Tim Schafer posted a tweet announcing a Kickstarter campaign for a new adventure game in the early hours of February 8, 2012. Within nine hours, the game had met its $400,000 funding target. Within 24, it had streaked past $1 million, a signal to many of a new and fascinating dawn in the hitherto somewhat unexciting business of videogame funding. For the first time in the medium’s history, players realised their collective power to decide which games were made.
Two years later, Broken Age has half-emerged from Double Fine. But many of the Kickstarter projects that followed Schafer’s example have fallen short of their promises, missed their planned release date, were cancelled altogether or launched in compromised form. Of the 366 projects funded between 2009 and 2012, just one in three has fully delivered the promised title to backers.
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.
Of the projects that have shipped, well-reviewed successes such as FTL: Faster Than Light are uncommon, and only a very few have cracked an 80 average on Metacritic. Meanwhile, Godus’s miserable alpha launch has all but killed backers’ optimism for Peter Molyneux’s second project at 22 Cans, while the extremely well-funded Ouya has struggled to meet expectations.
Some games have followed Broken Age’s example by shipping in piecemeal form, but not always with the same quality that has sustained backers’ goodwill towards Double Fine. But even with such contentious examples counting towards Kickstarter’s ‘successful’ total, more than half of videogame backers on Kickstarter are still waiting for the games they’ve helped to fund. As of January 2014, there is $21.6 million outstanding in undelivered videogame projects that were funded between 2009 and 2012.
“There are risks and challenges to any creative project,” says Cindy Au, head of community at Kickstarter. “After nearly five years and thousands of game projects, we know most of the time things go really well. Failure is something that tends to be demonised, made into something terrifying and larger than life. Yet all the success stories began with a series of missteps, setbacks and failures. It’s part of the process of how things get made: trial and error, experimentation, iteration. 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.”
Au goes on to suggest backers tend to be “really understanding” when a project “misses the mark” and suggests that backers who are disappointed with the way in which a project is run or who believe that the finished article does not reflect the original promise “ask for a refund if a creator is unable to fulfil rewards”.
Kickstarter views itself as nothing more than a middleman between the project founder and funders, and will offer no support for anyone refused a refund
But Kickstarter views itself as nothing more than a middleman between the project founder and funders, and will offer no support for anyone refused a refund. “Kickstarter is not involved in the development of the projects themselves,” the company states in its official FAQ. “Kickstarter does not guarantee projects or investigate a creator’s ability to complete their project… Backers ultimately decide the validity and worthiness of a project by whether they decide to fund it.” And when it comes to deciding whether a project is viable or not, Kickstarter suggests merely: “Use your Internet street smarts.”
Where once videogame publishers shouldered the risk of development – and protected themselves with intricate contracts and key milestones at which points the developer would be paid – Kickstarter’s backers bear the full risk of these projects, but have little recourse if a developer fails to hold up its end of the bargain. The vocal project backers demanding refunds on troubled games’ Kickstarter message boards might have been less inclined to back a project had they realised their vulnerability.
Stoic, a team of Ex-Bioware developers, attracted criticism early on for its exquisitely drawn strategy-RPG The Banner Saga when the game’s singleplayer campaign was delayed in favour of a free-to-play multiplayer spinoff. Stoic responded by saying that the spinoff, titled The Banner Saga: Factions, was a taster and evidence of the team’s progress, as opposed to a fundamental change in direction. In the end, Stoic made good on its original promise and launched the singleplayer campaign to a degree of critical acclaim that’s still rare among Kickstarter projects.
“Kickstarter is such a new phenomenon,” Stoic’s creative director, Alex Thomas, says. “I think it takes time for an inherently different way of thinking to really work out all the kinks. Our greatest asset was the years of experience each one of us had in the industry. Even then, we made plenty of minor mistakes along the way. If you look at all the projects that have shipped so far, it’s been the ones developed by industry veterans. It’s so difficult to make a game that sometimes a huge windfall can become a disadvantage if you haven’t been through the process before.”
Justin Ma is a former employee of 2K Shanghai and one half of Subset Games. Subset’s FTL has been one of the most successful Kickstarter projects from start to finish: quickly funded, quickly shipped, well-reviewed and well-received by backers. For Ma, most projects fail due to unreasonable ambitions on the developer’s part. “Being able to predict what is required for the full game when you’re still early in the development process is an extremely difficult task, especially for a small team,” he says. “I think the primary reason we were able to live up to most backers’ expectations was because the scale of what we were planning was incredibly small.”
Even with these modest ambitions, the team was still painfully stretched. “It was mostly done by working insane hours, enlisting the help of friends, and cutting lots and lots of features.”
For Ma, crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter remain an important part of the videogame landscape. “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,” he says. “I expect crowdfunding will continue to play an important role for small development studios.”
Likewise, the proximity to FTL’s players provided by Kickstarter proved invaluable for Subset, and offered a degree of feedback that a traditional publisher may not have been able to provide. “Backers greatly helped us bug test and gauge what aspects of the game were fun. They helped us a ton with general balance.”
“Backers greatly helped us bug test and gauge what aspects of the game were fun. They helped us a ton with general balance.”
Justin Ma, Subset Games
Despite Ma and Thomas’s positive experiences, the question of whether crowdfunding is suited to videogame development remains. Even aside from the complexities of project managing a multidisciplinary product, there are the moveable parts of the creative process. Promised features may turn out to not be particularly enjoyable during development, and need to be removed. “You make your best guesses about what will be fun and play well, but you don’t really know until it starts to come together,” Thomas says. “Often it feels like a game never really ‘works’ until the last couple weeks.” Publishers work with milestones and key deliverables for this very reason: to check the progress of a game and to adjust scope accordingly.
But there are no official mechanisms on Kickstarter. A tension will inevitably exist between sceptical backers, who want to receive the product they’ve paid for in a timely manner, and developers, who are doing their best to make a good game on budget. “Backers should know that development is a very difficult and uncertain process,” says Ma. “There’s a lot that can happen between a pitch and a commercial product, so try to cut the developer a little slack if it’s not going as perfectly as everyone hoped.”
Evidently, crowdfunding demands a change in thinking. After three years of modest returns, backers should treat videogame Kickstarters as supporting potential rather than an investment. When even established developers such as Peter Molyneux can’t be counted upon to deliver the level of quality players expect, backers’ only safe option is to invest no more than they can afford to throw away. “If you can’t afford to risk $10 or $15 on an idea you like, just don’t back it,” Stoic’s Thomas says. “It may turn out great, it may not turn out great. It’s really that simple.”