Rock Paper Shotgun (who are hardly shy about its love of Kickstarter) wrote an interesting piece about how a lot of Kickstarter video game projects really aren’t that innovative and are instead appealing to fan nostalgia to get funded. The salient paragraph to this point is:
“Developers have been stating in their own pitch videos, and subsequent interviews, that Kickstarter has often been about finally escaping the clutches of the publishers, able to spread their wings and be creative where the evil money-men would crush them, able to innovate, innovate, INNOVATE! But almost no one is.”
Assuming you accept this point (and it is referring more to established video game figures Kickstarting their projects rather than the team of five industry noobs starting their first title, but the large sums of Kickstarter money rarely goes to the five noobs anyway) it appears that a lot of Kickstarter projects give a lot of lip service to innovation but don’t deliver it.
At least part of the reason behind this type of behaviour is that Kickstarter is a terrible platform for video game innovation.
1. What’s New Under The Sun?
The first issue comes in understanding what ‘innovation’ actually is. It’s a term that is easy to say – and gets thrown around a lot – but innovation means a lot of different things to different people.
When we are talking about innovation, are we talking about gameplay mechanics? Technical graphics capability? Artistic style? Platform capabilities? Is taking an existing concept (such as, say, a platformer title) and using a particular art style and allowing limited multiplayer truly innovative, or just mashing up what exists into something that’s pleasantly diverting for a few hours? (Here’s 15 different types of innovation for those who want a list of things to think about.)
Video games can have evolutionary innovations included in a series, where incremental changes improve existing systems – something like the Assassin’s Creed franchise may have kept its core mechanics generally stable, but it has improved and changed those mechanics over time – but such innovations are often overlooked or considered to be natural progression rather than real innovation.
Revolutionary innovation are the kinds of genre-shaking events that are often held up as ‘true innovation’ lacking in games development, but such things are hard to pull off. As video games evolve, it becomes harder and harder to find blue ocean spaces that haven’t already been traversed by others. It’s a lot easier to look back at what used to be and offer to create the same kind of video game experiences again.
And even if you do find a new space to move into…
2. Those First Into Battle Are The First To Die
… there’s no guarantees that others will follow you. Which is an issue for Kickstanding an innovative video game, because you want a lot of people to pledge money to you.
There is such a thing as being too innovative. You might see where things are headed, but be too far ahead of your customers or a face a host of other first mover disadvantages. Innovation is hard, but it can be harder still to make others believe that The Vision of your future title will pan out. When it comes to private investment (e.g. publishers, angel investors, venture capitalists) then you only need to convince a small group of individuals to give you a large sum of money – which isn’t easy, but these are the kind of people willing to take a long-shot if the payout at the end could be big enough and / or they share the vision. With Kickstarter, you have to convince an large group of people to give you a comparatively small amount of money each, with the hope that collectively they pledge you want you’ve asked for (and then some).
Convincing the masses to give you a little bit of cash each is a lot easier when you are selling them on a concept they already like.
The problem with trailblazers is that they can exhaust themselves convincing other people about their ideas and build an interest, only for the next generation of creators to receive most of the benefits. Minecraft is sometimes raised as an innovative title that appeared from out of the blue, but it was created as a clone of Infiniminer mixed with Dwarf Fortress. World of Warcraft benefited immensely from the lessons learned from Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot in terms of what (and what not) to do to be successful. The success of Dune II gave real-time strategy (RTS) the template that in turn has created massively successful franchises like Warcraft, Starcraft, Command & Conquer and Age of Empires.
If you want to venture outside of video games on this issue, look at the personal music player: Apple certainly weren’t first to market with the iPod, but they analysed all the problems that existed with other similar products to come up with something that became best-in-category. The original innovators were passed by and are now mostly forgotten.
3. Take It All Off – Slowly – And I’ll Leave The Money On The Dresser If I Like What I See
Kickstarter requires that you explain to the public on a public page about what great innovations your title will have. There’s no protection there – you need to explain why people should give you money. In a more formal pitch process, this kind of reveal can be protected by non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and commercial confidentiality arrangements, so that the investor group you show your idea to can’t just take your concepts and give them to someone else (in theory anyway…).
This means that all your good ideas sit exposed to anyone else who wants to take a shot at them. If they can move faster than you and are already funded, then they can take what they like of your game’s innovations and be first to market with it. You can try to keep your innovation secret, but not showing off all the good reasons why people should back your project reduces your chances of success.
I’d be incredibly surprised if developers and publishers aren’t reviewing what goes on within Kickstarter video game projects each week to see what’s interesting and to look for trends they can leverage. If they think they can copy something and be successful, they will. And if they have the ability to get more people aware of their title over the original innovator, then that’s the title people will remember.
4. Explaining the Unexplainable
It can be very hard to explain innovation. The actual insight that leads to innovation is rare to come across to begin with – which is why lots of evolutionary innovation is in the realms of “we’ve put a clock in this version” – but then you have to explain it to others within the Kickstarter framework.
Innovation often adds more than the sum of its parts, but that’s hard to put into words. Let’s again go outside of video games and look at… vacuum cleaners.
James Dyson’s innovation was to create a vacuum cleaner that didn’t need bags. Is that something that sounds innovative? Who cares – it’s just a bag! Vacuum manufacturers who Dyson approached weren’t interested in developing it and even with design awards behind it the Dyson vacuum still took a decade for the market to accept it. It took a shift from explaining the major Dyson advantage was more efficient suction to no longer needing vacuum bags for people to start to get it.
Dyson was able to wait out years before he managed to get the masses on-board with his product. Most Kickstarters run for just 30 days or so. Even with text and video, you might not be able to show why your innovation is going to be attractive, especially since video games are interactive experiences. Ever watched video of Just Dance 4? It doesn’t match up to the experience of trying to play the game in the slightest.
5. The Most Public Yet of My Many Humiliations
Kickstarter is arguably a risk-adverse platform. In order to succeed, you need to drum up the support of all your friends, family and any kind of gaming community around you. You will have to approach games writers and ask for them to please put an article that mentions your project on their site to raise awareness that it exists. If you have some kind of profile in the gaming industry, you are putting your reputation on the line.
Failing to meet your Kickstarter target provides an implicit signal that there isn’t much interest in that game concept. At an overall level, very few Kickstarters just barely fail to meet their target – among failed Kickstarters only 3% made it to 50% of their pledge goal. The rest fell way below that mark. In this situation a lot of developers say they will continue development regardless, but it becomes a millstone around that project – you put yourself out there and very few showed up to support you.
If you succeed in your Kickstarter but then fail to deliver your project, everyone will know. We’re in a situation where Kickstarter video games are hot news (and easy copy) for video game sites, so a project that fails is a story. The masses are unlikely to remember you as the developer / studio who tried their best but weren’t able to quite get there; they will remember you as the developer / studio who took their money and returned nothing. It wouldn’t take much for you to become “that failed Kickstarter guy / woman” and that’s something that can close a lot of doors in a career.
So why would you lead with your most experimental project? If your sensible, you won’t – you’ll lead with your safest, most-likely-to-be-backed project and perhaps think that if this first project is successful, then maybe next project or the one after that will be the highly innovative one. Or the next one. Or the one after that.
6. If At First You Don’t Succeed… You’ll Have Broken Your Promise to Us
True innovation requires risks. The problem with innovation requiring risks means that it also sees a lot of failure.
I’ve spent something like 20 years following video game development, particularly in the massively multiplayer online (MMO) space. The following cycle has been repeated dozens of times:
- a developer / studio will announce a title that contains a wish list of game features;
- players get all excited;
- the developer / studio builds their prototypes and systems only for testing to show that they don’t deliver what is intended, or that it will cost too much and they’re running out of money;
- the developer / studio announces (or tries to hide) that they are cutting and changing certain features – “we’ll look to add this system post-release” is a favourite non-response; and
- players get all upset and angry that the developers are “dumbing down the game”.
City of Heroes (CoH) is a great example here. When it was first announced, it was going to have a free-form character creation system, where you could pick any combination of powers you wanted. During play-testing the perils of this system became clear – players would invest all their character evolution into one defensive power and one offensive power (making the game either a cakewalk or unbeatable, depending one the challenges faced) or would spend points on non-combat powers (so the character would be a fantastic flyer, but unable to beat any enemies).
Cryptic announced the changes made to CoH – the free-form powers system would be replaced by a range of fixed primary and secondary power sets – and the forums lost its mind as posters vented their anger and disbelief that such a key part of the game was being changed. At least one major fansite shut itself down over the news since CoH was now going in “the wrong direction“.
None of these people had paid any money to Cryptic to be part of the CoH community – the reaction came purely from a sense of emotional investment. I can only imagine what would have happened if we’d all paid $5 or more into a CoH Kickstarter that initially promised one core system but changed to another when they found that it wasn’t working as intended.
People elect to back a Kickstarter for the ideas they promise. Not delivering on those promises is something a lot of people will hold against a project and its creators. Given the potential backlash against failure, it’s much easier for developers to promise something safe, something they are highly confident of delivering, such as a game in a genre they’ve done before or a sequel to an existing title.
Unless you are Volvo, it’s extremely hard to be both safe and innovative.
7. I’m Making <New Game>, Just Like <Old Game>
There’s some discussion around about the language used to describe video games and although I don’t want to really delve into that particular pit of semantic wankery, I’d like to observe that a lot of the time we use existing video games to describe future video games. A new RTS title might be “like Diablo” or “like Starcraft” or “like Myth” or “like Cannon Fodder” or so on, and the very act of classifying one title to be ‘like’ another brings with it expectations.
Other creative products don’t suffer from this problem nearly as much. A film can be described as sci-fi without being called “like Star Wars”. Books can be fantasy without being “like Harry Potter”. In video games it seems that the industry searches for the closest possible existing title to help categorise both a title’s content as well as its gameplay mechanics.
This act of framing the new by relying on the old has the effect of stifling creativity and innovation. It’s an easy shortcut to go down, especially for a Kickstarter, but doing so – “we’re making a platformer that’s like Braid” or “we’re making an RPG like Skyrim” – locks the developers into a framework that constricts what they can do. After all, if they go too far away from that promise during development, they are no longer making a title that is “like Braid” any more but are making a title “like Zool“, which isn’t what the backers originally went for.
Yes, you can innovate within existing confines, but this is more likely to be evolutionary innovation than revolutionary. It also doesn’t seem to help that when a lot of players cry “Innovation!” they really mean, “I want my old favourite game updated with new graphics and sound!”.
8. How Much Games Actually Cost To Develop – $$LOTS$$
Video games are expensive things to make. Gamers got excited when Double Fine raised US$3.3m for their point-and-click adventure via Kickstarter, but that’s not a lot of money when spread over multiple people on the project (and the title has reportedly cut back on features to avoid going over that budget). As a point of comparison, Double Fine indicated they’d need a budget of US$18m to make Psychonauts 2.
When it comes to crowdfunding of video games, the speculative high-risk project might be successful enough to raise the cash to cover a Maya license, but isn’t going to raise enough for the developer team to quit work and concentrate on their game full-time for long. As stated above, innovation requires trial and error, with each error providing valuable learnings but also costing time and money (even if indirectly through rent and food costs). Most backers aren’t interested in just funding someone else’s eduction – they want to an outcome to the project and any associated rewards.
If you accept that developers need lot of money behind them to develop a quality video game, a developer who elects to stake that money on a high risk project is really just setting themselves up for a career-damaging outcome. It makes more sense that if they wish to remain employed then they should spend the same amount of cash on a less-innovative, lower risk project with high certainty of delivery. It’s arguably one of the reasons that publishers have increasingly become risk adverse – they have more experience than anyone about seeing video game developers promising one thing and then failing to deliver.
It’s estimated within the video games industry that only 1 in 5 titles that make it onto shelves end up being profitable. Although not every Kickstarter video game project is aiming for profitability, I suspect that few wish to be massive black holes that developers have poured both their own cash and the Kickstarter money into and received little in return.
The Nostalgia Was Better When I Was Younger
The reasons above are partly behind the success of nostalgia-based Kickstarters. It’s easy to tell pledgers what they will receive in return for their support, the developers know what they’ll be delivering because the ‘blueprints’ already exist and the design risks are generally lower. No-one’s trying to reinvent the wheel; instead, they’re delivering the old wheel that isn’t as available as it once was. Nostalgia is a short-cut into backers’ wallets.
It’s possible for some innovation to occur within Kickstarter, but it’s a terrible platform for it. The publicity and the increased scrutiny reduces the level of risk developers are going to take, while gamers need things clearly explained to them and then get excited about it means that it is better to offer projects where there is pre-existing demand. Besides, the vast majority of Kickstarters for video games aren’t going to raise enough for for the repeated iteration of prototypes until the innovation is polished.
Much easier to pitch what you know and what gamers know. There’s a reason why the SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY meme is so frequently associated with video game Kickstarters, and it’s not because gamers are being challenged in what is being presented to them.