Talking Point: The Increasing Relevance of Kickstarter
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
We speak to successful crowdfunders
Kickstarter, as regular readers of Nintendo Life have no doubt noticed, is becoming increasingly visible in the gaming media. It's not just here that the crowdfunding site is gaining a lot of web space, as increasing numbers of fundraisers begin to emerge, gain significant support and, of interest to us here, often add 3DS or Wii U targets to their campaigns. In fact, the number of crowdfunded upcoming games on the Wii U eShop, for one example, is becoming as substantial as conventionally published titles.
The increasing prevalence of Kickstarter isn't sitting well with all gamers, as is always the case with something new, and we've already tackled the "blurring lines" of fundraising goals, as we considered the case of Cloudberry Kingdom evolving from a plucky crowdfunded project to being published by games industry behemoth Ubisoft. TJ Lutz, Vice President of Pwnee Studios, kindly gave us his thoughts and said that a "number of small to medium sized publishers" use Kickstarter for "window shopping", while insisting that even with the support of a powerful publisher, his team knew that their start was from hundreds of original backers. "We know where we came from, and we’re going to remain loyal to our backers no matter what," Lutz made clear. "Without them Cloudberry Kingdom wouldn’t exist."
So Kickstarter, like any relatively new idea, is full of grey areas, great positives and worrying flaws. The scope for abuse is evident, whether publishers simply wait for the public to fund a project and then swoop at the end for a smaller investment, or there may be funded projects that aren't delivered, with the site itself making clear it won't be liable for broken promises — "All dealings are solely between Users". There can be question marks over stretch goals, too, with recent example Buddy and Me adding an additional Wii U target, enjoying a late boost — admitting Nintendo fans were "one of the biggest reasons" for that success — and hitting its original target; the Wii U threshold wasn't reached, however. For Nintendo gamers that did indulge in the risk, there's no guarantee they'll get the game on their platform of choice — not the fault of the developer, necessarily, but a pitfall of the format.
Yet there are positives, as developers can simply throw their idea and dream to a worldwide audience and, if people like it, can earn the means to develop a game that otherwise wouldn't have happened. It puts the power in the hands of development studios of all sizes and, most notably, gamers. If a project doesn't look interesting, it'll likely fail. But if the idea and early indications of solid execution are there, the game can be made without a reliance on capital investment or third-party publishers.
Whether you like the concept behind Kickstarter or not, it's not going anywhere in the near future and, if recent months are an indication, could be the source of valuable content for the 3DS and Wii U eShop stores. While we have the perspective of outsiders looking in on the workings of the crowdfunding platform — though some of our staff have dabbled and backed the occasional project — we decided to speak to those at the coal-face, to learn more about the website that's becoming an increasingly visible part of our daily content here on Nintendo Life. To do this we spoke to David Byers, the one man studio behind upcoming Wii U eShop release Another Castle, and Rob Maher, one of two men behind Rex Rocket, which has hit its funding target but only lists Wii U and 3DS as aspirations at this stage.
When it comes to the initial motivation to go the Kickstarter route, both Byers and Maher cited finances, with the latter explaining that up to now he and his partner have been working and studying while trying to develop their game, but that the funding received means they'll be "able to buckle down and focus on Rex Rocket like never before". Byers is experienced in releasing small mobile games, but producing a project on the scale of Another Castle needed money that he just didn't have. That said, he highlights the way that Kickstarter served as a big reveal, earning attention that'd otherwise be hard to achieve.
The other huge reason was to create awareness for my game. I essentially announced Another Castle with my Kickstarter campaign, and even though the game is about a year from being released a fair amount of people already know it exists. That’s half the battle when you’re an unknown indie dev.
While Kickstarter initially gained a lot of credibility — in gaming circles — with the incredible success of Double Fine Adventure in March 2012, it's taken on a whole new scale of participation. No longer an alternative for relatively established developers, its become a kind of indie marketplace. Maher leaves no doubt about his enthusiasm for the possibilities that the platform is presenting to smaller studios.
The idea of crowd funding is one of the best concepts to emerge in the past few years. The idea that an individual can present an idea to the world and have the world back them is profound — it can literally change the world. In the scope of the gaming industry, what is happening right now is the beginning of a much larger indie-dev scene for gaming.
From the perspective of Byers, his sentiments are similar, while he feels the structure of Kickstarter means that he doesn't envisage the extensive take-up of the platform to diminish in the near future. For him it's all about the limited funding period not only being a viable source of vital capital, but the continually evolving content also giving "a ton of breathing room for new projects to be discovered".
Yet with so many projects flooding the site, there's a certain inevitability that negative press and opinions will follow any projects that fall short. We've seen it within the Nintendo Life community, and there's an undeniable hesitancy for some about the crowdfunding "backer" idea and the prospect for delivery going south. Maher concedes that it'd be preferable to "somehow keep people accountable for delivering on goals", which Kickstarter does not do, while Byers fears that the minority of failures or scams will taint what has been, otherwise, an honest endeavour from many projects.
I think as long as the risks are properly communicated, which I think Kickstarter has done a good job of doing, then the criticisms of the platform as a whole are a bit overblown.
That being said I think the criticisms of certain individual projects have a lot of merit. Kickstarter seems to be fairly hands off with the projects it allows, instead letting backers decide if a project is reputable. I do worry that a few bad apples will cause some people to completely write off the platform, when it does a lot of good 99% of the time.
In the interests of balance it's worth highlighting that, though Kickstarter will have its problems, the conventional publishing model isn't a paragon of virtue in the modern era, either. While Nintendo gamers have encountered less of some of the worst modern trends — which may change with the more connected, capable Wii U — we've seen the evolution of DRM (digital rights management) that can cripple games when online connections fail, the emergence of smartphone-style micro-transactions (which seems far less appropriate when a game costs $60 in the first place) and the continuing question marks of day-one paid DLC (downloadable content) against the core content on the disc. We've also seen small developers find life hard working with publishers and closed platforms — Nintendo for its part is becoming a lot more accommodating — which explains why so many are happy to put their fate in their own crowdfunded hands.
So Kickstarter is on the scene as a counter to some of these rather "typical" practices that we know only too well. The question over its role is still open-ended, meanwhile, due to its infancy in the games industry. Byers feels that the service is only suitable for certain kinds of projects, expressing doubts that examples such as free-to-play casual games or true “AAA” titles will ever be prominent. For projects in-between, however, he argues that Kickstarter represents a valuable alternative and gives greater power to the smaller companies out there, even if it'll be unlikely to make traditional publishing practices out-of-date.
What Kickstarter does do, however, is give a ton of leverage to small teams of talented people. With the advent of digital media, publishers are becoming less and less relevant. You don’t need a publisher to get your game in the hands of customers any longer, and now Kickstarter has proven to be a viable method of raising funding to develop a game in the first place. So going forward the role of “Publisher” is in a lot of respects an outdated term for “Marketing and PR Partner”.
Does this mean publishers are going to go away and stop funding games? No. Nor should they. It just means the balance of power has shifted far more favorably to developers, and there’s no reason to take a terrible deal.
Much like its projects, Kickstarter is in its relatively early days, which has successfully popularised the not-so-new concept of crowdfunding and invaded the games industry in the process. It's not just gaming that's affected, of course, with the well-known site supporting a wide range of arts projects. In closing Maher re-iterated his belief that, in key areas, the fundraising site could be a game changer. Time will tell, but it's clear that crowdfunding is going nowhere, and we may be playing quite a few 3DS and Wii U eShop games in the future that share the same humble origins.
Kickstarter is still a new thing - a platform where someone can present their idea to the world and if it's good enough, get funded. I think it's a huge game changer when it comes to the traditional funding and publication routes, just how huge it will end up being is the question. I can definitely see this not only changing the game for games, but for many other industries as well.
We'd like to thank David Byers and Rob Maher for their time.