You Get Nothing: Why crowdfunded games just aren’t working

Earth 2066

By on May 13, 2014 at 2:52 pm

It’s easy to understand the appeal of crowdfunding, at least on paper — being able to pick and choose the projects that the community feels need direct support, and ensuring that they get a decent chance at completion. The reality, however, is much more fractious and complex. I’ve made it fairly clear over a number of features and editorials on this wonderful website, that crowdfunding of titles and the new regime of pre-funding development isn’t something I feel is a great idea.

There are no guarantees that the money sunk into many of these ventures — even the most promising and overfunded, will ever see the light of day, nor that the developer will be able to stay in the black. On the other end of the stick we have Early Access titles, which rely on the faith of the buyer that development will continue to completion. This model too is showing cracks in its armour — something that was brought to light recently with the high profile failure of Towns, where the developers decided to halt development due to an apparent lack of sales in order to cover day to day costs. Then there are the obvious issues with expectationsquality and transparency.

It’s easy to assume that I’m being selective with my observations, targeting the bad fruit that falls off the tree instead of the good stuff that’s picked when ripe. I haven’t forgotten about Broken Age: Act 1The Banner Saga, Planetary Annihilation, and Prison Architect — I own all of them and I have thoroughly enjoyed playing through the various builds of each. The same goes with the promising continued development of games like Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous — both titles have clear roadmaps to meeting their goals with talented, dedicated teams of experienced developers behind them. But this is the key — these titles are being developed by studios full of industry vets, well aware of their need to be fully transparent with updates, and a tight handle on the public purse.

It takes more than a simple concept to succeed in creating an amazing game, and I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that far too many of these concepts are nothing but that — pipe dreams with little more than a three-minute reel of art and renders. Data mining blogger “Evil as a Hobby” crunched the numbers on all of the 366 successfully funded projects between 2009 and 2012, and found that a staggering 63% had not as yet fully delivered their title to backers. This drops to 50% if you take into account whether a game offered a “part one” or a mini-game to console angry and frustrated backers, but still leaves a whopping 183 funded projects without any sort of delivery.

In terms of monetary value, almost $21.6 million dollars has been dropped into a pit of great ideas and essentially been flushed away — arguably not what many expected when they chipped in $20 or $30 to be on the ground floor of the next great RPG. But what if we take into account delays — many of these titles are not actively cancelled, but have been given delays of up to a year in some cases. Sealark, one of only two Kickstarters I’ve funded, was scheduled for a July 2013 release, and is no closer to release now. The developer has also not released an update since March.

Then there’s the argument that if anything is put out, at all, then that’s akin to a success. “Hey James”, you may be noting right now, “Minecraft wasn’t finished for years after its alpha!”. This is true. But Minecraft, like Prison Architect and Planetary Annihilation, had its core gameplay already baked in before the first build was even released. They were fun because they allowed for play that was fundamentally completed, just missing much of the trimmings — like a steak dinner without the baked potato and carrots. Then there’s the issue of community support dying out after the first few builds come and go — gamers have been trained for the last 20 years to play the hell out of whatever turns up in their hands. If that’s a buggy, barely functional mess, then sure – maybe they’ll work at it to bang out a few days worth of play, but then they’re already done. Will they go back and play the 27th build? Probably not. I haven’t touched either Prison Architect or Planetary Annihilation for months, because, frankly, that initial excitement has come and gone.

This has created a brand spanking new category of MIA titles,an effective graveyard of games that are either unfinished or in perpetual development. Strangely, many of the developers praise this situation, claiming their game will “never be finished” because as long as they have support, they will continue to add features. I was worried about this and wrote about my concerns about a year ago, and it’s distressing to see how little has changed on this front. A lot of developers still don’t understand the concept of Early Access – they shouldn’t be relying on the funding they receive from it to make their game. How many titles they sell should not dictate the speed or duration of their process. The second you make the decision to open up your title to paid entry, you have effectively committed yourself to an end date. This is not an interest free loan from the bank — it’s a full priced entry to a process that must be seen to completion.

But really, it’s too late — the power has shifted. Where once developers lived and died by their own ability to source capital, to handle the risk and deliver for their creditors, their only worry now is being hounded by emails wondering where they have vanished to.

Supporters of crowd funding platforms point to the original ethos of Kickstarter, claiming that the money is not for a finished product, but instead something more akin to a donation to an idea. This may have been the case back when crowd funding was more focused around making a 3 song EP, popup art gallery or portfolio, but the situation has evolved into something far bigger. I don’t think that there is ever a valid situation — ethically at least, if not legally — where someone can be handed $100,000 to create something and then six months later simply turn around to their supporters and shrug their shoulders. If there is no element of risk or retribution, then where does the motivation or drive to meet goals come from? Our entire economy works on the idea that unless you work to complete objectives, you get nothing. If you buy a house with a loan from a bank, your motivation is to keep working so you can keep that house. There are probably hundreds if not thousands of reasons that $21 million dollars in funding disappeared into a black hole, but I daresay if there were benchmarks or creditors involved, those losses would be much smaller.

So what’s the solution? I personally haven’t funded a single thing since Star Citizen because I have yet to find a project I have faith in. The internet as a collective mass loves a good cause and this is the reason crowd funding blew up to be so “successful” in the first place — we assume good in everyone, and that self-motivation to a group of anonymous benefactors is enough for people to do that they claim. This is a fallacy. If we want to increase the rate of success then we can’t let project owners off the hook, nor should we simply gift them such enormous amounts of money based on little more than a promise. I feel reform should include a compulsory business plan that details things like staffing costs, work hours, and timelines for completion benchmarks. Or money being drip-fed over a space of time, say x per month, based on this plan, or maybe even linked to meeting goals preset by the developer themselves. After all, we generally have no idea where the funds actually go — are they struggling in the basement of their parents’ house or spending their investment attempting cover their own personal debts?

Neither of these ideas are outlandish or even that difficult to enforce. Sure, it would take some moderation on behalf of a third party, but there’s a reason 10-15% of the final amount goes to the website that facilitates the deal. The biggest hurdle, however, is that there is generally still a lot of denial that anything is wrong, and far too many players making bank on the status quo. We generally need to stop thinking about this as a $20 or $30 problem. This isn’t about the individual, it’s the investment as a group — the crux of all this is that I want to see more games funded. The bubble is going to pop sooner or later, the telling part will be whether there’s still an industry for crowdfunded titles on the other side of it.

48 comments (Leave your own)

I don’t pretend to be an expert on anything more than Chiko rolls, but to me it seems the whole problem currently facing the CrowdFunding model is pledger expectation and developer understanding.

If the bubble does pop – hopefully what rises from those gooey ashes is a more regulated and checked model where developers need to be more accountable from the get go to get approval, and the pledgers have a better understanding about exactly what stage of development they’re pledging at.

I hope it sticks around for a long time though – GOG and CrowdFunding have been pretty much my only escape from the DRM insanity of modern day PC gaming.

 

Your third paragraph sums up the whole rather well. I have to date only backed one kickstarter that I’m not 100% will be finished in a reasonable timeframe: Stonehearth. All those other games you mentioned just seemed over-ambitious such as Godus. Classic Molyneaux over-committing again.

This is also highlighting that whilst from 2000 to 2012 the distributor/publisher model of the giants (EA, Vivendi, Activision etc etc) have been lambasted as evil, ripping us off, cancelling promising looking games and projects etc etc, there’s usually a pretty good reason and more importantly, they wear the investment cost not us. If a game is truly bad people can usually claim a refund or get a trade in.

I find kickstarter is much better for tabletop games or boardgames as the prototype already exists and all they’re doing is getting funding to manufacture. Videogames just have too many potential pitfalls.

I think soon we’re definitely going to see the bubble burst soon as many people are seeing, myself included, that kickstarter/crowdfunding is already is dangerously bloated.

 

You’d think it would eventually regulate itself. As your average funder gets a higher ratio of failures to sucesses, they’ll be less generous with their offers and do more research before committing.

And how much kickstarter money is just developers glad-handing each other in a giant circle jerk? There’s got to be a bit going around.

 

I agree.

I really dislike the early access setup due to getting bored with a game before it is finished. If I’m buying something I want to buy and play the finished version from the beginning not start again 20 times as it is being made.

It’s the same reason I have never really liked DLC.

I feel that crowd sourcing has it’s place but is more suited to an existing developer that has an idea they have presented to publishers but can’t get the funding because it isn’t the mainstream, rather then the first point of call for people.

 

I’ve read some of your previous articles about the same subject and I keep feeling the same way. Crowd funding is an investment and the investor should be very wary. The only time I was genuinely expecting something back from my money was with Broken Age. They received something like 5 times more than what they were expecting yet they were still able to blow through that money by making the art beautiful, damn fine voice acting and probably champagne hot-tubs with Russian hookers.
The other 5 times I’ve given to crowd funding I knew it was going to be a risk. I don’t think any of them have paid off except the Veronica Mars movie but that isn’t really the same thing. I see the concept, see what they have so far and make a judgement call. Sometimes I don’t even think that they will be able to pull it off but if I think it really could be a great idea I’ll give them a small investment (I risk less).
I’m still really looking forward to a hat in time and I am more than a little surprised that hand of fate is putting along so well.
And to play devils advocate to myself for a moment..I understand that all of this crowd funding does allow people to come up with Call of Battlefield: Final Crysis and see how much money they can bring in by name dropping ideas and a little fancy artwork but I also hope that people who do that are no better than the people who were putting insulation in people houses a few years back and by that I mean, I hope they get violently sodomised in the not too distant future.
I hope you didn’t mind reading my comments as I will continue to enjoy reading your articles.

 

Crowdfunding is a waste of time and always will be. Nether for example I poured money into only for it to deliver a terrible game that died in less than a month. Why? Because the development was too slow or poor to fit the game, so I went back only to find it in worse shape, the netcode got worse, the enemies got more powerful and gun and item crafting required traveling through enemies I couldn’t face. The mechanics of the game died.

As I see it, there is like 9/10 crowd funded games being labeled as a failure to me from Day 1, they either suck because the development is poor or slow. Or rather they never deliver anything, there’s very few good games that amount from crowdfunding. The whole reason the whole idea has been jumped on is because of the success of Minecraft, but Minecraft is one of those 1 in a Million kinds of things. It happens and you’ll rarely see it again.

The WarZ (Infestation: Survivor Stories) is seen as a terrible game, sort of uses crowdfunding etc. But in actuality a large portion of the reviewers are just too dumb to grasp the game nor understand it and put time into it. It was hard for me too for the first 3 weeks, but now I only die to other players. I have no idea why everyone hates the game so much, when they simply try to apply DayZ’s concepts and gameplay elements to it because it has a similar theme and it marketed itself as similar. That doesn’t mean it’s the same… For instance CoD and Battlefield have different elements. In Battlefield you can’t 1 hit kill someone in the chest with a sniper if they are 50 metres away, however you can in CoD and no one complains.

I look at The Dead Linger, funded through Kickstarter, on Early Access and really it’s progress is slow as a turtle running from Sydney to Perth. It’s gonna take forever. I simply don’t want to buy games without them being completed now, it’s a sad excuse, fork up some cash and maybe you’ll get what we say we’ll give you, just trust us. I mean really? Is that the attitude, I remember when gamers used to laugh at games which had like a small glitch in a level or a texture problem and that was unacceptable… What happened?

Sometimes people bring it upon themselves to not work at the game to make it better nor do they try and learn it and other times games never deliver.

 

Time to get a kickstarter going where we hire a team of games industry veterans to go around to each game project initially and once a month thereafter, smacking the developers around and kicking stuff into shape. Give them realistic expectations of how long it takes to do something, costs etc.

Perhaps these crowd-funding websites can have this as part of their quality control service. Some sort of management team that gets reports from developers and gives them some direction now and then.

 

I don’t get these articles. Is it that familiarity breeds contempt?

Crowdfunding was always going to have a few bad results. I’ve now backed 50 projects (some for only $1) and continue to be very happy with my contribution and the whole concept.

People should have discernment over what they back, but the internet as a whole is usually very smart and can pick the bad projects.

I want good games, that stand the test of time, and that have little chance of being made otherwise. I don’t care if I lose $20 here and there along the way. I also buy early access games explicitly to support more development/a better game, and then I wait to play it till the final release.

Maybe we don’t play the same games, but all the games I’m most looking forward to, and most of the games I’ve really enjoyed lately, have been Kickstarter games. I’m looking to help make great games, cause great games have a lifetime of enjoyment and replayability. $20 seems a small price to pay for that possibility.

 
James Pinnell

joelofdeath:
I don’t get these articles. Is it that familiarity breeds contempt?

As I wrote, it’s been shown that 50% of funded games don’t produce a single thing. That raises to 62% if you don’t some dodgy alpha or a mini-game to avoid a lynching. That’s an absolutely appalling effort and in any other situation would be considered one of the worst ROI ratios ever.

Also, thanks to everyone for their fantastic, detailed, input on the subject. I very much enjoy reading feedback on my pieces as much as I enjoy writing them!

 

joelofdeath:
I don’t get these articles. Is it that familiarity breeds contempt?

Crowdfunding was always going to have a few bad results. I’ve now backed 50 projects (some for only $1) and continue to be very happy with my contribution and the whole concept.

People should have discernment over what they back, but the internet as a whole is usually very smart and can pick the bad projects.

I want good games, that stand the test of time, and that have little chance of being made otherwise. I don’t care if I lose $20 here and there along the way. I also buy early access games explicitly to support more development/a better game, and then I wait to play it till the final release.

Maybe we don’t play the same games, but all the games I’m most looking forward to, and most of the games I’ve really enjoyed lately, have been Kickstarter games. I’m looking to help make great games, cause great games have a lifetime of enjoyment and replayability. $20 seems a small price to pay for that possibility.

I completely agree with this. You and I sir are of the same mind.

 

ooshp: You’d think it would eventually regulate itself. As your average funder gets a higher ratio of failures to sucesses, they’ll be less generous with their offers and do more research before committing.

I’ve already seen this happening for quite some time now. Back during the big boom with Double Fine adventure, Wasteland 2 etc. we saw tens of thousands of backers on all sorts of other video game projects also; these days you pretty much have to have an established name in the industry or a shining shout-out/recommendation from someone popular to even cross the finish line.
I know I’ve moved down from my $90+ pledges to the baseline ‘get the game’ tiers over the years, possibly something slighter higher every now and then. (That’s not to say I regret these earlier pledges, I’m absolutely looking forward to my Physical boxes and classic manuals/bonus goodies in Pillars/Wasteland/Dreamfall etc. :D)
But yeah looking through and knowing which ones to pick and not is a bit of a requirement.

I’ve not been disappointed thus far, and actually lost count of how many of my backed ones are already successfully up on steam and/or released (Dreadout in a couple of days, woo ;))
Much like anything really, you need to filter through the crap to find something worthwhile. /shrug /still thinks Wasteland 2 will be up there in my 2014 GOTY list from what I’ve played of the Beta so far.

ashigaru: I find kickstarter is much better for tabletop games or boardgames as the prototype already exists and all they’re doing is getting funding to manufacture.
.
Oh I’ll agree wholeheartedly with that, we’ve received an embarrassing amount of board games to this residence from Kickstarter. Some really nice gems there too that don’t even see a retail release. Look forward to getting the group together and playing plenty of these upcoming ones like Shadows of Brimstone, Zombie 15, King’s Armoury etc.
Just a bit of a bugger about the Australian shipping rates.

Meh I dunno, I can’t really agree with the article from personal experience. To each their own and all that.

 

Exactly, you give them the money before a project is finished, then where is the motivation to go through the long hours and hard work and effort to finish it? They already received the payoff for it, mission accomplished.

 

Well … If it’s half as good as people want it to be … when Star Citizen comes out this whole thing will make you feel stupid.

Also I had fun with the first half of broken Age and am looking forward to the second … I enjoy Planetary Annihilation aswell… I think crowd funding only “doesn’t work” when people fund stupid projects.

 

Great article, as a game developer myself I’ve never liked the idea of having to rely on a kickstarter campaign to develop your game. Warhorse Studios (Kingdom come deliverance) are a good example of how to use kickstarter properly – they already had backing, they already had a properly structured studio, and already had some parts of the game made (not just a few guys from the internet) etc.

Kickstarter are laughing all the way to the bank though, they really should have a much more regulated system. At the moment, I’m pretty sure that you can add a stretch goal on a whim, with no prior research into how feasible it would be do deliver it etc.

 

ashigaru:
I find kickstarter is much better for tabletop games or boardgames as the prototype already exists and all they’re doing is getting funding to manufacture. Videogames just have too many potential pitfalls.

absolutely, especially when so many videogame Kickstarters are essentially “I have an idea you might like, please buy it before I’ve started making it so that I can quit my job to work on it.

 

I’ve had mixed experience with crowd-funded projects, from the disappointing (Agent Smart Watch – delays and poor communication) to the hopeful (Star Citizen). I think they have a unique role in game development, but it was absolutely laughable to read about those who thought the traditional publisher method would die as a result.

 

IMHO they need a sort of escrow arrangement, where KS holds the funds on an ongoing basis and the devs are required to identify at least 10 “milestones” together with a proposed allocation of funds to get to each.

Once they reach a milestone, KS should release the funds allocated to the next one.

If at any stage they fail to reach a milestone then:

1. All remaining funds should be refunded on a pro-rata basis

2. All work done to date (art, code, other assets) should be released to backers

3. All assets purchased with KS funds (hardware, licenses etc) should be liquidated and the proceeds returned to backers

This would pretty quickly bring some accountability and fairness into play – if you can’t get to your 20% milestone then backers still get 80 cents in the dollar back. If you get 90% of the way there and then fall over, then backers get the code and assets for a 90% complete game to play with.

And most imporantly, dodgy devs never get left with a bunch of stuff they bought with KS funds to use for personal purposes.

 

The problem with what you’ve posted James is that every issue you’ve noted for crowd funding is currently also experienced with AAA titles from major publishers.

They are often released incomplete (and you could successfully argue many are released in beta, looking at you Rome2), many of these incomplete releases are never properly fixed (BF4 net code issues).

Even the successful development studios are crying poor and they go out of business at an alarming rate. On top of that if a game is successful the publishers make all the money, the only thing the developers get is a massive budget for the squeal coupled to impossible expectations.

The industry has built itself a glass house, it is in no position to be throwing rocks. The big publishers invest so much money that their projects become to big to fail, as a result developers have to stick to what is already acceptable to the market and innovation dies. Remember what we have in gaming today all started life in a small development studio or was the work of a single man.

 

NEWS AT SIX! : investments isn’t 100% assured returns …

either in crowd funding, pre-release buying or even just buying any other software because 99% of all software isn’t “finished” upon release these days.

this feels like one of those old failed ‘devil’s advocate’ articles that looked like they were trying to be contrary just for the sake of it.

“I haven’t touched either Prison Architect or Planetary Annihilation for months, because, frankly, that initial excitement has come and gone.”

maybe its you thats the problem?
I go back and play all of these games you list every so often and see whats new to do.
look at KSP, every few months theres a whole lot of new stuff to try.

 

James Pinnell,

Better chance of return than venture capitalism/creating a small business. What’s the problem? That dumb people are also investing, and that there are people who are promising more than they can deliver? That’s what speculation is like; investors go to the sharemarket for their consistent 10-20% returns.

diamondd,

Like I said, same as the real world. Main difference is in the real world people usually have an education to greatly lower their risk, but here you get people with no clue what they’re doing on both sides of the fence.

There’s a reason EA moved to a dozen AAA titles per year in 2011 from their previous 40+; game development is extremely risky and your liquidity+solvency go to hell if even one project doesn’t sell so well. Except instead of being managed by people with degrees, now you have anyone who can create a kickstarter and look convincing.

 
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