Why We Should Be More Critical Of Kickstarter
“Hello. We are a multi-million pound company. We’ve got a game we’d like to make, but we are worried it might not be successful, so we’d like you to pay for it.”
“Okay…so, if it is successful, will I get some of the profit to compensate me for taking on all of the risk and paying for you to make the game?”
“No. But you will get a DRM-free digital download of the finished game!”
When multi-million pound companies come knocking for our cash, this is how the conversation should progress.
The recent Kickstarter for a reboot of beloved PS2 rhythm action game Amplitude, however, suggests that this is not what is happening.
Harmonix & The Amplitude Kickstarter
Whether that particular Kickstarter ultimately proves to be successful or not, the fact remains that there was an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the news that Amplitude could be coming back, unadulterated delight that Harmonix should be so kind as to give us a chance to play Amplitude again and a distinct lack of noise about the brazen cheek of a large company asking us to fund its next game.
Yes, we get the argument that people can choose how they spend their money, but when so many people are seemingly unflustered by what’s often being asked of them in crowdfunding projects like this one, we do have to raise an eyebrow.
After the announcement of their Kickstarter, Harmonix has since come out to explain that the Kickstarter target wouldn’t fully fund development of Amplitude, but we didn’t know that when the Kickstarter launched and the vast majority of people still didn’t seem in any way troubled that a successful company was asking them to pay for their game.
Harmonix has also claimed that they’re not the big studio they used to be, pointing out that Harmonix was spun out from Viacom to become an independent company.
All very well and good, but Bloomberg reported that the company was set to reap $100 million in revenue in 2011, after Harmonix separated from Viacom. That hardly makes them look like the tiny indie that they’re suggesting they are.
Perhaps we’re being a little disingenuous, but we find it hard to believe that all that cash Harmonix has made over the years has completely disappeared.
Consider also that Harmonix’s founders have been present throughout the company’s history. Do you believe that they haven’t picked up a dollar or two through the companies earnings, or Viacom’s $175 million acquisition of Harmonix in 2006?
Making The Rich Richer
The fact is, Harmonix is a company that’s made hundreds of millions of dollars in its recent history and they want YOU to pay for their next game.
They want the fans that made them all that money in the first place to pay to fund another game so that they can make lots of money all over again.
Let us repeat: a large private company wants its fans to shoulder the risk of their next project with no recompense.
And to be clear, you are not pre-ordering a game. You are funding it. You are voluntarily paying to fund a game for a company that earns far more money than the vast majority of the world’s population can ever hope to see.
To be fair, Harmonix isn’t the only one’s who should be highlighted when it comes to issues around crowdfunding.
Take Peter Molyneux as another example. When Peter Molyneux brought Godus to Kickstarter, we’re sure he had nothing but good intentions. But again, while we can only speculate on Molyneux’s financial situation, we can say that he’s had a successful career.
What we have, then, is a former EA vice-president and ex-creative director of Microsoft Game Studios coming cap-in-hand to people who are much less fortunate than him and asking them to pay for his next project.
What Happens When You Fund A Kickstarter?
At this point, it would be helpful to reassess what happens when you fund a game through Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding platforms, which is probably one of two things:
The game you fund will be released with relatively little risk on the developers part, be successful, and make the developer a lot of money. For shouldering that risk and helping the creator realise their vision, you will get nothing save for a copy of the game.
Or the game will fail (meaning it either won’t be finished, or it’ll be terrible and won’t sell). The creator will suffer little as a result, being as it’s you that’s shouldered all the risk. Your money is wasted. The creator loses nothing.
Now, in some situations, that’s fine.
If crowdfunding can help a bedroom coder who’s worked hard to put together a demo for their first game and is asking for a little bit of money to help get their small game finished and released, fine.
When we’re talking about an individual or company who does have other options, though – who could get the game funded by publishers, or even pay for it themselves, then the situation looks a whole lot more unsavoury.
Why would you want to pay for rich people to get richer?
The Problem With Early Access
The process by which Kickstarter has started to be colonised by big companies, crowdfunding has come under increased criticism and some developers have even have had their reputation sullied (recall Double Fine waiting to announce that they didn’t have enough cash to finish their first Kickstarter until their second was funded) should give pause for thought when it comes to early access, too.
Indeed, those questions are already starting to be asked after Towns (which wasn’t technically part of Steam’s early access program) was abandoned in an unfinished state by its developers.
200,000 copies of Towns were sold at a pop and those 200,000 people, who effectively paid for the game’s development, now have nothing but what is, by all accounts, a broken game to show for it.
Again, this begs the question, should players be expected to pay for the development of a game that might never be finished, and receive nothing in return, or at least be more cautious about doing so?
You can bet Towns won’t represent the last example of something like this and, as early access programs grow, it’s something that’s going to require more consideration.
Crowdfunding, Kickstarter & Criticism
As bigger companies, start to get in on the act, though, we should be prepared to be a bit more critical than has been the case with Kickstarter.
If you want to pay for development time for a cash-rich company or individual’s next game, you go ahead, but we will continue to feel deeply uncomfortable with that arrangement.
It would be sad to see crowdfunding die and there’s no doubt it’s a valuable way of funding interesting and original games.
There’s something scary about how willing so many seem to be to be transformed into investors that see no benefit for their contribution, however.
When those with lots of money start asking those less fortunate to pay for their pet-projects, more questions should be asked. We should be more aware of who is asking for our money, how much they need it and what exactly we’re paying for.
If we continue to treat crowdfunding platforms as a pre-order system, we will continue to see companies and individuals shifting their risk onto those who shouldn’t have to bear it.
We will also see situations like that which has emerged with Towns become all the more common and occur on a bigger scale.