The golden age of Kickstarter-funded game development seems to be in decline. According to a study by CO Partners, video games as a category have raised less money in 2016 than in previous years, in large part because of a lack of high-profile projects. The Kickstarter gold rush of 2013 generated plenty of games that were “good for a Kickstarter,” but many of them lacked the polish needed to compete with other indie games and AAA titles.
There have been, however, a handful of campaigns that have gone on to finance some of the best indie games of the last few years. Though they may not have featured the massive size and scope of today’s blockbuster titles, their polish and thoughtful design matched even the most well-funded projects. That said, if you didn’t fund them yourself, you might not even know they came from such humble beginnings.
FTL is the best Star Trek video game ever made. Created by two-man developer Subset Games, FTL (short for “Faster than Light”) puts players in control of the crew of a small spacecraft, and tasks them with hopping from planet to planet in an effort to evade an evil empire pursuing them. With each stop, you engage in chance encounters and various exploration opportunities. Sometimes, those encounters will force you into ship-on-ship combat. Like on the Starship Enterprise, players can adjust the amount of power going to different systems, which allows for strategic maneuvers and forces enemy ships to make hard choices by targeting specific enemy systems.
Despite the game’s no-frills visuals — the game looks more like The Oregon Trail than No Man’s Sky — FTL uses procedurally-generated scenarios and ships to make every run feel new and exciting.
Kickstarter Campaign: February 27, 2012 — April 1, 2012
Funding requested: $10,000
Funding received: $200,542
Release Date: September 14, 2012
Developer Stoic proudly boasted that everything about The Banner Saga, from its narrative setting to its defining mechanics, would reflect a type of game that would struggle to earn traditional funding. It’s a turn-based strategy game [check], based around Norse mythology [check], with challenging and unforgiving systems [check].
Though its gameplay takes a cue from classic, turn-based RPGs, Stoic managed to cultivate a fresh take on the form. The aforementioned systems mesh well with the game’s heavy narrative, which puts players in situations that require tough choices, both in and out of combat. While the title may have appealed to a specific niche on paper, the game’s distinct artwork and underrepresented concept raised more than 700 times what the developers initally asked for. The game was so successful it spawned a sequel, The Banner Saga 2, which launched in April, 2016.
Kickstarter Campaign: March 19, 2012 — April 20, 2012
Funding Requested: $100,000
Funding Received: $723,886
Release Date: January 14, 2014
As an ode to 8-bit platformers, Shovel Knight should be the model for the retro-inspired games that so many Kickstarter backers seem eager to chase every time a classic designer tries to draw from the crowdfunding well.
Players control the eponymous knight, who uses his trusty shovel to dig, bounce, and bonk his way through the armies of the Order of No Quarter, a group of knights with Mega Man-esque themes. Though the game clearly takes cues from a few NES-era classics — namely Mega Man, whose art and structure the game mimics — it also manages to play with a genre that many developers would consider set in stone. Rather than aiming to merely replicate an outdated style of play, developer Yacht Club Games took classic gameplay and made it its own, and in doing so created a game that more closely mirrored the rose-tinted memories of NES-era players than the originals.
Kickstarter Campaign: March 14, 2013 — April 13, 2013
Funding Requested: $75,000
Funding Received: $311,502
Release Date: June 25, 2014
Realistically, Hyper Light Drifter didn’t even need to be a good game to become an overwhelming success. Creating a working game inside its unique, faux 8-bit aesthetic would have been enough to satisfy backers. Luckily, it turns out the game is actually a very interesting action-adventure title in the vein of Bastion and early entries in The Legend of Zelda franchise. Though reviews bore out that the game features some very challenging difficulty spikes, Hyper Light Drifter is a well-made wonder, one that offers views into a unique world that’s worth fighting to see.
Kickstarter Campaign: September 12, 2013 — October 12, 2013
Funding Requested: $27,000
Funding Received: $645,158
Release Date: March 31, 2016
Like The Banner Saga, Original Sin found success on Kickstarter by catering to fans of a neglected game type — i.e. fans of old-school RPGs like Baldur’s Gate. The game built on the ideas behind the PC RPGs that inspired it, which shared a more direct lineage with tabletop role-playing adventures than traditional video games. To that point, players can interact with the world of Divinity: Original Sin in any way at any time. As you might expect, this makes the game infinitely more complex than your average mainstream RPG, but some players prefer complexity over intuitive design, and this game offers players a lot of freedom if they’re willing to learn on the fly.
Developer Larian Studios also went back to Kickstarter and successfully raised money for the sequel, Divinity: Original Sin II, which is expected to launch by the end of 2016.
Kickstarter Campaign: March 27, 2013 — April 26, 2013
Funding Requested: $400,000
Funding Received: $944,282
Release Date: June 30, 2014
Literary adaptations, direct or otherwise, are surprisingly rare in video games. So it’s no surprise that developer Red Hook games had to draw funding from the internet to raise money for an RPG inspired by the works of cosmic horror author H.P. Lovecraft.
Though Lovecraft’s ideas, particularly his tentacle-clad creation Cthulhu, have inspired many games, Darkest Dungeon manages to engineer an entire game around the central theme of Lovecraft’s work — that knowledge of evil and the occult will inevitably drive you insane. With every mission, characters grow crazier and crazier, which confers negative status effects until they eventually become unusable. Managing your characters’ sanity between missions becomes a resource management sim a la XCOM: Enemy Unknown, effectively passing your characters’ stress on to you and bringing you closer to Lovecraft’s own madness.
Kickstarter Campaign: February 10, 2014 — March 14, 2014
Funding Requested: $75,000
Funding Received: $313,337
Release Date: January 19, 2016
The team behind Superhot, a gunplay-intensive puzzle game, figured out their main idea in a week. In the game, players have to clear a room full of vector-style gunmen. The twist is that time freezes whenever the player stops moving. Nothing in the room, including the people and bullets, move until you do. The founding members of the developer, a Polish group called “The Superhot Team,” even created a working version of the concept with a seven-day period.
In the final, Kickstarter-funded version — which launched on PC and consoles in 2016 — players can fight their way through nicer-looking gunfights, predict enemy movements, and dodge bullets that stop in mid-air. When you do figure out how to get through a room, you feel like Neo from The Matrix. I guess that’s what happens when you dodge bullets and make seemingly impossible shots without a scratch.
Kickstarter Campaign: May 14, 2014 — June 14, 2014
Funding Requested: $75,000
Funding Received: $250,798
Release Date: February 25, 2016
Broken Age, the game formerly known as “Double Fine Adventure,” started gaming’s infatuation with Kickstarter. The title provided fans with the opportunity to advance developer Double Fine the money to make a new game in the style of beloved adventure games such as Day of the Tentacle and Legend of Monkey Island, which were co-created by the studio’s founder Tim Schafer.
In Broken Age, players must switch between two children in separate worlds, one from the future and one from the past, to solve puzzles and find a way to shirk their social constraints. The interplay between the game’s narrative and mechanical conceit is clever and funny, too. Though the studio had trouble scaling its extremely successful campaign — it had to release the game in two parts and launched a second campaign to raise more money to finish it — the end result ultimately delivered exactly what fans were looking for.
Kickstarter Campaign: February 8, 2012 — March 13, 2012
Funding Requested: $400,000
Funding Received: $3,336,371
Release Date: Part 1 (January 28, 2014), Part 2 (April 28, 2014)
What if Bethesda hadn’t remade Fallout 3 as a first-person RPG? It would probably a look a lot like Wasteland 2, the crowdfunded sequel to a long-dormant franchise that was very similar in both style and mechanics to the original entries of everyone’s favorite, post-apocalyptic RPG series.
Controlling a four-person team, players must roam a post-apocalyptic version of the American southwest, hunting outlaws and saving settlers when they can. Like Fallout, the game manages to cultivate a lived-in world, allowing you to stumble across and jump into other people’s lives. Unlike recent Fallout games, however, it plays out in a turn-based strategy setting, which makes for more complex challenges and combat.
Kickstarter Campaign: March 13, 2012 — April 17, 2012
Funding Requested: $900,000
Funding Received: $2,933,252
Release Date: September 19, 2014
This five-part, episodic “magical realist adventure game” is technically still in development. However, even with only four of five parts available, Kentucky Route Zero has already won a slew of awards and changed the way we think about narrative in video games.
Though the episodes follow a single narrative, one that sees antiques salesman Conway meeting people and hearing stories as he travels down a fictional highway, the series benefits from an experimental design that plays with both story form and structure. “The Entertainment,” one of the three side stories called “interludes,” is actually a play that’s taking place within the game.
While many of Kickstarter’s successes have played on nostalgia, Kentucky Route Zero is one of the few that dared to ask permission to try something different.
Kickstarter Campaign: January 7, 2011 — February 6, 2011
Funding Requested: $6,500
Funding Received: $8,583
Release Date: Ongoing since January 7, 2013
Updated on 8-1-2016 by Mike Epstein: The original version of this article said Divinity: Original Sin was released in 2016. The original version of the game was released on June 30, 2014.