Dragged Kickstarting and Screaming
As I grow older, I find myself giving less and less of a crap about other people’s shortcomings in general. So long as they don’t immediately affect me or anybody else for whom I’m responsible in any practical sense, I’m perfectly at ease to let people make, and own, their own mistakes – even if it means letting them fall flat on their asses in all kinds of painful ways. I’m thinking that maybe this has something to with the fact that as time marches on, more and more of my own failures are added to a pile that, while quite hefty, isn’t growing quite as quickly as it used to. Indeed, learning from mistakes has time and time again proven more useful than being told a bunch of best practices and theories up-front, but not really understanding what they were designed to prevent. So as long as the cost of doing so isn’t astronomical, I’m perfectly content to let the odd fuckup just slide – the benefit to the people actually making the mistake is too great not to.
That said there are certain things that I haven’t quite figured out how to rationalize and that still manage to get me absolutely furious. One is arrogance, especially arrogance based on ignorance of one’s own inability. Another is intellectual dishonesty; knowing better, but still doing or saying stupid shit. Yet another is wilful ignorance; not wanting to know the truth of a matter. And to be honest, I often feel like I’ve chosen the absolutely worst possible career path for someone who doesn’t want to be driven insane by those three issues in particular.
I’d be surprised if there was any other industry where the failings of intellect and character I’ve listed above are quite as apparent as in the games industry. And, sadly, the closer one gets to the consumer side of things, the more obvious these and similar issues become – and the more likely they are to be seen combined together in various ways.
Gamers are absolutely infatuated with the myths and legends of the games industry, to the point of not knowing absolutely anything – anything – about games development. They live in such a state of ignorance where if one were to tell them that games development does not, in fact, mean that you get to play games all day, most of them would only be moderately more likely to believe you than someone who doesn’t even play games. They really believe in crap such as the idea that Shigeru Miyamoto is the sole reason Nintendo’s games are as good as they are, or that optimizing performance is analogous to squeezing more fruit from an orange than the next guy can. Hell, for the longest time, the “bits” value of a processor was how we defined hardware capability. Does anyone talk about bits anymore? Of course not, but this doesn’t mean that people are getting smarter or less gullible; it just means that the agenda has been reset by those who hold the power to do so.
The specialist press – games magazines, web sites and the like – are of course complicit in all of this. Hell, they’d be stupid not to be; if you’ve got a fan base that’s this gullible, ignorant and proud of it, you’re going to cater to it, not educate it to your own detriment. Games press is more often than not at the mercy of publishers and the second you start fiddling too much with your user base the sooner they start asking difficult questions, and requiring you to do the same. You know, engaging in actual journalism and stuff. I mean, journalism is hard, at least compared to falling in line with the narrative-of-least-resistance that keeps publishers happy and doesn’t bar you from press meetings and overseas trips at the others’ expense.
Not an accurate representation of game development
It’s not just about laziness or “letting stuff slide” either; some articles are intentionally written in an intellectually dishonest manner. I remember a relatively recent article written on Nintendo’s ex-boss Hiroshi Yamauchi and his domineering management style that was printed in the only Swedish games magazine worth mentioning that made me absolutely cringe at the torturing of facts and intellectual dishonesty taking place. The writer made conclusions towards a narrative that in at least one place was blatantly opposite to what a more honest person would have written, because there was, as there always is, a preconceived thesis to pound into people’s heads. And what thesis was this? That the games industry is all fun and laughter and cool ideas and gut feeling and that anybody can do it. It’s not hard, and it’s definitely not technical, and really there’s no need to delve deeper into the subject – the digest version that the media provides is all you need. And so, a feedback loop is created, where people believe a bunch of stupid shit and the media is more than happy to let them continue believing as they do. And since the supply-side, the media, has money riding on the status quo, it’s quite obvious that if this state of affairs is to ever change, it needs to happen on the demand-side of things.
Obviously, this is easier said than done, because oversimplification goes hand in hand with much of the human experience. Whether they believe in conspiracy theories, ESP or religions, people have an instinctive desire to fill in as many of their mental blanks as possible – even if it is with things they have no real evidence for. And the more complicated ideas are, the harder they are to get people to accept – even when the truth of the matter is undeniable. Building anything on such a foundation isn’t easy, and there’s no explanation of how games development is done that can trump the appealing naïveté that is “get cool ideas – > give to some programmer-y guys who do magic – > launch”. Even when I’ve tried to inform grown men and women enrolled in university-level training programs, I’ve found myself making very simplified causal links like the one below:
- Conception – A core idea is hatched at a publisher or development studio.
- Matchmaking – The party that thought up the idea tries to think of a development studio or publisher that, for whatever reason, might make a good partner.
- Initial Pitch – First discussions are initiated, sometimes over dinner or in some other sort of informal meeting; both parties testing the waters with no real investment. An initial budget proposal often appears around here, with a preliminary timeline and preliminary milestone dates (to clarify the term: these bullet points could all be seen as key milestones, and each milestone would have a partial payment attached to it).
- High Concept Mandate – Regardless of where the core idea initiated, the developer is usually asked to put together one or more high concept documents that provide a bird’s eye view of the entire game, and let the high-ranking suits and marketers weigh it against the rest of their portfolio, figure out where it would fit in their general release schedule and so on.
- Prototype Phase – If all the high-level materials are in order, publishers may ask developers to quickly make a rough prototype of the game, just to give a quick taste of the look-and-feel and/or to prove the feasibility of functionality that people might not be able to otherwise get a sense of.
- Pre-Production Phase – This is where all the tools are prepped, information is gathered, assumptions about the game’s selling points are tested and the development team sets out to prove to the publisher that the game can be made at the required level of quality, on time, with the initially proposed staff.
- Production Phase – The project has got the green light; all the risky stuff has been proven, all the tools and development methods have been tested, and the game starts being built in earnest.
- The Alpha Milestone – The game is now at a state that is considered “feature complete”; all the graphics and audio aren’t in, but you can play through the entire game in a purely functional sense.
- The Beta Milestone – Everything in the game is “final”, and the game is considered done, except for bug fixing.
- Release Candidate – A Beta version of the game that doesn’t have any known major bugs and is put through all kinds of torturous, focused testing procedures, and if it gets through all of them it gets submitted for release.
Now, again, I’ve run this by people who’ve been in the classroom specifically to learn about making games, and still had to deal with eyes glazing over, or the odd non-sequitur question that made me wonder if they had even been listening, or whether I just suck as a teacher. And that was before I told them about how overly simplified this model was, how many other ways of doing it there was, or how much I personally hated working in the above manner and wanted to change it. I finally got through to the students, of course, but the point had hit home with me; if someone didn’t already have any interest in figuring out how these things worked, then something big would have to happen that directly involved them for there to be a paradigm shift in their thought process, making them finally care to know how games are actually funded and made.
This made a lot of money
Enter Kickstarter, the service that lets individuals pledge to donate money to worthwhile causes or products that they would like to see on the market. It’s an awesome idea in general and for games in particular because it lets players fund the game concepts they would like to see in advance – rather than pick the lesser evil from what the big-name publishers choose to put on the market. I think Kickstarter is just the beginning of opt-in, crowd-sourced funding, personally. Before you know it, you’ll see everything from “Donate!” buttons on AAA games’ websites to development backlogs where players are allowed to overrule the priorities of development studios by putting their money where their mouths are; paying the difference between cheaper and more expensive feature to have the latter kind developed quicker. Most importantly, however, is that it’s going to drag gamers – and the entire consumer side of the industry – out of their naïve, juvenile, clueless dream world, once and for all.
You see, in games development there are different kinds of stakeholders. Depending on the structure of the game(s) being developed, the people involved might differ a bit. Obviously you’ll have the development team, and sometimes a surrounding corporate structure that has some lesser degree of involvement and interest in the project – maybe other teams share the same technology or something, and might benefit from the achievements of the project in question. Next, at least for high-budget AAA games, you’ll most often have a publisher involved. Sometimes the publisher has an internal development team that, for all intents and purposes, “are” the same company. But even with the internal teams there’s generally a divide between development and publishing, and the developers feel a certain degree of disdain for “the suits”. Naturally, this is multiplied many times over when the developer is an external company. In these situations, the publisher is almost always seen as “the bad guy” (with certain publishers actually intentionally cultivating that perception), both by the developers and the general public. After all, the publisher is always the one who makes feature cuts and only thinks about their precious money, and so on. Finally, you’ll have more or less silent partners and other types of stakeholders that often aren’t even gaming-orientated in the true sense of the word. We may be talking about investors, governments, banks and other hands-off financier types, and they will generally only care about dates being hit and cursory quality goals being met. And that used to be pretty much the end of it.
These days, thanks to Kickstarter, there’s a new type of stakeholder, and that’s the prospective buyers/fans of the game – at least the ones who choose to donate to the development of the game through the Kickstarter service (or, I suppose, other similar services). This is indeed a pretty big development and change in the power structure of the games industry. Sadly, there’s not much to be happy about just yet, because everything goes through growing pains. And if you have donated to a Kickstarter-funded project, you’ve just put yourself in the worst possible position as a stakeholder. Because, after all, you are at the very bottom rung of the financier ladder, with no leverage, no creative control, no operational control, and win, lose or draw, you have absolutely no way of ensuring any form of return-on-investment. You can’t even sue for your money back, something publishers have done successfully more than once. And no matter which Kickstarter game you’ve contributed to, you have plenty of reason to worry – whether you know it or not. Let’s look at a few of these projects and I’ll elaborate.
First up we have the Star Command project, and it’s probably the best place to start because of how far they’ve gotten in administrating their costs and how open they’ve been with their financing situation. Looking at their numbers, things start out pretty nicely; they had hoped for 20 000 USD, but ended up with a sum total of 36,967 in pledges – so far so great, that’s almost twice what they had hoped for. Sadly, it all goes downhill from there. They lost almost 2000 bucks from people who’d pledged but didn’t come through. Amazon and Kickstarter payments brought them down to 32 000, and then there was the “prize fulfilment” bit which took another 10 grand out of their coffers. Quite quickly, they’d lost almost all of their surplus funding and were down to their original goal. But, of course, the bad news didn’t stop there, and on their blog I’m reading that they have less than 4000 USD left from the pledges. Read that again – it means that if they would have only gotten to their initial goal of 20 000, and the expenses would have been the same (edit: they would’ve had to have had a higher reward per pledge for that to be true), they would have been in the red already, at least as far as this source of income is concerned (luckily, there are other sources, and so it seems like the game is still happening). All of these more-or-less unforeseen expenses should be more than enough to make most Kickstarter-financiers nervous, with the smarter ones probably thinking “gee, maybe I should assume there will be overhead costs and ask about them in advance before donating to that cool-sounding MMO project”. Sure, these expenses don’t all scale upwards infinitely, but if you’ve pledged money to any of the other projects, some of them with much bigger budgets than that of Star Command, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether the estimating and budgeting power of the developers you’ve chosen to get behind are any better.
Not that you’d have any way of knowing, either way. Just like the games press has done for many years now, all of the Kickstarter projects I’ve seen so far have leveraged the ignorance of their target audience to their own benefit. There’s plenty of lofty conceptual goals, but precious few details on milestone dates, development methodologies, staffing or scheduling. We’re just supposed to take these people completely on faith, and sure, in some cases we might well be justified to do this. The first game to get this whole thing started in earnest was, after all, a Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert production that was in a genre with a relatively low level of conceptual and technical risk. But the point is that the general audience has no way of knowing this, and even if they were the sceptical, inquisitive type, most of them wouldn’t even know what kind of information to ask the developers for. They don’t know that crucial information is missing.
This long-awaited sequel has finally been kicked off – but will it disappoint?
Looking at another game that’s been phenomenally successful in acquiring funding, Wasteland 2, also helps to hammer home this point. As I’m scouring their initial concept pitch on the Kickstarter page, I find their low-level, nitty-gritty information; the “nuts and bolts” as the developers themselves call the section on their web page. I was expecting a good, detailed read, but, well… here’s a sample of how nuts-and-boltsy they get:
“No first person shooter, we’re going top down so you get a tactical feel for the situation.”
Top-down, tactical feel huh? That’s cool, I can picture it already. Wait, no, I can’t. How about some mockups? At least one faked screenshot, maybe? Is it supposed to inspire confidence that your lead artist, or concept guy or whatever, can’t whip one of those out in a few hours?
“We’re planning on an initial 6 months of pre-production. We’ll nail down every important element that you, our creative partners, want. Once we have all that figured out, we buckle down for 12 month development cycle. “
That’s amazing. How many people were there again? And are you really right to be committing to this scheduling at this juncture? I mean, you’re pretending that “every important element” means that every high-level idea is going to be equally difficult to implement – what if the most popular one isn’t doable in 12 months? Also, what if you get more money and… nevermind, I’ll keep reading.
“…Brian Fargo has offered to fund the last $100,000 if need be. That’s a lot of money needed, but not when compared with the budgets of most full scale RPGs made today.”
That’s certainly true, and interesting. Why is this, again? Am I supposed to infer something about the quality of the game from the budget? Or did you guys find some magical way of making more for less? Are you doing outsourcing, 2D graphics, what?
“At $1.25 million, the money will go primarily into making the world bigger, adding more maps, more divergent stories and even more music.”
“At $1.5 million, the world gets even bigger. You’ll have more adventures to play, more challenges to deal with, and a greater level of complexity to the entire storyline. We’ll add more environments, story elements, and characters to make the rich world come alive even more.”
Cool, that implies that there’s reducible complexity built into the design of the game. Very new-school stuff, that. Pardon me if I’m sceptical though; is there even a cursory design document yet? Or even a high-level technical design document of how you’ll put together the content? Also, shouldn’t we be seeing substantially increased returns per-dollar? I mean, the more mature the tech becomes the quicker it is to whip out additional instances of the same type of content, while programming workloads become increasingly light as the game reaches release. How is the project staffed up/down to cater to the shifting needs?
Anyway, that’s… pretty much it. That’s the extent of their nuts-and-bolts section. It’s possible that there are answers to all of these questions of mine, and more, somewhere, but honestly; the quality level of this pitch is absolutely mind-boggling. Most publishers wouldn’t want to be caught dead financing something so iffy. Again, it’s only because the average gamer is so pie-in-the-sky that this even has the slightest chance of working. And people are quick to capitalize on it; new projects are cropping up every day, and even though I find it very hard not to be excited at the prospect of a new Shadowrun or similar, I have no choice but to gawk at how sloppy some of these pitches and “project plans” are.
The new Shadowrun game’s feature roadmap – almost an actual production document
Finally, the budgets – the crazy-ass budgets! A role-playing game for 400 000 USD, a “realistic, squad-based tactical shooter” for half that, my goodness, how can they print this stuff with a straight face? Many developers would struggle to even make a convincing prototype for that kind of money, depending on where the quality bar is set. From the pledges that these games are getting, however, it seems like the bait-and-switch is working, and that’s ultimately what matters.
Wait, am I saying that the people seeking the funding don’t believe in their own budgets and ability to deliver? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Not all of these estimates and ambitious promises are intellectually honest mistakes; some of them are lies from people who know better. Now, even if they really intend to make the games, they are acting just as dishonestly towards their layman financiers as they would towards a big publisher. The plan is this: get people invested, fail to deliver but show progress to whet people’s appetites. Then do a new fundraising drive to finish the game, and ultimately end up with up to twice the original budget, if not even more. After all, what are the backers going to do, pull out and be guaranteed to lose all their money? No – of course they, you, will pay. And then for the next project, the developer will pretend like they’ve learned their lesson and start the whole thing all over again.
I predict that this will happen with at least one of the projects. I also predict that at least one of them will get picked up by a big-name publisher (please, let this happen to Wasteland 2, so we get to hear Brian Fargo suddenly love working with a big-name publisher that’s not like the rest of them), with little or no compensation paid to the Kickstarter backers that effectively funded a startup company. Furthermore, at least one of the projects will fall totally flat on its face and one or more “legendary” games designers will be revealed to be a complete fraud. Most, if not all of them, will probably look, sound and play worse, pound-for-pound (or dollar-for-dollar rather), than fans would have expected.
Will the trend last? Or will players bail once they’ve been burned once or twice?
The results will include public outrage, scandals, legal conflicts and probably a newfound respect for the kind of stuff the average publisher has to put up with when dealing with arrogant, primadonna game developers. The corollary is that people will also be forced to stop deifying some of their developer idols, as their understanding of the nuances of the developer-financier relationship improves. Most important, however, is that the average person’s knowledge of how games development works, and their desire to look behind the scenes in the future, will likely increase many times over once they’ve lost a good chunk of their own hard-earned money to some glorified hack with a cool-sounding idea and a bit of stolen concept art. I can hardly wait for the first instance of someone who’d pledged 10 000 USD to one of these projects to painfully realize that he should learn the meaning of words like “milestone”, “risk matrix”, “contingency” and “feature creep”. Because ultimately, the only way to make people grow up that is better than to be allowed to own your failures, is to also be forced to own somebody else’s.