The Problem With Overfunded Game Kickstarters

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When I first heard about Kickstarter, I was super psyched. I backed all sorts of neat games. As time has worn on, though, I’ve had more time to reflect on the current state of the game Kickstarter. The more I think about Kickstarting video games, the more I realize that the current pattern of successful game Kickstarters has some serious problems.

Thus, I’ve instituted a new policy for myself – I won’t back a Kickstarter that already met its funding goal. The first really hard one to resist was the Massive Chalice Kickstarter from Double Fine. I once said that I’d give Tim Schafer money for practically anything – if I met him on the street, and he said to me “Dude, I could really go for $20 worth of Taco Bell right now…” I would totally fork over the money. And I know he’s good for making a game I’m going to love! But, I just can’t, (please, don’t take this personally, Double Fine! I love you guys…) and here’s why.

No (or the wrong) Oversight

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I’ve been a software engineer for quite a while now. I have been a part of many projects, some of which were doomed to failure and some of which were super successful. One thing that I’ve found is part of a successful project is the right combination of oversight.

Kickstarter removes one of the sources of oversight that people love to hate – the “bean counters.” Whenever something gets ruined, we blame the guys who are concerned with money. “They dumbed down my TV show/movie franchise/video game series to appeal to a mass audience,” we say. I’m not going to try to argue that it’s a good idea to overemphasize the “will it sell?” aspect. However, I think removing it entirely is going too far in the wrong direction.

Entertainment history is riddled with stories of visionaries that had their own massive pool of funding and answered to no one, who created massive boondoggles of epic proportions. In the video game inudstry, quite possibly the most famous of these is Duke Nukem Forever. Beyond that, there are games like Daikatana, and heck, almost everything by Peter Molyneux (who even ran a Kickstarter last year). These guys had excellent pedigrees prior to starting these projects, but overpromised and couldn’t deliver.

While I like the idea of giving money directly to the creators and giving them a blank slate to work from, I think removing a level of oversight and instead promising to let that oversight fall to a visionary or to the community seems risky. That’s not to say a creative team is doomed to fail, but I think assuming that they will be more successful if they aren’t beholden to anyone is misleading at best.

Stretch Goal Creep

Another popular Kickstarter strategy is to offer “stretch goals” for reaching milestones above and beyond the base funding goal. This is almost like committing to DLC before the game has even started development. This sounds really awesome, but in the software field we have a term for this, and it’s called feature creep:

Feature creep, creeping featurism or featuritis is the ongoing expansion or addition of new features in a product, such as in computer software. Extra features go beyond the basic function of the product and so can result in over-complication rather than simple design. Viewed over a longer time period, extra or unnecessary features seem to creep into the system, beyond the initial goals.

The problem with adding a bunch of new features on top of an existing, complex project is that projects don’t always scale well. For instance, say they want to finish a game in a year, and they want $500,000 to do so. If you give them $1,000,000, can they finish twice the game in the same timeframe? The answer is not always clear. There’s a point of diminishing returns past which you can’t add features and expect the impact to scale linearly with respect to the number or scope of those features.

More often, what happens is that things start to spiral out of control. The larger a project gets, the harder it is to plan, and more things can go wrong. I’d almost rather back a game and vote against stretch goals. I’d rather they get the base game out the door and then circle back and say “Hey, we’ve got an engine and a base game, we want to make DLC, help us fund it” instead.

Paying for the Beta

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On Kickstarter, I often see “beta access” listed as a sort of premium feature. Many campaigns will feature a $20-30 “you get the game!” level, and then a tier at twice that where you get access to the beta. These sorts of things are gaining in popularity, and Steam’s Early Access is even getting in on it, with companies offering the alpha/beta for, say, Planetary Annihilation for $80.

It isn’t new to pay a premium to enjoy some sort of entertainment early – for instance, anyone who goes to a theater pays a premium to see a movie before it’s available for home viewing. However, there’s usually some sort of ancillary benefit to this – for instance, the theater has a better projection and sound system than what you’ll find in most people’s homes.

I find it odd, though, that I’m being asked to pay extra to be a part of the unpaid QA team for a game. I think it would be awesome if someone was willing to pay me for the honor of working for me. You are all welcome to send $5, care of WOTS, to proofread my next article, for instance. Early access! You can provide feedback! I’ll even give you a badge on your profile for commenting on the blog!!! Act now, supplies are limited!

If we’re paying extra for early access to less content than those who come later to the party, does this scale as we go backwards in time/completion? For instance, what would you be willing to pay me for the first screenshots from my as-yet-unreleased untitled project? If $80 is good for a beta, is $100 good for screenshots? How much will people pay for access to my elevator pitch for this project? That’s really raw, folks. I mean, so exclusive! $1000 seems fair, right?

Preorder Blues

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In many ways, Kickstarting a game that has already been funded is a lot like preordering it. Except that:

  • With a preorder, I don’t pay (or I only pay a deposit) until the game ships, typically. With Kickstarter, they get all my money up front.
  • With a preorder, I’m usually guaranteed to pay the lowest price that title ever gets before it ships. With Kickstarter, I’ll probably pay a premium to get in on the ground floor. For instance, FTL backers paid full price, but once it got on Steam, preorders got 10% off.
  • With a preorder, if the game never comes out, is cancelled, or the studio goes bankrupt, I feel sad for the loss of a good game, but then move on with my life. Kickstarter explicitly states that they will not refund my money in this situation.
  • I can cancel a preorder if my financial situation changes, or if early coverage of the game indicates it’s not what I want.

The Silver Lining

Kickstarter is an awesome platform for funding things that wouldn’t otherwise have a shot at being made. I will absolutely support projects that appeal to me and need my funding. But when a Kickstarter hits its goal, the outcome is really one of two possibilities:

  • The game gets made, and it’s available for me to purchase or preorder normally.
  • The game fails, and any Kickstarter funds are at risk.

What’s the advantage to pledging money to a Kickstarter that’s already been funded? If anything, I think I’m increasing the odds of failure rather than ensuring its success.

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