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Now we own you: Another caution for crowdfunded content Exclusive
Now we own you: Another caution for crowdfunded content
January 15, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander




Crowdfunding doesn't just change the way money is raised for games -- it also changes the terms of a game's release, writes Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander.

Double Fine's Broken Age, the harbinger of the Kickstarter age for video games, launched to backers yesterday. Its public journey, growing pains and all, has been closely watched by fans -- from its journey, we learned that getting more money than you could have ever dreamed of from a legion of expectant fans can create a situation full of hidden difficulties.

In many ways, Broken Age's campaign signaled changes for the world of video games. It was one of the most visible pieces of proof that perhaps there could be alternatives, at last, to the industry's existing system of measuring demand, weighing risk and funding accordingly. Fans who were denied adventure games by major companies got to prove that the genre still has plenty of appeal, while a beloved dev team sat upon a war chest of goodwill and got the chance to pay it forward, on their own terms.

Crowdfunding, patronage and similar social media-driven avenues let audiences directly fund the kind of content they want, and this enables content creators to do the kind of work that wouldn't be possible inside traditional infrastructures, creating space for invention in risk-averse or economically-constrained spaces.

These new avenues upend our understanding of traditional power structures in positive ways -- and also in ways that present complications. Is it really such a good thing to receive funds way beyond your projected budget? What happens if you go over?

Many game developers have always wanted freedom and a closer relationship with their audience, but didn't expect the extent to which they'd have to add community management and public relations skills to their resume -- and fast -- when they took to crowdfunding. When developers needed more money, quietly sought funding from multiple sources, or had to change the scope or direction of a crowdfunded project, intense public criticism was often the result.

Embargos and crowdfunding

The soft-launch of Broken Age in the form of a special "Backer Beta" prior to public release offered yet another example of the changing world. Double Fine asked for an embargo on "formal" reviews until the official window, whether press or backers (or both, as many of us are, including myself). The company told Gamasutra it wanted reviewers to have enough time to prepare their work without rushing or racing one another, and that it was also worried about blog-happy backers spoiling story beats before the game saw the light of broader public release.

The embargo feels out of place beside Broken Age's triumphant underdog-to-big-dog story, because it's a tool of the traditional industry publisher. Select press are usually invited to see a game prior to public launch, in exchange for an agreement (often signed formally) that they won't publish any information about the game until the launch day or other date.

All press agree to the same frame of time, generally because it's a mutually-beneficial contract: Nobody rushes through their review process in order to be the "first" with a verdict, since it's understood all competing game sites will "go live" at the same time. It's easier for public relations to manage the message that way, but it usually offers press the time and resources to do their best work, too. These are generally good-faith agreements designed to aid business on both sides of the fence in a way most agree suits the best interest of a reader.

What happens if an outlet breaks an embargo? Companies sometimes levy consequences, like denying the offender interviews in the future, rescinding invitations to future review events or striking them from the review copies mailing list. Other outlets will probably be miffed about the ruined schedule, too -- but most see a big leak or embargo breach as a carte blanche to also publish their material.

When your publisher is essentially your fanbase, though, things are different. Your fanbase is also the media's readership. Journalists are consumers too, and many of them might also be your backers. Do you really have any leverage to force people not to write about something they have paid for?

Let's say have a professional journalist who gets paid to work for an outlet, a passionate fan who posts thoughts on their Tumblr every day, and an aspiring critic who submits her work to Medium -- should the rules differ among these three different writers? How can you be so sure? What about backers Tweeting their playthrough? Can you tell an outlet not to Storify their impressions?

Just a few hours after proposing the embargo, Double Fine realized the answer to all of these questions was "no," and told everyone to go ahead with their reviews, whenever. As of writing this, many of the bigger review outlets seem to be taking their time to prepare anyway. After years of simultaneous review unveilings and in a crowded content economy where everyone has access to an opinion platform, it looks like for some sites, being "first" is no longer as important to being thorough and reliable.

"Now, it can be you."

But watching the company negotiate this issue brought up yet another interesting wrinkle in the plain of opportunity for crowdfunding and patronage: Your funders, whether they are publishers, investors, or players willing to offer $10 because they support your idea, feel a sense of ownership over your work from the minute they consign their dollar.

Working directly with them erases the intermediary that interferes with what you want to make, but that intermediary was also the element that let you keep control over your releases, that let you negotiate your own terms of engagement with your audience.

Crowdfunders are deeply affected by the idea that your opportunity would not be possible without them. They want -- perhaps fairly -- the full right to assess, even in public, whether you delivered on their expectations, whether you rewarded their material faith.

Players in particular once had faceless entities to loathe when they felt let down in the slightest: The "evil empires" like Electronic Arts, or the massive games websites that have become suspicious entities to fans on forums. Now, it can be you.

A democracy of content, better access to tools and platforms, and more avenues for creation and production are unquestionably a good thing for everyone -- we just need to prepare for the aftershocks of this upheaval.

If we as content creators are to accept a world of alternative funding models and direct relationships with our players, readers, the consumers of whatever it is we create, we also have to accept the eventuality that someday it will be we, the small purveyors, who are responsible to their high expectations, for better and worse. Who will become the receptacle for the chronic disappointment we associate with a fanbase always very aware of what it is spending.

There might not be anything we can do to prevent or control that, when our consumers own our process and the product thereof from day one, and the alternative is for neither our process nor our product to exist at all.

It's terrifying -- but solvable, surely. We'll learn new rules, new expectations, and new norms for how to create, communicate, deliver, adapt. Change is complicated, but there's no growth without it.


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Comments


Eric Chon
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Having recently finished a successful Kickstarter, this is something we're definitely curious about. I'm sure being developers who've backed projects, we've got different expectations from our peers than fans.

It's fascinating to see how DFA is doing in this regard (and the embargo is one of the prime examples of growing pains). Good thing Broken Age is great so far :)

Mike Murray
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Crowdfunding isn't a magic bullet that can replace traditional publishers, due to how rigid it all seems. Personally, I want to be able to change things without fear of people demanding refunds. Based on what I witnessed in the Skullgirls and Mighty No. 9 campaigns, it doesn't take much for someone to not want to support you anymore.

It's great when it works, but with the way people misunderstand the concept of crowdfunding and make decisions on a whim, you have to REALLY know what you're doing before you decide to go this route.

TC Weidner
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I think it would be wise to simply keep everyone in the loop with weekly or biweekly updates. Set a schedule and keep to it. I find people are always more forgiving and patient if they are simply kept informed.

Tomasz Mazurek
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The author has quite a bit whitewashed the practice of press embargo. Sorry, but no - embargo is not always mutually agreed for the best interest of the reader. If the press wants to see the game before release and have a researched reviews ready on day 1 they have to agree to it, there is nothing voluntary about it. It is not true that all outlets go live at the same time - an outlet that has good relationships with the publisher can send them the review and if the publisher likes it, they can get their embargo lifted earlier. Even if this does not directly cause the outlet to beautify the review, it does cause the early reviews to be the above average ones. From the outside it is most sharply visible with really shitty games, when no reviews go live before the release date. Even gamers have noticed this particular pattern and consider "no early reviews" a warning sign.


With this introduction in place I think you will find it understandable that while I understand that any developer would not like someone to review their unfinished product but since the practice of press embargo has its dark side, trying to apply it to your customers and defacto investors is arrogant and disrespectful. I think the most you can ask for is for the reviews to be clearly marked as previews or "beta-reviews". The alpha-funding developers somehow manage to live with that and so can the crowdfunded ones.

Tom Battey
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Crowdfunding certainly does change the way that players - and press - experience a game. I'm playing Broken Age now having followed the project for a year and a half, having watched key decisions being made and seen the effects those decisions have had on the people making the game.

I'm aware that I'm having a very different experience playing the game as a result of this than someone who simply purchases the game on release having had no involvement in the Kickstarter campaign. I am, in effect, biased towards the game because I've seen how much passion and hard work has gone into it. I can put human faces to individual elements of the game, and that makes it difficult to be critical of, or even objective about, the game itself.

This must put press who are also backers in a tricky situation. It will be interesting to see how this is handled as more of the 'big name' Kickstarters bear fruit through this year and beyond.

Kevin Saunders
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Great observations, Leigh. It feels appropriate that its our players to whom were accountable in tackling these new challenges. This fact makes it easier to make decisions during development because our central goal (making a great gaming experience for our backers) is well aligned with their wishes. It may be harder than ever to meet the expectations, but it is an invigorating type of challenge to undertake.

I think we'll learn a lot throughout this process and ultimately it will help us to create better games for our audiences.


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