This is an old post, evidenced by the links to older articles in it, but I kept putting off posting it for some reason. Therefore, it is not the “next post” I teased in the last post. But I after reading it, having sat in queue for so long, it seems worth posting, if only to get it out of my system. So here is yet another rant, harping on no particular project.
No matter how many Kickstarter projects I make fun of, none will ever capture just why Kickstarter and video games are such terrible bedfellows. So I’ve decided to skip the specifics this time, and get to the heart of the matter. Join me as I explore the cockles of this matter’s heart.
Why Kickstarter Sucks for Video Games
In a move that practically begs that I write about them (because they’re obviously such big fans), Edge Online posted an article called “Why do so few Kickstarter-funded games actually get released?” It appropriately begins with a summary of the success of Double Fine. And I’m not sure where they came across this information, but they give a very enlightening statistic.
“Of the 366 projects funded between 2009 and 2012, just one in three has fully delivered the promised title to backers.”
One-third. For a group of people whining about how they could finish their project if they just had some money, they’re pretty terrible at finishing those projects once they have that money. And as I’ve stated several times before, a lot of them admit that they don’t really need the money; just that it would help for one reason or another. So how many of that one-third delivered their game only because they were able to without the money in the first place?
This is why I constantly stress the fact that money doesn’t make video games. You can’t just give a bunch of assholes some money and expect a game to come out of the magical money-to-games converter. But maybe you think that as long as it’s a developer that has a decent track record, then all they need is funding, right?
“Akaneiro: Demon Hunters has had its development team shaved down to just two after spending every penny of its $204,680 investment, and is far from complete. Subutai Corporation and Neal Stephenson’s swordfighting game Clang has apparently faltered, with little communication to backers. Crisis Heart Brawlers: Clash At Otakon has vanished, Xeko’s parent company has gone bankrupt, Haunts: The Manse Macabre was abandoned, and Rainfall: The Sojourn’s developer is very slowly refunding his backers.”
And, of course, Double Fine still – over two years after their successful funding campaign – has only delivered half of their game. But how is this happening? Are all of these developers just incompetent?
Well, quite frankly, yes.
What? You didn’t expect a different answer on this blog, did you? Fine, here’s the concession, then.
Video games are such a young medium, no one really has a technically smooth process for making games – unless you’re making the same RPG Maker bullshit everyone else is, because so much is done for you, and that’s how you end up with cookie cutter garbage. So one problem is that to be worthwhile, a game has to do something new, and that usually means new, unproven technology, which means it will inevitably be fucked up for a while, if not forever. Maybe the game mechanic that showed such promise in your head doesn’t really work in the real world. Maybe that $99 Android console isn’t going to revolutionize video games, even if you do pull it off.
Did Double Fine start making Broken Age on the same technology that their previous point-and-clicks used? Of course not. The engine they’re using hadn’t even been chosen until well into the funding campaign. How could anyone think working with brand new technology would keep their game on time and on budget? The sad truth is that experienced developers are just as bad as new developers when estimating work because they overestimate the amount of time their experience saves them, especially when it comes to new tools.
But Kickstarter doesn’t want you to stop giving these people money, even if they’re not producing the games you paid them to make. So head of community Cindy Au had this to say:
“If a project doesn’t reach its goal, or when a game ends up taking longer… those are all things that shouldn’t stop people from trying.”
You’re right; it shouldn’t stop them from trying. What it should do, however, is stop them from asking hopeful fans to foot the bill for their failures. When a developer has a publisher or some other company funding them, they’re being held accountable for what they produce, because that company has a lot invested, and therefore a lot of incentive to follow up on what’s going on. With Kickstarter, there are hundreds or thousands of backers who invest relatively little, and so it spreads out the investment enough that almost no one has enough money invested to pursue legal action, because a lawyer would cost them more than the Kickstarter investment. If you get enough people to invest a little bit of money, the very worst thing that can realistically happen to you is that some of them won’t back a future project. But for the really small indie team, change the name of your company, and most of those people won’t even realize. There’s an incredibly small amount of accountability, and that makes it even easier to drop the ball.
So don’t give me your shit about not stopping people from trying, Cindy. This isn’t about stopping anyone from pursuing their dream; it’s about not asking other people to shell out money for your dream, especially when you’re incapable of seeing it through. And if you’ve never made a game before, you almost certainly aren’t capable by a long shot. And if you have made a game before, you still don’t know whether or not you’ll be able to pull off your new idea.
I won’t do a full post on this because it’s not a video game, but it is worth noting that legal action has been taken by a State Attorney General against a company failing to produce their backer rewards. Polygon reports here. Hopefully, this will set a precedent, and the same thing will happen to other failed projects that received funding, and some accountability will enter into the equation.
But here we arrive at the turn. So maybe video game Kickstarters aren’t great now, but maybe they will be later. As Just Ma is quoted in the article,
“Perhaps the honeymoon period when hopeful backers indiscriminately back projects is over, but that by no means indicates the development model will no longer work.”
While it’s certainly true that potential Kickstarter backers getting more skeptical doesn’t mean the model will never work, there’s also no reason to believe it suddenly will. In fact, there are many other reasons to believe it won’t. Which brings us to part two.
Why It’s Never Going to Get Better
Look at other types of projects on Kickstarter. Film projects often ask for money to rent equipment or for post production costs. Book projects ask for printing costs. Music projects ask for funds for recording studio time. These are all inherent costs to getting something off the ground, because not everyone can own thousands of dollars worth of film or recording equipment. They’re not asking for a salary to write the book, the script, or the songs – they just need to get those things onto the medium to which they belong, and most people, understandably, aren’t able to do that themselves.
However, every indie video game studio has the equipment they need to make video games: a computer. Everyone running a Kickstarter owns at least one computer – they wouldn’t be able to post the project in the first place without one. Unlike film, music, and books, the barrier to entry for game developers is almost non-existent. All it really takes is work. This means that of all the different types of projects, video games have the least amount of justification for turning to Kickstarter, because they’re not asking for money to cover the costs of releasing a video game (which is almost nothing), they’re asking to be paid for their own work. Up front. Often when all they have to show for themselves in concept art – something which is entirely fucking useless to everyone except the artists working on the game most of the time.
“But what if they could be more like those other types of projects?” I hear you ask. Can’t you design a video game, write the whole script, plan out every interaction, and then just use Kickstarter to cover the costs of art, sound, etc.? Well, technically, yes – and you’d end up with the worst game in history. Design and production are too closely tied in video games to make that feasible. Look at the original design document for any released game – it will bear little resemblance to the final title. You can’t plan out every interaction in a game before you even start making it, and anyone who tries either fails to make the game at all, or releases a giant pile of garbage. And if one of the costs you’re outsourcing is the programming of a game, then you should die in a fire, because if you don’t know how to put together the game you want to make, you can’t plan dick. You have no idea how much time it will take, you don’t know the technologies or work involved. It’s like having an idea for a book, but paying someone else to write it because you don’t even know what a noun is. And again, as I’ve already discussed, even an experienced developer can’t estimate how long an entire game will take to make even down to the number of years. So don’t think for a minute that you can.
Also, most of the successful video game Kickstarter projects are for the same old bullshit, because it has to be something that looks good on paper; proven to be fun. If Minecraft had been on Kickstarter before the alpha was released, it would never have been funded. Hell, no one even gave a shit about the Alpha until some YouTube celebrities played it. It was too different (even if still a clone of Infiniminer, which saw very little commercial success), and needed to be proven to be fun before anyone would throw their money at it. Or as Ken Lobb is quoted in an article on NintendoLife:
“It comes back to a lesson I learned a long time ago: always listen to your customer, but also understand that if you do focus testing what you’re going to hear is, “I want that thing you did last time, because that was awesome.” Every once in a while, you have to learn to not listen to that…”
He was talking about the resistance to the development of Metroid Prime, and how fans wanted the same thing that had been done before. Look at the most successful Kickstarters – what common theme do most of them have? “Hey, remember that thing we did 10/20/30 years ago? We want to do that again, but better!” Or worse, a newer developer making a clone of an older title for which they were not the original developers.
And that makes Kickstarter a melting pot of nostalgia cash grabs. The only way to present something as being a good idea on paper is if you have something to compare it to. And that leads us to this Gamasutra article.
Sure, asking why nobody wants your Wii-U game is a bit like asking why nobody wants a VHS of your latest film, but once PC was added as a platform, those RTS nerds should have been all over it. As spreadsheet simulators go, this looks pretty high-quality. The game did, in fact, get funded, seemingly due to the publicity from this article – and even then, only barely.
And why? Well, the game may not be revolutionary to any PC gamers, but to console peasants, this is relatively new territory, a scary, unfamiliar world. And most gamers preorder the “sure thing”, not the scary unfamiliar thing. And that’s all Kickstarter is, mind you; a preorder platform for video games. Which means that in order to get funded, you have to make your game appealing to preorder. Make the next Call of Duty, or Pokemon, follow the safe formulas, and you’ll have dead-eyed gamers lining up around the block to get your Kickstarter-exclusive rewards. But do something different, and people will have to play it first before they decide it’s worth buying. At the very least, they’d have to see a review from a trusted source.
And you can’t do that shit with Kickstarter, because the whole platform is predicated upon the premise that you can’t make this game without getting a whole bunch of money first. And a proof of concept demo is only going to appeal to the subset of gamers with some imagination to see where you’re going with it, because you obviously can’t make a polished product as a proof of concept – otherwise, you’d just release that and call it a fucking day. So you either have to make the same old bullshit on Kickstarter, or find a really hardcore niche audience to fund it. Hell, even finished games often don’t offer demos, because it’s a lot easier to leave everything to the imagination and sell someone a dream. Once you play an actual demo, reality sets in, and unless the game really is amazing, that demo won’t sell it. You’ll get less people buying your game, not more.
And that’s why it’s never going to get better. Because fans by default just want the same old garbage shoved down their throats, as AAA sales figures and fan feedback have shown. They could eventually want something new, but they have to try it first, and it has to be a full-fledged game to convince most people, and that doesn’t work as a funding model.
Or you could do the really safe thing, and clone a popular game using YouTube celebrities, and with half a million dollars, make whatever you want.
How’s that Yogventures game coming along, anyway?