Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Kickstarting inequality

I’m not a huge fan of kickstarter. There, I said it. I know that makes me unpopular. I’m not a fan for a number of reasons, but ultimately, if people are happy to fund games that way, then good luck to them. And of course, anything that serves as a kick in the vulnerables to big evil publishers will always get my vote. There are lots of reasons to like kickstarter, but those are commonly discussed. So let me lay out briefly, my reservations, and then expand on one I find never mentioned.

Kickstarter is selling dreams

Do you want to play Gratuitous Space Battles 2.0? It will be awesome. the ships will have AI the same level of intelligence as humans, and will have forty trillion polys each. They will be in 3D this time, and physics will model every atom in the universe. There will be 500 races, 10,000 ships and a trillion different modules, all of which will be balanced perfectly. it will run on a ZX81 at 60 FPS.

Yeah, I doubt that’s possible either, but when you are typing up your dreams at the start of a project, it’s very easy to get carried away. Selling dreams is a very different skill to actually building a final product. We should be rewarding people who can deliver, not who can dream. We can all name developers who can dream but not deliver. We are cynical when politicians do this, why not game developers?

Kickstarter is selling a FIXED dream

I sketched out a great game idea on my chalkboard recently, I got very excited about it, started doing a proper design doc, and half way through the design, I realized it had some fundamental flaws that meant although it *sounded good*, it wasn’t going to work as a game. I had to abandon the idea. I COULD abandon the idea, as I owed nobody anything. Nobody even knew I’d considered it as a game idea. When people fund a game, they fund a game, and although a lot of gamers will be understanding if you explain major changes, some will not. Some gamers get VERY VERY angry. This is a no-win situation, either backers get angry, or the developer sticks with what turns out to be a flawed idea.  No game I’ve ever made bares any relationship to my original design for it.

As a developer, paying me in advance could make me lazy.

When you get builders to work on your house, do you pay them the whole sum up front? I don’t. Nor do most people, because you know you aren’t going to get the job done on time that way. Always hold something back. I am quite a motivated guy, but I can see why

a lot of developers will get an extra hours sleep every morning knowing they’ve already been paid for the next years work.

Great design is not commitee design

When I worked for a certain game designer, I found him to be a single-minded megalomaniacal obsessive dictator who knew he was right. Then I ended up as sole-owner and game designer and programmer and discovered I am exactly the same, which was an interesting lesson :D I truly believe that in many cases good game design does come from single-minded, frankly arrogant people who are obsessed with their ‘vision’ and who think they are right. We’ve all seen Hollywood movie cash-ins designed by a team of scriptwriters. I am wary of the fact that with kickstarter you are basically inviting thousands of gamers to feel like they should have a seat at design meetings. They shouldn’t feel that way, but a percentage of them will. That is not good.

But there is the one which nobody seems concerned by but me:

Kickstarter is the absolute poster-child for inequality amongst gamers, based on income. Now I am definitely not a raging socialist, but I know a lot of gamers are, and I find it a bit weird that it doesn’t bug them that when these kickstarter games ship, not only will gamers with more money that them be swanning around with better outfits and weapons, (This already happens in F2P games), but some of the NPC’s will have the names of the ‘wealthy’ backers. Some will even have their digitized faces in the game. Elite is actually naming PLANETS after people who back the game with a lot of money.

Gamers say they hate in-game product placement and advertising. It compromises the game design for the sake of money. I agree. So why are we deciding that the best way to name our planets or design the appearance of our NPC’s is to put that part of game design up for auction? Why should gamers who are wealthy get more influence over a game that those who flip burgers for a living? The cold hard economic reality of the real world is bad enough without shoehorning it into games too.

Now you might say that we have always had this, recently in F2P games, but also with ‘collectors editions’ and DLC. I sell DLC myself. But I argue there is a VAST difference. To buy ALL the DLC for GSB at full price, with no bundle or discount or anything, is still easily affordable for almost any PC gamer, if you really like the game. Not so with all the top tiers of kickstarter projects. Some of them are asking for THOUSANDS of dollars. Who do you know who has a spare thousand of five thousand dollars to spend backing a game?

Years ago, it was common for bands to have ‘fan clubs’ where you could enter competitions to ‘meet the band’. Now bands sell ‘premium passes’ to wealthier fans to meet their idols backstage and have their photo taken. Anyone can get will shatner’s autograph, you just need to hand over hard cash for the ‘honor’. I don’t like this. I can imagine wanting to meet with, and shake hands with, maybe even (eek) have a beer with the people who are the biggest fans of your work. But kickstarter doesn’t do that. It hands those ‘lunch with the devs’ opportunities not to the most enthusiastic fans, but to the wealthiest.

Are you sure you agree with that?

Don’t flame me, I’m just asking the question :D If you still want to support kickstarter, I suggest backing ‘sir you are being hunted’, which looks awesome.


63 thoughts on Kickstarting inequality

  1. @Jack Smith.
    Thanks for the response, although you didn’t take the time to actually understand my point. Not surprising though – that is pretty typical of the response whenever people blinded by the dreams peddled on Kickstarter rush to its defense.

    Unlike you (I presume, based on your long rebuttal of Cliff’s post), I don’t have a stake in the success or not of Kickstarter. And obviously – it’s not my problem how you spend your money. If you guys are right, then I’m happy, as it means some good games will be made for the enjoyment of all. And if you’re not – well; the industry will recover eventually.

    I think enough warnings have been sounded. Time will tell who were right.

  2. @Michael,
    No, I understood your point exactly.

    Inasmuch as I’m blinded by dreams, you must WANT kickstarters to fail to validate your viewpoint.

  3. I think, fundamentally there may be a disconnect in perception here. Most of the developers I speak to agree with me on the ‘selling dreams’ bit, whereas most non-developer gamers disagree.
    This is because, as developers we KNOW how many projects fail. And it’s not just because of money. It’s lack-of-experience, it’s lack of motivation, it’s attempting too grandiose a project when you are not ready for it… a multitude of reasons.

    When old grizzled war-weary devs like me say “90% of indie games die off and get abandoned unfinished”, we aren’t trying to brag or be cool, that’s our conservative estimate. Most projects fail. The thing is, as a developer, you hear about the failed ones, but as a gamer, you never do.

    It’s over-optimistic to think that the existence of kickstarter funding will entirely eradicate that problem, and gamers being gamers, they are likely to react badly when it happens to a project they funded.

  4. There is a different in gamers, but when you look how much people spend on playing a game, say fancy keyboards or huge monitors just so they can get another couple of boxes or see their dwarves at near real-size, it isn’t that much out of place.

    The times when I spend the most money is when it is someone I know of but not a personal friend. Best way to get money from me is be nice to me. :) That is something that takes time but I just like helping people (see below). In these cases, I just donate to push things up because I noticed that projects that have more reported pledges usually pull in a bit more.

    Another reason is wish fullfillment. I not that great at games (only had three small ones), but I’m willing to try to help people succeed at their dreams. The rewards are… completely unimportant to me in almost every case. Yeah, it’s nice to get a little software game but I already know that I won’t get my money’s worth and I’m perfectly fine with that. The main part is that I’m giving them a chance.

    Third is Linux. :) I will throw money at someone to get more games on the platform I happen to love. I consider it money worth spending, even if I don’t get it. The same with Humble Bundle actually. I only play 1 in 4 games there, but I really like not switching operating systems to play a game.

    Ego would be the fourth. I know its minor, but I do like the little thank you twitter or seeing my name on the side of a box. It is ego, even if it is in a sea of other names, but it is a nice little endorphin rush. No one else cares and no one else is ever going to read all the names, but I still like it. I wouldn’t bother with planets, characters, or anything like that. I write novels as a hobby, if I want to name a character or a personality, I just create a new chapter. did the same thing, but it was “pay now, never see it again”. I ended up kicking into about 20 projects over there and I think only one (Cardinal Quest) actually made it out the door. Of course, there was a reason 8bit funding died, and that was because almost none of the games actually succeeded.

    Now, the things I don’t like about Kickstarter: money. Kickstarter takes a *huge* hunk of change out, on top of Amazon taking a huge chunk out for themselves. Given that, writing a check for the amount donated directly to the person would be a *far* more effective use of time, but then you don’t get the discovery mechanism that Kickstarter gives. Or the nifty deals with Amazon.

    When Aztaka had their “OMG, we’re dying” fund raiser, I gave them money directly. The same with Devil’s Whiskey (wish that game would open-source though). The same drives (people I know, Linux, and helping others succeed where I failed) got me to write a check directly.

    Overall, I budget money for this. The money goes to all different things and Kickstarter just happens to be one of them. Yeah, getting something out of it is cute, but that isn’t the main reason I’ve done it.

  5. @moonfire
    KS is about 5% and amazon is about 3%-5%
    10% worst case I don’t think is a “huge” chunk out of it. I think that’s more than fair given the services that KS provides.
    There are alternatives to KS, and many KS projects work in a way to use paypal after the funding goal is hit (using paypal allows one to bypass the KS cut).
    But anything that accepts credit cards (including paypal) is going to take out around 3%-5% and thats MINIMUM. Simply because companies like Visa charge a percentage of every transaction, and then the payment processor has to make some money too. So that part is unavoidable. If you consider that a “huge” percentage, do you use checks in all your online purchases and funding so that that charge to the merchant can be avoided?

  6. Fair enough, I shouldn’t have used asterixes and I’ll downgrade it to “noticeable”. I would still rather go direct to the developer, if I could. I also buy books directly from authors (if they self-published).

    I do use a lot of checks, but I also have a point of going to to smaller and more local businesses. Amazon always annoyed me by not having sales tax (I know they started but I also think taxes are a good thing), but I still try to make purchases local/small. I pay more, but it helps more people around me.

    I’ve only backed one projects that did PayPal after the fact (Project Eternity). Most of the others treat KS as the end of the matter.

  7. If you are in a state like california, you are suppose to submit use taxes if amazon doesn’t charge taxes.
    And places like state and federal tax authorities will always take donations.

  8. Hi Cliffski,
    I enjoyed reading your blog post, thanks for putting time in writing and sharing this. I agree to most parts. KS has both positive and negative aspects. Your opinions (opinions of an experienced professional game developer) are valuable stuff, I hope people can appreciate that instead of just simply blaming you without even reading your post carefully.

  9. Agree with BU. Cliff has years of experience in game development and he has valid points. Some people just treat opinions like tunnels, you can only go in one direction or the other. I’ve noticed this annoying trend in life of people copying the way politicians sugarcoat over the negative points that people with relevant knowledge make just because they don’t like that something might not be perfect.

  10. @Jack Smith:
    Very amusing. I like to follow the indie development business, which is why I follow Cliffski’s blog. But I really couldn’t care less whether my viewpoints on something as trivial as this are right or wrong.

    Thanks for the discussion.

  11. Cliff,
    My thoughts as below:

    It is a nature on a debatable topic to sounds a bit flammable.

    As long as we hold the true respect to others thoughts and really careful with words,
    sometimes arguments are good.

    I for one are not against you,
    You certainly have some good points in your articles, the only thing is the way (words) you present it (exaggerated pledge total, exaggerated polygons counts, commenting them totally etc) looks a bit one-sided / sarcastic and appeared not as objective / convincing even the opening slightly touch on the general benefit.

    I am thinking if you can put something like “things to consider in choosing a good project”, “how to pick a trustworthy projects” as a conclusion that will helpful to audience and balance the one-sided nature on the writing.

    Anyway, I know I am not an “english teacher”, just a sharing from my view.

  12. I think the angle at which you’re looking at it makes for easy judgement. If you place Kickstarter in a more ‘zoomed out’ view and look at what it means rather than what it is in the present, it soon looks a lot less gloomy than what you portray. It’s a living, breathing, developing beast that is asking a question that hasn’t been raised since the late 1800s. Why do we need investors?

    Rewarding people that can deliver and have proven to deliver? We already do that. It’s called investment and it utilizes all means available to drill out the risk in projects. Innovation and personality usually go out with that as well. Kind of like throwing the baby out with the bath water. And it’s been like this for well over a hundred years. The means to create products have been stuck with people who either a) have money b) can get money from investors or c) have been blessed with a government grant. The rest of us schmucks did not have a way in other than to become employed by someone already doing it. Kickstarter is helping to break the ice and empowers smaller businesses (indies) and individuals to reach consumers directly – consumers previously locked into either becoming passionate about indie projects (and thus seeking them out) or just buying Call of Duty 2013.

    As a consumer, you are in charge of your wallet and you always have been. Kickstarter isn’t charging you for looking at / researching a campaign being run on their site. You are in charge, you decide where the money goes. If you are jaded by the state of the world and don’t trust anyone that doesn’t already have a finished product with your money, don’t give it to them. It’s that simple. Other people will disagree. I will disagree. I have backed several projects already and I keep an eye out for any that I think are worth my time. I back projects by people I believe deserve the chance to make something happen but also others that are a bit more ethereal and by people I don’t know. But most of all I’m paying for the ability to see more stuff being created than before.

    And backers getting special gear, access, perks and whatnot? That’s not a problem. If it is, then surely pre-order bonuses, loyalty reward schemes and being able to import characters from a prequel are unfair as well? I believe the perks to be on the same shelf as those things and frankly, the separation between gamers with those is just as much about money as the kickstarter perks are. Gaming is a hobby and as with any hobby the guy that has the most money usually has the better equipment. Whether it’s base jumping or Warhammer 40K – parachutes or miniature armies – people with more money have the better stuff or more of it. Not saying I’m in favour of selling game-breaking items or pay-to-win monetization strategies, not at all. But I can’t say it’s not where we are headed. The word “gamers” now also includes “LAWL easymode” Fred who works stocking shelves at your local Best Buy, whether that is fortunate is up for debate. It’s certainly lucrative though.

    Not to mention that Kickstarter does not actually create, own or restrict tiers other than ridiculous or illegal stuff. It’s the choice of the creators so if you want to blame anyone, take it to them and tell them they’re doing it wrong. That their way of creating a game and handling its world and creation process is wrong. Tell them the way they’re supposed to do it and that your process is invariably better because it doesn’t sell off the names of NPCs, places or T5 raptor bicycles to the people that give the most out of their pocket. You can take issue with the idea of it all you want but I think the point you made is very thin. Just because there will be people that can’t afford something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t offer it.

    I think kickstarter, indiegogo, rockethub and all the other indie sites are helping to re-open at least a portion of the game design world. In a sector so stuck in the old ways with giants like Activision-Blizzard and EA it’s refreshing to see something so … personal actually make it to the mainstream. All I’m seeing is that more games are being created and more people with good ideas now have a venue outside of giving up their creative vision to realize those good ideas. I’m choosing not to let myself get so jaded that I would disregard the positive effects of crowdfunding just because of some arbitrary sense of ‘fairness’.

    Something being fair is a question to be discussed when you’re 16 and your dad grounds you for staying out too late three nights in a row. Or when your mom won’t give you money for the new iPhone even though Derek already got it, like, yesterday. The notion of fairness should erode fairly quickly after administering a healthy dose of adulthood.

    Caveat Emptor applies liberally to all products, prospective ones included.

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