Why Kickstarter Is Not Going To Save Games

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Have you been alright? You look lovely.

With those pointless niceties out of the way, why don’t we have a little chat about this whole Kickstarter/Indiegogo/Rockethub crowdfunding business that seems to be all the rage. While crowdfunding is by no means a new endeavour – Marillion have funded entire tours and the production of several albums purely from fan donations since the late 90’s – but the phenomenon didn’t blow up on a big industry-wide scale until Double Fine launched their Adventure Kickstarter project. You know the score by now; Tim Schafer asked for $400,000 to make a classic point-n-click game and by the time the campaign ended a month later his team and him had received almost 3 and a half million from fans eager to see how return to the genre he made his name in. Developers across the globe were quick to sense an opportunity and within weeks there were dozens of game related projects clogging up Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites and just a few days ago another milestone was reached when inXile Entertainment came away with $2,933,252 for their bid to create a sequel to the old Fallout-predecessor “Wasteland”.

It is indeed an exciting and curious time for the industry with many asking what this model might do to change the relationship between developers and publishers. Traditionally publishers have been the main gatekeepers of the industry which has lead to an increase in “safe” AAA-projects with guaranteed returns and crowdfunding might be a new way for developers to get funding from the fans themselves to create game with more niche appeal. Many dream of an idealistic future where developers don’t have to cower and compromise to satisfy publishers’ demands, something both Double Fine and inXile humorously parodied in their Kickstarter videos. “Dead” genres and games with a more narrow focus can get funding straight from the players that want them instead of being cut down by the bigwigs who are too scared to produce anything high-risk.

Now, this certainly sounds spiffy, doesn’t it? Well, allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment and let’s look beyond the potential Utopia predicted by this wave of optimism. Always the hackneyed sourpuss, let’s ask some pertinent questions regarding the so-called Kickstarter model (because this article is quite wordy and not very “full of jokes or cursing”, I have decided to soften the blow by punctuating each paragraph with an old school gif animation from my personal collection):

“What if a Kickstarter-funded game turns out to be rubbish?”

I don’t doubt that there is plenty of talent and competence on call at both Double Fine or inXile, but consider that the most recent major releases out of these companies are “Brütal Legend” and “Hunted: The Demon’s Forge”. While neither of these games were terrible exactly, they were hardly considered much better than average either. What happens if, after fans have thrown literally millions of dollars at these projects and one or both turn out to be less than stellar? I am not saying this will happen but it absolutely could. No game is a guaranteed hit regardless of the amount of experience, talent and money behind it. It’s all well and good now to demonise publishers as Scrooge-like killjoys now but how do you think the internet is going to respond to a below-average title that they themselves sank a butt-load of cash into? And it is going to happen. At some point a big Kickstarter project is going to deliver something mediocre and how will that affect crowdfunding in the future? Soon enough, people are going to be much more careful about the kind of projects they choose to fund and then they will take on the same cautious role as the very publishers they thought they were making obsolete.

“What if a game gets cancelled?”

It’s tragic, but this happens. Like, a lot. Keeping with our most famous examples, at this point both “Double Fine Adventure” and “Wasteland 2” are just in the pre-production stage and very few games even make it out of that phase alive. Sure, a lot of times this is due to lack of funding, which is unlikely to be an issue right now, but there are other factors that can affect a the development of a game. Maybe the company is suddenly hit with an unexpected economic backlash or they get sued or a bunch of people decide to leave mid-development or the game just isn’t looking that good halfway into development. Say Double Fine gets hit with a massive lawsuit from nowhere and has to funnel most of their assets into even surviving as a company. If, for whatever reason, “Adventure” has to be cancelled, no money is going to be returned to the people who funded it (Double Fine does have a colourful history of games being delayed or otherwise affected by legal issues so this example isn’t entirely grabbed out of thin air). Refer back to the tail-end of the above paragraph but multiply it by about 100 for how that’s going to make people cautious or suspicious towards future crowdfunding projects.

“What if these games don’t make any money?/How are these games going to make any money?”

Here’s a question that struck me as I was researching this article and since I am no economist, I’d really love an actual answer to this; how is a crowdfunded game going to make a profit at all? If the money to make the game is provided by the people who want to play it, and the donations they make grants them access to the game when it’s done, who is going to actually buy it when it’s released? Consider that 81724 people have already given Double Fine money to make “Adventure”, a niche point-n-click game for the PC and about 216000 people bought “Brütal Legend” which was a big multi-platform release with plenty of marketing behind it. Almost 82000 people are going to get this game on release day and play it but not one of them is going to generate a profit since they have already put their money into the development. How many people that did not already donate to the campaign are going to buy the game? I’d actually like to know how this business model could ever work in the long-term so if you are savvy with money please give me the “as if I’m 3 years old” version in the comments.

“What if this will negatively affect the relationship with publishers?”

Despite our best efforts publishers are not currently all out in the gutter, hungrily sucking on bits of gravel for nourishment and they won’t be for any kind of foreseeable future. Even though the biggest Kickstarter projects generated a respectable amount of money, the fact remains that 3 million dollars is vanishingly little compared to most games produced today. The average cost to make a game in 2010 was somewhere between $23,000,000 and $28,000,000 and it is not unlikely that this figure is much higher today. There is still a long (probably impossibly so) way before crowdfunding can make publishers redundant but what effect will this have on the relationship between them and developers in the future? As this Kotaku article examines, it’s not an unlikely scenario that publishers might avoid working altogether with companies that seek to fund their projects using Kickstarter. Take into account the possibility that any of the previous “what if” scenarios might occur, at which point the developer is even more reliant on publisher assistance than before. If crowdfunding turns out to be a passing fad it could lead to plenty of upcoming  “look who’s come crawling back” meetings. Oh, and on that note:

“What if crowdfunding turns out to be a passing fad?”

How much money do you have? How much of your disposable income do you spend on games? How much are you prepared to funnel into games that aren’t even being worked on yet? With no guarantee for a return on your investment? Right now, Kickstarter can do no wrong as far as gamers are concerned. All projects are being funded with several times more money than what was originally asked for and the wave is riding high with optimism for the future. However, as is eternally the case this too shall pass. When it comes to money people are fickle by nature and while the bubble is growing people tend to spend spend spend because what could possibly go wrong? The bubble continues to grow as more  developers cash in, more nostalgia is milked with resurrected franchises and promising new ideas. It might be because any of the previous scenarios happens or something much smaller or it may just be as simple as people running out of money to spend on potential games, but at some point the tap is going to run dry. One day some promising project will not get enough money to be funded and that day will mark the moment people lost interest. I don’t mean to be pointlessly pessimistic here, but considering the amount of money in play (which is a lot for ordinary people but peanuts for publishers) it’s hard to see that this is a model that is built to last, at least not on a larger scale.

Despite this negativity, I am certain we will see plenty of great games created using this model but I doubt that it will extend beyond smaller and mid-level studios. And you know what, that’s great too. I doubt we will see a “Mass Effect 4” or “FIFA 2014” funded entirely by player donations but it’s definitely possible that we’ll see a new “Braid” or “Sword & Sworcery EP” or “Fez” or “Super Meat Boy”. In that sense, I remain whole-heartedly optimistic.


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