Saturday, March 24, 2012

Kickstarter and why I'm a skeptic

This started as a Facebook response to a friend who works at another major game studio but I decide it rantworthy enough for a blog post. I've found in general, that other devs are excited about Kickstarter. I want to to be too and in some ways I am.

For Tim Schafer and Double Fine, I get it and am happy for them: he's an industry rockstar who's studio hasn't been as commercially successful as it is critically and creatively successful. He leads a team that I know makes games I like. It's a perfect candidate for Kickstarter and I am down.

Brian Fargo and "Wasteland 2" also appeals to my game idealism. I LOVED turn based RPGs and much preferred the Fallout 1&2 gameplay to Baldur's Gate's semi-turn based model. His games bring back good memories but neither Interplay or inExile's track record isn't as solid as Double Fine's. That's probably not Brian Fargo's fault and he thrived with small teams in the 90s but it's fair to say his horse is less safe to bet on.

And these two are the safest bets to getting a good game out of Kickstarter, in my mind. Because so far, all I've seen is funny videos or clever pitches. Maybe buried in this gold rush is some team that had the discipline to self-fund a vertical slice or playable proof-of-concept but I've yet to see one.

So to answer my friend's assertion, yes, I am absolutely a skeptic and I'll explain why:

Like most developers, I'm not a fan of the model of the way publisher/3rd party developer relationships typically work. Games are held back by the current money/carrot on a string model and publishers are clearly more risk averse than hey used to be so Kickstarter is *potentially* enabling some cool stuff.

My real problem is that I feel Kickstarter has opened the doors to a massive credit line of gamer equity and trust, begging to be raped and pillaged by unscrupulous scoundrels and idealists alike. Now people can twist words to puff up their resumes ("I was THE animator on Battlefield 3!") to sound credible to the public, who are convinced that conventional game distribution is the devil and that without a pub/producer to crack the whip and stick their fingers in the pie, the game will be unhindered in it's vision because the idea was great. But even some great dev teams need someone to crack the whip and a great inspiration is nothing without the 99% perspiration it takes to make it a reality.

Publishers are why games are hard to *fund* but even at their very worst, they are just one of many, many reasons why they are hard to *finish" and *make good*. The idealism of B-list Kickstarter projects is ignoring that elephant in the room.

It also ignores that a good resume doesn't automatically make YOU good; something even seasoned developers who should know better still fall into so naturally the public is going to. "You did facial animation on GTA3! I loved that game!" But... GTA3 has 2-3 frames of facial animation! Chances are there was at least one shitty animator on "Avatar" and maybe one shitty designer on whatever your favorite AAA game is.

Some of these games are going to come out and be disappointments and others aren't going to come out at all and I fear this is going to max out Kickstarter/the public's credit line of good will and gamers could wind up bigger cynics than they were at the start. There is no such thing as a magic bullet and easy solutions aren't as common as people want to think.

I'm sure my cynicism flavors my judgement but I see Kickstarter less as the democratization of game publishing and more as the early days of a debt crisis, where all the equity is trust and goodwill. Games are hard to make and I've seen a lot of smart people fail at it.

In the words of the Eagles, an ex-girlfriend's least favorite band in the world: "Call somewhere paradise? Kiss it goodbye."


  1. Before Double Fine made news with their kickstarter project, the game I am currently working on was kickstarted. It too, happens to be an adventure game.
    I think that I am in total agreement with you. I would really hate to see kickstarter, as it relates to games, turned into, well, Craigslist. A well intentioned idea than cons use as a flyby night scam operation.
    Since we have not released our game, I think it may be silly to mention what our company has done for our backers so far, but I talk to them on a regular basis and they are really happy with our progress and their level of involvement in the project.
    I really hope that you are wrong, Ryan. If it turns out that a few  mess it up for some of us who are really trying to make good, I think we will loose a good thing.

  2. Honestly, I hope I'm wrong too. I'd rather be pleasantly satisfied than right.

    Like I mentioned about vertical slices, many of these kickstarter games would never get greenlit by a publisher but many wouldn't because they don't have enough of a pitch.

    I know a lot of indie devs who've burned up their savings and bootstrapped themselves into success (and failure). I'd rather give money to someone who's already taken risks and made sacrifices but needs help to get to the finish line, than some bright-eyed idealist with a "great idea for a game!"

  3. I'll take the relativly benign influence of a publisher over the cheers and rants of fans any day. Visiting NeoGaf in the days before and after you release is a sure way to blow up and crush your ego in high-frequency alternation. Don't get me wrong I appreciate all the fans, but I wouldn't want them anywhere near a development process.

    1. The two most enthusiastic types of fans are:
      1)The fanboy: The people who will love you til the end, no matter what mistakes you make. These are the people who like Star Wars ep 1-3. Only Double Fine and maybe Brian Fargo have this kind of following.
      2)The hooligan: they love your plays, they come to your games, they beat up fans of your opposition; they're rough but good to have on your side. But they are very to easy to accidentally betray. One wrong move will turn their righteousness against you with death ray precision, amplified by betrayal. A scorned, former hooligan is the only thing worse than your competition's hooligans.

      I think a lot of people bought into Kickstarter expecting prancing unicorns and cheesecake nirvana but as amateur investors, they're not likely prepared for anything but 100% satisfaction.

  4. The problem I have is that the current system has failed me. As a Linux user that doesn't play cookie cutter shooters, Madden, or MMORPGs, the big publishers don't have any interest in my money. Frankly the indies didn't either until the Humble Indie Bundle made Linux sexy.

    Now, crowd-sourcing has changed things some. Linux users can vote with their money and fans of colors other than brown and gray can vote with their money. Games are getting green lit that never would have been possible under the prior system. Look what we have so far:
    Double Fine
    Harebrained Schemes
    Replay Games
    Jane Jensen
    These are all folks with a track history that shows they can make great games, but not ones that could justify a $40 million budget. On the flip side, these aren't labors of love that are usually made by indies.

    On the other hand you have folks like:
    Star Command
    David Board
    Tiny Colossus

    These folks aren't using the money to make the game. It might be used to incorporate, buy art, license an engine or such, but the game is getting made one way or another. You might run a risk of these folks not finishing, but most of these folks are active in the indie community, they can't just fail and disappear, you can trust peer pressure to convince them to release something, even if it sucks, and maybe open source it to boot.

    Fundamentally, Kickstarter is a complicated pre-order system. Plenty of folks have pre-ordered games that haven't turned out how they expected, that reflects poorly on the devs, but not on the overall usefulness of pre-orders.

  5. Ok, let's stop the Twitter debate. I think you've fundamentally misunderstood me and taken an opinion to be an attack on Kickstarter itself.

    I love the idea of crowdsourcing and I love the idea of Kickstarter.

    The skepticism is that people's mouths are going to write checks that their asses can't cash and the good-intentioned crowdsourcers will be twice-shy after getting bitten. Like I said, I'd be happy to be wrong.