Using Kickstarter to fund indie games

This post was prompted by a Twitter exchange with Cliff Harris (@cliffski), owner of Positech Games and creator of games such as Gratuitous Space Battles and Democracy 3. Cliff’s initial tweets (below) pointed out that Kickstarter might not be as useful to game developers as it seems.

In the ensuing replies, @RyanSumo and @TylerMatchett both pointed out that an advantage of Kickstarter is the additional exposure and traffic that Kickstarter can provide to new developers who don’t have an established fanbase.

It also caused me to consider some of the issues around trust in relation to funding a game from the concept stage. There are three basic outcomes that I believe people are worried about in this regard.

Scams A quick investigation into Kickstarter’s project history shows that there have been a number of scams. Intuitively, it feels like handing money directly to an unknown game developer is an even riskier proposition. If a Kickstarter project is identified as a scam then you can cancel your payment and your money isn’t lost. On the other hand, if you have directly given money to a developer and then realise that they never intended to deliver, your money is simply gone.

Failed projects However, the above may not be as useful a safety net as it first seems. Anyone who has used Kickstarter in the past knows that there are a large number of projects that seem legitimate and are successfully funded but then never get off the ground because either i) they were well-disguised scams, ii) the developer didn’t realise the size of the task they had set themselves, or iii) other life problems interfered with development. This is going to be a problem with either funding method (Kickstarter or direct).

Projects in limbo Finally, a factor in favour of Kickstarter is that the money is only paid to the developer if it reaches the specified threshold. This is reassuring to the funders as it means that their money is only taken if the developer is reasonably sure they have enough to deliver a product. If you’re supporting a project via direct donations then what happens if there are very few donations? The developer may say “sorry, the project isn’t going anywhere” and refund the donations (minus fees most likely), or the project might simply absorb your money and be perpetually stuck in limbo waiting for more. While Cliff points out that “Anyone paying money for a game still at the concept stage is basically gambling anyway”, it is natural to seek ways minimise the chance that you will sustain losses.

Counting up the above, it seems that so far we have two points in favour of Kickstarter and one point that doesn’t go either way. This is all in terms of new developers, however. Unknown people/companies are the ones that are most likely to be running a scam or not to realise that a project is too large for them to handle. They are also the ones (due to lack of exposure or existing community) that may struggle to reach their funding goals. As @RyanSumo and @TylerMatchett pointed out, these new developers are likely to be ones that will benefit the most from the exposure provided by Kickstarter and the implicit level of trust offered to nervous donators (even if some people consider the trust to be unfounded).

The situation becomes less clear when we consider a developer that already has several games under their belt (particularly if previously funded by Kickstarter). In this situation, the developer themselves, rather than Kickstarter, are providing the assurance that the funding will be appropriately used. Now that trust has been largely removed from the equation, the remaining benefits to using Kickstarter appear to be soley targetted at the developer and not the people funding them:

Convenience Rather than setting up a site with a development blog, forums, and payment handling facilities, the existing features of Kickstarter can be used. However, once a developer has reached the point of having a number of games released and having built a community around them, it must be assumed that they have already built sites with the first two features and that they have an existing payment processor that they can use to accept donations.

Exposure Kickstarter may still be capable of showing the project to a wider audience. However, indie developers do talk to each other and seem quite happy in many cases to point people to other developers’ games that they think would appeal to their own community. Indie sales aren’t (exactly) a zero-sum game, so sales made by one developer don’t translate into a loss of sales by another developer.

User perception When people fund a project on Kickstarter, they are aware that they are providing money in order to allow a product to be produced, and in return are being provided with certain perks. When people provide money directly to a developer they may feel that they are pre-ordering the final product. This is a different mindset that can result in very different reactions. For example, if the final product is sold for less than the “standard” donation level, people may feel that they were ripped off and should have waited until release (despite the fact that the release may never have occurred without the funding). The backlash from this can be significant, particularly if the game goes on sale or appears in a bundle soon after release. As ever, being very clear and upfront about what the donator will receive and the guarantees (or lack thereof) that are provided will, in most cases, make for a better reception all round.

In conclusion, and entirely as a subjective opinion by me, there is no definite answer to whether Kickstarter is the right platform for funding indie game development. For new developers there are certain advantages in terms of trust and exposure that they may not be able to provide by themselves. However, for established developers that have built a community, the advantages are less clear and center mainly around reducing the effort that the developer must put in to creating a web presence for the game. The disadvantages, on the other hand, are clear as pointed out by Cliff in his original tweets: i) handing control of your web presence over to Kickstarter and ii) paying the fees imposed by Kickstarter. Furthermore, I would point out that if you don’t want to go to the effort of creating a “real” web presence for your game, then that may be an indicator that you should take a good look at why you’re hedging your bets.

As I mentioned previously this is entirely my own opinion. Also, it didn’t end up quite as structured as I would like (it started as somewhat of a brain dump). I am very open to discussion on this topic, but bear in mind that I’m coming from it as somewhat of an outsider—I’m not a game developer, I’m just someone that donates to projects on Kickstarter occasionally and found this topic interesting.

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