Now we own you: Another caution for crowdfunded content
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.