Crowd funding of video games has been one of the year’s hot topics. On Kickstarter, 2012 has seen more money pledged to game projects (including board games) than any other of the site’s categories. Even as I write this I am watching the live stream of the final hours of the crowd funding for Chris Roberts’ Star Citizen game.
In the last couple of days Star Citizen has become the video game project that has attracted the most crowd funding ever, blowing past the previous record of 4.2m on its way to 6.2m; not bad considering it had a 2m target. And this for a game that if it is completed on time will not be fully available for another two years.
Think about that for a moment. Around 90,000 people have pledged, and paid, an average of about $70 each for a game that they will not be able to play properly until the end of 2014. It’s worth noting though the community have already been watching, reading and engaging with the game’s creation during the time the crowd funding drive has been running and some of the pledges come with access to the alpha and/or beta versions of the game.[drop]One thing that troubles me with crowd funded games is what will happen if some of those who have pledged do not like the finished product when they finally get to play it.
We all saw what happened earlier this year when a vocal minority disliked the ending to Mass Effect 3 when they did not get the happy ending they wanted. Some gamers could not believe how ‘their’ game had been ruined by BioWare’s writers.
What will happen if Star Citizen disappoints? What if David Braben’s Elite: Dangerous is funded, delivered and fails to live up to its illustrious and fondly-remembered forebear?
How much will the anger that was directed towards BioWare by ‘entitled’ gamers be multiplied when the offended individuals have invested not only time playing a game but, effectively, money in its development?
Gamers are being asked to essentially buy games months or even years in advance.
They will feel, rightly or wrongly, that they already ‘own’ their copy of the game.
You will be familiar with the disappointment when a few months of marketing and PR have built excitement for a game that ultimately disappoints. Imagine the potential disappointment from a game that you helped crowd fund two years ago. I can almost feel the class-action lawyers sharpening their knives and readying their wallets.
Mere disappointment is not the only potential problem. What if a crowd funded video game fails so completely during development that it does not deliver at all?
The first funded failure to garner much attention was Haunts: The Manse Macabre which failed to complete the game before the raised funds ran out and it subsequently lost its programmers. It is now trying to continue as an open source project.
Given the time that video game creation takes we are yet to see any of the particularly high profile titles suffer from an equally high profile failure yet that day will almost certainly come.
Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Adventure, which was perhaps the first of the really high profile Kickstarter video games, was due to be completed in October but has yet to deliver. I am not a backer so have not seen what has been said about that in the development updates.
Planetary Annihilation is not due until July next year with Wasteland 2 following a few months later in October. Obsidian’s Project Eternity RPG is planned for April 2014 and as I have already mentioned Star Citizen itself is not due until November of that year.
Now do not get me wrong I think there is a lot to like about crowd funding. It gives teams and individuals the chance to find the funding they might struggle to find elsewhere.
Three of those nine projects have delivered, two on time, one four months late. Of the six yet to deliver, while they have yet to exceed their dates, five have admitted to running behind schedule due to design and production issues.[drop2]With getting on for twenty years of experience of software development in various market sectors I am all too well aware of how often software projects overrun or are simply cancelled despite the money already invested in them. Software, whatever its ultimate purpose, is much more intangible than a book, clock, boardgame or torch and can be many orders of magnitude more complex, though it does have the advantage of being able to be delivered digitally rather than relying on the vagaries of your local parcel delivery company.
Haunts showed how even relatively small software projects involving a small team can grow beyond expectations and get out of control. Multiply its troubles by a couple of years of development and several dozen more developers and we can start to get a sense of how badly development can go wrong.
I am, of course, not suggesting that any of the projects named will go wrong. As far as Star Citizen is concerned I am such a big fan of Chris Roberts’ previous titles and space combat and exploration games in general (please Sony can I have a PS4 Colony Wars game?) that I have backed it to the tune of a couple of hundred dollars. I expect the team behind Star Citizen will deliver the game, though I also would not be surprised if it is delivered behind schedule and that leads me to my final fear.
In two or more years time how much will I want to play the game? Will I still be as interested in video games as I am now? Will my priorities have changed? Will I have the time to play it?
If I had bought, rather than funded, the game now I would be looking forward to spending the next few months playing it before moving onto the next game to catch my eye. In two years time I will not be able to get a refund if I no longer want it.
No wonder publishers like EA and Activision so often seem reluctant to commit millions of dollars of funding to new IPs years in advance. Betting my own money that Star Citizen will be a game I want to play in two years’ time has at least given me a modicum of insight into the things the publishers must consider.