Kickstarting a Kickstarter, Drew’s Elite story
In 1984 I was a young, slightly autistic, socially awkward boy with a penchant for computers. Space itself, adventure, exploration and the first faint flushes of romance were the story telling I loved. I lost myself in the novelisations of Star Wars, the works of Arthur C. Clarke, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Anne McCaffrey.
Computer games were primitive and simplistic in those days. Insert coin. Left, right, up, down, shoot. Beat the high-score, gain an extra life, last a little longer, die and try again. No story, no background, just pixels. It was all very predictable. I remember asking myself why there wasn’t a ‘Peace Treaty?’ button in ‘Space Invaders’. Imagine that. Those games were fun, but you had no ‘choice’ as to what you did. Despite orders of magnitude improvement in their graphics, most games today have the same limitations.
Into all this came a game that was nothing short of a revolution, a game which broke the rules, tore them up and threw them away. A game you could play for months, not minutes. A game that had no ultimate goal, or even a score, but a game that pitted you against the universe, ill-equipped, with just your wits to save you. It’s name? Elite.
The graphics and gameplay were advanced for the time, but by modern standards, laughably primitive. Much can, and has, been written about the three dimensional graphics and procedural generation that Elite utilised. Clever for sure, but a focus on the technology misses the truly dramatic impact of this game on my generation.
This was the first game that started with a story.
The late Robert Holdstock wrote a novella to go with it; ‘The Dark Wheel’. A tragic loss, a shadowy villain, a quest for revenge mixed with a smattering of romance. Derivative stuff perhaps, but new territory for a computer game. I can directly trace my own writing career back to this story. It inspired me to start writing. Thank you for that, Robert. Writing has given me immense joy over the years.
The game fostered immersion in its own self-contained universe. There were huge gaps in the experience of playing, which were impossible to avoid given the limited technology of the time. Those gaps were filled over and over by the imagination of fertile young minds. Those weren’t just ships on the screen, they were pirates and bounty hunters, crews with a mission, going somewhere, doing something. It left a profound impact on my friends and I, and hundreds more fans I’ve come to know in recent months and years. It changed us, became part of our culture; a shared formative experience with an effect that has lasted decades.
Thirty years has passed since the original game. No longer a child; I’m a husband, a father, a manager of people. Elite was a fond piece of nostalgia from my youth, wistfully remembered on rare occasions. There have been fan-remake games along the way, such as the wonderful ‘Oolite’ and ‘Pioneer’, supported by a vibrant community with their own unique flavours.
Yet in all that time there was almost total silence regarding an official sequel. I considered it highly unlikely that it would ever be written. I thought too much time had passed.
I was proven wrong on Tuesday, November 6th, 2012.
Aiming for an astonishing funding target of £1.25 million, Elite abruptly reappeared on my radar as a ‘Kickstarter’, a new game called ‘Elite:Dangerous’. I had no idea what a Kickstarter was, but it didn’t take long to establish it was a crowdfunding initiative. £200,000 was pledged within the first day, it looked like a foregone conclusion.
I sent an email to the Frontier crew, asking whether they were considering a sequel to ‘The Dark Wheel’ and whether or not there was a possibility to ‘audition’ to write it. There was no response, I guess they were pretty busy at the time.
Shortly afterwards a new pledge award appeared. It was for a “Writer’s Pack”, allowing anyone to write an officially licensed book within the Elite universe. Frontier themselves would provide background detail on the game, priviledged information, graphics, logos and even help with promoting the resultant story. Fabulous!
There was a downside though; the “Writer’s Pack” pledge level cost £4,500.
My initial reaction to that was “Game Over, Commander.” Not many people have £4,500 to indulge on a speculative venture of this type, and I was no exception. It was far beyond anything I could finance with no surety that I’d be able to make the money back. Contrary to some perceptions, writing not a lucrative career for the majority of authors. It wasn’t clear at the time that the Elite:Dangerous kickstarter would succeed or not. Financially it was simply too much and too risky. I pledged £40 for the game and an NPC character name… and left it there.
And then a friend made a joke. “Maybe you could start a kickstarter Campaign to fund your £4,500 pledge…”
What a stupid idea! It obviously wouldn’t work. It probably wasn’t even allowed. We all had a good laugh about it. And then somebody asked the obvious question. “So, why wouldn’t that work?”
There was silence.
Research began. It wasn’t against the kickstarter rules as far as I could determine. I had written books before, so I knew what I was doing, I was confident I could write a book in that timescale. I even had some previously published work to point to as examples, I had a track record. I thought about pledge rewards; characters, dialogue, a copy of the finished work. Perhaps it could work, but would Frontier allow this approach? I summarised my intentions to them and sent another email. Would they respond this time?
The answer was prompt and from David himself – “Yes that’s fine. Good luck!”
The only question left in my mind at that point was would the Elite fan community be prepared to fund £4,500 for a relatively unknown author based on little more than a page on the internet. Would it work? Frankly, I suspected it would crash and burn, but I knew I had to try or forever live with the knowledge that I might have missed my own personal ‘Signing the Beatles’ moment.
Feedback from the fan community, if the kickstarter comments page was anything to go by, was mixed. Some folks thought it was a great idea, others (with various levels of ire) were much less enthusiastic, accusing me of ‘cashing in’ and trying to de-rail the Elite:Dangerous kickstarter itself. I got some quite unsavoury emails during that time, some laced with anonymous unimaginative profanity, some even accusing me of being a crook. Clearly it was a controversial idea.
My pitch was that I was a fan myself. I tried to indicate this with my videos and text for the kickstarter project. I hoped to appeal to the nostalgia, allay fears and show that I merely wanted to fulfil an ambition, but also come across as a serious contender.
I launched my own kickstarter at 9am on November 21st, 2012.
Immediate friends, family and internet buddies pitched in on the first day as you might expect, but overnight on the first day a serious pledge came in, £500 in one fell swoop. One third of the target had been reached. It was at that point I begin to believe it was actually possible.
And then the press coverage started.
A few internet articles may not sound like a big deal, but when it’s directly about you and what you’re doing it seems like a pretty intense spotlight. The controversy that had appeared in nascent form on the kickstarter comments page now raged across major gaming websites. On balance most of the coverage was on the negative side. There was lots of derogatory talk of pyramid and ponsie scheming, even though I’d been very clear (I thought) as to what I was trying to do. I was after something very concrete – an official license. Many folks seemed to be under the impression that I was just grabbing money. The potential for people to misunderstand intentions, read in their own bias and attack something because it’s already under attack was reaffirmed. Change is difficult and crowds are fickle things.
But some articles were positive. A number of internet stalwarts bravely defended me, a growing list of backers on my own kickstarter indicated I’d done something right, and, I’m told, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. I persevered, trying to answer the detractors with rational explanations, reassuring people as to my intentions. The naysayers grew fewer in number (and some, all credit to them, converted to the cause) as the funding levels grew. Clearly it was working.
We hit the target a mere 9 days later. It was 13:39 on November 30th, 2012. Ultimately a total of £7,000 was provided mostly by strangers; fans of the game that wanted to see what I could come up with. I could hardly believe what had happened.
I had the privilege of taking the first “Writer’s Pack” and contributing that £4,500 into the Elite:Dangerous kickstarter. That pledge pushed the Elite:Dangerous kickstarter past its halfway point. David Braben posted a hearty congratulations. It was a welcome shot in the arm for the game, as it had been languishing a little in the middle of its own kickstarter process.
Other kickstarters followed, more books arrived, some funded to even faster and to higher levels than mine. The Elite community solidified behind the idea, more chunky pledges rolled in as a result. The Elite:Dangerous kickstarter exceeded its own target and went on to provide stretch goals. I’m not saying the writers saved the Elite:Dangerous kickstarter itself, but these little side projects certainly helped turn the tide, kept folks occupied and raised the profile. 25,000 fans did the hard work.
I’ve written the book, conscious throughout of the fan community that gave me this opportunity. I’ll be forever in your debt; those who backed me, those who defended me, those who encouraged me along the way. To you I can only say a heartfelt thank you (and get you your book of course!)
Elite:Reclamation is my contribution to the canon of this amazing game, this amazing adventure, thirty years in the making. This story has been crafted with much care, energy, enthusiasm and not a little heart-ache. It had its genesis in controversy and clamour. It’s by a fan, for the fans.