Why Kickstarter Sucks for Videogames (And Why It’s Never Going To Get Better)

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?

Wrong.

“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?

OH.

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12 thoughts on “Why Kickstarter Sucks for Videogames (And Why It’s Never Going To Get Better)

  1. Simon Lewis. Oh who am I kidding... says:

    Im glad to see you’re back. I figured you’d been run over by a bus or hunted down by a former Kickstarter developer. Nice to have you back. I missed you. I said it.

    I’m probably not your typical “fan”. I hate to see the way people throw ideas and trash up on Kickstarter hoping to make an easy dollar. However, as someone whose developed a game from Kickstarter funding, I dont think you can throw the baby out with the bath water based on the failures that have come from Kickstarter.

    I will admit however the statistics are depressing to read. But I’ve also backed just under 70 game projects personally and I would say that a more educated backer will see higher “Returns” on their pledges (and in the end), it’s more about helping creative people realize their vision. Even if its just a small contribution. Does that vision sometimes end in embarrassing flames? Of course. But it’s nice to live in a world where the opportunity is given to folks even if they cant always run with it…

    And no, there is no logic to that sentiment but it is what makes Kickstarter “work”, even when more often than not it doesn’t. KS funded games like Banner Saga, FTL, Kentucky Route Zero, Elite: Shovel Knight, Divinity: Original Sin, Sunless Sea, Risk of Rain etc etc etc. There are VERY talented developers out there needing help, you just have to have some resemblance of intelligence to weed through the shit.

    • davidgaames says:

      I am touched by your concern. Thus far, only angry words have been sent my way, and no real violence. I guess I’m just not trying hard enough…

      As for the view expressed in your comment, this may come off as totally condescending or perfectly genuine, depending on how familiar you are with how I word things: There is a degree to which I respect your opinion. I understand the idea behind giving developers the means to realize their visions, and it’s a very pretty dream indeed. We simply disagree that Kickstarter really does that. Maybe your own experience is an exception, in which case I have to ask, how much is it an exception to the second half of this article (which you didn’t really address in your comment)?

      More specifically: what were you buying with those funds other than time for you and your team? I ask because I maintain that the difference between what funding goes toward for video games and what it goes toward for other projects is a very important one. I think, in general, we don’t count the work of a creator as part of the “cost” of making something. A writer who wants a few thousand dollars to print physical copies of their book is quite different from one who wants a year’s salary to write a digitally-released book, for instance. I’ve never seen a project as audacious as the latter, and I think that’s a good thing. And I don’t make exceptions for people because they’re making a video game instead of writing a book.

      As for the examples of good, successful Kickstarted games, as I’ve stated before, at least half of them would have still existed without Kickstarter, and admit as much from their campaigns. They don’t exist because of Kickstarter, and it does the game industry no favors to pretend otherwise. I fucking love the shit out of D:OS, but just look at their Kickstarter Page:

      “All of the game systems are already in place and the biggest technological risks have already been tackled. The base game is also already funded.”

      Does that sound like a game that’s existence hung in the balance of Kickstarter backers? No, these are not the kinds of examples you need to prove your point. More often, the projects that do what you say are ones like Yogventures and Double Fine Adventure. Those games would not have existed without Kickstarter, because work hadn’t even begun on them. That’s also the reason they failed and are running two years late, respectively. There are many funding models possible in the game industry, and Kickstarter is nowhere near one of the best. It’s not even a good one. In fact, I would argue that it does more harm than good. That’s not to say that it doesn’t do any good; just that it’s not enough to justify itself. If I am throwing out the baby with the bath water here, then that baby was already drowning in the tub to begin with.

      • Simon Lewis says:

        You make a lot of great points. I’m not really trying to debate, because I dont think there is a clear “Yes/No” to the questions we’re asking. I’m just display my perspective as both a backer and game developer and why I feel it can work even though the system as a whole is flawed.
        For our own project, we went very small because we’re making a small game. Being transparent: we are a tiny indie, developing a tiny game out of pocket. No wages or salaries. We went to Kickstarter because we knew that with a little funding we could make the game SO much more than what it was. We raised around $6,500 (closer to $5,700 after taxes, fees and failed pledges) to cover basic expenses (engine licensing, software licensing and paying for a few expenses for things like improved animation, additional artwork, music, sfx licensing etc) that we wouldn’t have been able to attain funding it out of pocket.
        Could we have made the game without this funding? Yes. BUT. Would it have been half as good as we have been able to make it? Definitely not. Probably not even half as good.
        Citing the games above again: Yes, they may have said they could have made the game without funding but they also said that they were able to dramatically improve the game and experience because of their funding.
        Just an example, quote from a recent Gamsutra article where someone asked a Shovel Knight dev if the game would have been as good if they had just hit the base funding level (they raised $300k+ instead of the 75k they wanted): “We were planning a much smaller game from the beginning than what we ended up shipping. Once the Kickstarter started doing really well, we scoped Shovel Knight to be much larger and fit all our wildest dreams. So in all likely hood, the 75k game would have been much shorter and succinct than where we ended up. It would have also included us using our savings to scrape by. We were determined to make the game no matter what!”
        As you said, most indie devs are determined and willing to work without funding or salaries to follow their dreams. I’ve even just stated I didnt gain a penny from our own Kickstarter. I work a desk-job to pay the bills still. But as he clarifies, just as the scope would have been much smaller with the lower funding, could it even have existed without any funding at all? If so, just how “small and succinct” would it have had to become? And now, its one of the best reviewed games of the entire year. In all likelihood, because of the funding it received via Kickstarter.
        So yes, these games may have existed without Kickstarter, but how many would have even released by now and how much a hollow shell would they be of the great games they ended up becoming thanks to Kickstarter?
        P.S. Keep up the good work man. I think Kickstarter needs people like calling out projects and questioning what these developers are doing/thinking. Even if you don’t agree, hope my small view helps paint a different perspective of how Kickstarter does (despite all it’s messes and shortcomings) actually work from time to time. And thats why I still back game projects.

      • davidgaames says:

        I hardly know where to begin. That is the most thoughtful and eloquent comment to ever grace this blog, and I agree with every word of its content. I think that you have made the best argument for Kickstarter that can possibly be made.

        The catch (and I hope you saw a catch coming) is that, at its core, it isn’t an argument for Kickstarter at all.

        What you’ve argued is that the very careful use of a bad system can lead to good results. I completely agree. It still makes Kickstarter a bad system – and you’ve already agreed that it’s at least flawed. And so, if you’re not defending Kickstarter because it’s a good system, I can only imagine it’s because you don’t see a better one. Perhaps there are cases in which a better method of funding doesn’t exist right now, but I’m fairly certain that there are not.

        The reason for this is simple: in order for your video game Kickstarter to be viable, you have to have already done a lot of work. Enough work that you could release your game without any funding at all – as we’ve been over, the successful examples of Kickstarter games almost invariably use the funds to improve the game, not fund the base of its existence. And if you’ve done this much work, then I would suggest a kind of early adoption model – the most popular of which right now is Steam’s Early Access.

        I’ve defended Early Access on this very blog, and I think it’s an objectively better system than Kickstarter, because it gives the players the means to judge whether or not to “fund” a game. With Kickstarter, all you get in return for your pledge is the promise of a game. With Early Access, you get the current build of the game, with updates as development progresses. It seems to me that the only developers who are unable to utilize Early Access for their funding are the ones who have barely begun work on their project – unsurprisingly, the ones much more likely to fail.

        Sure, there are some assumptions about how Early Access is supposed to work, and maybe Valve has some specific requirements (though I don’t believe that’s the case), but what I’m getting at is that the basis of Early Access is the model that any realistic Kickstarter should be using. No month-long campaign of promoting (rather than developing) your game with an arbitrary goal in exchange for promises. You pay to get some kind of build of the game, even if only a really short demo. If your demo isn’t fun, you’d better re-evaluate your game. If you haven’t done enough work to create a demo, you have no business asking for funding.

        Again, I really only use Early Access as an example – it’s effectively the model that Minecraft popularized. It was a few basic mechanics when it was first available. But some people saw the potential in it. The more that potential was fulfilled, the more people bought into it – and the more that funding allowed for further development. There was no need to say “if we don’t make X amount of money by X date, the game either won’t be released or will never reach its full potential”. The kinds of improvements you mention are ancillary and orthogonal to the core of the game – they aren’t necessary to it, and can be added or changed at any point. Sure, not as many people will enjoy it without them, and perhaps even then not enjoy it to the same extent, but at least they can see the direction in which it’s heading.

        I suppose it could be said that I see Kickstarter as the religion of the gaming industry, and Early Access as science. Early Access presents you with all of the evidence for a game thus far, and all that’s required from you is the vision to see where it’s going, and make up your mind about it. Kickstarter asks that you have faith; to please believe its promises, and you shall be rewarded for it in the future. I don’t approve of the latter system, and never will. And now that I’ve opened up that can of worms, I’ll just go ahead and end this comment.

  2. Simon Lewis says:

    Haha, when I first read “I don’t know where to begin” I was assuming you were about to unleash something fierce on me…

    Yeah, Early Access is a whole other can of worms. And I’m honestly surprised to hear you’re on this side of the fence considering how many popular gaming personalities these days seem to have more negative views on it (thanks to various “Simulator” titles primarily). But you make some really great points on how it can work. I will be honest, it’s not something I’ve invested much time or consideration into at the moment as my title didn’t fit the premise behind it. But future titles, its been something we’ve considered but I need to research what makes this process work/not work to get a better understanding of it.

    I think you actually summarized all that about Kickstarter well. I never really thought of my position as “careful use of a faulty system leading to good results” but I suppose in actuality, that is my view. There are other funding models you can attempt to approach, but at the time it was traditional (publisher or angel) and our project was too small for either and as mentioned, Early Access didn’t fit our genre or game demographic so… Kickstarter it was. While it doesn’t work for all use-cases, I think its great that indie’s have it as an option to explore when traditional funding models will not work. Although I think its “ease of use” allows people to take advantage (or at least attempt to take advantage) of it.

    Browsing Kickstarter these days, its so flush with trash that you probably don’t know where to begin with your next blog posts…

  3. Witch Killer says:

    Shut up simon ur a faget

  4. guilherme says:

    have you died?

  5. ballistic squid says:

    Nailed it.

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