Dark or Light

Is Crowdfunding Bad?

Red Thomas Posted:
Editorials 0

Kickstarter has pulled in more than $1.9 billion in support or over 257,000 successfully funded projects after going live in early 2009.  GoFundMe has allowed people and projects to raise over $5 billion since their launch a little more than a year later.  The rise of crowdfunding blew the doors off of traditional funding models and shows no sign of slowing down, despite a few ham-fisted attempts at legislation.

There is no doubt that crowdfunding has given a much-needed platform to artists and content creators who would have otherwise found it difficult to compete against the dominant corporations.  In a lot of ways, game development has benefitted similarly.  Games that would have never survived a pitch to traditional publishers have been funded and launched thanks to support from the crowd.

I backed BATTLETECH knowing that a lawsuit by the overly-litigious Harmony Gold could cripple the project.

There are a lot or reasons crowdfunding can be, and often is, beneficial for game development.  We may explore that in a future article, but the question before us today is whether crowdfunding can be bad for game development.

There are a number of aspects of crowdfunding that aren’t very good for game development.  One of the first is a simple question of ethics.   Typically, developers pitch game ideas to publishers, larger studios, or sophisticated investors.  In each of those cases, the decision to fund or not is up to those who have experience in the industry and can make sound decisions by drawing on that background.   The crowd doesn’t often have that experience, and that can lead to the funding of bad ideas.

For instance, when Crowfall developers announced their plans to have dynamic campaigns, effectively creating multiple servers with differing rulesets that would spin up, live, die, and be recycled, it was a bold move.  There aren’t a lot of games out, if any, with similar technology.   ArtCraft was effectively taking a swing at a pretty radical idea, which they’ve since proved to be successful at implementing.  Where the crowd took their claims on faith, a more sophisticated investor or studio would have been able to take a closer look at the feasibility of the technology before giving the go-ahead.

It worked out for Crowfall, but plenty of other projects haven’t been as successful.  Star Citizen has reportedly had issues with integrating their first-person combat engine with their flight sim engine.  Despite the Squadron 42 component to the game being “nearly finished” two years ago, it’s still missing and there are serious questions about integration problems that industry veterans might have asked.   Questions that were not asked by the crowd.

Hype is a great tool for misdirection, and it can mislead a crowd, even unintentionally.  As has been said in response to some of my other articles, backers often consider what they see on Kickstarter to be a promise, but it’s actually just a design goal.  Whether a webapp or a video game, it all starts with a generic image of the intended product.

Deadwood: The Forgotten Curse is a cute game with some neat ideas, but development has been a little slow.

Developers aren’t used to pitching to laymen, and the crowd doesn’t have the experience to pick up on some of the unspoken context common in pitches.  A game may want to implement a perma-death system that creates a sort of genetic inheritance of skills between subsequent generations of characters, as an example.  They pitch a lot of ideas for how such a system is expected to work, which the crowd takes as statements of fact.  Industry vets would recognize the more difficult objectives for what they were and calculate the potential loss of those components into their evaluation of the pitch.

There’s no intent to deceive, but that common framework for language is missing between developers and the average backer, and that creates a dangerous situation.  It’s a problem not only because backers may become irate at a perceived broken promise, but development can also be slowed and otherwise adversely impacted by the increased visibility created by a crowdfunded project.

We’ve all seen projects crippled by overbearing publishers, which is the reason many of us are eager to support crowdfunded efforts.  Imagine how much more difficult it must be to cater to the whims of a crowd that doesn’t have development experience.  It’s a situation that can, and I’m certain has, cause a developer to continue attempting to implement a bad idea in order to avoid enflaming the crowd.   Otherwise, bad ideas might be dropped immediately in support of more fully developing a better one.

It’s not a game, but come on. How could you NOT support these guys? …and that’s hype that I fell victim to. Not that I haven’t been happy with the results, but I backed on pure hype and with no thought.

In the end, there are a lot of really good reasons that crowdfunding is likely to remain a common funding model for projects.   It’s a model that comes with a lot of problems, though.  Like any other tool, it can be used for good by the knowledgeable, but it can be dangerous in the hands of a neophyte.  Then, there are potentially those who would intentionally misuse the tool in a way that might harm others.

Good or bad, you control your money, though.  I’d leave you with just this last caution.  Support a project because you like the team behind it or it’s an idea that you’d love to see be developed, but you need to remember that you’re not making a purchase.  You’re making a donation.  Whether it’s buying a car or helping to fund a video game, do your research and be willing to walk away.  Never put money into something you’re not sure about unless you’re okay losing that money.  That’s financial advice that applies virtually anywhere, and crowdfunding is no exception to that rule.  


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.