The crowd-funding site Kickstarter lets you raise money to open a restaurant, or create a gadget, or do pretty much anything you want to do - as long as you can convince hundreds or even thousands of small investors to back your idea with cash.
Most projects bring in around $5,000. But two Orange County video game companies have been using Kickstarter to raise not thousands - but millions.
A couple of blocks from the Newport Pier, on the second floor of a two-story building, no one answers when you knock on the door to inExile Entertainment. Instead, a half a dozen people ignore the door and keep staring at huge computer screens.
They're not rude. They're just busy programming video games.
Brian Fargo is the CEO and "Leader in Exile" of InXile Entertainment. The "exile" part is a joke: Fargo is in "exile" from Interplay, the video game company he founded in the early 1980s and left 12 years later after a clash with investors.
At Interplay, Fargo created a post-apocalyptic role-playing game called Wasteland. It looks and sounds primitive today, but back in the day, Wasteland was a darling of video game critics and a cult hit.
And, of course, fans wanted more.
"I would go around and people would want the sequel. I don't care what country in the world. They would ask, 'What about Wasteland?' Singapore, Hong Kong, Germany: they were always asking about it," said Fargo.
Fargo told publishers there was a market for a Wasteland sequel, but they didn't want to hear it. They weren't interested in role-playing games; what they wanted, Fargo said, was something that could be the next billion-dollar franchise.
The video game he wanted to make was more like an "indie" movie.
"We were a bit of an endangered species, because there's the big publishers, then there's the two indie guys working out of their house,” said Fargo. “Then there's mid-level, like 15-20 people. We can build a different product than two guys can. And I like building that kind of product."
"I pretty much had given up," said Fargo. "But then I heard about Kickstarter and thought, 'This could be it.'"
Fargo's initial Kickstarter fundraising goal: $1 million.
"And we blew through that in 48 hours," he said. "Forty-seven, actually.”
Fargo brought in almost $3 million for Wasteland 2, much more than he hoped for.
But even that much is less than the Irvine-based Obsidian Entertainment raised last week to develop its role playing game Project Eternity. Obsidian is much larger than inXile. Not a video game giant, but some 80 people work there.
"We had a $1.1 million dollar goal and we hit that in 30 hours," said executive producer Adam Brennecke.
Obsidian ended up raising just under $4 million from nearly 80,000 backers in a drive that ended Tuesday night.
To entice donors, Obsidian made a YouTube pitch and created tiers for rewarding donors. At each level of total funds raised, Obsidian promised to make the game better, adding a “Player House” at $2 million and an “Adventures Hall” at $2.6 million.
There were also premiums, depending on how much you gave.
"The whole Kickstarter process when you look at how we structure our backer rewards and how we structure our stretch goals is similar to a public radio funding drive,” said project director Josh Sawyer.
No tote bags here, though.
At $15, where most people donate, you're basically prepaying for the game to get a 50-percent discount. At $3,000, you get a custom designed portrait in the game.
And for $10,000 - and yes, there are four people who gave 10 grand - you get to play the game of your choice with Project Eternity's creators.
"If you want to get your nerd on and get play a game with the people who made Project Eternity, you have the opportunity to do so," Brennecke said.
Whether you give $15 or $10,000, it's a leap of faith that Obsidian and inExile will follow through because Kickstarter offers no guarantees.
To which Obsidian says: you can trust us.
"We have a reputation,” said Brennecke. “We are an established company. We've made these games in our history. I think that's a level of trust we have with our fans, that we'll follow through on our pitch and deliver a good game at the end of the day.”
Obsidian and inXile post frequent progress updates to keep funders in the loop. Last week, inXile's Fargo was asking what his backers thought of some new theme music.
Instead of a few investors, now tens of thousands give their 10 cents.
Fargo wouldn’t have it any other way.
"With Kickstarter, a lot of the top talent is saying, 'Hey! I could do this myself,'” Fargo said. “Because this is a fun existence. We're having a blast here. We're not focusing on how to get paid every minute. We're focused on how to make a better game. There's no politics, no BS. It's fantastic."
Fargo says it's like 1983 when he entered the nascent video game industry, before big money and big publishers.
Video games are about gamers again.