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Why Kickstarter Scares the Crap Out of Me
by Ryan Creighton on 07/13/12 10:19:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[This article by Ryan Henson Creighton is re-posted from the Untold Entertainment blog, which is awesome.]

If i had a dime for everyone who suggested i set up a Kickstarter campaign for Spellirium, our upcoming graphic adventure/word puzzle mash-up game, i wouldn't need to start a Kickstarter campaign. Because i'd have a lot of dimes. Dimes from those people i just mentioned.

Anyone remember THIS? Eh? ... no? Okay.

But aside from the relative inconvenience of starting a Kickstarter campaign when you're Canadian (the process involves befriending and placing your complete trust in an American. What is this - Fantasyland??), i am very wary of crowdsourcing funding for my games. To understand why, i have to take you aaaaall the way back to 1985. Codpieces were the height of fashion, Gorbachev was in the White House, and an eight-year-old Ryan Terence Creighton (née Bagley ... honestly) was wearing a bank teller's visor.

Awwww yeah. Time for some muhfuggin' BIDNESS.

i was wearing the visor because that's what people wear when they handle money (and they live in the 1920's). And i was about to handle a lot of money.

There Goes the Neighbourhood

i got it in my head that i would write a book - an adventure story about two kids who discover a mysterious egg that hatches into a baby dragon, which they have to care for and keep hidden from their parents. i was so positive that this was a Great Idea™ that i decided to raise money for the endeavour through pre-sales. So i put on my green visor and loaded some scrap paper into my clipboard, because clipboards also have something to do with collecting money. But i wasn't sure what, exactly.

i began canvassing the neighbourhood, pitching my prospective product to neighbours i'd never met. i explained that i'd be selling the book piecemeal for 25 cents a chapter, and that there would be around 30 chapters. Those neighbours who were quick with math figured out that the book would cost over seven dollars, which in 1985 money was, like, a thousand bucks, based on their reactions. So some neighbours bought one chapter, some bought three chapters, and one or two folks went all-in for the whole book.

i collected the loose change in a large plastic bag, being very careful to record the relevant details of the transaction. i knew it had something to do with writing down who gave me money, but i hadn't quite figured out how street addresses worked, so i think i wrote down stuff like "Smith. 1 Chapter. Green Fence." and "Jenkins. 2 Chapters. Has a dog."

In Which My Mother Has Another Baby

When i arrived home i was hot and tired and sweaty, but i considered the day a success. My single-parent mother came through the front door and, beaming, i held up an enormous plastic bag filled with coins.

Mom freaked.

"Where did you get all that MONEY, Ryan??" she demanded. i told her all about my brilliant pre-sales plan, and showed her how successful i'd been. She took a look at my clipboard and gasped in horror. "How are you going to give people a book if you don't know where they live??" i ... i didn't know.

She demanded to see the actual book i was selling. "But ... there's no book, Mom" i said. "i collected all this money on the promise of writing a book." That's when Mom confiscated my hard-earned coins, sat me down at the kitchen table, and though i wouldn't be able to get the product to most of the people on the list (it's possible she knew how to find "Thompson. 1 chapter. Black sports car in driveway"), she made damn sure that i knuckled down and wrote the first chapter of that book.

Angry mom

Angry moms: nature's perfect bonerkillers.

So i did. i worked for, like, a whole half hour, until my hand cramped. The first chapter ended with the kids discovering the egg. i clearly remember the amazing dialogue i had written for the characters as they gazed on in wonder at the mysterious orb:

"What is it, Jenny?" asked Clark.

"I don't know," she said. "I don't know."

This was all in the Days Before Mom Could Afford a Computer, so i wrote and illustrated the thing by hand using pencil crayons. i finished the first chapter - two whole pages - pleased as punch with myself, and presented it to my mom with an "i told you so" air. "Great work," she said flatly. "Now how are you going to do 27 more copies?"

This was also in the Days Before Colour Photocopies Were Available to Regular Human Beings. My hand was sore, my pencil crayons were worn to nubs, and my money had been confiscated. Tomorrow was a new day, and i had to face it with a product i could not deliver to people whose money i had already collected.


What the Ancient 80's Can Teach Us About Today

Flash forward to now. Codpieces are still in fashion (i find them quite fetching, anyway), and everyone i know is urging me to venture back out into the streets with my bank visor and my clipboard, knocking on the doors of unknown neighbours and asking them for money for an as-yet incomplete project. The sting of letting those people down, my mother's consternation, and the abject guilt of collecting money and not delivering linger with me, and i can't yet bring myself to do it. i'm not saying i won't ever start a Kickstarter campaign, but it might take a few hours talking to a bearded man while lying on a couch to work up the courage to try pre-sales again.

Tell me about your mother ... flipping shit when you tried to pre-sell that non-existent chapter book.

And for those of you would-be backers: beware of little kids in visors asking you for money for products that may never materialize. Sure, the clipboards they hold may lull you into a false sense of security (because clipboards, after all, all the hallmark of a pro). But whatever you do, just make sure they're writing down your address correctly.

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Benjamin Quintero
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Great article. I think this also speaks to the other side of that coin, not just the fears of someone who may not deliver on their promise, but about those who blindly believe that if they fund it that it will succeed. The reality is that any of these high profile campaigns (including Double Fine's) has a very real potential for failure or just plain sucking. OUYA (in addition to a terrible name) has an even better chance of completely falling flat of all expectations.

Kickstarter has a certain kind of feeding frenzy seen by sharks in bloody water. Many high profile campaigns fall into a positive cycle where success gains more exposure which earns more success. Eventually people don't even know what they are supporting, but if it has reached its goal then people trust that someone else must have done the homework for them. This is very dangerous thinking that gets people spending money on something they may never take out of the box, but I guess it's good for those who know how to spin it and exploit the system; just talk to the Penny Arcade duo for examples =).

Christopher Brooks
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Awesome article.

Here's something maybe you don't realize about those neighbors you hit up for quarters: most of them gave you the cash not in the expectation of getting a high-quality product in return, but because they were glad to see a kid getting off his butt and doing something besides watch TV.

To me, throwing $5 or $10 at a Kickstarter project is kind of like that. "Looks like a neat idea kids, here's a few bucks. Have fun, and don't hurt yourself."

Robert Boyd
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I imagine many individuals who are donating small sums like that feel similarly. However, you also have kickstarters where people are donating sizeable sums. For example, the average big amount for the Ouya kickstarter right now is about $125. Lose $5-$10? Eh, no biggie. Lose $125? That's more likely to hurt.

Brandon Perdue
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I think most anyone who puts much money into Kickstarter (or, at least, I'd like to think) sort of understands the implicit "buyer beware" nature of the endeavor. Maybe not. I've given to a few Kickstarters (in marginal amounts), but it's always been to people who have an existing pedigree of some kind, who I'm pretty certain are going to deliver and, even if I don't necessarily care as much about the product, think it's a neat idea that is worth funding even if it would be hard to convince larger investors of same.

Take, for instance, Schell Games's Puzzle Clubhouse, which has a kind of outrageous crowd-sourced design model. I realize the inherent insanity of the idea, but I'm also kind of curious to see what would actually happen if someone tried it, and if SG is willing to put in the time and effort, that's worth a little cash to me.

E McNeill
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Entertaining as always, but all I'm getting out of this is that there's a risk that Kickstarter projects could fail, which I'm pretty sure was already widely known. Is there something deeper that I'm missing?

Also, are the "i"s an intentional aesthetic choice?

EDIT: Similarly, how is this kind of crowdfunding different from taking money from the Canadian government for Spellirium, or from using friends' time in Project Overboard?

Ryan Creighton
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The i's are an intentional aesthetic choice.

This story is less a criticism of Kickstarter, and more of a personal confession of why the idea of launching a campaign scares the crap out of me. Hence the title. Now, whenever people say "you should start a Spellirium Kickstarter!", i can just link them to this article. Hyperlinks: easier than talking to people.

Kickstarter's brand of crowdfunding is vastly different from the Ontario government funding in many, many ways. Here are a few:

1. Ontario requires you to raise 50% or more of the budget yourself.

2. Ontario requires you to spend a certain amount of money in Ontario, which means you can pretty much only hire Ontario employees for your project. Contrastingly, Kickstarter don't care.

3. If you don't fulfil your commitment to the OMDC, the government claws the money back... ALL of the money back ... EVEN IF you've honestly spent their contribution on Ontario employees (as i'm discovering).

4. The OMDC only cares that you produce a market-ready product. You technically don't even have to bring the product to market - they just have to deem it market-ready. With Kickstarter, the expectation (of course) is that the product goes to market.

5. OMDC money is, in a way, crowdsourced from Ontario taxpayers. The OMDC is a non-elected administrative body that serves at the pleasure of the Minister of Culture (who is appointed from the elected Premier's cabinet). With some industry input in the form of hired jurors, OMDC makes the call on which projects get funded. Joe Taxpayer really has no say in the matter.

Here are some big differences between Project Overboard/Head of the Gorgon and a Kickstarter campaign:

1. Aside from a few early investors and sponsors, the only people with a significant stake in Head of the Gorgon are the 40-odd people who donated their time. Worst case scenario (and this WON'T happen), is that the game is never released and everyone loses one weekend out of their lives. (My own stake in the project is much larger, because i've been working on the game for a month since TOJam, and my name's kind of on the line here.)

2. Generally, we're only asking for money from players when we give them the finished product, instead of asking for money now on spec. i've asked for people's TIME on spec, but it's not *much* time, and it's not *many* people. i guess that's a big difference for me? Helps me be more relaxed about that game, for sure. (And it might be interesting to mention that the vast majority of Project Overboard team members who donated their time weren't actually my friends ... i didn't really even know most of the team when we started the project. Pretty amazing!)

Maybe i just have to keep doing projects like these, where i only risk letting a *few* people down, and then work my way up to the risk of letting LOTS of people down? i just don't have a big appetite for disappointing people, for sullying my name, or for gaining a reputation as a shyster. i remember when one message board commenter cast aspersions on my daughter's Ponycorn education fund (which is being run by donations), suggesting that i have a "dodgy track record". i was absolutely mortified. Apart from the most recent donations, the whole amount is tucked safely inside a registered education savings plan that Cassie's nana started for her.

E McNeill
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I see; I'm so used to the structure of anecdote-->argument that I didn't consider this might be more of a personal story. You sort of indicate that direction with your last subheader, but I see what you were going for.

Thanks for the explanation of the Ontario gov funding. The most important difference is #3; this basically functions as an enforcement mechanism. Otherwise, I'd argue that there's still an essential similarity between asking for Kickstarter money and applying for gov funding (in terms of the developer's moral duty).

I still think the comparison to a big collaborative project is apt, though. It may not be *much* time, but most backers don't put up much money (and there's a chance it could come back), and I'd place a high value on a weekend of free time. But if it's just the number of people affected that gets to you, I understand why you'd be cool with that.

Lastly, may I ask why you go with "i"? I'm curious.

Jeremy Reaban
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It's different because getting funding from taxpayers is involuntary (literally at gunpoint. Go ahead don't pay your taxes and see what happens), whereas Kickstarter and such is completely voluntary.

Both are risky - go ahead, ask Rhode Island how their funding of 38 Studios worked out.

But somehow government funding is considered superior, because somehow politicians are wiser and all that than everyday people (who can't be trusted to spend their own money)

Ryan Creighton
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Well, government employees whose job it is to stimulate the economy do have the benefit of spending all day, every day - 40 hours a week - reading research, funding projects, and attending markets. It's not always the case, but i'd hope that someone who calls it a career is more well-versed in return on investment than Joe Average Kickstarter backer?

That's why day trading is a bad idea. Many people *think* they'd do well playing the stock market, but when people make it their living every single day, you're probably outclassed.

Ryan Creighton
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Jeremy: the word "literally" means actually/in real life. i don't know how Rhode Island collects its taxes, but i doubt guns are involved. (Then again, it IS Amercia ... )

William Volk
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Amusing. In 1981 or so, I made the mistake of accepting a small advance for a book on game design. Trouble was I was finishing up grad school and working on games as a freelancer. Just didn't have the time to do it. A regret I feel even today.

Cecil Casey
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I can hear Tarrance Mann in an awed whisper leaning over and saying "Ray, If they come, you will build it."

Roger Tober
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I guess I'm completely amazed people have this much money to basically throw away. I could see it if it's a game that isn't being made and a person really wants to play it. For instance, adventure games are doing pretty well. Myself, I live on next to nothing. I don't keep enough of a schedule to put a game up on Kickstarter. I like just working on my game when I feel like it, so there are long pauses in between, and I like publishing for free, mainly because no one would play them otherwise.

Joe Stewart
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Kickstarter scares me because I worry that a few high-profile successes could lead to it becoming some kind of standard for funding things. Like, we won't give you real money until you've shown you can get some token "crowd-funding". It worries me because it transfers the inherent risk from the people with the money to the people that need it to do the work and the people who are interested in seeing the work completed, and that's a transfer that the people with the money will always be happy to do.

Ariel Gross
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Cracked me up. Good stuff, thanks for sharing on here. Just makes me think that you're actually the right kind of guy to do a Kickstarter, but I won't go there even though I just did.

Alex Leighton
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Great article. I did a similar thing as a kid, but in my case it was for lawn mowing.

My prediction for Kickstarter, is that one of these super high profile projects is going to fall through, and that'll pretty much be the end of it. Best of luck to everyone using it obviously, but I think Kickstarter's days are numbered.