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Kickstarter has turned us all into crappy publishers

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Stop pretending any game is a sure thing

Sure things don't exist in gaming.

It's important to repeat that to yourself when you back a Kickstarter. Mighty No. 9 sure seemed like a sure thing. The design document was Mega Man. The team was led by someone who has made a whole lot of Mega Man. The game was well-funded. The result was often non-functional, and the game wasn't very good when it worked. Even the trailer was awful.

This is also part of the reason I'm so pessimistic about Shenmue 3, and Yu Suzuki's constant need for more money during the record-setting campaign. There is no set budget; the game will simply spend whatever it gets, and of course that's only to set up more sequels. It's not just a matter of shifting goals; it's a goal that was never all too clear to begin with. I'm not about to pay for a pizza whose size is determined by how many other people order.

Double Fine seemed like the sort of company that would benefit the most from the Kickstarter model, and in many ways it has. But Broken Age was split into parts, and those parts suffered delays. The community has often grown angry during these adjustments.

"We used to have a buffer," Double Fine's Tim Schafer told Polygon during a previous interview. "Publishers would absorb almost all the negativity in the world. Your fans love to love you and to hate a big publisher. That was a great place to be. Now we’re face-to-face, which has brought both good and bad things. We’re directly exposed to their love and money through crowdfunding, but also their unrestrained rage."

There's an aspect of these situations that backers rarely talk about, though, and we should. When it comes to crowdfunding, we're the publisher. We just don't get to act like it, and we're pretty bad at our job.

We're bad at being publishers

We're risk-averse and will often give the most money and resources to proven games and personalities. These are the people who may be able to raise the money other ways, and often feel like "safe bets."

But we have no mechanism for turning off the money flow or scheduling payments. We can't look at a project at any point before completion and exert our will unless the developers puts things to a vote. Our responsibility begins and ends with giving the developer a bit of money, and the developer's only job is delivering the game. That seems ideal, but I'd argue it's kind of a worst-case scenario for everyone.

There is no sure thing in gaming, remember. Games are canceled all the time, even games with talented teams of veteran developers, well-known properties and plenty of funding. If the publisher doesn't have faith in the final product, if it looks like finishing the project will cost more than the potential sales upside or even due to shifting business conditions in general ... games are canceled.

Making video games is a tricky endeavor in even the best of circumstances, but we as backers have no method in which we can take a look at a project that has gone off the rails, shut it down, and get what remains of our money collectively back. Nor would we really want that power, since Kickstarter has proven how little most of us know about what it takes to make a game, or what it costs.

The politics that would be involved in somehow taking a vote on whether to shut down a project or allow it to continue along a very troubled development cycle give me a headache to consider. No, thank you.

The flip side to that situation is the fact the developers themselves have no way to cancel a game that doesn't involve a massive public relations disaster, with fans yelling "fraud" and threatening legal action. Again, games are often canceled in this business, for many reasons, but from the point of view of a Kickstarter backer they are owed the game they paid for. Teams may be stuck dumping coal into the furnace of a train that's completely jumped the tracks just to be able to deliver something, anything that resembles the pitch video. They have no choice.

I'm pretty sure that's how trains work.

But there's power in being able to cancel a game. Blizzard's ability to cancel Project Titan existed at all because the company is so diversified and successful in so many genres. Blizzard has the freedom to can projects with huge sunk costs in order to keep the overall quality of its products up. That's not a show of weakness; it's a sign of strength.

CCP recently raised $30 million in funding, partly to fuel the company's long-term dive into virtual reality, but also to allow it to operate from a more flexible position. CCP CEO Hilmar Pétursson told me during my last trip to Iceland that the money allows them to avoid projects that are too big to fail; the teams in CCP can now try many different ideas and quickly cancel the ones that aren't working out. The company uses demos at events like Fanfest to gain fan feedback to decide which ones should move forward.

The company had canceled the World of Darkness MMO in 2014, after a long stint in development hell. The funding raised will make it a bit easier to make those painful calls earlier, instead of sending good money after what may have been a poor investment in development for some time.

Or hell, look at what Bethesda went through with the various versions of Prey and Prey 2 through the years. Or the original version of what was originally called Doom 4.

"We weren't happy with the game that was being made," Bethesda's Pete Hines said of the decision to kill the work on Doom when we interviewed him back in 2015. "We decided that it wasn't Doom enough and needed to be thrown out and started over. Some folks left and some faces changed at the studio. Out of that change — which was not easy for those guys to go through — some amazing things happened."

The resulting game, simply called Doomis likely to be one of the best games of the year. And it's due to the publisher sticking its nose in, canning the original work and starting over. These situations would be be impossible in the Kickstarter model.

It's not this simple, though

Publisher control can also be disastrous, and there are just as many stories about publisher interference going poorly as there are times it was helpful. Perhaps on the whole it's mostly negative. I can feel the collective fingers of developers typing and deleting thousands of tweets in reaction to this story to avoid getting in trouble. I know you have horror stories, and I'm not trying to make publishers in general seem like heroes or villains. They're companies made of people who want to make games and money, and sometimes even in that order.

But Kickstarter doesn't really give us any control of the projects we back, and there are upsides and downsides to that. And there are no sure things, no matter who gives developers their money. Even if I could call the shots a bit more in projects I back, I wouldn't want to. Checking in with a team and making an educated call about how well or poorly a game is coming along requires a lot of development experience and even then people get it wrong all the time. I don't want to be put in that position.

"We’re directly exposed to their love and money through crowdfunding, but also their unrestrained rage."

But the effective result is that we're absentee landlords who demand a game that may or may be a good idea once it goes into development, and we won't allow the game to be canceled, nor would we be happy if the team adapted to changing conditions, funding situations or even just the fact that actual game isn't that fun as it draws closer to completion. We back what we think are sure things, even though those games don't exist and never have, and don't allow for much flexibility. We're not great at the business side of publishing, after all, and the loudest voices among us tend to be the most angry.

This system may seem like it's a way for developers to be funded by loving, supportive fans, but ask Tim Schafer how that turned out in practice.

My advice? Don't give any Kickstarter money that you woudn't be comfortable losing. Understand that there is no team or concept that is guaranteed to produce a good game. Notoriety or "spiritual successors" can be just as risky as completely unknown projects. And the lack of ability for either side to pull the plug increases, rather than decreases, the risks involved across the board.

The system may turn us into crappy publishers, but if we adjust our expectations accordingly? Every so often we may get a good game out of the deal.