Kickstarter? Yes, but!

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Imagine you walk into a mall, with no real idea of what you want to buy. You are just browsing, seeing what’s on offer. Out of nowhere comes a guy who proceeds to tell you that he can make a painting for you. Maybe you have heard of the guy before, maybe you have not. Would you give him the 100 bucks he asks you for and if so, what would you expect in return? Imagine after a year the guy comes back to you and says he needs more time and money, because he only just realized now that he needs a few more additional colours…

Ok so maybe it’s not the best analogy, but you get the basic premise of what I am trying to say. Parting with your money in (blind) faith, hoping that at the end of the tunnel, you will get a product you can enjoy, but with no real way of telling what happens with the money you spent.

That, in a nutshell, is how you can describe Kickstarter.

A service where companies, individuals, entrepreneurs, gifted people, people with an idea and amazing talents can get funding for their ideas when they otherwise might not.

That, in a nutshell, is another way to describe Kickstarter.

Crowdfunding is the new buzzword on the block for the games industry (and many other industries as well) and sites like Kickstarter provide an opportunity for interested people to vote with their wallets what products actually get made. Have an idea, and a rough plan on how to deliver something? You can go to Kickstarter and get the funding you would otherwise never get, if enough people like your idea, believe in it and have (blind) faith in you actually delivering on your promise.

In theory it is a fantastic idea, particularly for the development of video games. Personally I love it and I have funded over 20 projects by now since early 2012. Games, films, documentaries and products that I want to be created. Products that I would love to own. To this day, I am still waiting for a single product I have backed to arrive.

So while I love the idea and the concept, I have become a bit jaded about it. I am thinking twice about actually investing in something now.

In this blog I am primarily focusing on games development and related kickstarter projects.

Kickstarter versus Publisher

Almost every single development studio, independent or not, has at some point lamented the input of a publisher on their project. This ranges for the extreme (“Make this game more CoD like!”) to the minor or even laughable (“Can we get more lens flares?). Every publisher has people somewhere in the management tier that either once were designers or want to be designers. Even worse, sometimes game design and development is influenced by marketing and sales.

Publishers are not all bad, of course, apart from providing funding for development and marketing, they often provide invaluable usability resources, focus testing capabilities and QA support that a developer alone could never hope to deliver.

But as any creative force, development studios want to deliver their vision of a game, their version of a story and their look and feel of a world. And nobody knows better than them, least of all a publisher.

This is why Kickstarter is so attractive and particularly right now. It provides the opportunity to get money directly from the source, the gamer, months before the game is even completed. Not only does that help to gauge the interest in the game early on, provide early PR and buzz, but also it completely bypasses the publisher and any pesky influence they might want to have.

In theory this is a brilliant idea. It is also a brilliant opportunity for many smaller and newly established studios to get funding for a game a publisher might deem to be too risky or too small to be of value. In essence games get made, that would otherwise never be made, or if they are, sink into obscurity. This, to me, is the spirit of Kickstarter. This is what it’s all about, what the service was created for.

Give indies and startups a chance to develop a project the way they want, often following different organizational structures, working in a modern way, leaving corporate and larger scale studio work ethics and policies behind. It allows them to focus on what is important: being creative and getting an awesome game done.

So where is the problem?

A valid question to ask indeed!

Many of these new and small companies try their luck on Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites. But do we ever hear about them? Are they easy to find or being reported on by various news outlets (games or mainstream)? Sadly that is not the case (with a few rare exceptions). In order to find out about these truly independent games, these new startup companies, one actually does need to dig a bit deeper. The information is there, no doubt. Browsing through available projects or using sites like Kicktraq works – but there are not really that many backers out there (500 million USD in funds and only 3 million backers to date!!).And even fewer make a real effort in researching. Most are more likely to stumble on a project they like through other media.

So crowdfunding is littered with the corpses of failed projects. Projects we never hear about again and projects that might never get made. The only projects we hear about are the high profile ones. Those that gain media traction and are brought to our attention through every day outlets we read.

Have you ever heard of Salvation Universe? It has 4 backers and raised 340 USD of a 25.000 USD goal. How about Frozen State? 532 backers and sitting at about 15.000 GBP of 60.000 GBP required (still a few days to go). Some of these projects have poor project pages (to put it mildly); others are quite well designed, with lots of information and well thought out tiers of rewards. Yet many struggle.

There was an excellent article on Gamasutra about this not too long ago, and many teams wanting to go the crowdfunding route should take it to heart. It talks a lot about being realistic when it comes to backer expectations and tier placement.

The issue is though that everyone who knows about Kickstarter also knows about at least one of the high profile projects. Many of us probably only heard about the site (which has existed since 2009) after reading about one of these high profile projects somewhere else.

Double Fine’s adventure (80k+ backers), Project Eternity (74k backers), Star Citizen (35k backers on kickstarter + backers on their own site), Project Godus (17k backers) and Elite Dangerous (26k backers).

Some of these games were pitched to publishers and declined. Some of them even started development, but were cancelled and people were let go along the way. They are all high profile – did any of the backers, at any point, wonder why they have not been made before?

Chances are you have heard of at least one of them. What do they have in common? They all feature a high profile studio or one or more veteran developers. These projects all banked on backers trusting their names, loving their games (some of them released as far back as the 90s – and game years are like dog years). These projects were all reported on widely in games and even mainstream media. These projects all have extremely well presented pitches (that cost time and money to create).

Gamers loved the idea. Finally a creative mind like Peter Molyneux could be unshackled from a publisher. He could do his own thing, no longer hindered by the corporate machine. Tim Schafer could go back to doing what he did best: point and click action adventures! No publisher would tell him this game would not sell and thus not fund it.

But it is this publicity of the few, which I believe buries the many. Startup companies, individuals with great ideas often don’t get that kind of exposure. And thus they don’t get the same amount of attention and backing. It is the same people who have made games for the last 10 years (and in some cases who have alienated publishers or exhausted traditional methods of funding) who now take over the crowdfunding potential.

How about accountability and viability then?

This to me is probably the biggest issue really. It is something that I have often debated with staunch Kickstarter supporters, and despite me loving the idea of crowdfunding and having supported some projects, it is what holds me back on spending more money on many more projects.

Kickstarter is suitably vague about accountability. Setting up a project requires a project team to promise delivery of all rewards. This includes the game. But it does not specify exactly to what quality level the game has to be completed. Most people would assume it has to be the quality promised in the original pitch, but how do you judge this? In order to get a refund (after all trade-ins are not possible in most cases), a lengthy lawsuit would be the only solution.

In more traditional game development the customer is better protected (note: I am not necessarily saying the customer is receiving a better product!). The publisher (or another entity providing funding) carries the risk and responsibility. The publisher ensures deadlines are met (or provides extra funding if deadlines are not met). The publisher provides customer support, help lines and additional information where needed. The customer has the option to read reviews, play the demo and look at a box before deciding to buy. And if the customer does not like the product, he or she can return it or trade it in.

With Kickstarter that protection is gone. Giving money to a project essentially is done in good faith, and the backer hopes to receive a product at the end of it, and hopes that the product will be as described, often months or even years before.

The developer retains the right to change things, retains the right to the IP and product and retains the right to extend the project or seek other funding.

Probably one of the best examples of this issue is Double Fine’s Broken Game.

Initially asking for 400k USD (probably one of the biggest projects until that time), the game was meant to be released sometime in October of 2012. It ended up raising more than 8 times that amount and several stretch goals were added. The game is still not released and, as you can read in the article linked above, news emerged today that the game is well over budget and part 1 only would be released (probably) in January of 2014. This sale would raise more money to finish the game and the full version would be released a few months later.

Tim Schafer cited “over-design” as the reason.

And this is exactly where I see the biggest issue with Kickstarter. Accountability. Double Fine posted a fair amount of updates, video blogs of the development and other news. But in the end, they had no responsibility to those who funded their adventure. They had nobody to reign in Tim Schafer and prevented him over designing the game. Amazing creative he may be, but blue sky design will only get you so far. Sooner or later a (brief) return to reality is needed for a project to actually be completed. Thousands of people threw money at them, in the hopes of getting a classic favorite back, and Double Fine went and spent far more money than they had available.

This is a very common problem in the industry. I have been part of development of a few games in the past that went well over budget and also well over time. However in all those cases, at some point, the publisher either pulled the plug or set a final deadline and people had to pull their heads out of their arses and deliver something. Not always something good. But regardless of the quality: the customer had not (yet) spent a dime on it. It was not the customer’s problem. The customer, the gamer, was protected. Others bore the risk and responsibility.

Double Fine is not alone. It is just very high profile and so an easy example (and target). But there are many Kickstarter projects out there that make the same mistake. They do not perform a due diligence on their project. They do not estimate cost appropriately, setting the target too low intentionally to ensure it gets funded and hoping they will get many times more than they ask for (Kickstarter does not pay out unless the project is fully funded), and they often underestimate how long something really takes.

While some of these things might be excused for brand new studios with no experience, something like this should not have happened to the likes of Double Fine, who have been in the industry longer than most.

Many of these projects simply are not viable, which is probably why many of these projects did not get traditional funding in the first place.

Thousands of people love an idea and fund it. Many of them don’t even care if the game gets made or not, or when it actually release and what quality it is. Many are simply fans of a studio or a developer.

But many more, judging by backer comments on the Broken Age page and on news reports about their delay today, are getting a bit dubious to say the least. This is particularly true when the same company starts a second Kickstarter project before the first one finishes (Double Fine was not the only one, inXile did the same).

One comment (of many similar ones) on the Broken Age site sums this up nicely I think (Massive Chalice is Double Fine’s second kickstarter project. Interesting note: It received one third of the funding that Broken Age did, despite asking for the same amount):

… I defended the Massive Chalice Kickstarer because it is a different team that requires different funding to make its own project. No problems so far. But the information about Broken Age being so badly mismanaged was withheld until after the Massive Chalice Kickstarter had completed. Would I have backed that project if I knew how madly off-budget Broken Age had become? Maybe, but I certainly would have thought twice in case this is a companywide problem. To not tell us about it until after that Kickstarter frankly feels like something of a betrayal – taking me for everything you can before revealing how irresponsible you were with what I have already given.

We will have to wait and see how these high profile projects pan out and what, if any, repercussions they have on crowdfunding. If some of them fail it could be devastating for the concept, or it could well turn people away from high profile projects and onto some of the smaller ones.

We all want great games to be made, no matter how they are funded. Personally I would like to see all projects given equal consideration and space in media and news outlets. I would like to see those who really need a kick-start get the backing they deserve. This would bring a lot more variety to our entertainment and push the industry as a whole forward.

So the next time you see a big project somewhere in the media, try to also have a look at some smaller ones. Use Kicktraq to find something you might not have heard about. But before you back any project, do a little research, check their numbers to see if they make sense – or you will back in blind faith and just have to hope for the best.

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