Friday, August 7, 2015

Kickstarter

On rare occasion, I back video games on Kickstarter and wanted to lay out some of my criteria for sussing out any red flags a video game Kickstarter might send up.

First: I determine if the game interests me at all. Most of my preferred genres (RPGs, city builders, turn-based strategy games) are pretty well covered. However, weird hybrid games always catch my eye. Concrete Jungle is a puzzly, deck-building city-builder. Treachery in Beatdown City is a tactical brawler. Toby’s Island is a city-builder and monster-breeder game. I’m not super interested in funding a straight fantasy RPG or a sci-fi action game as I already have dozens of those. If they’re good, I can buy them after they come out. If they don’t exist, I can help bring something unique to fruition! That’s really cool!

Second: I tend not to contribute to Kickstarters that are already funded. In general, I think stretch goals for video games are a bad idea (more on that below), and pre-ordering games is a gamble. I don’t mind pledging to something that might not get funded, but I’d rather not pledge to something that’s definitely funded.

Third: I look at the scope of the game. I’ve seen one too many Kickstarters that try being a perfect game that is all things to all people. Something complex needs realistic, achievable plans, experienced devs, and a sizeable budget. I tend to err towards smaller games with graphics that aren’t cutting edge because that reduces complexity and therefore reduces risk.

I am really suspicious of stretch goals in general. Stretch goals that add more content or mechanics have costs routinely understated by creators in order to make a pitch seem more attractive. Stretch goals are also another vector for scope-creep to come into play, and it goes back to the risks of complexity I discuss above.

Fourth: the pitch itself is mildly important. Tom Francis covers that extremely well here. I especially agree with his point about lore, which is the least important part of a pitch for me. I generally don’t pay attention to a game’s lore until I’m pretty deep in the game, and I’ll skip right past the part of a pitch that tries to hook me with (over-dramatic) story, such as “Jareth Grimdark is a Destined Reanimetric on the run from the Glorified Indignancy of Yog-Sugoth.”

Fifth: I take a look at “Rewards.” When I back a game, I would at least like the money to go towards a copy of the game. Having my name in the credits isn’t enticing, and I’m not a big video game soundtrack collector, but I am a sucker for having an NPC named after me for a few extra bucks, or a bit of dialogue solicited from me. Physical rewards like t-shirts, stickers, or buttons are also unattractive. However, I’m open to digital art rewards if the art style is a big selling point. I don’t really care for access to pre-release builds as I find I get burned out on the game before its final release, and I don’t have much free time to give detailed feedback to devs.

Sixth and finally: the “Risks and Challenges” section is where I really get critical. I expect to see, at the very least, an acknowledgement of the inherent chaos of software development. No one ships on time, and finished products are rarely an exact match of their initial pitch. I definitely want to see an acknowledgement that timelines are subject to change as well as mitigating factors like industry experience and other forms of backing. I do expect the creators to have already begun development of their game prior to the Kickstarter. If a game hasn’t been worked on at all yet, I suspect the creator doesn’t know what features and gameplay mechanics will actually work in practice, which affects the timeline, the scope, and the budget of their project.

When I was writing this, I noticed that Toby’s Island really didn’t fit all of my criteria. It was a risky investment, and unfortunately that risk was realized. Toby’s Island had the largest scope of all the games I backed; it promised a monster breeding system, a city builder, and an RPG. That’s one strike. Also, Toby’s Island didn’t have a functioning prototype, which was strike two. Finally, there wasn’t much experience behind the project. Strike three! Sure enough, I recently received an update saying the development of the game was going to be significantly set back. The two creators had irreconcilable differences and could no longer agree on the direction of the project.

I don’t really blame them. Software development on its own is really unpredictable. Technical challenges lurk behind every project. It’s not clear how many pitfalls will slow them down in the future or how long it will take to resolve them. A project with tight deadlines and money on the line is going to be incredibly stressful for everyone involved. The guidelines I use are meant to mitigate that hazard.

I still really like the premise of Toby’s Island. I don’t mean to turn them into a cautionary tale, but Kickstarters like Toby’s Island demonstrate the risk inherent to an ambitious game because it’s easy for creators to bite off more than they can chew. I hope potential backers can make use of my guidelines to understand the chance of their money going towards a useful end product.

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