Bypassing the Publisher, Older Titles Kickstart a Revolution

Depending who you ask, Kickstarter is either a great way for entrepreneurs to raise capital or sleazy home for would-be panhandlers. Gizmodo has gone so far as to declare that they will no longer post stories about Kickstarter unless they are making fun of it.  While I understand both sides of the argument, I think it’s a bit naïve to think Kickstarter is all good or all bad. At the end of the day Kickstarter is really just a tool matching fledgling developers with future consumers. When it comes to games Brian Fargo said it best, “This is about bypassing the publisher and going directly to the consumer, to the fans for the games they want.”

Just because it is easy to point out all the ways in which people have been using Kickstarter to murder jellyfish or straight up try and buy Kickstarter doesn’t mean the whole crowd funding phenomenon is a bust, and just because Tim Schafer and Brian Fargo are most likely going to make awesome games doesn’t mean that all game developers should flock to Kickstarter. Like any other tool it is how we use it that matters, and as consumers it’s our job to make sure those who use Kickstarter for funding are kept honest.

When I first heard about Kickstarter I was surprised to find out that it has been around since 2008. I mean, I knew there was a ‘pre-Double Fine’ time period, but I didn’t know it spanned back four years. It’s only been a few months since Tim Schafer came along, but now it seems archaic to think of Kickstarter without the game industry. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why developers would utilize a revenue stream that is free of publishers, we’ve been hearing about how awful publishers are to deal with for almost as long as games have existed. For years publishers thrived because they had a monopoly, not because anyone wished to do business with them. They controlled everything because they had access to the start-up capital that all developers needed, and with no one else forking over any dough, publishers remained in control. So what happens when you cut out the middle man? A lot, apparently.

“Our research shows this game would be 15% more successful as an FPS.”

I’m sure in some board room somewhere a group of out-of-touch game publishers sat down to discuss how  “Adventure Games” or “Old School RPGs” are dead genres, and that if the game doesn’t have a gun bobbing on the bottom of the screen it shouldn’t get made. Of course these types of genres aren’t going to be popular; no one is investing in them. It would be like selling nothing but red shirts and then bragging to everyone about how red shirts are your number one product. Just because you don’t want to invest in making blue shirts and you have no data on how well blue shirts sell, doesn’t mean consumers don’t want to buy blue shirts. By using Kickstarter consumers and developers get to choose which games are made, without the help of any corporate financial alchemists. This is really the biggest change, with Kickstarter there is no such thing as a dead genre. Sure, not every game is going to be a $60 AAA title, but as Steam and other methods of digital distribution have shown us, consumers are more willing to fork over cash if developers are willing to be flexible on the price. Essentially removing publishers allows for more varied levels of developer success through flexible pricing.

Removing publishers also removes the obnoxious corporate language barrier that is often placed between developers and consumers. We see it all the time, PR teams set out to “handle” fans and potential consumers through the use of corny, pre-packaged responses to honest questions. Remove this barrier and developers could do a Reddit AMA or a funny video without worrying about a publisher breathing down their neck. To be honest, as a consumer I would much rather hear about a game from the people who are making it instead of through corporate approved teaser trailers, screen shots, and press releases. By removing publishers from the equation, consumers are given the power to control which games are made and which remain dead. But remember Peter Parker, with great power comes great responsibility.

Clearly Al Lowe is just looking for cash to renovate Lefty’s.

If consumers are the ones choosing projects, or at least if consumers are the ones choosing some projects, it will be up to us to make sure that we pick good projects. So far Double Fine, Wasteland 2, and Shadowrun Returns are examples of projects plucked for success by consumers. It’s no surprise, with Kickstarter consumer trust is important and it’s not much of a shock to see that the first few successful Kickstarter projects came from developers that consumers already trust. Leisure Suit Larry is well on its way as well, even though it may not be as successful as some of the other projects we’ve seen. But these are all people we’ve heard of, at least in the game community, what about the new comers? Well it seems for them trust will have to be earned.

This week the creators of Star Command, a pre-Double Fine Kickstarter, posted an update which outlines where all of their pledged funds went. This is a type of financial honesty that consumers are not accustomed to. The makers of Star Command made some mistakes when allocating their Kickstarter resources, specifically regarding their reward tiers, and due to this they had only $4,000 left for development. This may seem like a huge mistake or at least a giant PR gaffe, but so far backers of the project seem to appreciate their openness and honesty regarding what happened. It appears as though the honesty in which they handled the mistake has helped craft a trustworthy reputation in the community. Still though, donating funds to untested developers is a risk for the consumer, even if they are being honest about where the money went.

“Pixels? Nobody will play this.”

It’s unlikely that Kickstarter will completely replace the current AAA title model, however, this is just another example of how developers are looking to get away from publishers all together. In the same way that digital distribution is affecting physical retail stores, Kickstarter is tapping into the last publisher stronghold: upfront cash. Publishers may continue to hold a monopoly on massive titles, but are slowly losing their grip on the smaller niche market as developers find ways to get around them. As Kickstarter grows so too does the responsibility of consumers for selecting trustworthy projects.


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