Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Kickstarter thing

So this was a long time coming. I'm afraid this blog post will be all sorts of confusing and contradictory, but here goes.

For those who have tuned in late, Kickstarter is a crowdfunding service that enables struggling projects to get off the ground. Let's say you have a Great Idea for a product, but you lack the money to make it happen. You pop onto Kickstarter, write about your project and include a pitch video, name your funding goal, and then send the link to everyone you know. Anyone who likes your project can donate money in exchange for various rewards (like $25 for a t-shirt, $50 for concept sketches, or even $10,000 for a free dinner with you). If the project doesn't meet its funding goal, than the money is returned to the backers. If the project makes its goal, then the money is transferred to you and you (presumably) begin work on the project.

Various video games have been funded on Kickstarter for a few years now - even the developer of Resonance had a modest-but-successful campaign a few years back - but the mad rush didn't begin until a few months ago with Tim Schafer and his Double Fine adventure game. To make a long story short, the game received over a million dollars in funding the first day and became the bone fide Video Game Kickstarter Success story. This was big news. The fact that it was a point-and-click adventure game made it even bigger. Seemingly overnight, Tim Schafer proved that the old genre still had life in it. The fans were willing to put their money where their mouth was.

It wasn't long before others joined in. Al Lowe of Leisure Suit Larry fame started a Kickstarter campaign, as did Jane Jensen of Gabriel Knight. Tex Murphy is back, and the two guys from Space Quest. Now, four months after Tim Schafer's debut, so many games are being Kickstarted that sites like Rock Paper Shotgun had to start a weekly column to keep track of them.

And through it all, I have been kinda silent about it. I've been asked numerous times about what I think about the resurgence, and if I'll be doing a Kickstarter of my own. The truth is, I wasn't sure but I couldn't say why. So I hemmed and hawed and avoided the subject, but my feelings basically boil down to: "I think it's great, but count me out for now."

To expand on the first part, the fact that we're getting a new Jane Jensen game, a new Brian Fargo game, and a new Tex Murphy game blows my mind. These are all franchises that we all thought were dead, and nobody is more excited than me to see them coming back (and with such fantastic fan support behind them). As a pure consumer, I am full of nerd joy at these games existing. As a pure capitalist adventure game developer, I figure that anything that gets more people excited about playing adventure games can only be a good thing. So I'm all for it.

But... I can't help but worry that this is a bit of a gold rush. I got into the gamedev biz at the tail end of the Casual Game Gold Rush, and I got sucked into it. Then it died and was replaced by the Facebook Gold Rush. That didn't last long and then we got the Mobile Gold Rush. And let's not forget the Flash Gold Rush, which predated all of them. All these gold rushes made a lot of money for a lot of people, but it wasn't long before they died out and left those same developers in the lurch. Myself included, for awhile.

Now we've got the Kickstarter Gold Rush, which is a whole different animal. The developers aren't trying to sell you a game, they are trying to sell you the idea of a game. The amazing thing about the Tim Schafer project is that he never once told us what the game was about. Just saying he wanted to make one was enough to earn over two million dollars.  The Jane Jensen project, the Al Lowe project, and the Tex Murphy project all asked for and got about half-a-mil each. Smaller developers are now hopping on the bandwagon with lofty funding goals of $20,000 and above. And the bizarre thing is... it's working.

Addendum: It's working, for now. Kickstarter is all the rage. As were casual games. And facebook games. And mobile games.

I've written before that I'm a craven coward. I like being a self-sustaining business. I put my games together with spit-and-staples, but even so I am confident that they will sell enough to earn my living as well as fund the next game. It's a system that has worked for years. I like being able to pay my mortgage and eat food. Why rock the boat?

But even still... I see all this magical Kickstarter money and ohh boy, is it tempting. It's easy to fantasize about using the service to fund a fully HD game, and you know what? I could probably do it. Once. But what about the game after that? And the one after that? Will Kickstarter still be a viable option a year from now?

During the casual game gold rush, many game developers relied on Big Fish Games for 90% of their income. When that bubble burst, most of those developers went out of business. If I start relying on Kickstarter and that dies out, could the same happen to me?

We're already seeing a few cracks forming. The debacle between Leisure Suit Larry project and the Sam Suede project was appalling to watch, and noted game journalists like Jim Sterling have gone on record saying they will no longer respond to emails with the word "Kickstarter" in them. Kickstarter fatigue is obviously starting to set in. Will it get worse, or better? Think about how many times you read about games that go way over budget, or get cancelled, or never get finished. When some of these Kickstarter projects inevitably don't surface - or turn out to be not what players expected - what will happen? Will people lose faith in the system completely?

And that's just it. I have no idea. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. A few years ago I wrote that I wouldn't consider doing an iOS port of our games, and I've recently changed my mind (more on that later) so my opinion of this could change. But for now, I've got too many questions and not enough answers. All I know is that I've seen several Gold Rushes and I want to be sure that this one has long-term stability before I join the fray.

In the meantime, as a consumer I am very happy and excited for the games that sought funding and succeeded. Like that new Tex Murphy game. I really want to play that one. So get on that, guys.


Too long; didn't read version: Kickstarter is awesome for consumers. A bit iffy for business owners seeking long-term stability. This opinion is subject to change pending future developments. Gimme Tex.


  1. Good Point, and that was a great read

  2. I too am excited about the prospects of kickstarter and honestly hope that they'll make the games as i loved their previous work. Fell in love with Gabriel Knight at school, finished the talkie version of the game and from the moment i had a phone with the ability to play mp3 sounds as ringtones, my sms sound is the sound the game had when you got a point.

    However, my concern is from the point of the player, not the developer. It feels as if the players are hoping for something really really good, paying before even seeing even an initial art or example. I bet you the expectations are set sky high by them and if there's one tiny flaw, i'm thinking that it may hurt the next one. Jane's latest game didn't do it for me like her previous work did, while yours did scratch that spot. (And i have a special spot for Gabriel Knight in my book case...)

    (point and click games do sound nice on a tablet device, but i'm thinking the fingers will get in the way. Literary. Perhaps there could be and offset function where the point rests 4-5 pixels above the finger.)

  3. Blackwell has always been me trying to do Gabriel Knight, so as a player I'm psyched for whatever Jane does next. Even if it's not Gabriel Knight!

    If/when we port it will just be for the iPad at first, for the reason you mention. The screens are bigger! We'll probably need to do a bit of rejiggering to get them to work properly. Janet (my wife, who is a "real programmer" unlike me) is looking into it right now.

  4. "Kickstarter funding goal achieved! $2,000,000!"

    Release date of project: May 15th, 2072.

  5. Very nice article! Kickstarter really seems to be a one-time success and 'Gold Rush'.
    For example, I am anxious to see Tim Shafer's new adventure, but I will pay for it only after it is done, so we can be certain it is rather 'Maniac Mansion 3' than 'Psychonauts 2'... So as a fan of classic-style adventure games, I still would not donate to Kickstarter - unless, well, Ron Gilbert or Brian Moriarty appear there in persons.

  6. I've "backed" a couple of Kickstarter adventure game projects -- one small indie project and one of the major ones -- and I think it's an interesting approach to taking some of the risk out of development. Adventure gaming has always been a niche genre, and developers may be able to bypass mainstream publisher wariness by going straight to fans for funding.

    I agree there's some risk of Kickstarter fatigue, and as this approach matures people are becoming warier and more discriminating -- the Two Guys from Andromeda had a harder time reaching their goal than I would have expected. If some of the more visible "name" projects DON'T ultimately execute as promised by the teams or imagined by the backers, I think we'll see the gold rush end.

    At the same time, I think it's an interesting way to democratize the whole venture capital/angel investor thing, and provide some visibility into the development process for fans. If a lot of the Kickstarter money is driven by hype, well, that's nothing new in the game industry. Fans may ultimately be disappointed by some of these efforts, but at least everyone who cares can feel like they're fighting the faceless powers-that-be to get some new games made.

    Bottom line, IMO -- if a game CAN be developed on its own, independently, for a reasonable budget, without having to go hat in hand to its intended audience, that's still a viable, proven, and respectable business model. I think digital distribution has taken much of the inventory and shipping risk out of game publishing, and this new tack for funding isn't going to impact the broader sea-change in how games are made and sold.

    But there are some familiar faces emerging from dormancy, so it will be an interesting year or two ahead, at the least!

  7. I think Kickstarter is only supposed to work once for any one company. As the name implies, it's a start, something that allows devs to make things that they'd normally need investor money for and let's them keep their own profits instead. Because of that I think people expect those profits to pay for the next game. I would never kick start the same person twice and I'm troubled that some people might actually tty to take advantage of people like that.

  8. Also, kickstarter is not really awesome for consumers. It's risky for consumers and it forces them to waive the kind of rights they normally have. Of course me taking a calculated risk at $50 is probably easier than getting a publisher to risk a half million, but it's still not the kind of thing consumers are traditionally expected to bear.

    When you do a kickstarter, you are not doing the backers a favor, you are asking them to do you a kindness. Which many of us are happy to do, but I think to ask them to do it over and over again would be really predatory.

    These big Kickstarter successes, although they happened seemingly all at once, are exceptional. They giants of the genre who deserve that success. I don't think KS can or should ever be the de facto way adventure games get funded, just the really special ones.

  9. Kickstarter in future was made best game than all gamecards and big aaa+ studios ;) i cant wait