Update: I've refined a few of my points in this article to focus less on the whole "how much it costs to make a video game" angle, because I'm not exactly an expert on project funding. I think the point I'm trying to illustrate about Kickstarter as a whole is now clearer, and articulated in a more generally-applicable manner.
Note: This piece is of tangential relation to Android (and it grew more tangential as I wrote it), but the game in question is a joint Kickstarter venture promising an Android game, M.U.L.E. Returns, as well as a multi-platform title, Alpha Colony: A Tribute To M.U.L.E.
The Backstory: A Darker Side Of Kickstarter
If you're not familiar with Kickstarter, you've been probably living under a rock the last year or so. The crowd-sourced-venture-capital meets product pre-order mechanic behind the company is simple: someone comes up with an idea (within Kickstarter's accepted project guidelines), and asks people to fund it. In return, backers are promised some sort of fungible good should the project meet its monetary goals as pre-determined by the project creator.
And if you're a Reddit reader, especially of /r/games, you know that the system has a significant potential for fraudulent abuse. The "MYTHIC" scandal was probably Kickstarter's most obvious case of fraud in recent memory (and most elaborate), but there have been other, less clear-cut instances of shadiness, too.
Take Tech-Sync Power System. One man, Steven Washington, claimed for $2000 of seed funding he would work with his team to create a home light control system with Wi-Fi and a mobile app - for just $20 backers could get the end hardware product. After quickly reaching over $25,000, the project was cancelled under some very suspicious circumstances. Like MYTHIC, the project was canned by the creator, resulting in no lost money.
Supporters of Kickstarter would likely say "hey, no harm, no foul." But they haven't talked to backers of Eyez. The project's goal was to produce a high-quality pair of HD video recording sunglasses with Facebook integration. Of the project's $55,000 goal, over $350,000 ended up being raised by backers. Minus Kickstarter's 5% cut, the remainder of that sum went straight into the bank account of the project creator when the fundraising ended - on July 31, 2011. Shortly thereafter, a group photo of the project creators on a beach in Thailand popped up on the company's Facebook page. It has since been removed.
ZionEyez has released basically no substantive updates on the status of the project, and backers are pissed.
About 25 people gave Eyez over $500 individually, and over 2000 gave them over $150. The comments section of the project is littered with cries of fraud, false identity, and just about any other legal accusation you could think of. Was it particularly wise of these people to give a company they'd never heard of a significant amount of their own money on a promise of an admittedly complex product? In hindsight, pretty obviously not. But at the time, people were truly excited by the idea - and I don't think anyone can hold that against them.
Eyez isn't the only such story found on Kickstarter. There's Hanfree - an iPad accessory. Or i+Case - which did end up being delivered, but severely disappointed recipients (it degraded phone signal to the point of uselessness). Cam Crate - a DSLR case project whose creator has mysteriously disappeared after receiving his funding is yet another. All this risk is disclaimed by Kickstarter such that they can never be held liable by backers, which makes sense, but the fact that Kickstarter actively hides all failed projects from search queries and does very little policing isn't exactly encouraging.
But these are tales that come close to outright fraud - of enraged customers, or of people simply being unable to fulfill what they promised. And most of them (except MYTHIC) have also been hardware. Increasingly, though, we're seeing abuse of Kickstarter's system take a new, less obvious form. One that isn't so outwardly nefarious, but one that I would contend is still very much against the spirit of Kickstarter's goal.
Enter Alpha Colony: A Tribute To M.U.L.E.
It was before my time, but M.U.L.E. was a very popular PC game way back in the day, and a group of developers calling themselves DreamQuest games are, under license, trying to revive the franchise in the form of a M.U.L.E / Civilization / Settlers hybrid of sorts. They want to make this game available on iOS and PC/Mac. A bonus for donating $25 or more gets you a copy of M.U.L.E. Returns, a direct remake, for Android and iOS. It's a cool idea - no doubt. The concept renders the team shows are impressive (though of a single render of the game area and one animation sequence), and the pitch video is full of heart-warming enthusiasm. It all sounds great - until you read the fundraising goal.
Let me just spell that out: five-hundred-thousand dollars. For developing what isn't exactly a groundbreaking game. Sorry, I don't mean to be dismissive toward the idea (in fact, I like it), I just mean to point out the fact that they aren't trying to develop Crysis 3 or the next Portal here (those games cost millions to make, but are much more complex), and they aren't Tim Schaefer. They don't need a crack graphics team, Hollywood voice acting, or years of development to perfect highly complex gameplay mechanics. And they aren't embarking on this venture with a time-proven track record or world-renowned creative mind like Sid Meier. It's a cool-looking indie game that is designed to be priced at, probably, $20 for the computer version ($15 gets you a desktop copy for PC/Mac in the Kickstarter pledge), and $5 for the mobile version.
And if it really does need that $500,000, there really isn't any information made available by DreamQuest that makes me comfortable with that number.
So let's dig a little deeper, shall we? The man in charge of this project is Christopher Williamson, a software engineer from Colorado. Since 2000, he's run a homegrown game development studio called DreamQuest. DreamQuest has experienced some success, but its entire product catalog consists of various 2D card games, checkers, and chess. I'm serious. Williamson himself claims to have been the lead developer on the movie-based game Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, which received the sort of critical response most movie games do: "meh." I don't want to knock the guy, but the work his company has produced doesn't exactly make me any more confident in the project he's aiming to undertake here.
Like a lot of recent Kickstarters (see SILVIA), Alpha Colony seems to be a slow to take off pet-project gone grand ambition, seeking to become a reality on the backs of nostalgic small-time investors, and to avoid the risk of failure, rather than a truly innovative venture that needs a "kickstart" to get going. It draws you in with a compelling, well-produced (if awkward at times) video, teasing concept art and images, and what looks to be a decently orchestrated social campaign. Basically, standard fare for a Kickstarter of this magnitude. It was definitely enough to catch gaming blog Kotaku's eye with its immediate "nostalgia factor."
And the addition of that nostalgia factor seems fairly recent, because the Google+ page for Alpha Colony is for an apparently different iteration of the game, as we can see because of the company's failure to update its own banner photo:
But anyway, how does Alpha Colony justify its $500,000 goal? They actually tell us on the Kickstarter page:
Why an aggressive fundraising goal?
We wanted to make sure we raised enough to do the game right. For example, we have experimented with both a simultaneous play prototype and an asynchronous turn mode similar to Words with Friends and both were fun. Do our fans want to play this way or something more like the hot seat turn-based original?
We would like to see:
- more clear race benefits (such as one race being able to move a little faster, better at catching wampus, producing food, etc.),
- a more intuitive auction trading interface,
- a beginner tutorial,
- and more story.
- Perhaps even an interactive single-player campaign, like we are used to seeing in hit games like Starcraft, Diablo, and Civilization.
Let's go down the list. First, there's the special stuff like simultaneous play (eg, multiple games at once, from what I can tell), and asynchronous turn mode (eg, you don't have to leave a game "open"). There are literally dozens of throwaway clones of DrawSomething and other casual titles like Words With Friends out there with these features - I'm guessing they're not rocket science to implement, though feel free to correct me if I'm wrong. Next:
"more clear race benefits (such as one race being able to move a little faster, better at catching wampus, producing food, etc.), "
I understand adding gameplay tweaks takes time, but it's hardly what I'd call a huge undertaking to figure this sort of stuff out and balance factions, especially if you've got a willing pen of beta testers.
a more intuitive auction trading interface,
Again, a single feature. One that requires attention to detail? Sure, so does anything, but I hardly see this sort of thing having its own price tag as compared to something like, I don't know, all the models and textures?
a beginner tutorial,
Seriously? You're going to tell me it's some kind of big deal to show someone how to play the game?
and more story.
If you're hiring pro writers, this can obviously cost money. But this is a turn-based tile strategy game, not the next Heavy Rain. I think people will live without a deep, compelling tale of a multipurpose resource-harvesting robot and his organic overlords who live in a hex-based world.
Perhaps even an interactive single-player campaign, like we are used to seeing in hit games like Starcraft, Diablo, and Civilization.
This one isn't even a promise, it's a thought. You might be able to incorporate a more linear, structured single-player experience that would actually add a lot of value to the game?
Taken together, these so-called "AAA-level features" aren't exactly making me think "$500,000 game." Of course, they talk about the need for visual polish and good music as well, but they're clearly trying to sell backers the idea of gameplay features that, frankly, should probably be there in the first place if this game isn't going to suck. And Android support will only come if fundraising exceeds a certain undisclosed amount above the initial $500,000 goal. Great.
My problem here is accountability. Funding a Kickstarter project is a lot like throwing money into the ground, and expecting the creator to water, tend, and harvest the fruits of those individual investments in a responsible way. You don't get to see how your investment is used, only the occasional (and typically superficial) glimpse into progress. Venture capital funding is much different. Budgets, business plans, and timelines are strictly laid out such that the investor has a very good idea what's happening. Any additional funding sources are also usually disclosed to the investor.
For a $50,000 project, the concern of accountability is much lower. People have a better sense of what something costs at that point - it's an amount of money they can wrap their heads around and assign a value to pretty easily. They're also usually well-aware of the limitations of such a budget, and don't set their hopes too high. It's a lot easier for the creator to break down where that money goes, too. If I promise to build 200 people a custom-painted cherry wood end-table for $250 apiece, it's a lot different from me saying I'll build electric cars for 20 people at $25,000 apiece. The more ambitious and complex (expensive) the project, the more likely the end product is to disappoint - that's the basic principle business lending and seed funding operate on.
Missing The Point
The fact is, this isn't what Kickstarter is about, and it's dangerous and risky for small-time investors. What's going on here is pre-order phishing by a company that doesn't have enough confidence in its idea (or apparently enough interest from outside investors) to just do it. And if they did, and really just needed the money to make it a practical reality (rather than the "ideal amount" to produce this "AAA" pie in the sky) without having to accept strings-attached VC funding, they'd probably be asking for less to start with. Hell, Neal Stephenson's asking for $500,000 to completely revolutionize sword combat in videogames - that's a cool idea. Zombie Playground is an action RPG that sets out a realistic base goal ($100,000 and a playable pre-alpha), and is backed by people who have worked on very successful, modern big-name titles. And even if both of these projects don't meet their upper-level goals, the creators will keep working on them anyways - because they're committed to their ideas.
Some projects deserve these large price tags. Because they're truly ambitious and inspiring. Because their creators' track records speak for themselves. But more and more, we're seeing Kickstarter used as a glorified pre-order system to gauge whether or not a venture, particularly mobile apps and games, will be profitable, or if they'll be able to get enough cash up front so the creators can quit their day jobs. And that's not cool, even if your idea is. It doesn't speak to the quality of the end product, or the dedication and passion of the creator - it just says "x number of people would buy this if it's as you describe it here." It encourages people to blindly front money into risky projects they know very little about, sometimes managed by people with no idea what they're really getting into.
It's time get more wary of Kickstarters (and other similar services) for mobile apps and games, especially when so much money can be at stake for one project. It's easy to get caught up in the hype. There's a fine line between enthusiastic support and financial investment, and when it comes to software, there's something to be said for a product you can buy and use today, as opposed to the promise of one (made by someone you know nothing about) a year from now.
Just a friendly reminder.