Kickstarter: Revolutionising Game Design?comments powered by Disqus
Posted on Thursday, October 11 2012 @ 12:06:21 Eastern
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Kickstarter was launched back in 2009 but has recently hit the spotlight with projects like Ouya—the Android-powered home console—reaching way beyond their requested amount. The idea behind the website is to offer people a way of asking for money for their projects. These projects can be games, music, film, even public art, but as this is a gaming website the obvious thing to focus on is how this innovation-driving website is changing game development.
Once upon a time games were made in bedrooms; Worms was famously made by Andy Davidson for a competition and was eventually picked up by Team17 to be published. Worms was programmed in BASIC and it didn’t take long for the games industry to progress past the point where games could be created in such simple languages. Publishers soon became an essential part of the development cycle thanks to the closed nature of home consoles, and the money required to develop and distribute the game. Big players like EA, Ubisoft, and Activision have built empires by bringing business acumen to the games made by the developers under them, and small developers could find it difficult to crack the console market because of these hurdles.
Burgeoning game markets like the mobile platforms, Steam, and even XBLA and PSN have put the power of the internet to good use and helped to put control back into the hands of the developers. Studios like Rovio Entertainment (Angry Birds) and Mojang (Minecraft) have grown into major players without the assistance of profit-sapping publishers and the major publishers are now playing catch-up by releasing mobile games of their own to attempt to tap into the potentially huge profits available.
Of course pretty much any game needs some capital to put behind it regardless of how it’s being distributed. The exception for a week was the Steam Greenlight service which Valve set up in an attempt to reduce their workload in approving game submissions for their enormously popular Steam service. What could have been a great idea—user submissions are checked out by other users at zero cost to anyone—has been soiled by the pranksters and trolls who take it upon themselves to be the reasons we can’t have nice things. Valve has now updated their Greenlight policy to require a $100 donation to the Child’s Play charity to try and curb the fake Half-Life 3 submissions. Even so, with innovations like this and game development courses popping up faster than Whack-a-Mole it’s easier than ever to learn how to make games and to get them distributed somewhere.
Alex Hutchinson, creative director for Assassin’s Creed III, reckons that he and his team are the “last of the dinosaurs [to create a AAA game]”. Even though gamers still want amazing, sprawling games evidenced by Skyrim sales reaching 3.5 million units sold in the first two days and the hype of GTA V reaching astounding levels with very little effort on Rockstar’s part, there are very few studios who can afford to throw $100 million at a project and be confident of that investment being returned on a worthwhile scale. The new markets mentioned above have shown that games can cost $20,000 from the first line of code to landing on the device of the consumer. That is much more manageable but it’s still too steep a price tag for a lot of people and that’s where sites like Kickstarter have come into their own.
The major success story of crowd funding is the aforementioned Ouya. The creators of this ambitious project asked for an already immodest $950,000 and received a staggering $8,596,475—that’s 904% of their requested amount. We’ve also seen the Oculus Rift reach 974% of their target by making $2,437,429, and the not-really-game-related-but-still-awesome Pebble E-Paper Watch become the most successful Kickstarter project to date by raising a kind of ridiculous $10,266,845 (that’s 10,266% of the target). There’s a whole raft of games which have been successfully funded and look to bring something fresh and exciting to gaming. Just look at Shadowrun: Online for multi-platform gaming and SteamCraft for a steampunk-inspired tabletop RPG. All of these projects have exceeded their targets even though they haven’t been released yet, but that’s okay because thanks to Kickstarter we’ve been privy to an early stage of development and we need to wait while everything else is worked out behind the scenes and we can reap the rewards for all our investments.
Do we reap all the rewards, though? Crowd funding sites fall into one of two categories: There are the Keep it All (KiA) sites which allow the project authors to keep any proceeds made regardless of whether their target is met and there are the All or Nothing (AoN) sites which don’t charge investors a penny until the target is met. If a project gets all but, say, $1000 of their $100,000 target then tough luck, the authors see none of it. We don’t hear about these failed projects much because Kickstarter takes a few measures to hide them; they use meta tags to prevent indexing by search engines, the front page doesn’t show failed projects, nor does the Discover facility.
As Dan Misener (linked a couple of sentences ago) says, this probably isn’t underhanded, they even blog about it and Yancey Strickler (Kickstarter co-founder) later clarified that it also prevents the unsuccessful funding attempt from returning page 1 results when that project is searched for, which would obviously suck for the project creators who may be seeking other investments. It clearly also makes business sense for Kickstarter to not flaunt failures when their 5% commission rests on the successes, but it’s worth taking note that Kickstarter projects are just as likely to become the next Ninja Baseball as they are to become the next Ouya (incidentally, the fact that Ninja Baseball, a failed project, is searchable on Kickstarter at all shows that they’re not being totally disingenuous in hiding failed projects).
A lot of people responded to Misener’s article by saying that there’s not much to learn from the failed projects. Misener disagreed saying that there may be interesting information to be gleaned from the aggregate of failures. Jeanne Pi followed Misener’s article with one of her own and then issued her own sequel because her first was, in her own words, wrong (the original is here if you want to read it). She basically states that projects with reasonable targets are more likely to succeed but only by a little and if the project fails to meet its target, then chances are it will fail hard. The overachieving projects are in the minority but are certainly the most heavily publicised.
Kickstarter themselves state that 43.89% of all projects reach their funding target with only 33.77% of gaming projects managing theirs, so you may be wondering how useful Kickstarter is for the gaming landscape. The truth is that despite only a third of gaming projects successfully reaching their target, Kickstarter and other crowd funding sites can be essential for small developers. Projects like graFighters might not reach their Kickstarter target but they can still succeed thanks to attention stirred by their presence on the popular website. GraFighters managed to make more than their $20,000 target via a more traditional route; a private investment firm. Who saw them on Kickstarter.
A failed project on Kickstarter doesn’t have to be a truly failed project. It’s important to note that being successfully funded isn’t the same as being successful either, and this is a point Jeanne noted in her second infographic by stating that only 25% of successful projects are delivered on time and after a delay of 8 months the final 25% will still not have been released. Kickstarter has the potential to change the market for better and worse.
Is Kickstarter and its ilk the future of project funding? Despite franchises of old like Broken Sword and ambitious projects like Ouya finding new financing homes on the service, perhaps not, at least not exclusively. Crowd funding has its place and it’s one that should be used to full effect because it’s a brilliant concept which can give us innovative, original, and interesting forms of entertainment, but there’s still room for more traditional types of development. That’s not to say that the old publishing model doesn’t need to evolve—it does. The publishing giants have gotten so big they can barely see us, and our wants and needs so if they want to stay big they’ll need to take some drastic action because Kickstarter is primed to pick up their slack if they continue to neglect consumer wishes with their DRM, DLC, and shoehorning multiplayer into every damn thing.
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