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Game dev story: The final, agonizing moments of a Kickstarter campaign


When a Kickstarter campaign enters its final seconds, the page begins counting down in real-time. The widget that normally displays the number of days remaining for a project switches to read out seconds, starting with 100, 99, 98, 97 ....

"Two minutes to go," says Steve Swink, the creator of Scale, over a Skype video call. "I just want balloons to come down – oh. It transferred to a second count. It's counting down 100 seconds. That's weird."

Swink started the Kickstarter campaign for Scale on October 17 from his house in Tempe, Arizona. He watched the project's final seconds tick down on November 16 from an exchange house outside of Stockholm, Sweden, where he and his fiancee, Gravity Ghost developer Erin Robinson, were staying to teach a three-week college course on game development. Though he'd just spent more than 20 hours traveling across the world, Swink stayed awake to watch his Kickstarter page, pointless as that was.

"I've been up for like 30 hours, I think," Swink said, with 15 minutes to go on the Scale Kickstarter. "It's pretty gnarly. Actually, I feel happy. I just have the Jurassic Park theme running in the back of my head the whole time .... There's not really anything I can do at this point. It's like Pinewood derby: I feel like I got my car all ready and everything, I sanded it down, and I just pushed it down the hill a while ago. I've kind of just been blowing at it and I don't think it's doing anything."

Scale is a puzzle exploration game starring a genius ex-con with a gun that can shrink and grow everything, with the talents of Ashly Burch of Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin'?, Sarah Elmaleh of Gone Home, and music from FTL's Ben Prunty and Super Meat Boy's Danny Baranowsky. It ended up raising $108,020 of a requested $87,000, so whatever Swink did (or didn't) do worked.

As the Scale Kickstarter hit 3, 2, 1, Swink refreshed his page to see the total:

"OK, so the final number is $108,005, it looks like – wait. Twenty! That's great, somebody snuck in a $15 pledge with three seconds to go." He laughed. "It. Is. Complete. I'm going to tweet this."

Swink took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes before he started typing. He was exhausted by the trip to Sweden, but he was also mentally drained. Twenty minutes before the campaign ended, he said that administering a Kickstarter was seriously brutal business.

"It's going to be such a relief to not have to think about Kickstarter ever again," Swink said. I asked if he would classify crowdfunding pressure as insane and he let out a long breath. "Yeah, man. I was not prepared for the stress of doing a Kickstarter. Even with the warnings that people had given me – 'Oh my god, Kickstarter is like a full-time job' and stuff – I was not prepared for the emotional roller coaster."

With 10 minutes left in the campaign, Swink dreamed of the moment it would all be over and he could just focus on teaching for three weeks.

"It's so bad," he said. "It's broken all of my really good work habits that I've built up. All my habits for spending one-hour blocks, blasting out huge chunks of work – it's all broken because I'm just knee-deep in social media all the time. I'm going to have to wean myself back off checking Kickstarter and Twitter and messages. It's weird when that stuff starts to feel like your actual job."

Swink and his partners at CubeHeart Games created a YouTube page just for the Kickstarter and he said they made 15 videos throughout the campaign – a video every other day. They worked on Scale "a fair amount" during the Kickstarter, made easier because there was crossover between building the game and crafting videos to show it off.

Kickstarter was good for Scale, Swink said, if only for the marketing opportunities. Valve got in touch with him once the campaign gained traction, and now Scale is going to launch on Steam without Greenlight. Valve also expressed interest in one of his recent, experimental games for LA Game Space, a typing puzzler called Inputting, and now that one shouldn't have to go through Greenlight either, if he decides to throw it on Steam.

Still, Swink had to think for a long moment if he'd recommend Kickstarter to his developer friends.

"It's the feeling that no matter what you're doing at any given moment, you should be doing more to draw more interest to the game," he said. "There's just no moment during the entire 30 days when I felt at ease .... It's been very stressful, but now that it's wrapping up it feels good. The opportunities that have arisen from doing a Kickstarter would have been worth it entirely."

Another nugget of goodness that spawned from the Scale Kickstarter is Swink's increased confidence in negotiating with potential publishers. He said he was open to working with publishers (he called out Midnight City and Devolver Digital as benign overlords), but only if they offered a deal that met his requirements. Success on Kickstarter gave Swink mobility: accept a good deal with publishers, or simply reject all the bad ones thrown his way. He didn't need the money anymore.

Swink laid out an acceptable deal to an invisible publisher: "It's 70/30 and you pay me up front, and there are no milestones, and the contract is the same as the Steam contract. Take it or leave it because I don't want to fuck around. It's not worth my time to dick around."

CubeHeart collected the money it needed to develop and launch Scale, and then some. As the final donations trickled in, Swink talked about the logistics of actually receiving that big check:

"People look at the number and they're like, 'Oh my god, you made so much money, you're moneybags.' You have to remember it's that number minus 10 percent because they just transfer that amount into your Amazon Payments account. So Kickstarter takes their 5 percent, and to get the money out of Amazon Payments, Amazon takes – hey, sweet, we just went over $108,000 – Amazon takes 5 percent, and then you have to pay taxes on that amount."

CubeHeart is an S corporation, so Swink figured 30 percent of the total would go to taxes. Fulfilling those Kickstarter reward tiers is another 8 percent out of the total, but only because he was smart about that section – mostly digital things, with help from an established company to dole out physical rewards.

Now, CubeHeart will have to clean up the technical issues that snuck into Scale during Kickstarter development and in the lead-up to PAX Prime, where the game was part of the Indie Megabooth. Swink described Scale as covered in bandages, straining against the adhesive holding it together. There would be technical hell to pay, but the Kickstarter side of Swink's story was done.

"Don't stare too long into the abyss; the abyss will stare back at you," he paraphrased after finishing that final Kickstarter tweet. He laughed. "I've never felt like that actually had an application in real conversation, but definitely, Kickstarter feels like it's staring back at you. That's terrifying."

Update: Power Glove memes aren't what they used to be; headline altered.

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