Say, what can I tells ya kid? We's using all da budget for Sloppy Boids because dat's where da money's at!

Ask any developer what the greatest challenge is that they’re faced with, and they’ll invariably tell you that it’s a lack of publisher support.  This could mean that they either have no publisher and are somehow unable to convince any to pick their IP up, or that they were lucky enough to land themselves a deal but have been smacked in the face with the unpleasant realisation that, unless your publisher is already a big-name corporation, there’ll be practically no marketing budget.  At least, not compared to the triple-A titles we see saturating the market year after year.

Much like those musicians who opt not to get caught up in the endless loan known as the recording deal – where your advance is somehow expected to pay for your recording session, any third-party writers/musicians, your engineer and producer, and probably even your marketing – the thought of having to owe their first-born child to a faceless corporation is enough to scare them into setting up their own label and pushing their noses to the grindstone to make their own dream a reality.

With venture capitalists a little thin on the ground and not really wanting to take risks on publishing gambles, the creative types had to dig deeper into their own pockets to produce the content that best represented their efforts.  At least, that’s how it was twenty years ago when I was a struggling musician.  In fact, even when my friend and I decided to create our own game back in the days of the Amiga, we’d planned everything out with the expectation that we’d have to fund everything ourselves.  It may have been noble, but it was also scary and probably unrealistic.

Did it themselves.

Somewhere along the way, however, this oft-praised ‘self-sufficient’ mentality hit a fork in the road.  Thanks to three individuals, it was no longer necessary to put your fate in the hands of an investment angel, as you could now pitch your idea on a public forum where incentives were offered to encourage investors to pay a little more.  This arena was Kickstarter and, although it had been getting attention since 2009, it was all very underground and known mostly to those with interest in the investment industry, or individuals who had either participated themselves, or knew someone who had.

It wasn’t until February 2012, when Casey Hopkins’ Elevation Dock and Double Fine’s Double Fine Adventure both broke $1m within hours of each other, that the masses sat up and took notice of Kickstarter.  From that point on, the number of projects seeking funding exploded, gaining momentum as the months passed.  To many it was the breath of fresh air that they so desperately sought, and an opportunity to chase the dream without resorting to corporate fellatio and having to change tact to ‘suit the suits’.  For those investing in the projects, it was a way to not only show support for something of interest, but the incentives meant that they would invariably have something to show for believing in the project leaders.  It was a win/win situation.

Except that some of the incentives began to get a little silly where perhaps a $5000 pledge would earn you the chance to have your name scrawled on a wall somewhere in-game and afford you the opportunity to chat with the developers over Skype for ten minutes at a time of their choosing.  Or if you wanted to show support to the tune of $25,000 they’d extend an invitation for you to join them for lunch at their offices in Los Angeles, provided you pay for your own transport and accommodation.  Among the apparent greed, however, was the underlying notion that you weren’t actually buying anything; you were investing in a project and the incentives were only there to give you something tangible.

As strong supporters of indie developers, we here at GLHQ were excited to see a host of great ideas being presented on Kickstarter.  The developers were all very keen, seemed determined to put themselves out there as much as they could and offer the best possible service to their investors, and so we took the plunge ourselves.  In the space of just a couple of months, we supported a number of projects in the hope of being able to help turn their dreams into reality.

Whenever someone invests money into a project, in terms of venture capital where your money is necessary to facilitate the development, you would invariably have a voice.  At the very least, those in whom you have invested would have to justify expenditure, delays, and even the moving of goal posts.  It is certainly not the norm for an investor in an unproven entity to simply hand over their cash and allow the project leader to run amok.  Yet that is what has happened time and again with Kickstarter.

Then we have the runaway success of Oculus Rift, raising almost $2.5m through 9,500 investors who were brave enough to take a punt on the same technology that has failed several times in the past.  It may be an exciting prospect, but history shows that the third-party take-up of virtual reality is such that any research and development funding, not to mention production costs, were ultimately misspent as the interest wasn’t there.  Yet these people, presumably knowing this in advance, still put their money where their mouths were and helped to bring Oculus Rift in ten times as much funding as was initially sought.

Outside of Kickstarter, anyone who invests in a business or project will invariably do so for an equity exchange whereby they own a certain number of shares in the business in return for their cash injection.  As the value of the business increases, so too does their financial return.  Can the same be said for the 9,522 people who invested in Oculus Rift?  No, sadly.  Even though Oculus Rift was bought out by Facebook for $2bn in cash and shares, which is approximately 410 times the total pledged through Kickstarter (so ultimately 4100 times their original target), those people who invested will receive no financial return for their support.  This is because Kickstarter is not considered an investment platform, and rather an arena in which financial support is offered.

Aside from Oculus Rift, one doesn’t have to look very far to find projects riddled with comments from disgruntled ‘investors’ where they’ve either been kept in the dark long beyond the proposed completion date, or they’ve been fobbed off with promises of ‘better’ in-game content which has, in turn, pushed the date back further as each deadline approaches.  In other cases, the completion date has been met with a launch but the end product has been sub standard, to say the least.

Vote for me, or I'll make you look as bad as I do

As far as our own ‘investments’ are concerned, one project was presented as a platform where the supporters would vote for which IP should be developed and ended up being skewed by the developers. All correspondence towards the end of the campaign window (and all subsequent communications up until the chosen IP was announced) was being pushed in a certain direction, making it inevitable which one would be selected.  What ultimately happened was that the game was released this month, slated beyond belief for being so badly made that it appeared as though the studio ‘pulled a NASA’ and gave it to whomever could bring it to fruition for the lowest possible budget.

Another was launched with no marketing whatsoever, yet was an online arena-style game which relied on numbers, so the take-up was practically nil and the server (singular) on which the game ran was almost always empty.  This was further reinforced by many reviewers mentioning how it was easy to discuss the mechanics, but difficult to comment on actual gameplay as there was nobody else around to test the combat on.  In an online multiplayer shooter.  This same project offered an exclusive ‘ammo box edition’ which, when it arrived at GLHQ (minus many of the items supposed to have been included), we soon discovered that this was simply a cheaply-made copy of the game inside an actual $6 army surplus box.  No branding.  No effort.  Just an old ammo box for a tier which was $150 more than the previous level.

In fact, other than ONE game which is currently in public beta on Steam, none of the other games have actually transpired.  Excuses are being made on a monthly basis by the developers while annoyed supporters become increasingly impatient as they’re fed yet another line as to why the release date is now more than a year behind.  When you consider that all of these projects exceeded their initial funding requirement, it beggars belief that they are being so blasé about the dragged-out development process, especially when it would never have been possible without these people.

The one diamond in the rough has been up-front and open with their supporters since day one, providing updates at every possible juncture and even allowing their supporters to watch the development happen live via Twitch.  I, for one, have been playing every new stage of development since their Kickstarter ended and have already heard murmurs from other games journalists that it is indeed something to look forward to.

So my questions are: if only one out of seven GL-supported projects have proven to be worthy of the financial investment, is Kickstarter becoming an easy way for companies to raise money quickly and do very little in return?  Will the treatment of Oculus Rift‘s supporters tarnish the name and have potential supporters thinking twice, wary of being forgotten should the project go on to be picked up by a major name on the strength of their initial belief and support?

The greatest question of all has never changed though – if you desperately want to do something, why expect others to pay for your success rather than pay your dues?

Last five articles by Mark R


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