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