When $900,000 isn’t much money: the story of Planetary Annihilation’s Kickstarter
Uber Entertainment’s Jon Mavor wrote the graphics engine for Total Annihilation and was the lead programmer on Supreme Commander. His current project is Planetary Annihilation, a game that is trying to bring back the epic scale and feel of Total Annihilation.
Mavor knows how to work within a budget, and recalls the early years of his time in game development. At one point he and his friends rented office space that cost $2,000 a month. “I thought this is ridiculous. We’re paying like two grand a month for this tiny office, what can we rent for that?” he asked. The group found a townhouse with three bedrooms, a basement, and a garage for $1,000 a month. Plus, they could live there together, further cutting down on their costs. It was more space, and the living expenses were shared between three or four people.
Meals were nothing fancy: Kraft [Mac & Cheese], hamburger meat, salsa, and bags of cheap french fries. “It wasn’t great. It wasn’t fun. That’s the lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with that,” Mavor explained.
Knowing how to live and work with a budget is an important skill in modern game development. Uber Entertainment raised the budget for Planetary Annihilation via an ongoing Kickstarter campaign, and the total now sits at $974,000, with around two weeks to go. It may not seem like it, but that’s a very small amount of money for the budget of an ambitious real time strategy game.
Designing a game that’s fun, but inexpensive to develop
“We did a lot of homework on Kickstarter, but we didn’t realize just meeting our goal would make us one of the most funded game Kickstarters ever,” Mavor told me. We sat across from each other at a Cheesecake Factory a day or so before PAX Prime began and, after hearing the stories of the dinners Mavor referred to as “sludge” from the early days of his career, even the food at the ‘Factory looked good.
“I looked at a lot of the guys that did other stuff, like the Shadowrun guys, and they asked for $400k and ended up at $1.8 million. I looked at all the successful guys, because that’s what I wanted to emulate, but I never looked at the whole picture and realized there haven’t been too many games that have raised $900,000. Even Castle Story, they only asked for $250,000, and they hit six or seven hundred now, I think?” I looked it up, Castle Story actually began with a goal of $80,000.
Asking for $900,000 upfront was a risky move; many Kickstarters begin with a much lower initial goal and then raise additional money through stretch goals. That wasn’t the case with Planetary Annihilation, as that initial amount was the minimum the team needed to create the game. “If we couldn’t raise $900k, we couldn’t do the game. It was really that simple. Even 900, that’s not a huge budget,” Mavor explained.
“I priced, honestly, as cheaply as I could. I was originally thinking about coming at $1.5 million, but I thought that might be a little too much. But I’d like to be there,” he said. This is the disconnect with Kickstarter; $900,000 sounds like a lot of money, and by some metrics it is, but in game development it’s a modest budget, especially after you remove Kickstarter’s cut and the budget needed to fulfill the rewards.
“It is a very small amount of money, actually,” he admitted. “I’m pretty confident in my ability to write the game by myself. We can keep the team small enough that the budget is realistic. The game is very much designed to be cheap to make. We could spend $3 million on a single player campaign without breathing hard, and that’s why there’s no single-player campaign. There is only one faction, procedurally generated planets, all these things make it cheaper. And if there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s the tech stuff.”
Even the game’s art style, created by Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander alumnus Steve Thompson, was designed to be easy to implement while looking strong. “Look at the art style, it’s readable, which is a really big component of it, but it’s also very stylized to the point where we can build things quickly and cheaply. It’s the game play that’s the important part,” Mavor said.
The conceptual video on the Kickstarter page took about three months to put together, and that’s going from pencil sketches to the final artwork and animation. They had to figure out the size of planets, how units would look, all the things that make up the nuts and bolts of the game. “Keep in mind, Steve worked on Total Annihilation, it’s not like we’re starting from scratch. We worked on Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander. We were on the same page. He drives the artistic vision, and I’m driving the technical side.”
Real-time strategy games have been overrun by the DoTA paradigm, with hero units being leveled up and sent into combat. “In a lot of the other RTS games, you look at Dawn of War, or pretty much anything actually, they’re taking a very zoomed in approach to the game where it’s more about controlling your guys and leveling up your guys.”
Planetary Annihilation is for people who want the opposite experience. “There’s no time to upgrade your guys in Planetary Annihilation, because you send them off and they get blown up and you build more. And you build more really really fast and you build a lot of them. It’s just a different kind of game.”
Keep the budget small, and the turnaround fast
The Kickstarter campaign could continue to draw money at a rapid pace, and Uber does have the ability to add funding themselves. “We could always put in more money, although hopefully not a ton, because we don’t have a lot of money sitting around,” Mavor said. He’s also blasé about the amount of responsibility he’ll shoulder getting the game to market. “And I can always work harder, you know. Whatever it takes. I can do twice as much work if I put in twice as many hours.”
They’re shooting for a launch next summer, and it’s important that the game is released as quickly as possible. Players will be able to mod the game, and Uber is making sure they expose the scripting and the game files can be overridden. They’re going to continue to build on the game after launch, and fans will be able to iterate on the game as well. Once the core gameplay and technology is done, it will grow and be shaped by the fans, the people who gave the money to make sure the game was made.
Jon Mavor has been thinking about Planetary Annihilation for years and, if the Kickstarter hadn’t been successful, it never would have become an actual project for the studio. He also understands how to plan a game around a limited budget, and execute on those designs. In the world of Kickstarter, those are precious skills for developers hoping to work on their dream projects. “I have a fairly good idea of what stuff costs, and what it takes to do things in this kind of genre,” Mavor said.
$900,000 may sound like a lot of money, but it doesn’t go as far as you’d think when developing a video game. After my conversation with Mavor I very much wanted to play Planetary Annihilation so, thinking that every bit helps, I picked up the check.