Typically, getting a game funded involved a certain amount of pitching (groveling, begging, or whatever you might want to call it). The ideas for games were many and the sources for funding few. Things have gotten a bit more complicated of late: new platforms (mobile and social) lowered the barriers for entry, venture capitalists developed a thirst for “scalable content” and the emergence of crowd funding has created a plethora (triple world score) of options for folks looking to get their game out there.
Of all the options, the one creating the most stir is Kickstarter, which has led to a few games decimating the pledge goal. Time to figure out the positives and negatives.
The Kickstarter Model
In olden times, under the traditional publisher-developer model, a publisher would fund a game in return for a broad license to distribute and market the intellectual property (this is leaving aside things like contract work or owned developers). This allowed the developer to maintain the pretense of ownership and the publisher to get a hefty percentage of the revenue while maintaining some control over the development (typically through a milestone schedule). Good times were had by all. Or by some. A few people had a good time. Ok, I heard one about this guy who said it was all right. Kinda.
In more recent times, the mobile/social gaming revolution has brought the venture capitalists to the table. They’re less interested in licensing agreements and more interested in acquiring an equity stake in the company. If you get the right fit, it turns out to be a pretty strong combination – you’ve got funding and connections from a third party that wants to see you succeed and no real desire to intervene in the design of the game. Of course, there are some expectations that come along with the dollars, but they’re more concerned with creating the right company and they’ll hope the people they invested in can create the right game.
Enter Kickstarter. Very different model. Instead of gaining the trappings of ownership (whether it’s a broad license or a direct equity stake), Kickstarter campaigns provide pledgers with nifty products or services in exchange for their investment. In each instance, there is a funding goal, which must be met in order for the project to collect funds. Kickstarter is an opportunity to put that project that you’d never thought you’d get to do out onto the public market in exchange for winks, promises and smiles.
A few game developers have used Kickstarter to devastating effect. Generally these folks have longstanding reputations as game developers, and they’re using Kickstarter as an opportunity to create the games they couldn’t get funded through more “traditional” means. If anything, these uber sucessful Kickstarter campaigns are evidence of a strong public appetite for these particular projects, and one wonders whether or not these developers might have a bit more success if they took a whack at traditional modes of funding the next time around.
There are good reasons why publishers exist in the world – marketing, distribution, additional funding, etc. Kickstarter campaigns do not provide access to these things. In some instances, like console development, it may be nigh impossible to distribute a game without a relationship with a publisher. Not surprisingly, we’ve seen a lot of Kickstarer campaigns focus on platforms with fewer entanglements, like PC development, which solves one of the larger problems presented by going it indie. Distribution need not be an insurmountable barrier, but there are few games that have broken through without serious investment. Minecraft comes to mind. Not many others.
Another complication is the lack of a pocket to go back to in case things run a bit more expensive than anticipated. In most cases, a developer misjudges the amount of time, money and effort required to get a project off the ground. It’s unclear whether Kickstarter would permit a re-up for projects that stall along the way. It may also be harder to secure a publisher if a developer has gotten in over its head with promises to pledges that it cannot fulfill.
Oversight. Most developers hate the presence of a third party giving them “notes” on their zombies, but there is some value in being held accountable to one’s actions. Without business realities forcing development forward, it’s entirely possible that a game may wander along without a clear objective or refined launch strategy. The problem with passion projects is that they’re governed by the rules of the heart, not the mind. Eventually people are going to expect a game, and they aren’t going to buy “we’re making it EVEN MORE AWESOME” for very long. People have paid for a product.
Is Kickstarter The Future?
Probably not. For every mega funding success like Double Fine Adventure or Wasteland 2, there are any number of unsuccessful campaigns. Kickstarter is certainly gaining momentum, but ultimately pledgers are skeptical of developers that don’t have a bit of prior history associated with them. This turns out to be a pretty meaningful limitation, and somewhat requires that the developer had some success using traditional models in the past.
Another limitation is the size of the pledging population, and investors’ appetite for pledging additional products before their initial pledges see fruition. Kickstarter has seen a massive increase in the pledging pool following the success of the game campaigns, but it’s tough to say whether this is sustainable or scalable. Enthusiasm for prospective projects may generate excitement for a time, but ultimately the success of Kickstarter will depend on its ability to deliver the expected product within a reasonable time frame.
There’s also a broader fragility to the system. Since no Kickstarter games have been released, there are a lot of expectations without any reality checks. If this initial round of game development falls short, then it will likely have a negative effect on funding across the ecosystem. Gamers have fickle hearts, and they’re quit to rage if they feel like they’ve been taken advantage of. There’s a real possibility that funded projects are biting off more than they can chew, and there’s no clear mechanism for compensating pledges for losses.
My hope is that Kickstarter becomes the funding mechanism for a select group of developers working on speculative products that may not have a clear audience. My suspicion is that this is a very rare breed of developer, and one that probably doesn’t need Kickstarter for funding. The hope is that they would choose Kickstarter because of the flexibility it provides, which may allow them to expand into areas of game development previously unexplored.
In the case of Double Fine Adventure and Wasteland 2, we’re getting games that we understand and may view in comparison with other similar works. This strikes me as a tougher road to hoe, particularly when one considers the production values typically associated with high quality games these days. Funding may be able to capitalize on the sugar-plum faerie visions of the pledgers, but delivering a concrete product on a tight budget that will blow folks away seems a bit tougher. However, if these high profile games end up delivering, then there is real promise for the crowd funding model.
JM: Whether they “end up delivering” is the bottom line. Publishers aren’t the malevolent beasts it’s fun to pretend they are. They all started as developers, and their staff are by and large people who love games. I know, I was there, I did these deals. In fact I signed Ron Gilbert’s last game, and managed the business of Double Fine’s big console title, Brütal Legend.
The point I’m trying to make is that of all the deep pockets out there, publishers are the ones who get, love, and are willing to place bets on creative products. Investors usually like networks and platforms, and things that compound value, rather than something as inconsistent as an entertainment product. My concern is that all these nouveau micro-investors may hit the same realization that publishers have had for the past 25 years. Making games is hard, making great games is even harder, and making them commercially viable is the hardest of all. Then try doing that several times in a row. I personally feel and hope that the Double Fine game is different. They have the quality gene, and they’re delivering what seems to be what the nostalgia market wants. So fingers crossed for them, but unless you’re a Double Fine, I don’t think Kickstarter is a game funding silver bullet.