Jumping the Kickstarter-Gun
January 18, 2013 26 Comments
Kickstarter is not venture capital. It’s not angel investing. Pledgers are not looking for a monetary return on their investment. I do understand this. And yet, I’m still not a supporter of Kickstarter, because I think it sends the wrong message to potential developers: money is easy to come by. I believe it’s irresponsible to teach young entrepreneurs that money should be given to them based on a concept and raw enthusiasm. Funding should only be given on the grounds of actual ability, a proven track record of completed, competent projects, and the willingness to personally sacrifice for the benefit of your project. It’s shocking to me how people fund games from people who meet none of that criteria. I’m even more shocked when a developer reaches their Kickstarter goal, gets the money, and within weeks has another ask posted for even more funding.. and gets it.
I’ve already offered advice to would-be developers who wish to use Kickstarter to fund their projects. I’m not against the idea of start-up developers seeking funding, and I have no problem with an established developer (indie or otherwise) using Kickstarter. But I’ve also made it pretty clear that my blog doesn’t exist to plug Kickstarters. In April of last year, shortly after Double Fine’s then record-breaking Kickstarter got huge publicity, I received over fifty requests to pledge and plug the Kickstarters from developers of all skills and backgrounds. It got to the point where I added “Kickstarter” to my spam filter. It doesn’t always work. Last week, someone with no history in game design at all who read my blog sent me a request asking me to look at their concept art. They beat my spam filter by spelling Kickstarter “I < ickstarter.” The ask was in the five-figure range. Grotesquely appalling to say the least.
I do not want to discourage dreamers from attempting to create their own games. Far from it. I encourage everyone who’s ever considered making a game of their own to give it a shot. But there’s many options to make your games without spending thousands of dollars of other people’s money to do so. Xbox Live Indie Games, for example. For $100, give or take, you not only get the tools needed to develop a game, but you’re guaranteed to have your game be available commercially on the Xbox Live Marketplace. Well not 100% guaranteed. There are rules against games with sexual, racist, drug, or Nazi themes to them. So if your dream game was “Smoke a Blunt with that Homo Kraut Hitler” you’re shit out of luck.
More importantly: if you decide game development isn’t for you, or if you run out of time to do it, or any of the hundreds of things that could possibly go wrong, you’re only out $100 and nobody else is out anything. I went back to look and see what progress has been made on some of those fifty Kickstarters I got requests for back in April. Of the seven I checked that got their funding (amounts between $600 and $3,500), exactly zero actually put the games out. Three of the seven blogs haven’t updated in months, and one other no longer has a website. One of the developers that hasn’t updated in months also had a second Kickstarter that didn’t meet its goal. I’m not saying those projects will never come out, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Sadly, many people did bet on it.
Besides the things I noted in my previous Kickstarter piece, there are lots of things that people do wrong. It’s stuff you also see in legitimate investing too. Like promising stuff you can’t really promise. I’ve taken pitches from software developers who believe if they receive funding, they will get a contract from a company to adapt their software. As if the mere presence of a backer will push them through regardless of the quality of the final product. The old “it’s about who you know” adage that isn’t as true as most people believe. Obviously things don’t work that way. If it were true, there would be no room for start-ups in this world. For start-ups, it’s almost always about the talent on display and the quality of the product.
The Kickstarter version of that is games from start-ups who say they are aiming for, or outright guarantee, a release on platforms like Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, or Steam. All those platforms are pretty exclusive and extremely difficult to get listings on. A pitcher can no more promise that than a theologian can claim to prove the existence of God. It’s okay to aim high, but be realistic about it. Your chances of getting listed on a platform like XBLA is slim to none.
Another common problem is having a pitcher use their attempt at receiving funding to prove if there’s interest in a product. The idea being that if someone is willing to invest money in something, obviously it’s a good idea and will catch on, sell well, and make all involved wealthy. On the flip side, if nobody bites, obviously there’s not interest in it and it’s not something worth doing. For some businesses, this is actually valid. Some. Not all. For gaming, I don’t believe it is, and here’s why: not every concept sounds like a winner on paper. I would think a game like Shadow of the Colossus would be a tough sell on most consumers, at least on the drawing board stage. On the other hand, a game like NeverDead sounds fun and quirky on paper, looks good from screenshots, and seems downright fun when you watch the trailer for it. The game itself was an unplayable piece of shit. If I had taken a pitch for Shadow of the Colossus, I would have passed. An experimental game formula, from a developer with a history of production delays and heavy employment turnover, whose only previous title underperformed in sales? It would have been an easy pass.
A large-scale developer, like Double Fine, can legitimately use Kickstarter to find out if there’s interest a game. They did, there was, and they’re making it. But a small-time indie developer? If I heard from one of them that they were only interested in making a game if people pledged money, I would assume they don’t have the type of passion I require to invest in someone. Indies should make the games they want to play, not the games others want to play. As much as I bust on punishers (as I will in my next review), if that’s where someone’s passion lies, that is what they should be developing. Period. End of story.
Here’s a question that is almost never asked, but it really ought to be: “have you ever had this much money?” It’s a question that can appear to be condescending or invasive, but it’s actually a very important question to ask to anyone seeking any form of investment. Does this person have the ability to manage money wisely? Money spends quickly. Typically it’s a lot quicker than anyone asking for funding realizes. When a person receives the payment, it feels so large at first, like it will never run out. Before you know it, it’s gone, and you haven’t accomplished any of the goals the money was obtained for. Given the amount of developers who post additional asks, it shows that a lot of them aren’t good with money.
In my previous Kickstarter piece, I said that pitchers should get price quotes and state exactly what the money is being spent on. Believe it or not, this point was the most contested of the entire feature. But the reason I included it is because not having those quotes can come back to bite you in the ass. Let’s say you ask for $10,000, with 25% of that being put towards hiring an artist. You get a rough quote from the artist before the Kickstarter for $2,500, so you think you’re set. But once you have the money and you sit down to hire them, they find out the project requires much more time, and thus their fee goes up. You shop around and find similar prices from other talented artists. Now you’re forced into either paying a talented artist more, or hiring an inferior artist, which goes against the principle of the pitch you used to get the funding in the first place. Most start-ups are horrified to discover how little they get for what seems like an extravagant amount of money. Small-time game developers are no different.
If you’ve never made a game before, don’t use Kickstarter. Visualizing a game, drawing concept art, and planning it out are the easy parts. Once you receive funding, you actually have to make the game. It’s a slow, tedious process that is anything but smooth. Even if you have artistic gifts, making a game that looks good is complex. Making the game play well is even tougher. Assuming you don’t just want to rush the game out, having a game that is playable and fun requires fine tuning, concessions on your vision, and many hours of frustration. Almost any independent developer will tell you that their final products never come out exactly how they planned. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Others get so discouraged by the whole process that they quit. Why do you think so many people start games that they never finish. I promise you one thing: for most, it’s not because they run out of money.
Finish a project. Finish multiple projects. Learn to compromise. Learn to take feedback. More importantly, find out what you are capable of doing as a developer. Find your strengths and your weaknesses. And finally, be ready to admit if you don’t have the level of talent that someone asking for donations from strangers should have. Not everyone has the talent to make a good game. No amount of money will change that. You either have talent or you don’t, and this isn’t one of those deals where you can inject talent to get ahead.
And for God’s sake, don’t open a Kickstarter with the intent of using it to quit your job to develop games. People who have never attempted to make a game do this. There’s no nice way of saying it: if you try that, you are a jumbo-sized stupid fucking moron. It would be like someone who has never picked up a golf club deciding to leave their job to join the PGA tour. You wouldn’t give them money. You would call for the nice guys with the straight jackets to come take him to the, ahem, country club.