When I first heard of Kickstarter, the proposition seemed straightforward and awesome. A smaller developer has a great idea and huge passion but can’t find a publisher willing to front their modest budget, so they fire off a campaign and let the market decide whether it’s worth backing. The developer has a team in place ready to go, knows the tech required to pull it off, and really only requires the cash. Seems ingenious. And frankly, since that isn’t the realm of game development I spend my time in, I really didn’t give it a lot of thought beyond that.
But after some high-profile Kickstarter debacles in which funded projects failed to deliver or required more than their initial ask, crowdfunding has come under increased scrutiny. As it should be–when you contribute to a campaign, you are an investor, and you shouldn’t be throwing your money into a black hole. Certainly the stumbles have caused me to rethink my initial perception.
Perhaps this was generally understood all along and I’m only just now getting it, but clearly Kickstarter is often less about “Money is the final piece I need to make this game, can I please have some?” and more about “We have this awesome idea and need your money to have even a chance of making it.” Which can be okay, so long as the expectation of funding hope rather than enabling completion is clear up front.
The problem is, it’s rare to see a campaign present itself that way. For me, a lot of it comes down to the promises being made. If you’re part of the team that has planned the project out and just needs $500k to make the game, then it is very prudent (and fun) to add stretch goals for what happens if you actually bring in $600k, $700k, and so forth. But if your ask is essentially for seed money to attract the real investors, then that initial crowdfunding goal is about making a vertical slice or demo, and anything beyond that should really only have the stretch goal of, you know, making a deeper, more polished demo. When you look at the perks being offered to higher-level contributors on such projects, you tend to see the same vanity items and feature creep common to just about every campaign.
Again, maybe I’m just naive for only now realizing this. But if the following point isn’t clear to you already, I hope you at least take away this one thing from my post: Giving a million bucks in seed money to keep a developer’s lights on while they seek out the $20+ million they actually need to make their game is orders of magnitude more risky than funding a three-person team that only needs a bit more cash to make it to the finish line. Yes, the world is full of rich investors, but–trust me on this–finding the right people willing to invest in making games (especially MMOs) is no easy feat. In the meantime, your hard-earned green is feeding those developers. This is high-risk investment, folks. Don’t do it unless you have money to lose.
Crowdfunding asks like this can be done responsibly and in a way that frames expectations correctly, but transparency–especially upfront–is absolutely crucial. Know what you’re getting into before you give anyone your money is the foundation of smart business. Seeing a developer with passion is great and something we all want to encourage, but make sure that passion has a clear and achievable plan behind it. Cool ideas are common and cheap; it’s proper execution that’s rare and expensive.