Another week, another round of pained creaking as crowdfunding continues to shift around uncomfortably, desperately trying to figure out where it fits alongside the rest of the industry's business models and practices. This week, Sony returns to what now appears to be a regular guest-starring role; fresh from the post-E3 fallout of the Shenmue 3 announcement and Kickstarter campaign, Sony has now announced that it's launching a crowdfunding platform to allow small internal teams at the company to test the market for innovative new ideas.
It's all a process, isn't it? We started out being terribly uncomfortable with crowdfunding being used by anyone except Johnny Unknowns putting together genre-bending games with entirely untested teams of debutantes; then we all gradually got used to the idea of well-established developers using Kickstarter and its ilk to resurrect long-lost, beloved franchises or free themselves from the shackles of modern AAA development and try brave new experiments. Now we're struggling with the next stage of that process, wherein we question whether we're okay with corporations getting directly involved in crowdfunding.
I don't want to belittle the moral question that's being grappled with here. In part, the reason that established creators' use of crowdfunding has been so widely accepted is that it's seen as a way for these people to escape from the stifling environment of corporate-sanctioned creativity. Hence, when a global corporation turns up to the party, you can understand why the music dies down and everyone shuffles uncomfortably; not only were corporate interests not invited, but this party was specifically convened to celebrate a new way of allowing creators to escape from corporate interests by engaging directly with their fans.
"Sony doesn't own the Shenmue franchise but has backed the game to the hilt, providing what is almost certainly the lion's share of the development costs for the game"
At the same time, Sony hasn't actually done anything wrong with crowdfunding so far. Some corners of the Internet lost their collective rags with the company over Shenmue III, but this seemed deeply unfair from the outset. Sony doesn't own the Shenmue franchise but has backed the game to the hilt, providing what is almost certainly the lion's share of the development costs for the game; Sony also gave the developers a most extraordinarily high profile stage from which to launch the Kickstarter which was designed to provide their own fraction of the investment. Perhaps more importantly in the case of a long-dormant franchise like Shenmue, Kickstarter's role was also to confirm that there's really enough interest out there to justify throwing money into this thing.
"Okay, but Sony should have been willing to take the risk and fund the whole thing without Kickstarter!" is a common response to this; the same response has been floating around Sony's more recent crowdfunding venture, First Flight. It comes from a place of curiously warped logic; I know we all want businesses to take creative risks, but a businessperson who decided to go ahead with a risky project based off gut feeling rather than using every research tool at their disposal to find out if the project would succeed wouldn't be a brave, thrusting entrepreneur; they'd be a damned fool. Risk-taking is an important part of a creative business, but only if your guesses are measured and educated to the best of your ability; otherwise it's not creative risk-taking, it's just, as Peter Moore put it this week, "throwing stuff up against a wall".
"Crowdfunding, in the hands of a company like Sony, isn't really about money. The company doesn't need a few million dollars from consumers to fund the development of its ideas"
Crowdfunding, in the hands of a company like Sony, isn't really about money. The company doesn't need a few million dollars from consumers to fund the development of its ideas - even its stupid ideas, like the Rolly, if anyone recalls that, or the ill-fated PSX, an unloved mixture of PS2 and set-top DVR. What it's about is data; it's about allowing the company to take risks that are informed by real data, from real consumers, who are - crucially - putting real money behind their actions, and therefore hopefully preventing the company from developing something as utterly unwanted as the Rolly ever again, without making it so risk-averse in the process that cool ideas can't come to the surface. Cash committed on a platform like Kickstarter is a world apart from a button clicked on something like Steam Greenlight, as anyone with any experience in designing and interpreting economic experiments (which is precisely what both of those systems are) can tell you; a result which comes from a consumer's commitment of their own money is vastly more believable and relevant than one based purely on a consumer clicking a "Yeah, sure, I might buy this, I guess" button.
In other words, for Sony and the other corporations looking into crowdfunding, this isn't about the money, but about the absolutely invaluable chance to get market research data for markets that don't exist yet. If you're not going to take any serious creative risks and plan simply to clone the games or products other people have made, you can pretty easily look at the performance of those rivals, draw a pretty graph and say "yeah, we'll do okay"; market research done, bosh, everyone off down the pub. If you're doing something genuinely creative, though, and hoping to open up a new field or genre, you find yourself in a territory almost totally lacking in data. Why do you think so many publishers, and corporations in general, are so miserably bad at innovating and act in such a risk-averse way all the time? Why do you think the industry groans under the weight of never-ending sequels and franchise reboots? It's because businesses run on data, and just as nature abhors a vacuum, business abhors an empty spreadsheet or a blank chart. Crowdfunding fixes this; it allows people with interesting, creative ideas to stand up in the board-room and say "hey, here's our cool, crazy idea, and here's the data which shows that consumers genuinely will pay money for it". Sold, to the man with the non-blank graph!
I fully confess - this doesn't answer the moral question of whether or not we should be comfortable with corporations coming out to play on swings and slides that were specifically designed to give us a safe space away from their influence. Even if it results in corporations coming up with better ideas and games and products, and being more willing to let their staff work on crazy ideas and risky concepts because crowdfunding will help to sort the wheat from the chaff before the company produces another Rolly; sure, that's all good, but the question of whether we're comfortable with this is a normative one, and I totally understand those who remain opposed to the concept even if the outcomes are almost universally good. (By the way, if you think I'm hating too hard on Rolly, just Google the damned thing to remind yourself of how stupid a company can be when it strays into data-free territory.)
"One reason for opposing corporate crowdfunding is the idea that it takes away money from people who actually need it..."
Even as I acknowledge that moral arguments aren't solved by data points, I do have one more that I'd like to add to the argument. One reason for opposing corporate crowdfunding is the idea that it takes away money from people who actually need it; that smaller creatives will be squeezed out of the crowdfunding market by the arrival of big corporations who don't even need the money, but who starve everyone else of attention and finance, steamrollering over the green shoots of crowdfunded creativity in their single-minded pursuit of market research data. It's a fair concern, but to me, it echoes the same concern that was voiced when famous creators began turning to Kickstarter; that they would drown out the smaller voices and choke off finance to unknown teams. In the end, the opposite happened; big creators bought swathes and swathes of their own fans to crowdfunding for the first time, and many of those fans hung about to help fund smaller projects. Far from taking the lion's share of the pie, the arrival of famous creators actually helped the whole pie to grow, for everyone's benefit.
The push of corporate interests into crowdfunding may not have such a positive effect, but in the absence of data, there's equally no reason to believe that it won't precipitate a growth of the platform as a whole. Moreover, while we don't have to like or endorse it - again, that's a normative question and relies largely on everyone's individual views of the ethics of crowdfunding - the reality is that corporate crowdfunding is going to happen. Sony isn't the first company to enter this field (Square Enix was the first major games company to do it, as I recall) and won't be the last, either. Corporate crowdfunding platforms are going to happen; this needs to be watched carefully and any sign of crushing the flowering of creativity that we've seen on Kickstarter, IndieGoGo and their ilk will demand a strong and determined backlash. At the same time, we shouldn't automatically assume the worst. After complaining for so long that publishers and platform holders don't listen to gamers and rarely make the decisions that give consumers what they truly want, it would be churlish not to recognise that crowdfunding has finally given consumers the only voice that truly matters in corporate capitalism: a voice spoken from the wallet.