Angry Shouty Rant: Jim Sterling Edition

Destructoid’s Jim Sterling doesn’t make video games. Maybe you knew that, but it’s an important point to start off with here. Because it means that everything in his article about Kickstarting video games comes from the perspective of a fan/journalist, and not a developer – and yet, it’s all about how developers are (arguably) misusing Kickstarter, and how you need to be okay with that if you’re going to use it.

This baffling idea comes in the form of the poorly-named article “A Common Sense Guide to Being a Happy Backer”.

It’s poorly named because it’s not about being a happy backer so much as not being a disappointed or angry one, nor does anything in it qualify as common sense – in fact, it’s quite counter-intuitive, and straight up misleading in some cases.

“Double Fine ran into trouble when it made more money than it expected, and subsequently forged bigger plans than its newfound wealth could stretch to.”

Naturally, it’s easiest to point to the biggest offender, in terms of exposure, and such a clear-cut case of unreasonably scaling your project. If Double Fine planned to make a game with $300,000, what the fuck have they been doing with over 3 million? Working on a game that’s over ten times the scale, of course! Because math.

“There’s nothing inherently wrong with crowdfunding, I don’t think. However, we’re all starting to learn that we need to go in with the right attitude.”

I agree with you there, Jimbo. The problem is that we don’t agree on what that attitude is.

“You are making a ‘donation’, not a pre-order”

Anyone paying attention to video game Kickstarters has heard this before, but how true is it, really? Are the two actually mutually exclusive? Yes, I am making a donation, but I was promised something for that donation. My donation was to a person/company who said that they needed X amount of money to create something, and I would get a copy of that thing if I contributed to them getting that X amount. But now, I’m the unreasonable one for thinking that they should have been able to do what they said.

It’s also worth noting that Kickstarter does require you to fulfill your reward promises. Here’s a quote from Kickstarter’s FAQ:

“Kickstarter’s Terms of Use require creators to fulfill all rewards of their project or refund any backer whose reward they do not or cannot fulfill. (This is what creators see before they launch.) We crafted these terms to create a legal requirement for creators to follow through on their projects, and to give backers a recourse if they don’t. We hope that backers will consider using this provision only in cases where they feel that a creator has not made a good faith effort to complete the project and fulfill.”

Sounds like more than your typical donation to me. I don’t see a note on the jar for the Jimmy Fund telling me I’ll get so much as a hand-written note for my donation; I am just giving it freely. But when your donation system is almost entirely based on a reward system for how much you donate, it’s more like an auction. So don’t tell me that I shouldn’t get what I paid for because a note on the front of the building said “not a store”. If developers didn’t want you to treat their Kickstarter like a store, they wouldn’t set it up like one. And there wouldn’t be a legal requirement for creators fulfilling their rewards if you weren’t entitled to them in exchange for your money.

“If a game developer isn’t asking for a million dollars, they might be asking too little”

And this is where I stop taking your bullshit lightly. Fuck you for this. The amount of money requested tells you nothing about how realistic their goals are. Should I be more inclined to back Undead Zombie Shooting Simulator 2013 because they made the “sensible” budget of 1.2 million dollars? You are perpetuating the misinformation that games = $ and good games = millions of dollars. And that’s the exact stupid-ass mentality that got us here in the first place. It makes no more sense for you to say that a budget of less than one million dollars isn’t enough than it does for Double Fine to scale their game linearly with their budget. The formula isn’t that simple, and it doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend that it is.

“We saw this exemplified with Double Fine. It made more money than it could have dreamed of, millions of bucks compared to the original $400,000 projection, and still it’s over budget. You give an artist more money, and all they’ll do is scale up their idea…”

To be fair, this isn’t fully the fault of the developers. Stretch goals are borderline required for backers to be interested in funding your game, especially beyond your original goal. They have that idea in their heads: if this game can be made for $50,000, you can make a game twice as big for $100,000!

But really, what were they to think? If there’s a unifying idea in Kickstarting video games, it’s that games require time, and time is money. Therefore, games = money. While it’s certainly true that AAA games have multi-million-dollar budgets, you can also make a game by yourself for free. If you have a computer with the internet, you are always a download and some reading away from being a game developer.

But that isn’t the message you want to spread as a game developer on Kickstarter. So rather than correct the at-best-oversimplified notion that games = money, you have to play along, and say “why yes, of course if we get more money, we can make a bigger game! To hell with that extra money securing our vision and giving us time to polish what’s there, now we’re selling the game piecemeal – $1,000 per feature!”

What else are you to do? If you say “no, more money doesn’t necessarily allow us to make more features; the game stays as-is no matter how much money we get”, then not only will people be less inclined to back you above your goal, but they may question how, then, does your goal necessarily allow you to make the game in the first place?

And that is a fantastic fucking question. And one you should always be asking. It’s why I focus on the proposed budget rather than the game. Ask yourself, dear reader; could you make a game if someone gave you $100,000? What is the difference between a small group of knowledgeable game developers and a group of people with $100,000? Why is that the difference between an idea for a game and a fully-developed game?

“Not to mention, it’s tempting for a studio to deliberately lower the bar in order to make it more appealing to potential backers.”

So not only should you not expect developers to know what it will take to make a game, but you should expect them to outright lie to you about their best guess because you wouldn’t accept how much it really is anyway. So we shouldn’t be upset with Double Fine; we should be slapping our knees, laughing and saying “well, you got us! I can’t believe we fell for that. Three million to make a game, HA! Can you even imagine what we would have gotten for $400,000?! They goofed us good!”

“What this all means is that, just because you’ve hit a Kickstarter goal, or even well exceeded it, there’s going to be a damn good chance that it’s not enough cash. Do not be surprised in the least if you see a company you backed going cap-in-hand to other investors, or doing what Double Fine did and selling an “early access” version to make more money. In fact, be surprised if you don’t see that.”

And fuck you even more for this. We’re currently at a time when fans are finally getting a peek behind the curtain of game development, and in doing so, realizing that things often go wrong, and developers vastly underestimate the amount of work (read: money) it takes to make a game – even seasoned developers with decades of experience. And all you can do is tell those fans that they never should have expected these people to know what they’re talking about in the first place. In fact, they should be shocked if someone comes through on their promise.

That is not the attitude we need here. There’s a name for people who take money based on promises they won’t fulfill: con artist. And the difference you seem to be suggesting here is that these people don’t know that they can’t do what they said they would. But, somehow, you do. You, the fan, the journalist, are well aware that you probably won’t get anything for that money. So the only excuse developers have is that they’re not as smart as their fans.

But that’s not actually been the case, as we know. If fans weren’t just as rosy-eyed as developers (if not more so), the vast majority of video game Kickstarters wouldn’t see a dime. But Jimbo doesn’t accept the con artist angle either.

“Basically, until Tim Schafer buys himself a private plane and disappears off the face of the Earth with your money, he’s not conning you.”

Look, if he doesn’t have an evil mustache/goatee, he’s obviously not a movie villain, and therefore he’s on our side. Nice strawman.

You were just talking about how a studio may deliberately lower their budget proposal in order to get money from people. In other words, they know that they’re not asking for enough, and would therefore be unable to fulfill their promise. But let’s not call that conning, because that’s mean – they’re just telling little white lies that prevent their supporters from getting what they paid for, and everyone is just really sorry about it, and will come through next time if only you give them more money.

Jimbo claims that it’s not worth conning people on Kickstarter, because it hurts your image. But look at Double Fine. After delay on top of delay, funding source after funding source, they are going to have to release the game on Steam Early Access to get more money, and you still have more people jumping to their defense than criticizing them – yourself included. You don’t have to flee the country twirling your mustache to be a con man; you just have to knowingly take money for false promises.

But it’s true that not all unfulfilled projects are scams. Plenty are just done by people too stupid to realize that they couldn’t actually do what they said. And that’s most likely the case with Double Fine. I mean, they just realized less than a month ago – well after they were originally supposed to release the fucking thing – that it was going to take another full year to finish the game. After they already extended development for 6 months. If you’re not questioning whether or not anyone at Double Fine really knows what they’re doing, then I hope you got to Massive Chalice in time to give it all your money. After failing to make a game for over $3 million, I’m sure the $1.2 million it raised will be enough. What could go wrong?

But I’m sure once Massive Chalice burns through its cash, and goes to further funding sources, everyone will cry “well how could they have known?!” Gee, I don’t know. If I drop a large rock on my foot and it hurts, maybe I won’t do it again. And if I do, I don’t think you’ll be patting my shoulder, telling me how unpredictable physics is, and how I never could have fully prepared for that.

Because the other excuse that Jimbro provides is that you should have known that it wasn’t going to be enough money. And if that’s the case, shouldn’t the developer have known that? And shouldn’t they not have taken the money, then?

The point is, if someone asks for $300,000 to do something, and fails to do it with over 3 million, the appropriate response is not to complain to the people who expected the project to succeed, telling them to lower their expectations. The Double Fine apologists only hurt the game industry, for not only putting up with terrible practices, but yelling at anyone who doesn’t.

YouTube’s TotalBiscuit made the interesting point that maybe the reason that Double Fine wasn’t getting their shot with publishers is this exact problem: they can’t budget their money or time appropriately. So maybe the system was working as it should, and publishers weren’t jumping on every harebrained idea for a reason. Maybe as a Kickstarter backer, you are supporting the dregs of the gaming industry; the rejects that can’t get a good publishing deal because they can’t be trusted. That’s not always the case, of course, but if, as a developer, your best bet is to get yourself into a situation with all of your funding up front and the least amount of accountability possible, maybe it’s because you suck.

But, as a backer, if you’re really just expecting developers to be incompetent liars at this point, you shouldn’t be backing any video game Kickstarter projects. Go find a game that’s actually finished and buy it. You know, support people who demonstrate their ability to follow through with their project. I’m sure that’s less interesting to you, because once a game is released, it’s easy to see that it probably doesn’t live up to your expectations, and it’s more fun to buy dreams. But that’s a whole other rant…

For now, how about we expect more from developers than constant fuck-ups and lies? Let’s stop making excuses for them, and force them to explain themselves. And let’s not take “well, we didn’t know” as an excuse. If you’ve been making games for over 20 years, then you better know. And if you don’t, then you shouldn’t be taking money from fans, and they damn sure shouldn’t be giving it to you.

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4 thoughts on “Angry Shouty Rant: Jim Sterling Edition

  1. Ryan Keokuk says:

    Hi, I love your very critical response to Double Fine.

    They’re professionals they fucked up, and they deserve to hear it. This seemed like a very fair, ‘real’ break down on that very annoying defense.

    I still have hope for them, and their games, but I’ve now limited my emotional sensitivity to the outcome of the game, and chalk it up to…

    Dammit at the very least I put my money where my mouth was as a gamer, and this fuck up, fucked it up, not me as a fan.

    I’ve been mad as hell at the stagnation of the industry and its lacking in innovation and I’ve tried to support it where I’ve seen it, trying to get my friends involved and guildmembers and trying to at least make a foothold in niche games.

    I saw how much passionate people helped killing floor and it just irks me that I couldn’t help out some of my favorite niche games (shattered horizon for instance.)

    Maybe we should’ve been more demanding of a stricter time line and a higher amount of story cutting, but honestly I think our interactions with the company are superficial at best, once they had realistic projections of what they could do they should’ve made some very tough decisions in favor of keeping on target with scope. At the end of the day they’re beholden to realities restrictions, not our artificial backer ones.

    • davidgaames says:

      I don’t even know what to do with such a sensible response. Thanks!

      I think maybe your last point is the most important. I don’t think anyone should be backing a game with the intention of shoehorning in their idea. Developers say that they want you involved, but their opinions of what’s best for the game are just as strong as yours. And anyone who’s not a game developer probably doesn’t know how realistic their idea really is. This utopia where fans work alongside game developers to give everyone the game that they’ve wanted their whole lives doesn’t exist. Yes, feedback is important, but if you’re not even giving your fans a playable demo, then they’re basing feedback off of your words and some pictures.

      But yes, in the end, what Kickstarter does is has fans vote with their dollars. My biggest concern with that is they will be discouraged from doing so when project after project drags out, underdelivers, or fails outright. Hopefully, we will discover how to handle Kickstarter projects before that happens, and stop funding bullshit pipe dreams, and start funding worthwhile, realistic projects.

      You know, if one ever comes along. 😉

      • Jake says:

        “Hopefully, we will discover how to handle Kickstarter projects before that happens, and stop funding bullshit pipe dreams, and start funding worthwhile, realistic projects.”

        And the only way that will happen is if companies and Kickstarter stop making their platform like a store and project pages like glossy magazine ads. Until we actually see something outside of the almighty dollar and pre-ordering and start getting into schedules, cost break downs, and business plans that outline things like scope, researched software, and hardware, etc. there really is no reason to really support much of anything on Kickstarter.

        At the same time, backers need to lessen their expectations on getting something out of putting money down. No investor in their right mind thinks that just because they’ll put money down, they’re 100% guaranteed to get success. Its called risk and if a project fails, don’t bitch if you decided to donate $1,000+ dollars thinking you’re guaranteed to get something for doing so. Companies are not solely to blame because customers can’t understand that Kickstarter isn’t a store and they’re pre-ordering air.

        Of course, if the above happens, most people won’t fund anything because stuff like business plans and project schedules require reading and time from the investor and fans don’t have time for that, they just want to see the pretty pictures and video.

      • avisch says:

        It’s a shame that Jim is going easy on Kickstarter. I like his stuff, but his unwillingness to point out hypocrisy is a real problem with his editorials.

        People seem to be unwilling to acknowledge (or at least admit) that the ideal of Kickstarter is not the reality of Kickstarter.

        “You know, if one ever comes along.”

        One can only dream ;_;

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