Crowdfunding sites are all the rage these days with several high profile teams and individuals using these services to fund development costs. How do you feel about this recent phenomenon? We give our thoughts and ask for yours.
The financial costs of AAA game development have risen exponentially in recent years. Consumers expect $60 releases to be aesthetically pleasing and contain sophisticated mechanics. A large team of highly talented programmers, artists, producers and management staff tirelessly work away until the final product is complete. Every title released is a monetary risk to shareholders who seek the maximum potential sales through iterative sequels and established franchises. The end result is a lack of diversity as major studios rarely depart from genres which currently achieve their selling targets.
Kickstarter and other crowdfunding alternatives reinvigorated genres that seemed lost forever. Games which were defined as too niche or not suitable for today’s market have far exceeded the developer’s goals. For instance, Star Citizen reached $2,134,374 way beyond the preliminary $500,000 target. This demonstrates the desire for new experiences spanned across a wide range of weird and wonderful genres. Without this new means of funding, the PC wouldn’t have a thriving indie scene and past classics like Broken Sword and Carmageddon would be left to your own nostalgia. Open funding models allow backers to shape the development process and alter key decisions. In Project CARS, each version refines the handling, AI and other important attributes. As a valued member of the process, you can provide feedback stating if these adjustments are an improvement. This is fantastic because it means the developer can better shape a game to its core audience.
When you give your hard earned money to a crowdfunding campaign, there are certain clauses which one must understand. Financially supporting a campaign makes you an investor not a customer and the outlined level of quality is not guaranteed. Problems may arise which the developers didn’t anticipate and you cannot suddenly demand a refund. Just like a publisher, you have no idea if your money was invested wisely or misplaced. There are even some infrequent occasions when criminals try to steal your money through fraudulent listings. The Kickstarter/Indiegogo system is far from perfect but without it a wonderful and diverse gaming scene wouldn’t exist. In the future, I can see more developers going down this route and creating a game which doesn’t deviate from their initial vision.
From a consumer perspective, I’d say Kickstarter is a bad thing. There’s just too much risk involved, because one just can’t know what the final game will be like. Sure, there have been some successes, like Tiny Barbarian DX, which delivered exactly what was promised. But that game was a sequel to an already-polished and popular freeware release. FTL is another good example but, again, they had a significant portion of it built long before they turned to Kickstarter for funding, so it was less of a gamble than most other games. Other successfully-funded projects haven’t turned out as well. The released version of Star Command, for example, is actually only 30% of what the developers had intended to produce while receiving mixed reviews.
That was after being delayed for two years. Oh, and they held a second successful round of Kickstarter funding during that time, as well. Then there’s Double Fine’s The Broken Age, which started the Kickstarter gold rush in the first place. That one has also been delayed several times, is now being divided into two halves, AND is going back for a second round of funding through Steam’s Early Access.
Still, at least backers of those two games are getting something for their money. There also been a slew of other projects that were either outright cancelled or put on “indefinite hold,” leaving backers with nothing to show for their contribution except a $5-$15 charge on their credit card. What I’m trying to say is that crowdfunding a game is a gamble, and while I’m not opposed to occasionally playing fast and loose with my money—I’m more than willing to drop a couple hundred bucks on an evening of slots at Niagara Falls once in a while. When it comes to supporting games on Kickstarter and its ilk, you’re making a very bad bet.
One of the major concerns I have since crowdfunding popularity exploded is the lack of playable demos. I see it in a great number of e-mails I get while running the day-to-day operations of TPG. Messages will be sent with a simple synopsis and link to the campaign page, if any links at all. Within the page, there will be a scattering of early screen shots and maybe even a promotional video with the development team talking about their game. This is simply not enough. When you are asking for large sums of money, it is my belief, you need to offer something tangible to perspective consumers. Unless you have a marvelous track record or an established group of individuals on board, you better well have a proof-of-concept piece.
Aside from this criticism, I enjoy looking at every single crowdfunding project that comes along. It is great to view such a vast variety of genres, hybrids and just flat out crazy games that would have never seen the light of day under traditional publisher/developer relationships.
Crowd funding is a great way for developers to their ideas off the ground, but they serve a particular type of developer. It really depends on what type of game the developer is making as some games do require publishers. MMOs and free-to-play games need publishers to help the developers if they are launching globally. Without publishers, it’s very hard to launch a game globally without a local publisher. Publishers can provide feedback for the developers to help make the overall game experience in a region better since what may work well in Asia, may not in North America.
Traditional games that don’t have to appeal to a large audience can get away with crowd funding, which is why it works for games like FTL: Faster Than Light or Wasteland 2. Those games attract a niche audience, not exactly the type of audience a publisher would want. Publishers want a million people playing their games for profit. So the games that end up on Kickstarter or IndieGoGo are the type of games that don’t have anywhere else they can go. In a way, crowd funding sites act as a court; where the game is on death row and the community decides whether it should eventually get released or get scrapped. The outcome really depends on how big the game’s target niche audience is, and the developers who stick with the right niche will be successful.
Crowd funding may be a hot buzz word right now, but the basic concept is nothing new. It used to be that almost every business venture started this way. All someone needed was passion, an idea, and the skills to make it real. The internet has not changed the mechanics, just the size and scope. Many people went to sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo with preconceived ideas, both good and bad, about how it could benefit them. As a result, there have been some big successes as well as notable failures. In response we have seen people turn away from the process as a whole. Much has been made about this overall decline in crowd funded projects and support, some are even proclaiming that the whole idea is in its’ death knell. I can’t disagree more with this vision. These ups and downs are to be expected, in fact they are necessary, to establishing the learning curve. It is only by looking at what was done right or wrong that we can make improvements.
We have seen what a well managed Kickstarter campaign looks like. More importantly, we have seen what it is not. Crowd funding is not a poor man’s IPO, nor is it a fancy new way to pre-order a game. Those who held misconceptions like these are the people who left the scene. What remains is everyone who better understands how to use the medium. A successful campaign is not just a way to raise money, it is also advertisement. People who like a project enough to put money into it will help spread the word better than someone who gets paid to advertise. Crowd funding is a way for the developers to interact and get feedback from real fans and customers. The decision about whether or not to include a feature can be freely discussed with those most wanting to play the game instead of someone concerned simply with marketability.
Normally studios have to pay someone to conduct this level of market research. As an added benefit, having this close relationship between the development team and their fan base can go a long way toward curbing piracy. It is easy to dismiss someone who rips off an EA game because they are a large, faceless corporation. It is very different when it’s a developer you know by name and a game where you, or someone you know, contributed actual money to help get it made. Even within the pirate community it is considered pretty low to illegally copy a crowdfunded indie title.
As long as there are gamers wanting something new and different, there will be a market for small indie games. These developers need something more than a +1 in a comment box to make their games happen. While it may have some flaws that need ironing out, I feel that crowd funding is the best overall opportunity for a large majority of indie studios.
What are your thoughts on the crowdfunding landscape?
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