Kicking the Tires

Kickstarter is to me, perhaps, the most fascinating industry force of the past few years. While, I remain unconvinced that it has the likelihood or even potential to change the face of gaming or of funding for development of games — claims which I’ve occasionally heard whispered — there’s no doubt that it is also tapping into a deep well of interest from an aging internet generation with an increasingly disposable income to give at least some corner of the industry back to the people. Kickstarter may not have companies like Activision quaking in their boots, but there’s no question that it’s becoming a player in the game.

I have to remind myself that Kickstarter is a larger enterprise, where video game funding is only a part of the whole. It is somehow intellectually rewarding to log into the home page and see artistic endeavors of all kinds getting attention and patronage, and to know that because of Kickstarter, there will be more books, more art and more music in the world. And, more importantly, that those artistic endeavors have been facilitated through a more intimate medium, where the relationship between creator and receiver is direct.

But Kickstarter is also facilitating significant sums of cash. Add up the combined total of the top 3 funded projects for each major section of Kickstarter, and you get a number that is in the $20,000,000 range. Granted, the total sum of funding to all projects for Kickstarter since 2009 probably would be barely enough to back your average studio romantic comedy — the vast majority of those dollars come from within the past year, or even 6 months. Kickstarter is obviously on a roll, which to my mind leads to an important question about the long term feasibility of this system.

What happens when some of the high profile projects inevitably fail?

Like anyone else, I love seeing the underdog win. Watching Double Fine collect more than 3 million dollars from people passionate for games like Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango actually gave me a somewhat surprising pleasure. Particularly once I’d helped fund the game, I allowed myself to become beguiled by the alluring illusion of having a personal stake in the success story of the project. After all, that’s the magic of Kickstarter.

But in the cold, stark reality of day, I find a cynical corner of my brain asking, “Isn’t there a reason why some of these projects, perhaps many of these projects, couldn’t get funded in a more traditional manner?” Aren’t there at least some of these projects or project creators that were turned away because their vision had some fundamental flaw — or worse, because they themselves were not in position to deliver?

I don’t really doubt that a well established and experienced company like Double Fine is in position to deliver, but for some of these other projects I’m not so sure. After all, even in the best of conditions, how often do veteran game makers blow through their budgets and have to come back later and ask for more from their publishers? It’s certainly not unprecedented. So how would this scenario go down in Kickstarter land? What happens when Small Game Maker X underestimates the massive sometimes-hidden costs in creating, refining, producing and distributing their game?

The reality is that, while Kickstarter certainly frowns on the idea of not delivering, they do also wash their hands of being responsible for project creators following through. In their FAQ, they clearly indicate that project creators are solely responsible for delivering on promises. They also make it clear that they do no investigation to verify that a project creator is in position to deliver. So what does Kickstarter identify as the big accountability driver in this process? “Powerful social forces.” Also, potential litigation.

The message in summary is that the responsibility for verifying that a project is legitimate and achievable, for kicking the tires as it were, falls entirely on the backer. It is truly caveat emptor.

Don’t misunderstand me. This isn’t a criticism or indictment of Kickstarter, because it’s exactly what I’d do if I were in their position. First of all, I’m not sure these guys expected to be almost routinely funneling around millions of dollars for relatively major endeavors. More importantly, taking responsibility for making sure people actually deliver would be tantamount to putting a noose around the company’s neck while doing a tapdance on a roof ledge. They’d be stupid to take on that responsibility.

And, after all, they are right. This is an age where powerful social forces do impact behavior, not just on the micro but the macro level as well. I’d argue that powerful social forces are exactly what has turned Kickstarter into something relevant. My concern is that those powerful social forces are catastrophically fickle, and I wonder what the real-world result of one or two failures might be. Certainly the project creators for a high-profile failure would be run out of town on a rail, but it’s hard to imagine that Kickstarter itself wouldn’t get rounded up by the mob in the process.

It doesn’t even have to be a failure from the perspective of a major project creator delivering nothing. Imagine for a moment if a game like Elemental had been funded in part or whole by Kickstarter. What happens when a project creator delivers technically on their promises, but not aesthetically? What if the new Wasteland game is released and it’s just kind of crappy?

I feel like there is a lot of pressure on these first rounds of high-profile Kickstarted games to actually do well in release and in the public eye. It’s great that there’s been so much enthusiasm for giving money directly to creators of content, but now the onus is on them to deliver on some of these very big promises they’ve made. To be honest, I think the future of Kickstarter itself actually lies with them.

Comments

Yeah, I was talking about this in the Kickstarter thread a couple of weeks ago. Some of these games ARE GOING TO SUCK. You're not going to like them. The IDEA of the game will be more interesting than the actual game itself. Funding a Kickstarter project is high risk.

However, at least a few of these games are going to be dynamite, and you can think of the funding for games that didn't pan out as the additional cost for the games that did.

I, for one, am absolutely, utterly sick to death of the greed and evil of the large publishers. Losing some money to poor project management will not bother me anywhere near as much as day 1 DLC, and real-life markets for drops, where the publisher is taking a ridiculously huge cut.

Malor wrote:

Funding a Kickstarter project is high risk.

I'd agree, if I didn't believe that the potential loss was part of the definition of "risk." The incidence of loss is high, but since there's not much to lose, the risk isn't that high.

HedgeWizard wrote:

I suspect a fair number of these bigger projects are going to take the money they make from KS and go to a non-traditional publisher or funding arm and say: Look. Here is a market for this thing we're making. Kickstarter got us 1/3 - 2/3 of the way - please help us get further. I think that's a pretty compelling argument right there alone, and might not carry the same baggage as traditional developer-publisher agreements.

That's what Republique is doing.

Maybe, if the ex-Sierra + DF kickstarter projects produce good results it might change the publishers' conventional wisdom about adventure games. Otherwise, the genre just stays in the indie space and hopefully DF and the rest continue to make more of them when they can.

Malor wrote:

Yeah, I was talking about this in the Kickstarter thread a couple of weeks ago. Some of these games ARE GOING TO SUCK. You're not going to like them. The IDEA of the game will be more interesting than the actual game itself. Funding a Kickstarter project is high risk.

However, at least a few of these games are going to be dynamite, and you can think of the funding for games that didn't pan out as the additional cost for the games that did.

I think that's to be expected and the whole reason there's an element of "risk" involved. You can't beat the house if you don't place a bet.

I believe educating any potential backer is important. Maybe it's because gaming just got popular on KS but these risk have always existed in the KS World. We can't be so naive, there are bad games out there or games that never see the light of day and just because it's a KS game doesn't mean those games are immune to that.

I see it as a community we know what we're getting into and if one or more of these project fail, it won't be the end. We'll just learn from it.

The more experience a project has behind it the better and most likely the more I give. Otherwise I back based on the idea/potential of a project knowing I might never see that "investment" back.

The thing with the risk is that it's an option, you also have the choice to not back it at the start and buy the finished product at the end, which is remarkably similar to how most games are made now.

I agree with the general premise of the post and have become more judicious with my backing dollars as the giddiness of "wow, new system _and_ Wasteland 2" wears off. That said, it's like others have pointed out - it's not necessarily any riskier than pre-ordering a game via the traditional funding model and good Kickstarters provide as much or more visibility into the project as would a traditional pre-order game (of course, I'm not a big pre-orderer in general but that's a different point). When looking at a Kickstarter to back, I don't look just at the story or concept or even the pedigree of the dev team - I look to see how engaged they are in the community and what work they've actually done and try to gauge what the finished product will look like and if it'll even be finished. If I see a game like Xenonauts' recent Kickstarter which offers a downloadable, free playable demo that shows engagement with the community, real promise _and_ more importantly real progress, I'm more likely to back it than a few pieces of concept art. (to be up front, I helped them set up their Kickstarter drive but only after I'd played the demo and thought it looked good)

Caveat emptor, for sure, but that's the name of the game with any pre-order and at least with Kickstarter I can take a flyer for $10 or $15 instead of the $50+ that a AAA title might cost.

wordsmythe wrote:

I'd agree, if I didn't believe that the potential loss was part of the definition of "risk." The incidence of loss is high, but since there's not much to lose, the risk isn't that high.

I think we're using the term somewhat differently. I'm using it as 'the chance of losing your money'. You're using it 'how much financial damage will it do to me'. I'm saying that the chance of losing your money is pretty high. You're saying that this won't hurt very much, because it's not very much money. Your statement is certainly true (well, for people who don't overdo it, anyway). I also believe that my statement will prove to be accurate, but we won't know for a couple of years. Regardless, they're not at all mutually exclusive.

I suspect that, probably, most of the projects we Kickstart will end up being disappointing. It's Sturgeon's law... 80% of everything is crap. But the ones we love will be so awesome that it will make up for the ones we don't.... and we'll know that those projects couldn't have happened under the old development models.

I've backed a lot of stuff since Double Fine, and if I get just one game I really love out of it, I'll be doing better than I have with mainstream games for years.

Maybe at the very least, any Kickstarter project could release just enough of a game so it could sit there in Steam next to all the other games we've bought that might as well not even exist.

It would make us feel better, kinda sorta.

Malor wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

I'd agree, if I didn't believe that the potential loss was part of the definition of "risk." The incidence of loss is high, but since there's not much to lose, the risk isn't that high.

I think we're using the term somewhat differently. I'm using it as 'the chance of losing your money'. You're using it 'how much financial damage will it do to me'. I'm saying that the chance of losing your money is pretty high. You're saying that this won't hurt very much, because it's not very much money. Your statement is certainly true (well, for people who don't overdo it, anyway). I also believe that my statement will prove to be accurate, but we won't know for a couple of years. Regardless, they're not at all mutually exclusive.

I'm not disagreeing with you, I'm correcting your terminology. Risk is my day job.

So without any KS involvement, some gamers felt sufficient ownership over ME3 as to do the whole FTC complaint, lawsuit threat, internet petition, whineykid tantrum. Is there actually anything more could people do if they KS funded that game?

Cod wrote:

ME3

There's more than one way to be invested in something.

To gently try to address thoughts that brings up without derailing the thread. It seems for any kickstarter to work you need to get mental investment before any financial investment happens. Also that those putting a project on kickstarter need to be clear about what community involvement is invited and to make clear what the project is (duh), but also for those interested in funding to know what they're doing and getting into, and that it's not necessarily a two-directional relationship in all things.

I'm not disagreeing with you, I'm correcting your terminology. Risk is my day job.

My usage is also correct. If I wanted to be super-technical, I'd have reworded the sentence "Funding a Kickstarter project is high risk" to be "Funding a Kickstarter project has a high risk of losing your money." But there's no real need, since people who don't do risk for a living will extract the correct meaning, and those who do will figure out that I'm using the colloquial term, rather than the technical one, in short order.