Larry Griffin broke all kinds of unwritten rules about creating a video game development studio when he founded Cosmosaur.
The recent Columbia College graduate and three former classmates started the company with almost no money or industry connections. They chose to stay in Chicago, which is hardly on par with Silicon Valley when it comes to tech opportunities. To top it off, their first project is a quirky, difficult-to-market PC game about an intern who runs thankless errands on the moon.
But after launching a campaign on crowdfunding website Kickstarter in July to finance the proposed game "Moon Intern," Griffin's team earned more than $43,000 in a single month, which was more than enough to pay for what essentially will be their part-time jobs for the next year.
"It's fun and really exciting," said Griffin, 28, of Rogers Park. "It's our dreams coming true. I still can't believe it's happening."
Kickstarter, a Brooklyn-based startup founded in 2009, quickly is becoming the go-to source of capital for an increasing number of gaming entrepreneurs. The site enables creative projects of all sorts--from films and fashion to food--to receive financial pledges ranging from $1 to $1,000.
Video games in particular tend to be popular on Kickstarter. They make up only two percent of all projects, but earn nine percent of the dollars pledged. The average non-game project receives $5,087 compared to a stunning $20,948 earned by video games, according to Kickstarter data.
That number, however, is somewhat skewed because of a few standout projects which have raised millions of dollars. Beloved game developer Tim Schafer, the maker of cult classics like "Psychonauts" and "Grim Fandango," raised eyebrows in February after his Double Fine studio reached its goal of $400,000 for a proposed game in just eight hours. The point-and-click adventure game didn't even have a name, but still ended up earning $3.3 million, a new record.
Few projects have as much clout as Schafer's, but even relative unknowns have been able to secure enough funding to work on their smaller-scale games.
Ryan Wiemeyer and former DePaul classmate Michael Block had a modest $3,000 goal when they launched a Kickstarter in December for a "director's cut" mobile phone version of "Organ Trail"--a parody/homage to the educational Apple II game "Oregon Trail" found in many grade school classrooms in the '80s.
But "Organ Trail" raised a total of $16,339 on Kickstarter, more than five times their goal and enough that Wiemeyer felt comfortable quitting his full-time job at Disney-owned Wideload Studios to teach part time at DePaul and start an independent company called The Men Who Wear Many Hats.
"I think when we made the original, we had a budget of something like 30 bucks," said Wiemeyer, 26, of Lakeview. "When [the Kickstarter] exploded I was like, 'OK cool, I'll quit my job.'"
Tom Dowd, an associate professor at Columbia College who helped advise Griffin on "Moon Intern," said Kickstarter is becoming part of his class's curriculum.
"The video game industry has changed and this is a way to bypass distributors and publishers and go directly to your audience," Dowd said. "Being able to crowd fund is entirely new and different and it's becoming a possible career choice."
It would be a mistake, however, to think that Kickstarter is an automatic gold mine of easy money for indie game developers. Only 25 percent to 34 percent of gaming projects meet their goals (depending on which studies you cite), and with dozens of new game ideas launched every day, developers have to work hard to get their project noticed.
"Some of my friends thought they'd get rich off making mobile games, and ended up with like $40 based on three months of work," Wiemeyer said. "A lot of people are talking about doing it, but there's no guarantee of money."
That's a lesson that Robomodo learned the hard way. The West Loop-based company and creator of three Tony Hawk skateboarding games for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 tossed up a Kickstarter in November for "Bodoink"--a motion-controlled game for the Xbox Kinect in which players steer their own avatar into pinball-like environments.
By the end of December, "Bodoink" managed to raise only $5,548. The goal was $35,000.
"It was something that with hindsight, we almost took it too lightly," Robomodo president Josh Tsui said. "It wasn't a priority for us--we all had day jobs. If we do it again, we'd take it much more seriously that we did."
Kickstarter projects can face other problems. In exchange for donations, backers earn rewards ranging from a copy of the product, their name in the end credits or having a private meal with the project founders. Sometimes companies overpromise when it comes to the rewards.
"You really have be careful with it," said Wiemeyer, who estimated that he spent a month doling out all the rewards for "Organ Trail," which included custom shirts, posters, buttons, statues and putting the names of benefactors on tombstones in the game itself. "I think we spent an entire night at the post office one time mailing everything out.
"Next time we'll be smarter about it."
Even with the logistical nightmare that a rewards system can create, Griffin said he enjoys being able to directly work with the audience for his game. His plan is to sell the likenesses of 500 characters that appear in the game--pilots, scientists, cubicle workers and the like--to Kickstarter backers.
"This process makes me take the community much more seriously," Griffin said. "We're excited to talk to them and flesh out this experience with them."
Chicago indie game Kickstarter projects
What is it? A foursome of new Columbia College grads recently completed a Kickstarter for an action/roleplaying game about an intern on the moon.
How much? 1,609 individual backers pledged $43,054. The goal was $30,000.
Most interesting reward: For $250, a single donor had his or her likeness and personality used for the "President of the Moon" character.
What is it? A group of former DePaul students launched a Kickstarter in July 2011 for a PC game about an octopus trying to pass himself off as a human father.
How much? 608 backers pledged $24,320, surpassing the goal of $20,000.
Most interesting reward: For $800, donors got a custom Octodad costume "tailored to fit you or your cat."
What is it? Two former DePaul classmates' successful Kickstarter campaign at the end of the 2011 helped them launch a zombie apocalypse version of "Oregon Trail."
How much? 495 backers pledged $16,339, far exceeding the $3,000 goal.
Most interesting reward: For $250, five backers got both illustrated and digital zombie caricatures of their own likenesses.
Ryan Smith is a RedEye Special contributor.