Crowdfunding Ain’t The Bank

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a games industry consultant, freelance designer and the creator of leading design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

There should be a name for the cognitive disconnect that everyone experiences with the Internet that says “I support the worldwide disruption of everything to get to a more democratic or egalitarian way of doing things except as it affects me.” From wine to window cleaning it’s the same everywhere: We expect everyone else in the world to adapt to the new froodier more exotic way of doing things until it comes knocking at our door. Then we’re shocked that our industry is no longer business as usual. SHOCKED.

This even happens in such forward-facing industries as gaming. For example this week in crowdfunding two pieces of news underscored (for me at least) how badly many game developers handle change. They are the news that Frontier Developments abruptly decided to stop developing a key promised feature for Elite Dangerous, and the news that Valve had to publish rules to tell developers to stop messing Early Access customers around.

The games industry has of course long been on the forefront of crowdfunding. Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Steam’s Early Access and even Minecraft’s use of Paypal are all examples of this sort of thing, and some of the biggest stories around crowfunding have emanated from games (OUYA, Star Citizen and so on). And yet despite all that game developers often don’t seem to understand what crowdfunding means. It means letting people in. More than anything else the key lesson of crowdfunding is that by going to the crowd you are asking for community as well as cash, asking people to join you, to support you, and essentially promising them an ear. Whether it’s a card game or a whole gaming console, the crowdfunding transaction is more than just finance. It’s tribal. It’s a movement.

The problem that I perceive is that many games people don’t seem to understand that . They understand the first part well enough, that with the the right campaign a Kickstarter might raise millions of dollars and set a studio on the path to success. But when it comes to fulfilling the other half of what that implies, they balk.

Some are fearful that community involvement in design corrupts their vision for example. That is a legitimate fear because design by committee is rarely anything but terrible and it comes at the cost of your soul. However I think it’s not that common for communities that form around crowdfunded games to actually want that. The crowd chose to support the game maker because the game they’re making seems to be cool. That means they trust the game maker to make a great game, but at the same time they’d appreciate being listened to. Nobody supporting the campaign for That Dragon Cancer wants its developers to change their story, they just want to feel involved (disclosure: I worked a little with the developers making TDC, and I absolutely biasedly think you should support them).

However the greater problem, I think, is how many developers haven’t updated their sense of how to deal with the public. Game development is generally a very sheltered industry. There is what goes on the industry and there is what goes on the fan community, and those two worlds only interface under select – and often very managed – circumstances. The game maker is generally used to talking at the audience through an interpreter such as journalist, podcaster, YouTuber or other intermediary. He’s actually used to that PR layer of insulation that keeps real people at about three steps remove and works to present a best-foot-forward image to the press, the fans and the community.

And in that world the developer/studio is used to thinking of the money that comes at them as investment from the bank. All professional investment tends to carry a sense of risk with it, a sense of “hey guys we’re all taking a bet here”. Any game project funded by a publisher or investor is understood to likely only meet half of its wild promises, to evetually have to cut, compromise, revise and pivot along the way. We professionals generally understand that is just how life is. We regard the contract between us and the money as a promise to build something roughly like what the vision promised, but not quite.

The problem is that crowfunders are not professional investors. They’re amateurs, people who invest for love and meaning and not at all to do with the business side. They’re ardent fans, supporters, eventually a marketing channel. But when we treat them like the bank, when we high-hand them with declarations of changes and say “It’s just a PR problem”, the fault is ours. When we solicit their money and then disappear for a year only to surface with some weak-ass version of the thing that we promised, the fault is again ours. There’s no ther way to say it. We’re basically ripping them off.

There has always been a dimension of the games industry that has questionable morals. In all sectors there are plenty of journeyman projects whose developers take whatever coin they can because they’re just trying to make ends meet, That kind of work is just part of the business and we’ve all done it at least some of the time. I fear however that in dealing with crowdfunding many of us are basically take the same stance: All that matters is getting the check in the door, and what follows is just business as usual.

Is it really so hard to understand that the way to deal with a crowdfund community (or anything social network based) is to talk to its participants as human beings rather than hiding behind PR bullshit or disappearing altogether? I don’t mean that as an insult against PR folks either – the best ones I’ve worked with all talk about the importance of voice and authenticity and actively dissuade clients from treating the public like they used to treat the press. Yet said clients do so anyway.

There might be an element of age to this. I notice that many younger indie developers seem more at ease with the idea that they should just talk to people (one of my favorite is my friend Mike Bithell) and avoid the instinct to massage. They have no problem admitting their failings, of realizing that a chink in the armor does not equate to the press corps jumping up and down on them with glee and fans caterwauling at your graveside (well maybe Gamergate might, but I mean regular folks). They just want to be treated like supporters rather than spoonfed children.

As the industry continues to evolve, and crowfunding with it, my earnest hope is that the games industry stops trying to hold its audience at quite such a remove. Nobody’s asking developers and publishers to change ther plans on the basis of fan polls (or whatever), nor even for a seat at the table. They’re asking that if there are problems, if things aren’t working out, or promises need to be broken, that they be included in that process.

Some may feel hurt or betrayed anyway, but in the long run I think that the developer who talks is the one to whom fans will return again and again. Whereas the one who plays shenanigans will get tagged, perhaps irreparably.