Kickstarter: Funding revolution or digital panhandling?
As Braben and Molyneux start Kickstarters, the crowdfunding backlash gathers steam
Crowdfunding, on the face of it, is a brilliant proposition. Someone creative and talented comes forward with an idea that's innovative and interesting, but too risky or unusual to find funding in the traditional way; instead, they say to the public, "if you want this to be created, contribute a little cash to get it moving". No equity changes hands; some funders may be promised a finished product when everything is done, but it's not a commercial pre-order. Rather, it's an opportunity for the public at large to fill the role of patron, a position once reserved for wealthy aristocrats or government bodies.
"Where Kickstarters from the likes of Tim Schafer and Chris Roberts were met with almost universal enthusiasm, both Braben and Molyneux' efforts have attracted a fair share of criticism."
A lovely idea, then, and a fine example of how today's networked society can achieve in a matter of days things which would have taken years - or have been outright impossible - only a few short years ago. Gamers, particularly, have taken to the idea like ducks to water. Since Tim Schafer's crowdfunding triumph, raising $3 million to resurrect the adventure game genre - a genre largely abandoned by publishers - we have seen eye-watering sums raised for the Android-based Ouya games console ($8.5m), Obsidian Entertainment's RPG Project Eternity (over $4m) and most recently, Chris Roberts' new space combat game Star Citizen (over $6m). This is to say nothing of the countless smaller successes, which have seen developers pull in sums ranging from $5,000 up into the millions in order to fund a vast range of projects of varying ambition and scale.
In the past few weeks, two of the veterans of British game development have launched their own ambitious Kickstarter drives. First came Frontier Developments' David Braben, who is seeking £1.25m ($2m) for a reboot of his much-loved classic Elite; then, just this week, Peter Molyneux launched a drive to £450,000 ($720k) for a new god game in the mould of his earlier titles such as Populous and Black & White.
Reaction to the two drives has been fascinating. Where Kickstarters from the likes of Tim Schafer and Chris Roberts were met with almost universal enthusiasm, both Braben and Molyneux' efforts have attracted a fair share of criticism. Some of that criticism, in particular in the case of the Elite Kickstarter, is founded in the nature of the campaign itself - the Kickstarter page for Elite is extremely light on detail, seemingly resting on past glories, and asking for a truly huge amount of money (it's worth noting that none of the projects which eventually raised millions actually asked for millions in the first place).
That's solid, reasonable criticism. Even though Kickstarter is a new fundraising platform, there are some pretty clear rules and guidelines for making successful, appealing campaigns which can be discerned by looking at past successes and failures, and projects should expect to be pummelled with a fair degree of criticism if they can't be bothered to do their homework in that regard.
There is another branch of criticism, though, which is even more strident (although perhaps less impactful on eventual success - we shall see). This is the idea that Molyneux and Braben are successful and wealthy in their own rights, and that Kickstarter is not a platform they should be using. It's a point of view which portrays the pair as shameless panhandlers who could be funding these projects themselves, or seeking out more traditional sources of funding, rather than turning to the internet masses looking for donations. Kickstarter, the argument goes, is for risky or niche ideas which can't find publisher backing, or for creative people who don't have the contacts and resources to get a leg-up and an opportunity to build the product of their dreams. It's not meant to be a fountain of free money for established, successful creators. The arrival of Molyneux, Braben and their ilk pollutes the pure waters of the crowdfunding concept.
"Kickstarter, the argument goes, is for risky or niche ideas which can't find publisher backing, or for creative people who don't have the contacts and resources..."
This argument is pure nonsense, at least insomuch as the idea of Kickstarter being "all about the little guy" is concerned. Tim Schafer and Chris Roberts are established industry veterans with decades of work and several hit titles behind them; they unquestionably have contacts, resources and industry clout. Plenty of other Kickstarter projects have also been started by well-established and likely wealthy industry figures - Brian Fargo, who was boss of publisher Interplay back when it was one of the industry's biggest, raised $3 million for a new Wasteland RPG.
Outside of games, too, established figures have used Kickstarter to fund their efforts - musician Amanda Palmer springs immediately to mind. In all of these cases, the wealth or success of the creator has been a distant concern for backers, who care more about whether they want the product to be made or not. Why should Braben or Molyneux be judged any differently?
The narrow answer is that both of these projects have specific factors which make them less appealing to backers and more likely to attract noisy critics. There is a question of personality, especially with Molyneux, whose willingness to stick his head above the parapet over the years has earned him perhaps more than his fair share of detractors. At a more basic level, though, there is a simple question of risk here.
Kickstarter is all about risky projects, in theory (although the reality is that completely unknown newcomers are far, far less likely to be backed than established veterans, which punctures that idea somewhat), but those risks ought to be creative risks - projects that might not find an audience, or might never make it due to extraordinary creative challenges. In the case of Braben and Molyneux' projects, I'm not sure that the primary risks are creative. Rather, they are much more mundane management risks.
Put yourself in the shoes of a publishing executive (perhaps you're already wearing a publishing executive's shoes, either due to career choice or due to simple theft). Imagine yourself being pitched a new Elite game by David Braben, or a new god game from Peter Molyneux. Exciting! Except... That's a lot of money they want, and in the cold light of day, there are serious misgivings.
"Braben has supposedly tried to get a new Elite project off the ground on many occasions over the years"
Braben has supposedly tried to get a new Elite project off the ground on many occasions over the years - it's something that's been "in the works" for longer than I've been working in the games media, actually. Why will it come to fruition on this occasion, if it never did before? Molyneux, meanwhile, is notorious for over-promising and underdelivering on his technology and his design promises alike - he produces excellent games but still manages to disappoint people because they don't match up to the promises made. Why wouldn't his new god game, which seems terribly ambitious in some regards, hit the same problem?
If you're a publishing executive, you probably back away at that point in time - and as a publishing executive, you're in a much better position than a Kickstarter funder. You can demand detailed reviews of the design and the project management, pore over projections of costs and timelines, and insist upon milestones being reached in order to trigger the release of project funds. Kickstarter funders just watch their credit cards being debited and hope for the best. Whether or not the creator is wealthy and successful or a starving artist in a garret, this doesn't seem to me to be the kind of risk Kickstarter funders should be taking, or want to take. Creative risk, sure. Management risk? Leave that to the banks, the publishers, the professional investors.
That's the narrow answer. The wider answer is a little fuzzier, but worth pondering. We've all expected that a Kickstarter backlash would arrive sooner or later, although there's some debate over how serious it will be - some believe that it will set crowdfunding back hugely and turn it into a limited, niche area of funding, while others, myself included, think it will slow down the growth of the sector but won't reverse it. The assumption has been that this backlash will come when a huge, highly-funded and extremely high-profile project either fails completely or delivers an incredibly disappointing product, leading to widespread backer outrage. (I've got Ouya in the betting pool for that one, although it goes without saying that I'd be delighted to be wrong.)
"The assumption has been that this backlash will come when a huge, highly-funded and extremely high-profile project either fails completely or delivers an incredibly disappointing product."
Perhaps that's not where the backlash starts, though. Perhaps the backlash starts with the perception of greed and panhandling. It doesn't have to be true; the perception itself is enough. In the wake of the banking crisis and the faultlines it exposed in our society, people have, quite rightly and not quite soon enough, become deeply suspicious and intolerant of naked greed. Sometimes, that's a positive force; sometimes, though, it's deeply unfair and targeted at the wrong people.
Kickstarter and the crowdfunding movement as a whole aren't just about funding - they're about reaching out to the world and saying "we'd like to make this - if we do, will you buy it?" That's a question that even the wealthiest of developers needs to answer before building something. Kickstarter, in short, is meant to be about the products, not the people. Track records matter, yes - but bank accounts and other resources should not. You back things you love because you want them to get made. It's a simple, beautiful model, and whatever you think about the other failings of their projects, I think David Braben and Peter Molyneux have absolutely as much right to participate in that model as anyone else.