In late December of 2011, fresh out of a bad relationship with a publisher, Muse Games started a small Kickstarter campaign with ambitious goals. Its idea was to expand on a previous game, Flight of the Icarus, a solo adventure at the helm of an airship known as the Icarus. Muse saw potential with the Steampunk aesthetic and airship combat and wanted to do more with it. Muse wanted to turn this into a socially oriented, airship based shooter where players could engage in aerial combat with each other. Starting out Guns of Icarus Online had no community to speak of. Most of Its backers discovered the game’s Kickstarter by way of browsing the games section or by featured articles. However, even this small amount of exposure was enough. The original goal was a mere $10,000, but, as a community began to spring up around Muse’s vision for the game, backers pledged a good deal more than that. When all was said and done the campaign had more than 1,100 backers, contributing $35,000 to see it come to life.
Guns of Icarus Online puts players in the role of a 4-person airship crew, fighting alongside other airships against player opponents. You can take the helm and navigate the skies as captain, keep the ship in working order as an engineer, or take the offensive as a gunner. Communicating with your team is of utmost importance, since the captain will need to call out which guns to man for their plans to work, and which parts of the ship need repairs. The ships move ponderously in stark contrast to the fast-paced combat, where the crew must dash between guns to take shots at the enemy, and racing around putting out fires. It will quickly devolve into chaos with inexperienced players, but experienced crews can work harmoniously together for maximum combat effectiveness.
In the early days of the game, the only way to have access was through the Kickstarter rewards. Anybody who pledged $10 or more got a digital copy of the game upon release as well as an invitation to the closed beta. As far as Kickstarter pledges go, even with indie games, ten dollars isn’t very much. The fact that Muse rewarded even this modest pledge with the full game when finished is noteworthy. Serving as the core of the playtesting team, dedicated backers dealt with poor connectivity, lag issues, servers that often went down, and a slew of other technical problems. This growing community and the game developers at Muse worked hard, collaborating to turn this vision into a reality. To Muse this collaboration was even more valuable than money, and when asked the developers said “More than the funding, the help in terms of community, testing, and feedback that we received through Kickstarter was what benefited us the most”. Then, after nearly a year of update-testing back and forths, Guns of Icarus Online went live. The circumstances at launch, however, made for a harrowing experience for Muse, and a troubling first look for backers. Everything that could go wrong – some problems so outlandish they weren’t even considerations – absolutely did go wrong.
Guns of Icarus Online launched on October 29th, 2012. This, as you may remember, is the day that hurricane Sandy made landfall not too far from Muse’s headquarters. Immediately following the release of their game, the developers found themselves without power, internet, or even physical access to the machines they needed to maintain the game. Muse was in panic mode, recognizing the damage this kind of launch troubles would cause for the game’s prospects. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Muse relayed these measures to us, saying, “We also broke into our own building to snatch the build machine so we could start making builds. Yes, literally broke in past a police cordon”. Personal dedication is a laudable quality, but risking both criminal penaty and bodily harm is well above and beyond what can be reasonably expected.
Even the hosting service – located in Washington DC – was affected, leaving the team largely unreachable for extended periods of time. The game servers were only up intermittently and the voice chat functions were adversely affected, rendering them almost unusable. The information on the game’s store page was inaccurate, the unlocks for various cosmetic items hadn’t yet been patched in, and with all of the problems brought on by the hurricane, it was impossible to quickly fix either of these issues. After hurricane Sandy had passed, the developers were in a bad place. They were simultaneously trying to improve the game as a whole and maintain communication with the players. While the developers were doing their best to rectify the situation, they started to receive negative feedback from the community. The players were unhappy with both the in-game bugs and the technical difficulties that resulted from the hurricane. The developers at Muse didn’t try to make excuses, instead taking ownership of the game’s faults and publicly holding themselves, not the hurricane, accountable for the failings at launch. Apologies were made and actions were taken to fix the things that were within their power to fix. With the help of Steam, the game’s store page was updated with concise information and explanations as to why things were the way they were. The cosmetic unlocks for in-game progression were patched in and, as a result, the community as a whole began to provide more positive feedback.
Now things were starting to look promising. The game was being improved almost constantly, the players were happy, and the community was growing. Muse had succeeded in several ways. It had a finished game on the market, it had a constantly-expanding player base, and it had a vision for the future. In fewer than six months it had garnered enough support – almost entirely from a community it had built from the ground up – to launch another Kickstarter. This campaign was for Adventure Mode and it was far more ambitious than the original, both in terms of financial goals and in scope. It hoped to raise $100,000 to create an entire world for the players to explore and interact with. On March 22, 2013, Muse’s next Kickstarter – a more ambitious funding goal for a more ambitious project – launched to unexpected community support. In less than a month, it hit the $100k goal, and ended up with nearly $200k from 4,500 backers. In the course of only a few months, having started with nothing but an idea, Muse built a community strong enough to push the vision further, even after a catastrophic launch. The second Kickstarter project saw four times the backer numbers, and six times the financial support of the original, making it impossible to deny the value of a strong community foundation and presence. The bulk of support for the follow-up campaign came from the backers of the original, and the community these backers – as well as the game developers themselves – had brought into the fold in the interim. The vision for Guns of Icarus Online that the community and the developers seem to share has brought the highly negative early reviews into more than 90% positive from nearly 10,000 user reviews on Steam.
If you log into Guns of Icarus Online as a new player, once you’re through the tutorial and into the social lobbies, You’ll likely be surprised at the community response to new and inexperienced players. Instead of hating you for not knowing how to play well, the other players seem to embrace you as a new comrade in arms. They will take the time to tell you if you are making a mistake and more importantly how to fix it. This is what sets Guns of Icarus Online apart from so many other games, the community. I have to give kudos to Muse games, it took a rather difficult path and made it work. Muse didn’t just live up to what it said it wanted to do, it did all that and then some. Good enough for these guys simply isn’t good enough. It has to be bigger, better, and more amazing. The community, it seems, has followed suit. They not only provided the developers with money but with insight, literally thousands of hours of play time, and feedback from that time. It just goes to show that the community around a game is just as important as the game itself.