Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Upside of Down?

Time makes fools of us all, but perhaps not in the way you'd expect.

After the runaway success of some Kickstarter projects it's been pretty much par for the course to see small studios and independent developers trying to chase down their dreams with a little help from crowdfunding. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, but not every project is going to be the Double Fine or Wasteland 2 Kickstarter. There have been a fair share of disappointments, and when I originally skimmed over the story of a Kickstarter for a game called Alpha Colony missing the mark by a mere 28 dollars I chalked it up to a particularly harsh case of reality.

Here's the thing though. It's amazing how much things can be changed with some perspective.

It wasn't a big fancy article, or a cutting diatribe. It was one simple sentence.

"New rule: say your budget was unrealistic and the game would be sub-par BEFORE your Kickstarter fails"

That was written by Ben Kuchera from the PA Report. The comment got my attention in a way that the original posting I saw on Game Politics didn't. There was apparently something more to this than I was seeing. It didn't take much digging actually, in fact the link that little blurb gave brought me to a Gamasutra article that talked a little about the background of this project.

You see this wasn't the first time that Alpha Colony had a Kickstarter. The thing about the first one is that it actually raised more money than this one did, over $100,000 to be precise. Turns out that wasn't enough though, because that $50,000 that they were asking for this time? Tack an extra zero to the end of that and you have the original goal of the first failed attempt.

Now there's something to be said about chasing a dream. There's nothing wrong with trying to see ambition become reality. Surely though, after being cancelled due to having only 1/5th of its purposed funding raised the first time there should have been some rather big alarm bells going off in the minds of people interested in the project when they tried again a couple of months later asking for a mere 1/10th of that original goal.

Taking a look at the more recent Kickstarter, you can see that a lot of the original game had to be cut. I'm not just talking about trimming the fat here, I'm seeing a lot of the features either being shoved off into the realms of stretch bonuses, or left by the wayside altogether. Is it tragic that even after all of this they still didn't meet their goal? Yes. On the other hand though, it might have been a blessing in disguise for all of the people that put up money to donate.

Consider the comments that the lead designer Christopher Williams made to Gamasutra after the Kickstarter had failed, emphasis mine.

"[$50,000] may seem like a lot of money to many," he added, "but by the time I pay 3D artists, animators, designers, and programmers, issue figurines, prints, T-shirts, shipping, etc. there will be nothing left for me and my team and we would end up with a game far short of what I had envisioned building."

The game would have basically been hobbled, if it would have even made it to production. Since they obviously hadn't found any pots of gold since the last time they asked that much of a budgetary reduction might have made for a more realistic end goal, but any sense of scale gets thrown out the window when you realize that there was almost no logical way that they could have made it work, even with successful funding.

Perhaps if all of their stretch goals had been reached, it might have been possible. Bear in mind though that the final stretch goal was $300,000 when the original project only barely made it over $100,000. Unless there was a sudden influx of interest in the game it just wasn't happening, and the drastically reduced goal line was pretty much an admission of that.

Williams admitted that his personal investment in this game was high, "I have already invested 10 months and $60,000 of my 401k into this game and simply have no more savings to live off to try again," obviously to him this was more of a crushing blow than it was to any of the individual backers of the project through Kickstarter. Still, there were people who had pledged $1,500 or more, and then the hundreds of backers that pitched in smaller amounts.

For the want of 28 dollars they were disappointed. However, I can't help but shudder to think what might have happened if they got that money. If the game came out and was underwhelming, which despite how much of a downer it is to admit it would likely be the largest possible outcome, then how pleased would these people have been? Or what if the worst case scenario happens, and despite the funding the game still can't be made? What happens then? I'm glad I don't have to think about it, but it was dangerously close.

Really, I find myself looking at a comment that Kuchera made:

"Well, look at it this way. The first pass at the budget was $500,000, but that didn't happen. Then they tried for a TENTH of that, failed, and basically said making the game at that budget would barely have been possible.

"It seems like that's information that you should have told people BEFORE they gave their money. Being honest after the Kickstarter failed seems almost sleazy to me. If you had just asked how confident they were in a $50k budget before it had failed, what would they have said?"

And wondering how badly things might have turned out had it been a success. And worse yet, wondering if there are already projects doomed to this fate that have already been successfully funded. Kickstarter is a wonderful tool to be certain, but it's not a genie that can make the impossible possible. It's going to take something very big, very public, and very, very ugly to make people realize that. And it's with a growing sense of dread that I wonder now not if the hammer will drop, but when.

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