Kicking Kickstarter

Kickstarter has become the de-facto method in the last year to fund the kind of niche games that were once funded by traditional means. From Double Fine’s Adventure to Obsidian’s frankly stunningly ambitious Project Eternity, it’s great such games will get made. But I’m kicking Kickstarter. It’s not worth it.

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To quote a song from an album funded by Kickstarter – “It doesn’t matter if you want it back – you’ve given it away. You’ve given it away!” A cruel jibe perhaps considering the tone I am about to deliver.

For the record, I have supported many Kickstarter projects. I believe in many of them, and the talent behind them, and the ideas they have.

Kickstarter is an odd one, because from the Ouya to Project Eternity, from Wasteland 2 to Double Fine Adventure, what was once the sort of landscape of indie musicians has become the home of big gaming business. In their drive to reinvigorate the gaming market, we the consumers are now funding these games that were once funded through traditional means.

That’s a good thing but a problem in the making, because Kickstarter was once about getting smaller ideas out to the wider world. Where small indie developers could pitch to the consumer base, in a sort of super-sized Dragons Den, attract investors by offering them presents and gifts depending on how much they were willing to invest. There are no legal failsafes; this is raw, unadulterated crowd-sourcing. There is no filter, if a project runs out of money and doesn’t get finished then things may not happen. It’s a difficult position to be in, but initially it was very small, there wasn’t much money at stake in the grand scheme of things – £10k here and $25k there. We donated little amounts. The risks were not astronomically high, nor was the userbase interested in pushing things.

What a difference a year makes, however. Now we’re talking tens of millions of dollars for a project run by the sort of talent that in any other sane universe would have been given money by the knowledgeable few without a moments notice, hoping for another blockbuster hit or a sleeper success. We’re talking Tim Schafer (of Monkey Island and Grim Fandango fame), Brian Fargo (of Wasteland and the original Fallout), and Obsidian boast talent from games such as Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights. We’re not talking amateurs here; we’re dealing with some of the biggest talent the industry has ever thrown out at us, people who defined genres and created games that have existed and thrived long after their own departure from the companies in which their games were birthed. We’re dealing with businessmen, real and proud. They know there is no failsafe; if things go down, so too does their reputation, but it’s a lot of money and a lot of expectation that is supported by very little structural foundation. We have a gentleman’s agreement, not much more, and that both gives them a freedom yes, but also another kind of freedom…

You see, traditional budgets and publishers rein in talent. It’s all well and good to have talent, because that’s awesome. The next step is to utilise that talent for the good of everyone, and sometimes we as a species are rather poor at doing that. Given the option, we don’t just punish but we revel in it, to the point of believing and convincing ourselves that what we are doing is right, as we continue to beat on a thug until he is close to death himself. Being given the power, the talent and the freedom as well as the financial means and motive to do something is great – the next step is exerting just the right amount of pressure onto the team to get the best out of them. Holding them back from the excesses of their creative minds. See Resident Evil 6 for this; a game where nothing was taboo and no idea too outlandish. Every idea anyone had ever had in its creation was thrown in, was made a part of the overall end result. Everyone had their input, everyone was listened to, everyone felt part of the overall project. The end result? A game that defies genre definition and polarises opinion dramatically. Sometimes, you simply have to tell someone “That idea sucks!” It isn’t cruel, because you want a product at the end that isn’t just commercial but also lives on in our hearts and minds, something that paves the way for the future. You need to know who and what you are, and for that, some things just can’t and don’t work.

We as backers may feel we have this power; but this power is a mere illusion, a figment of our imaginations. For you see, the moment the project is backed and funded, the moment the money leaves your bank account is the moment you immediately lose all that power. Traditional funding means aren’t like this; it’s not a case of “Here is ten million dollars for you to make a game!”, no, it’s gated and rightly so. You get a certain amount for reaching milestones and a certain amount when needed to push the game. These means give a sense of control that Kickstarter cannot offer; they are pushed towards a conclusion and towards getting things done because their jobs, their funding and their wages depend on it. When they have all the money, and no threat of having to give any of it back – can we really believe that they are all going to work in exactly the same way, in the same pressure-cooker conditions and deliver something special?

It’s early days because of course we all know that none of these big-name titles are actually ready yet. They are months or years away, and therein lies another issue. You’ve effectively already paid, so what happens if you forget? What happens if something happens to you? There is no means to back out, no way to say “I’m not sure!” or “This is conflicting with something.” It’s done. Set in concrete. If you don’t pick up your “reward”, that’s money simply given to someone for no actual end result. And what if people don’t LIKE the end result? What if the games are bad? As divisive as Resident Evil 6? What then?

Kickstarter has obviously so much potential to do great things but let’s not be so deluded as to imagine that everything will be perfect; rarely is it that a good games project will run a smooth course, there will always be shakey moments and rough seas. The amount of money we offer now is very different to the money of next year; not least because this money we give now can accrue collective interest in someone elses account. We expect great things from Obsidian, Double Fine and Ouya. But should we not at least be asking the question of what happens should it all go pear-shaped?

For it is the moment it goes wrong that Kickstarter itself will be destroyed. Having a generous open-hearted means to donate to projects is great, but the moment a multi-million dollar project collapses under its own self-importance with no recourse for people to get back the tens or hundreds or thousands of dollars they have pumped into it is the moment that the whole Kickstarter ethos will end. Currently, we are winging it all on nothing more than nice words and a wisp of hope and a prayer. Everything is calm right now. Everything looks nice. We’re enjoying the ride and we’re all excited as hell for what we’ll get in the end. That can change so rapidly, and then what? No-one will be able to realistically use it again. It will be buried underneath whatever high-profile disaster falls upon it. A viking funeral, but it will rob many of their primary means of funding.

So, should we all kick Kickstarter? Maybe in some cases, we should.

By this, I mean should there not now be a separate and valid alternative for these big names to go to? If they must crowd-source because the industry is so deeply unwilling to fund their ideas, then let us at least come to the consensus that these are professionals and therefore we are, technically, investors. Sure, we want a copy of the game. But let’s have some legal power to boot, let us have the option to withdraw money if things are displeasing us or if we want, to throw more money at them if that is what we desire. A more ebb and flow model that befits the huge and lofty ideals. One that seperates the money to an independent authority that doesn’t have a bias, who exists to broker the relationship between us as the backers and those who develop. When millions of dollars are at stake, isn’t it a good idea that at that moment transparency sets in and every single penny is accounted for? We trust, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be suspicious. I trust my doctor – doesn’t mean I am not suspicious why it costs £8 on the NHS for pain medication that we know costs about £1 to make. It’s a tax, and I don’t know where that “tax” goes. It just goes — somewhere.

Once all the money is gone, that’s it. We no longer really have much of a say. They’ve got what they wanted and/or needed and the rest is to sit around, twiddle our thumbs and hope. We are at the gateway of a new kind of pre-order, and the sad thing here is there is a very real risk that the things we are pre-ordering may never actually arrive. Whilst the main industry continues to pump millions into the latest big blockbuster game that actually doesn’t excite or thrill us, at least we know our money isn’t at risk until we choose to buy the game. And we can get good reviews and warnings to deter us from the shadier, darker and dodgier games that don’t thrill or excite. Here, our money is given sometimes two years in advance. And heck knows what will happen in the meantime.

That’s not to say I don’t like or understand the need for Kickstarter. Because it is at least for the moment providing a service that at least has a noble air about it; for an industry that has started becoming an amalgamated behemoth, the gaming industry really could do with more alternatives. They really could do with other means into getting games out there, because it’s a crying shame some genres are dying out whilst others are practically extinct. When it costs tens of thousands of dollars to merely patch a game on a console, when it costs to get a game licensed for a machine, when there are so many hurdles and hoops, it is no wonder that many of its most prominent exponents and its most ready talent are looking for alternate means of getting their games made. Because it’s not a nice industry. And it only thinks in terms of profit and sales, rather than the end product and laying the foundations for a future.

Kickstarter provides a means that befits their intentions. Good and pure, but grounded on little more than words and hope. But it’s that very lack of support that I fear will do it in, and then we’ll be right back to the original option of watching as they have to go through traditional funding sources that only think of making money on the product, rather than the product itself. And we don’t really want that either, right?

It’s great that companies are still so keen to impress us and promise us the world in order to get our money. But it is here we must be at our most alert; if we’re going to use an imperfect solution such as Kickstarter is, then we must temper their desperation with our own common sense. We must also see the irony that Kickstarter has become a turbo-charged mirror parody of the very industry it stands to rebel against; as small, interesting projects and games are left in the dust because we are once more attracted to the names and titles and brands we have always trusted.

Some people may have a lot more to lose than just money and you can sort of feel comfortable with them taking your cash, but another company may simply be trying to get money and stash it away for a little while, sucking off interest or putting it into risky ventures hoping for a quick profitable return. Listen to your gut.

And for the moment, let’s just try to limit Kickstarter projects. It’s time to kick this habit, because otherwise they will become reliant on us and our money with no real restriction. And that’s just as bad as someone not funding their project because they can’t see the profit potential. There are problems in the industry proper right now – not little problems either, problems that can’t be ignored. And it is the very people who could do something about it that are rushing to Kickstarter, trying to distance themselves from one high-risk venture capital means to another, only this one has none of the legal and financial failsafes that are afforded to it otherwise.

It’s a dangerous game we play, so let’s be careful. Or we’re going to be back where we started, except with a massive smouldering crater in our way…

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