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What Does Kickstarter Mean in 2015?

Expectations and entitlements, dreams and investments, Star Citizen and Elite

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Once a week most weeks, the RPS hivemind gathers to discuss An Issue. Sometimes it’s controversial news, sometimes it’s a particular game, sometimes it’s a perennial talking point. This week is one of the latter: what do we all think about Kickstarter now that its mega-money heyday, at least for games, seems to have passed? Is it a well we’ll keep going back to? What expectations and entitlements do we have from developers’ crowdfunding promises? Are people buying dreams, or investing in chances? And what about that there Star Citizen, eh?

Alec: Hello everyone. Today we’re going to talk about CROWDFUNDING, because it is the year 2012. But actually we are at the point where we can have a great deal of hindsight about Kickstarted games, rather than guessing about how it’s going to pan out or simply moaning about old men making too much money.

How’s everyone feeling about Kickstarter generally nowadays?

Adam: I have enjoyed quite a few games that went through the crowdfunding process and therefore it is a good thing for me. Don’t know whether they would have been made via alternative means – the sacrifice of shares to the living Stock Exchange that lives within Donald Trump’s hairpiece and that sort of thing – but they came to me via Kickstarter or Indiegogo, and they pleased me. Maybe if it hadn’t been for crowdfunding they would never have existed and maybe if they had still existed, they would have been compromised in some way – hell, maybe they would have been bigger and better. I don’t know.

But, yeah, there have been crowdfunding successes and I’m happy that those games exist.

Alec: Do you mean games you yourself have backed, or just ones which have arrived and you know that was their origin? I guess it’s a very different thing, because you’re not at all invested in their existence until they’re basically on your hard drive.

Adam: Good point. These games I’m thinking of are ones that I didn’t back – I’ve only backed three games and one of them didn’t make it. So, you see, the beauty of all this is, no risk for Adam, and plenty of rewards. I’m happy to let other people do the backing on the whole because I am both poor and completely turned off by physical rewards. Of the tat variety. Or the dinner with devs variety.

Alec: Has anyone felt let down by a game they backed? Or other things, I guess. I ordered some super-strong USB cable that was supposed to act like a phone-holder in the car, and after months in shipping it snapped first time I used it. Bastards.

John: I backed Dead Synchronicity, on the basis of its superb demo, and then didn’t really enjoy the final game. I feel okay with that.

Alice: I haven’t even got around to installing Wasteland 2 because it turns out I’m not as excited by the idea as I once was. That’s fine, though. I paid for an idea and the idea took form and happened and… I mean, we’re all broady okay with all this because none of us have been really burned by a game – ones that never happened at all, or turned out truly dire. We’re probably relatively conservative when it comes to paying for ideas. I’ll happily buy a small game on Itch just because I dig the idea or look of it or what the dev’s done before, and yeah, mostly I’m pretty happy with how it goes, even if a few turn out duffers. Happy to spend small amounts of money to support people with cool ideas in the hope they’ll turn out well. If not, oh well – I knew that might happen.

Alec: This is the key question, really: have we moved on from feeling there’s any obligation for theoretical promises of quality or excellency to be met and into, hey, I dig the cut of that guy’s jib, let’s chuck ‘em some cash?

John: I’d hope that most people would have had the sense to know no such obligations ever existed. Clearly loud and tedious people will continue to bark about how they “invested” or whatever bullshit when the game turns out not to have enough asplosions for them. But most sensible people knew it was about angel investment at best, and just putting some money in a bowl more realistically. Those who see it as pre-ordering are more persistent, but again, only the terminally thick wouldn’t make that decision without knowing pre-ordering something before it exists is not a guarantee of quality, nor indeed of future existence.

Pip: My feelings about Kickstarter and other crowdfunding are that it’s supposed to be about backing ideas you want to see in the world and supporting the people doing them. You have to be okay with it not happening or for it not to happen quite the way that was planned. It’s not a pre-order system where you get to have the developer bend to your will.

That said, the devs want the money and they want to be (or are) confident in their game – that it will happen and that it will happen the way they’re saying – because that confidence and appearance of competence is one way to attract backers. At that point you can see why it starts looking closer and closer to a pre-order system.

There’s also the fact that Kickstarter says in its terms and conditions things like:

“When a project is successfully funded, the creator must complete the project and fulfill each reward. Once a creator has done so, they’ve satisfied their obligation to their backers.”

It sets out the contractual nature of what’s happening when you back a successfully funded project – that there’s a real obligation on the part of the creator to actually deliver on this. But it is also keen to stress Kickstarter itself is not part of that contract. Further down you find this:

“The creator is solely responsible for fulfilling the promises made in their project. If they’re unable to satisfy the terms of this agreement, they may be subject to legal action by backers.”

But these are IDEAS! and HOPES! rather than exercises in reminding you of the risks and so you get presented with the best case scenario and the risks and the potential for things going wrong is kept out of the limelight. I see it because I like sitting down and reading through terms and conditions (I’m not kidding) but I can also see that it can be easy to miss or gloss over.

Alec: What about – inevitably – Star Citizen? That really seemed to be a case of people getting entirely starry-eyed about The Dream Game. Did they all think they were just investors?

Alice: It’s a big, exciting idea – the kind of game people have dreamed off for decades. Big dreams are attractive, and Cloud Imperium Games (and their drone studios) seem to be doing their best to make it real. A few delays and technical setbacks show even they know it’s a difficult dream to realise. It won’t be everything everyone dreamed of, but I think it’ll be an interesting thing either way. It’s certainly a first or two – all that crowdfunded cash, and all that ambition.

Adam: I played one of the first versions of the combat module and it was so bad, just appallingly constructed, that I decided not to go back until I’d heard good things. And however many months later, I hear about new things rather than old things getting put right. Now, it might be the case that the combat is great now but that’s not what I hear from the press releases and the rest of the noise – I just hear about new and bigger.

The process seems weird to me but that’s one of the other aspects of the crowdfunding scene – the transparency of development means that people who’ve never worked on a game and might have no idea what’s happening at the foundational levels – people like me – suddenly think they’re seeing the big picture and can work out where all the pieces should be, and when they should be fixed in place. I’m not sure how helpful that transparency is a lot of the time, for either the backers and passers by or the developers. It’s a small window into a complicated process at best.

John: Yes, I do wish this idea that crowdfunding means transparent development would go away. Updates to keep backers aware that the game IS developing are good. But this idea that you need to smear the insides of the sausage all over our faces really has had its time. Just bloody focus on making the game.

Alice: That’s part of what many people pay for, though – to feel like they’re part of it, not just putting in money. Developers talk about “our journey” and “our adventure” and how happy they are to bring people along with them. It’s part of the dream crowdfunding tends to sell.

John: I guess that’s a delusion I’d rather no longer be spread.

Adam: It can be done well, I think. But damned if I know exactly where I’d draw the line between ‘sharing’ and ‘smearing’ (that’s the sausage John was talking about getting shared and smeared there). I enjoy hearing people discuss inspirations and maybe showing off some neat concept art, but I don’t think the actual process of creation is all that compelling or legible to an outsider. I mean, the 22 Cans livestream cams probably give a better idea of what development looks like than a thousand backer updates. Just people, with messy desks, coding and animating and occasionally goofing around.

Alice: Especially as crowdfunding loses its novel shine, the projects looking for big amounts of money are looking to do more and be more than just “we’ll make this game.” It’s an uncomfortable position. I think the focus on the new with Star Citizen comes from a similar place; their crowdfunding has continued long after their Kickstarter, but to keep more people coming in or to push pledges up they need to keep making it more exciting. Polishing an old idea doesn’t have the same appeal as a new idea.

Adam: Definitely. To be clear, I wasn’t suggesting that Star Citizen hasn’t come along since my early look-in. That was as much a criticism of how I see the process, and what I expect from the process, as anything else. And I guess it all comes back to expectations – expectations of what the thing will be, expectations of how far money will go (and, boy, that’s a big one – how often people break down the price of development and don’t take wages into account) and expectations of how development works, looks and behaves.

Pip: That plays into something I’ve been thinking about crowdfunding and risk assessment. Basically people are not very good at assessing risk and tend to catastrophise some events while assuming others – perhaps more familiar stuff where they feel they are better able to assess the pros and cons – are far safer than they are. Maybe think about how uneasy people can be about getting on a plane versus general happiness to get into a car. Cars should be terrifying!

I think that people are comfy with the basic concepts being touted in campaigns and think they know game dev processes, and they’re also probably people who approach gaming as a positive experience – basically I suspect all of that means they don’t perceive the risk of failure as being particularly high and the devs have no incentive to say otherwise. It’s only when it falls apart that there are problems and you start wondering what Kickstarter meant when it said there was the potential for legal action.

Alec: I suspect I’m probably done with backing, with the possible exception of boardgames and a Gollop X-COM if it ever happens, and the reason for that is mostly Star Citizen’s rival, Elite: Dangerous. The alphas were wonderful, some of my most memorable space-game experiences ever, but the released game felt so hollow once the initial glory of being in space faded, like a paradigm of fantasy never being able to meet reality. To get invested feels inherently doomed, there’s no way any game can live up to the marketed promise and my own expectations, whereas an out of nowhere surprise (to me) like FTL or Hand of Fate is glorious. And I’ve got a million games to play already, so investing in something which is years off just seems silly. But will anyone else go back to the well?

Alice: Sure, I’ll back things again. The novelty of ’90s genre revivals has worn off, but if something small and interesting catches my eye and won’t be made otherwise, I’ll give it a few squid and see what happens. I’m probably done with backing big fancy high-budget games (gosh, crowdfunding budgets that seem high are really so low compared to ‘regular’ studio games), but I know there are enough group of folks who will still back the next Shadowrun or the next Wasteland 2 for it to get made without me. Getting no enjoyment from OUR JOURNEY, I can wait until it’s out to see how it actually is.

Adam: I’d go back for a few smaller developers that I like and that have a proven track record now. If someone makes a game and then says they’re going to build something similar and need the cash, I’m happy to pay for more of the same. Perhaps less so for something really out there, which is a shame for those out there folks who really need the Adam Bump. But Failbetter (Sunless Sea) would be one I’d go for, as I nearly did for the related A House of Many Doors. Inkle (80 Days) too.

Pip: I back things on whims, and only to the extent that I can afford to not ever see a return on that money. I assume I’ll continue to do so.

John: I’ll keep throwing money at little games I’d like to see exist rather than not exist, and also be incapable of not giving money to someone promising me a new Ultima: Underworld game or something like that.

Alice: In conclusion, stop by Itch.io more often to drop a few dollars on games which sound kinda interesting.

Adam: Yeah, do that. Do that whatever you’re current quandary is.

Alec: Isn’t it fascinating though that, when it comes to less conventionally commercial games, people would rather be sold a dream than reality? You’d get more backers for a weird or cute kickstarter than you would chucking a few dollars at something existent on Itch.io, right?

Adam: People want to believe in the space around a thing as well as, if not more than, the thing itself. I certainly do. When I was a kid, I remember playing all of the classic point and click adventures, and when I look back at them now, they’re so much smaller than I remember. Just a few locations. When I was so small and stupid (and lacking in an internet connection for instant walkthroughs) that I couldn’t complete them, I thought those locations were part of an entire world.

A promise of a game can be that whole world – the reality will be a few locations, some puzzles. A voice actor. And that goes for all games, in varying ways – Enemy Unknown’s cornfields were part of an entire rural landscape that was just around the next corner, Civ’s newspaper headlines about Romans inventing gunpowder were the tip of infinite alternate histories. A good game creates these illusions at its edges and a good Kickstarter pitch often does the same. Doesn’t mean it’ll be able to pull that off when the chips are down though.

Alec: How concerned should we be about outright failures to launch, like Clang and that Yogscast thing? They seem like examples of dreams falling apart entirely, possibly having taken advantage of people’s naivety (i.e. their belief that anything can be made, and that it only requires so much money) in the first place.

John: I think it has to be case-by-case. Sometimes it’s done in good faith, and it all goes horribly wrong, and that’s a gamble you take when you give money away for free to an idea. Other times it’s in not such good faith, and on those occasions I think people should be clear in their condemnation.

Alec: How can we know? There’s always an excuse…

John: By continuing with our habit of not being idiots.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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