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The Problem with Kickstarter. And a Proposed Solution.
by Martin Pichlmair on 03/04/13 10:05:00 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.


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.

Prison Architect

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.

Kickstarter Staff Picks

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.

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Alexander Symington
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This model sounds appropriate for heavily replayable games that greatly benefit from deep iteration and rebalancing, like fighters. However, for very directed experiences designed for single or occasional playthroughs, such as graphic adventures, it seems much less suitable. Wouldn't this be more of a compliment to than a replacement for Kickstarter?

Martin Pichlmair
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I agree. Totally unsuitable.

Emppu Nurminen
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You do acknowledge that Kickstarter isn't just about backing up game projects as well as how software projects are generally high-risk projects in that platform? It's a quite big implementation request considering it is just fraction of all the projects in Kickstarter as well as considering that all the games can't use such features due practicalities. Also considering that it would mold Kickstarter's presence more into being a storefront rather than place to get funding is something that should be made a clear difference for the backers already.

Aren't new tiers already a thing that's been added during the campaign is running? I mean, the problem is more in developers' end to not call the shots at right time.

Craig Stern
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"It's actually pretty simple. You fund a game and it never materialises. That's the core problem most people have with Kickstarter"

Those are some pretty broad statements you're making there. Can you cite some sources?

E Zachary Knight
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Actually, that is a very common criticism, whether grounded in reality or not, that many people air about Kickstarter funding. In fact, it wsa one of the key complaints in the article that Martin linked at the start:

Stephen Broida
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It's definitely not founded in reality, but it is a criticism that a lot of game players argue about: mostly because they heard a lot of news when a game was having a Kickstarter campaign, but the news outlets didn't bother updating them on game development progress and releases save for a select few titles like Wasteland 2 or The Banner Saga.

But if you ever read a Kotaku comments section on an article about Kickstarter, you will see a lot of people complaining about it.

Craig Stern
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I mean, doesn't it seem a little early to say that funded games "never" materialize? The Kickstarter craze only just kicked off last February / March. Sure, there have been some delays to release dates, but--as Mike Rose said in his piece--that's something that happens with *all* games, not just ones funded through Kickstarter.

Martin Pichlmair
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To be fair, I did include the weasel word "most" in order to be on the safe side. Mike Rose's article cites cases where project owners set wrong expectations. Maybe the teams behind those projects are inexperienced. Maybe they just run into trouble during development. I don't blame them. But I think it should be acknowledged as a part of the development as well as funding process. Delays are part of the nature of making games and in non-Kickstarted projects, budgeting has to take them into account.

Jeremy Reaban
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But isn't the whole point of Kickstarter, at least originally, to fund the development of games? Games that couldn't be made because the developer didn't have the resources to make them? I mean, sure, something like Minecraft worked as an alpha, but that's because at its core, Minecraft is a very simple game, as the slew of clones have shown.

I realize it's been used mostly as a pre-order system as late, to sell copies of games that were already going to be made. But that's the wrong way to use KS, IMHO.

I think games or projects being made are just part of the risk. They aren't pre-orders, they are donations. Donations that might get you a reward. But you should be wanting to donate to the project.

Martin Pichlmair
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I agree that what you describe is the intention of Kickstarter. Yet the broader the Kickstarter audience gets the more risk-averse it becomes. Looking at the most successful Kickstarters you see that most of them were pretty predictable. Whether they were projects by established developers (Doublefine, Obsidian) or sequels in an established franchise (Wasteland, Shadowrun, Elite). How should an unknown studio establish the kind of trust that a brands like that emanate but by delivering something playable?

Additionally, while I think it is honourable that you regard Kickstarting as a donation I doubt that the majority of users thinks that way.

Jeremy Reaban
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And the other thing, by not having the project even in alpha stage, but just in the vague design stage, they can tailor the scope depending on how much money they get.

Shadowrun Returns for instance, was going to be a fairly simple 2d game similar to the ones the company had made before. But thanks to the extra money, it's now a full blown isometric 2d game, like the original Xcom and looks awesome.

Martin Pichlmair
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I'm not saying that there aren't any exciting projects on Kickstarter. Shadworun Returns might be one of them (haven't looked at it too much though I know people working on it).

Sebastian Coman
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Crowd-funding is beautiful! And for all you “backers” out there I have some “tricks” ready for you to use.

Crowd-funding is new and many still misunderstand it. And that’s OK! There are many uncertainties with any project on KS and Indiegogo et al. But, one thing is certain: Crowd-funding is beautiful. Please don’t be discouraged by some set backs.

The point of crowd-funding is to leverage the voice of an empowered crowd via its early involvement in creative projects. In other words, it’s a democracy. It allows us to “vote with our feet”. You effectively vote if a project should go ahead or not. Or you vote whether an existing product should have a certain set of features or a different one. A project may be about improving an existing offering or designing a whole new one altogether. Any stages from conceptualization to should or can be worthy of funding.

Us, the crowd, is driving innovation. We are asked about what progress we want. Don’t you think that’s cool?

In fact, it is über cool because, as the crowd we finally have a voice to engage the developer directly! And, as the developer, we can listen to all of our early fans directly! We get to implement the things you want in there before we complete the game. To me, as a game developer, that is beautiful! I get some highly valuable early feedback from core players (those that donated and therefore want to be involved in my project). It helps me refine the game, so that I make a game that the players love.

A game that uses crowd-funding wisely will be a lot better for players because of this interaction. It is easier now than it was ever before to make games that the fans actually want! Is this not the most important thing when it comes to innovation and progress? I feel that making something that nobody wants, needs or appreciates is a terrible waste of resources. There are so many games that don’t get played and end up being a pile of wasted resources, which could have been employed better elsewhere...

When investing in a startup, the investor for his or her “investment” is rewarded with an “ownership right” to a share of any potential profits, and faces limited liability (only what is invested can be lost). So the investor needs to evaluate the viability and the attractiveness of a venture as a whole.

In crowd-funding, the backer for his or her “contribution” is rewarded with a “voice” and a set of perks, has no right to a share of profits, but faces limited liability also. So the backer needs to evaluate only the viability of the project, rather than its potential in generating financial profits.

So, being a backer and an investors is related, but is not entirely the same thing!

As an investor the upside is theoretically unlimited and the downside is limited. On the other hand, as a backer of a crowd-funding project you have to be aware that your upside is limited as well as your downside. A backer’s upside is limited to the value or utility one expects to obtain from the intangible rewards (experience of the process and the fun of playing the game) and the tangible rewards (perks received). For a backer, the worst case scenario is therefore:
a) not being made part of the process (no voice)
b) not being able to play the game (no completion)
c) not receiving the perks promised (no or late delivery)

So while investing and “backing” is similar, how can you successfully select good crowd-funding projects by using some techniques from investors?

Follow these non-exhaustive guidelines:

1. How far has development progressed? The farther development has progressed, the more likely the game will reach completion, the more likely shipment will occur on schedule and the sooner you receive your perks. This also shows that the team is trustworthy. Development progress = effective management!

2. Is there a prototype that you can try out? This further mitigates development risk. A test version of a game would have overcome many significant development hurdles already.

3. Does the delivery of the perks depend on the completion of the game? All or at least some perks should be delivered independently if the game gets shipped on time or not.

4. Does it have a solid, diverse and experienced team that you can trust? Talent is the most valuable asset. A track record is important, but maybe an underdog has great potential too! The best blend is a mix of someone experienced and someone who has nothing to lose.

5. Does it explicitly outline the project’s milestones? There should be defined goals to reach. How else would they know where they want to get to?

6. Will you be involved in the decision making process, will you have a voice?

7. How creative or new is the idea? Will you be part of something ground-breaking that has never been tried before? It’s more fun to be part of something those who led the change.

For our game we deliberately postponed our crowd-funding campaign until now because I wanted my team to be able to fulfill as many of those guidelines before launching the campaign. Now that we are in a position to offer our backers a great project with zero development risk (as we will complete it whether we hit our goal or not), we can introduce you to Flirt Planet.

And, we are going to make Flirt Planet of the best and most innovative video games / dating services ever produced. I’m fussy enough to make sure that happens!

Have a look at our Indiegogo and judge for yourselves:

We offer you a robust campaign in which we mitigate risk for the backers by providing you with a stable game for you to play test. Risk and uncertainty get diminished and in return for your contributions expect to be involved in something innovative, have a ton of fun and receive what is promised to you on schedule!

James Yee
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I think the reason why Kickstarter doesn't do what you suggest, besides the fact that Kickstarter is more than Video Games, is the law. Crowdfunding has some odd laws regulating it that have been "updated" but not quite put into place yet. (It's confusing and I'm still sorting it out)

Basically one key thing Kickstarter can't do DIRECTLY is fund a business start-up. Which is why all projects have to have start and end dates as well as well defined and limited goals. I'm working on an article trying to unwind all this confusion but so far the main players I've been talking too are busy fighting the law changes right now to respond to a nobody like me. :\

Martin Pichlmair
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I'm really looking forward to your article! Living in Austria, I'm especially curious about international law.

James Yee
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Yeah interesting bit for you to consider Martin. In OZ (My wife is from there too!) what you want is totally legal and currently going on! It's the USA that's currently going through the legal growing pains of allowing direct crowdfunding.

I'll be posting the article here and on my blog though no messaging system so not sure how that news would get out.. :|

Mark McGee
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The point of Kickstarter is to raise funds for creative projects. Games are a subset of that, and Video Games are a subset of Games. A large portion of projects on Kickstarter do not give the pledgers anything in return. Perhaps the problem (if there even is a problem) is not with Kickstarter (which has been making tons of money since it started and has helped tons of projects get funded and completed), but with how video game developers are running their projects.

Paul Marzagalli
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I disagree. I am working on a Kickstarter-funded JRPG, and while we had some initial design and artwork, we never would have been able to get a working build prior to Kickstarter. People need to be better educated about the risk rather than Kickstarter dumping all sorts of conditions on the process. Also, per Brian Fargo's pitch for Wasteland 2, what you're proposing is just more "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" - a constant stress on proof of concept that doesn't necessarily add anything to the development process. One of the attractions of Kickstarter is to empower companies to tackle game development on their own terms. Substituting "backers" for "publishers" doesn't allow for that.

There will be failures and scams, but the spirit of the thing is what matters: it's a chance to find like-minded people to fund otherwise impossible ideas.

James Yee
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I have to ask Paul, plug your game! What game are you working on at Kickstarter?

Alexandre Laine
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The idea of following a project or even jumping in an already in-progress project is something I thought of a few months ago while I was looking at some games I would like to support but felt like they needed something more to convince me. I wished I could have joined the campaign a little later.
I think it'd add a lot to the Kickstarter scheme, but would totally change its purpose. It won't only help to kickstart projects anymore... We are thinking about games here, but a lot of projects on kickstarter are already ready to go and they just need the extra money to start the production of the physical product (a book, a tabletop game, a new wallet, a watch, ...). Games are different because we ask the backer to give money before the product is made. Well, here it just looks the same but games being tricky products to make and having unpredictible development cycles, they differenciate from other products in that way.

A better idea would be to create a new platform of this sort where you can backe games, and only games, just like "my major company" is doing with music. AND on this platform, add the little extra feature that allows people to join in during the development and/or give more to help finish the game if needed in the end of the development. Having options to get alpha / beta access would be nice.
But as you said it'd be a great challange for the studio to keep up with all that for not 30 or 60days but for 6 months up to 2 years depending the project's scale. That could open a new position in the PR department ;)

Bianco Perakose
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I am not sure small developers with an playable alpha get traction on Kickstarter! I just backed a food fight game with an anti-obesity twist called Fooya. Their alpha seems really cool but with only 10 days to go in their campaign, I doubt they will make it! I think Kickstarter really needs to make discoverability more easy for smaller and lesser known teams with great ideas and credible/playable alphas. Otherwise, Kickstarter will become a platform only for established brands while the "new" "innovative" games will be squeezed out.