There are two sections to this article, each separate but related. Both are issues I’ve been thinking about for some time, but the release of Torment: Tides of Numanera reminded me of some of them again, so here I have written out my current thoughts on this important way of getting games funded.
The Issues of Kickstarter Crowdfunding
Sometime around 2010, I wrote an article called “The Death of PC Gaming”. I only posted it on forums and not on my site, and never have posted it here because it is now quite outdated, but in it I describe how much I miss the PC gaming industry of the ’90s, something which in the ’00s went away forever. I bemoaned that most North American game development had gone to consoles only, excepting only MMO-focused studios, and such. And I also said that while digital game storefronts such as Steam were good, I didn’t think that they could reach casuals as well as having actual physical products on store shelves could. That is still a potential issue, but in the years since Steam and other digital PC gaming storefronts such as GOG have expanded incredibly.
And getting to the point, so has Western PC-focused game development. Some of this comes from small indie studios, who have a better chance to find an audience on digital platforms than most could back in the ’90s, but some comes from Kickstarter, a website that pioneered a concept called crowdfunding. For those who don’t know, crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Fig allow people to give someone money in order to help them make something, in this case a videogame. The person or company puts up a campaign, with details about the project they want to make, and sets a funding goal, and then they have 30 days to try to raise that amount of money from the general public. When you buy into a game you are called a ‘backer’, and do not get a financial stake in it, unless you back Fig projects at a high enough level, but are promised rewards from the developer once the game releases, including the game, various Kickstarter-exclusive physical products, and more. These services had been around for a bit, but in 2011, Tim Schaefer had the idea of bringing back the classic PC adventure game by a Kickstarter, because no game publisher would fund such a project. The project took off and did great, and I did back it at a low backing tier that got me a digital copy of the game.
In the years since, Kickstarter and such have become important pieces of the game creation world, allowing games to exist that never would have gotten funded otherwise. That is fantastic, and I do not regret backing the several dozen games I have supported on Kickstarter. However, as time passes and more of those projects, even some of the long-delayed ones, finally have released, that Kickstarter has some issues has become more and more apparent. I love that games that could not exist otherwise now have a way of getting the funding they need to get that funding and release, but for the backer, except for projects that are just short of their goal and need some help to get there, it is much harder today to see the benefit of backing games unless you just want to feel good about supporting a developer’s product.
I can break up the major issues I currently have with crowdfunding games into four or five different categories.
1) First, you will usually pay more than you would for the same game if you get it on sale sometime after launch. This we’ve always known, but for games that have succeeded in meeting their funding goal and thus are sure to see development continue, it discourages me from backing them because what’s the benefit to me for doing so now? Not much, really, unless you’re investing in a Fig game with enough money to actually get returns, since being able to do that is Fig’s main selling point, but even there the economics are apparently not great unless the game in question sells very well since the minimum investment is high. I know that backing a Kickstarter is not technically making a purchase, but the promised reward is the only thing the backer gets back for their money, so the value-for-the-money issue is important. Is it worth backing a game a few years before its release, for more money than the game will cost at or soon after launch, just to support a project you like from early on even if it’s well past its funding goal before the campaign finishes so the game is sure to enter development and, if the developer does their work, complete?
As much as I said earlier that I don’t regret backing the crowdfunded games I have supported, there are a few where I know I spent more than I would have on those games had I bought them after launch, and I didn’t get anything for that that I wouldn’t have gotten afterwards either in most cases. The concept of supporting small developers is great, and Kickstarter is important because publishers are still not funding a lot of the kinds of games that Kickstarter helps people get funding for such as small indie games and mid-sized titles of the type that have mostly died off, but when you get no real benefit back from spending your money that way it does make it harder to convince me to spend on more similar projects. For people who have enough money to be able to spend it freely this is not an issue, but for everyone else, the issue of Kickstarter’s value proposition is a tough one. On the one hand these games need to exist somehow and won’t otherwise, so if everyone holds off on backing these games and they fail to fund they probably simply will never get made, and that would be really terrible. Someone needs to bite the bullet and support these games regardless of value! But on the other hand, once that funding is there and the game releases, backers regularly lose out versus people who cared less about that game and did not back it. I don’t know what the solution to this conundrum is. There is one thing out there to help encourage people to back games, however: backer-exclusive rewards.
2) Backer-exclusive rewards are a great way to encourage people to back a crowdfunding project. Instead of just getting the same thing as people who buy the game when they release, you can get something that later buyers either never will be able to get in the case of a digital reward or, in the case of physical rewards, would need to find a backer to buy the thing from. These are great, but occasionally even these have drawbacks. If you do back a game at a physical-product tier, there is no guarantee that there won’t be a better physical product released around time of launch that costs less, but you won’t get unless you buy the game again. Torment: Tides of Numanera is a good example of this. Torment: Tides of Numanera had a successful Kickstarter back in early 2013, and is just releasing around the time t his article was written. I did back the kickstarter, I should disclose, at a tier that should get me the backers’ collector’s edition of the game. Some time after the kickstarter ended, however, the developer InXile made a deal with Techland for console and physical PC releases of the game. Some time later, and not publicly, InXile allowed Techland to make their own collectors’ edition of the game… which turns out to be both cheaper than the one backers were offered years earlier and, depending on who you asks, might come with better stuff. The backer edition is not being changed to include the retail collector’s edition’s extras, either. Since the backers collectors’ edition is not out yet it’s impossible to directly compare them, but this definitely does not exactly encourage me to back more crowdfunding campaigns, if what you’re getting is kind of worse than something that costs less and doesn’t require you paying for something long before you know how good it will actually be.
To be more specific about the differences between versions in the case of Torment: Tides of Numanera, the biggest difference between the two versions is that the backer CE includes a thicker manual, cloth map, and printed collection of some/all of the novellas written in this games’ world, while the Techland retail CE includes a thinner manual (difference is not clear yet), paper map, steelbook case, and a statuette. The retail CE statue is quite a bit smaller than the statue that you could get in the Kickstarter, but you had to back the game at the $1200 level to get that backer statue, while the retail one is in a box that costs less than the statue-less backer CE. I do like the extras only included in the backer CE and don’t collect game statues so this isn’t a huge issue for me personally, and I understand how it happened, but still it discourages me from backing future InXile games when I know that I’m likely to get something about as good for less money when the game releases, and by that point you can know if it’s a game you really want to play anyway, something much harder to do before it’s been made. But regardless of the contents, for various reasons Kickstarter rewards often don’t arrive until well after the games’ digital release, which brings us to the next issue.
3) Physical backer copies of crowdfunded often take quite some time to arrive, so your “reward” for backing the game at that tier is either having to just play the game digitally, or wait weeks or more before you can play the game. THere are some projects which offer backer-exclusive beta access to games if you buy in at a high enough tier, but I suually would rahter play a game once it’s done, so I don’t go for those. There are good reasons for physical rewards to be delayed, but it is annoying and frustrating, and sometimes unfair to the backers as well. The main causes of this are that fulfilling backer rewards can be expensive and time-consuming, and developers may not have the time or money to do that before release, and that developers may want to wait for a patch or fully finished version of the game to finish before they release a physical disc copy of the game for titles that promised such a thing, and this may not happen until some time after launch. There may also be issues finding something for some piece of promised physical merchandise too, who knows.
I have multiple examples of delayed physical rewards, including Pillars of Eternity, Torment: Tides of Numanera, and in the worst case, one where the rewards never actually shipped in the first place even though the game released digitally some time back, Mighty Number 9. The reasons for these delays are understandable in most cases, though Mighty No. 9 never shipping many of its physical rewards and failing to send people the things they backed the game for is inexcusable. Even in the cases where the rewards do eventually show up though, it can be harder to convince yourself to buy in to a higher physical-reward tier of a kickstarter when you know that it won’t be there until some time after launch and you’ll probably end up playing the same digital copy of the game as everyone else anyway. Still, so long as that the stuff shows up eventually, it is pretty cool to have exclusive things like Wasteland 2’s big box version, or, for a game not from Kickstarter or another site like it but that I also had top pre-purchase before its release, the physical box and poster that came with Gaijin Works’ English release of Summon Night 5. That stuff’s great… so long as it shows up, Mighty No. 9. That game is okay, but not shipping rewards is inexcusable! But anyway, getting back to the issue of delays because of waiting for a completed game or its patches, after the numbered section of this list, see below for a separate section on some issues physical rewards and digital content raise for gaming preservation and ownership. This is one of gaming’s most important issues, and crowdfunded games have some tough decisions to make about which way they should go with them. Crowdfunding is risky and anyone backing projects knows it, and it is sometimes worth the risk, though. But do be careful about what you back. The next point is related to this.
4) Because you’re backing a game before most of its development, there’s no way to know if the game you are supporting will actually end up being any good or not, or, as mentioned above, if you will actually get everything you paid for or not. Sometimes you don’t, and unless you sue over it there’s nothing you can do about that. Some crowdfunded games have totally collapsed and failed to produce anything at all, but I’ve avoided those; you can usually tell the seriously questionable ones from their pitches. Apart from that, the best example of a failure of this point is of course Mighty No. 9. The game did come out… but again, backers who backed the project at physical-product tiers? They never actually shipped most of that stuff, the physical boxes and such for example that they claimed they’d make. Sorry, you wasted your money and got nothing for it if you backed those. Spending your money and then getting nothing for it except for broken promises is really awful.
In the case of Mighty No. 9, though, even people who only backed the game at a digital tier were disappointed by it, because the game was nowhere near as great as originally promised. If it had been a more normal game release, paid for by a publisher, it still would have been disappointing, but not quite as much so as it was as this crowdfunded Kickstarter project that failed to live up to expectations. I do not think that one failed Kickstarter project shows that the whole service is bad, but before backing something do your homework about the developers involved and the project, and know that sometimes the game you back won’t be as good once finished as it seemed in the pitch. It is often hard to tell how good a game is going to be until it’s finished, you can’t tell that up front when it is approved.
5) Stretch Goals help increase funding, but may never be completed because of how game development works. Once a popular Kickstarter game has been funded, developers often start promising additional things once the game reaches a certain level of funding. The problem is, since these promises come during the campaign, before most game development has acually been done in most cases, because games change during development those promises may be broken in the final game. This is the case in Torment: Tides of Numanera, but it is one of many; another one that comes to mind is A Hat in Time, which made stretch-goal promises for its soundtrack that were not fulfilled. In Torment: Tides of Numanera, some people are upset because during development InXile cut or scaled back some of the content they promised in stretch goals… and then didn’t talk about some of it publicly. Those changes were only discovered when people started data-mining the data as they started to get it closer to release. InXile has apologized for that, but that’s not great; publishers should tell people about goals which will not be fulfilled, and say why. The game only exists because of people giving you this money, and they deserve to know this.
Now, because game development is difficult and games change while in development, I fully understand why the changes happened, and don’t mind them myself. The problem with very specific Kickstarter stretch goals is that you’re committing to a specific featureset before you’ve gotten far enough in development to know how the game will actually end up once you’ve worked on it more. You see this in plenty of Kickstarter games both major and minor. It’s always unfortunate, but this stuff always happens in games, it’s just better known here because crowdfunded games are publicly open in a way that game development almost never is. So yeah, while it’s too bad, I don’t mind these changes if the final game is great. I’m not sure how developers can avoid this problem; specific stretch goals help drive excitement and increase funding, which helps regardless of if that goal’s text is reached, but there’s no way to know which ones are actually deliverable that early… so yeah, not sure there, but again personally I don’t mind this; for me, of these five numbered issues, this is by far the least important. But regardless it is an issue, only I’m not sure what the best solution is. It would probably be best to not overpromise in your stretch goals, but what’s worse, some irritated backers in a year or two, or less money up front? Both have their plusses and minuses, so I can see why many crowdfunded projects still promise many specific stretch goals, but I am sure some of those will never happen.
So, in the past year-plus I’ve backed almost nothing on these services, versus a bunch of stuff in the several years before that. I don’t regret backing most of those things, and some did get me exclusive physical rewards you can’t get elsewhere, but between the costs, risks, and issues with some of those physical rewards, it’s usually not worth it, I think. I will back a kickstarter if it’s something really interesting and the campaign is maybe not going to make its goal, because if it fails maybe that game never gets made at all, but something like a Wasteland 3 or Pillars of Eternity 2? I backed both of the previous games in those series, but not the new ones for those reasons. There absolutely are Kickstarter projects worth supporting, and again games like those need to exist and I love that there are people who do want to back them, but as I have outlined above there are issues with Kickstarter that make it a questionable value proposition, particularly when you’re talking about games that are comfortably funded like those. Is it worth paying $15 or $50 or what have you for a copy of a game you could get for a fraction of that on sale on Steam a few months after its release, if it ends up being good? I do like crowdfunding, but I will probably continue to only occasionally back projects. Kickstarter is an exciting idea which has helped resurrect the mid-tier game and that is incredibly important, and crowdfunded games like Distance and, despite its issues, Pillars of Eternity have been among my favorite PC games in recent years, so I really dislike that I’m being so critical here. Those games need to exist, but financially it is hard to justify backing a lot of them instead of buying them after release.
Crowdfunding and Digital versus Physical Game Preservation
This is the second section of this article. Relating to point three of the first section above, my biggest case of a delayed physical reward from a crowdfunding project that eventually did arrive is Pillars of Eternity, and this leads into another major issue in gaming today, game preservation. Unlike the other points on this list, this one is not an issue with crowdfunding, it is an issue with gaming in general. I still want to discuss it though, and it is about Kickstarter so it fits here. I waited until months after the digital release for the physical box (regular, not collectors’) backer-edition copy of Pillars of Eternity to finally ship. There were several reasons for this. First, developers Obsidian had promised a fully DRM-free game you could just install from the disc and play, as it is with classic games. So, in order to avoid needing a big day-one patch and having a very incomplete game on the disc, Obsidian decided to wait until after the game was really done before they made the discs, which meant they couldn’t start making discs until launch day, since games today aren’t finished until release and cover for this with annoyingly large day-one patches. It’s unfortunate that things have gotten to this point, and it’d be great if we could get back to having games actually launch after they are finished instead of the moment they are done, but what do you do as a developer, delay getting income from a game for weeks because you’re waiting to make discs for backers, or release the game? You might have budgets you can only meet with that income, or something, you never know; being an independent developer is difficult. This wasn’t the only negative element about Pillars of Eternity’s physical box version, I will get to its other major issue later, but it is an important one.
So, between waiting for the patch, producing copies of the games and boxes for something that is only for backers and will not be sold in stores in this form, and shipping them, this led to delays in delivery of the physical rewards. This is a common issue, and indeed, Torment: Tides of Numanera just released digitally, but physical copies have not shipped yet and probably will not for several weeks at least. I hope it doesn’t take too long. Backers wanting to finally play the game they spent money on some time ago could just install the Steam/GOG key and play that in the interim, but then as far as the game itself goes and not the physical stuff, what was the point of spending enough to get a box? There are three ways to solve this issue: either you set up your own separate service for patches, addons, and what have you; only allow people to play the base game DRM-free but require Steam or GOG purchases or keys for addons, DLC, multiplayer, and such; or you ship a physical copy of the game that includes a Steam key and requires Steam to run, so it’s basically the same as a digital copy just with a box.
The problem with that last option is that one of the reasons to want a physical boxed copy of the game is not only to have a physical product, but also to own an actual, real copy of the game. When you “own” something digitally, you do not actually own that game; you just own a licence to access that data on that service’s server. If that service goes down, well, you may lose access to everything on that service, which is not good. Additionally, for game perservation purposes, actual physical copies of full, complete games are ideal. All of the patches, addons, and such that exist digitally today are great while these services work, but once they go down entire sections of gaming will cease to exist. Just look at consoles with shut-down online play services for examples of this, such as the Wii and DS most recently. I’d love to play some of those games online again, but you can’t really for the most part; there is a homebrew effort to replace it, but good luck finding anyone to play with outside of SSB Brawl or such, I’m sure.
So, the promise of a full game on a disc was a good idea… but all of that digital stuff I was just talking about is an integral part of games now, and a lot of that stuff launches after release. Pillars of Eternity is not a DLC-heavy game, but it has one major DLC expansion, and Obsidian’s solution was to only allow backers who had backed the ‘get the expansion’ tier to be able to download the addon for the physical release of the game. Since they do have a menu system there you would think that they could offer the addon there for backers to buy, but for some awful reason that never happened, so anyone who did not back the game years before its release at a ‘get the addon’ tier, that disc copy is pretty much useless if you want to play the full product. They did release a few patches for the physical release downloadable by everyone, but not the expansion. I really wanted to play the game from the disc copy I’d backed, but unfortunately that is not possible.
That’s worse than Pillars on a DRM standpoint, but better from an addons standpoint, because at least you won’t have the problem here that that game does. And I see that PoEII does not promise “DRM-free” in its physical-box tier, so they’re clearly giving up on it too. That’s kind of too bad, since tying your game to a digital store that may or may not continue to exist is kind of annoying, but with all the integration those stores have, what choice do developers have? Buying addons, DLC, playing multiplayer, etc. in a truly separate DRM-free copy of the game would require the dev to set up a whole separate infrastructure for that after all, which both kind of defeats the purpose of having everything on the disc and may be impossible depending on the developers’ financial condition. It’s kind of sad that modern gaming is so deeply tied to these systems which can just go away, but you can’t just ship everything on a disc at launch and be done with it anymore and retail expansion packs are a thing of the past, so this is kind of an impossible situation. I want both complete games on discs, and things like online leaderboards and multiplayer, patches, expansions, and the like, and this requires online services of some kind. Even if you make discs for your game, you can’t have all of that stuff with some kind of service that is not only on the disc.
In conclusion, we need a better way of backing all of this up for future preservation’s sake, but it’s hard to see how we get there. Being able to play games as they were in the future after those services go offline, in a way that is impossible for so many games already, is incredibly important. But what is the solution? Saying ‘if you want me to fund you on Kickstarter you can’t do those things’ is unreasonable; developers should not be expected to not make money off of their game after release just because they went to Kickstarter. Crowdfunding will not get enough money to make a big-budget game, so even aiming below that, developers often need funding beyond just what the campaign brings in, so denying them additional post-launch revenue streams would not work out. I do not like DRM or exploitative cash shop stuff at all, but when you like a game you often want to see more content for it, and people need to have a way of getting that stuff and attaching it to the game. As Pillars shows, without a service like Steam or GOG that can be difficult for developers to do on their own.
Outside of just Kickstarter, the bigger problem is, how do you square the desire for online multiplayer and leaderboards, friends lists, and the like with the need to preserve games for the future? This industry doesn’t really have an answer for this at the moment, unfortunately. Developers are always focused on their current or next thing instead of the past, since that is what makes them money, so they don’t try to answer it, and the people who do are struggling because of how integrated online content is now. It would be best if there was some way of having physical copies of game with all of their DLC included on DRM-free discs, releasing some time after the original release of course, but while this does happen for the occaisonal game here and there, many other games fall through the cracks and that’s a tragedy. Whatever can be done to preserve games so that they can be played in the future needs to be, regardless of how hard it is. So, as great as the concept of that Pillars of Eternity DRM-free disc was, in the end what is needed the most is not that, it is a better way of getting a way to back up Steam and the content on it. Having DRM-free options is important, and this is a plus for GOG for instance since its games are not tied to a server once you download them, but at least right now if these are the only two choices, I’d rather have a developer say ‘sorry, Steam only’ than ‘sorry, you can’t play the expansion unless you play it on Steam’. PoE II’s crowdfunding campaing seems to have taken that latter direction. For this industry in general though, whether it is Steam, GOG, Xbox Live, or PSN, we badly need full backups of all of that stuff outside of the companies that run them, and separate backups of every revision of every game, or else that data will be lost forever, like so much already has been! You can’t have history without the historical artifacts and works that tell you what that history is, and that game data are those artifacts.