Equity Crowdfunding Comes To Games With 'Outer Wilds'

By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)

One new game is exploring two final frontiers: space, and equity crowdfunding.

It can be hard to get excited about crowdfunding campaigns--especially video game crowdfunding campaigns--these days. At least for the right reasons. When it's not business as usual the stories are usually about sketchy circumstances or failures. The bloom, as it were, is off the rose.

Which is why the news early this month about Fig--the new, video game focused crowdfunding platform--was so welcome. The new platform is does three things differently than Kickstarter, the crowdfunding standard. First: it is video games only. Second this is a platform that allows equity crowdfunding right alongside rewards crowdfunding. Finally, Fig will host just one campaign at a time.

The first game to benefit from that focus is Mobius Digital's Outer Wilds, which made a splash by winning the Seamus McNally Grand Prize and Excellence in Design award earlier this year at the Independant Game Festival awards.

I spoke with Alex Beachum, creative director at Mobius Digital and Outer Wilds' principle creator and Avimaan Syam, producer at Mobius Digital about the project and pioneering campaign.

No campaign is worth talking about if the project itself is uninteresting in and of itself. The Seamus McNally award is about as good of a seal of quality as you can get in the indie game world, but what you really want to know is what this game is about.

"Outer Wilds is a space exploration game. Its sort of camping and backpacking meets NASA," said Beachum. "You explore this miniature solar system over the course of twenty minutes. Its kind of like Groundhog Day. You're trapped in a time loop. You play the game over multiple play throughs. It's this crazy solar system and you just want to unwrap the mystery of what's going on."

Space exploration is suddenly a crowded field these days. What sets Outer Wilds apart is it's scale: instead of an endless galaxy the team at Mobius Digital is crafting a more intimate experience.

"We have nothing but respect of games like No Man's Sky with a procedurally generated galaxy where you can fly forever," said producer Syam, "but part of the beauty of Outer Wilds is that it's this contained solar system where all of the different planets and astral bodies have been very meticulously designed. So it still retains the feel of space exploration, and the kind of infinite look and feeling when you look into the stars, yet it's also a very contained experience."

The time loop aspect of Outer Wilds also sets it apart.

"We wanted to make something where things change over time," said Beachum. "Like a planet that gets broken apart by a metros impact. So if you visit it towards the end of the twenty minutes its going to be in shambles. But you can see things that you wouldn't be able to find if you visited it while it was completely intact."

Beachum started Outer Lands as his senior thesis at USC's storied Games program. That program is to video games what USC's film school was to the movies in the 1960's and 70's. The school attracts top talent, and puts an emphasis on the whole creative process--not just cranking out artisans for "AAA" game production.

As such it's the perfect breeding ground for the "iii"--or "big indie"--games that the Fig platform is looking to champion.

The question always remains: why crowdfund at all?

"I think it's really important for us as creators to retain creative control," said Syam, "and crowdfunding is a more viable platform and solution to do that."

Running with a new, untested platform has risks, however. But the Syam sees Fig's focus as an major blessing.

"Anybody can get on to Kickstarter, but they don't really do a lot for you once you get on there. Fig has been super awesome to us. Giving us advice, connecting us to people to make our videos. Different PR people, they just really believe in our project and are committed to making us succeed. I think that's a big difference from what you see with Kickstarter. Most of what they do is just have the platform and they ask you to do all that stuff on your own."

What struck me most about my conversation with Beachum and Syam was how relaxed they were for guys who were in the initial days of a campaign. Most of the time when I talk to creators who haven't hit goal--or who are scrambling to figure out how to handle sudden success--a note of panic is always present. Beachum and Syam just seem like two guys who are happy to be working their dream jobs.

Maybe there's something to the idea of a platform doing the heavy lifting. Maybe the future of this space looks a lot more like a lot of different, focused platforms rather than a few big crowdfunding clearing houses.

Or Fig could just turn out to be a rare bird. The platform does have a unique set of advisors on hand.

"We've been able to talk to Tim Schaffer and Brian Fargo and they've been able to give us not just advice in crowdfunding, but advice in starting a studio and making these kind of projects," said Syam.

The campaign has under $47,000 to go as of this writing, a total that reflects both equity and rewards-based crowdfunding pledges. According to the team there's another half-million that's been offered on equity terms, but they're not sure how much--if any--they will take. That's the advantage that rewards based backing gives them: the ability to walk away from bad deals an stick to their creative vision.

I've long been skeptical of the impact equity crowdfunding will have on creative campaigns, but this model suggests that it might be possible to have the best of both worlds.

Public media's TurnstyleNews.com, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.