The Problem with Kickstarter. And a Proposed Solution.
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Reading Mike Rose's fantastic piece about why he won't be Kickstarting anymore I realised that I had sent a proposal for a rant about Kickstarter for the IGF. I had never fleshed it out. Now I feel the urge to.
The Problem with Kickstarter
It's actually pretty simple. You fund a game and it never materialises. That's the core problem most people have with Kickstarter*. At the root of it there's a quite simple mistake in how Kickstarter works: Upfront money and media hype is not compatible with interative development. Most Kickstarter projects are by small teams. A lot of them are quite experienced. Yet it is in the nature of Kickstarter that a project proposal is not fully developed when the campaign commences – not even when it concludes. Kickstarter serves many purposes, not the least of which is that it measures if there's a market for a game. The dynamics that builds up when a Kickstarter is unexpectedly successful is that features are added that prolongue the development of the game in question. A $700k project simply takes longer than a $100k project, even if your studio grows. Buyers also expect a grander game. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. But FTL simply would not have turned out well for $10k.
A Proposed Solution
Business sense tells me that building and nourishing a long-term relationship with your audience is wiser than betting on Kickstarter's quick fix. Introversion recently demonstrated that you can have the success of a Kickstarter without using the actual platform. How could Kickstarter adopt the cornerstones of that campaign? By opening a venue for contiuous financial support instead of a lump of money upfront. It would not be about kick-starting a product anymore but about building a relationship.
What changes would be necessary?
- Projects need to be in playable form from day one.
- New tiers need to be added on the fly.
- It's most likely a huge change for the studio culture.
- No funding targets anymore.
- Updates to your campaign are updates to your game.
Why not run a Paid Alpha/Beta instead?
You can do that. Introversion, Mojang and Wolfire have proved that it works. Yet if you happen to be in a less established studio, you might run into trouble finding an audience. And there are other properties a large site like Kickstarter offers.
The design of the Kickstarter site makes sure that users find their way through every project. The competition of Kickstarter projects between each other ups the quality bar of the campaigns. A large site establishes trust and that's important for any financial transaction. Similarly, the size of Kickstarter gives it leverage when it deals with credit card companies and banks. And at last, Kickstarter offers a hint of curation, which is essential once a platform grows.
I think Kickstarter is an excellent platform. Nevertheless, the blame of a postponed or halted game will hit the platform more than the project's owners. As their next step, Kickstarter should embrace the practicalities of iterative and continuous development. Or someone else will step up to fill that gap**.
* Minor issues like the bad discoverability might factor in, too.
** Yes, we'll end up with tons of perpetual betas. But Google and MineCraft demonstrated that players don't care too much about that.