I'm always shrewd when it comes to Kickstarter. If a project doesn't have the right people or realistic expectations, I usually avoid it. Potential backers need to brush nostalgia aside and think like calculating investors, even if they're playing with $20.
The success of Double Fine Adventure’s Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in 2012 changed the gaming industry overnight. All of a sudden, developers had a viable alternative to seeking money from risk-averse publishers and investors. For years, those devoted, passionate game makers fruitlessly circulated petitions and created Facebook groups in the hopes of influencing publishers. Kickstarter gave voice to niche audiences, giving them a chance to put their money where their mouths were — and help revive series and genres that most had long forgotten.
After Double Fine earned a million dollars in a day, many in the media called it a fluke, a perfect storm that would never happen again. They thought this effort was the rare exception, and that gamers would never continue to pay for titles that didn’t even exist yet. Thinking now about how wrong these predictions were is almost humorous, as huge Kickstarters continue to exceed their goals.
A year and a half since Double Fine Adventure, the sobering reality has begun to set in. Some funding initiatives — mostly the smaller ones — have delivered on their promises, and some have even garnered critical acclaim. But most campaigns have run over budget, suffered delays, and a few have been outright failures. Just recently, we’ve seen two big projects from 2012 stumble: CLANG and Takedown: Red Sabre. Fans anticipated both releases, and each has crashed so miserably that multiple parties are calling for legal action. CLANG has ceased development, and Takedown has released commercially in a virtually unplayable state.
You could expect some of these issues. Regardless of the funding method, developers will occasionally cancel projects, and certain releases will fail to live up to their hype. Kickstarter backers should view any pledge as a donation or at least a micro-investment that might or might not pay off. Like any investment, one cannot expect guarantees, and the best way to achieve stable, predictable success is with a diverse portfolio that could bear a few failures. If the big payoffs are large enough, they will cancel out the small losses.
I backed Takedown, and while I’m disappointed that the current product is not good, I’m not especially remorseful about the meager amount of money I wasted on it. If I had given $100 or $1,000, however, I probably wouldn’t be so kind. It’s easy to say people should understand the risks involved, but without the reckless enthusiasm of these few individuals, many efforts wouldn’t succeed. Much like free-to-play games with in-app purchases, their success depends on a small few who spend big. But these backers don’t know exactly what they’re paying for.
Although companies are legally accountable to deliver something, they aren’t accountable for the quality of those products. The Kickstarter model forces consumers to give up the rights they normally enjoy, namely the ability to evaluate a release before making a purchase. Not only that, they pay a good deal more on average for their rewards than those who purchase games after they come out. Simply put, Kickstarter is not usually a very good deal in terms of value.
What the crowdfunding site offers is the ability to make things happen that couldn’t otherwise. In a real sense, this does have value — enough, even, to outweigh the risks of participating in campaigns. But when an effort comes along that doesn’t truly need the capital, it robs players of that value. The upcoming Pathfinder Online went to Kickstarter not once, but twice, even after the MMO secured funding from a publisher. Others have turned to the site as a first choice for no-strings-attached fundraising without even exploring other options first. These studios have transformed the service into a glorified pre-order system where consumers often overpay and don’t get what they thought they would in return.
Developers often clothe themselves in anti-publisher sentiment to justify their appeals. They cry about how they’d rather make a game for “you” than let “the man” muck up their ideas. This is nonsense. Sure, you’ll find stories where publishers’ and developers’ visions for a title were at odds. But, more often that not, games fail because studios missed their deadlines or lacked good planning in the first place, not because the publishers signing the checks interfered. We’re quickly seeing how the same things happen with Kickstarter funding as well, and titles still ship incomplete and full of bugs while falling short of their ambitious plans.
Game makers also employ Nostalgia to woo players to their side. Some initiatives, like Mighty No. 9 or Project Fedora, bring a whole team of experienced vets together to revisit past glories, and this is probably a pretty honest reason for backers to have confidence. In other cases, the link to past glories is shadier. In the case of Takedown, developer Serellan appealed to a common nostalgia for tactical shooters rather than real experience with the genre. Project Phoenix is even worse, as it makes allusions to past titles its team had “worked on,” even when they were only musicians on the soundtrack or testers in the QA department, leading people to believe the group is much more experienced than it is.
We need Kickstarter. It has solved a real problem for the industry and opened doors for those who had limited opportunities. But the service should not simply become the default way that small-to-medium budget titles find funding. When developers treat it as risk-free money and exploit the good will of a sometimes-uninformed base, they risk ruining the platform for those who truly need it. Publisher investment is good for us, and we should embrace it as the best option in most cases.