Star Command Kicks Back: Warballoon talks money

Star Command in beta

For a year now, Warballoon Games has been riding high. The announcement of their Star Trek-meets-The Sims starship simulator Star Command last spring made them the indie gaming world’s darling. Their Kickstarter pitch successfully raised development funds (almost $37,000 worth) months before the Kickstarter craze kicked off. The surplus of goodwill towards Warballoon was so great that the announcement that Star Command’s release date had slipped from 2011 into 2012 was received with patient enthusiasm instead of cynicism. The debut of the game’s trailer last week was universally lauded.

Yesterday, Warballoon posted an update to their Kickstarter page (the 19th such update since September of last year) that detailed how the fledgling studio had utilized the funds that had been pledged to them. Some of the enumerated costs included attorney’s fees, music production, a pair of iPads, and the costs of producing and shipping the incentives that had been promised to Kickstarter backers.
The response to the update wasn’t quite what Warballoon expected. The subtitle of Escapist‘s post on the topic is typical of the angle that the gaming media took: Warballoon had “raised $37,000 on Kickstarter [and] got to use $4,000 for actual game development“. PocketGamer.biz characterized Warballoon’s post as an admission, implying that the studio had done something wrong. The Daily Dot termed the update “an apology“. What happened to the surplus of goodwill? After the jump, my conversation with Warballoon co-founder Jordan Coombs about the last 24 hours – more detail on where the Kickstarter money went, what he regrets, and what he doesn’t.

 

Owen Faraday: So, did you expect to be doing an interview about this today?

Jordan Coombs: Not at all. This was totally unexpected. That little post we put up yesterday got as much attention as our trailer release.

OF: What were you trying to accomplish with that little post?

The post that started the backlash.

JC: All we wanted to do was give a little bit of an open book into how fast money can go in game development as well as some pitfalls we ran into and things other kickstarters should be wary of. Many people read the article as just that. But quite a few readers interpreted this as a full open, line item look into our books – this was not the case.

OF: Let’s talk about the specifics. I saw the iPads getting mentioned on Twitter quite a lot – the very first commenter on the Kotaku post calls you out on the iPads.

JC: We bought two iPads so that we could feel the product our game is gonna be on. There’s really no substitute. And we watched other people play our game on them at PAX, which was fantastic. Yes, we spent $1000 on iPads and soon enough we will spend more money on Android tablets and phones. Yes, we include those costs as development costs.

OF: You listed your participation at PAX as one of your development costs.

JC: As a first-time developer, we literally cannot put the value on our experience at PAX. We met industry insiders, talked to small developers – Capy Games was so helpful it’s unbelievable. And more than anything, got to see our core audience, gamers, play the game over and over and over. We made a ton of changes based on just watching people play the game, its something we just could not have done without PAX. It also lit a fire – we had to have the demo ready by a certain date for public consumption.

OF: So no regrets about going to PAX?

JC: No – in fact, we would recommend every tiny developer goes to PAX, East or Prime. It’s amazing, enlightening and something you won’t forget. Use those Kickstarter funds on trips to GDC, PAX and any other convention that you can – you get to see the big boys and talk with the small developers.

OF: Some people called out the music as disproportionately expensive.

JC: We considered soliciting music from the community. In your brain, you receive 20 submissions from composers and find someone out there that is a hidden talent waiting to break free. In reality, you get 100 submissions, and 95% of them are horrible or just not right for your game. We tested this market thoroughly – and were disappointed. There are also a couple other issues here.

Paid means accountability. It’s not doing our supporters much good having to switch artists three times during the project – in fact that would be irresponsible. The other thing about someone being paid is that you can work with them. With a free artist, you send feedback and you get responses like “Hey, what are you complaining about, its free”. Not good.

Also, as artists ourselves, we believe professionals should be PAID for their craft. Novel idea in this era, we know. And not only do we think they should be paid, but they should be paid well. In fact we really like to spread the wealth – we got a gift from the gaming community and we like to give that gift to other artists in our community.

It was a similar situation with the poster – we probably could we have found a cheaper illustrator, but we had a very specific vision for what we wanted, a 60’s movie poster throw back. It wasn’t just “hey, someone do some Star Command art.” In fact, everything we do has that attention to detail – which we figure is a big reason we have the following we do. We have a specific, uncompromising vision for the game, and we will pay a premium or just not do it to make sure that happens. In the end, that will make the game awesome.

OF: In the post, you specifically talk about making a mistake by not using all the money before the year ended and having to pay taxes on it as a result. That’s something you should have seen coming – what happened there?

Game dev is a contact sport

JC: Yes, we should have, and we gave it our best shot. But we really didn’t get the money into our account until October 7th. That’s essentially 3 months to spend $32,000, which would mean some reckless spending. We didn’t do that. We did spend liberally to keep it out of Uncle Sam’s hands, but eventually it ran down to, we have too much money and not enough time. Again, that would not have been responsible, so we just took the hit.

OF: Some people called you naive. Said you were business novices that didn’t know what you were doing.

JC: I disagree with that. First, we think were pretty business savvy, but for arguments sake lets assume that we are complete business morons. Is that a reason not to get into business? We also haven’t ever produced a game, so by that standard we probably shouldn’t have started on that path as well. No one would ever take any risks with that logic, having spent most of the time researching the environment so that by the time you actually get in, it has all changed.

We also disagree about the way we spent our money. We love that our fans got kick-ass gear. We love that our poster is awesome. We have some regrets, but the bottom line is that $40,000 isn’t enough to make a game. Period. If we truly used it for dev costs, that would be three months of wages for three guys – that’s nothing. We had liquid capital and we had to spend it quickly so that it wouldn’t get taxed. So we did. We also took out a lot of debt for our day to day living costs, having quit our jobs to make this game.

OF: Do you regret the title of the update now? ‘What the hell did you do with our money?’ might have informed the way the gaming press covered the story.

JC: We liked the title. Some of those blog posts were completely disingenuous – that’s not down to us.

OF: What do you see as the lasting effect this is going to have on Star Command?

JC: We love our fans, and again, don’t interpret this as us being bitter – we aren’t. But also don’t think that we are recklessly spending money or not aware of the expectation level that Star Command has.