We all know how Kickstarter is supposed to work: a company or group in need of funding presents an idea to the Internet at large, and based on the strength of the pitch (and some incentives for donors), crowdfunding ensues.
When it comes to game development, though, is this really the best model for raising money – and are gamers really willing to put their money up for a game they don’t they don’t know much about?
Crowdfunding seemingly came out of nowhere for us in the gaming industry and took us by storm. We've experienced the first generation of super projects and the mixed results they delivered (and still aren't delivering). Now that we're looking at a 2nd (or maybe 3rd) generation of crowdfunding and we see that something completely different is happening.
For the purposes of being useful to most readers let's just assume your studio isn't Double Fine, Obsidian or inXile - let's say you haven't made cult classics and have been induced in several halls of fame. Let's assume - for the sake of argument - you're a regular developer with a great idea. Let's start there and see what crowdfunding actually means for you - the vast majority who are in need of crowdfunding
The gaming community takes a big risk when it participates in these kinds of projects, though. While they may be helping in the creation of a great game, they have no way of knowing what the finished product might be – or if they will even want to play it. These would be crowdfunders can avoid the risk altogether by sticking with the game companies they know and love – and they often do.
Whether they are playing into their own nostalgia for established series and graphics engines, or just avoiding the risk of donating their money for a game they eventually won’t want is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: it leaves many of the indie developers to fend for themselves.
This begs the question, of course, is Kickstarter even worthwhile for the little guys?
At a glance, it seems like a good idea – indie developers gain some much-needed funding, connect with their audience, and establish some loyalty before their game even drops.
There are two serious problems with this assumption, however:
First, it takes no small amount of effort to make a splash with Kickstarter. There is a lot of PR legwork in getting a message to the masses, especially if that message is asking for money. It means polishing and distributing any and all “preview” material to show what the game-in-progress is all about, developing prize packages and incentives for donors, constant promotion, and a ton of time spent in areas other than actual game development.
The other problem is cost. Raising money through Kickstarter isn’t quite as lucrative as it might seem – as the team at War Balloon discovered last year. After taxes, the cuts taken by the site owners, paying for all of the incentive packages, and the money spent promoting the Kickstarter campaign in the first place, many indie companies may not come out very far ahead of where they started!
So what are the independent developers to do? They need gamer support to get their ideas off the ground, but don’t want to lose a significant portion of those dollars to printing posters and paying out middlemen.
On the other side of the coin, gamers don’t necessarily want to shell out their hard earned money for the promise of a game they know nothing about, or worse, to a developer they know nothing about.
If linking up with a major publisher (or angel investor) isn’t really an option, indie developers are only left with the less-than-perfect crowdfunding model.
So where is the middle ground? How can the model change for the benefit of the developers and the gamers?
Would game companies be willing to keep their funders in the loop during the development process? Maybe a certain level of contribution would earn a donor a spot as a beta tester, or donors would have a way to provide feedback about preview content only available to them.
It will take some mutual trust between gamers and developers to find a crowdfunding option that satisfies both parties.ba
For the developers, their commitment to donors needs to be relatively low cost, or they will be spending all of the donated funding on giving back to the donors (instead of the game).
For donors, they will need some assurance that their money is being put to good use, and that the game they are funding is going to meet (and hopefully exceed) their expectations.
Perhaps it will require that games are almost ready for the shelves by the time they get to crowdfunding sites, and the raised funds will go toward distribution and marketing. Maybe it will take some rallying by the gaming community to help determine which projects are worthy of their resources, instead of developers spending their time and effort finding the funders in the first place.
However unlikely, the unheard of indie developer may need to appeal to more established and successful independents for help getting the word out.
This model will definitely take some trial and error, but there has to be an alternative to the current scenario, where donated dollars are spent largely on swag and fees, and the donors get posters and t-shirts, but no sense of the game they are paying for.
Something’s got to give, or gamer-supported development won’t be around for much longer.