Kickstarting an Industry
What does fan based funding really mean for the industry?
I’d bet dollars to donuts that only a miniscule number of our readers had heard of Kickstarter a couple of months ago. And those that had heard of the crowdsourcing fundraising site could not have possibly known that it would become an important part of an evolving video game industry; that it would throw a wrench into the workings of how things have “always been done” and give the community – the fans – a voice that is not only heard, but heeded as well.
The initial reaction to the success stories of Double Fine Adventure and Wasteland 2 is that of unadulterated hope and jubilation. Hope that games we’ve always wanted to see made but were considered too risky by publishers to back up. Jubilation in the thought that publishers may lose their iron grip over decisions concerning what the consumer wants. These reactions are completely normal, but the success of just two games, while a great sign, is not indicative of any real change in the industry. We have to step back for a moment, get some distance, and take an analytical look at what all this really means.
Kickstarter is by no means a stranger to helping video game developers procure funds for a project. The site has played host to many an indie project that needed just a couple grand to stay afloat. What makes these recent projects stand out is that it represents the first time that industry veterans have turned to it as a means of raising sums that may be small by AAA model standards, but are still a lot to ask from the public. Had an unknown attempted to raise $400k like Double Fine or the amazing $900k that inXile Entertainment did, we would have scoffed at their audacity, but since we know these folks and their respective bodies of work we instead heap praise upon them.
I know a sales man that always tells me that the key to it all is relationships. This is exactly why these have worked as well as they have. You may or may not be a fan of Tim Schafer’s work, but you’d be hard pressed to convince me that you don’t think he’s a great guy. He’s continuously endeared himself to the gaming community at large, and so when he comes to us and says, “I’d like to do an old school adventure game, but publishers just laugh in my face. Will you help me out?” we can’t help but acquiesce.
Brian Fargo similarly has endeared himself to the community and is well known among the “old guard” of PC gamers. His Kickstarter video is funny, takes a few shots at the AAA business model, and displays a humble appreciation for the fans. It’s hard to not want him to succeed in this venture.
In contrast, would you be able to get behind a project started by Bobby Kotick? That sound you just heard is the collective voice of countless videogame fans screaming, “Absolutely not!” Why? Because he has the power and means others don’t have and more importantly he hasn’t nurtured any kind of meaningful relationship, besides an antagonistic one, with the community at large.
If you’re reading this, chances are you or someone you know has donated to one or both of these ventures. I asked a friend of mine who donated to the Double Fine project if he had ever played a classic styled adventure game. He said no. I asked him if he was really interested in the genre. Again he said no. Then why back this up, I inquired.
“Because fuck publishers, that’s why.”
Gamers are becoming more and more fed-up with the current state of gaming. Publishers prefer to take the safe route when green-lighting games, much to the dismay of the fans of niche genres or cult classic franchises. I can’t blame the publishers too much. They have millions of dollars at risk after all, but the gamer in me screams in agony awaiting some sign of sequels to Beyond Good and Evil and Psychonauts. We perceive the lack of fan service from publishers as a kind of middle finger – a gesture that we vigorously return by backing game projects that some of us would otherwise have no interest in.
Kickstarter has a shine to it right now. Most people are in such awe by the success of these projects that they can’t see any of the obvious pitfalls. Sure, we’ve given Double Fine Adventure over $3.3 million and that’s great, but you have to remember that this money is merely going towards development costs – it does not factor in marketing. To be fair, the general press has made such a big deal out of these projects (and rightfully so) that traditional marketing through commercials and other advertising is not needed, yet we must remember that this won’t always be the case. Culturally speaking we can’t be bothered to pay attention to anything for longer than a few fleeting moments. Eventually we’ll stop making a big deal out of Kickstarter projects and even the more notable ones will find getting funding isn’t all that simple anymore.
What this also means is that even if developers do meet their goals they won’t have the advertising power necessary to turn a profit – and developers still need cash to operate beyond the development phase of a single game. So beyond this first batch, will these games truly succeed? People oftentimes forget that there is a reason that the developer/publisher relationship exists in the first place. Publishers provide not only the money needed for development; they also provide the money to ensure that everyone hears about it.
More importantly the publishers also hold developers to a level of accountability. They provide and drive deadlines, stifle scope creep and offer an outsider perspective on the project. With Kickstarter this relationship and level of accountability is gone. What happens if Wasteland 2 suffers from scope creep so severe it puts the project at risk? What if they don’t deliver on time, or force the product out before it’s finished to hit their self imposed deadline? What if the game is bad? What if it doesn’t sell? What if the game comes in under budget? Does the developer refund that money, or do they just keep it?
You may argue that the developer is now accountable to the fans who funded them, but that’s a quicksand committee that doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Do the fans sue the developer for fear of delivery? Exactly what action can be taken? While we’re all basking in the glory of Kickstarter success, these questions become even more important.
What I’m saying is, Kickstarter may not revolutionize the industry like we may hope it would. The funding necessary to create a large scope game is much larger than the impressive piles of money brought in by Double Fine and inXile – it’s an amount that I don’t find feasible through these means.
But make no mistake; Kickstarter is a good thing for our industry. It provides the opportunity for the cult classic and niche genre to get off the ground and into development. It provides fan service in an industry that is becoming surprising less and less trusting in their consumers. It provides some perspective to publishers as to what gamers really want.
It provides all these things, but most importantly, it’s providing the opportunity for us all to take a step back, get some distance, and take an analytical look at what all this really means.