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Trust in Crowd Funding
by Gary Dahl on 04/12/12 11:33:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[Reposted from Sugar Pill Studios.]

Enthusiastic game developers are understandably embracing the crowd funding dream.  Who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to make big money building the game of your dreams with complete ownership and control over the process, product, and intellectual property?  Kickstarter and its competitors promise to replace the money of those short-sighted and meddlesome extortionists known as publishers, with the heartfelt contributions of loving fans.  And there are increasingly more of those contributions to go around; first-time backers of last month’s Double Fine Adventure have already dropped around a million dollars on other projects (in addition to Double Fine’s $3,336,371 take).  And all of this goodness is now available at the low-low price of a compelling web pitch.

But like the Deathstar and Achilles before it, crowd funding as we know it is vulnerable.  Crowd funding depends on the trust of its funders, and I fear that many campaigns are abusing that trust.  Three of the most concerning and common abuses involve trust that 1) an advertised game will be fun, 2) an advertising developer is capable of making said game, and 3) the developer actually intends to make the game instead of disappearing with the money.

Trusting that a game will be fun.

One of the ways that publishers help developers (collectively) is by using the profits of a few hit games to help subsidize the development of many others.  They would prefer only publishing hits, but distinguishing hits from failures is extremely difficult.  So what happens to all of the supporters who back lack-luster games?  This could be the majority of backers, if traditional success rates prevail in the crowd funded space.  Disappointed funders are likely to become much stingier.

So how do you earn and keep a pledge’s trust that a game will be fun?  The best way to communicate the concept of your game is through playable prototypes and demos.  Put something in your potential backers’ hands, and explain the specific ways that their contributions will help you refine that experience.

Trusting that a developer is capable.

“Kickstarter does not investigate a creator’s ability to complete their project”, as is clearly stated in their FAQ.  This is not surprising, since the complexity of game development makes estimating a project’s required and available resources very difficult.  And beyond the few big names that have proven to carry their weight in Kickstarter-gold, most developers’ are not well known.  In fact, many developers’ contributions have gone unsung or been grossly exaggerated (despite the efforts of the IGDA’s Credit Standards Committee).  For these reasons, it is understandable when consumers confuse poorly conceived game design with incompetent execution.  This is one more reason to deploy playable prototypes to the hands of potential backers.  A prototype serves both as proof of your concept, and proof of your ability to deliver on that concept.  And you should explain the value of that to your audience.

Trusting that a campaign is not actually a confidence game.

The most successful Kickstarters and major publishers have both invested heavily in building their names as reputable brands.  Building this kind of trust takes time; which is in short supply on many Kickstarter campaigns.  Once a Kickstarter project is successfully funded, “… all backers’ credit cards are instantly charged and funds go directly to the project creator.”  We are now starting to see some project creators fail to fulfill their responsibilities to backers.  This appears to be an incredible minority of funded projects on Kickstarter.  However, when a single campaign appears to go AWOL with several hundreds of thousands of dollars, people rightly become upset.

Unfortunately, anything that you could say to convince people that you’re not a conman is probably being said by several conmen.  So dig in, and start establishing yourself slowly over time.  Don’t treat crowd funding like a quick-fix lottery.  Set modest funding-goals and plan to over-deliver on all of your promises.  Instead of approaching funders with sensational advertising, help educate them about how their pledge is different than a purchase.

The future of crowd funding

Kickstarter’s director of communications, Justin Kazmark has expressed that, “One of the bedrock beliefs behind Kickstarter is a trust in the crowd.”  There is undeniable utility in crowds’ pooled resources, but crowds can also be lead astray.  The sustainability of crowd funding depends on the funders’ trust in developers.  When this fragile trust is broken, it’s difficult to repair.  So developers should proactively work to build all three of these trusts in their funding community.  If you agree, please share this message.  

“Trust opens up new and unimagined possibilities.” -Robert C. Solomon.




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k s
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I'd like to do a kickstarter campaign for my current project but since I don't even have an alpha build ready I'm not going to try yet. I feel if I don't have anything to show not only will I not get any support, it's not fair to people I'm asking for support from either.

Kevin Reilly
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Good points Gary. The euphoria over Kickstarter will some day subside when the games are delivered to consumers. I am not as concerned by outright fraud b/c the game industry is inherently small (you can find most devs on Linkedin) and there really is only 1 opportunity to fool potential funders before they get savvy to that kind of scheme. IMO, the greater threat is the Icarus problem: how will devs know they have enough cash in hand to finish the game that people back? It is a staggering responsibility that comes with the trust of your gamers. Don't spend the money frivolously!

Jon Shafer
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Great article Gary. I share many of the same opinions (and fears). I sincerely hope that the first time a large game project publicly fails in a major way doesn't sour the entire community on the concept. Kickstarter (and other services like it) could potentially revolutionize the industry, but backers will have to become comfortable with the fact that just like with big companies that have massive budgets, most crowdsourced games just aren't going to be all that good.

- Jon

Will Ehrendreich
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I was taught by this man at brown college. I believe he was annoyed by me. but a fantastic article, we plan on doing a kickstater for our current project, and while we plan on having a playable demo before we start it, it is good to have the confirmation from an outside source that it would be beneficial.

Kyle Redd
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I hate to think that this euphoric period of "power to the people" crowd funding will ever die down, but of course (as you've demonstrated) it inevitably must.

Actually, it might not be a completely terrible thing to have a couple more projects from little-known creators fail to deliver on their promises. In the end, it could lead to sort of a "minimum standards" that those seeking funds will be expected to meet before anyone trusts them at all.

So for first-time Kickstarters with little prior experience, backers will come to expect a detailed budget and schedule breakdown as well as a working prototype of some sort, so that everyone can be confident that the project is truly the real deal. This would roundly disqualify a great many of the game projects that are currently out there, but even for those that are serious endeavors whose creators' have every intention of completing, it'd probably be for the best. They can retreat to work on the game on their own dime until it's of sufficient quality to come back and deliver a much better pitch to the backers.

Mike Lopez
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I think there is a 4th issue and that is that there should be an expectation of Return on Investment. Making sure a funded game is merely fun is the minimum acceptable delivery for donations of $25-30 but anyone donating more is for sure also expecting reasonable ROI.

I fully expect to see dozens of games crowd funded in the next year or two but 80-90% of those fail to recoup their investment. Two to three years from now for sure the crowd will be more discerning, will demand better proof of project planning and experience, and will likely fund a lower percentage of projects. I hope I am wrong but I would not bet on that.


Gary Dahl
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Thanks for the comments, it's nice to see some of these ideas resonating with you all.

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