The Flaws of Funding a Video Game on Kickstarter

Alex Phillimore Alex Phillimore: (alex.phillimore-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2013-07-05 04:53:43

The Flaws of Funding a Video Game on Kickstarter

Kickstarter is great platform for funding innovative and exciting technologies. It is also a place where promises can be broken and creators can set unrealistic targets. With video games making a big mark on Kickstarter, the word is out now that developers can use the service to gain funding without having to use publishers. While the benefits to this approach are obvious (including more creative freedom) publishers are often there to keep a project on course and mediate funding and deadlines to ensure that a product hits the shelves as soon as possible by exerting creative restraint. With Kickstarter-funded games, there is no obligation, other than to appease fans, to get your game out to any specific deadline. Not only that, but developers behind Kickstarter games seem to have a habit of changing things up from their initial pitch after being funded, which could, perhaps, be seen as dishonest to those who donated expecting the described product in the pitch. Let's examine three video game-related Kickstarters that haven't gone entirely to plan: the Ouya, Double Fine's Broken Age and Precursor Games' Shadow of the Eternals.

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Firstly, the Ouya. The system had a goal of $950,000. It ended up raising $8,596,474 across 63,000+ backers. That's a lot of funding. And yet, somehow, many backers have still (at the time of writing) not yet received their console, even though the Ouya has now hit retail. There have been some obscene delays in people who backed the project receiving their consoles, which, given the funds the system raised, is regarded by many backers as unacceptable. Despite Ouya CEO Julie Uhrman addressing complaints and offering a formal apology, people are still disappointed that arrangements couldn't be made to guarantee that backers would receive their console before, or even on the same day as, the official retail release of the product.

This suggests one of the core problems with Kickstarter - a lot of the time the people who are being funded are new to the marketing game, or don't entirely know how to handle bulk orders of a product. Many are creative geniuses, sure, but that doesn't mean that they have extensive knowledge of product shipping and market production. Promises are often made on Kickstarter by people who want to convince you to believe in their product but lack a realistic game plan to back it up. Frustratingly, when this happens with the Ouya, there is no one to complain to - no massive parent company who can take responsibility - other than the development team behind the product. While negative outcomes (such as the delayed shipping of products) are often unforeseeable and are by no means deliberate, they do suggest the amateurish side of Kickstarter - the site requires you to believe in people, but it doesn't force those people to meet deadlines and deliver exactly what they promised. In the case of the Ouya, when a project makes far more money than is expected, there seems to be a problem in keeping up with preorders; a problem that larger companies and publishers would likely be able to negate.

In the case of Double Fine's Broken Age, over-funding creates further complications. Respected game developer Tim Schafer asked Kickstarter for $400,000 to develop a video game (which back then was known simply as Double Fine Adventure). The idea was that they would use some of this money to make the game and a portion of it to film the development side of things, essentially creating an accompanying documentary about video game development. The project ended up raising $3,336,371 and is considered to be a landmark in Kickstarter history, showing the service to be a viable form of funding for game developers.

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The game has been pushed back, however, and Schafer has now revealed that Broken Age will be cut into two because, in essence, he has made more of a game than he and his team expected and he now requires additional funding (that can be raised through sales of the first part of the game). This seems like a risky venture - what if the first half doesn't sell well? - but many hopeful backers have argued that if doing so will give them a better end product, they are willing to wait for both halves of the game. The issue isn't that Double Fine has cut the game in half; it is that they were funded to make a game based on the $400,000 budget. That the team have made a bigger and better product with the extra money is fair enough, but that isn't what backers necessarily paid for.

Backers paid for a game that would be made with the $400,000 budget in mind. Schafer has now essentially decided to make a different (even if it will be better) game to what people funded him and his team to do. While this is somewhat understandable given how much additional money was raised, I do sympathise with people who are a bit irritated that things haven't developed with the game as they planned. The issue is complicated further by Double Fine's other game, Massive Chalice.

Not too long ago Double Fine announced a second Kickstarter campaign for another team to work on while the core team makes Broken Age. They asked for $725,000 to make this game: Massive Chalice. The project raised $1,229,015. A lot of people have pointed out that it seems odd that Double Fine could ask for money in developing a second project while the first project (Broken Age) required more funding. There is something to be said, also, in Double Fine waiting until the Massive Chalice fundraiser had finished before telling the public and games journalists about splitting Broken Age due to lack of funds. I don't want to suggest that Double Fine have been dishonest with people, but there is a sense that they have bitten off more than they can chew by running two Kickstarters to fund two games, one of which has now run into financial troubles, arguably due to the poor management of the $3.3m Broken Age raised. Rather than expanding the project beyond the limits of this amount, there is an argument to be made that Double Fine should have limited themselves to what they had. If they were confident they could make a game on the initial $400,000 budget, they should have been able to make the game with $3.3m.

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Perhaps the biggest Kickstarter gaming disaster (I wouldn't describe Double Fine's effort as a 'disaster' as much as I would call it 'messy') is Precursor Game's Shadow of the Eternals. Conceived as a sequel to the cult-classic Eternal Darkness, this game has had an incredibly difficult and unsavory development process. Marred by the tarnished reputation of developer Dennis Dyack and the entire Silicon Knights studio after failures such as X-Men: Destiny, and plagued by a lawsuit from Epic Games, evidence suggests that the project has faced adversity from its inception.

First, Precursor Games tried crowd-funding through an independent site. When that failed, they emerged on Kickstarter with a crowd-funding goal of over $1,000,000. After not coming close to this amount, they pulled the game from Kickstarter before the project could be declared as unfunded, vowing that alterations would be made and that they would be returning to Kickstarter in the future. At the time of writing, they haven't yet re-surfaced. Further issues with the studio, including the recent allegations of possession of child pornography against Kenneth McCulloch, a developer at Precursor, have only made matters worse, and plenty of people who initially backed the project are now refusing to do so again based on these multiple setbacks.

The issue, of course, is that Kickstarter is only a platform to host people - people who can be flawed, or lack the knowledge and business gravitas to back up their promises. In all three of the above cases, I have no doubt that the developers wanted things to go smoothly; I do not for one second believe that they set out to scam people. Their reputations are on the line when they turn to Kickstarter - without publishers behind them, if the final product isn't good, people cannot blame anyone but the developer. In the case of the Ouya and Broken Age, if these products fail to deliver a satisfying experience to backers, financial reasons cannot be blamed - both projects raised far more money than they asked for. If money does become an issue, it's difficult to see anything other than poor planning and budgeting as the culprit, at least from the perspective of someone who cannot see behind the scenes. If backers are not receiving what was promised on time, the blame has to rest with someone, and people will naturally lash out at the developers who made the promises in the first place. With no publisher to hide behind, when things go wrong on Kickstarter, there is the potential for them to go seriously wrong.

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