The Emotional Investment Behind Crowdfunding May Be Hurting the Scene

Ever since Double Fine's Adventure game Kickstarter, crowdfunding has meant a lot to a lot of small developers or under loved ideas. It's given a lot of games a chance to exist where many would have never seen the light of day, and many people have been more than willing to give games a chance to go from idea to product through things like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and now Fig. It's been over three years now since Double Fine's Adventure game Kickstarter and we've been feeling the side of effects of crowdfunding for a while. At first there was a gold rush of people trying to take advantage of crowd funding, believing that by getting popular interest they could fund any of their heart's desires. A lot of kickstarters from this time were laughable flights of fancy but plenty of projects still got funded and eventually shipped, and now it almost feels like we're living in a post crowdfunded world as the average user has become acclimated to the Kickstarter cycle, unfortunately it seems that for a lot of people the final step in that cycle is dissapointment or cynicism.

I will preface this with what I'm about to write is mostly gathered from viewing popular responses from social media or other interactions with people over a long period of time so I'm not going to give sources out of "so and so's" twitter comments and many of the opinions could have arisen from the circles of people I often find myself in online and could be highly subjective.

Back to Double Fine's initial Kickstarter, the project's funding goal was for $400,000 but the project managed to bring over eight times that amount, a sum of over $3.3 million. For most people this seemed like a fabulous sum of money, after all $3 million is a lot, but is it a lot for games? Since then crowdfunding success stories have had similar circumstances, they're goals have been set at a couple hundred thousand dollars and they end up reaching into a few million dollars (see Torment Tides of Numenera Goal: $900,000, Received: ~$4.2 million. Homestuck Adventure Game Goal: $700,000, Recieved: ~$2.5 million.) and while these are great triumphs for the communities that want to fund these games, they still pale in comparison to the funding of actual titles with full investor backing. A few years ago Minecraft developer Markus "Notch" Persson half remarked that he would fund Psychonauts 2 before finding out that the first Psychonauts had a budget of about $18 million, and now here we are in 2015 and the Fig campaign for Psychonauts 2 has a goal of $3.3 million, the same amount of money the Kickstarter campaign that would become Broken Age accumulated.

While $3.3 million is still slightly more realistic, given that Fig's nature suggests that following the campaign the game will be more likely to see investor backing, it leads fans and followers to ask the question "Why is this campaign so damn expensive?" The simple answer is that since the beginning of popularized crowdfunding game developers have been low balling their production costs in hope of being able to make anything. Kickstarter only gives the campaign the money pledged if it meets its goal, so it's better to aim low in case of making literally anything than put the entire brunt of planned development costs onto the fanbase in fear of scaring them away. This has unfortunately lead to the issue of people becoming used to the funding goals attached to crowdfunding campaigns, after all $3 million is a lot of money why can't it make a game? The issue there is that even if you spent literally every cent of the funding campaign on paying your development team it would leave no money behind for publicity campaigns, community oversight, quality assurance, employee coverage, and manufacturing and distribution. So a lot of times the campaign goes far beyond the backer's expectations and this causes the backer to come to a certain logical outcome, if the game got ten times it's funding goal it should be ten times better right? Unfortunately there's not really any metric from idea to fulfillment that makes a game objectively "better" the only thing it suggests is the game in question might actually exist one day. This then leads to the game coming out, and regardless of the game's quality there will often be some air of dissapointment from backers.

Ever since Broken age's release the most common sentiment found among that player base was the frustation it was released over two acts, people who played the game viewing it as a cash grab and a failure on Double Fine's behalf. Since Double Fine's first Kickstarter, they had another as well, that of Massive Chalice, and while it was not as much of a success it still managed to break $1.2 million in backer pledges. Massive Chalice was viewed as a decent game by critics but the fan reception was not as positive, some fans enjoyed it but it's noticeable from the game's steam page and Metacritic user reviews that some players feel fleeced. Most games released post their Kickstarter campaigns meet critical reception fitting games of their funding tier, small games designed for niche audiences, it feels like only a few video games have come out of Kickstarter to become rousing success stories, most of which I personally didn't know about until they were out. (games like FTL and Undertale come to mind, FTL making only $200,000 and Undertale making about $54,000). Feels like anytime a game with an enthused backer crowd from a crowdfunding campaign comes out there's always a certain cloud following in its wake, the portion of the game's backers who feel slighted by the final product.

I'm going to suggest my own theory, it's something I felt back when I still gave to crowdfunding campaigns, people who help fund games feel like their a part of it in a special way, like they believed in it from the start and in some way want to repaid for their gratitude. Now it's pretty obvious that if someone puts their money into a project they should be given whatever the campaign promised them for that sum of money, but sometimes it seems like the desired recompense is also on an emotional level. Players want the game they funded to be the best, they want it to be something impressive, they want to point at it when everyone else loves it and say "I was a small part of that, that exists in the way it does because I opened my wallet and let it be so." I also remember having small fantasies after funding games on Kickstarter, that they would be critically reviewed, that the game that fit my niche view would be taken seriously and loved leading to more games like it, that I could go to my friend's house and they would tell me about this new game and I would be able to point out my name in the credits, stuff like that. Given thoughts like that are pretty clearly fantastical and I never put any responsibility on the developer to make them happen, but it's not hard to imagine that some people could put a similar emotional weight on their investments. Imagine the people online who would always talk about old adventure games coming back, now imagine them backing Broken Age, waiting through the whole development cycle, getting the game and not liking it, and now they put that same enthusiasm they used for lifting up their favorite old genre into putting down what they viewed as Double Fine's "failed attempt" to do good by them, it creates a small but very vocal minority with a grudge against a very particular game, which is a lot of bad word of mouth for one game to have. A similar thing happens for people who are fans of franchises that have been around for a multiple releases, they feel like they were there from the start, they gave the game a chance when no one else did, and for that the developers should consider their investment in the series, and then when a new game comes out that doesn't meet their expectations you have a portion of the audience immediately available to start spreading negative word of mouth about the game. Given with crowdfunding it's less what the players were used to getting and more what they imagined they would get.

Crowdfunding also places more visibility on projects, plenty of games get cancelled after having large investments poured into them but investors do this frequently, with often with these risks in mind, players on the other hand are not prepared to accept that their pledges are gambles. If a company cancels a game that was in an internal testing state maybe no one will hear about it, if a company cancels a game in Kickstarter, or even if it gets delayed severely, backers will know about it and be ready to call out the company in question as if they were the only ones to ever mess up a project.

So much of player's purchasing decisions rely on word of mouth and user reviews, public opinion is readily available before purchasing games on steam and the most likely people to recommend games are the passionate ones, and as we all know passion can turn against creators quickly. Not all backers for gamers are irresponsible with their expectations, but it's become pretty obvious over the last few years that most people don't know how much games cost to make, and admittedly they shouldn't have to, not everyone wants to know how the sausage gets made, but crowdfunding puts people in the shoes of investors, it takes something that was once grounded a business decision and makes it very personal. This personal investment is crucial to this cycle, it allows games for these interests and licenses to exist, but it comes with consequences, when people are offered a chance to help make the game of their dreams, they don't realize they are just taking part in a song and dance that has happened behind the scenes for decades.

I don't want to dissuade people from crowdfunding games they want to see get made, and I don't think anyone should accept a game to be in poor condition just because they helped fund it. There's every chance that this cycle of dissatisfaction has overall had no impact on the sale of Kickstarted games, I just want to dissuade people from vilifying developers just because a Kickstarter didn't meet a certain hope for the product, and I want hopes for those products to be reasonable. I've personally stopped crowdfunding most things because I no longer felt satisfied with the whole routine and decided to just wait to get the games when they came out, and in a way I think that helped me enjoy games like FTL, Massive Chalice, and Broken Age for what they were. You have every right to lose trust in a developer but developers like Tim Schaefer are not monsters just because the realities of crowdfunding don't meet your expectations.

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