"Your backers are smart, they've done this before. That's our main advice"
Kickstarter's Cindy Au talks funding, fans and the risk of failure
It's a measure of the pace of our business that Kickstarter already feels, in the best possible way, a little bit like old news. Once, in the distant, heady days of all of two years ago, it was a shorthand route to the top of an editor's inbox, a way to jump out from the crowd and distinguish yourself as a brave individual on a fresh frontier. These were the mavericks, the pathfinders, the vagabond royalty, riding unsullied to publication free of any taint of artistic impediment from those pesky money-men at the Big Publisher Inc.
Now, it's establishment, one of a dozen ways to bring your game to market, one littered with the banners of some of the most famous names in development, hawking games with budgets of millions of dollars. The plucky anarchist now sits in the House of Lords, but is it a wolf in sheep's clothing, or has community funding become what it sought to create an alternative to?
"It's still loads of fun!" Cindy Au laughs, as I ask her about the service's incredible trajectory. "When I started at Kickstarter there were very few of us, about nine, and community was really the realm of Yancey Strickler, now our CEO. It was always obviously very important to him. When I came on board it was really to help him work with our creators and our backers and help with their projects. Things were very, very informal back then; anytime someone wanted to launch a project they just wrote us an email and we would reply. It was either myself or Yancey or another community manager. I don't get to reply to every creator who writes to us these days anymore but my team is made up of a big group of community managers as well as community support staff and we work all day on helping creators with their projects."
This is the system working as we always hoped it would; letting people try things and seeing if they work"
Au is a woman with an easy laugh and an approachable demeanour, so it's easy to see why she settled into her role as VP of community. In it, she's played kingmaker to a huge breadth of Kickstarter projects, both game related and otherwise, but games do seem to hold a special status for her. Was there ever any idea of how big a portion of the company's business they'd come to represent?
"As more and more people launch Kickstarter projects we're seeing new ways that people are approaching it, we're seeing new types of things that people want to make and that's all really exciting. That's what this is, it's an opportunity to expand all the stuff that gets created in the world. The community team at Kickstarter are amazing people, they all come from really diverse backgrounds; we have people who represent all the various categories and so for games we have a team who design games themselves and are really familiar with the whole creative process.
"Games is actually a category that has been with Kickstarter since the beginning. If you go back into the history of Kickstarter the very earliest game projects were indie titles, indie games. I think it was very clear from the beginning this is the perfect platform for that sort of work. A lot of developers are working on things that really don't necessarily appear to be commercially viable, and that's OK.
"I think that's exactly why Kickstarter can be a really great help to that type of project. I think what was obviously somewhat more surprising was when these mid-size to larger size studios started coming and they're like 'wait a second, we could also do this because we also have titles that - at least from the publisher perspective - do not appear to be commercially viable.'
"So seeing that scale up has been really interesting and I think seeing that kind of growth of the entire games industry on Kickstarter has just been probably one of the greatest things I've gotten to witness in my time working there. This is the system working as we always hoped it would; letting people try things and seeing if they work."
Consumers aren't the only group to have taken notice. In a perfect example of the regular full-circles the industry performs, big-name publishers have also been keeping tabs on projects, watching from the wings to scoop up projects which capture the public imagination. For some, that's just good business, for others it's predatory, subverting a community platform for use as a giant focus group. Has Au experienced any of the bad feeling towards the big names sniffing around? Do they resent the threat that Kickstarter poses?
"A lot of developers are working on things that really don't necessarily appear to be commercially viable, and that's OK"
"We have never spoken with a major publisher directly," says Au, diplomatically. "I think more often we hear from our creators and from the developers who are interested in using Kickstarter. They talk to us about how it has actually changed the relationship they can have with publishers. Before it was a very one-direction and now they kind of have something else that they can bring to the table: 'hey, we have this sort of untested idea but we've put it on Kickstarter, you can actually see how much support it's generating'. This suddenly really changes that relationship and makes it a little more balanced. Now a developer, whether they're well-known or not well-known, can sit at a table with a publisher and say 'hey, we can show you this'. I think that just gives rise to a more balanced relationship, which is healthy.
"I think the same can be said for the publisher. They obviously don't want to take a big risk and then see how things pan out, so this just kind of provides more information for everyone. I think it produces a healthier long-term relationship for those that decide to go with publishers."
It's not long before Tim Schafer's name comes up. Double Fine's Broken Age is, in many ways, the definitive game on Kickstarter. Firstly, it opened the floodgates, the first big name to throw a hat into the ring, and the first to have a resounding success. Secondly, it was also the first big name project which had to come back to its backers and manage their expectations, revealing that, despite going massively above and beyond original funding targets, they'd need more cash to finish the title, eventually splitting one game into two and reopening funding. There were some bad reactions to that, unsurprisingly, and we've seen the tide of big name projects drop off since. Au, however, doesn't see it as something that damaged trust.
"It's definitely been steady...when Double Fine happened that was when we saw this crazy explosion and in some ways I believe that kind of skewed the graphs in a way because you saw a lot of indie developers launching these really big projects all around this same time. But that cycle that you're mentioning, just the development cycle after funding and watching games get released, we've recently seen Banner Saga came out, Republique also, and it's this pile of games that were funded in 2012 that are getting released at the beginning of 2014 - and so I believe we're just going to keep seeing that.
"But yeah, in general I think after this crazy explosion in 2012 - and obviously I've been watching this really carefully - the community has been steadily growing. We do see fewer of the really big multimillion dollar projects but we've seen a lot of projects in the sort of $10,000 range, which to me really hits that core indie spot which is a chunk of money which you find impossible to raise on your own just by yourself and impossible to get from a publisher. That's just a tricky in-between amount and I think we can help fill that space. I think that's been great, I think it's been nice to see that be the trend, I suppose. I think it again allows for just more games that are manageable sized games. These are generally smaller teams, and that's kind of been the trend in the last year or so."
Gamers, I'm unsurprised to discover, are one of Kickstarter's more vocal communities. They're generally more active in their feedback to creators, more involved, but they're also more likely to go on to back more than one project - and not just games. They're also, says Au, smart, well-informed and very close to their passion, something which project creators should both embrace and beware.
"People come to us with a lot of questions, all the time. Ranging from things like, 'Are these the right goals? The right rewards? Can you watch my video?' We're very into answering those questions, especially when you see a really high goal. It just raises a lot of questions. We approach it like a backer would. 'Why this goal? Why do you need [that] much? Is it absolutely necessary?' Backers are looking for viability - are you looking for a sensible amount? Something that's happened as Kickstarter has matured is that backers have got really smart about understanding how games get made, the funding process, how it works. That's because so many developers have had to tell them! So in the five years of Kickstarter's existence that knowledge has been put out there in a way it never was before. We've got smart backers, which is great. We want smart backers.
"you don't really get a successful project unless you're able to build a community around you based on trust"
"So that's our main advice. Know that your backers are smart, they've done this before. They want to know your scale, your scope. Are they funding part of it or the whole thing? How are you making sure you hit your milestones? Dot your 'i's, cross your 't's. Those are the points that backers are looking for.
"The thing we've seen in the last few years is that you don't really get a successful project unless you're able to build a community around you based on trust. Most of the projects that sound too good to be true, or just impossible, don't actually get funded; the backers are wise to these things. We try to make people really aware that when you come to Kickstarter, you're really just helping out a person or team. It's not like just pre-ordering a game or gadget. A lot of our community education has been around that concept, that this a new kind of thing. The other side of the coin is explaining that to the projects: that when you launch a Kickstarter you're making promises to the community. I think most creators understand that and take it really seriously as a result.
"So even when projects hit those roadblocks, someone leaves the team, or they have to ditch all the art and start again, those are things that, with the proper communication, backers are really understanding about. They get it, they believe in the vision, it's why they backed it. They want creators to stick to it. They have two options: stick to it and give people what they want, or fudge it a bit. Backers usually want the former. That trust is built through public communication.
"That's kind of the point of Kickstarter, to make that conversation possible."