Kickstarter: An education in reality

So I wrote this but a good long while ago. Back in late 2013, but at the time elected not to publish it for various reasons (some work related). I didn’t want this to mis-interpreted by readers either in the community or at my former employer Microsoft Studios. As I no longer work there and I’ve had a bit of time to edit this and come back to it, I feel confident putting it out there. 

I have recently gained a new appreciation for Kickstarter. I was always a fan of the system. I am as excited as the next person. The idea of directly donating funds to products or projects which hold your interest is a novel one. Kickstarter delivers the instant gratification of voting with your wallet. Participants and users can elect to put their money forward and immediately feel invested, or they can pass on a project and fancy themselves the discerning investor. I personally backed several projects through Kickstarter at its outset. A handful of which were video game projects, so I have some skin in the game here.

However, my new appreciation of the service has come from a recent realization. It was prompted by a few events, but the clarifying moment came with the announcement by Chris Robert’s Cloud Imperium Games that the dogfighting module of their crowd-funded Star Citizen was going to be delayed. Cloud Imperium were simply adjusting their development schedule based on changing situations. As a developer I understand this completely. But there was significant backlash from those who backed the project. They felt as though they were investors and therefore entitled to answers. What I realized is that Kickstarter is so interesting because it is the standardized introduction of Micro-publishing. Kickstarter projects create a financial situation and an overall atmosphere where the gaming community and anyone who backs a project has adopted the role akin to a singular amalgamated publisher.

What the introduction of said micro-publishing / crowd funding achieves is three very important things; it manifests and amplifies the struggle of publishing a game, it educates the community about game developments budgeting and scheduling, and finally it underscores the degree to which the games market is driven by supply and demand.

Publishers take a pretty serious beating in the games press. They are called unethical, greedy, and incompetent on a very regular basis. Kickstarter brings a small bit of schadenfruede to industry folk by making every backer painfully aware of what it feels like to be a publisher.

Are you a backer on RSi’s Star Citizen or Double Fine’s Broken Age?

When it was announced that said project would be delayed due to unforeseen development issues, were you mad?

Did you feel angry or cheated?

Yes? Good, you have now experienced on a micro-scale exactly what most publishers experience multiple times every day. Professional game development is a fickle and transient process; projects are in a perpetual state of flux. Some things happen in due time, sometimes projects are behind schedule, but what is constant is some unforeseen and immutable problems. This very public and messy exploration is why I am such a huge proponent of the crowd-funding and transparent development process. It succeeds in educating many of the community members on just exactly what it is like to build games. When a project misses the mark or screeches past a deadline, backers get nothing. What’s worse is they hold no leverage or ability to make demands in that situation, they are left to sit and stew.

When the same thing happens with a publisher there a few more options. The publisher, if they are funding have the ability to push the project back potentially disrupting their portfolio timelines (which can cause large scale problems) or they can kill the project. Either way their investment has been lost and there is not much that can be done, its simply mitigation at that point. A third option is possible, that is to launch on unfinished game, which happens far more often then people may think. Often these games are called ‘bad’ or the developers are called ‘incompetent’; the truth is something more complex, chances are the game is at its core good, but is rotten in terms of coherence or polish. The primary reasoning behind this is because most games, being the sum of about a billion moving parts, do not always function perfectly the first time you turn them on. As a result most developers and publishers attempt to build in ‘polish time’. Essentially this is a surplus of time at the of the development schedule (usually more then 3 weeks and no more than 3 months) to allow the team (programmers, designers, and all) to work on those kinks in the machine. But when a project falls behind schedule, often the call is made to eat that surplus time to finish putting the machine together enough so it can turn on, but no time to smooth out the issues. What users get is a game that hardly functions in an optimal way.

Secondly, Kickstarter is effective at illustrating just how large gaming budgets have become. Community members will complain and rant about the cost of games increasing, the superimposing of subscriptions or Microtransactions on existing games. The reality of the situation is that many games have such large budgets and operating costs, that enabling some motivated users to pay more money is one of the most effective ways to ensure a product just achieves its return on investment. This is not to say that the large budgets of most games are appropriate, but they are the current reality. Understanding just how much these games cost can explain why consumers are seeing a rise in pricing and other monetization schemes. So when they shake their head a smaller scale game with a  decent feature set asking for $1milllion dollars, what they don’t realize is that amount of money is actually quite LOW by industry standards and that most games are well above and beyond that. Tim Schafer recently responded on twitter to criticism about the Broken Age budget which was nearly $3.5 million, but failed to deliver a whole game at that amount. Check it out here:

Finally, the surge and growth of crowd-funding is a blatant reminder that fans and enthusiasts will pay for anything, truly anything. Kickstarter is a quick education in extrinsic value propositions and monetization. Please, take a moment and peruse some of the ‘reward tiers’ for any game Kickstarter out there. Note that these promotions, are not an inherently bad thing, in fact it’s quite liberating. Gamers in the community are getting very upset recently because of the introduction of different monetization schemes. While some of them are poorly implemented and truly exploitative, there are many examples of fair and valuable monetization done right. Downloadable Content, Microtransactions, Collectors Editions, and Merchandise can all provide great value to players who are looking for it. Funny enough though, these same vocal players seem to be willing to pay for these more material based Microtransactions up front, before the game is even completed, because of how it is framed. In many cases it seems like an altruistic act of charity, helping out the struggling developer to make their game, as opposed to the filthy patronage of someone who has already paid for their game. They will put up money to get their name in the credits or to get a cool signed poster, but the collectors edition of the game is seen as money grabbing. In all it takes a certain cognitive dissonance to place the two purchases in totally different categories. It also requires a certain level of ignorance to continue believing this is the way of things. That developer who you refuse to patronize because they already got their money and made their game, is in so many cases on borrowed time. They have funded said project through private investors or publishers, both of which fully expect to be repaid, or said developer will suffer greatly.

This is one of the great things about Kickstarter, it allows developers to fund their projects upfront, keeping themselves in the black, so that they can remain solvent as they build. Instead of over extending themselves only to fail when they don’t hit the sales requirements / recoup number in their contract.

But hey, as long as games keep getting made, and more people understand how they are made, that’s just fine with me.

Reference on the Star Citizen Delay:

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