TR Member Perks!

Kickstarter is such a promising concept. Creators rich with ideas can reach out to consumers aching for something novel and interesting, seeking to fund their greatest dream—remove the middle man of investors and overreaching publishers to make something without the restrictions of typically funded projects. Especially with products like video games, it is desirable for the creators to be all about the fans. What better way to promote that than to make the fans the ones who truly make the game a reality, from start to finish. Unfortunately that appears to be all too often just a fantasy, as to many, Kickstarter has become something of a joke. Good ideas show up, receive their funding, and many years later with no finished product in hand people ask “What went wrong?”

The most recent example has been the controversial drama surrounding the ambitious Star Citizen project, marked by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most highly supported crowd-funding campaign of all time. Star Citizen is (was?) marketed as a space simulation game, promising cutting edge technology and an all new experience for the many players who endorsed it. Several years later, a finished product is still promised, but the skeptics claim that, most likely, it is doomed to fail. This article won’t go into the gritty details of Star Citizen, and Star Citizen is far from the only Kickstarted game to face this problem (and certainly not the last). It is among the most depressing though, because of its massive scope. And perhaps it is that massive scope that is part of the problem.

Most recent numbers indicate only slightly over a third of successful Kickstarters for video games end up delivering a project. So why do promising campaigns end up failing? While each campaign faces its own issues, there are a few patterns that stand out among some of the larger projects. Keep in mind, this article is specifically discussing Kickstarter, but it relates to any form of crowd-funding, even independently done campaigns. 

Forgetting the Original Promise

Kickstarter requires you to set a minimum amount needed to complete the game when you set up a campaign; however, backers can typically continue to donate after that amount is reached. The by-products of this are called “stretch goals,” additional features and content that the creators promise if amounts after their initial goal are reached. This is a nice idea; however, it comes with a major side effect. All too often, the creator becomes so focused on these new goals they forget about the original promise. When you seek to crowd-fund a game, nearly every backer is there for that original game. The original game is likely well-planned, well-presented—if it were not, you wouldn’t be getting the funding needed for any stretch goals. Those additional features, however, are not always as planned out (though of course, this is not always the case). Often it comes as a surprise when a project goes over its initial goal, so these stretch goals are not given the same amount of planning as the rest of the project. So when production starts, it creates significant issues.

If your game is crowd-funded, your first promise is to your original offering—not the additional features. You must finish the original project first and add in those stretch goals later (the obvious exception being when it is something like an enhanced engine, or something found throughout the game, but more often than not it’s additional characters, content, DLC, etc). Especially when funding snowballs as it did with Star Citizen, focusing on so many additional things can become draining on the project itself, as you’ve spread yourself out too thin. This is why some Kickstarted projects, like Albino Nightmare, release their product in segments. just so at least something finished can be sent to their backers, even if in segments. On top of the obvious benefit to players, it is likely going to be better for morale among employees working on the game.


No Kickstarter would exist without ambition; there must be a drive to create something for a Kickstarter to exist, let alone be fully funded. However, ambition without restraint is a deadly fault. This seems to be the major problem with Star Citizen, and probably the majority of highly funded failed projects. You begin with a fairly modest goal, but as more money comes in, continue to add and think. Kickstarter really is the poster child of “the idea guy;” a site full of people with big ideas, but not necessarily the experience or expertise to make them matter. I call this the “Walt Disney Problem.” Walt Disney (as in, the original founder of the company which now owns an enormous chunk of the entire entertainment industry) was not truly much of a businessman. He was the quintessential “idea guy,” and while his ideas proved brilliant and created an empire, the Walt Disney Corporation would have definitely failed had it not been for the second in command Roy Disney. It was Roy Disney who, on more than one occasion, kept the company from going under, controlled the finances, and probably most importantly, reeled in his brother when his ideas took off and spiraled out of control. 

All Kickstarter projects need a person like this. Someone grounded, who knows the “idea guy” behind the project well enough to keep them from diving off the deep end. Someone who is not creatively ambitious, but financially ambitious. Without that person, projects will forget the technical and business aspects of actually making the project and become too focused on the “ideas.” Ideas, of course, are fine things. Nothing ever gets made without an idea. But ideas alone won’t make a game, and even the initial idea is not always doable.

Doing research for this article, it’s shocking how many explanations for a lack of product include the word “inexperience.” Take Neal Stephenson’s attempt at a new and innovative sword-fighting game, which never made it to player hands after the initial creation was boring and clunky. This also includes setting yourself up to fail by not asking for enough to get the essentials created, giving yourself an impossible deadline, or going in without the proper expertise in the technical and creative aspects of the project, either from someone else or yourself. 

Sheer Unprofessionalism

Look, I know the gaming industry is a very lax industry in terms of professionalism, and that even AAA developers are known for being silly and not what say, Wall Street, would consider “good business behavior.” But that doesn’t mean that every response to criticism needs to be coated in sarcasm, dismissal, and sometimes straight-up insults. When even your legal responses seem to lack professionalism, there may be a problem. This may not be the exact reason a Kickstarter fails, but it does tend to act as an agitator, especially if it is directed towards potential players, employees, or worse, backers. This isn’t to say you’re not allowed to have fun, or make jokes, or that you have to always check yourself, but there is a common sense aspect to public relations. The first being “don’t make any correspondence dealing with criticism sound like a personal blog.” 

Not everyone may be equipped to handle that, but this is why many Kickstarters hire community managers or public relations representatives. And in that case, you’ll want to make sure they’re properly vetted, lest you end up with the situation that haunted Mighty No. 9

Backers Aren’t Investors, Because They’re More Important

I have been one to compare Kickstarter backers to traditional investors in the past, mostly to emphasize how important those people are to the completion of a project. Obviously, backers are not investors in the traditional sense. They don’t have the legal protections investors have, and they don’t receive a financial return on a project. Kickstarter is more like high risk pre-ordering, but it represents a unique relationship between creators and consumers. Unlike people who put money down on products that are already near completion and fully paid for, backers are in the broadest sense of the term, investing in an idea. But, they’re almost more important than an investor. Most investors will give you money and occasionally offer oversight on a product to ensure it’s seen to completion. Backers do more than that. They are potentially hundreds of people who not only will buy your product, but promote it through word of mouth, participate in the community, offer feedback and quality assurance, and create the foundation of players that your future game is going to be based in. 

It is incredibly important to remember your backers, make sure they receive the product and perks they were promised, and possibly more. Most campaigns are good about regularly thanking and recognizing those who back them. But “thanks yous” are a dime a dozen. Campaigns have to make sure they are treating their backers with the utmost respect by following through with their initial promises and remaining transparent. Yes, traditionally, projects don’t need to put out full expenditure reports. But traditionally funded projects give budgets to investors and shareholders. They’re legally bound to be transparent towards those groups. Backers have little in the way of legal protection (though that may soon change), so good campaigns should make an effort to extend that to their backers at least as a courtesy, but more as a show of good faith. Not only is this going to build trust between developers, press, backers, and future customers, but when you are open and honest every step of the way with your backers, it helps you hold yourself accountable. It means you have to look at your ideas, your spending, and the project as a whole, from a more objective level, and that’s how you start to realize which parts may not work out as well as you first imagined. 

Basically the only reason a campaign would ever refuse to be open about their spending, especially those working with several hundred thousand dollars or more, is if they have something to hide. That may not be the case, but that is what it is going to look like, especially if the campaign has far passed its original deadline. This is on the one hand, usually not a huge problem as most projects at least attempt at providing updates. But some give no updates, will change where their updates come from without notification, or like with projects like The Stomping Land just go silent, leaving backers to wonder if perhaps, they’ve just been scammed. Clang also had this problem, a game that ended up failing but even understanding backers were upset at the lack of updates leading up to it, and again with Mansion Lordwhich fell off the face of the Earth shortly after announcing the end of their extended funding period. Whether you’re set to fail or succeed, these people provided you with the chance to create something. You owe them the updates. 

Too Big Too Succeed

There have been many Kickstarters that seem to have exploded in recent years, raising far over what they originally asked. Often this is for projects that started off as something very simple. It cannot be emphasized enough that working with any project that now has a budget in the millions is far, far harder. Many people will think that having that much money will make the project easier, because you supposedly have more resources. To an individual, that may be the case. But in a larger project, it can quickly become a nightmare, and what was originally very simple becomes far more complicated. Not only because, as discussed above, you’re adding more and more to the project to justify the money, and not necessarily thinking it out as much as you did the original plan, but also because it means you’ll likely be managing more employees, more assets, and you should bring on additional people to deal with obvious legal and financial issues that arise when dealing with that amount of cash. And it can put a lot more pressure on the people running the campaign. That’s a lot of money to have to handle, and not everyone who goes into it is necessarily equipped to deal with it appropriately. 

This isn’t necessarily the fault of the campaigns themselves, but it would be nice for Kickstarter to offer options to only accept gifts up to a certain amount, so funding doesn’t have to spiral into something that becomes too big. This may seem counter intuitive, but especially for projects that have a set plan, sometimes you don’t need to have infinite stretch goals.

Deadline Extended … Forever

Games very frequently don’t meet the deadlines they originally set out to meet, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s understandable for projects to face delays for any number of reasons. As long as you can explain that to your backers, there isn’t necessarily a problem. The problem comes if either you don’t explain it properly, or if those deadlines seems to go on forever with no end in sight. Many Kickstarters have, to try to quell this, started releasing their products in episodes or segments. Again, to make sure there is at least some finished product to give to their backers. Others go into Early Access, but then they linger there for years and seem to continuously add new features that weren’t necessarily a part of the original campaign, but never smooth out the game as a whole. Sometimes these projects, in their quest to continually add new things to the project, begin charging for DLC or the Early Access title itself, to keep the money flowing. Not all projects ask for what they truly need, so this is sometimes acceptable. But if this happens on a project that received well over what they asked for, or who announced they had some kind of sponsorship or investment, that could signify bigger issues in development. 

Not every Kickstarter is going to succeed, and funding is really only one part of that. Obviously if a Kickstarted project doesn’t get enough funding, it will fail. But sometimes even a campaign that was wildly successful in the fundraising portion will doom itself later on. The difference is, while no one will blame a campaign for not getting all the money it needs, plenty of people will be looking to place blame if a fully funded project never delivers. If you’re transparent and professional, then even if the project doesn’t succeed, you’ll still be better off in terms of your reputation with the community. Don’t take advantage of that good faith. The Dead Linger and Star Citizen, as well as many highly expensive and ambitious projects, have had this problem. You can’t spend forever in early access, or alpha (unless that’s all you promised). But if you ever promised a full game, then eventually you have to regroup and ensure that full game is created. 

Kindra Pring

Staff Writer

Teacher’s aid by day. Gamer by night. And by day, because I play my DS on my lunch break. Ask me about how bad my aim is.

  • Rafael

    We are slowly learning that the people that cant get funding via traditional means, are not qualified to be funded. They have business flaws or personality flaws.

  • cptk

    I think software projects fail because the expensive part is the creation of the software and the cheap part is distribution.

    Hardware the reverse. Most hardware projects have a working prototype and need funds to push it through mass production. There are normally some issues with the design to tweak in order to be affordably produced but it is a well understood problem which a logistical partner would resolve.

  • hurin

    I think what is needed is stronger backer protection. In the case of Mighty Nr 9 one benefit that was promised to backers was forum access. But then when the community manager decided to kick people of the forums they found it difficult to get their money back.

    I am not saying backers should be allowed to post gore and scat on a company’s forum no matter how much money they donated, but just because backers will find it cost prohibitive to hire a lawyer and sue the company for breach of contract, should not mean they are entitled to less protection than a professional investor.

  • GGBigRedDaddy

    Personally I believe crowd funded video games would benefit from backers having more teeth. On large projects say $500,000+ money could be put into an account under backer control. The account would pay an agreed upon monthly budget and when goals weren’t met backers could vote to cancel the project and the developer would have a chance to explain. I imagine that would cut out some of the problems. Of course this would need to be figured out in detail how to make this work along with many options for special cases including additional raising of money.

    Having a standardized method to keep backers updated would be great too. Communication with a full project status update is mandatory every quarter for example or it goes to a vote to cancel funding. I just imagine backers having true voting power throughout the life of the project would help keep things on track. This would still give the developer a lot of freedom they may not have with a traditional publisher but give it some needed boundaries.

  • BeakieHelmet

    Star Citizen’s doing fine though. Said critics were completely wrong about the Citizencon presentation, outside sources double checked the funding estimates and estimate they have another year of funding, and Derek Smart is a crazy person that’s been after Chris Roberts for literal decades.

  • KindraPring

    Everyone has their biases in that situation, but it’s impossible to look at Star Citizen and say “absolutely everything is completely fine and perfect and nothing is wrong”. Maybe I should have included “Don’t be afraid to admit your mistakes” on this list.

  • BeakieHelmet

    How is it impossible? The only things to the contrary are the words of disgruntled ex-employees and the infamous Derek Smart’s personal beef.

    It would be different if we had hard evidence that there was something wrong or embezzlement going on, but we don’t. We just have what disgruntled ex-employees posted anonymously (in a move that even TechRaptor criticized), and what CIG/RSI updates the community with several times a week.

    I’ve followed the project very closely, and while they’very had a few bumps with the FPS content everything else is coming along great.

  • Rangerage

    There’s enough sketchiness and scope creep surrounding Star Citizen that it’s hard to say they’re doing fine.
    I doubt I’ll ever see the game I backed for at the rate it’s going.

  • KindraPring

    But it’s still past deadline and clearly has the problem of focusing on the additional stuff over the finished product. There would be a completely polished product out by now, but there is not.

    That and, any project that charges thousands for DLC…I dunno, seems sketchy to me.

  • hurin

    I don’t have much confidence in Smart either. But eventually Cloud Imperium will have to provide the goods, they cannot keep getting funding from backers forever.

  • BeakieHelmet

    The deal is, the kickstarter was to make “the best damn space sim ever” and the original goals have all been the same, just expanded in scope. After the success of the kickstarter, they decided to keep crowd funding open, which has turned out to be a pretty smart move in the long run. They set the general principles and game scope in stone in 2013, and through 2013 and 2014 and now 2015, the third year in development, they’ve hired on the staff and developed the technologies to make the experience possible.

    In 2013 they had about 20 people hired on. In 2014 they set up some of the original studios, and in 2015 they’ve expanded all of the studios into their full development teams (almost twice as many people working on the game as last year) and opened another office in frankfurt. They go into great detail on this in the citizencon presentation.

    Past deadline – They’re past the deadline of the original kickstarter yes. They also started full development much later than expected, and they have expanded just what they want to do. Wouldn’t you, with 93 million dollars instead of 6? They’ve still had twice a week (and more) updates on everything they are doing, and detailing where all that money is going. It’s like… sure, we could have had a bare bones wing commander sequel by now, but why do that when they have the funding for something much larger in scope? Why not something where you can leave your ship and investigate broken down space stations? Something where you can carry a belly full of soldiers to hijack a much larger ship? Something where you can do so, so much more than what we had back in freelancer.

    Focusing on additional stuff instead of the finished product? Not at all. The different studios are all working on different aspects of the game, so while the FPS module stalled a little, the planetside and persistent universe and single player campaign sides of the project have all gone along swimmingly. The persistent universe demonstration at citizencon showed all four core aspects coming together quite nicely.

    I have followed another game closely that has fallen susceptible to this: Starbound. Starbound is completely directionless and seems to be whatever the devs seem to want to put in on a whim. Star Citizen, however, has a clear direction that it is going, and everything developed serves the core of the game.

    Star Citizen does not charge thousands for DLC. There is effectively no DLC for the game at the moment, besides an eventual separation of Star Citizen and Squadron 42 into separate “Games” for sale to anyone who didn’t back the projects before release. There has been talk of DLC or expansions in the future, past release, stuff that hasn’t started development yet and won’t until much much later, and that would be playable alien races or extra campaign missions.

    What there is are the ship pledges, which are currently a little wonky in implementation. The ship pledges were and are meant for the final game, but the final game isn’t here yet… What we have is arena commander, the hangar, planetside, etc, which is all well and good, but in arena commander people can fly their ships. Well, some folks get uppity at the thought of just anyone flying any ship while the game is in alpha, so to satisfy the fans CIG struck a balance: You can only fly the ship you own for the final game, unless you earn rental credits for other ships in the alpha’s modes. This is… sorta like the way a lot of free to play games operate, but this is a stop-gap measure to keep backers happy. It’s not perfect, and honestly, I don’t agree with it, but I understand the reasoning for the decision.

    Now, there’s two things to note here: One is that every ship has a role and a purpose. Buying one of those limited thousand-dollar carriers won’t really give you an advantage if you don’t have a use for it. Even the humble mustang, a cheap little fighter, is fast, really small, really agile and hard to hit. Having a better ship for whatever role you want won’t help you against someone with better skill and more practice/experience. The other that in the final game, all of those ships will be available to get in-game, none locked by any sort of paywall or gold currency or something like that. If you really want one of those thousand dollar idris carriers but don’t have the time or money to earn one? Steal one. Steal one in port and laugh all the way to pirate-controlled-space that you just stole someone’s thousand dollar ship, and they’ll have to wait for their ship insurance to replace it.

    I think if you watched the citizencon presentation, a lot of your concerns would be put to rest. Just remember that none of the 93 million was spent on citizencon, they have a separate “subscribers” fund for all their events, videos, etc.

    If the entire presentation is too long… Check out these two segments: This first bit details the history of the project. That continues to about the 16 minute mark. This is the demo of the “baby persistent universe” they have working, the first step towards bringing all the parts of the project together into one game. The entire demo here is done live and in the dev build of the game, showcasing actual game mechanics. Now, this is supposed to come to us backers as a whole Soon™ with only one patch currently scheduled between the entire Star Citizen community and this level of gameplay… but they don’t want to give a date, as every time they give a date folks get upset when they break it. Understandably! But y’know, open development of the game. They have said sooner than later.

    With the FPS-only bit that has been delayed, they’ve given weekly updates on it’s progress and what’s been done each week. This is in addition to the twice-a-week videos detailing development of the game and the monthly reports giving in-depth looks at the game.

    With Star Citizen… if you care to look, all the answers are there. There’s been amazingly open and clear development of the game, and it’s frustrating to see folks who don’t follow the game and don’t care to look just say that the project is doomed and that they aren’t getting anything done… when clearly, they are, or they wouldn’t have literally everything they have to show for it, and backers wouldn’t be confident enough not only to keep throwing money at them, but new backers wouldn’t be confident enough to throw money at the game right now. The majority of the most recent funds have been from NEW people backing the game for the first time.

  • KindraPring

    I just got this:

    “Wouldn’t you?” No I would finish the game and add on more later with the extra. I really don’t feel I can trust ANY perspective on Star Citizen, because one side will defend it endlessly and the other disparage it endlessly, and both are biased. And I’m sorry, Star Citizen isn’t open unless they produce a budget. That is WAY too much money to be handling without having something available at least to donors. And, if you read above, you would know that I included a section about postponing deadlines just to try and justify extra money – you don’t do that. Keep to your deadlines, don’t make excuses.

    I trust my own intuition on this and only my own. I doubt it’s the trainwreck that some say, and it may be seen to completion. But it is not doing everything perfectly, it has a lot of failings.

  • BeakieHelmet

    So you’re not basing anything in fact or reason, just a gut feeling?

    Well, alright then.

  • KindraPring

    Well better than basing it off an internal bias I have, either because I desperately want a project to succeed and so irrationally defend it or feel unreasonably bitter towards the project and creator and so nitpick faults to try and paint a picture that it’s worse than it is.

    I’ve seen both sides, neither are right. Star Citizen defenders are obsessive and seem completely blind to any faults Roberts and the project have – they think it’s absolutely perfection and cannot improve at all, and any faults are quickly shrugged off with excuses. I can’t take the defense seriously, because no reasonable person ever says “It’s okay to miss your deadline when you have more money”.

  • BeakieHelmet

    Roberts is NOT without faults. Roberts pushes people to the extremes, demands perfection and has a temper. I’m pretty sure I know the type of boss he is from past work experiences.

    I mean… of course the project can improve. That’s development. They could have never gone with Illfonic for the FPS portion and gone with a studio they wouldn’t butt heads with. They could have not wasted time on The Next Great Starship and come out with an ugly dropship that might not even have a real use in the final game. There’s a lot of things to nitpick, and a couple big things that could have been done better, like not demanding perfect 1:1 movement between the head and the camera for FPS that’s causing all these animation problems they’re running into on the FPS side.

    But here’s the thing – their deadline is MONEY. They have currently budgeted the game to be done and completed with 100 million in funding. They have 93 and are well on their way to getting past that by the time the final game is expected to be done. Why have an arbitrary deadline set in stone for no reason rather than a business-based deadline that they are working towards? The majority of backers want the time taken to do the game right, not just “have a game.”

    I mean hell, look, yes, there’s a problem with promising a deadline and missing it, but I feel like focusing on that is missing the point of it all entirely. The point is to make a great game, the best game possible. That’s most AAA developer’s mindset, so long as they have the funds for it and they do. Nintendo’s doing it right now pushing back both Zelda and Starfox to next year. Yeah, they could finish Zelda right now and release it by christmas but most people would rather Nintendo take their time and finish it. Otherwise you get messes like Metal Gear Solid V’s cut third chapter and cut third warzone.

    Besides, painting both sides as extremes and declaring that neither are right is a fallacy in itself.

  • BeakieHelmet

    How? You mean also have an FPS aspect of the game in the same year as Bethesda-Doom?