False starts and stalling am­bi­tions


Tim Schafer posted a tweet an­nounc­ing a Kick­starter cam­paign for a new ad­ven­ture game in the early hours of Fe­bru­ary 8, 2012. Within nine hours, the game had met its $400,000 fund­ing tar­get. Within 24, it had streaked past $1 mil­lion, a sig­nal to many of a new and fas­ci­nat­ing dawn in the hitherto some­what un­ex­cit­ing busi­ness of videogame fund­ing. For the first time in the medium’s his­tory, play­ers re­alised their col­lec­tive power to de­cide which games were made.

Two years later, Bro­ken Age has halfe­merged from Dou­ble Fine. But many of the Kick­starter projects that fol­lowed Schafer’s ex­am­ple have fallen short of their prom­ises, missed their planned re­lease date, were can­celled al­to­gether or launched in com­pro­mised form. Of the 366 projects funded be­tween 2009 and 2012, just one in three has fully de­liv­ered the promised ti­tle to back­ers.

Akaneiro: De­mon Hunters has had its de­vel­op­ment team shaved down to just two af­ter spend­ing ev­ery penny of its $204,680 in­vest­ment, and is far from com­plete. Subu­tai Cor­po­ra­tion and Neal Stephen­son’s sword­fight­ing game Clang has ap­par­ently fal­tered, with lit­tle com­mu­ni­ca­tion to back­ers. Cri­sis Heart Brawlers: Clash At Otakon has van­ished, Xeko’s par­ent com­pany has gone bank­rupt, Haunts: The Manse Macabre was aban­doned, and Rain­fall: The So­journ’s de­vel­oper is very slowly re­fund­ing his back­ers.

Of the projects that have shipped, well-re­viewed suc­cesses such as FTL: Faster Than Light are un­com­mon, and only a very few have cracked an 80 aver­age on Me­ta­critic. Mean­while, Go­dus’s mis­er­able al­pha launch has all but killed back­ers’ op­ti­mism for Peter Molyneux’s sec­ond project at 22 Cans, while the ex­tremely well-funded Ouya has strug­gled to meet ex­pec­ta­tions.

Some games have fol­lowed Bro­ken Age’s ex­am­ple by ship­ping in piece­meal form, but not al­ways with the same qual­ity that has sus­tained back­ers’ good­will to­wards Dou­ble Fine. But even with such con­tentious ex­am­ples count­ing to­wards Kick­starter’s ‘suc­cess­ful’ to­tal, more than half of videogame back­ers on Kick­starter are still wait­ing for the games they’ve helped to fund. As of Jan­uary 2014, there is $21.6 mil­lion out­stand­ing in un­de­liv­ered videogame projects that were funded be­tween 2009 and 2012.

“There are risks and chal­lenges to any cre­ative project,” says Cindy Au, head of com­mu­nity at Kick­starter. “Af­ter nearly five years and thou­sands of game projects, we know most of the time things go re­ally well. Fail­ure is some­thing that

Only one in three videogames funded on Kick­starter be­tween 2009 and 2012 has launched in its full form to date. Why?

tends to be de­monised, made into some­thing ter­ri­fy­ing and larger than life. Yet all the suc­cess sto­ries be­gan with a se­ries of mis­steps, set­backs and fail­ures. It’s part of the process of how things get made: trial and er­ror, ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, it­er­a­tion. If a project doesn’t reach its goal, or when a game ends up tak­ing longer… those are all things that shouldn’t stop people from try­ing.”

Au goes on to sug­gest back­ers tend to be “re­ally un­der­stand­ing” when a project “misses the mark” and sug­gests that back­ers who are dis­ap­pointed with the way in which a project is run or who be­lieve that the fin­ished ar­ti­cle does not re­flect the orig­i­nal prom­ise “ask for a re­fund if a cre­ator is un­able to ful­fil re­wards”.

But Kick­starter views it­self as noth­ing more than a mid­dle­man be­tween the project founder and fun­ders, and will of­fer no sup­port for any­one re­fused a

“All the suc­cess sto­ries be­gan with a se­ries of mis­steps and fail­ures. It’s part of the process”

re­fund. “Kick­starter is not in­volved in the de­vel­op­ment of the projects them­selves,” the com­pany states in its of­fi­cial FAQ. “Kick­starter does not guar­an­tee projects or in­ves­ti­gate a cre­ator’s abil­ity to com­plete their project… Back­ers ul­ti­mately de­cide the va­lid­ity and wor­thi­ness of a project by whether they de­cide to fund it.” And when it comes to de­cid­ing whether a project is vi­able or not, Kick­starter sug­gests merely: “Use your In­ter­net street smarts.”

Where once videogame pub­lish­ers shoul­dered the risk of de­vel­op­ment – and pro­tected them­selves with in­tri­cate con­tracts and key mile­stones at which points the de­vel­oper would be paid – Kick­starter’s back­ers bear the full risk of these projects, but have lit­tle re­course if a de­vel­oper fails to hold up its end of the bar­gain. The vo­cal project back­ers de­mand­ing re­funds on trou­bled games’ Kick­starter mes­sage boards might have been less in­clined to back a project had they re­alised their vul­ner­a­bil­ity.

Stoic, a team of Ex-Bioware de­vel­op­ers, at­tracted crit­i­cism early on for its exquisitely drawn strat­egy-RPG The Ban­ner Saga when the game’s sin­gle­player cam­paign was de­layed in favour of a free-to-play mul­ti­player spinoff. Stoic re­sponded by say­ing that the spinoff, ti­tled The Ban­ner Saga: Fac­tions, was a taster and ev­i­dence of the team’s progress, as op­posed to a fun­da­men­tal change in di­rec­tion. In the end, Stoic made good on its orig­i­nal prom­ise and launched the sin­gle­player cam­paign to a de­gree of crit­i­cal ac­claim that’s still rare among Kick­starter projects.

“Kick­starter is such a new phe­nom­e­non,” Stoic’s cre­ative di­rec­tor, Alex Thomas, says. “I think it takes time for an in­her­ently dif­fer­ent way of think­ing to re­ally work out all the kinks. Our great­est as­set was the years of ex­pe­ri­ence each one of us had in the in­dus­try. Even then, we made plenty of mi­nor mis­takes along the way. If you look at all the projects that have shipped so far, it’s been the ones de­vel­oped by in­dus­try vet­er­ans. It’s so dif­fi­cult to make a game that some­times a huge wind­fall can be­come a dis­ad­van­tage if you haven’t been through the process be­fore.”

Justin Ma is a for­mer em­ployee of 2K Shang­hai and one half of Sub­set Games. Sub­set’s FTL has been one of the most suc­cess­ful Kick­starter projects from start to fin­ish: quickly funded, quickly shipped, well-re­viewed and well-re­ceived by back­ers. For Ma, most projects fail due to un­rea­son­able am­bi­tions on the de­vel­oper’s part. “Be­ing able to pre­dict what is re­quired for the full game when you’re still early in the de­vel­op­ment process is an ex­tremely dif­fi­cult task, es­pe­cially for a small team,” he says. “I think the pri­mary rea­son we were able to live up to most back­ers’ ex­pec­ta­tions was be­cause the scale of what we were plan­ning was in­cred­i­bly small.”

Even with these mod­est am­bi­tions, the team was still painfully stretched. “It was mostly done by work­ing in­sane hours, en­list­ing the help of friends, and cut­ting lots and lots of fea­tures.”

For Ma, crowd­fund­ing sites such as Kick­starter re­main an im­por­tant part of the videogame land­scape. “Per­haps the hon­ey­moon pe­riod when hope­ful back­ers in­dis­crim­i­nately back projects is over, but that by no means in­di­cates the de­vel­op­ment model will no longer work,” he says. “I ex­pect crowd­fund­ing will con­tinue to play an im­por­tant role for small de­vel­op­ment stu­dios.”

Like­wise, the prox­im­ity to FTL’s play­ers pro­vided by Kick­starter proved in­valu­able for Sub­set, and of­fered a de­gree of feed­back that a tra­di­tional pub­lisher may not have been able to pro­vide. “Back­ers greatly helped us bug test and gauge what as­pects of the game were fun. They helped us a ton with gen­eral bal­ance.”

De­spite Ma and Thomas’s pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ences, the ques­tion of whether crowd­fund­ing is suited to videogame de­vel­op­ment re­mains. Even aside from the com­plex­i­ties of project man­ag­ing a mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary prod­uct, there are the move­able parts of the cre­ative process. Promised fea­tures may turn out to not be par­tic­u­larly en­joy­able dur­ing de­vel­op­ment, and need to be re­moved. “You make your best guesses about what will be fun and play well, but you don’t re­ally know un­til it starts to come to­gether,” Thomas says. “Of­ten it feels like a game never re­ally ‘works’ un­til the last cou­ple weeks.” Pub­lish­ers work with mile­stones and key

“You make your best guesses about what will be fun and play well, but you don’t re­ally know”

de­liv­er­ables for this very rea­son: to check the progress of a game and to ad­just scope ac­cord­ingly.

But there are no of­fi­cial mech­a­nisms on Kick­starter. A ten­sion will in­evitably ex­ist be­tween scep­ti­cal back­ers, who want to re­ceive the prod­uct they’ve paid for in a timely man­ner, and de­vel­op­ers, who are do­ing their best to make a good game on budget. “Back­ers should know that de­vel­op­ment is a very dif­fi­cult and un­cer­tain process,” says Ma. “There’s a lot that can hap­pen be­tween a pitch and a commercial prod­uct, so try to cut the de­vel­oper a lit­tle slack if it’s not go­ing as per­fectly as ev­ery­one hoped.”

Ev­i­dently, crowd­fund­ing de­mands a change in think­ing. Af­ter three years of mod­est re­turns, back­ers should treat videogame Kickstarters as sup­port­ing po­ten­tial rather than an in­vest­ment. When even es­tab­lished de­vel­op­ers such as Peter Molyneux can’t be counted upon to deliver the level of qual­ity play­ers ex­pect, back­ers’ only safe op­tion is to in­vest no more than they can af­ford to throw away. “If you can’t af­ford to risk $10 or $15 on an idea you like, just don’t back it,” Stoic’s Thomas says. “It may turn out great, it may not turn out great. It’s re­ally that sim­ple.”

Akaneiro:De­mon Hunters is a free-to-play game made pos­si­ble by Kick­starter back­ers. But de­vel­oper Spicy Horse is now fo­cus­ing its ef­forts else­where, with co-op mul­ti­player and tablet ver­sions still not im­ple­mented

From top: Justin Ma from Sub­set Games; Stoic’s Alex Thomas, one of the three de­sign­ers be­hind The Ban­ner Saga

De­spite run­ning into is­sues of its own dur­ing pro­duc­tion, Dou­ble Fine’s Bro­ken Age rep­re­sents a pos­i­tive im­age for Kick­starter-led de­vel­op­ment

Oc­to­dad:Dadli­est Catch at­tracted $24,320 in funds for de­vel­oper Young Horses. Its aver­age re­view score on Me­ta­critic is 70. Nonethe­less, it de­liv­ered on most of its prom­ises, de­spite tak­ing longer than an­tic­i­pated

The Ban­ner Saga’s over­fund­ing im­proved the game, en­abling com­poser Austin Win­tory to hire top-notch mu­si­cians to play his score. The game was re­leased this year and re­viewed well, with the mu­sic at­tract­ing par­tic­u­lar praise

In the ab­sence of solid fig­ures from Kick­starter, this ar­ti­cle’s data has been pro­vided by www.evilasa­hobby.com. Clang (above) has stalled af­ter de­vel­oper Subu­tai ad­mit­ted that its pri­or­ity was seek­ing more fund­ing. FTL:FasterThan Light is one of Kick­starter’s no­table suc­cesses, but it’s telling that its dev team, Sub­set Games, al­ready had in­dus­try ex­pe­ri­ence

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