Digital Yorkshire - Kickstarter and the story behind the making of Broken Sword 5

Scenes from the Serpents Curse a video game developed by York-based company Revolution Software and

Scenes from the Serpents Curse a video game developed by York-based company Revolution Software and financed through crowdfunding - Credit: Archant

Crowdfunding is one of those buzzwords many of us don’t really understand but it means a great deal to at least one Yorkshire company, as Tony Greenway discovers

So there you are, an entrepreneur fizzing with creativity and nurturing a great idea that you want to turn into a money-spinning reality. It could be the creation of a new company; it could be an invention, a scientific experiment, a film, a book... In fact, it could be anything at all. In order to get your idea off the ground, though, you have to find the money to finance it and banks are not necessarily your first choice these days. But the rise of social media now offers another way - crowdfunding. Essentially this involves showcasing your idea on a website and then asking people for cash in order to make it happen. It’s a bit like Dragon’s Den, but with millions of potential dragons — not just four sour-faced ones — who could back your idea with cold, hard cash.

Think this sounds unlikely, especially in the teeth of a recession? Think again. If you have the right idea, one that captures enough imagination, crowdfunding works. For instance, filmmaker Spike Lee is reported to have raised $1.29million through the crowdfunding website to make his new movie; while LA-based band The Reigning Monarchs drummed up $30,000 to fund their new album, tour and documentary. But this isn’t just an American phenomenon. Crowdfunding is also happening closer to home.

Take Revolution Software, a video game developer/publisher based in York since 1995, that has used crowdfunding to finance the fifth and most recent game in its best-selling Broken Sword series — the Serpent’s Curse.

‘Crowdfunding was a new experience for us,’ says Noirin Carmody, who co-founded Revolution in 1990 with Charles Cecil, Tony Warriner and David Sykes, with a remit to write the next generation of adventure games. ‘It wasn’t easy. An awful lot of work went into our crowdfunding pitch and it did prolong the development process of the game. But it also brought us closer to our audience.’

The first four Broken Sword games sold more than 10 million units. Unfortunately, designing and creating computer games — particularly the ones that Revolution produce — is an expensive business. For example, Broken Sword — the Serpent’s Curse will cost between £1.5million and £2million to make. ‘In the early days we had a large in-house team, so with inevitable gaps between projects we were forced to use profits from the previous game to keep the studio afloat,’ explains Noirin.

‘This meant we were over dependent on publishing houses to fund the entire production of new games; so they had the power balance and that led to creative compromises on our side.’

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In 2012, Revolution watched with interest when Tim Schafer, an American games producer from a company called Double Fine, published a video on asking the public for $400,000. ‘That was the eye-opener for us,’ says Noirin. ‘Tim was appealing to the people who had played his previous games to help fund his new project. He couldn’t tell them much about it only that it was going to be fun. What a leap of faith! But we thought: “What a clever way to raise funds!”’

At that time, Revolution was already working on and self-funding Broken Sword — the Serpent’s Curse but Schafer’s video sewed the seed of an idea. Revolution would make its own Kickstarter pitch to their fans.

‘We came up with a video, showing some of the elements of the Serpent’s Curse that we had already created,’ says Noirin. ‘This included Charles, our CEO and creative director, appearing with the in-game characters in a Roger Rabbit-style scene at the critical moment, telling them: “Cut! That’s it, I’m afraid... unless we get the funding.” And people loved it. We saw this as a great opportunity to show our fans what we were working on, but we needed their help to complete it.’

The response was amazing. Noirin admits that the Revolution team didn’t know if their crowdfunding idea would work, or even how many REALLY dedicated Revolution gamers were out there. But they soon found out. ‘There was a feeling of what if no-one supports us? But when our Kickstarter video went live we watched, in real time, as people pledged money.’

In fact, Revolution had requested $400,000 from the public and, within 14 days they got it — and more. ‘On the Kickstarter website the total went up to $771, 000,’ says Noirin. ‘We also opened our own PayPal account to accommodate non-credit card owners and accepted pledges through that, which brought in approximately $70,000.’ Ninety per cent of funders were male, possibly not surprisingly.

For businesses, then, this could be an exciting avenue to explore although Mark Goldstone, head of business representation and policy at Leeds, York and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce, makes clear that it is early days and won’t necessarily be the answer to all your funding prayers. ‘Regulated crowdfunding is still in its infancy,’ he says, ‘and only makes a very minor contribution to overall funding levels going into firms. Bank debt still makes up the overwhelming majority of business funding.

‘However we recognise for some companies, particularly start-ups, very small businesses with growth aspirations and companies in emerging markets, access to finance is still a major barrier. Bank of England statistics point to the fact that most mainstream lenders are less interested in these often riskier propositions and crowdfunding may well present an appropriate solution.’

Mind you, isn’t crowdfunding also a double-edged sword? Take Revolution. Don’t they now feel duty-bound to the people who put up the money? ‘We do,’ says Noirin. ‘But then we always felt that way. We always think of the audience and hope that they will enjoy the game. For us, it’s always about playability and entertainment value. What crowdfunding has done is give us a direct link to over 15,000 people who are passionate about what we’re doing. They are also our ambassadors and they have proved that social media will, effectively, radiate out to the masses.’

All backers get some behind-the-scenes glimpses of images, information and characters as the game is created; and they can give feedback direct to the designers. If valid, these comments are taken on board although Revolution retains control over the creative content.

The Revolution team is now in the final stages of creating Broken Sword — the Serpent’s Curse. Looking back, Noirin believes crowdfunding is an ingenious way to secure funds for new and original creative projects. ‘The benefit of crowdfunding from the public side is that they’re sharing the experience, while not having to invest a huge amount of their own money to achieve this.’

But there are potential problems, she admits. What if you, the entrepreneur, get enough donations and reach your requested total... but then still run out of money? Is it legitimate to go back and ask for even more?

‘If you do that you begin to lack credibility,’ agrees Noirin. ‘We were anticipating a backlash from the public because some companies who have used crowdfunding haven’t delivered on promised projects. But we were always going to deliver. And anyhow, I believe crowdfunding should only be part of the project funding mix with other forms of investment. It’s certainly a model that’s worked for us. As far as we’re concerned it’s the way forward.’

If you’re a business thinking of doing the same, Mark Goldstone from the Leeds, York and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce has some wise advice. ‘As with all financing decisions,’ he says, ‘we would encourage companies to seek impartial, professional advice during the process and go into discussions with their eyes wide open, fully aware of finance costs and risk.’