Understanding Kickstarter With American McGee
American McGee rides to work at the Spicy Horse headquarters in Shanghai on an electric scooter.
It’s easy to assume because he’s a big name in the industry, he cruises in a limousine while sipping wine from an ivory chalice.
The reality however, couldn’t be further from the truth. He doesn’t live in a mansion on a private island and he doesn’t take home the highest salary in a bid to save the company a few quid. He says he’s content to live a humble life so his team is happy and the studio survives.
“There’s not much point in paying myself a massive salary or living a luxurious life if that’s going to lead to our company going out of business,” McGee explains. “I do wish people would be more aware of the realities of our existence and not take the view that because they know a person’s name, that person is fabulously wealthy.”
‘A lot of times people will say ‘fuck that guy, he’s got lots of money”
On June 24 this year, Spicy Horse launched a Kickstarter to help fund a new project by the name of OZombie – a steampunk take on The Wizard of Oz with zombies, which would later be renamed Oz Adventure. The zombies housed in Oz aren’t the standard brain-eaters, mind. The central theme in Oz Adventure is a question of conformity that examines the power authority figures hold over us in society.
The campaign was set to run until August 5, but after a lack of interest, McGee and Spicy Horse decided to drop a house on the Oz Adventure kickstarter, thus ending it. This allowed the company to shift focus on securing the rights to a film set in the Alice universe.
The original Oz Adventure campaign was met with the usual raised eyebrows. Some questioned if the industry needs yet another zombie game, while others felt confused as to why a company like Spicy Horse – who previously had success with the Alice series – can’t afford to fund their own titles.
McGee tells me he gets this question a lot, especially in the comments sections of websites.
“A lot of times the people in the comments will say ‘Fuck that guy, he’s got lots of money,’ or ‘Screw him, he’s a big name, he shouldn’t be using Kickstarter,’ or ‘Why doesn’t that jerk go get money from an investor or publisher?’ The assumption is we have deep pockets of our own, which we don’t. We’re a small, independent game developer.
“Ultimately, investors put money into things that are already being successful. This idea that investors somehow fund an idea that hasn’t got off the ground, is mistaken. Investors are looking for safe bets and games are anything but safe bets.”
If investors are out of the question, the next place to source funding would be through a publisher. According to McGee, a similar problem arises with publishers.
‘Publishers are taking fewer risks on fewer titles’
“There are fewer games being funded by publishers,” McGee continues.
“The budgets for new console games have multiplied way beyond where they were in the last generation, so these guys are taking fewer risks on fewer titles. We’re not out trying to make a big AAA console title, we did that, and I’m not really interested in that business.
“So to turn round and say we just need a million dollars to make this smaller game for a smaller audience, there is no publisher out there funding that kind of thing. They either make big bets or they don’t make them at all. We either go to Kickstarter or we suck an egg.”
If conventional means for funding aren’t viable for indie studios, asking fans to front the cash for a project makes sense. It’s either ask for help from the people who buy the games or, simply put, don’t make the game.
When it’s put like that, kickstarting a project seems like a sensible option, yet despite this, there’s an air of negativity that comes with every new campaign.
‘The media has lost sight of its responsibility to minimise harm’
McGee thinks part of that negativity surrounding crowd-funded projects stems from how the media present news to readers.
“I think that a lot of the guys in the media have lost sight of their responsibility as journalists to minimise harm,” he adds.
“One of the main pillars of journalism is to report without flavouring the story or without putting an opinion forward. Journalists are blurring the line between themselves making commentary and flavouring the announcement and simply reporting a fact.
“What happens is people reading their article, see this writer as an authority figure, when the writer says something like ‘American has announced a zombie game; does the world need another zombie title?’ That sets up the negative perception of what we’re doing from the offset. It’s very difficult to battle against that because when people read a headline, they often don’t go much further, and that can do a lot of damage to us.
“It’s really mystified and baffling to me why as an industry we have parts attacking others parts. The journalists, their business is built on the products developers are making, and to sort of undermine the trust that players have with the people producing the content, doesn’t really serve a long-term purpose.
“It might seem like a way of getting clicks in the short-term, but in the long-term, the media is taking up this position of defender of justice or they’re the people who are responsible for being on the player’s side of righteousness.
“It ignores the fact that developers are people too. At large, developers are not out to scam people they’re out to produce an art form and an entertainment product and put food on their own table. So this constant manipulation of the story to try and create an ‘Us versus Them’ is going to lead to the destruction of the trust the audience has with developers and also a destruction for the love that developers have in creating content for their audience.”
‘The internet seems to have a really short memory’
The negativity surrounding projects may come from a lack of understanding of what it takes to make a video game.
Double Fine frontman, Tim Schafer, hit the headlines for saying he’ll need more money to complete the kickstarted game Broken Age, despite raising over three million dollars. One problem is that the media and the average gamer aren’t developers and this kind of money is an amount only attainable by winning the lottery. To have said amount, then need more, makes little sense. How can someone spend a lifetime’s worth of money in a few years?
In our heads, AAA titles cost billions to make and an indie game costs about a fiver. If we are to understand Kickstarter and what it means to take a game from inception to retail, we need full disclosure.
We need transparency from developers. We need to understand what it is to create a video game.
“The Internet seems to have a really short memory when it comes to amount of time and pain that went into building a game like Journey,” continues McGee.
“They seem to ignore the fact the Valve has a well-established history of telling people to basically ‘Fuck Off’ when they want to know when a product’s going to ship. There’s plenty of instances where we’ve waited one year, then two years, then three years, then four [for games to launch]. People seem willing to accept that so long as it’s a big faceless corporation or it’s Valve.
“But for some reason, when a small independent studio is actually transparent about it, that somehow creates more problems and more anxiety than when these faceless corporations or Valve just shuts down and doesn’t say anything at all. This is yet another example of gamers having the power, the choice, to determine the direction of which way their industry goes.”
‘Gamers are shaping the type of games they get’
A concern of McGee’s is that if gamers and the press question problems that arise from being more transparent, developers will simply stop being transparent.
“Having worked with a big publisher on a big AAA game recently, I can tell you that their M.O., their standard operating procedure is to never release information early,” he continues.
“To never share details that might somehow compromise the development or marketing of a new product. The industry logic from the publishers is do not share your problems and do not air your dirty laundry with the gamers because that only leads to problems.
“I think it’s kind of sad, gamers today are proving that to be true. The more that they prove that to be true, the more the industry is going to revert to a place where that information is once again hidden.
“This is yet another example of gamers having the power, the choice, to determine the direction of which way their industry goes. As an example: the constant remaking of sequels. People complain about this yet they continue to buy them, which sends the industry a signal ‘Hey, make more sequels.’ If you signal to the industry that you’re going to have a hard time accepting transparency, then you’re going to lose the transparency. People really ought to take that into consideration.
“What type of industry do you want to shape? That’s what’s happening; the gamers are shaping the kind of games they get and the kind of industry that produces those games.”
‘I have a lot of faith in the intelligence of the market’
One of the biggest problems facing crowd-funded projects is the concept of selling an idea for a game on name power alone.
One has to question whether people are backing projects like Godus, from 22 Cans, because they want a new god-sim title or because Peter Molyneux is attached to it.
If it’s the latter, an argument could be made for Kickstarter projects being misleading: here’s a big name you know and love, here’s some seductive gameplay mechanics that don’t exist yet, now give us your money.
“I don’t know… I like to think about Kickstarter as an investor platform,” says McGee.
“That means investors, like they do in the real world, have the burden of researching where it is they’re putting their money. Let’s say a really famous film director launches a Kickstarter campaign and says he’s going to make a video game for the first time.
“The question is: should you put your money into that? Would you do that if you were an investor on the street and the filmmaker came in and said ‘Hey, I’ve got a history of making great films, but today I’m asking you to fund me to make a game.’ Most investors would say no to that, because they understand filmmakers don’t have an intrinsic understanding of how to make a successful game, therefore that’s not a great investment. In the real world, if the market makes a mistake like that, it simply corrects, and avoids that kind of mistake in the future.
“Of course the platform can make mistakes, but I don’t think the platform can make the same mistake multiple times. I have a lot of faith in the intelligence of the market. It’s got a smart collective brain. You might see things go wrong from time to time, but on average, it’s doing a pretty good job of putting money in the right places.”