What Kickstarter taught us about game development

A few days ago, John Lindvay1 tweeted something about Kickstarter that I found very interesting.

Kickstarter, the most well-known crowd funding site has, in a way, changed the video game industry forever. Allowing people to give a chance, and a few coins, to a project they believe in gave small and big games a chance to be released. Of course Kickstarter, as almost every other crowd funding website, is not only about video games. But after some highlights made by game developers receiving a gigantic pile of gold, today, for almost everyone, it is THE crowd funding site for video games.

After hundreds of funded game projects, what does Kickstarter tell us about video game development?

Game devs are humans

First of all, it has offered, along the way, a real new kind of visibility to small teams wanting to make games without starving. And it worked. People, thanks to Kickstarter, have discovered tons of new potential games, genres and teams. The frontier between the game developers and the gamers (also known as “the gate of hell” or “the marketplace”) has exploded. This new direct connection established between gamers and developers has given a human face to game makers. No more are they dark companies or logos displayed for a few seconds at the begining of a game; they are regular human beings.

The fact that game developers now wear a human being costume gives gamers a new proximity: a direct access to them. From human to human. They can see who’s behind the game they want to play to, and sometimes, when they give more money, they can have the power to immediately change the game content. From being a passive gamer to being a real actor. What an incredible power for game lovers!

It’s hard to make a game

Being almost part of the team also implies that people can see how hard it is to make games. If the supported team is clear and frank enough with its backers, they can see how long the road to release can be. Some teams, even with a huge amount of money, don’t manage to release the game they have planned and are forced to re-scope it. Other teams don’t even release the game they promised at all. Gamers are now in a position where they can understand the cold truth of video game development. Something that was not hidden during past years, but it was something hard to believe when the final product you are waiting for is all about entertainment and fun little avatars dressed in flashy colors. In the end, video game development could maybe not be an easy activity.

Money is everything

With Kickstarter everybody has understood that gamers’ trust can be worth a lot. A lot of love, of course, but also a lot of money. Traditionnaly this money would have come from industry professionals such as investors or publishers.

These professionals are used to fund games, so they often2 want to have some control on them. Either on lowering the amount of money given to the development team, despite what they actually need, either on having strict opinion on the concept or even the game design.

Now, people supporting a project can ask for features, or tell the developers what they’d love to see in the game, but in no case can they interfer with what the developers have planed to do at first. Except if they don’t give enough money to fund the project of course.

Putting gamers in control of what they want to play to simply cuts the old chain of command developers were used to. Power is going back to people who enjoy the games, not the ones who used to enjoy the money.

Everything is perfect

Everything is so perfect now Kickstarter exists. Game developers just have to submit their projects there to get enough money to make the game they always have dreamt to do.

Wait a minute…

Because Kickstarter has drawn so much attention, a lot of teams want to grab some coins from it. Starting a campaign has become a very competitive activity. Hundreds of starving people, famous or unknown, trying to attract gamers attention and wallet. Can you imagine the challenge? As if making a game wasn’t hard enough, making a succesful campaign adds some difficulties on the way.

In people minds, if you sell your game at a reasonnable price (let’s say $10) it’s because it was not that expensive to make. Smartphone marketplaces (yes Apple I’m looking at you), have, in a way, encouraged people to believe that an expensive game price is about $3. So when a team asks for $200.000 to make a game, people find it expensive. Now that teams have a human face, gamers tend to identify them as one or two people. $200K is a lot of money for one or two people. Sadly, in Kickstarter campaign videos, developers don’t often talk about WHY they need so much money. This information is usually at the bottom of the campaign description page, where only few people go. But there, they would find and understand that making a game is expensive. Engines are expensive. Hiring people is expensive. Communication and marketing are expensive. Localisation is expensive. Campaign rewards are expensive. Well… you get it.

What about the real cost of game making?

When an unknown, but talented, game developer wants to start a Kickstarter campaign she usually looks at what others did. Analysing what worked and what failed can help to make something successful. And when she finds that famous developers, well known and respected, asked for half of what she needs, she start wondering WHY people would trust her and her awesome project.

Sadly, she is right. Why would people trust her when FAMOUS_TEAM_NAME doesn’t ask for so much to do better?

As everything on Kickstarter is based on promises, which are very friable foundations, it requires game developers to give a little bit more than just promises. It’s not about having a good idea anymore. It’s about having a great video, a solid game design, a complete team with a solid background, a playable demo of the game, a lot of followers on twitter to relay the message… etc.

Guess what? This is the fun part of the story. The very awesome and open nature of Kickstarter, where every good idea could be transformed in a concrete game, slowly transformed the site in an over crowded competitive place.

Developers want to be visible in order to exist. They need to attract gamers in order to have a chance to get some money from them. They need to be seen as credible. So they often reduce the amount of money they ask to look like they have an almost finished project or an over competitive game. They also often tend to reduce the estimated deadlines. Sometimes by inexperience, but often to just let gamers feel like the game will be out soon. That it’s almost there. That it’s real… credible. Inconsciously waiting for Internet to be amazed by how cool the game is and how low the financial bar has been set. Hoping, in secret, to get more than asked because they know they won’t survive without more.

When Double Fine started the Double Fine adventure (now known as Broken Age) asking for $400.000 for a game AND a making-of video I was very intrigued. I don’t know people working at Double Fine, but I feel like if the campaign would have ended with $400.001 at the counter, either the game or the video would have never existed3.

I know several teams who asked low in the hope to get high. Sometimes it worked, some other times it didn’t.

The decision to ask under the needs added to the crowd growing very fast and the disappointment of funded projects failure might also explain the decline of the total amount of money pledged in 2014 compared to 2013. Thomas Bidaux reports that if the amount of money pledged during 2014 second half is similar to first half, 2014 total amount of money promised to projects will be $30 Millions less than 2013 for only 100 project less.

Bad news: Kickstarter’ golden age seems to be over now.

In the end

Kickstarter has done a lot for gamers and developers. It has mainly redefined the proximity developers and gamers could have. But it, sometimes, tend to bias the perception of the reality of game development.

I sadly feel like the popularity of Kickstarter is slowly killing the awesome possibilities it has once offered.

  1. If you don’t know who John is, I suggest you to turn the volume up and go to bigsushi.fm right now! Bigsushi is, without a doubt, the best podcast about video game development. If you’re a gamer eager to listen to what developers have to say, or if you’re a developer wanting to learn how other teams make games, it’s the place to go.

  2. Please note the use of the adverb “often”. Publishers are not all the same, and they don’t always only think in terms of money.

  3. Even if I imagine that Double Fine is a company with a little bit of cash, I don’t think they had enough, even with the campaign money, to make what they promised to make.

Liked this? Want more? Tell me!