Talking Point: The Blurring Lines of Kickstarter Fundraising Goals

Pwnee Studios gives its perspective on the publication deal with Ubisoft

If you go back just a few years, the idea of developers raising funds for non-existent games from the consumer marketplace may have seemed to be a wacky proposition. The thinking may have been along the lines of "ask consumers to pay for a game that isn't even in development yet, yeah right!"

Yet that's exactly what's happened in the past couple of years on the Kickstarter fundraising platform, which was initially limited to North America but, in relatively recent times, has become open to interested parties in the UK and elsewhere. We live in a rather extraordinary time where developers with relatively little, and in some cases no track record as developers, are successfully raising money for game projects with budgets varying from less than $1000 all the way up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some of these projects are mentioned here in Nintendo Life due to their success or pledges to release on Wii U and/or 3DS, so the conventional, license-based world of Nintendo is becoming involved as well.

As a young concept and idea, however, we've already seen issues emerging from the Kickstarter model. Take for example occasions where projects become delayed or run into trouble. In the early days we heard of examples where projects excitedly asked for modest sums, and then realised that actually delivering on that budget can be problematic; then there are game delays. If a retail or upcoming eShop title is delayed there can be disappointment, but in most cases you've lost nothing apart from anticipated gaming fulfillment. If a Kickstarter project that you backed is delayed or runs into production issues, tough luck, as you've paid your cash and will have to simply wait it out.

That's the crux of the issue with Kickstarter — what's your role when you fund a project? It's necessarily a donation as you're paying — in the vast majority of cases — for a tangible product; it's not a pre-order in the purest sense as it's not being dealt with or guaranteed by a major retail partner. Perhaps your role is that of an investor, but is it really? Some projects offer pricey options where you can passively participate in some design meetings, but generally you're one of hundreds or thousands of investors, and you ultimately have no power. If the project disappears your money potentially goes into the wind, and as its own terms of use make clear, Kickstarter won't ensure completion or act as a moderator.

By backing a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter, you as the Backer accept that offer and the contract between Backer and Project Creator is formed. Kickstarter is not a party to that agreement between the Backer and Project Creator. All dealings are solely between Users.

So it's all down to trust, and as Kickstarter's spiel does correctly point out, this method of sale and distribution has been around in long-gone times — book publication would often rely on "subscribers" signing up before a page had been printed in previous centuries. Yet in an online age when opinions and debates can quickly spiral out of control, this model can face some strain. One good example is PC project The Banner Saga; a Gamasutra editor criticised the project for what he felt were false promises, yet the developer responded to state that the source of the controversy — a free multiplayer mode released to the public — was always made clear to backers. Yet clearly people had backed the project without really looking at the details, leading the developer to say this in its rebuttal.

At the end of the day, I think 20,000 emotionally invested backers is just... a lot of people. You’ve now got a monstrous publisher of epic bi-polar proportions, with 20,000 different wants and desires, 20,000 different ideas about what your game is, a huge gulf between those who care and don’t care about what you’re doing, and a lot of wildly different expectations to fill, some of which don’t make any sense at all.

And we're seeing a further twist to the Kickstarter saga that has affected a couple of Wii U projects — post-campaign publishing deals. The 90's Arcade Racer looks like an attractive homage to SEGA's racing arcades of that decade, with a Wii U version teased during the campaign before it was confirmed that, actually, Nicalis had noticed the project and stepped in as publisher, also confirming the Wii U eShop for what was initially a PC project. So, a recognised publisher with — we assume — reasonable resources had come on board; was the £16,000+ Kickstarter investment still required, as this was no longer being self-published on any platforms?

Perhaps considering the modest sum involved, and due to Nicalis being a small to medium sized publisher itself, that's a good-luck story that the investors may be happy with. The example that came to light yesterday is an interesting one, however, with Ubisoft confirming that it's publishing Cloudberry Kingdom. This title squeaked past its target last May, and was initially a PC game with a targeted release of September 2012, though confirmation of a Wii U version certainly got it onto our radar. Updates were posted confirming a new art direction, and the release was pushed back.

On the fundraising page itself there were no updates between late September and late February, and in that most recent post — correct at the time of writing — there were no hints of Ubisoft joining in. Granted, we're not on the backer's email list. Ubisoft is, let's not forget, one of the elite and most powerful publishers in the industry, so while it's undoubtedly exciting for Pwnee Studios, there's a debate to be had about the path of events that sees an indie project crowd-funded, delayed, and then published (with Xbox 360 added as a platform) by a behemoth like Ubisoft. Backers have been playing beta builds on PC and will still receive their code of the full game, of that we're absolutely sure, but has the whole dynamic changed? You receive your goods for your investment, but the $23,582 raised now seems out of place with a publisher like Ubisoft involved; going back to the example of The Banner Saga, this no longer has hundreds of publishers along those lines.

That money was required to fund the game, of course, but this scenario does raise question-marks about a potential way for big publishers to potentially "game" the system with indie projects. Considering the investment nature of Kickstarter, where some perks involve you paying more for something like a line of acknowledgement in the credits, will some be disappointed if they paid $60 for that privilege in Cloudberry Kingdom, only for it to be a line in a Ubisoft-published game that's selling for $15? What began as backing an indie-project is now, in all honestly, nothing of the sort.

From Pwnee's perspective, it would be unlikely to turn down the opportunity to be published by Ubisoft. What we do have, however, are 640 backers now receiving their products wrapped in a Ubisoft bow. A company of considerable size is investing in a project that's already had over $20,000 of private investor's money; ultimately money the European publisher can arguably save in getting its investment to download stores. It's a tough line to say that this is unquestionably wrong, as we've already acknowledged the risky nature of the Kickstarter model, yet it's an odd scenario that demolishes this project's campaign as a self-published effort made possible by backers. Again, it comes back to some perhaps not understanding what Kickstarter really is — a risk-based investment — and potentially not realising that, ultimately, the project isn't beholden to them as the early investors.

And so it's another twist and grey area in the ongoing Kickstarter revolution, and sets potentially iffy precedents. If big publishers simply observe campaigns and pounce to publish after investor money has already gone out of the door, the potential for cynical money-saving on the part of those major companies is obvious. There's arguably little issue with Pwnee Studios taking up Ubisoft publication, but it again highlights another risk for prospective investors. You may pay above the odds for a line in the credits to support a plucky project, but by the time it arrives the gesture could have lost almost all relevance.


Update:

We contacted Pwnee Studios earlier in the day regarding this article, and TJ Lutz, Vice President of Pwnee Studios, has kindly given his perspective. He answered a couple of questions and gave a general statement, and as we feel they all contribute to this debate, we include them in full below.

NL: The project was funded for self-publication via Kickstarter, but is now being picked up by one of the biggest publishers in the games industry and appearing on an additional platform. Do you feel there's a clash between the game's funded origins and its new status as a Ubisoft-published title?

TL: We initially began our Kickstarter campaign to improve the art to make Cloudberry Kingdom’s style better match the feel of the gameplay. During that process, we began to grab the attention of a few consoles like the Wii U, and they even got on board with the Kickstarter rewards. Eventually, we started to get questions from backers whether or not we would be able to promise them copies on the PS3 and the 360. We didn’t want to leave people out in the cold who had those consoles, so we started to really push to try and get onto these consoles as well. Over time, we realized that we weren’t going to be able to land every console on our own – so we began looking at other options. One of the things that publishing through Ubisoft allows us to do is make Cloudberry Kingdom available to people who didn’t own a WiiU or use Steam. So to answer your question, no. I don’t really think there is a clash of any sort. Ubisoft has given more people the chance to play Cloudberry Kingdom than we could have on our own.

NL: Is it perhaps an unwritten goal, on Kickstarter, that while looking to fund projects there's actually a hope of a bigger publisher coming along? Do you agree that there's a danger of investors feeling disappointed by retrospective publication deals like that with Ubisoft? (For example, will the game be $15, as per the lowest tier on your Kickstarter campaign?)

I wouldn’t say that there is necessarily an unwritten goal of getting a big publisher’s attention. We didn’t even consider it until we realized that we would be letting a number of people down by not releasing on all systems. The way Kickstarter has exploded as an indie gaming hotspot though, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if some people do have that goal in mind. In terms of investors feeling disappointed by publication deals, I suppose there is always a danger of that. Not everyone is going to support every major decision that you make, but hopefully most people understand that it was the best decision to be made. We can’t really address the price of the game, as we haven’t confirmed what it will be yet. We will just have to see where it ends up, but we certainly wouldn’t do anything to irk our backers. We know where we came from, and we’re going to remain loyal to our backers no matter what. Without them Cloudberry Kingdom wouldn’t exist!

And finally, TJ gives his thoughts on the general debate.

TJ Lutz: I definitely agree that if it becomes common practice for big publishers to use Kickstarter for window shopping, there could be some issues. What a lot of people might not know, is that there are a number of small to medium sized publishers already taking that route. They aren’t necessarily landing every target, but it happens more often than you might be aware of (since the failed recruitments aren’t generally mentioned).

What it really comes down to is how the particular developer thinks. Some people want to be very independent, and accomplish something completely on their own. Others really don’t care about much at all, and just want to make money. There are a number of developers out there who just want to make the best game they possibly can. I think when it comes down to it, 90% of the people placing their games on Kickstarter just want people to like their game, and they really want to do all that they can to make the backers feel like their investment was worth it. I can certainly see how having a game that you backed pick up a publisher could devalue the Kickstarter experience for you, but I can guarantee that 90% of the time, the developer did it because he thought it would give you a better game experience in the long run.

I guess that just about sums up my thoughts. It is certainly something that will be interesting to keep an eye on in the next couple of years, I could definitely see Kickstarter becoming a “game farm” in the future if this sort of thing continues. It seems to happen in every industry, Kickstarter is just new enough that it hasn’t become prevalent yet.

We thank TJ Lutz for his comments. So, what do you think?