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.
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 Lord, which 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.