The Devil’s Advocate: In Defense of Crowdfunding
As stated in my previous Devil’s Advocate article, a strong and well-considered argument should, first and foremost, give honest consideration to any opposing standpoints. By understanding opposing views, we can reinforce our own views while arming ourselves with the ability to tackle opposing arguments. That is the purpose of The Devil’s Advocate. In these articles, I will take what is considered to be an unpopular position on a contentious issue in the games industry and argue in favor of it.
The views in this article are not necessarily my own personal views, or the views of Exclusively Games. Rather, this is an attempt to argue in favor of the counterpoint, a common technique in developing debating skills.
Now, on to the issue at hand:
Crowdfunding, if you weren’t already aware, is the process of funding a project by raising small amounts of money from large amounts of people. This is relatively popular among game developers, particularly independent studios without the financial backing of large publishers. “Backers,” who support the project during its initial development phase, are often promised additional rewards on the game’s eventual release–special in-game items, physical content, or a mention in the game’s credits.
One major criticism of crowdfunding has been that it normalizes the “preorder” culture–giving a developer your money before they have released anything means they have no incentive for ensuring they deliver what they have promised. At least, that is the predominant myth. In actual fact, crowdfunding is far more complex than that, and its positive contribution to the games industry has far outweighed the negatives.
Kickstarter and the Rise of Crowdfunding
Crowdfunding really rose to prominence in the early 2010s with the appearance of Kickstarter. This period also coincided with the rising stagnation of the AAA industry–games were perpetually failing to meet expectations, were riddled with microtransactions, and even if they were successful, often lacked any real sense of imaginative or creative risk. While the indie scene was fighting its own battle against the AAA scene, they were somewhat limited by their indie budgets. By sourcing small amounts of money from a large amount of fans, crowdfunding gave independent developers the access to AAA budgets.
So what’s the problem? Well, this essentially appeared to be an elaborate preorder scheme. And unlike AAA studios, these small developers could, in theory, cut and run with your money, leaving you with unfinished trash. At least, that’s what the crowdfunding detractors want you to think.
Everyone is an Investor
One of the underpinning aspects of the modern games industry is the concept of investment. Publishers invest on a large scale and commit millions to developers in the hopes that the developers come up with the goods. Sometimes they get it wrong, and they lose their money. A “good” investor is simply one that make fewer bad decisions than good ones. Crowdfunding is much more than “preordering;” it is distributed investment. You, as the investor, have the freedom to make good–or bad–investments.
Let’s put this in context by transposing it to a different scenario. Some guy named Nigel, who smells of old socks and is surrounded by a cloud of flies, appears out of nowhere in the hospitality scene and opens a restaurant, promising an incredible fine dining experience with an endless supply of the finest wine and the best eye fillet steak you’ve ever had. He’s asking you to book your $300 per person table now, and if you do, you’ll get a 30-year-old single malt whisky as a reward for booking ahead. When you arrive on opening night, you discover his restaurant is located inside a shipping container down an alley in the dodgy part of town; the steak is overcooked and cold, wine has been downgraded to a cheap cask wine due to “unexpected supplier issues,” and to top it off, you get food poisoning. Oh, and twelve months later, you still haven’t got your single malt whisky.
Now, do you blame prebooked tickets for this situation? Of course not. You only have yourself to blame. All the warning signs were there from the start–the mysterious and dodgy chef, the bad smell, the outlandish promises.
Even without obvious warning signs, backing a crowdfunding project can be a risky endeavor. But that’s just part of the risk. When it works, the payoff can be fantastic–Pillars of Eternity, Kentucky Route Zero, Elite: Dangerous and Divinity: Original Sin. These are games that may never have existed without crowdfunding, and their success contributed to the revival or resurgence of their respective genres.
And when it goes wrong? The internet is a small place, and if a developer’s project goes sour, their reputation will rapidly deteriorate, which should be an instant red flag to any future projects. As with all investment, the investor has a certain degree of responsibility to research where their money is going before they spend it.
The same goes for crowdfunding platforms. Kickstarter is the big one, but there is also Fig, Indiegogo, and plenty of others–they don’t all have the same policies on what happens with your money, so before backing a project, make sure you know how much risk you’re exposing yourself to.
*cough* Star Citizen *cough*
Okay, so let’s talk about Star Citizen, the crowdfunding giant that has (at the time of writing) surpassed $250 million in pledges since 2012 and still isn’t finished. While there is a fairly impressive alpha release available to backers, it is still nowhere near the end goal.
Firstly, refer to the previous section. If you had spent some time researching Chris Roberts’ previous projects, you probably would have noticed a couple red flags–a penchant for hype, overshooting budgets, and ditching projects before completion.
That said, the Star Citizen saga might still be ongoing, but what it did show the industry was that there is a lot of appetite for this type of game. Even though Star Citizen hasn’t released, other games like Elite: Dangerous, No Man’s Sky, X4: Foundations and Everspace appeared in the interim.
This is the other big benefit of crowdfunding, previously hinted at. Crowdfunding can reignite interest in a forgotten series or genre. The “space trading and combat,” or freeform spacesim, is one example, but crowdfunding also played a critical role in reigniting interest in the point-and-click adventure genre, the isometric RPG, the dungeon-crawler RPG (or “blobber”) and led to a huge surge in new platformers.
In my mind, the greatest benefit of crowdfunding is the creative freedom that it gives to developers. By cutting out the middle-man with the money (the publisher), and establishing a direct link between creator and consumer, game developers have nearly total creative freedom in what they want to make. As long as a developer is able to sell their idea to enough people to fund their project, then they are free to make whatever they want, and they don’t have “The Man” breathing down their neck, telling them that they should add or remove certain features (namely microtransactions).
When you stop thinking about crowdfunding as “preordering,” and start thinking about it as your personal investment in the games industry, then the benefits are obvious. You just need to do your research. Crowdfunding has leveled the playing field for developers, potentially giving them access to budgets that independent developers in the past could only have dreamed of. While the AAA-industry flounders and continues to disappoint, crowdfunded independent developers are spearheading an independent gaming golden age.
In about 1989, Gavin Annand played his first games on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Thus, began a lifetime obsession with games. A gaming addict or connoisseur, depending on your perspective.