At the Gates & Kickstarter Observations

The second Kickstarter project I helped funding has just reached its goal – several times over, in fact. Congratulations to Jon Shafer whose At the Gates made over $100,000 compared to an original goal of $40,000! Last October, Obsidian’s Project Eternity had asked for $1.1 million and got nearly $4 million.

Overall, Kickstarter has had a very successful year 2012, with over 2.2 million people pledging nearly $320 million to over 18,000 projects. The Economist turned the company’s report into several charts showing money pledged and funding success by project category. Games (video or otherwise) are by no means the only projects on Kickstarter but they did receive the largest amount of pledged money, surpassing film & video by about 30%. However, this compares poorly to the actual funding success where games land near the bottom of the chart, well below even the average success rate of 44%.

Kickstarter Fatigue

But this may be a good thing. Commercial video games are often complex and expensive projects. Crowdfunding brings the temptation to paper over this reality with vague promises and nostalgic namedropping. For example, the in-name only resurrection of Black Isle pitches a vaguely Fallout-like project when most of the original Black Isle’s creative talent have long since joined other companies, such as Obsidian. Not only that, but any pledged money goes only towards building a prototype which will be used to raise more funds!

That project is admittedly not on Kickstarter, but Star Command is. Funded successfully in October 2011 for a “Holiday 2011” release, one might already have become suspicious at the developers’ refusal to give the actual game to funders – they would only receive DLC. After missing its first release target for iOS/Android, the developers brazenly went on to set up a second Kickstarter for Windows/Mac versions, this time without any specific release date except after the mobile versions planned for “late summer” 2012. That Kickstarter got funded as well, but in spring 2013 we’re still waiting for any version to come out. At least Owen Faraday was provided with an endless source of hilarity on Pocket Tactics

Such failures have certainly contributed to a general crowdfunding fatigue in the video game community. Gamasutra’s Mike Rose declared last week that he won’t be backing Kickstarters anymore, due to another project delivering something entirely different from what he had expected, and four months late to boot. Is my trust in Project Eternity and At the Gates misplaced? Well, it’s certainly possible that Chris Avellone and Jon Shafer are fleeing to Acapulco with bags full of money as I speak, but I don’t think that’s likely!

Spotting Good Projects

I’m confident in both projects because they combine solid experience in commercial game design with detailed descriptions on exactly how the game is supposed to function, including a working prototype. You can do a rough estimation of development costs and promised features versus release date, and conclude that they are entirely realistic. Indeed, both projects receive frequent updates that are so detailed as to resemble actual manuals or design documents – I take that as a very good sign! Where such detail is missing I’m very cautious about providing funding, even if the concept is intriguing.

Always remember that you are not simply making a purchase on Kickstarter. You are also effectively acting as a publisher, advancing money to a developer for the promise of eventually delivering a product. Don’t succumb to the pleasant myth that every developer, once liberated from evil greedy publishers, would create your own personal dream game! Crowdfunding does open an avenue for projects that are too small by the standards of big public companies, but that’s all it does. Crowdfunding does not magically solve any of the technical and commercial challenges inherent in complex software projects, let alone guarantee that a game will be fun. It’s your own responsibility to evaluate a project’s chances and risks against the money you’re willing to invest.

Finally, if you’re looking for information on how to fund your own game project, you could do worse than read Jon Shafer’s Growing a Game Company and listen to his excellent podcast with Dirk Knemeyer, The Game Design Round Table. Its episodes often cover the business aspects of both digital and physical game development.

2 thoughts on “At the Gates & Kickstarter Observations”

  1. One problem is that Kickstarter itself has no way of enforcing the contract between the investors and the project.

    My partner, photographer MzSusanB, invested in a project to make a documentary film, and was supposed to have received a copy of the film in return. The film was made, and the filmmaker took it on the road, showing it at film festivals and getting good reviews. The promised copies to the investors, however, have not been sent.

    My partner received one e-mail from the filmmaker, citing “copyright issues” as the reason for the delay, and then nothing more. It has been a year now, and still nothing.

    Taking legal action against a filmmaker in another state over a $25 investment is simply not practical, so my partner is out the money. This isn’t the fault of the crowdfunding platform, however, incidents like this show the weakness of the system and make people much less likely to invest.

    1. Yes, that’s a great point. Aside from the creators’ ability to complete a project, there’s also the question how trustworthy they are. Kickstarter explicitly disclaims any accountability for projects that fail to deliver, for whatever reason. So there’s always the possibility that someone will simply cheat you, as happened to your partner. All you can do is try to minimize the risk by only funding creators with an established track record.

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