Kickstarter can't just be funding for newcomers
Crowdfunding's potential isn't just for indies; it can allow a culture of creative risk to flourish at traditional publishers, too
As I write this, the Kickstarter for a revival of Harmonix' much-loved rhythm game Amplitude is edging towards the finish line. Last week, it looked extremely unlikely that the game would reach its ambitious $775,000 goal; right now, it looks like it's on the home straight. Its momentum in the final days has been remarkable, fuelled not least by heavy promotion from industry peers and media; hunt through the project's backers on Kickstarter and you'll find a veritable industry who's-who.
Although I've written about Kickstarter several times in the past, Amplitude is the first project I've personally backed; the strength of nostalgia for Harmonix' PS2 era was simply too strong for me on this occasion. As such, I'm personally invested to an extent and very happy to see the project heading towards what will hopefully be success in its funding campaign.
Amplitude's success (fingers crossed, touch wood, and so on) is, however, one that comes in spite of an interesting and worrying undercurrent in public opinion regarding the game's funding drive. While the game itself, and Harmonix in general, attracts little but affection from everyone who mentions them, there has been an oft-repeated theme in commentary around the Kickstarter in particular. "Amplitude," it has been pointed out, "belongs to Sony; why should I put my hand in my pocket when it's a company like Sony coming around with the begging bowl?"
"No matter how much love there is for Harmonix and their games within Sony, it would be extremely hard to make a business case for funding another game in this series, and financially irresponsible of the publisher to do so"
On the surface, it's a fair point, although it ignores the fact that this is a small developer (Harmonix) asking for money to make a game using a dormant license owned by a large publisher (Sony), rather than Sony itself directly asking for money to make a new Amplitude game. The end result may be the same - Sony publishes a new Amplitude on its platforms without taking the initial risk of funding the game's development - but the particulars of the claim are rather different.
It's not the first time this argument has been made. On several occasions in recent years, Kickstarter campaigns by companies or individuals perceived to have enough money to fund their own endeavours have come in for opprobrium from consumers and critics alike. Perhaps the most vitriolic backlash of this kind was reserved for Peter Molyneux' Godus, but the likes of Brian Fargo and David Braben have also faced similar criticism. It's criticism founded in a personal concept of "what Kickstarter is all about"; the notion that this is a platform designed for plucky newcomers or destitute auteurs to raise cash for their endeavours, and that it is somehow spoiled by the presence of larger companies or developers with long track records (and healthy bank balances).
This is not a universal view of Kickstarter, it should be noted, and anyone shaking their head in mock sadness and saying "oh, this just isn't what Kickstarter is meant to be about" needs to recall that their own viewpoint is not one universally shared. I guess if they're actually a founder of Kickstarter then they're entitled to the exaggerated head-shaking, but there's no evidence that Kickstarter itself shares this narrow view. Rather, Kickstarter - and a great number of the backers active on the system - view it as being both a great funding vehicle for newcomers, and a fantastic opportunity for established developers to embark on risky projects that wouldn't have found funding elsewhere.
Let's consider the case of Amplitude specifically. Both the PS2 version of Amplitude and its predecessor, Frequency, were funded and published by Sony; neither of them was commercially successful. No matter how much love there is for Harmonix and their games within Sony, it would be extremely hard to make a business case for funding another game in this series, and financially irresponsible of the publisher to do so. Honestly, without some strong indication from the market that a new Amplitude was worth funding, Sony would have been daft to put money behind it.
What is Kickstarter? Kickstarter is a strong indicator from the market. For a game that's failed commercially twice, it's about the only indicator worth listening to - one which actually takes money up front from consumers to the tune of the cash required to fund development, or a decent percentage of development. This is, in effect, the last throw of the dice for a franchise like Amplitude. You can't blame publishers for not wanting to fund a game which has a history of critical success matched to commercial failure. Equally, you can't blame a developer for not wishing to remortgage their house or spend their personal wealth on the same project; why should they undertake risks that no publisher would?
Kickstarter is, above all else, a way to remove risk from the most risky game development projects. Up until now, publishers have focused on removing risk by following "safe" creative paths, copying commercially successful projects and making endless sequels and titles which fell comfortably within the bounds of existing genres. Kickstarter allows that risk mitigation to take place at a much more creatively beneficial place - in the realm of project financing. Kickstarter is a way to stand up with your idea, in all its unedited glory, and say "here's what we'll make - who wants it?" - and crucially, a way to sit down, dump the idea and work on something else if it transpires that nobody wants it.
"it would be beneficial to promote a view of crowdfunding which focuses on its potential to give life to projects that simply can't find funding without the market making a clear commitment to their commercial success"
This is not to say that there isn't discomfort to seeing developers with a track record of over-promising and under-delivering turning to Kickstarter with grand ideas which have little hope of being realised. There's a genuine and important concern that the Kickstarter audience doesn't have the ability to evaluate project plans, milestones, deadlines and overall realism which one might find in the (admittedly conservative and risk-averse) meeting rooms of a publisher's green light committee. Sometimes, when every publisher on the planet has turned down the chance to fund you, that's a sign that they don't understand your project or the fans who love it, and it's time to turn to those fans directly. Sometimes, it's just a sign that you're never going to be able to deliver what you promise and nobody should touch your funding drive with a barge pole.
Distinguishing between those kinds of projects is difficult. There's no magic bullet, no straightforward approach to determining which projects are well-planned but creatively risky, and which are just a disaster in the making. As such, some Kickstarter funders are most certainly going to get badly burned in the months and years to come (some already have been, of course). However, this is no reason to automatically dismiss the requirement for Kickstarter to function as a platform that proves consumer interest in creatively risky projects that publishers simply will not fund without clear market signals. If we're to throw the baby out with the bathwater over this issue, we'll end up with a funding platform that's of marginal interest at best, robbed of the vast majority of big-name projects that actually bring backers into the crowdfunding ecosystem in the first place, and then spread the love around other, smaller projects.
There's very little point, of course, in simply telling people archly that the way they think about Kickstarter is wrong. If you're spending money on a platform, you're broadly entitled to think about it however the hell you want. On the other hand, there's a growing need for both Kickstarter and the teams who use it to fund their projects to work on the messaging around the platform. Two polarised views of crowdfunding are emerging among consumers, neither of them conducive to a positive future for the model. One is the view discussed above, a kind of inverse-elitism that sees crowdfunding as valid only for debutantes and fringe cases. The other is the notion of crowdfunding as a kind of pre-order mechanism for goods that don't exist yet; consumers "shopping" on Kickstarter rather than seeking projects they consider worthy of backing.
In place of these ideas, it would be beneficial to promote a view of crowdfunding which focuses on its potential to give life to projects that simply can't find funding without the market making a clear commitment to their commercial success. That's an important thing regardless of the finances or industry status of the creators involved or the publishers in the background. If you love a game, a franchise or a genre that falls within a niche so narrow that it simply can't attract traditional funding - a trap into which a great many games over the years have fallen - then crowdfunding offers you a chance to show your willingness to buy new games in that niche in the only way that actually matters. That's the true value of the platform; if it becomes either a misguided shopping mall for non-existent pipe dreams or a hipster haven for unknowns and newcomers, it will entirely miss out on that extraordinary potential.