Opinion – Funding Kickstarters Is A Gamble, So Stop Making Bad Bets

by Mike Futter on Jul 31, 2015 at 11:45 AM

Back in 2013, I wrote a brief set of best practices suggestions for project managers considering a run at Kickstarter funding. Since then, much has changed, and the advice I have to offer today is a bit more pointed.

This story was originally published on February 18, 2015.

We’ve seen a number of well-run campaigns, and it’s important to note that Kickstarter as a funding concept isn’t bad. It isn’t the wrong way to approach things, and it certainly shouldn’t be dismissed outright.

Unfortunately, Kickstarter has become a crutch for some and an idea factory for too many. Those that have working game prototypes, thorough contingency plans, and a realistic grasp of what stretch goals mean for inherent risk in a project are often buried in an avalanche of detritus.

For every success, like those enjoyed by Shadowrun Returns developer Harebrained Schemes and Wasteland 2 studio inXile, there are plenty that don’t make goal and, worse, fail after successful funding campaigns. Even if studios do manage to make good, there are often problems along the way.

For instance, Double Fine has yet to fully deliver on Broken Age (Note: this opinion piece was originally published in February 2015, and Double Fine has since shipped the second half of Broken Age). Originally due in late 2012, the project was delayed because of enormous stretch goals, ran short on money, and has only been delivered in part. It’s been an entire year since the first half of the game was released, and even that was over a year late.

Peter Molyneux's Godus, which drew our attention back last week, has failed to implement crucial systems well past the promised date. Molyneux admits to mistakes and talked to us about some of the technical challenges. Unfortunately, lost in the midst was the biggest commitment, made to a young man who was promised wealth and in-game power.

Beyond studios that find themselves in development purgatory, some just walk away without communication. The state of Washington has started to get tough on deadbeat Kickstarter managers, suing a company that failed to deliver custom playing cards (a campaign that raised $25,000).

The latest red flag should have been waved more than 18 months ago. Reports have surfaced that a game called The Stomping Land, which already faced problems with Steam when it was removed in September 2014 after developer communication ceased (later reinstated), is dead in the water. PC Gamer reports that the modeler on the title, Vlad Konstantinov, has moved on after even he has been given the silent treatment from developer Alex “Jig” Fundora. Some backers are requesting refunds on the Kickstarter page, while others are keeping hope alive. But the bigger problem isn’t that The Stomping Land is having problems and, by all indications, is likely dead. It’s that a naive project manager put forward a thin project like this and that people chose to back it without understanding the financial realities of business.

I’m not talking about the business of making games. I’m talking about business in general.

This campaign started with a request for $20,000. That should have been a non-starter right there. Let’s assume that Fundora had simply reached his goal. The $20,000 in backer funding would still have had to:

  • Produce the game
  • Create “the Dinosaur Survival Guide, the official handbook of The Stomping Land”
  • Produce enough softcover copies for backers at the $35 level or higher (smaller volumes don’t necessarily mean lower cost, as per unit cost increases in short runs)
  • Produce enough hardcover copies for backers at the $400 level or higher
  • Ship those copies

At $20,000, it’s unreasonable to think that Fundora could accomplish all this. He certainly couldn’t have subsisted exclusively on these funds and work on the title full-time in order to deliver it in the promised nine months. Even at $114,000 in funding (some of which was promised to go to part-time developers once the $75,000 benchmark was achieved), the numbers simply do not work. This project would have been a miracle had it been delivered on time, along with all backer rewards, as committed.

The entirety of the “Risks and Challenges” section of the proposal reads as follows:

This may be our first independently made game, but the abundance of challenges that come with it are no new experience. All of us come from professional backgrounds, and the process of overcoming the inevitable challenges is just as rewarding as the end product.

The game's progress will be very connected to the community through the forums, where ideas and the challenges behind them are shared.

Nowhere in the campaign pitch will you find Fundora’s bona fides beyond having credits on Skyrim and Dungeon Defenders. No specific roles are mentioned. Investigation reveals that for Skyrim, he received a “special thanks” credit. On Dungeon Defenders, he is at least noted as “lead animator.” 

What is apparent though, is that Fundora doesn’t have any stated background that would lead any reasonable person to think he could accomplish the goal of creating an open-world, multiplayer game single-handedly.

It’s time project managers and interested backers get realistic about what it takes to accomplish something like what The Stomping Land was supposed to be. “Kickstarter isn’t a store,” as the platform is fond of saying. You’re not pre-ordering a game and waiting for it to ship. You’re making a (hopefully educated) guess about whether a project manager can deliver the goods.

When situations like this happen, that drum needs to be beaten loudly. It is not enough to drop your $15, $50, or $500 and just expect that everything will work out. Backers absolutely must do their research. Look at all of the tiers, even the ones you’d never consider funding. Are the items being promised feasible? Are you confident that removing their costs from the goal amount would still yield the project that’s promised? If not, ask the project manager. Push the team on its budget and get the answers you want. And if the person or people running the campaign don’t answer to your satisfaction? Walk away. You’ll be giving up the backer-only rewards, but if the project does reach fruition, you can always buy it later. If it flops after reaching goal? You can breathe a sigh of relief that your money is safe in your pocket (or with another project manager that was able to respond satisfactorily).

If a project manager can’t fulfill their obligation to deliver on his or her promises, you can request a refund. The chances of getting one are slim, and in the case of something like The Stomping Land in which the developer has gone to ground, you can probably kiss that money goodbye.

I’m not suggesting that Kickstarter fans give up on crowdfunding. There are still great projects hitting the platform every day. Just be smarter. Investigate the background of those involved (something that should be front and center in all campaigns). Ask questions about reward tier costs. If the media covers a campaign, read up. If you can’t get the project manger to respond (a red flag) ask that writer questions, as they might have an easier path to access.

Even if you do your due diligence, red flags may start to fly after a campaign closes. What matters then is how project managers handle the inevitable bumps in development and communicate with the community. However, if you put aside the excitement of what a project could be and investigate critically, you may just see them working their way up the flagpole before it’s too late to cancel your pledge and save yourself frustration down the road.

This call for backer due diligence doesn't exist separately from the transparency and honesty we should expect from project managers. In fact, even with both of these elements in place, there is always room for things to go wrong. Research and investigation will give you peace of mind and protect you, but there in the realm of crowdfunding there are no guarantees.

This isn't intended to warn interested parties away from the concept. Don’t give up on crowdfunding if that’s something you enjoy. Just be smart in how you engage in it.