This is a revised version of a comment published on the Tap-Repeatedly article “Age of Broken Promises“.
Double Fine’s Broken Age, the original Kickstarter sin, won’t be finished on time. And it will need more cash to see it through to completion. Cue gnashing of teeth. Even Rock Paper Shotgun got in on the action with Nathan Grayson writing:
…these actions do set a somewhat unsavory precedent. Here’s hoping this is an isolated incident and not the birth of a trend.
Ya know, most days videogame culture feels like an episode of Adam West’s Batman, with BIFF! BAM! POW! filling our Twitter screens.
It has been argued on Twitter that figuring out budgets and schedules for games is difficult. Like “solving the biological origins of consciousness” difficult. There’s a broader version of this theory that applies to all software development: technically, everything you do has never been done before – if it had been done before, you wouldn’t need to make it – which means the project is an unknown, and its scale will only become apparent once you’re deep in the trenches. This is why many projects inflate schedules in advance, although you’d be surprised how often software projects rip through any buffer.
Then there’s the issue that Tim Schafer was planning a $300,000 game but when the funding went through the roof, he was forced to scale up. But complexity is exponential not additive; it’s not like just painting a few more luscious backdrops for the game.
Few games ever make their original launch date and AAA publishers see missed deadlines all the time. Many studios go begging to their publishers for financial lifelines mid-project. So after reviewing all the chatter I am inclined to give Schafer the benefit of the doubt. I don’t see him as the kind of person to squander the cash having been through tough times in the past.
However, whether this is “understandable” or not is a completely moot point. Kickstarter should be perceived as a funding mechanism with investors who don’t really get any proper returns for their money but these are not “savvy investors” we’re talking about. They don’t know the business inside and out and, on the whole, your average backer thinks of Kickstarter as an alternative pay-what-you-want pre-order system.
That means changing goalposts (we’re going to make a bigger game), missing deadlines (it’s really big) and raising more money (no, I said it’s really big) all feed into the headlines of DOUBLE FINE TAKES DOUBLE TIME. The jaded were out in force, feeling like they’d been deceived or, perhaps, Double Fine just pissed the cash away. At which point I want to say that if you were a real investor you’d have some actual sway with Double Fine. But all you can do is go bitch on Twitter or a blog and that’s pretty much your right to reply. On Kickstarter, no one can hear you scream.
This kind of thing was going to happen sooner or later because it simply beggars belief that a free money system, with no strings attached to the cash aside from reputation, was going to magically avoid any sort of funding fuck-up or even abuse. But it would be supremely ironic for the Kickstarter bubble to be punctured by the team who created it in the first place.
It’s also a little misguided to worry about the potential impact on the Kickstarter phenomenon. This is precisely the kind of lesson everyone needs and better-informed, battle-scarred, more sceptical backers are better for all parties. I don’t think Kickstarter funding will be scuppered by such failed projects but, eventually, I would guess we’d see some funding contraction as backers harden their scepticism. If there’s one thing missing from the donor/developer relationship, it is an element of oversight and perhaps we’ll see some teams advertising project tracking with targets and milestones as part of the package. Obviously, another way to “fix” this is to do away with the donation aspect and make it a proper investment. That, of course, makes things legally complicated and is a far less attractive model for developers as it damages their autonomy.
Yet none of this talk comforts me.
Kickstarter and its brethren are meant to have created simple funding channels for small, adventurous projects that would have otherwise struggled out of the creative womb. But this mesmerising vision of an artistic utopia is smoke and mirrors. Kickstarter is responsible for millions of dollars being donated to established names that offer no more legal guarantees than small-i indie projects. Big names command all the attention, depriving more modest projects of funding either through the money grab itself or saturating the airwaves. Survivorship bias means we only talk about the funded videogame culture that we end up with; we’re unable to speculate on the stories and ideas we’ve missed out on. That’s the real oversight in all this mess.
Has the crowdfunding phenomenon enriched us? I do not have an answer to that question.
Appendix (Added 10 July)
- Do more projects mean greater competition for the same dollars?
- Are [big] projects stealing backers from other worthy projects?
Specifically, they take two examples and one of them is Double Fine. They show that big projects bring more fresh meat to Kickstarter who then go on to fund other projects. They argue “each project is not only promoting itself, but the Kickstarter ecosystem as a whole”. From where I’m sitting, the ugly cynic in the corner, that’s what their post is measuring – the growth of the Kickstarter ecosystem.
This seems like a silly point to make but Double Fine were the ones that demonstrated videogame funding on Kickstarter was a viable thing. Players began to spend time in Kickstarter and new projects were being started every week. Games are now the largest funding category on Kickstarter, accounting for around 20% of all successful funding since the site was launched.
Double Fine is like Patient Zero. Whether the blockbuster effect is persistent after a few years is debatable, because maybe you’ve reached everyone you’re going to reach. Four months after Double Fine, Kickstarter reported “Ouya’s big day” the fastest project to reach ONE MILLION DOLLARS, which just demonstrates that Kickstarter – as a cultural force – was still growing. Projects seeking crowdfunding is now a “thing” on various gaming sites and reported alongside any other preview. The blockbuster effect will eventually plateau otherwise you’re living in a strange land where chain letters and ponzi schemes work.
However, the post proved the situation is not as straightforward as I liked to think. Right now, Kickstarter behaves like an infinite pool of cash and your project fails not because of a shortage of money, but because your message is wrong or you didn’t get it out to the right people.
In the early days, Kickstarter videogame projects were news because so few were doing it. It’s like being the first on Steam or the App Store – it’s a PR coup. As of this moment, Kickstarter Stats tells me there are 328 live game projects. Now I’m wondering whether I should fear big projects edging out small projects at all; I think it’s more likely the big projects have an automatic platform and the rest of the projects fight it out on the small stage that’s left. Crowdfunding is over-crowded. PR wars, as always.
Many new projects continue to use rewards to mask the donation aspect, pushing this idea of pay-what-you-want pre-order. I took a look at Amanda Palmer’ Kickstarter which made her the first musician to raise ONE MILLION DOLLARS and I noticed the first reward tier is $1 which earns you a digital download of the album. The smallest amount you can donate gets you the product. More obviously, the first line on the project page:
“Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra are putting out an album. Pre-order it / get more info on the art book & gallery tour, here!”
If the project fails and there’s no end product, there’s no refund for the backers. Can you call that a pre-order?
- In another comment on the Tap article, Eric Swain makes the point that donors are throwing money at the screen without reading the small print, the medium print or even the big fucking type print: “No one pays attention to the kickstarter. Learned from The Banner Saga. A few months ago their backers were bitching and moaning when they released a free-to-play multiplayer component for their game. They said there would be a free-to-play multiplayer component on the front page of their kickstarter page and in their pitch video and in their updates. They checked their metrics and found next to no one read their kickstarter page, or even watched their video. They simply handed out their money for a copy of the game, without ever looking to see what they would get.”
- I would like to see self-imposed funding ceilings being introduced because too much money is probably a bad thing: donors expect that money to translate into something tangible with the sinister necessity for stretch goals. Stretch goals are unlikely to have been scoped out in as much detail as the core project, particularly ones added while the Kickstarter is in flight. Double Fine would have limited their ambitions if the funding had been capped at $500,000. Sure, it would still have overshot, but not by such a wide margin.
- Gamasutra have a nice article this week which already covered some of the points I tried making above and contains lovely gems like “plenty of backers presume their contribution is a pre-order, but what if the project they funded becomes a free-to-play game?”
- Also, this is a great statistical analysis on how crowdfunding is working which I’m going to definitely staple into the next Marginalia: “The Dynamics of Crowdfunding: Determinants of Success and Failure”. From the abstract: “…personal networks and underlying project quality are associated with the success of crowdfunding efforts, and that geography is related to both the type of projects proposed and successful fundraising. Finally, I find that the vast majority of founders seem to fulfill their obligations to funders, but that over 75% deliver products later than expected, with the degree of delay predicted by the level and amount of funding a project receives. These results offer insight into the emerging phenomenon of crowdfunding, and also shed light more generally on the ways that the actions of founders may affect their ability to receive entrepreneurial financing.”
- Double Fine $3,336,371
- Veronica Mars $5,702,153
- Torment: Tides of Numenera $4,188,927
- Wasteland 2 $2,933,252
- Homestuck $2,485,506
- Project Eternity $3,986,929