This week we’ve been abuzz about Smed’s Hero’s Song Kickstarter cancellation – the KS more than the game, mostly because the game is happening regardless, but the Kickstarter might be more a window into the genre and the wider gaming industry than the game itself.
Our audience has seemed particularly prickly lately about so-called “rockstar devs” taking “AAA games” to Kickstarter for “no-strings” money and promotion instead of to investors or publishers, which might be leading to the corporatization of Kickstarter and squeezing out of smaller studios. We talked about that last month too when we asked our readers whether they planned to Kickstart anything in the new year.
So let’s talk about the present and future of crowdfunding. Are you over it? Is it dead? Is it being killed off by so-called “rockstar” devs, or is that sour grapes? If you’ve backed games, how many have delivered? What are your criteria for backing games in 2016? These are the questions I posed to the team for this week’s Massively Overthinking.
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I’m not exactly over Kickstarters, but I’m very cautious. I didn’t back The Stomping Land’s Kickstarter, but after multiple people mentioned enjoying it up during E3 2014, I bought it and regretted it to some extent. There may be some interesting ideas out there, especially from the little guys, but so much stays in public development for so long that I mostly only focus on official release dates for AAA games without publicly available betas.
That being said, I don’t think it’s all about Rockstar devs. It may not be an MMO, but Toby Fox’s Undertale is was a very small Kickstarter game by 1 guy who made what may be my favorite RPG (which is really hard to say, as my nostalgia glasses are hardest to ignore when looking at Star Wars and JRPGs alike). It’s the one Kickstarter I really wish I’d supported. The others I’ve supported still haven’t been completed.
For 2016, my criteria will be mostly the same as always: Only make small investments to games that will come out even without my money. That may make it sound like I only support the big guys, but the little guys with a lot of passion make it work. Project Gorgon failed not once but two times to get the money it needed, and ECO found government and academic support before coming to Kickstarter. To me, it shows the creators aren’t just dreamers; they’ve thought out what they’re doing.
That being said, I do have a new restriction this year: It either has to be a single player game I know I’ll have time to finish or one I can wrangle someone into playing with me. Being in Japan with Japanese work hours in addition to research and writing takes a chunk out of my game time, which has only recently started to bounce back a little since I hit it off with another gamer here (it’s nice to have a Cho’gall partner who doesn’t AFK to make a sandwich!). I really need to make wise purchasing decisions so my social life and game life can balance with my work life.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I’ve backed four card games, all four of which were delivered to me on time. I’ve backed four MMOs, all four of which are still in development. Then I backed Smed’s game, which was canceled, and a video game magazine for kids, which sadly didn’t fund. There are three other MMOs I wish I’d remembered to back and didn’t, but they’re not done cooking either. Overall, I think it’s a good record; I don’t feel personally screwed by Kickstarter. I made all of my pledges with full understanding of what I was getting into. Plus this site wouldn’t exist without it. So I don’t think Kickstarter is dead, though I definitely see the MMORPG audience souring on the idea, but that’s more because most people aren’t accustomed to seeing just how the sausage is made as Kickstarters ensure. In fact, I suspect Kickstarter (and early access) may be contributing in its own way to the pain our genre is suffering as the pressure to develop at lightspeed is much worse, slowly but surely leading to less feature-rich games at the end of it.
And for what it’s worth, I don’t blame “rockstar devs” for wanting to skip the yoke of a publisher or pour money down a drain in excessive promotional campaigns when Kickstarter is gleaming and cheap. What I object to is the fact that those “rockstar devs” have helped reset the scale in terms of what gamers expect from a Kickstarter campaign. As I argued in the comments yesterday, no one donates to a game campaign that’s just an idea anymore — we’ve become “in-engine footage or gtfo,” which means no one should even bother to try to Kickstart but the rockstars. That’s definitely strayed far from the point of crowdfunding, and it’s our fault as much as theirs.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I’ve said in the past that Kickstarters, as a funding method for games in general and MMOs in particular, have some big red flags that haven’t actually been fixed yet. Heck, the sole MMO success that we’ve seen in the Kickstarter arena has been Elite: Dangerous; every other successful Kickstarter is either still not at launch, ran out of money, or ran into some completely unforseen issue that caused a horrible delay. (To be fair, Kickstarter probably had nothing to do with what hit The Repopulation, but still.)
At this point, I’ve stopped backing video game Kickstarters, period. I’ll still back Kickstarters in general, but video games in particular are all too frequently based upon offloading the risk of development costs on to fans. A Kickstarted game is just like any other sort of game – some good ones, a whole lot of bad ones, a whole lot of ones that don’t even make it out of the starting gate. That goes double for MMOs, and triple for MMOs wherein I know the budget being put forth is too low to actually make the game, since that means that the game is either A) being funded by elsewhere and looking for extra no-strings-attached funding, or B) being run by people who do not actually know what is required to make a functional MMO. Neither one loosens my grip on my wallet.
I’m also very leery of the increasing trend wherein Kickstarter is basically early promotion for the game that’s getting made anyhow. I recognize the very nature of funding and building buzz, but one of the biggest issues I’ve had with Kickstarter from the start to the present is that you’re not actually backing a thing, you’re backing an idea about a thing. Using Kickstarter chiefly as a promotional tool means that you’re no longer even supporting that idea’s development, but have moved wholly into the territory of paying to be advertised to. There are some really great projects on Kickstarter and some crazy ambitious games out there being worked on as a result of the platform, but I’ll buy them when they actually release.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I’m not over it, but we’ve certainly moved from the heady days of dreams funding for ludicrous amounts. Crowdfunding is a fundraising tool, one of many at a developer’s disposal, and if I was making a game, I would certainly consider it. Having people give you money, practically strings-free, to make the game you already want to make? That’s win-win for the devs.
That said, there have been enough big successes and major flops on the Kickstarter front to offer some sound advice for any studio pursuing that path. A rockstar developer’s name alone doesn’t ensure success (Smedley, McQuaid). Kickstarters that are planned poorly, not promoted wisely, and lack that “hook” that gets everyone to cough up money several times over are ones that will flounder as Hero’s Song will (and that’s regardless of the game’s actual potential).
I’ve only ever backed one title, which was Project Gorgon, because I have a soft spot in my heart for underdogs who are whipping up some creatively inspiring things in the genre. I might back again, but it would need to be something that screams to me, “this MUST be made!”
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Am I over Kickstarter? No.Then again, I don’t think I’ve ever been in it. I am not one to back much, but that’s from a serious lack of funds on my side, not a lack of things I’d be interested in supporting. It just happens that the best support I can offer currently is being a cheerleader. Yay for pompoms!
I also don’t think Kickstarter is going to disappear any time soon, though I do think consumers are going to be a bit more wary of tossing cash around this year. There really hasn’t been much in the MMO realm that has reached launch after Kickstarting to look to and say “Hey, this works!” On the other hand, there have been a noteable number of unsuccessful or canceled-before-it-can-be-unsuccessful campaigns. The newness has definitely work off, so starry-eyed investing will lessen.
As for the rockstar dev concerns, I don’t think well-known names in the industry need to avoid Kickstarter. Sometimes these folks are branching out and are doing something with a smaller studio — maybe even a studio of one! Why not gauge how much the public would want your idea? Between that and the trend to put a little more power in the hands of the community, I believe Kickstarter could still be a viable tool.
That said, I don’t really see major studios who already have inroads with publishers and investors needing Kickstarter. Going this route might even blacken their eye a bit to the community they are appealing to. But should devs be banned from it just because they are famous for previous work? No. Unless Kickstarter applies an entry bar that starts prohibiting the smaller, independent folks from utilizing the crowdfunding platform, I am fine with the big names giving it a go. And I want to give consumers some credit that they will be able to still see and support smaller things that tickle their particular fancy.
My personal criteria for backing a game this year would be to have enough disposable income to pledge! If I can meet that one, then it is just a matter of being a game that I really want to see made and look forward to playing. I know there is risk and wait involved, and I am OK with that (hence it needing to be disposable income).
Patreon Donor Archebius: Crowdfunding is in a real trough right now. It’s only been two years since you really started to see big video games (indie or not!) on Kickstarter, and most of those are still in development. I don’t know about anyone else, but I have a lot of money invested in incomplete projects, and that makes me hesitant to invest in anything new. If The Repopulation, Crowfall, and Star Citizen all become huge success stories, then we’ll probably see more games relying on Kickstarter. If they make it, but they aren’t anything special, we’ll see more games using Kickstarter as part of a larger overall production strategy, a cheap way to manage pre-orders. If they fail, then it will continue to taper off until someone thinks we’ve all forgotten, and then they’ll try it again.
I don’t think that big-name devs are killing it off at all. Double Fine was hardly an unknown back when they were one of the first KS projects to top a million dollars, and that hasn’t slowed down the slew of indie projects we’ve seen succeed since. If anything, they helped establish the plausibility of using Kickstarter for bigger, more ambitious games.
And I’ve been very satisfied with the success rate I’ve seen on those games. I backed The Repopulation, Novus Aeterno, Crowfall, Camelot Unchained, Star Citizen, Battle Chasers, and Battletech. The Repopulation had delivered a pretty playable game, prior to its server woes (praying for good news on that soon), Novus Aeterno released successfully (though I haven’t played much of it), and I’ve been very satisfied with the progress on CU, CF, and SC.
When deciding if I want to back a game, I look at quite a few things. Is this a game that I support the idea of and want to see succeed, even if it’s not quite my cup of tea? Are the rewards enough for me to take the risk? Does the team do a good job of communicating? I am a sucker for decent production values, too – if you’ve got a crappy project page, I’m definitely going to pass. You’re trying to create a very visual game; if you can’t create a visually pleasing project description, my faith is going to be a little shaken.