Or: Kickstarter is not a shop!
Crowd-funding is still one of the most unique and fascinating ways for developers to secure enough cash to make great games, but it's not without risk. Coming to the table with little more than a promise and a pitch can be a dangerous game without any guarantees, while plenty of us still cling to some rather dated and disingenuous misconceptions about what Kickstarter and the like actually are.
Today brings us the news that Yogventures, a Yogscast-themed sandbox game that raised over half a million Dollars on Kickstarter in 2012 has now shut down, resulting in no small amount of disappointment and knee-jerk anger from its community. At least the developers came clean, mind, as so often Kickstarter projects can just quietly slide out of existence with no closure whatsoever. Such as we saw with procedural shooter Moon Rift, whose developer simply stopped updating and dropped off the radar several months ago, leaving $8000 worth of backers hanging.
There are lessons to be learned here, whether you're a gamer or a developer considering how best to fund a new title. Crowd-funding can be fantastic when you do it right, but it's not a shop, and over-reaching yourself can be absolutely devastating.
"As you may have heard, Winterkewl Games have stopped work on Yogventures - but this is actually a good thing," Yogscast's Lewis Brindley informed backers via email. "The project was proving too ambitious and difficult for them to complete with their six-man team. While this was Winterkewl's project, we put a lot of time, energy and effort into trying to help them realise their dream. Since we heard the news, we've been working hard behind the scenes to make sure that you still get awesome stuff and cool experiences.
"Although we're under no obligation to do anything, instead we're going to do our best to make this right, and make you really glad you backed the project!" What this boils down to is a Steam key for another game, which many backers already own, with refunds or reimbursement seemingly off the table.
It's a sad situation that's understandably drawing plenty of flack from irate backers, but the fact of the matter is this: Kickstarter has no guarantees. You're not entitled to anything, you're not an investor, and by the same token developers aren't obliged to complete the project, live up to their promises or even refund people if a project folds. A legal-looking piece of paper is, ultimately, just a piece of paper when it comes right down to brass tacks. The whole thing is based on a pitch, an idea, that has just as much chance to fall by the wayside as come to fruition.
Or, in other words, Kickstarter is not a shop. It's not a pre-order site. It's not a digital distribution platform, and to think otherwise is delusional. It's effectively charity, asking people interested in an idea to donate what they can afford to give in order to help make that idea a reality, and that's fine. Tiers should be viewed as optional bonuses, not a concrete reason to back at a specific level. If one good thing comes of the Yogventure shutdown, it's that the last few holdouts who cling to the idea that crowd-funding is just a pre-order will finally wise up. Kickstarter is a gamble that relies on educated guesswork and good-natured idealism, meaning that every pitch should be approached with care, savvy research and the occasional nostalgia-fuelled binge if a particular game or developer floats your boat.
We've seen numerous brilliant games release after Kickstarter campaigns, and we'll see countless more! The idea is brilliant, the concept is fantastic, but the creative risk has to be present in order for crowd-funding to work. Spend only what you can afford to lose... and remember that it's not an investment, it's a punt.
Developers also need to learn from this. All too often we see small studios like Winterkewl Games making big promises, then realising that the size of their team, original goal and experience simply aren't up to the task. Towns comes to mind, but a more appropriate crowd-funded example occurred with the much smaller-scale shooter Moon Rift, as creator Sam Hutcher received roughly $8000 to create his cross-platform procedural SHMUP. The idea was brilliant, but $8000 is nothing, and Hutcher then made the atrocious decision to completely overhaul the "game's level generation, layout, and style," license a new animation suite and effectively rebuild from scratch. This would have eaten that eight grand almost immediately, effectively leaving him with no money to create an entire game.
The result was predictable. Hutcher disappeared, the website died, the forums were shut down and backers were left without the slightest degree of closure. We've reached out to Hutcher in an official capacity on multiple social networks, but have received no response and frankly don't expect one. Moon Rift could be a scam, but I suspect that the mortifying reality of admitting to backers squandering a tiny war chest on an unrealistic vision was simply too much for the lone developer.
It boils down to this, developers: you've got to be realistic about your goals and your own capabilities. Make a realistic plan and stick to it. If you're a tiny team, creating something as complex as a procedurally-generated game (whether Yogventures or Moon Rift) is astonishingly tough and expensive; requiring an inordinate amount of work, time and money for even major studios to get right. Sadly Winterkewl realised this too late, unable to hire on more staffers or retool their vision despite their war chest (which might be somewhat lower than advertised considering that a sizeable proportion of backers reneged on payment). In the case of Moon Rift, asking for $5000 was suicidal.
Know your limits, then create your pitch and funding target around them. All the successful campaigns and games do, pushing boundaries that developers know they can push.
I don't want to give the impression that Kickstarter and crowd-funding is somehow broken or not worth engaging with. Quite the opposite: from Giana Sisters to FTL, Broken Age and The Banner Saga to name a tiny handful, it's a vibrant and viable platform for studios to bring great games to us without red tape, and long may it continue. But it's time for everyone, whether gamers or developers, to appreciate that these wonderful rewards are only possible with an element of risk.
Thankfully, most of us already do.