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Kickstarting A Backlash: Is Crowdfunding About To Turn Sour?

Matt Gardner
Brian Fargo, Chris Robert, Crowdfunding, David Braben, Double Fine, Indie Games, Kickstarter, Peter Molyneux

Kickstarting A Backlash: Is Crowdfunding About To Turn Sour?

One can't help but wonder if the timing of Kickstarter hitting the UK and the grumbling rumblings of backlash that we've spotted dotted around the corners of the  internet over the past week or so aren't something more than purely coincidental. We are, after all, a nation rather more in tune with failure than success - one only has to look at the broad spectrum of a century of comedic output, let alone tabloid gossip "journalism", to note that us Brits have a predilection for placing people on pedestals one moment, and then mercilessly ripping them to shreds for shits and giggles the next.

The perception is that, for whatever reason, our friends across the pond are more encouraging, particularly when it comes to the rugged individualism of the American Dream that Kickstarter so readily presents, whereas we're a little more sceptical this side of the Atlantic, demanding to be won over. Why else would industry luminaries such as Tim Schafer, Brian Fargo, and Chris Roberts be met with open arms and oodles of cash, and Peter Molyneux, the Oliver twins, and David Braben find themselves attracting a certain amount of heat?

Kickstarting A Backlash: Is Crowdfunding About To Turn Sour?

Well, plenty of reasons actually.

Let's start with the heat, though. Fears have arisen in the past couple of weeks that something good - the indie ideal of crowdfunding - is becoming tainted. Do big names such as Braben and Molyneux really need to wade into  these waters and take interest away from smaller, more needful developers? Isn't there something just a little bit wrong with Braben asking  for $2 million off of the back of a BBC interview, the Elite name, a several decades of nostalgia, and a poorly organised pitch. Someone's already doing a fully procedurally generated space game, Dave, and the target was 2.5% of what you're asking for. And Josh Parnell gave us gameplay footage straight off of the bat!

In the cases of the big names, though, we need to return to why Double Fine succeeded in the first place. Tim Schafer, cult hero that he is, has never really sought to compromise his own artistic vision. When publishers turned him away, he went smaller, took his enterprise into the marketplace sector and has done fantastically well with Double Fine by letting creativity run rampant in an environment where big business can't interfere. Schafer and his team have no doubt traded on nostalgia - the 90s were adventure gaming's (and Tim Schafer's) heyday - but the quality of their work doesn't stop at the turn of the millennium. Smaller experiments such as Stacking, Costume Quest, and Iron Brigade have proven that the studio have the ability to adapt across distribution platforms and take on more responsibility for their output...in fact, they've embraced it.

Kickstarting A Backlash: Is Crowdfunding About To Turn Sour?

The worry over Molyneux - looking to recreate the glory days of Bullfrog - and Braben's pitches is that they perhaps point towards what one acquaintance unfavourably termed "nostalgia rape" - that is to say the exploitation of our fond gaming memories to hastily cobble together a vague pitch with a premium target. There's a school of thought that immediately looks at a good thing and wonders how long it will last, hence the current scepticism. It's impossible to know just how earnest 22Cans and Frontier Developments are about all of this and there's been little indication of the level of personal support from Molyneux and Braben that, say, Brian Fargo exhibited when he detailed his own contributions to the Wasteland project and then started an initiative that would feed percentages of profits from successful campaigns back into other Kickstarter projects.

Moreover, we've seen Schafer and Fargo toil. That shouldn't have anything to do with it, but it does. Schafer's been written off as a risky venture for publishers for a period approaching a decade. Fargo saw Wasteland passed over again and again by his telling of it. In comparison, both Molyneux and Braben have been earning good money in the meantime at Microsoft's table - taking the Fable franchise downhill and letting us play with lion cubs and bears via Kinect. Kickstarter has been a platform for underdogs, the creatively risky, and the commercially unfashionable (at least according to traditional publishing models), and clearly Molyneux nor Braben fit that profile.

Kickstarting A Backlash: Is Crowdfunding About To Turn Sour?

But really, it all comes down to the games, and the pitches themselves. The vocal gaming audience has frequently proven itself to be a difficult beast to please: staunchly conservative one minute, and crying out for change the next. We look back so we might look forward in many cases, and because the memories many will have had in their formative years prove to be the ones that they hang onto. The subcultural nature of gaming has made those rose-tinted spectacles very powerful indeed. But the nature of Kickstarter is such that if we like the idea enough to put down money for it, then that's what will happen.

I don't necessarily hold with the notion that these big names will draw attention away from smaller developers either. Hell, it was the Double Fine Adventure pitch that introduced me to crowdfunding. I wouldn't personally have invested in over a dozen smaller projects if I hadn't heard about KS before. In this instance The Big Name led me to The Place of Many Interesting Things, whereupon I discovered far more than I would have had Tim Schafer and his team simply continued as they were. And it's not as if there haven't been success stories already. Look at the likes of Ravaged and FTL. These are games that are now out, you can play them, and they're pretty damn good.

Kickstarting A Backlash: Is Crowdfunding About To Turn Sour?

Nonetheless, there has been a change. It seems like the idealistic notion of helping to get a project doomed by The Man but creatively interesting off of the ground has given to a platform now more welcomed for offering varying pricing models  and the chance to pre-order a game copy before it's even moved beyond a purely conceptual stage. It's here that we've got to be a little bit smarter, perhaps, to ensure that we don't spoil what is still A Very Good Thing. Paying for limited extras and expanded paraphernalia is one thing. Spending double to get into the beta is a little dubious on the part of the developers. That being said, in the end it's up to the developers themselves to convince us to put our hands into our wallets.

For as much as this is a test for the creators in our industry, so too is this a test for us as consumers. Crowdfunding is still a relatively young concept, and one predicated on trust that developers will match up to their lofty promises. There's a lot of money floating around for the likes of Star Citizen and, more riskily, the Ouya. It'll only take one major flop for the backlash to kick off fully, and so you brace yourself, like an inveterate gambler.

But it's all a matter of perspective really. In the end, you back the projects that excite you. Would I put good money down to see Tim Schafer deliver another adventure game? Well, yes, I absolutely would...and did. Same went for the mashup of Freespace, TIE Fighter, Wing Commander, and Appleseed that is Strike Suit Zero. But whilst I've been hurling money towards a wide range of pitches of varying sizes and at varying levels of quality, I've remained cautious of some of the larger, perhaps safer bets. Not because I'm not looking forward to them, but rather because they don't need my money and I can afford to wait.  We'll all have different reasons for investing in a wide variety of different projects, large and small. And that's fine. In fact, that's brilliant.

Add a comment6 comments
Tsung  Nov. 27, 2012 at 19:12

Emotional blackmail is what the bigger companies seem to use. If you liked Elite and want another Elite give us your money and we might make it. Meanwhile other projects (more unknown) will suffer.. Like this one I found today.. http://forcedthegame.com/


(fortantly it's made it's target but a boost / mention would help).

Last edited by Tsung, Nov. 27, 2012 at 19:13
X10  Nov. 28, 2012 at 12:40

Bah - I wrote a nice long response/comment to your article Matt but once again after clicking submit it just took me to the homepage without saving it.
I don't think I'll bother next time, seems to be a glitch of some sort.


Tsung  Nov. 28, 2012 at 13:13

:( X10, I've learn't if I ever write a long response to anything on the web, before submitting I generally copy/paste it into notepad first.. JUST incase.. :/

Late  Nov. 28, 2012 at 16:13

:( X10, I've learn't if I ever write a long response to anything on the web, before submitting I generally copy/paste it into notepad first.. JUST incase.. :/

Ditto. Unfortunate necessity with this and a few other sites I frequent :(

X10  Nov. 29, 2012 at 11:53

:( X10, I've learn't if I ever write a long response to anything on the web, before submitting I generally copy/paste it into notepad first.. JUST incase.. :/

Ditto. Unfortunate necessity with this and a few other sites I frequent :(

Indeed, I usually do when I know a site has a reputation for losing posts, I just forgot this time. I also don't expect a website to lost what I've typed when I click submit.
A shame because I thought I had written a quite eloquant comment ;)

Late  Nov. 29, 2012 at 12:20

Tis always a "heart in mouth" moment when you realise a post hasn't been submitted and you hit the back button to see if the reply box still holds your missive...

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