Lifetap Volume 1, Issue 28 - Kickstarter of the Dead

In this special Day of the Dead issue of Lifetap, Sardu ponders the past, present, and unlikely future of Kickstarter as a viable mechanism for funding video game projects. He also ponders the impact of crowd funding on our perception of the major MMO release schedule for 2015 and more in today’s pulse-pounding issue of Lifetap!

Listen up true believers: the last few days have been a catastrophic mess of epic proportions here in my secret underground laboratory. That’s actually code for being so horrendously under the weather that the best I could manage each day after sunset was to willfully enter drool cup mode and watch seasons one and two of Hannibal straight through.

While I could dedicate an entire volume of Lifetap to the intricate design of Hannibal’s storytelling, visuals, and soundscapes, I’ll leave that particular subject matter to one of my alternate universe selves for the time being.

Instead, today I’m going to talk about Kickstarter, its current decline as a viable crowd funding mechanism for gaming, and its rippling effect on the sea of pending MMO releases in 2015. If your eyes are already beginning to glaze over at the mere mention of Kickstarter, I assure you that today’s tale is packed full of as much drama as a season of Hannibal, and will attempt to keep it just as engaging even if you already know how the story will inevitably end.

For those of you still not convinced that a longish, rambling article about Kickstarter will carry much appeal, I'll present you with today's special musical guest: Marily Manson. The video below is for a new song titled Third Day of a Seven Day Binge from the band's upcoming album Deep Six. There has been a lot of buzz surrounding the new material so far, with many considering this Manson's best work since the late 1990s. Have a listen below, and then let me know what you think in ye olde comments at the end of the article. And for those of you brave enough, do consider reading through the rest of today's issue of Lifetap.

Humble Beginnings

In the early 1990’s I put myself through art school, stopping just short of receiving my master’s degree. Back then I had grand ambitions of working in comic books and wanted to pair my enthusiasm for writing with the ability to properly illustrate the stories I felt compelled to tell.

During that period, being a professional artist was a very daunting proposition. Digital design tools were still in their infancy, and the artistic explosion of the web hadn’t occurred yet. It could take an artist years to develop a single body of work worth soliciting to galleries, followed by months of heartache as you expanded your collection of rejection letters.

It wasn’t all that uncommon at the time to begin seeking consignment work, or formulating concepts for larger projects as a means to pay the bills until you’d reached a point where art dealers were willing to showcase your work to their stable of wealthy benefactors. As such, one of your options was to seek funding through grants which was a long, painful process that didn’t always mesh very well with a given artist’s creative brain.

That was the biggest trick left out of the art school spellbook back in those days: to be successful you had to be not only a creative thinker, but develop a solid business sense as well. Being a professional artist meant establishing yourself as a small business, after all. That still holds true today, though we now have expanded communication capabilities and access to far greater resources than most creative types could ever dream of two decades ago.

And then came Kickstarter. What it initially represented was a mechanism that could allow creative types to seek project-based funding without having to deal with the wretched process of seeking grants or investors. It doesn’t seem all that long ago that I found myself thinking, “damn, that would have been really handy back when I was barely making rent money selling artwork to affluent suburbanites.”

Flash forward to the present: corporate America has staked its claim on crowd funding and the whole thing has quickly gone to hell in a hand basket.

One Studio’s Tale of Woe

I would argue that there is far more to be gained by studying Kickstarter’s failures rather than its successes. For every Chris Roberts there are hundreds of Brad McQuaids; visionaries with grand ideas for video game projects that never stood a chance on Kickstarter.

The inspiration for today’s issue of Lifetap actually comes from a project titled H.P. Lovecraft: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward which recently failed to reach its funding goals. The fact that the project probably won’t ever see the light of day at this point is heartbreaking in its own rights, but that isn’t what I’d like to focus on today.

Instead, I’d direct your attention to a very well written post by project owner Senscape. In his lengthy update posted as the Kickstarter campaign came to a close, Agustin Cordes takes some time to explain why – in his opinion – Charles Dexter Ward wasn’t successfully funded during the month-long campaign.

It is indeed a longish article, but one I would encourage you to read. Agustin provides some deeper insights into the metrics behind his campaign, many of which could fuel enough click-bait titles for sensationalist gaming bloggers for months on end. The shocking truth is, however, that Agustin is spot-on with his assessments.

Rather than rehash the entire post here, I’ll supplement its contents with a few assessments of my own:

1. All markets reach a saturation point, and it has become increasingly evident that we’ve reached that tipping point for video game projects on Kickstarter in 2014.

There are more video game projects currently seeking funding than the market can sustain, plain and simple.

2. Crowd funding took off during the mobile gaming explosion, and both markets have suffered as a result.

As members of the press, I can attest to the fact that our emails are bombarded with coverage requests for crowd-funded and mobile projects on a daily basis at this point. It doesn’t matter that Ten Ton Hammer’s core coverage for the past 10 years has been the MMO industry. The press releases and coverage requests for any and every type of game come in fast and furious to the point where I can guarantee we could never have enough internal resources to cover them all even if we wanted to.

Providing coverage of Kickstarter projects is also a tricky business. It’s one thing to say positive remarks about titles we’ve been directly exposed to, but turns us into marketing departments by proxy the moment we encourage readers to check out or consider funding projects on Kickstarter.

The Charles Dexter Ward update also helps illustrate that even when coverage on some of the biggest gaming networks on the planet is achieved, the return on investment simply isn’t there. I give you Exhibit A:

The above numbers show referrals from top gaming sites that translated directly into project funding. Ouch.

3. Corporate America would gladly see the Kickstarter bubble to burst.

The big dogs of the gaming industry can only stay at the top if they are in control of the majority market share of the industry. Every dollar given to an independently funded project essentially eats into their bottom line if you assume that the average gamer is only going to spend X dollars on gaming in a given fiscal year.

Thus, it is in the best interest of corporate entities to adopt the practices of crowd funding, and attempt to claim the entire system as their own to the fullest extent possible. We have already seen this set in motion. Day One editions and all the pre-order perks that go with them have attempted to sway the focus of core gamers back to the realm of major studio releases. If that wasn’t enough, now we even have a Day Zero edition for the newest Call of Duty release.

PAX East and Prime – while still retaining a very compartmentalized indie gaming presence – have progressively turned into flea markets for major studios. More and more swag is up for sale, and it has become increasingly more common to see event-exclusive bonuses tacked onto pre-orders made at event booths. While I don’t fault studios attempting to offset the horrendous marketing costs associated with PAX attendance, it still helps illustrate that the major players are seeking positive cash flow from the earliest possible dates as a means of insuring continued dominance during the crowd-funded era.

4. Early Access (aka paid betas) are now also all the rage.

These will always win when paired against projects that promise the same level of access to a product at an unknown future date.

Think of it this way. Early Access programs are like handing a can of spinach to Popeye: you know you’re going to get immediate results that will probably kick ass. Kickstarter is more like buying a cheeseburger for Wimpy by placing faith in the notion that he might actually pay you for it on Tuesday.

The Impact of Crowd Funding on MMOs in 2015

Next year we’ll see the first substantial impact of crowd funding on the major MMO release schedule. Pathfinder Online, Shroud of the Avatar, Star Citizen, HEX: Shards of Fate, H1Z1, Landmark, and Warhammer 40K: Eternal Crusade are all titles that will be hitting the market in large part as crowd funded projects.

With only a couple of exceptions, we’ve seen a very pronounced trend occur over the past year as a result. In general, the owners of the projects simply aren’t talking to the press and are instead appealing directly to their backers with a steady stream of updates. While discussing this with Richard Garriott earlier this year during E3 he noted that he’ll gladly talk to the press, but we won’t be seeing any previews for his game unless we pay him for the privilege just like anyone else.

Publishers and Press have largely formed a symbiotic relationship over the years. It is a bit of a gamble on the part of publishers when they cut their press partners out of the loop. The idea is a happy customer is going to help spread the word about (and hopefully help sell) your product far more effectively than a neutral third party.

The thing is, most MMO communities ultimately form a closed feedback loop. They invest time directly on official forums where their voices will never reach potential new customers. At best, some of them will spin up Twitch channels that might help extend the potential reach of a given title’s marketing message. At the same time, a quick glance at the metrics surrounding Landmark help drive the point home that an active stable of Twitch streamers is not the instant road to mass market appeal that many studios hope it will be.

As MMOs in 2015 continue to shift away from more traditional means of disseminating information and broadening the potential market reach for a given title, it also helps take much of the wind out of the industry’s sails. MMO launches used to be celebrated with the same amount of vigor and aplomb as next week’s Call of Duty release. But something tells me we won’t see that for many of the bigger MMO players next year.

One final note worth mentioning is that many of the titles listed above also blur the release date lines via paid access programs as part of the crowd funding initiatives involved. This is a major topic in its own rights that I won’t be drilling down into today.

For those of you who have stuck with me through the end of today’s issue of Lifetap, much thanks for your continued support. Enjoy your Day of the Dead – assuming you didn’t consume too many mysterious blue drinks at random Halloween parties last night.

To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our We Love Bacon Game Page.

Last Updated: Mar 18, 2016

About The Author

Reuben "Sardu" Waters has been writing professionally about the MMOG industry for eight years, and is the current Editor-in-Chief and Director of Development for Ten Ton Hammer.