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Kickstarter and Innovation

Along with Ali, CEO of Logic Artists, I presided over a successful Kickstarter fundraising campaign that came to a close last week. It was a nerve-wracking undertaking, with the whole development team struggling to not let their daily routines be disrupted by the financial uncertainty of the Kickstarter campaign, and its halting, uneven progress. It took all of my accumulated community management experience from seven years with The Nameless Mod, and a few tricks from Ali’s sleeve, to pull us through. In the end I attribute our success mainly to an early, crucial show of support from our friends and family.

But if there’s one thing I believe I’ve realised from researching Kickstarter and running a crowdfunding campaign, it’s that Kickstarter doesn’t really encourage or reward innovation or risk-taking in the games industry.

You don’t have to run a campaign to get that idea, you can just look at which projects were the most successful: mainly experienced big-name game developers who seek funding to develop the kind of games they made their names with 10-20 years ago. Tim Schafer, Chris Avellone, and Josh Sawyer are some of my favourite people, I have contributed to their Kickstarters and I am excited to enjoy the results of their success, but their projects are pitched on nostalgia and are fundamentally safe investments for everyone who backs them – you know what you’ll get with these guys.

The reasons are straight-forward and though perhaps regrettable, they are understandable. Just as high-powered investors with millions of dollars to spend prefer to seek out safe investments with experienced developers doing things that a demonstrably large target audience is known to pay for, so do regular people with limited entertainment budgets prefer to buy something they know that they will enjoy.

On Kickstarter, just like anywhere else, developers are competing for attention and money. Not necessarily against each other (indeed similar Kickstarter projects often help each other out, Aterdux for example helped us by bringing our project to the attention of all their backers), but if a developer can’t immediately sell their idea to Kickstarter’s users, those users will take their disposable income elsewhere. When all the audience has to go on is a pitch, that pitch had better make it clear what kind of project is being Kickstarted, and the more traditional, the more familiar a project is, the easier it is to catch and hold people’s attention.

It’s simple enough, really. You see something you’ve never seen before, there’s no guarantee that you’ll even remotely enjoy it. You see a game concept with obvious similarities to other games that you’ve enjoyed in the past, you’ll be more likely to take an active interest. Few people enjoy originality for its own sake, let alone enough to pay for it.

We are no different of course. Though I maintain that our game has many novel, unique, and decidedly modern qualities and features, we’ve mainly sold it based on its old-school sensibilities and its similarities to games that were popular in the late 90′s. Those aren’t empty promises, the game has in many ways been born out of very old design principles, but we’ve put a lot of effort into remixing the old formulas to create something new, something that straddles established genres in a way that fits the premise of the game (exploring Central America as a Spanish Conquistador). It’s simply a question of which parts of the game to focus on in the pitch, and we have no doubt that focusing on the game’s old-school characteristics served us well.

It’s a shame in many ways, because it was my impression that the point of crowdfunding was to circumvent the conservative and risk-averse mainstream games industry in order to fund small, quirky, experimental projects by unproven teams. Some such projects are getting funded, and I don’t think that’s going to change, but the big success stories of Kickstarter reflect the mainstream games industry quite well: promise people something they’ve had before, something they know they’ll like because they liked it last time they tried it, and you will get their money.

All of this is not something to begrudge anybody, if anything it only serves to justify the risk-averse investments of the mainstream. However, I do think that in the future, the demands of gamers for more original and innovative games will ring a little more hollow in my ears :)

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3 Responses

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  1. Bob says

    It’s been interesting and educational for me following the progress of your Kickstarter project. There were quite a number of pledgers who liked the game’s genre but seemed excited by Logic Artists innovation. I don’t know that those generous souls would have got you to the finish line without the early support of your family and friends, some of which must have been pretty damn generous themselves.

    I think that being as proactive as you were played no small part as well. I suppose it’s human nature to go for tried and true where money is concerned, but how will the discovery of the “next big thing” come about without a gamble on peoples skill
    and ideas?

  2. adrian says

    I think Kickstarter wonderfully mirrors what large parts of the videogames industry itself are like. The mainstream market, with the rise of the pre-orders, also seems to shift into the direction of getting your intended customers to help fund development, instead of waiting until you have a product that to show off. Kickstarter just takes this one step further and asks people to buy a pitch, with the promise of turning that into a product if / when the funding goal is hit.

    With that background, I’m actually impressed by how much support successful Kickstarters have gained, because funding a pitch seems a riskier investment to me than buying a game that’s finished, where there’s reviews, a demo or something more tangible to go on.

    So it seems more as if the risk-averseness is connected to the content and design of the game, not the process or when people opt to pay. There’s apparently a gap between liking the fact that people come up with ideas that can somehow be considered innovative and actually investing money in innovative ideas. I’d say that’s why you can see this contradiction of both developers and gamers who’ll claim they’d really, absolutely love to see something weird and impressive gain traction, but actually invest in “familiar concept with one or two modern sensibilities to it ’cause we can’t exactly pretend it still is 1999″-type concepts instead.

    I’d also say, though, it’s complicated by the quality of the game that comes out of the process. Especially if a game’s concept or design is familiar, I don’t think a lot of people want to play another iteration if it’s done poorly. Likewise, just the fact that a project may have innovative ideas isn’t worth much if it doesn’t (or hasn’t) produced a game that will interest and entertain “enough” people in the long run.

    So I’m expecting we’d only see “more innovation” if there were more game designers who’d be able to treat their work as art for the sake of creating art, instead of looking at it as an economically viable / valuable career. Which I’d argue is not that likely to happen massively.

  3. Daniel "Darklord" King says

    Just stumbled upon this and it was a very interesting read, you could see this wasn’t your average project due the size of the pledges per backers, you have very generous friends and family! I really hope this pays off for you, and after playing the early build of the game I’m convinced it will. :-)

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