At the moment I’m writing this, there are 185 live projects for video games on the popular crowd-funding site, Kickstarter. Since its launch in 2009, Kickstarter has seen more than eight million backers fund more than 81,000 projects with over $1.6 billion in the fields of film, music, art, fashion, and gaming. Crowd-funding has boosted the indie developer’s chances at producing top quality products through you: the passionate and supportive audience willing to shell out the dough to help the underdog give it their best shot (and often score some cool incentives). We’ve seen developers excel with the support of the people and deliver some outstanding games. However, crowd-funding can be unpredictable; many projects never come to fruition and the passionate, supportive audience is left thousands of dollars short and without the exciting gaming experience they were promised. Does the risk of giving money to an unfinished product, and many times to an unproven developer, negate the reward of a unique game? Can crowd-funding be an integral part of the gaming industry’s future?
Backing a Kickstarter project requires a lot of thought (unless you’re a gazillionaire which, by all means, support ALL THE THINGS. Take my college debt? No? That’s fair.) if you don’t want to squander your money. There are numerous questions to ask yourself before supporting: Who is the developer? Do they have a history with crowd-funding? Are they someone you trust to make a quality product? Does the developer have a strategic development plan for what they are going to do with your money? Are there any incentives for you to back them, other than receiving the product at a later date, which could be several years from now?If you’re planning on investing a good amount into a donation, these questions are very important. Based on data collected in 2014 for Kickstarter projects funded between 2009-2012, only 37% of the video game projects were fully funded and developed. During that time, $21.6 million was invested in projects that failed to deliver. Unless directly discussed by the developer and individual backers, none of that $21.6 million was refunded to the backers. Kickstarter doesn’t refund anything itself, so if the project you support ends up on the cutting room floor, so does your money. This is why you do your research before backing a game project. Once you know who they are, figure out what they plan to do with your money. Most developers will post at least a brief synopsis of what goes into making a game so you know what your money is going towards. This is good. Look for that transparency. If a developer seems like they’re not telling you everything, they’re probably not and you should take your money elsewhere. Take it somewhere where they tell you what’s going on and say, hey, give us $10 and we’ll give you a t-shirt, too. Be smart with your money not only so you don’t lose out on the cash, but so you can help the developers who have the know how to actually produce a quality game leave a positive mark on the gaming industry.
For game developers, Kickstarter and other crowd-funding options like Indiegogo have given them the chance to create the projects that they have always dreamed of creating. As in most creative fields, the money to create these projects comes from large companies and producers. However, very often we will see these companies pass on projects that are too weird, too niche, not marketable. They have that right, since they will be the ones funding the entire production, but it unfortunately leaves the market saturated in the same five or six kinds of games. For game developers who have very small teams and/or unestablished careers, crowd-funding allows them to take their idea directly to the gamers, who can decide if the idea is good enough to warrant their hard-earned or parent-distributed cash. This not only allows developers to get around the hardship of finding funding from a major corporation, but also brings them closer to their audience, allowing for input and participation in the process. Crowd-funding isn’t only for the little guy. Chris Roberts, despite creating the very successful Wing Commander series, was turned away by everyone he took his new idea to because these companies were convinced the audience wasn’t out there, that “space sims are dead”. Roberts didn’t believe it and took his idea, “Star Citizen”, to Kickstarter. It’s success was immense, which I’ll touch on further in just a bit. Said Roberts, getting to make a game “without having EA looking over your shoulder, or Activision looking over your shoulder…it’s pretty awesome.” When developers are free to bring their ideas to the democratic system of crowd-funding, they often find their audience, and their audience is able to find them.
Now that you’ve funded a gaming project, you’re going to have to wait a while. Games don’t happen overnight. A game needs planning and then execution, which can take several years depending on the length and budget of the game. What happens in the meantime? Hopefully, the developer is extremely transparent with you. You are an investor now and you deserve to know what’s going on with your money. Double Fine Productions, an indie gaming company based in California, promised a documentary with their 2012 project, “Double Fine Adventure”. Double Fine came out with the idea that they wanted to create a point and click adventure game, but didn’t have an exact story in mind or planned yet; so, in lieu of a timeline expressing exactly what they’ll be doing with your money, they said your money will go towards our game and a documentary of the entire game development process; which I think is awesome (you can check out the documentary here). The documentary came out in full once the production was complete, but it was filmed in monthly chunks, given to backers to showcase the process. Double Fine’s transparency showed that they really care about the support and want you to know exactly what’s happening with your money. This helped them cross over into the millions again with their second Kickstarter last year for the recently released “Massive Chalice”. Another example of an amazing developer-backer relationship is the one for the highest grossing crowd-funded projects of all time, “Star Citizen”, a space simulator for PC. Cloud Imperium Games and Chris Roberts kickstarted their project and let backers support directly through their website. They made constant updates, stayed connected with backers and fans on gaming sites and forum sites like Reddit, and they added more incentives and stretch-goals as they made more money. As of the day of this posting, Cloud Imperium Gaming has raised over $76 million (only $2.1 of that was on Kickstarter). That’s seven times the budget of the original Star Wars. Their transparency let backers in on the nitty gritty details and it boosted their support and credibility. The same cannot be said for developers who don’t fully develop their projects. Sometimes, projects fail to reach their monetary goal and backers are left wondering where all their money went. Refunds don’t happen unless you harass the developer, but even then, they’ve probably already blown through your money on a project that’s sitting in numerous digital trash cans. I know I’d be less pissed if the developer kept me informed throughout the process and I knew that they didn’t blow my money on trips to Belize or those awesome Barbie/GI-Joe jeeps that I totally wanted but never got as a kid. I understand that “shit happens” and developing a game is hard, but if you keep me in the dark, I’m less likely to cut you some slack – or support your next project.
Crowd-funding is probably here to stay. The benefits for everyone involved are too important for us to see it diminish. When projects are completed, we are often given gems that never would have seen the light of day if not for the contributions of passionate gamers. I’ve donated to Kickstarters here and there and it’s a really great way to feel like I’m a part of the game development process, as I don’t have many abilities that would otherwise lend themselves to that kind of work. Crowd-funding can be a really fabulous way to bring indie games to the forefront of the gaming industry, if we all do our part. Developers need to keep us up to date and treat us like big name investors; we’ve given them our money and now they need to deliver. The relationship between developer and gamer can be rewarding for both and improve the process of game creation. I think the boost indie games have seen within the industry can only take us higher. Do your research, stay passionate, and stay supportive, like a great bra or a well-meaning mother.