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.