Develop discovers how an ambitious crowdfunded game led to an indie's own rise, fall and eventual redemption
[This feature was published in the September 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]
Kostas Zarifis was a typical coder with a dream. He wanted to make a martial arts game that would make players feel like Chow Yun-fat, only he had no team, no time and no money to make it happen. A year after giving up his full-time job to devote his time to making action game Kung Fu Superstar a reality, Zarifis heard that Kickstarter was launching in the UK.
So he decided to spur his dream on with a little help from the community at large. What he didn’t anticipate, however, was how quickly innovative projects can lose their support.
“I suppose the thing I want to emphasise is the emotional toll that it takes on you, which is actually something that think you tend to underplay quite a lot when you start,” Zarifis tells us of the Kickstarter campaign for Kung Fu Superstar.
“Because when you start you have all these hopes and dreams. You feel invincible to a certain extent. You kind of have to because it’s quite an undertaking. It’s quite a crazy thing to be doing, to effectively put your baby in front of all these people and invite them to praise it or mock it.”
Kung Fu Superstar was an ambitious ‘martial arts simulator’ that was to use motion control, namely through Kinect, to replicate the player’s kicks and strikes with its lead protagonist, Danny Cheng. Martial arts has long been a love of Zarifis, who saw the title as a means of combing fitness with action gaming. This, he thought, would be perfect for players who enjoy action games, but aren’t attracted to the glacial activities of Wii Fit and its clones.
Zarifis first began to think of making the game back in 2010, months before Kinect was released, while working as a programmer at Lionhead Studios. After working on a prototype out-of-hours with the help of a handful of co-workers, Zarifis tried to get the attention of the Microsoft brass. The demo turned heads – and even got former Microsoft Studios creative director Peter Molyneux’s interest – but Zarifis realised that things were moving far slower than he wanted. He needed a change.
So he chose to leave Lionhead and set up as an indie, opening Kinesthetic Games in May 2012. By this point Kinect had been out in the market for several months.
“Things were moving to mobile, and we were pitching a game on the platform that wasn’t getting a lot of traction,” explains Zarifis, who tells Develop that Kickstarter was his only option at the time.
“Kickstarter is all about nostalgia. My feeling was it’s nostalgia, but it’s also innovation. I thought it’s a place for people that are making projects that are risky.
“It feels bad to say it, but it feels like that’s not so much the case. A lot of devs go on about how publishers are always risk averse and they don’t give risky projects a chance, and us devs sometimes go, ‘yeah, but the market really wants this; let’s give the fans a chance to decide’. But then it turns out that gamers are not really that less fearful of the unknown than publishers.”
RISE TO HONOUR
That is just what Zarifis did next. With a team of four, as well as help from approximately 30 others remotely, he started preparations for launching a Kickstarter project in time for its UK opening on October 31st, 2012.
Zarifis prepared more than a dozen tiered packages to entice backers to the game with the promise of soundtracks, T-shirts, beta access, as well as more unusual treats such as the chance to be a dev for a day.
The next step was to get some hype going for Kung Fu Superstar, something which happened to already be in motion thanks to the efforts of Zarifis and his team making a four-minute announcement trailer depicting the game’s hero, Cheng, taking down a string of aggressors in step to the actions of a real player. The trailer, which was originally released in May 2012, generated much early attention for the game. That excitement gave Zarifis confidence that it was more than a quirky idea he had dreamed up; it was a concept he felt consumers would be willing to pledge money for.
On October 31st, Kickstarter UK went live, opening Kung Fu Superstar and a host of other projects to UK-based backers. Kickstarter, however, didn’t seem too bothered about highlighting that fact, much to Zarifis’ disappointment.
“Around midnight, the whole thing went live. But there was nothing. It wasn’t the big marketing push that we were expecting. We were hoping we’d ride that wave, but there was no wave to ride,” says Zarifis.
A lacklustre launch day was just the start of Kung Fu Superstar’s snags. Teething problems, like the payment system initially being in UK pound only, meant that lots of potential US backers were lost. But above all, Zarifis admits that he didn’t anticipate how tough it would be to sustain interest in the campaign.
“It’s really hard to regain interest from people. You’ve got to make an impact within those first five days,” says Zarifis, who added that when they released featurettes on the game’s control system, it didn’t give the project the boost it needed. “While it pays to try and prolong interest in your campaign, at the same time, you want to make sure that you capture as many people as possible on that opening day.”
Interest in the game eventually dried up and Kung Fu Superstar ended its Kickstarter campaign just shy of half the money needed for its £200,000 goal. Zarifis was disheartened, almost to the point of depression, he says.
Zarifis acknowledges that he made missteps with the project. But he also feels that the gaming world wasn’t quite ready for it.
“A lot of the time you’ll go on Kickstarter and if you look at the kind of projects that do get funding, you’ll find that the new, completely wacky and innovative projects are the exception really,” says Zarifis, who adds that he himself is part of the audience delighted to see the return of Syndicate and many other series.
Yet he emphasises that that’s not where Kickstarter should end: “I’m excited about that stuff, but I do want to see new and innovative stuff, concepts that we’ve not seen before, rather than incarnations of the same thing. I can’t say I’m aware of all the Kickstarters that are going right now, but it doesn’t look like Kickstarter is the place to get that kind of thing to happen.”
He continues: “In hindsight, Kickstarter would never work for us. We’re doing a ‘martial arts simulator’ that was pitched as a game with a strong motion control element – even if it has classic controller support. We were pitching to an audience that traditionally has been backing nostalgia-fuelled projects and mostly on PC.”
A SECOND CHANCE
Kung Fu Superstar may not have become a crowdfunding or media success, but Zarifis still believes in the idea.
“A lot of the time, people don’t appreciate the kind of sacrifices that you have to make to get to the stage where you’re even pitching the concept to them,” he says.
What the campaign did do, however, was raise the profile of Zarifis and make his project more attractive to the right investor. In April, he signed a development deal with Turkish company ProjectSym for his current unannounced game project, and is pleased to be once again working towards his dev dreams.
“There comes a time when your ambition, your optimism and your dreams, you have to match that with day-to-day needs. You have to be very pragmatic,” says Zarifis.
“I was depressed and scared. I looked at myself in the mirror and said, ‘there’s no point in employing this attitude right now, because there’s nothing to benefit from feeling this way’.
“When I decided that was the case, I got up off my feet again and secured this deal. It always gets worse before it gets better. Don’t let that deter you from your goals, but keep a hold on the situation so that you react as efficiently as possible.”