There’s not been a week go by over the last year where we haven’t read something about Kickstarter or Indiegogo crowdfunding games when it comes to developers that want to get their projects going. We see everything from the smallest independents up to the large commercially savvy devs showcasing their ambition and asking people to get involved. But will this change the landscape of game development for good, or simply be a passing phase?
Being totally upfront, I went into researching this expecting to fulfil my own supposition that crowdfunding games is a waste of time. I’m tired of hearing that “so-and-so has 3 days left to hit their target of remaking that obscure title from 30 years ago“, and that probably isn’t the right frame of mind for writing this, but it was the thought that prompted me to go delving into the details of what’s out there and what the future might bring. Take a look at the image above (click it, you’ll get a big version), there are a lot of crowdfunding options out there depending on what you’re looking to get backed, or invest in. I’m specifically talking about the bottom right hand corner – the area that deals with creativity and personal expression, those areas that are not necessarily guaranteed commercial success. These are the places that we, as gamers, hear the most about, and in my view are areas that still need to be proven as viable sources for producing good games.
There are currently (as of writing this) 9,319 games projects on Kickstarter, 3,150 have been successfully backed, the others are still sat there with their fingers crossed. I’d love to be able to break this down a bit further because board games, interactive comics and game related books are included in those numbers as well, but it’s fair to say there’s a high proportion of videogames. Whilst not having stats available on the throughput of a dedicated publisher, I’m betting that this is a pretty good percentage rate for funding game development. Not everything can be successful, getting 30% through to the next phase is a good thing. This is definitely a plus point. Indiegogo is a harder one to work through the categories, no totals are given, and gaming incorporates everything from RPG’s and dice games to people who aren’t able/willing to save up and buy their own consoles (seriously, people are using it as a begging site – give me money so I can by an Xbox One or PS4). I’d say from the multitude of pages I trawled through there are a few genuine contenders for actual game development, and like the much reported Shaq-Fu, the ones that were serious looked to be professional outfits needing backing from the community. I’ve checked out numerous other crowdfunding sites and it’s easy to get absorbed in peoples ideas and visions, but staying focussed on gaming there aren’t really any others out there that specialise in this industry.
Having established that crowdfunding games is actually pretty popular, I looked at the game types receiving the most attention. There are two massive games on Kickstarter – Torment: Tides of Numenera and Project Eternity, between them raising over $8,000,000. Promising as this is, they are both isometric RPGs. There’s nothing wrong with that, there is a market for them, and the blurb accompanying the campaigns really makes me think these are developer passions that can’t be funded any other way. Project Eternity is from Obsidian, which surprised me considering the pedigree of theirs, though the publisher disappearing during development of South Park must have caused them to think about how to get their next game to market. Likewise with Double Fine, Tim Schaefer has huge renown in the gaming world so to move to crowdfunding his next project shows a great deal of confidence in the fan base. Star Citizen is one that I’ve been following development of simply because there’s nothing like it in the market, and hasn’t been since Wing Commander in the mid-1990’s (unsurprising considering the founder is also the creator of that game). I strongly suspect that crowdfunding is the only way that this game would see the light of day. Alternatively, Reset looks properly amazing, and considering the recent success of first person puzzle games I’d have thought this would be picked up by a publisher, though I like the development duo’s creed that they’re going to do it all themselves.
However, going through these and many other games, I found there were a number of things in common. They are (in the main) all PC games; they are mainly for niche gaming markets, by which I mean out of the mainstream retail focus; the majority appeal to a specific fan base that are happy to be get involved and be a part of the development; and they all could be construed as uncommercial if they were being funded by investors or bankrolled by publishers. In today’s gaming environment I don’t think many of these would be picked up if the only option was aligning with a publisher, and the majority of these games scope is beyond self publishing or putting in the mobile space. Crowdfunding games seems to me to be a step between compromising your vision to make it fit with your available resources, and selling your IP to a publisher so they ultimately dictate the direction it takes. If you can inspire the public, you can get the cash to keep your dream going, but only if you’re organised and can actually deliver on what you promise. To date there are around 50 games that have released after successful crowdfunding, many of which you’ve probably never heard of, and also many of them that have released in stages or episodes. Octodad is probably the most well known given its conversion and release on PlayStation 4, so we’re still waiting for a truly successful breakout title.
Will we ever get a successful crowdfunded game? So far it’s pointing in the direction that the games will be successful in terms of getting played by the people who want to play them, but will they be commercially successful? I don’t think so, but does that matter? If you’ve been able to express your creative ability and got the property to the right audience, that should be enough. The impact on game development should be reasonably significant too, with developers able to take some games in new directions with minimal risk: the games won’t get funded if the audience doesn’t like it. This comes with its own problems though, relying on customers to tell you what they want is likely to leave you stagnating in your market. People don’t know what they want until they’re given it, and true innovation can be ignored or dismissed as crazy when you’re trying to explain a new concept, especially when it’s just some text and a short video.
There will be limits though, we’re unlikely to see AAA titles produced in this way (or even AA titles), they’ll continue with the big publishers and studios. If you’re moving some funding away from these sources it doesn’t necessarily mean the publishers will have more to spend and start diversifying, the investors are likely to see it as a reduction in their returns and may stop seeing them as viable business. You could argue that this wouldn’t be a bad thing – disconnecting the creativity from the business side of gaming; I wouldn’t agree. Where we are at the moment is that games are created as commercial entities, and we consume them in this form. The desire to be bigger and better than the last success is driving the studios to produce games at a faster rate and at a higher quality. We don’t always get this, Battlefield 4 is a prime example of poor quality on release for the multiplayer aspect, and Call of Duty fails to iterate beyond the corridor shooter – but they are immensely popular and we lap it up. Following the crowdfunded route gives you more leeway with your audience and delays to make it “just right” will be accepted more readily. Potentially worse is the expectation that some of your funding will come from people who will also do your QA checking, and are happy to contribute cash to be a tester for your game, activity that would be consider serious conflict of interest in other industries! It’s a great way of getting engagement, but doesn’t instil confidence that there’s a full team available performing each key role.
I think crowdfunding has its advantages which outweigh the disadvantages from a developer perspective. From a consumer perspective it’s not ideal and has a high risk around the marketing (or lack of) of your product to non-specialist areas, but can still work. However, I think it’s a fad at the moment. We’ve seen some moderate successes, Pebble and the Veronica Mars film are good examples, and some questionable results with Ouya – it’s been launched but I’ve yet to see one in the wild. These make the headlines and garner the interest, but it’s only time before we get fed up of donating money (some putting in an awful lot) only to get a copy of the game and a name check in the credits. When the model evolves and people are able to get a return on their money things could change, but then that’s just the system we have now, just with a few more backers involved. If the model does not evolve, I’m putting money down now that there’ll be a class action lawsuit by the original backers against the first game that becomes a critical and commercial hit…