New funding models can help riskier games — and might change studios in the process
Evva Karr was frustrated. During talks with creators, they’d begun to notice a theme: the conversation always seemed to turn to funding. Developers wanted to know how HyperDot creator Charles McGregor and Karr, who helped publish it, had shipped the game. Inevitably, the developers would share their own experiences.
“While some of those deals were good news, others were just kind of shocking and really unimaginable to me,” Karr says. “There were just a lot of folks who were getting bad deals, not knowing what good deals even look like.”
Karr, the founder and CEO of Glitch, wanted “a whole new damn table” — a way for developers to play with new ideas and make games that might be unappealing to traditional publishers. Earlier this year, they created Moonrise, a fund that promises to help a handful of candidates annually. It’s a collective of backers that range from directors at AAA devs to leaders at successful independent studios — a simple theory that throwing support behind people over projects that Karr has big aspirations for. “I think that Moonrise fund is going to change the way that we think about making games, funding games,” they say. There’s untapped potential for change not just in what developers will make, but how they choose to make it — and what studios arise as a result.
It’s not just funding for games; it’s funding for games that might otherwise be left out. Karr says the goal is to create a model for early prototype funding. “We wanted to design a different way to think about financing that gives creators options to raise those funds, work with publishers, or even team up with platforms that really isn’t focused on drawing money out at just the absolute wrong time,” Karr says. “We all recognize that there’s an underserved market and money to be made. Our approach is different because we only want to get paid when the creators are also getting paid — ideally, a very handsome amount when the time is right.”
Funding options for video games have evolved over the years. From the traditional model of pitching to big publishers to the rise of crowdfunded efforts on platforms like Kickstarter, money comes in many forms. Indie publishers like Devolver Digital and Annapurna offer a more boutique experience for a handful of titles. Groups like Indie Fund finance projects — though as outlets like The Guardian note, “investors of Indie Fund perceive to be safe bets is a matter of perspective – and in a mostly white, cisgender male group, that perspective is arguably limited.”
It’s a perspective that Karr echoes: “Our current funding sources are just quite risk-averse. Especially when we’re looking at studios that are founded by women or BIPOC or queer creators who are thinking bigger or differently about play, especially in new markets.”
Funding doesn’t just apply to money either, argues Karr. It comes down to the time and privilege someone has to even make games. “It’s either unpaid time, or borrowed time in a way,” says Karr. “Or it’s through savings, where someone has taken money to buy back their time in order to be able to create something.” Karr reflects on their own time during weekends and nights, spent drafting grants to secure funds. It also impacted the types of projects they worked on, restricting creativity in the name of making something that had a better chance of scoring necessary cash. “Early stage equity and financing in this way offers a way for people to buy their time back in order to be able to focus on the things they really want to do — and the games that they really want to make and put out into the world.”
Karr is less concerned with what teams want to make, as long as they can make it. “I don’t want them to have to ask for permission,” they say. Their interest is in people with a strong creative and technical background who brings a unique perspective on play. “I think there’s a big difference between a cool project and a cool project idea, or even a cool game idea vs. a mediocre game idea that a really great team can iterate and build off of to make into an even better game,” Karr says. “It’s just a different process. I don’t think they’re exclusive to one another.”
What makes a project appealing for something like Moonrise is also what could classify it as a risk for traditional publishers. “Seeing something at the earliest stages is often scary … it can be scary to think about funding towards it,” Karr says. Think barebones, a project distilled down to its most base ideas of play: no art, no form, just something to toy with — a paper prototype, a couple of on-screen cubes that move around a screen. “To the average person who plays, the games would be unrecognizable,” Karr says. “It just really hones in on interaction and discovering, or at least uncovering, the moments of fun and what makes something fun.”
Much like the developers it benefits, Karr says Moonrise allows them to experiment. Funders can be a little risky about what they invest — a benefit that can help give new voices a way onto the field. “It’s really a system that has been created out of a desire for equity in a different sense,” Karr says. “It’s built out of trust and a shared love for play in this industry.”