I’m on a Kickstarter page, watching a video. Jordan Weisman, creator of Shadow Run, Hero Clix, and ex-designer for FASA Corp, walks out of an elevator. He’s talking congenially into his cellphone wearing a button down shirt and jeans. He’s got his french cuffs rolled back just once, but not buttoned. His hair is long, and he’s sporting a beard. It’s the uniform of the “silicon valley” executives. Relaxed, down to earth, educated, creative, rich. The conversation is wrapping up. “Hey Tim, thanks for the idea!” Click. Turn to face camera. Begin sales pitch.
I click to a related project, and start another video. Al Lowe is sitting at a folding table in a garage. A TV sits on an old Amiga computer system. He’s typing away on it with a series of satisfying clicks. His giant red hawaiian shirt hangs down over, you guessed it, blue jeans. He’s sporting a grizzled beard not unlike Weisman’s. He introduces himself after noticing the camera. “Oh hi! I’m legendary adventure game designer Tim…uh…I mean Al Lowe!” He walks to a series of doors, cracks a boob joke, and then heads through a door entitled “Memory Lane.” He wants to remind you of what he’s done, his credibility being the main currency he’s going to trade for a half million dollars. “Let’s take a look back at those days, before I hit ya’ up for cash.” I’m starting to see a pattern here, but it didn’t start with Al Lowe or Jordan Weisman.
Let’s take a look back at those days, before I hit ya’ up for cash.
Enter Tim Schafer, the man you can personally blame for the recent string of Kickstarter reboots of old game series that have been popping up all over blogs and video game news sites. As creator of the Grim Fandango series, Tim already enjoys a certain bit of notoriety amongst gamers. Even the younger generation has heard of his games, even if they wouldn’t be caught dead playing a point and click adventure like The Secret of Monkey Island. And did I mention he also has a beard and jeans? He’s funny too, like the other guys, not stuffy or self-conscious. Jordan Weisman wisely made light of Tim’s involvement, so does Al Lowe. You liked Tim Schafer in his video pitches, you like these other guys too as much by association as by their own charm. Smart guys. They both know that second and third is better than nothing when it comes to bandwagons.
And bandwagon they must. The risks are too little for a project like this, and the rewards too great. By the end of Tim Schafer’s initial experiment, Double Fine Games had raised over 3 million dollars. That’s roughly 2.5 million OVER what they had budgeted for. The budget they’d have raised from investors or publishers through typical funding arrangements would’ve been an eighth of that….if they’d gotten any at all.
Just about every source of capital has been tried, including a pile of credit cards.
What not everyone seems to understand is what a huge deal this really is from a financial perspective. First off, banks don’t typically fund video games. They are risky ventures to undertake, not unlike movies or books. Not only that, but they are far outside the scope of most bankers expertise. This means the typical funding avenues for a game are relegated to Publishers, and private investors with the occasional VC firm thrown in. Still, banks funding games are not unheard of. My favorite expert Gabe Newell replied quickly to my e-mail asking what typical funding routes are used. “Just about every source of capital has been tried, including a pile of credit cards.” So say a bank did for some reason decide to fund a game, an interest free loan for 2.5 million dollars is worth far more than that already huge number. Paying back $50,000 dollars a year, you’re saving $750,000 at a 10% interest rate, a number that may seem high but not when considering the risk of videogame development. If you pay less than that a year, the savings quickly sore to $1,000,000 or more over the course of paying back the loan. To get handed this money in small increments from tens of thousands of people for free (with no interest) is unbelievably empowering to these small companies. Not only does it hypothetically allow them to continue operating as a small company until they absolutely have to hire more people, but it allows players (their customers) control over what is being created.
Suddenly it seems reasonable that if enough people could get together they could fund the games they want to play on their own.
Which is exactly why this new source of funding is so compelling to not just game developers, but game players as well. Suddenly it seems reasonable that if enough people could get together they could fund the games they want to play on their own. No more waiting for some Publisher to catch up with the desires of the public, or even more unlikely scenarios like funding niche market games like point and click adventures or obscure IP role playing games. Not only that, but the most purchase-happy segments of the rapidly aging “first generation of gamers” finally have an outlet for their hard earned dollars. They’re sick of seeing 20 Call of Duty clones come out every year, and to them 15-20 dollars is literally nothing for a taste of nostalgia or even just some long lost favorite game character whose last flop of a game can’t quite shake their feelings of intense loyalty.
They are a generation used to paying for games. They understand that while pirating offers them momentary financial respite, it also doesn’t guarantee the continuation of game series they care about. After all, it happened to games like Grim Fandango and Myst….beloved games of genres that while popular, could not compete with the money-making power of shoot em’ up games that quickly took over the market. Pair this with the slowly changing definition of gaming from RTS games, Roguelikes, and RPGs to a never ending stream of FPSs and Farmville clones, one can see why those with money are eager to shake up the trend. With this recent resurgence of a close end-user/developer relationship the possibilities are seemingly endless, and the intense combination of nostalgia and empowerment is hard to ignore.
There may be a backlash when promises are fulfilled too slowly, or not at all.
But while the initial success of Double Fine’s new game is exciting, it’s important to remember what a huge potential for disaster these Kickstarters offer. First and foremost, delays in this field are notorious and inevitable. While a large company with many projects running at once may be able to ignore the financial implications of a delayed game, Double Fine may not be able to. The possibility of coming back to the Kickstarter backers and saying “We need x dollars to finish this project” is never off the table. Furthermore, these small companies may not be able to handle the PR backlash that may come on hard if things do not pan out as fans had expected. Larger publishers can afford huge teams of social media experts, press release teams, and customer service reps to assuage disgruntled customers. Can small operations like Double Fine weather a storm if a timetable begins to look unrealistic? Finally, if the final product simply does not live up to people’s expectations we may see the entire Kickstarter fad dry up overnight. There was a distinct sense of disappointment with Notch not long after Minecraft was funded through a similar campaign. There may be a backlash when promises are fulfilled too slowly, or not at all.
Now up until now I’ve tried to avoid any over-simplified connections between Occupy Wall Street Movement, defeating SOPA, and this. They could be made, but I don’t think video games should ever be elevated to such lofty heights. I will say this, however: the internet has become an important and powerful new tool to empower the average person to shape the world and their culture in ways that were never before possible. Consumers can now drop as little as a single dollar here or there to turn games they want to play from a fantasy into a reality.
You can start to see why there’s so much riding on the success of these projects. The concept is painfully alluring, filling a niche that has been in the hearts of gamers, music lovers and movie buffs for years. It’s like being part of the industry without actually being part of it. A small investment with the potential for huge payoffs. But a failure at this early point in crowdsourcing could set back the whole concept for years. Gamers may remember similar feelings when Valve released steam. “Dear Steam” I wrote them during the early months of Steam’s deployment, “Please don’t be an evil piece of shit. This could be awesome. Sincerely, Ian” I can’t help but feel a sense of deja vu now.
No yeah, I mean…she was okay. I mean we had a lot in common, and shes obviously pretty but…ya know. We’ll just see is all. That’s all I’m saying. We’ll see.
Indeed, I was quick to drop my $15 on the Double Fine kickstarter project. I looked at the receipt in my inbox with a bit of embarrassment and shame. “Jeez” I thought, “I don’t even have the game. What the hell possessed me?” Unlike some of the older investors I’ve mentioned before, even $15 is sort of a big deal to me. Most college students can probably relate to this. Not unlike investing in the stock market for the first time, it was a bit scary to gamble away money on what amounts to a hunch and a promise. But self-reassurances were quick to come to mind. I actually like Tim Schafer and the projects he’s worked on in the past. From a political and ideological perspective I also love the concept of crowdsourcing just about anything from movies to applications and games. I hope others can recognize that my cynical tone is not unlike the insecure yet hopeful ramblings of a guy just back from a first date that went better than expected. “No yeah, I mean…she was okay. I mean we had a lot in common, and shes obviously pretty but…ya know. We’ll just see is all. That’s all I’m saying. We’ll see.” Don’t break my heart, Tim.