunding models, we reached out to John Millard, co-founder of Two Lives Left. In the process, we discovered that the mobile app economy isn’t as lucrative as smartphone users may believe. And a clever marketing approach, like Crabstarter, might be the only lifesaver indie developers have to keep their head above water.

The Creators Project: Simeon Saëns, co-founder of Two Lives Left, has described “crowdfunding as a double-edged sword.” What are some of crowdfunding’s pitfalls?

John Millard: Crowdfunding is good. There’s nothing inherently bad about it. Simeon didn’t like the idea of being locked into the promise that you’ve made. So let’s say, here’s a $50,000 Kickstarter for me to make this game and people buy it, and you get $200,000--it’s your job now to fulfill that promise. Your reputation is on the line. So what happens if you have a new idea, or want to move in a different direction? You can’t do that now that you have all these people relying on you to do what you said. It’s like locking up your life for the amount of months or years it will take to be finished. So those are some of the drawbacks. It limits you creatively.

Did the market performance of Codea and your other applications inspire or influence the Crabstarter “reverse Kickstarter” approach?

The reason we did the Crabstarter has more to do with the fact that we didn’t know how to market the game. Because it’s iPad only and because it’s really different―being the only game like it―we didn’t know how people would react. So we decided that instead of just doing this off-handed emailing out to press sites, we’d try to be really open about the process of releasing the game and how much it costs to make and how much we needed to recoup. We hoped that would get people more invested in our game development story.

Has that been the case? And how has it differed from how people supported your other games and apps?

We got a really positive response. A lot of people didn’t really get the whole reverse Kickstarter concept, but they did get the idea of being open and honest about the sales. And some people understood that it was a parody, while others took it seriously. Overall, it’s helped quite a lot. One of the things missing in the iOS community is that people don’t necessarily feel that they’re connected to developers. You don’t know who they are. You don’t get to talk to them.

And it’s had a much bigger impact than everything we’ve ever tried. Even if it doesn’t create a hit game that takes off, it did what it set out to do: get people talking and interested in it. There’s been a lot of people that are really interested in the outcome of the Crabstarter. A lot of people are saying, “We really hope it does well. We really hope you reach your goal. We just want you to make great games.” So it’s really good to have that kind of feedback.

The concept for marketing Crabitron as a “reverse Kickstarter” emerged after the game was already completed. Would you have altered your gameplan if that marketing concept was in place before development was started?

If [we had] started beforehand, we would have had a longer time leading up to the release of the game. It would give people time to learn about it, or for us to reach a bigger audience before launch. We would have perhaps tailored the game to fit in with real-time analytics, instead of having to wait 24 hours for each load of sales to update. There are additional ideas that we’ve been looking at now. Simeon has an idea where in our future games we’d use a pay-what-you-want model. It’s not totally different from a regular free-to-play model, but the idea is to make it feel different for people.

Critics of the Crabstarter campaign note that it’s essentially how all games are sold, but the concept of reverse-engineering a Kickstarter, or any sort of crowdfunding, opens some very interesting doors. Have you given any thought on how you could build upon this funding model?

It’s become clear that we may not reach the basic development costs. We may not even recoup that. In the end of the day, if we don’t reach that, we still want to support and update the game. We’ll probably pick the stretch goals we like the most and we’ll update the game with those anyway even if we don’t reach the goals. Because we care about the game. Even if the Crabstarter page doesn’t work out, it’s been a learning process.

Chart illustrating Crabitron’s revenue intake, as found on Crabstarter.

Crabitron has only reached about one-tenth of its $100,000 goal despite the fact that it’s been a well-received and reviewed game, and has received some noteworthy press. What does this say about the state of the mobile game economy?

The economy for apps is a bit strange at the moment. We started making games in 2009, and it was a lot different then. Though, we still didn’t really make much from our games. What’s happened is that if you don’t get up to the top of the ranks, and make your money really quickly, there’s a good chance you won’t make much at all. The game will fall off the charts. Unless you find a way of revitalizing it, or Apple is kind enough to feature you, it’s going to fail. It seems that freemium games have an easier way of monetizing themselves. It seems to be that the more you use psychology on users to get money out of them, the better you do. We don’t want to do that, but that seems to be the easiest way.  

It also can come from the franchises and concepts that people can easily latch onto. If you’ve noticed, the Apple store has an entire section dedicated to Minecraft games. Which is fine; I don’t really see a problem with that. But it does make me a little bit sad that you can just pick and choose a game style or type and guarantee that it will be more successful than something that is totally original.

It’s been reported that 50% of iOS appsmake less than three-thousand dollars. Other than pursuing a freemium model, or going the crowdfunding route, what can be done to help level the playing field in the mobile app market?

Not being universal [available on all Apple platforms] is a huge barrier to entry. We didn’t realize that until we launched. If you’re not a universal app, you’re cutting out 90% of your market. There’s a lot more people on iPhone. We also know now that when we were featured by Apple, we should have dropped the price straight away. To two dollars, or even a dollar. Just because the app economy is very elastic. So if you drop the price, you make it up in volume. And then you have more people who bought it, which means more word of mouth.

I don’t really think there’s a magic bullet to help level the playing field unless something external happens. Unless Apple changes the way it markets the games or apps.

Two Lives Left will be at One More Thing, an iOS developer conference. They also expect to unveil the iPhone/iPod version of Crabitron at PAX Australia, the first International Penny Arcade Expo, in hopes of broadening their market.