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Kickstarting crowd-sourced funding

An expert panel debates the significance of Double Fine's Kickstarter windfall

With 19 days to go until deadline, Tim Schafer's Kickstarter initiative finally seems to be losing momentum. More money will no doubt pour into the Double Fine coffers before then, adding to the $2 million already raised, but after the incredible growth of the first few days it's now possible to make a reasonable guess at what the final amount might be.

Let's say $3 million; perhaps more if the press whips up a bit of last-minute enthusiasm. By any metric, Schafer's decision to pass around the virtual collection plate has been a roaring success, to the point that industry figures like Obsidian's Chris Avellone are already probing their social graphs, getting a sense of their own stores of consumer confidence.

Ultimately, what Double Fine has accomplished proves nothing more about crowd-sourced funding than a media savvy individual doesn't already know. This is Radiohead releasing In Rainbows for voluntary donations, this is Kevin Smith going city-to-city with Red State. To a large extent, this is about selling pedigree, and that makes it difficult to position as some kind of milestone. Very few independent developers can top Double Fine for sheer goodwill.

At the BAFTA-sponsored Question Time event earlier this week, a panel composed of UKIE's Dr. Jo Twist, Rebellion's Jason Kingsley, Jagex's Mark Gerhard and Frontier Developments' David Braben discussed the role organisations like Kickstarter could play in the industry's future. Indeed, it was the very first question from the audience.

Hopefully it will expand, but it's not the golden goose that's going to solve everybody's funding problems

Jason Kingsley, Rebellion

"It's such an exciting area," Twist said, pointing out that UKIE recently called for the government to amend legislation around crowd-funding in the UK. "It shows that, where there's an existing fan-base for a property then there's a real chance to ways of accessing money, particularly for independent developers."

At present, regulations designed to protect people from pyramid and Ponzi schemes prevent investors from taking a share of sales, but Twist believes that only "very, very minor tweaks" are required to "open up the potential of crowd-sourced funding."

"Now, I'm not saying that people will want to do that, but just making it so much easier for anybody - in any industry, in fact - to use crowd-funding platforms without any legislative barriers in order to get the money they need to make the games that they want."

Jason Kingsley took a broader view, playing down UK legislative wrangling as small beer when the best-case scenario amounts to, "the democratisation of investment in creative products."

"Let's face it, the UK is only a small part of the industry," he said. "We're talking about this democratisation across the whole world, so if I've got fans in Mongolia or fans in Estonia or fans in the UK...they can actually contribute to getting something made."

For Kingsley, though, there are too many unanswered questions. The vast majority of Double Fine's coverage has started and stopped with that ever ascending dollar amount, but right above it is another, potentially more important, figure: 62,655, or the number of people responsible for that $2 million.

"There are issues over ownership, there are issues over who owns what, and there are issues over, what if you actually don't deliver? What happens to the money? So while it's a very exciting area, and it's being looked at in other areas and hopefully it will expand, it's not the golden goose that's going to solve everybody's funding problems."

For Kingsley, each one of those contributors - "at their heart" - is a game designer, and they will likely expect some degree of influence over the direction of the project. As someone who has to make decisions that upset a proportion of his workforce all the time, the prospect of magnifying that "100,000-fold" does not seem conducive to creativity.

"Maybe 40,000 people think you're completely wrong, and 60,000 people think you're right. And that's how wars start," he said. "You can enthuse people and add them to the creative force, but as professionals we have to extract the value out of that and not have it crowd-designed."

We're already crowd-sourcing funding for games because people pay for them. It's just a case of them paying by pre-orders

David Braben, Frontier Developments

Mark Gerhard offered a similar brand of tempered enthusiasm. The Jagex CEO was as full of admiration as anyone, but in his view the issues Kingsley described should not be ignored. Gerhard claimed to have, "never seen a good game that was designed by a committee," while he openly questioned how many companies would be willing or capable of emulating Double Fine.

"Do I think we'll see it from a big studio? No, I think it terrifies them. Will it work for everyone? No," he said. "I think you need to have a reputation like Double Fine, you need to have something that's already there and known to drive the energy, or a proven team that's done something cool before."

For Braben, however, it's really a matter of perspective. "In terms of whether it's effective for big studios, actually, if you think about it, investment is just crowd-funding anyway - it just has to be regulated by the FSA," he said.

"When you go for a project, you don't know - and it's the same for the publisher, of course - whether the commitment is going to be there. Let's face it, we're already crowd-sourcing funding for games because people pay for them. It's just a case of them paying by pre-orders."

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Matthew Handrahan avatar
Matthew Handrahan: Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.
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