I’ve seen a number of articles lately in which various people decry Kickstarted projects, and most of them have rubbed me the wrong way for one reason or another. The one that finally pushed me over the edge was Cliffski’s, in which he wrote:
Gamers say they hate in-game product placement and advertising. It compromises the game design for the sake of money. I agree. So why are we deciding that the best way to name our planets or design the appearance of our NPC’s is to put that part of game design up for auction? Why should gamers who are wealthy get more influence over a game that those who flip burgers for a living? The cold hard economic reality of the real world is bad enough without shoehorning it into games too.
I want to address this in a way that doesn’t sound flip or condescending, and if it happens to read that way, I apologize in advance.
Cliff says that he is all for hitting the big publishers in their vulnerable spots, but he doesn’t offer an alternative to the current model. As things stand, there are four options for indie game developers who want a more expansive scope for their game than garage development can generally bring – and three of those are generally out of reach for most devs or directly contrary to what Cliff suggests is the optimal goal for indie games. If there’s another choice, feel free to let me know in the comments.
1. SELF FUND: The first option is to self-fund entirely. Unless you’re creating a small game, are devoting your entire life to it, or can assemble a team to work for you on the promise of future profits, this is not a feasible option. Most indie developers are not wealthy, and the game space is generally not strong enough to convince a traditional lender to commit any significant funds toward a loan to create an unproven product.
2. PRIVATE EQUITY: Alternately, a developer could go through private equity channels quietly. This has the potential to cut out moderate-income fan involvement altogether and requires the developer to create the game in a vacuum or (worse) entirely with an eye toward *only* what their wealthy patrons want. Further, only a small percentage of private equity deals make any money, so they’re generally looking for 5x to 10x returns, and most games don’t get anywhere near that if they’re not traditionally published and marketed.
3. TRADITIONAL PUBLISHER: Most traditional publishers won’t touch a game of the size Kickstarters generally fund. Brian Fargo got almost $3 million for his Kickstarter. 61,000 backers. How does this compare to Black Ops 2? 11,220,000 in the first week. There’s just no comparison to that scale. There is no reason for a publisher to look at the numbers for WL2 – a non-console game – and think that they need to start considering funding similar games. This is a blip on their radar. Consider: Halo 4 had a budget of over $100 million. $3 million is practically an accounting error. It’s a few months of development time. Why would a publisher turn away from their lucrative franchises and blockbusters to develop an indie game?
4. CROWDFUNDING: That brings us to the last option: crowdfunding. While it’s certainly admirable to want to open the game’s possibilities to all backers, no matter how much or how little they contribute, it’s a simple fact of human behavior that people want to get value for what they put in. Telling someone who contributes $10,000 that they can have a downloadable copy and a special digital pet is not going to motivate them… especially if someone who contributes $20 gets exactly the same thing. Consider: if you back a project at $20, don’t you want to know that you’re getting more bang for that than a $5 backer? I don’t know how to incentivize a higher-level backer other than offering them something that is not available to the lower-contributing tiers.
Sure, it might be a little strange to see names in the game and know that they came from wealthier patrons – but is that worse than *not* knowing where design decisions came from? And more: the names in a game are hardly real design decisions. They are essentially window dressing. They are not dialogue structures. They are not combat mechanics. For the most part, they do not fundamentally alter gameplay.
And what’s more: Higher-level backers are not different from the rest of the gaming crowd: they are just as enthusiastic and excited about a new game, and they’re in a position to make those games a reality. Rather than complaining about their involvement, shouldn’t we be happy that they’re helping to realize a developer’s dream?